Warsaw-Istanbul Express

In Budapest’s Katapult Café our waitress has a little ponytail where her bangs should be. At night when she is asleep her head detaches from her body and turns into a horse. Her cheeks come together to form the backside, with her bangs the tail. Her eyes rotate around to the front of the horse to form the chest and the nape of her neck becomes the withers. Her nose stretches out into a crest and head. Her horse-head gallops around the Hungarian countryside and visits the former lovers of her headless sleeping body.

Her ponytail hangs over her forehead like a samurai’s topknot. Her angular features, her strangely low cheekbones, her nose, her chin, jut so far out from her face that her nose and chin arrive at our table a full minute before the rest of her. She quietly pads up and stands blinking silently at us. She gives a little squeak of interrogation. I give a wobbly nod to cover all my bases: yes, we are done. No, we do not need anything else. But yes, we would like to sit for a while. And no, I will not tell anyone what happens to your head at night.

As I meander up the Danube River from the chain bridge to parliament on the Pest side of Budapest, I stumble upon some shoes lining about 20 feet of the river bank. They are a delightful find when I walk up to them, thinking they are real and trying to blink away the absurdity of their presence. Maybe a jolly group of vagabonds decided to take a swim in the river. Or maybe a shoe truck on the adjacent road hit a bump and tipped the cargo over the divider unto the promenade. Or maybe all the residents of Budapest bring their old shoes to the river and leave them there for the shoe fairy, who delivers new shoes to their doorsteps while they sleep. Or maybe the shoes are the former residents of this old city themselves, transformed after their deaths into little monuments to themselves. After all, this is Eastern Europe, I tell myself — this is where the surreal and the real dance the do-si-do and anything is possible.

Close up, waving off the sun’s glare and squinting through the pulverizing heat of a Hungarian summer noon, I see that the shoes are made of iron. They look melted and sad. They are not in my guidebook. Nor are they on the tourist map. I ask around and find that many locals have not heard about them, or haven’t seen them, or do not want to talk about them. The shoes sit there, night and day, as if someone just took them off. And, as I will soon discover, in some sense someone just did.

On the Sofia-Istanbul bus, the first thing they do is drop some sanitizing goo into your hands, a symbolic washing away of Bulgaria’s Eastern Orthodoxy in preparation for Turkish Islam. Actually it is because they come around with tea a minute later. I am grateful for both the tea and the increasing distance between myself and Eastern Europe. The weight of centuries of anti-Semitism is heavy even for an atheist such as myself. But that grime is not one that can be washed off, not with goo, not with lye, not with fucking Drano.

I sit, sprawled across two uncomfortable seats, doubly uncomfortable, and try to write, but I keep thinking about Jan Svankmejer, the Czech surrealist. Unlike magic realism, its tiresome and dishonest cousin that eternally prances around a meadow with a dandelion wreathe in its curly hair, surrealism is dark and brutal. And funny. The modus operandi of magical realism is overly emotional to the point of hysteria. It reads an order into the universe that, despite its beauty and symmetry, and even perhaps because of it, is silly and bland — like Christie Brinkley. And after all of its twists and turns, it doesn’t account for anything and leaves us with simplifications rather than wonder. Most of all I don’t like it because it should be funny, but isn’t.

Dear Jan Svankmejer: Why do we suffer? Because life is suffering. Why then do we laugh? Because the suffering is funny. Is it funny because it cannot be and yet persists in being? Is it funny because it has to be? Because this contradiction mirrors our own contradiction and the unchangeability of the world mirrors our own unchanging, laughing, suffering core? All is dark — dark and funny.

The cobblestone streets of Prague’s Stare Mesto neighborhood are as squishy and sticky as old fruit, plastered with tourists like flies. The smell, too, is that sweet, slightly rank smell of fruit tending toward wine. Everywhere there are people conducting commerce: selling mundane objects disguised as site-specific souvenirs and quick cultural authenticity in small, digestible portions. It is as if freed from the shackles of the Soviet system, all these people really wanted was the liberty to peddle their shit. And there is a sucker born every minute. Everywhere there are people trying to buy something.

