Saturday 3 September 2011

1) cities of myths and martyrs

en Wien

First time in Europe, first posts from Europe!

Ordered, ornate, pristine, elegant, Vienna is a city of fine tailoring, elegant watches, and sculptured shoes. The coffee is strong, smooth annd sweet; its building surfaces relentlessly decorated. I feel conscious of age--the age and history of this city--and of my ageing: as my feet ache, eyes swell, and body sags with days of jet lag, I feel unusual stirrings of an inner anxiety about my imperfections. My identity--Australian? European?--feels strangely uncertain, as if the stays of my corsets have been unfastened. Something strays loose--unnerving in a city which has very little looseness to it. But then again, this is the city where Freud began to treat and validate neuroses, so perhaps I am hearing its own anxious whisperings.

We visit the palace, where the young Empress Sisi, married at 15, was so unhappy. I feel nauseated as we walk through museum room after room after room stuffed with porcelains, crystals, and gilt table settings. I feel a revolutionary fervour and am almost glad things are behind glass. I feel I couuld upend it all and send most of it crashing through the enormous windows. But moving into the palace proper [its walls relentlessly ornamented] and seeing where Sisi used to take her meals, so often on her own, one senses how intensely lonely a life it must have been. Kept away from her own children, suffering a cruelly overbearing mother in law and a husband focussed on affairs of State, Sisi became an eccentric anorexic, who almost couldn't bear to stay at home. Ironic for someone who stood up for Hungarian democractic independence from the Austrian crown, Sisi was knifed by an italian anarchist, whilst traveling incognito in one of her 'escape zones'.



In the Palace, I recognize in my self a feeling of both admiration and horror. Its enormous spaces--the vastness of the rooms, the panoramic vistas of the gardens, the crowning of each architectural feature with statuary, both religious and mythological... . Each vista is meant to reflect the royal Self as majestic, god-like. Yet in this place, there is so much space that in fact there is very little space at all.

I think of Sisi's haven, the antechamber to her bathroom, its walls completely painted over with images of peacocks strutting in a lush garden. Even the door out has a false [and taller] facade. Able to command her servants to cater to her rebellious caprices [sometimes her only foods were broth and ice-cream, for weeks at a time], the room is perhaps her theatre set, from where perhaps she felt she never had to leave.


It strikes me that to be free to move forward, one has to be free to move back, free in relation to one's history. I feel as if I have been holding my breath, not able to see or smell my ancestors' past, yet have been expected to move into and 'fulfill' an ambiguous future.

I appreciate the age of things here, I love the way time and history have the chance to move back and forward


WWII Memorial

Amongst the vast number of classical statuary here, there is one example of a 'tripping stone' [or act of post World War II self-consciousness] that we come across: it is a large monument, rough-hewn from a twice-lifesize marble block which is split in two as if by a violent force. Several figures half-emerge from it, but oddly so. This is not an individual's fight against these forces, as with a Michelangelo, but a struggle with forces larger than one, a struggle for any to have a choice at all. There are knees, a limb, a pregnant belly emerges; each is headless. On the reverse side appear a gas mask and a skull. This is a memorial to an event which perhaps this city would rather forget....


We catch a fast train from Vienna to Budapest, speeding past country villages, fields of corn, and rich dark ploughed soil. The green is iridescent. There is a rhythm to the forests--the space between the leaves-- I think I understand. I now feel how hard it was for my mother to meet the Australian grey-green, the twisted mangrove roots, the lack of close juicy greens from when she emigrated. We can tell we are at the Hungarian border when the announcements switch to Hungarian as the first language. Tim rather sweetly gets up from his seat and gives me a welcome kiss 'home'.

The radio voice announces, proudly, that rather 'delicious refreshments' are available from the food cart. The train has a children's corner, with a Disney cartoon playing on a screen. It provides a musical chatter within the carriage.

The man across the aisle from me is almost permanently hooked up to his mobile, pushing at the machine and prodding the people he rings throughout the journey's two hours. He is covered in tattoos, there is almost no skin left vacant on his arms. He is almost as relentlessly decorated as are the buildings in Vienna.

Tim has labelled these pictures, 'Zsuzsi speaks Hungarian for the first time!"


