Sunday, July 31, 2011

Buda Hills

One nice thing about Budapest is how quickly one can get out of the city.  It really is quite compact, and with a population of less than 2 million, it doesn't take long to get out into a rural setting, especially on the Buda side.  Budapest was actually two cities at one time, with Pest on one side of the river and Buda on the other.  The Danube flows between these two halves along a fault line (or so I've been told).  The Pest side is flat, while the Buda side is made up of rolling hills, with some great views of the city below.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to have been invited by my friend Alla for a hike up in the Buda hills.  Just a 20-minute tram ride from the city center and it felt like we were a world away.  It was also lucky that we were spared from any rain for a day.  So far this summer it seems that rain has been a near constant companion here in Europe, and indeed it is back again today.  Ah well, it makes for good writing weather anyway!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Funky Little Cars

One thing that I think is pretty cool about Budapest, as well as other places in Eastern Europe that I've visited, is the proliferation of funky little old cars.  Some are old Soviet-era Ladas, or Skodas from the former Czechoslovakia.  This one above I'm not so sure about, but it looks like it could come from Italy, perhaps.  The front name plate was torn off, and I forgot to check the back...

The thing about these cars that I like is that while they are quite old, and have a certain style about them, they are kept on the road not for sentimental or stylistic reasons, but simply out of necessity.  People just keep them going and going because they can't afford a new one (I suppose anyway).  Maybe my appreciation comes from the fact that back home I drive a 1988 Jeep that I've patched up myself many times over the years.  I'd love to ship one of these funky old cars home with me.  If only I could get it to pass the smog inspection...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Photo of the day: Heroes' Square

Today I thought I'd throw up another photo of the day, this time of Heroes' Square (Hősök tere) here in Budapest.  This square is quite near to my apartment and I pass by it on most days.  To me it is a beautiful reminder that I am living in a grand, old European capital.  The Millennium Monument in the center of the square was built to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian nation in 1896 (though it was part of the Austrian empire at that time).  One local actually told me that the 1000th anniversary was supposed to be in 1895, but that this and other projects to celebrate it were behind schedule, so they sort of re-wrote the history books and celebrated a year later.  I'm not sure if there is any truth to this or not, but it makes a good story anyway!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ex-pat Life

I found myself writing in a little bookstore cafe today, Massolit Books in Budapest's Jewish District.  The place has perfect ex-pat appeal.  It is an easy-going, English-language shop, with old furniture, an antique counter, old light fixtures and peeling paint.  The Jewish District is a warren of narrow streets and crumbling buildings, mostly neglected for a hundred years.  Below is a shot of Kazinczy Street, one block over.  This is one of the main streets in the district, though currently torn up for repairs.
Hanging out in the cafe, I got to thinking a little bit about ex-pat life.  I've dabbled in it for years, spending 3-6 months in a number of foreign cities.  I've made local friends and ex-pat friends, and blended into the community, but I've never taken the leap to make it permanent.  Though what is permanent, really?  Most ex-pats do go home eventually, it seems to me.  The pull of one's home country, friends and family is usually too strong to resist forever.  Part of what determines how long an ex-pat stays away is why they are living abroad in the first place.

There are several reasons for a person to live abroad.  First, they might be a student, in which case they are probably living in a foreign country for one year or less.  Second, they may have moved for a job.  In this case, they will stay as long as they like the job, or until the company moves them elsewhere.  These people seem likely to stay in a place 3-5 years, for the most part.

The last category of ex-pat is the one I find most intriguing, and which I technically belong.  These are people that are not living abroad for school or work.  They are there solely by choice.  Many become teachers of English merely to make living abroad possible.  Or they work on their own, like I do.  Or perhaps they have money saved up somehow.  Quite a few American's I have met in Budapest moved here after retirement or divorce, simply because it is so much less expensive to live here than cities in the U.S.  Everyone has their own reasons, though in many cases these reasons overlap.  I am also here because the place is less expensive than home, in part.  But also because there is great atmosphere for a writer, and good cafes to work in.