The castle looms over us. I look up compulsively and even when I cannot see it, I do — it hovers before my eyes like last night’s whiskey. Everywhere there are puppets: peeking out of shop windows, clutching doors, their painted-on eyes and cynical unwavering smiles watching and judging, lost souls trapped for eternity in wooden smiles. What did they do to deserve this?

The puppets pretend to stare ahead, but they watch us from the corners of their black, shiny eyes. They wink to each other and whisper jokes when we turn away. If we come close enough they reach their little wooden hands into our pockets and pull out coins and hide them in their mouths behind their white wooden teeth. A Don Giovanni puppet picks my pocket while a Mozart puppet distracts me. Even a puppet needs to make a living.... A sucker born every minute.

In 16th-century Prague, probably pretty sick of the ghetto and rumors of more anti-Jewish violence to come, a certain Rabbi Loew invented the golem — a monster to protect the Jews. In response to the stark realities of Jewish life in the ghetto, the golem grew more and more violent and finally started killing gentiles, at which point the emperor asked Rabbi Loew to destroy it in exchange for ending the persecution of the Jews. The Rabbi accepted. Out of the two of them, it was only the Rabbi who kept his word.

We all know the story of Guy Maupassant and how he liked to have his coffee in the Eiffel tower restaurant because that is the only place in Paris from which one cannot see the Eiffel tower. (A similar observation has been made about Prague’s castle.) Eiffel’s tower has become the most reproduced image in the souvenir industry, but in Prague, it isn’t the castle’s towers that get the attention. The culture of souvenirs here is almost unilaterally slanted toward the marketing of Prague’s imaginary Jews. The small area that contains the old Jewish synagogues and cemeteries inside the Jewish quarter is an official “site,” with a hefty $35 entrance fee. Stories of the Golem can be found, along with various other beautiful gift editions of Jewish fairy tales, in most every shop in Prague.

As you walk the windy streets of Prague, their cursive to Chicago’s print, everywhere there are posters and postcards and books about and by Franz Kafka, probably Prague’s most famous Jew (after the golem, of course). There are Kafka cafés, Kafka hotels, and probably, somewhere in this beautiful city, Kafka toilet paper. It is simply not possible to walk two steps without some version of Kafka staring out at you, his thin, pained stare in all dimensions: on paper, in plastic, carved of wood, silk-screened on cloth, and in the black-beaded eyes of dolls.

In the Kafka museum the walls breathe and his eyes stare out from behind translucent black curtains. The maze of exhibits leads you in circles; as you round each corner you catch a glimpse of someone else’s shoes disappearing just ahead of you. Sounds, footfalls, the creak of the floor, the ringing of phones are dislodged and hang suspended in the air. As you pass they pop as silently as soap bubbles. It is an assault on indifference. And his eyes, always his eyes, shatter you like that pick-ax that he said literature should be, to break the sea frozen within us.

Like Prague, Krakow is also in love with its imaginary Jews. The Jewish quarter is becoming “very posh,” one local explains. Young people want to hang out there in bars, and Krakovian yuppies are buying up and restoring property there. All is well. And the old synagogue is there too, she points out. I snap my fingers and the synagogue disappears. In its place is a Mozart puppet holding a sign that reads: gone, gone, gone. And it is true.

We didn’t go to the synagogue. We didn’t go to the museum. And we didn’t go back to the Jewish quarter to any of the “posh” cafes the woman recommended. In fact, we never went back to those streets filled with bars that had fake 1930s store names on their signs, done up to look the way it looked before. “Aron Weinberg — General Store.” “Stanislaw Nowak — Shoemaker.” And behind those signs? Fucking Disneyland.

Instead we wander the small back streets and wide boulevards of Krakow. The outdoor lifestyle here is quiet and slow. Boys and girls sit on park benches together, holding hands and exchanging flowers. Families stroll in the park and picnic on the grass. Everywhere there is music and food. Dogs walk obediently beside their owners. The whole city looks like a movie set filmed through a Vaseline-smeared lens — there is a strange, opaque light that envelopes this place. It is the light of hyper-reality, of a story too perfect to be real, a reproduction that conveys history too well, and therefore not well enough.

