It’s the morning after. We’re outside in the sun in our hotel yard, me writing and the boys spooking some nice little Koi fish in the pond. Trying to take photos of this elusive black fish with bulging eyes. That means that my boys have been introduced to the concept of elusive and the joy of using mom’s camera to take countless photos of fish. Yes, that’s how I sometimes buy some writing time. We just had breakfast and we still have an hour to kill before leaving for the airport. We arrived in Budapest yesterday by train and we then took a taxi to our hotel. A cozy little place, as we were about to see, with real-size witches hanging from the ceiling and old doll couples hanging out on wicker chairs in the lounge. We drop our luggage and set for a long walk in the city. Budapest looks very much like Paris here and there and then it reminds me of Bucharest too. But I know it’s one of a kind, and I know I will not be disappointed.
We cross the chain bridge across Danube and the sidewalks are a wild mix of people walking, some like me stopping without warning to take photos because the light was playing with the water just at the right angle and only for a few fleeting seconds, others ride their bikes and the kicker is that every bike bell sounds different from the rest. It took a bit to figure that one out. Some almost whisper their coming through, which is a cruel way of warning people of a fast moving vehicle, but something makes me think these people do the ride-through-tourists stunt every day so they’re good at it. A steady river of cars pours in between the narrow sidewalks.
There’s this convertible car, a beautifully restored collector thing that almost looks like a fancy patio on wheels. Four people who could not be more elegant are toasting champagne and the driver is wearing his dark blue suit and hat with pride and calmness.
We walk to the bottom of a hill. At the very top there is the castle. Which, we were told by our hotel host Kati, we have to visit. Technically just the yard, not the inside, except for a few art galleries, but I dare you to take two tired boys to something like that. You know, those places are awfully quiet. There, get my drift? We take the gondola up, a short ride, but the boys pleaded and I agree, it’s a one-of-a-kind. A minute and a half later we’re emerging from the charming caramel-colored wooden gondola that has three benches in three different compartments, a three level contraption that chugs uphill pulled by thick metal cords, cozy enough to make us want a longer ride.
We’re greeted by music trickling from a violin not far away. The view from up the hill is magnificent. Kati, our receptionist, was right to insist that we come up here. The beautiful tall spiky towers of the parliament building shine white and proud on the other side of Danube. The river sparkles a million sparks and on its glittery surface there are some ferries, all metal and unglamorous, but I won’t let that bother me. Danube is the kind of river that can get away with that. The violin player is tipsy which makes him get really close to people’s faces and propose yet another round of waltzes and rhapsodies. Some people are genuinely puzzled and look sideways, smiling awkwardly, wishing the rum-smelling artist would lay his antics on another soul wandering around. The boys are mesmerized by the view and the whole castle and so am I. Sasha’s cute Romanian brings the violin artist close enough for me to hear him say “I play George Enescu rhapsody, beautiful rhapsody. You want?…“ My approval is not needed. The beautiful notes Enescu drew for generations to come, mere mortals like me and the tipsy classic music lover, they slide off the violin and perch onto the waist-high walls surrounding the castle like serene birds awaiting the sunset. Beauty cannot be contested. We leave some change in the violin case and move on.
We enter the castle yard through black iron-wrought gates. One cannot not feel royal while doing so. A few minutes later we buy ice cream. Even strolling and savoring this sweet and cold late lunch replacement makes me feel noble here. Nothing is ordinary, not even the ice cream stand. Like I said, this city can get away with a lot.
There’s artesian fountains with grey stone people, perpetually smiling, pouring water from perpetually tilted water jugs that never dry up and perpetually catching grey stone fish. Yet somehow they look alive. It must be those European city spirits giggling behind the statues, and then tickling every one of my thoughts to make it smile. The cobblestone looks almost soft bathing in the soft golden dusk light. Black basaltic caramels that turn supple at every sunset. More artesian fountains with smiling stone people hunting and water pouring melancholy over the stone forest bounty. I wonder if the sunset glow will make them turn soft too. Even alive, perhaps, a scenario that seems right at the moment.
We make our way down the hill on steps guarded by old oak and chestnut trees. Fall is almost here. As we trail down the hill the soft rustling of fallen leaves follows us like an old suave snake, another perpetual creature that lives around here and feeds on the short-lived warmth left behind by people’s steps. The sun is setting as we cross the bridge again. What better time to walk along the Danube banks towards the spiky parliament building? I have a soft spot for river banks, you see. These ones are all festooned with old buildings with rectangular, differently colored facades that look all golden with the sunset light draped over them like thick honey. We walk through a patch of soft sand that makes its way into every crevice of ours sandals and we’re too lazy to take them off so some of that sand will likely come with us across the ocean just like the Pacific Ocean sand from Spanish Banks made it to Europe hidden in my backpack. We climb the stairs down to the warm waters of the Danube River and I cannot help but take a couple of rocks with me. Scales of rocks peeled from this big water dragon that will not mind. We come by many pairs of shoes, metal replicas of real shoes. A memorial to the Jewish people who were shot by the fascist militiamen during the World War II. Kids’ shoes too. The boys want to know about it. I tell them as much as I know. There can’t possibly be a PG warning attached to my story. It was a dark time, and there is no other way of explaining it but telling the truth. Who were the bad people, the boys ask. People like us, how does one explain history without brewing negative feelings and biases? Each of us is a mix of good and evil, I tell them. It’s a matter of which one we cultivate to live in the detriment of the other. A matter of choice and circumstance, a concept that for now my boys overlook.
The sky is adorned with purple clouds. I take photos of clouds, my boys, the glimmer of the thick water course. We descend inside the subway station and we come across the steepest escalator ever. “It must be, it goes under the Danube,” our hotel hosts tells us later on. Dizzying, no less. Half hour later we look for a bus station. The hotel is still 20 minutes away. We buy some questionable pizza but hunger is a shameless beast. We eat, we ride on a bus that goes a liitle bit too fast and then three showers later we’re in bed. I write, the boys snore little kids snores and I cannot think of a better way of ending a day that started at midnight the night before when my sister and were chatting way and did so until 5am. Good talks are never short. “That was the best way we could’ve come up with to spend our last night here,” she wrote to me in an email. Sipping life from larger-than-life cups.
It’s quiet and the boys are well on their way to dreamland. I sip tiny sips of deep red wine – courtesy of the hotel owner who happened to be in the hallway as we made our way in and was most likely impressed with the little boy on the back of mom plus another holding onto the backpack as he was ushered into the room. Write, sip, write and then sleep. Well deserved indeed.
The fish in the pond play hide-and-seek with my boys. the hour is done with. we drive to the airport and soon after we’re up and flying. Soon we’ll home and another adventure will begin. Sipping life, gulping it down and occasionally choking on it never felt more right…