Thursday, November 29, 2007

Budapest Report

Haven't blogged about much lately, let alone our marvelous trip to Budapest - where we saw not only the city but our beloved Erzsi (now I really know how/why to spell her name after having had a crash course in Hungarian - well not really, too inscrutable for that, but you know what I mean). and enjoyed our endless, cold marches around town.

And it was cold, at least for us. As we packed and stood around scratching our heads at the weather reports (30's and 40's by day) we wondered at what combinations to bring along - fleece and shell, various sweaters, down jackets. I scoffed at down jackets - overkill, I said, and suggested fleeces and shells for all. Gotkes? Never even thought of it until sometime during that first day, when my thighs were freezing in my jeans but enough of my thighs. As Natan said, "Gee, after living in Israel, I guess I've lost my perspective on cold weather." Not that it isn't cold in J'lem and in our house which is far colder and draftier than 409 Pacific was but even on cold days, if the sun is out, it just isn't that bad.

Budapest, as I've reported to many, is many things. It's at first glance, grey and gloomy, with large, hulking buildings presiding over the huddled masses but as you walk the city you begin to appreciate the mix of architecture, the grand boulevards (at least they must have been grand at one time), the once imperial notions of splendor in the churches, museum facades and older structures, many of them pockmarked with bullet holes (Hungarian’s history of war and takeovers but many from the Turks to the Germans is never far from mind) mixed in with boxy, bulky communist affairs, that do nothing except remind one of the presence of the Soviets in Hungarian history.

The people seemed reserved and wait on line too politely, as if to remind you that waiting on lines is something they’ve done before and for many years. The young people looked like young people everywhere and the pedestrian mall, Uta Utca, is filled with stores familiar on the continent and beyond – Zara, Mango, H&M and something called New Yorker that from my elevated perch didn’t look so New Yorkish in it’s style but was clearly selling its own version of street style. As a matter of fact, the difference between the young and the older seemed marked, as if the younger crowd, born at the end of the Soviet era, or indeed, after, had grown up during a different time. They had of course. Erzsi said that life under Soviet rule wasn’t as harsh in Hugary as in other places. She said that they had enough food, if limited but that she, growing up in a more rural setting, had the advantage of a good kitchen garden which provided well for the family. She said that when she would travel as a teen and young adult into Russian areas – where one was allowed to travel – that young Russians wanted to buy their clothing and jeans, although they didn’t have anything special but it was much more than what was available in Russian.

Budapest, is 2 cities of course, Buda and Pest, united sometime ago, along with some of the surrounding area (Obuda, I think, but can't remember what else). Buda, is the old city, complete with low-rise buildings with an old style air (indeed may of them are quite old), a castle and an old church built and rebuilt on it's original medieval foundations many times over the centuries. We walked over the Sveczni Hind (bridge) to get there, and then up the Funicular, a funky little cable car (Akiva was quite pleased) to ge to the top of Castle Hill and then spent some time exploring, in the light rain unfortunately, the church and some of the old, cobblestoned streets, finding where the shul had been (there's always a place where the shul had been), finishing up our walking with an overpriced but pleasant lunch, where we ordered cold salads didn't have anything objectionable (there wasn't much), which thankfully left room for dessert - a specialty from Erzsi's childhood, which was a pile of soft chestnut puree with mounds of billowing whipped cream - and ice cream for Akiva.

That was they day that we traveled to what felt like Queens for a good piece of strudel. The first day, we had checked out the local indoor market to do our food shopping and came home reasonably happy - nice produce if limited, some decent strudel (especially the dill and cheese) and lovely mushrooms for a soup which we enjoyed for a few days. (We were staying in a great apartment that we found online - John Farrago, lives on the UESide, of Hungarian descent, discovered his love for Budapest some years ago with his wife and bought a set of apartments (they all adjoin each other and can be used individually or shared as needed for the group) which they redid with all the necessary travel comforts - from espresso maker to w/d, to ipod docks, cellphones at the ready for travelers to fill, to comfy mattresss with fluffy comforters and most importantly, good, feather pillows. Anyway, John had recommended an outlying area for truly, excellent strudel and we felt that we were deserving. As well, the public transport system is vast and varied - from subways to trams to busses to electric busses to commuter trains - so it seemed and excellent opportunity to avail ourselves of them.