What intrigues me most, however, is why people choose to live in a place that is so, so foreign from what they are used to?  Obviously it is interesting for an American to be here, in a place like this.  Every little thing becomes an adventure.  Going to the market and trying to figure out what it says on the packages is just one example.  But how much are people drawn to this place, and how much are the pushed away from their place of origin?  How many people are really just running away?  From disappointment, and failure and failed relationships?  In the U.S. a person might feel like their existence is simply dull and uninspired, but put them in a foreign country and suddenly their life has a bit of romance.  Where they were ordinary back at home, suddenly, in a way, they are special.  I know I've felt this myself to some degree, and I've seen it around me in ex-pats I've met for years.  "But what are they running away from?" is always a question I'm a little too afraid to ask.

So we'll end on a positive note.  This week when I was out with friends I met a guy from Santa Cruz who is here just visiting for the week.  He asked me about the ex-pat life, and dreamed a little wistfully of living it himself some day.  It made me realize what a privilege it is even to sample this existence.  It is a dream shared by many but realized by a relative few.  Actually making the leap, packing up your things, boarding that plane, and finding a new place to live and new friends in a city far from home, with a language you don't understand is a challenge too daunting for most.  I for one am going to make the most of it while I'm here and try to enjoy every minute as much as I can.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Budapest Beach Day

Well, it's been hot here in Budapest lately, with temps in the mid 90's F (30's C), and high humidity.  Perfect weather for a dip in the pool!  Today I headed down to Palatinus Strand, the popular swimming complex on Margaret Island.  The island is a large park in the middle of the Danube.  In the middle of the park is this complex of giant swimming pools, thermal baths, water slides and a wave pool.  Boy was it crowded today, as half of Budapest seemed to have the same idea, but it was still a nice place to spend the day hanging out with a few friends.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hemingway Fifty Years On

I sat writing in a cafe today in a picturesque, tree shaded square and I couldn't help but think of Ernest Hemingway.  He's been in the news a bit lately, on the 50th anniversary of his death on July 2, 1961.  Apparently it's a good time to think back about his legacy and his influence.  The truth is, I actually think about him quite often.  No doubt there is no other writer who had as much influence on both my writing style and my lifestyle as Hemingway.  Sure, Melville inspired me to run off to sea in the Merchant Marines, but that was a much more temporary endeavor. 

As far as influencing my lifestyle goes, I never would have ended up hanging out and writing in European cafes if it weren't for Hemingway.  He's the one who made that life sound so romantic, and sometimes when I'm sitting in a particular cafe that I think he might like, I feel as though I am communing with his ghost.  I've spent time living in capitals all over Europe, and a bit of time in Paris as well, trying to find that same inspiration that he did.  And for the most part, I have found it.  I owe him for that.

As far as influencing my writing style, I know he has done so as well.  My style is not as spare or pared down as his was.  In fact, sometimes when I read his work I feel strangely insulted, as though I were being talked down to.  It can feel as though he has so little respect for his readers that he doesn't think they will understand anything more than the most basic, simple sentence.  As though he doesn't trust us.  Yet at the same time, when I go through and edit my work, I do find myself paring my sentences down and cutting out anything superfluous.  That, no doubt, is Hemingway looking over my shoulder.

As an American writer in Europe, of course I feel a connection to this icon who came before me.  While his place in the canon of American literature may be debated by literary scholars, his influence is indisputable, both in the larger sense, and for me, quite personally.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sweet Ophelia update

So close now!!!  I'm working on the very last chapter of my latest draft of Sweet Ophelia and the Tinseltown Blues.  After that, a few more tweaks and it will be off to friends and family to help me edit it.  Thanks to my parents and to Janice Horton for comments on my previous draft.  There was one plot point that I've agonized over a fair bit.  If I go one way, it gives the lead character a bit stronger personality, but lacks some small degree of truthfulness.  If I go the other way, it makes that character more complicated, and adds some depth.  First I wrote it out one way, and now I've nearly finished the second.  Maybe this is all too much information, but I think I've settled on the second way.  I'll see what some other people think before I decide for sure.  The bottom line, is, I'm doing my best to get it done and up by the end of the month.  Fingers crossed... :-)

