03. 01. 2010. 09:44

Angst: the handbook of the urban guerilla

The arrival of capital was quiet, swift, and effective, like an assassin’s work. Suddenly its presence became visible everywhere: its smell, the scent of money, could be detected even through the exhaust fumes. Budapest became irrevocably sexy.

What’s a person like me supposed to do? How can he explain what’s happening to him? How should he describe this city: its new forms of existence that crop up on each corner, then disappear; its restaurants engaged in biological warfare; its apparently female entities living with implants; its steel concrete; its contaminated waters; its spruced-up former grandeur; its dead, buried under it; its slowly drizzling, brownish rain; its emotions; its bodies brushing against each other; its celebrities whose hysterical dramas are discussed daily in the tabloids; its vaudeville theaters, where supposedly the folks on stage and the audience are naked; its bars; its moldering neighborhoods; its shrill music; its sky for which rival companies compete; its green river on which even the ice is green when it freezes in winter; its cafés where adolescents drink murky, watery fluid out of paper cups, tapping keyboards wearily, hanging on the net via stolen nicks, roaming in and out of government databases just for fun. 
 
Time and place? The swarming and self-devouring city does not provide clear footholds for us to establish our actual time and place. It resembles a woman who is too busy to glance at herself in the bathroom mirror or even in the chrome surface of the office elevator in order to observe herself for a single moment. I need to record the scene, this place I live, somehow, so I can begin talking about it. Incidentally, this is the way I usually work. I place a picture, a newspaper clipping, a snapshot, a cartoon, or a painting reproduction in front of me. Something that brings to life the subject of discussion each time I look at it. The picture I see now: buildings and a bit of sky above the rooftops, the bluish-gray sky of dawn. Dew glistening on antennas, the white trail of a plane and another, more faint, intersecting it, sketching an enigma in the mass of gray air particles. The shadow of a police helicopter on a wall, a neon sign someone forgot to turn off, a giant, luminous blue word fragment, a man-sized S and O. Maybe SONY, maybe S.O.S. A few vaguely lit windows, drawn blinds, rusty, spitting air conditioners, the blind-map blotches of crumbling plaster, striped umbrellas above a few balconies, a flock of birds settling on rooftops and wires. The nearly tangible pollution in the air filters the light, the pale rays of the sun penetrating it. A photograph doesn’t offer much support. Or perhaps quite the opposite: it is full of secrets to tell. Is it still easier to talk? But can this city be told at all?  
 
I’ll start underground. I am captivated, and always was, since childhood, by the rush of the subway between two stations. The view broken into strips, if you can call it a view, just blurred lanes, gray, black, long smears which are the tunnel itself, its cables and pipes. The number of main lines is six, though we grew up in the dichotomy of the red and blue lines. Which one shall we take: the blue line or the red line, which one is valid, the red or the blue passport? You had your favorites: the red line was older, the blue was more exciting, more modern, and went all the way out to distant White Road, which I always imagined as an industrial planet covered with snow white dust. The blue line had multi-level stair systems at Nagyvárad Square, which for some reason reminded me, even years later, of Paris and the Défense metro stations, London and CanaryWharf. New colors joined in: the orange, green, and black lines. And of course there’s the little yellow line, famous for being the first underground on the continent. I was informed of this fact by my father at a corner of the CityPark, an event I always remember each time I pass that corner. Small and venerable, smashed so often by football hooligans, with those alluring, dignified signs, the first letters done up with a modest curlicue – the flavors of Paris again, these inscriptions in close relation to Paris and New York, Boulevard Saint Michel, Broadway-Lafayette, everywhere that curlicue initial – and the dark green of the railings, the cream-colored tiles.
 
The black line. Severe. This is the most recent subway line. I never even used it the first six months, as it is rather out of my way. The blackness is dominant in the stations too. It’s not quite black, but more of a graphite-gray. I love it. The color of an elegant Volvo, the color of the thermo-protection ceramic plates of space stations. The structure of our city’s metro stations has remained the same, tried and true. Platforms on either side, columns in the middle, a long escalator leading to the surface. And the draft, always, forever. You experience the power, the city’s pull in this draft. It grabs you, yanks you in, carries you along the tunnel to the surface, and thrusts you past the glass doors into the underpass, pushes you into the crowd, like a thumb into putty. The graphite color of this line covers the columns and the walls of the platforms: the armor of a galactic warrior. Here on the platforms the practice of displaying pages from the daily papers has remained, exhibitions behind large, illuminated glass panes, the headings, the pictures, and titles enlarged to giant proportions. I stand and stare. I see the pages of all the political newspapers here: there aren’t that many. Advertisements, posters, and scantily clad girls. It is prohibited to show women in degrading situations on advertisements. One might say that appearing either in a bathing suit, almost or completely naked in the company of a product, is undoubtedly degrading. A flat screen, continually streaming information, the arrival of the next train, its possible lateness – just hanging in the air as a threat, usually it’s on time – tips on football and horse race betting, the weather, accident prevention warnings in several languages.
 