In Krakow’s dimly lit Massolit bookstore, the plinking of a jazz tunes sounds familiar, sounds, in fact, like an Echo and the Bunnymen song (maybe because I need it to be). The ultimate irony, the irony of biblical proportions, weighs heavy here: Kafka, the Golem, the Jewish quarters of Eastern Europe, have all become money-making machines for the tourist industry — amazing considering the stereotypes of Jews as mercantile and miserly. And now there are no Jews, only the myth of Jews. And who is peddling it like some garbage on the streets? Who is benefiting? Who is being miserly? Who greedy and mercantile? And Echo sings: “To all this scoundrel scheme of things / To all the pain it brings / To all those who pull the strings / I said good riddance / The normal rules do not apply / And mine is not to reason why / Gone, gone, gone.

Bus: The best part of any journey is leaving. Irrefutable proof that you are not imprisoned, that you can leave. The Jew in me talking? I never think of myself as a tourist, but I am allowing for the possibility that I am not a traveler at heart either. To be a tourist means to take nothing to heart, to skip from superficiality to superficiality as you take photos of yourself in front of the Eiffel tower and the Great Wall of China and hugging some statue to fallen soldiers. To be a tourist is to be all ego, and a pretty lazy one at that.

But to be a traveler means to be in quite a different realm of superficiality. You travel for a different purpose than photographs and souvenirs, and you may even let the things you see effect you. Perhaps none of the pictures you take will be of yourself. Perhaps they will be well-framed and proportioned. Perhaps they will be of truly interesting things and will speak to something. Travelers are aware of how they affect the ground beneath their feet. They travel for pleasure: the pleasure of moving, of discovery, of knowledge.

My travels are somewhat masochistic. The minute I arrive somewhere I am tired and want to go home. Within a maximum of 24 hours I will develop some strange local flu or pull a muscle. Bugs throw me into a panic. Lack of coffee makes me cranky. People piss me off. I have no respect for anyone’s culture or religion because respect is pointless. Nor do I care too much what their explanations are for their stupidity. Women who wear high heels in the most casual of circumstances are annoying. Men who keep their sisters at home and then try to shake my hand elicit nothing but disgust from me. And teenagers who feign contempt for the U.S. and then don Gap and American Eagle shirts make me want to punch them in the face. I have no patience for this. And I keep doing it. 

In Sofia I return from walking the grounds of the Russian church to find a couple of old Russian women asking Slava who the serving priest is in our community’s Eastern Orthodox church. He doesn’t know. I do. I tell them it is Father Ollippi. Slava stares at me, obviously trying to figure out if I am joking. The older and (from the look of suffering) obviously more pious of the two seems exceedingly satisfied with my knowledge of this very important fact. “You need to come back into the fold, children,” she says. Slava later said that he thought of an old family story of his. His mother, an ethnic Tatar married to an ethnic Jew, was told by an old Russian lady how much she liked her, and in fact how much she liked all people, and in fact that the only people she did not like were those awful Tatars and Jews. Apparently neither Slava’s Russian nor, more surprisingly, mine gave away that we have not been there in a very long time and that consequently, we are very likely not of her fold.

I count to ten, by which point I am sure I will hear the J word. She prattles on about how bad immigration is and that we would desperately regret ever leaving mother Russia, and that we are like trees without roots. The woman fades from view. Kafka once wrote about the mysterious double illusion of trees growing out of the snow. They seem to be simply standing upon it, but in actuality they are rooted in the ground. And then, in a purely Zen Buddhist move, Kafka points out that their rootedness too is an illusion.My eyes are glazing over. “What fucking fold?” I want to scream.

But Slava, with the characteristic presence of mind he shows in even the most absurd of situations, says, “One must understand that that is how our whole country is.” “Russia?” the pious one asks, obviously not following, not capable of following, the way that Russians seem not to understand why a group of people who have been oppressed and abused for centuries would want to leave to give their kids a chance for something better.