On our first day in the streets of Budapest, i notice how different is the rhythm of the buildings to Vienna. A soothing proportion to the architeccture. And I feel deep remorse when I see the exquiaite statuary: male andd female figures flanking doorways, protecting architraves; there are so many, and each so exquisitely crafted, more earthy than the ones in Vienna. This was the everyday context from which my father drew his art. Art everywhere, art imbued in everyday, everywhere one walks, the sculptural dimension a constant. Even thhe post office building is flanked with a pieta. The walls seem made of honey and ivory.

The Houses of Parliament, a neo-gothic glory, with its rippling collonades and elegant spires, is even too beautiful to photograph. It glistens and changes in the sun, ike a sun-organ, a hymn.

I cry when I enter St Stephen;s cathedral [and cry again now, remembering]. It is less ostentatious than anything in Vienna [even though it too has a lot of gilt]. I could desccribe the details, but the details cloud my heart, which weeps something else--an undercurrent to the geometry. My srongest emotion links me to this thought: how hard it must have been for my parents to leave this city, because of the war. to leave this beauty, this rhythm, these colours, and....this HOPE. As in Vienna, there is impicit faith in these structures: that the human is glorious, is part of god, is angelically good and mythically powerful. If only that had stayed true. But maybe it needed to change. 

Traditional embroidery hangs on Baroque altars, anchoring broader Christianity in the local. St Stephen is the Hungarian king, who fought for the independence off his people. So not only is the spiritual and Imperial interlinked, but they are also linked to a passion for the land, THIS land. This is an earthy spirituality that still allows for grace, for human effort linking achievement with toil.

I light a candle for both my parents. 


I also love the endless lions!


In Vienna, especially at the Palace, I experience a combination of feelings in relation to being an artist. On the one hand, I felt that revolutionary surge--destroy everhtinbng that is excessive here, bunk the power and riches held in the hands of so few. And yet, this was a high cutlure that supported high art. Art had a real, valued and necessary place....


Hungary, Day 6

Ahhhhh, Budapest! Ruby and I trudged out early for fruit and pastries. Several people are out, either for an early morning smoke, or to scavenge scraps from the street. We have seen several tramps in the last few days, begging with paper cups in the middle of the footpaths, or appearing from behind planter boxes as we sit in an outdoor cafe. Several are shaking wiith severe palsy. I wonder how good or bad is the health system here.

The air is warm and moist, Sunday quiet, although a market is being set up in the courtyard below. Food here is incredibly cheap. Kurta, sulo; food is incredibly inexpensive. Ice cream is about 50 cents a scoop, and Mozart chocolates are about 30 cents a ball. Food is rich bbut less salty than in Vienna.


Thanks to Catherine, we went to the magnificent Baths complex. It is like a resort: huge open-air pools, several indoors, salt baths and warm to very warm spas and saunas. Outside, there is a spiraling whirlpool in the large pool. Its mechanism alternates with spa jets at its perimeter. This means that there  are huddles of people around the jets, all looking very happy; then there's a sudden rush for the whirlpool when it is turned on. Everyone is giggling as they get sucked in and whooshed along, whether they are six or sixty. It is hilarious.


Rightbank of the Danube, just south of the Parliament buildings

"War Time Mystery"

"Traces of bullets have been found in the skeletons dredged from the bottom of the Danube during the reconstruction of Margit bridge in July. Forensic tests apparently suggest that the remains could have belonged to as many as 20 people, while evidence of gunfire was detected on five or six of them. With fragments of clothing suggesting the bodies date from the early to mid 1940s, it appears increasingly likely that the remains are of Jewish holocaust victims.  Thousands were shot into or merely pushed into the river during the latter stages of WWII, when Hungary was under the control of the Fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross, installed in power after Nazi Germany invaded. Another theory is that the bodies belong to victims who plunged to their deaths when the bridge unexpectedly exploded during rush hour on 4 November 1944, taking some 400 civilians and 40 german soldiers with it. Margit bridge had been rigged by German sappers, although the cause of the premature detonation is uncertain."
Budapest Times, 2-8 September, 2011.

I walk along the Danube in the searing heat. The sun is to my left. The concrete path is separated from a long line of elegant flat-houses by a bitumen roadway. Trees provide intermittent shade, resting places dot the side of the path; from this angle, the impressive Parliament does not so much loom as suggest its way into view, a reminder of its democratic elegance. In the near distance, I think I see a squall of crows, as if dead on the footpath, leathery and desiccated in the sun, on the edge off the river. As I approach however I recognise they are what I have made a special trip here to see: it is the memorial to Holocaust victims, a line of bronze shoes, decayed [rusting] as if dredged from the water.