I whisk my head up on the tram, blond Slavic girls, Russians, as it turns out, sitting opposite me in expensive outfits: sequins on their Pumas, holding miniature cell phones, a Pokémon with flashing eyes, conversing in a nonexistent blend of languages, a unique mix of Russian and English, functioning according to some incomprehensible logic, using the words of both languages within a single phrase. Ridiculous Russian sentence structure, English words, swearing, again, in Russian, then another fragment in English, with a London accent. It’s dizzying, like being in Clockwork Orange. Blame the transportation artery system for spreading this language epidemic wreaking havoc in the city. Grafted, and gene-manipulated, understanding and misunderstanding, layers of language sediment played into each other. Is it possible to live your whole life here without speaking the language of the majority? I don’t know, but perhaps it is.
 
The neighborhoods in this city, the ethnically determined areas are palpable, but still, somehow this topic is modest, you can’t go and say that the section between Kis Salétrom Street and Leonardo da Vinci Street is an exclusively Roma neighborhood, because there are Chinese living among them, though it’s mostly just their stores and their fast food joints representing them, while they themselves continually move further off; there were some Cubans too, especially on Magdolna Street, the mulatto descendants of descendants of former textile mill workers who stayed on and stayed put. Perhaps the dilapidated condition of the buildings reminded them of Havana. Likewise, I can’t say that a certain part of the second district is a Russian neighborhood, but there is a definite residential demand for the cable company to expand its number of Russian TV channels, and there are Russian supermarkets and elite high schools with astronomical tuitions where every other kid is Russian. But Japanese stores have moved into the neighborhood, the shelves filled with mysterious packages containing some sort of food base, along with Japanese business clubs featuring karaoke and hostesses modeled after Anime figures. Up until recently, the city’s only Japanese store operated out of a garage on Törökvész Road. Today a shopping center called OrientalCity stands in its place with its discount china stores, where you can get a complete tea set for small change, and if you just happened to move to this city from the Far East, you can acquire every single household item within ten minutes: a feeling of home for the price of peanuts. You might call it an anthem of glory. How amazing it is that here, in this city, all nations are at home! It could be. And in a way, it is.
 
I had to live to see the resurrection of Budapest. But I was not completely happy. Not even if all I ever wished was to see the conclusion of the World Wars and the end of 1956. To watch the wounds, the traces of machine gun fire on the walls, these teeth-marks left by occupying dentures, as they healed. The façades of the monarchy shine once again, but still I was unable to cast off the feeling of sadness. Suddenly the name of the city is a label in lifestyle magazines, on billboards, in first-rate display cases: The traditions and history of the Magyar people are still vitally important, as is the ubiquitous mobile phone.Budapest is already proving increasingly popular as a business destination… it won’t be long until leisure travelers follow suit. Everything I grew up in, the places where I gathered my knowledge about the city, have become null and void. The fact that we are not on the map is no longer true. My city has become a very important place on the map, a brand name, the target of special offers: spend a weekend full of experience in the Gateway of the East! The crown jewel of the Danube! Trendy bars and a health trip in the ambience of the Monarchy! If Wien isn’t exciting enough, and Praha isn’t eastern enough, then your destination is Budapest! The arrival of capital was quiet, swift, and effective, like an assassin’s work. Suddenly its presence became visible everywhere: its smell, the scent of money, could be detected even through the exhaust fumes. Budapest became irrevocably sexy. It did not become clean and cultured like Vienna, did not become immaculate and did not cleanse itself of history like Ljubljana, did not become gemütlich like downtown Bratislava, or imperial and laden with gold like Moscow, sensual and odd like Belgrade, surreal like Bucharest, dollhouse-y and bathed in legend like Prague. But the city definitely made it big, taking its triumphant place at the top of the charts, attractively, in counterpoint, like a beauty queen in the sizzling laser beam of attention.
 