The question was, how? Thankfully, we still had Erzsi with us but even she wasn’t sure. In short, one buys a booklet of tickets (most people seem to have unlimited passes), then passes the tickets through this machine that eats them in some partial way (no hanging chads), then one walks through until confronted by various, officious looking types who demand to examine your tickets. This, while holding an eager and excited Akiva back, who sees and hears the sounds of subway trains, and who is making noises that while scary to others merely indicate his overwhelming excitement and inability to find the necessary words at that moment. The ticket examiners seemed to be leftovers from the Soviet era, an example of everyone must work and have a job, even unnecessary ones. Other such examples, people ‘khopping and klopping’ wherever we went, old and young, digging up bits of sidewalk that seemed perfectly fine or manning seemingly innocuous entrances to places, just so that they could stop you and ask you questions in Hungarian. We made our way first onto a street tram – very nice, new train cars, longest in Europe at 53 meters – then, a subway train (we took old and new cars, even one train with narrow cars dating from the Soviet period) that reminded me of train cars from the IRT line in the 70’s in NYC and along with much map study and walking, arrived at our destination – a hole in the ground, nearby to some large, industrial looking furniture stores, in a grey and unattractive residential area north of Pest. The strudel store, for all of its size, had an impressive variety of flavors and we put in our order for 2-3 of every flavor and waited while they packed us up. We watched the strudel man rolling strudel, the dough stretched out over a kitchen table to infinitesmial thinness, then filled and rolled up and somehow, transferred to the oven without any mishaps. The strudel was truly impressive – thin dough, light and crisp although not terribly flavorful it had the right texture and feel, sort of the presenter to the fillings, fruity or cheesy or with nuts or some combinations thereof. We made our way back home with our aromatic loot, walking through the streets from Deak Ter, down past Vorszmarty Ter, to Szervita Ter (Ter is square and everything is a square, populated with the shadowy reminder of goosestepping soldiers, often with it’s own statue of sort or some sort of monument to some long forgotten figure or imperial time), to our apartment.

We checked out the flea markets – supposedly, Budapest is the repository of the detritus of the Soviet era – and the one market that Natan, Ira and I visitied (Gabe and Akiva stayed home) really gave you a sense of the marketable and the simply curious. Flotsam and jetsam from the insides of cellphones, bric a brac that could only be considered ugly and not really for resale, old clothes (vintage would not be a reliable term), LP’s of unknown singers, toys – many of them broken and some that looked like they’d been saved from some fast food restaurant kid meal, etc. The sellers themselves were curious – many of them without the normal array of teeth, and there were Gypsy’s as well among the mix and others from places unknown. It was unclear if anyone makes a living at the flea markets but there was a bonhomie typical of such places, people greeting each other, drinking coffee, admiring each others wares.

From there, we went back to the market, for ingredients for our mushroom goulazs for Shabbat dinner. We had heard that the back of the market was home to wild mushrooms, direct from the forest, presided over by the mushroom inspector who makes sure nobody will keel over from eating them. We investigated and found a table with a variety of choices, dark, wrinkly and mysterious looking. We asked for a price – our seller wrote it down on paper – we countered with our own offer (this is recommended when buying mushrooms), she counteroffered and we settled. Mushrooms in hand, we investigated the veggies, finding the ‘bio’ or organic stall, and bought some. Natan said, “let’s see what crone #2 has,” and we did, and she wasn’t such a crone but a sturdy, peasant looking woman of indeterminate years, selling honey and other things related to bees. We bought some honey, in addition to the aforementioned paprikas – regular and hot. We bought yogurt – pointing to the picture of the sheep and a sort of fresh cheese curds, flavored with paprikas (everything has paprikas it seems) and we would have bought milk just to feel like the locals, who arrived with their plastic jugs and soda bottles for refills from the milk can but had no receptacle of our own.

We checked out the Jewish part of town, home to one of the largest synagogues in all of Europe, the Dohanyi St Shul. The building, in a Moorish style, is vast and the sanctuary is quite impressive – darkly colorful and historic, the names of the congregants engraved on little plaques in front of their seats. There is a courtyard in the center, which essentially became a graveyard during WWII and there’s a modest but quite moving monument to the community’s families killed by the Nazis – a weeping willow tree in silver metal, every hanging leaf engraved with the name of a family. Too many family names engraved. We tried to go back for Fri night but couldn’t find where to enter but we did find the way in on Saturday morning and found ourselves in their sizeable chapel (it’s too expensive to heat the main sanctuary during the winter). Seating is separate but no mechitza. There’s an organ and choir and cantor singing, dressed in the old style with black robes and fancy cantorial toque. Nobody seems to sing along but then again, the average age was about 70 with a few younger faces, including the Rabbi who seemed to have ants in his pants the whole time and a few others. Ira and I, in particular, enjoyed the pronounciation – heavy on the ‘Galitzianer’ style, tough on my Ashkenazi ears but a balm to Ira’s senses, as he grew up with ‘kigel’ and ‘Pirim’ and my favorite, ‘Shiiviyis’ for the holiday of Shavuot. Again, nobody was that friendly to us, basically wishing us Gut Shabbes on their way out. We started chatting with an American couple who was also visiting and discovered during the course of their conversation that their daughter lives in Bklyn – at that point the bells went off. ‘What’s your last name?’ ‘Gutman…’ Elissa Gutman, who Jessica used to share an office with in J’lem when they both worked for the Forward and now writes for the NYTimes and goes to Kane Street (not a regular goer) and for those with long memories, is cousin to Hugh who used to run Boerum Hill Food Company, long before Restaurant Saul bought it! It’s a small world. Fortified by that bit of Jewish geography, we shared email addresses and went home for lunch.