Monday, July 4, 2011

In Defense of Budapest

So in my last post I mentioned how beat up this city is, and I still think this is true for the most part.  I am frequently reminded of something the war photographer and Budapest native Robert Capa said upon returning here after WW II.  He remarked that it was "like a beautiful woman who'd had all of her teeth knocked out."  Of course it was much worse then, with the city half in ruins, though it does still feel as though it is struggling to regain former glory.  This is hampered in part by the fact that the population of the city has dropped by about 15 percent since its peak in the 70's and 80's.  This helps explain why the rents are so affordable here.  There is plenty of empty space.  Just last night at a small party I met three different Americans who had all moved here because of the city's affordability.

But back to my original point.  After the party I took a nighttime bike ride around the city, cruising along the Danube and stopping to look at the view from my favorite spot, midway across the river on the Liberty Bridge, and while vast sections of the city may be run down, there is an indescribable beauty here as well.
Looking up at the castle hill, and the lights reflected on the water, it is easy to slip into a sense of peace and reverie.  A large section of the city center has also been refurbished since the last time I was here, with new streets and sidewalks and art installations.  The new metro line will be finished in a few years.  Granted it is already a decade behind schedule, but hey, they're trying!  The bottom line is, this city does have a place in my heart.  I wouldn't have come back otherwise.  The grittiness you find here is all just part of the charm.  (This photo borrowed from Hannes R on Flickr)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On Budapest

I first came to Budapest two years ago to spend the summer working on my novel, No Cure for the Broken Hearted.  I'd spent the winter working as a snowboarding instructor at Mammoth Mountain in California, and I'd managed to save up a little bit of money.  It was a regular theme for me; work for a while to save money, and then take as much time off as I could afford to write.  I'd already done the same thing in Estonia, Ukraine, and Australia.  The key was to find someplace interesting, with good places to write, and low overhead.  The cheaper the place, the longer I could afford to stay.  In Budapest I found all three prerequisites.  Rents here were roughly a third what they were in Southern California, with food costs about 30 percent less.  Great cafe's abound, and who could not find a place like this interesting?

That first summer, 2009, I connected with a group of locals and expats through, and settled in, learning my way around the city and growing comfortable here.  Now I am back for round two.  I've reconnected with my old friends and am getting back into the groove of living and writing in this place.  It seems peculiar that I actually feel at home here, but I do.  What strikes me most upon arrival, though, is how beat up this city really is.  My reaction was the same the first time around.  The streets are dirty.  The walls are scrawled with graffiti.  The facades are crumbling and covered in soot.  A good ten percent of the buildings on the Pest side of the river seem to be abandoned and literally falling apart.  Streets are torn up, seemingly under perpetual construction.  Spending time here is like being in some time warp straight out of the Twilight Zone.  Buses date from the 1950's.  Some of the cars do, too, though the 70's and 80's are well-represented as well.  There just doesn't seem to be the money, or the planning, or the inclination to bring this place back from the brink of oblivion.  Yet, at the same time, there is a great atmosphere to the place.  The people are relaxed and easy-going.  They are social, gathering during the summer months in big outdoor "gardens" (where demolished buildings have been cleared away) to drink beer and enjoy the warm summer evenings.  Abandoned buildings are turned into "ruin bars," that become works of art all their own.  It is indeed a city like no other.

In contrast to all of this, there are pockets of splendor here as well.  The city library is in an old palace, with the top floor carefully preserved.  There you can plunk yourself down in a comfy chair in front of an ornate fireplace and dream that you are Hungarian royalty. 
And there are other terrific places to write as well, like the cafe where I am sitting at the moment (above).  Tucked in the back of the Alexandra Bookstore on the tony Andrassy Street, this cafe is the kind of place I came here for, to sip on a latte and while away an afternoon working on my latest novel.  Now if only I could just get it finished...