Money appeared and tended wounds, healed the lepers and the blind, quenched everyone’s thirst from a single chalice, fed all with a single morsel of bread. Façades and interiors, blocks and streets changed, or rather, were rightfully restored, the first and then the second World Wars came to an end, while 1956 and the former regime successfully disappeared from the architectural environment, as if never existing at all. It was covered by modern street pavements, where dirt cannot reach. Money concealed the injuries. It attempted to make everyone forget a large and painful part of the past, even if the wounds soaked through the gauze and the clotting blood turned the disinfectant powder red. It was all very nice like this. Nobody wanted to remember. Nobody had to. Remembering makes life impossible. Amnesia is the best tool for survival. And those who once felt at home in the gentle collapse of Budapest, in its former, lovely passage into ruin, did not yet have to forget everything completely. The dust, the grime, the suffocating smell of cooking oil in the Nyugati underpass remained. The flaking walls of Teréz District. The tattered billboards, the subway platforms sticky with garish advertisements, the Martian architecture of Moscow Square stayed on. None of these contradict success. They do not contradict money. Success and money could care less about these things. And Her Excellencies, the twin sisters Trendy and Sexy, embrace it all unconditionally. Charm, that indefinable material, the fluid trickling through the city’s veins penetrated these too, just as it has done to the grubby streets of the seventh and eighth districts, where money seeped in more slowly, getting lost in the labyrinth of streets and squares, among the leftover mush and haze of dirty clothes. Catastrophe tourism in Tuzoltó Street. Socio-tours in the Hos Street projects. The city didn’t get itself worked up: sooner or later the wretched housing blocks will disappear, condos will rise in place of one-room hovels, fashionable studio apartments will replace the tenements of working class neighborhoods. 
 
I am not entirely happy, though I should be enthusiastic about the manifold and sophisticated service industries of my city. The Swabian laundries. The Chinese dry cleaning salons. The home delivery restaurants. The catalog stores. The gay bars, where a Greek hunk sheathed in gold dust carries bouquets of flowers to the tables. The luxury jitney taxis and chauffer services. The escorts and night guides who lead clients through erotic Budapest. Città aperta? Perhaps it is the architecture that evokes the possibilities: the city welcomes its subcultures, tolerates everything and everyone. At least it pretends to, and does so convincingly. It accepts its millionaire swindlers and work ethic champions, the community of civil servants and the weary proprietors of small, iron-shuttered stores. Its women shaped into athlete-types and men with billiard ball-heads, transformed on the operating tables into potential killers. Its Roma rappers in gold chains and basketball sweat pants. Its Ukrainian black market traders in nauseatingly shiny patent leather loafers. German sex-tourists are embraced just as openly as civilians, clean and impeccable, no longer buying clothes off the racks of discount stores. The city considers its past a closed case and has no idea about its future. But who cares, if it is able to dive and dissolve into the present. Into tonight. 
 
I never thought I’d live in a city like this. It didn’t seem like it might come into being. I don’t even know how things got this way. They just happened. I remember it as withdrawn, as hopelessly pining after its own former greatness and splendor, as a city proudly disintegrating. It was an elderly lady of royal descent, her face now a heap of wrinkles, her teeth gone, with only her noble profile and regal gaze left as a reminder. A collapsing city licking its wounds, in the meantime not caring about its own population. Back then, it had been years since I’d been out on the street. The street wasn’t life, just terrain for shifting your position: the unavoidable path between two points. I simply did not feel the need to go, to be out there, just for kicks, to walk around, stare at the people and places, that’s how much things didn’t change, for weeks, months, years. That which is obvious is somehow compromising, and that goes for what happens on the street. Any person with a sense of values would steer clear. You just don’t go out, don’t legitimize this whole thing by appearing in public. So I didn’t appear, unless I had to – for school or to run various errands – except at night, at an hour which guaranteed invisibility or a chance to disappear, when I could conduct my private engagements under the cover of darkness. Apartments and kitchens were the places to meet; all activities were cinched into these locations, even those that should have properly taken place in cafés and restaurants. Then sometimes a place did rear its head. It materialized, it opened quietly, or was already there and began to function opposite its intended purpose, making it livable. The wanderers discovered it, the address spread by word of mouth, suddenly everyone appeared, because it was the only place that had that kind of music, that drink and that conversation, things which were halfway tolerable. Otherwise there remained the kitchens and rooms, rooms and kitchens, stereos and VCRs, records and wine bottles carried around in plastic bags. Balconies, cigarettes smoked to the filter, even beyond, exploited, like the weekdays. The number and diversity of places to hang out in this city now is still startling and perplexing. The retro bistros, the cult-discos, the cafés operating in the foyers of video rental places, the video stores operating in the back rooms of cafés, used CD and DVD stands, pubs, theme restaurants subjected to outrageous decor: Spiderman, the cult of Viennese confections, the atmosphere of Trieste harbor or Victorian England. A world of citations. The clubs, concert venues, the jazz cafés and beer parlors serving every single brand of beer on the planet.                  
  

Translated by: Noémi Ildikó Nagy

Tags: Gergely Nagy