We returned to Israel with a sense of satisfaction. Europe is close and within reach (I write this from the Brno, as a matter of fact, in the Czech Republic where I am for a long weekend with Jessica who had a last minute business opportunity and is here writing a story). Flights are not outrageously expensive and at least in Eastern Europe which is not fully ‘Euro’ized’ your dollar goes further (since of course the dollar goes nowhere lately) and you get a real taste of history along with the dumplings, strudel and some very good cups of coffee.

Akiva, for his part, got to go on a plane and that was just fine with him. And he got to revisit all of his favorite traditions with Erzsi – the books they enjoyed reading together, the songs they loved to sing in Hungarian, the hugs and kisses that they shared and the fun that they always had together. Lucky Akiva and lucky us.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Mother the Assassin

Today, I drove my parents from J'lem to Hofit - which is a small, sleepy village between Netanya and Hedera. I've mentioned Hofit before, I think, as Michael (sister Sarah's husband) hails from there and I used to love to visit there - it's a beach village, which when I first found it, abutted K'far Vitkin, one of the oldest moshavim in the country and we'd spend our time visiting the cows that Michael knew, the avocado trees that he'd planted and then, swim at the beach. Now, it's a bit more upscale. That is, mixed in with the old styled bungalow houses are newer, swankier, Israel styled McMansions, that look rather silly but echo the worldwide need to have too many bathrooms to keep clean. Michael's mother, Lillian, who will be 90 in April, still lives in the same, simple house that he grew up in. At the time, it was quite spacious by Israeli standards - just to have a house was a big deal, as most people reared families large and small in apartments and very small apartments at that. Lillian and Moshe, first started out on Kibbutz Kfar Blum, but Lillian hated the Kibbutz and wanted to be near the city and live a different life. Again, keep in mind that they moved here in the late 40's and life in those days was one of deprivation and simplicity. As she always says, they were happy and content with what they had and 'everyone was a Zionist.' Meaning, when people came and made Aliya in the 50's there was no going back to the old country. This was where they wanted to make their lives as Jews and this was where they stayed. Lillian adds that she was 'not a Zionist,' but that she just came along with Moshe. While this is true, life here made a believer out of her, although she's the first to recognize the warts in Israeli life today.

The conversation went in many different directions - who would we vote for today if the US elections were being held. As expected, they don't trust Hillary, partially because she 'stood by her man,' and because she's perceived as being 'wishywashy' on things. Guiliani interests my Mother but she maintains that being Mayor of NY does not prepare you for the office of President. Lillian was curious to hear why I detest our present leadership and what I think could be different with a new leader. Then, we talked about current problems here. Lillian informed us that she had just recently written a letter to the editor of the Jerusalem Post to complain about coverage - you should be so good when you're 90, I thought to myself. Her beef? Too much talk about Anapolis and the usual diplomatic shenanigans when we're entering our 40th day or so of the teachers strike. She, along with my mother, detest Olmert (as do many) and feels the the current government is both corrupt and untrustworthy and absolutely cringes when she see Olmert in photo-ops with Abbas.

My mother reminds Lillian that she wanted to shoot Olmert a few months ago during another politcal discussion. She adds, my mother that is, the instigator, that one doesn't get such heavy sentencing in this country, look at Haim Ramon back in office already and in a few years, Katzav will find a way back in too. 'Lillian,' she adds, 'You're an older lady...if you assassinate him they won't put you in jail for a long time.' Lillian agrees with her. My mother says, 'I'll be your accomplice, we can get through security!' We all laugh at the thought of the Granny assassins but I tell them that they're terrible and misbehaving. My father naps in his chair in the lovely, warm sun that is so nice to us cold Jerusalemites, and when he wakes up will tell him the joke.

As we're leaving, Lillian tells my mother that she's on, but 'you get the gun!'