Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A little about a lot

There seems to be no other way to start this post except to comment on how long it has been since I last wrote. When one is at home living through the "grey weekdays" (a phrase directly translated from the Hungarian a szürke hétköznapok), ten weeks can pass by in the blink of an eye and suddenly winter is turning into summer and it's all a bit incomprehensible. When travelling, I think, one is more prepared for (or against) the inevitable feeling that time will slip through the fingers, but it's tempered by the simple fact of so many places seen, people met and experiences had.

Before I continue, I just want to write a sentence here for the late Greg King. I was lucky enough to meet Greg and "work" with him in a very limited capacity but he really inspired me and I think his death is a huge loss to many people personally and to the legal community in general - it's really saddened me. I've been thinking a lot about his family.

Since I last updated you, my travels took me to both Poland and Holland for the first time and back, after a six year absence, to my second home, Hungary. It's been a rollercoaster few weeks with a lot of rain and a lot of sunshine.

While in Berlin we looked at the map and realised how close Poland was, so we hopped on a train and found ourselves in the city of Poznan. The whole thing was spontaneous and so our expectations were perhaps not high, but we really loved it. The old-town is just beautiful, full of colourful dollhouse-like buildings and the scent of history lingering in the air. The food was phenomenal and the vodka very dangerous. We encountered many friendly and open people who really made us feel welcome and ensured that Poznan would become rooted in the "favourite places travelled to" category. (On reflection, that category is pretty big actually.) Poznan also found a special place in my heart due to its connection with Hungary via its 1956 uprising - the city revolted against the Russians just a few months before Hungary did. (Contrary to popular belief neither of these were "anti-communist" per se, rather "anti-foreign-oppressors".) It was the Hungarian revolution that brought my maternal grandparents to New Zealand and so it's a big part of my identity too, and the Poznan connection was previously unknown to me. Poznan pays homage to the revolution's sentiments and victims with a great little museum and a massive, very impressive monument in the city centre. Solidarity with the Hungarian cause and "freedom fighters" is expressed in both these memorials, and also popped up in conversation with a few locals.

After a couple of nights back in Berlin we were on the road again, this time heading for Amsterdam. My cousin R's friendly face awaited us in this city of canals and coffeehouses (not to mention an inordinate amount of bicycles whose rate that can be compared to NZ's sheep population), and she took very good care of us. Due to the distances between our homes we have never really spent much time together and yet we share many traits that we can only put down to inherited family genes, so it was quite special to be able to just hang out together. I also loved wandering the city's tiny bridges and sensed an elusive, energetic life-rhythm pulsing in the streets.

For me, one of the highlights of the visit was seeing Anne Frank's house in the city centre. I read her diary countless times when I was younger and it still sits on my bookshelf at home. Back then I was always enthralled by the similarities in our lives and feelings despite the enormous differences between our situations, and inspired by her ability (especially given her young age) to express sentiments that seemed so personal and unique. I suppose it was one of the first times I encountered the truth of my father's old adage "the most private feelings are the most universal". Visiting the house though, walking the rooms and seeing the posters still in the bedroom, imagining the forced quiet chaos lived between those walls, was the first time the very tragedy of these facts hit home. That such a special and yet very ordinary girl was subject first to the restraints of living in hiding and then to the unimaginable horrors of a concentration camp, not to mention her death one month before the camp's liberation, was really brought to life for me. (As a side note though, this experience, like most popular tourist attractions, was a bit dampened by the amount of jostling and neck-craning required.)

Soon we were back in Berlin, this time in a dance choreographer's Kreuzberg studio apartment with a huge empty wooden floor space and geraniums in the windows. Our neighbours were a friendly Irish couple who we would have coffee and long conversations about Ireland and New Zealand and life in general with on a small wooden bench outside or, when the weather turned colder, at our place. One afternoon our other neighbours, who we hadn't yet met, knocked on our door to say they were moving out and could we please take a spare five bottles of wine off their hands? We found a wonderful bar at the end of the street full of old photographs, dusty bottles of spirits, locals and cigarette smoke. It also boasted two gorgeous dogs - a huge, resigned black one and an energetic little beige one. Needless to say we became regulars there, as we did (to some extent) at a beer garden a few streets away from us, with coloured fairy lights and a roaring fire. While in Berlin I discovered that a New Zealand friend, B, was living just a neighbourhood away. We met during German classes at university and revelled in the fact that, after about three years of not really keeping in touch, we could pick up where we left off and practice in Berlin what we'd learned in Wellington - it was one of life's cool little surprises.

A little while later I found myself in Vác, about half an hour from Budapest where some of my Hungarian relatives live and where I spent a lot of time at various phases in my life. Admittedly it was very strange at first - walking these streets and sitting in these lounge rooms remind me very strongly of being nine or 13 or 18 years old depending on how the light falls. I haven't been back since before I started university and it felt remarkable to see the things that had changed and others that remain the same. I wondered how I would fall into the rhythm of things here as an adult but ultimately I found my balance.

So being here, for me, is a peculiar mix of the familiar and the new as I walk a jagged line between local and visitor. There is joy to be found in being somewhere the language flows easily from my lips and where I recognise the pattern of the streets, and a different but equal thrill in (re-)discovering the secrets of these places. I suppose it adds to the experience that I have a pretty hopeless memory, so places present themselves to me with the vague and unplaceable remnants of experiences floating in the air.

The New York Coffee House
While here I've been host to two separate friends visiting and so I have indulged in some of the more touristy pleasures that Budapest has to offer. Drinking overpriced wine (about equal to a glass in NZ) at "the most beautiful cafe in the world", the New York Kávéház, full of tourists, decadently decorative fixtures and over a hundred years of history. Luxuriating in the warm waters of the thermal baths at the Széchényi Fürdő. Wandering the rows of fresh food and folk embroidery and leather bags at the Vásárcsarnok, hearing the mix of retired Hungarians' and excited tourists' conversations there. Walking along the Danube past the beautiful bridges that straddle the divide between the two previously separate cities of Buda and Pest is always a favourite pass time. It's an experience that is transformed with each change of light, daytime and season, one that passes unnoticed by many locals and causes wonderment in many tourists. In this sense I guess I fall more into the visitor category because it takes my breath away each time.

In other ways, I have fallen back into the life I left behind in 2006. I've returned to singing with the Váci Vox Humana, the choir that my late great-great-uncle conducted for 42 years and is a cornerstone in my relatives' lives here. Members of the choir approach me with affectionate smiles to ask about my parents and my grandmother, who left this town with only a handkerchief in hand over 50 years ago - people who knew her and her family in a way I never did. My grandmother's uncle has been on my mind a bit recently as it's the anniversary of his death now - I didn't know him all that well but he was a special person who left behind a big legacy. He's always left an impression of me and I remember writing a story about him for a high school assignment. A week ago we sang Fauré's Requiem which is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music, and, as predicted, I was carried away with the irreplaceable feeling of being one voice of many giving life to a timeless and evocative piece of music. Another familiar and faraway feeling brought to the fore.

Here is where I will finish. There will be many more things to write in the coming weeks and I will try not to wait so long to "put pen to paper" next time (especially because if I do I'll be just about back in NZ). As always sok szeretettel.