The sculpture is full of ambiguities. The shoes all face out to the water--in pairs, except for a few, of which there i sonly one of the pair; the toe of one man's boot teeters over the edge, but the rest seem almost ordered, casually in line.

One imagines that the victims commemorated here would have been facing, or struggling against, their murderers, yet there are no signs of struggle in these shoes. The curious effect is that they seem almost hopeful, as if looking out onto a future different from what they have suffered--ghosts returning to tell their story to receptive listeners, like Hamlet's father in full voice, alive enough to tell his story and give warning to beware. One cannot miss these shoes by the riverside yet the road ramparts conceal their view from the flat houses behind, and certainly from the city beyond.

It is a subtle monument to invisible histories.


There is a wonderful perversity to the Hungarian temperament. Perhaps this is something of what Sisi admired. Both children are taken by the boat-bus which ferries tourists along the Danube.

The bus is amphibious--practical, but how perverse! A great optical illusion. Ruby later shows the photo to her classmates who all titter in surprise. For some reason it reminds me of its reputation as the breeding ground of the creators of the most malicious but most engenious computer viruses created in the 1980s. It also reminded me of a few cousins and aunts....but perhaps that's enough of that for now..

At other times it strikes me as a playful, but saddened city, with its rhythmically-responsive, musical fountains and accessible city play-spaces, but a chaotic financial situation triggered by the Euro economic debacle. Many thousands owe four times their original housing loans, taken out with Swiss banks before the forint tumbled 18 months ago. A young market-stall holder who in her day job is a pre-school teacher tells me of how many of her friends feel they have to leave the country in order to have hope for their future. She herself feels the children she teaches are the hope, so she is planning to stay.


I wish I had the photo...

We take a day trip to Lake Balaton, the central Hungarian lake resort, summer mecca for centuries of holiday-makers. My parents and grandparents both used to spend whole summers there, my father sailing on its smooth waters. Sandor never even attempted to sail on Sydney Harbour once he'd emigrated; I can imagine his lean, well-trained athlete's instinct's failing him in a Sydney squall. He never trusted he could read the waters here.

I took the trip as a ritual homage to my ancestors. Tim drove the hour's journey. The steering wheel in on  the left hand side; it was several weeks before I reconfigured my vision and not expereince surprise that cars here seemed to be empty in the drivers' seat, and somehow driving themselves.

Along the long, flat, two land highway, we passed road signs such as you might expect anywhere: speed signs; towns ahead. I would have expected the silhouette of an antelope telling us to beware of what might run onto the road. But no, there was only a sign indicating 'dog'. Yes, "dog'. Dog? Twice.

As we neared the resort areas, there was another sign. In Australia, a swimming area is usually designated by the silhouette of a person doing the Australian crawl [freestyle, one arm and shoulder rising over the head and upper body of the swimmer]. Signs here indicated head above water. Sure enough, once at the Balaton, we observed many heads-above-water, bobbing above the shallow silty lakebed, at a short distance from the shore, gossiping.

En a Balatonba voltam!!!!


We visited the Hungarian State Library yesterday. I grew up with stories of my grandfather running the place, surviving the war, feeling gratitude [as did most Hungarians] to the Russian liberators, but horrified to find a Soviet General sitting in his seat one morning in 1946. Then the penny dropped. This is a take-over, not a liberation...

I approach the front desk, Tim and the kids just behind, and explain I am his granddaughter, I would like to go in. The man at the desk is very gracious and, after checking my passport, gives me a free ticket, giving me acccess to many parts of the library closed to the general public--including my husband and children. Tim and the kids see the beautiful downstairs display then eat Schnitzel in the cafe.

It is definitely a hush-hush library, so I am glad I don't have the kids with me, disturbing the peace with their wonderful, intelligent but audacious joie de vivre, as I walk the corridors.

There is a plaque listing former Directors in the hall. My grandfather's name is not there!!! The man at the desk notes this when I shake his hand goodbye. He has been looking it up on the computer. I mumble something lame such as 'perhaps he was the Deputy?' We agree, tacitly, not to pursue it further at this moment, both in deference to my faulty Hungarian and possibly, too, to the fact that I may well look genuinely ashamed.

Have I just pulled off a significant act of fraud??

It is a few weeks later in England, reconnecting with my brother, that I confirm what I suspected. It was another library [how many State Libraries can there be in one city??]--the Budapest City State Library, where my grandfather was indeed Director. Mea culpa, Szentkuty Pal!