budapest

Budapest is better than Paris, I think.

It’s a city of two million people (Budapest, not Paris), which is about one-fifth of Hungary’s total population. It spreads out across the Danube, because it was originally two cities: the rolling hills of Buda, once belonging to the Romans, and the flat land of Pest, too sandy to be arable before the markets hit its shore.

You can see the layers of the city in its buildings, in its architecture. Many bits of the city were built in the nineteenth century, some older. You can see gothic, baroque, neo-classical buildings lining the streets, often right next to each other. Look closely, you can see bullet holes in walls.

A big part of Budapest was bombed during the Second World War (damn Americans!), and when the Communists rebuilt, their buildings were stale and ugly, big slabs of concrete with uniform windows. Every socialist building looks like a prison (damn Russians!). And those older buildings, the ones build in green and yellow stucco in the style of unique Hungarian architecture that you can’t find in ye-old-fancy-ass Paris or even central Europe, like ye-uber-trendy-Berlin, they sometimes go unwashed. You see the original color kept up on the bottom floor, but look up, and the greens and yellows and pinks and reds have turned into black, black, black, thanks to the smoky fumes of industry and lack of funds for upkeep.

But the parts that aren’t meticulously cleaned for tourists — well, that’s what makes Budapest the most interesting. It’s honest, organic. Layers of history right on top of each other. How many stories about Hungarian people do the buildings tell on their own, just standing there? Well over two million, I’m sure.

(This isn’t to say that I don’t like Paris, by the way. I like Paris very much. I just don’t like the center of Paris, which is mostly filled with tourists making the peace sign and stupid faces into selfie sticks (I assume, as the selfie stick was invented after I visited in 2012), and pickpockets, and French millionaires dressed in Chanel stepping over beggars, and people who incessantly follow you around as if you’re playing tag, trying to sell you a mini-Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for five euros a pop.)

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city mouse

Not everyone in my family was poor as dirt. The people with money never ended up with a great fate, though.

My dad’s cousin was a capitalist living in Budapest. Imagine that! The 1950s, newly minted socialist nation of Hungary, statues of Stalin in every square and busts of Lenin in every piac around town. And this man Kalman, my dad’s cousin, made is his money as a capitalist!

He was a Wall Street broker, except he dealt with goods instead of stocks, and he didn’t work on Wall Street. He’d buy crops and meat from farmers in the Hungarian countryside, jack up the prices, and then sell them to merchants. He was the middleman.

I’ve never seen a photo of him, but I am re-reading Catch-22, so I picture Dad’s cousin as Milo Minderbinder, who had a “frank face with disunited large eyes, rusty hair, black eyebrows and an unfortunate reddish-brown mustache. Mile had a long, thin nose with sniffing, damp nostrils heading sharply to the right, always pointing away from where the rest of him was looking.” What a good-looking fellow, eh? Lucky he only exists like this in my imagination.

Kalman was the fancy-schmancy city mouse who lived on Paris Ulca in Budapest, a street in the high-end shopping district that could blend in actual-Paris without problem. He left his wife Piroska for her sister. (Or her cousin. My dad couldn’t remember exactly how they were related. But sister sounds far more dramatic.) I guess if you’re rich, you’re handsome. Damn capitalists.

Nagypapa says Kalman’s money was thanks to a ton of illegal scheming; I imagine that’s the case if you’re a capitalist living in Communist Hungary. The guy died from a heart attack before 1970 came knocking at his door.

rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

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Aside

sayonara, hair!

Photo on 3-28-15 at 6.05 PM #2 Photo on 5-1-15 at 8.25 PM

el gran mojado/arcangel

The myth of the first world is that
development is wealth and technology progress.
It is all rubbish.
It means  you are no longer human beings
but only labor.
It means that the land you live on is not earth
but only property.

This is not a benefit for UNESCO
We are not the world.
This is not a rock concert.

– Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange

juxtaposition

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.

storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.