“No, America,” Slava continues. “We are all rootless — that existence is what the country is based on.”

The pious one continues about the deep nostalgia that she feels for Russia. It is important to be in the right place, now, at the end of times she says. As if I would want to be within a thousand million miles of her silly pious ass at the end of times.

Her daughter wanted to leave and go work in Israel, but the mother said, “What are you going to do there, over there with the Judeans?” She spits the word Judeans out as if it were a mosquito that has flown into her mouth. She does not see the obvious irony, that her daughter has an opportunity to work in this land of Judeans only because she can pass for one of them. I just stare at her ignorant and hateful zealot’s face.

Is it such a bad thing to be an anti-Semite? Is it as bad as cheating on your spouse or beating your children or not keeping your word or telling on your neighbors? Even as a Jew, I have always been more personally offended by the latter. But then I have never lived in Eastern Europe.

On the other side of town, in front of Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, men sell relics of WWII: Russian medals and German swastika flasks. It is a strange symbolism to reduce to meaningless rubbish at a flea market. Maybe this is a continuation of Bulgaria’s general cool indifference to the true implications of their decisions during the second World War, their survivalist strategy. My fingers itch to pick up the flask — despite regular doses of concentration camp movies and documentaries, I have never seen anything real with a swastika on it. But I didn’t go to Auschwitz near Krakow and I didn’t walk into Rabbi Loew’s synagogue in Prague. So I will not go here either. I leave the surprisingly shiny flasks where they are.

We sit in a Budapest café waiting out the worst of the noon heat — it has been close to 100ºF here every day. We are soaked with sweat within minutes of leaving our room, but we walk anyway. We always walk. You feel the distance better that way, and the rhythm of the traffic as the trolleys whiz by you. And at the end of the day, when you climb to the highest point in the city and can recognize all of the streets and buildings below you, the sweat is worth it.

There is a pigeon watching us from a gargoyle. He flies down and limps over. He grows legs, one shorter than the other, and clambers with his human legs and pigeon body unto the chair next to us. Ahem, he says. Ahem, we answer back. He squawks, and our legs disappear and we sprout wings from our eyes. Now we are blind, but we can fly. The pigeon plucks our wings out. Now he has six. He flaps them and creates a wind that howls Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. We applaud. The pigeon scrapes his wings along the ground and tears gashes into the sidewalk. We fall through the holes and land on chairs in a café below a gargoyle with a pigeon on it.

The great synagogue in Budapest is the largest one in Europe and the second largest in the world. They search your bags before they let you onto the premises of this 3,000-seat temple. There are no pictures, no icons, no bloody scenes. There are no crucifixions. Maybe there is even no God, but that is fine. As our friend Harry says, there is still chicken soup. Well, not right there. But the absence of God does not preclude the possibility of chicken soup.

All is wood and light. There is some Hebrew, which looks close enough to Arabic that I could almost read it, but can’t. And for once it is good to be there, here, and to be me in this place. The sunlight filters through the stained glass and tattoos the Hebrew that I can’t read unto my skin. The Hebrew letters melt like wax into my notepad. Ahem, hello, they say. Hello, I mumble. The wax shapes itself into a smile. What are you grinning at, I ask. The wax turns into a pigeon and slaps me on the face as it flies by. Sitting there, I feel comfortable for the first time in two weeks. Sitting in the temple of a mean SOB God, all I can think about is chicken soup. I am not religious. I am tired.

Budapest’s Terror Museum picks up the timeline before WWII but ignores the German occupation, focusing instead on the terror of Soviet imposed communism — the oppression, the torture, the lack of self-determination experienced by a people used to Western-style democracy. The museum ushers are dressed as officers and foreboding music plays in the background. Each room is different and holds new and terrifying surprises. There are phones installed on walls that visitors can pick up to hear news broadcasts of the time; choose-your-own-adventure phones and black curtain surveillance cameras installed in ceilings and walls; secret doors accidentally left open; and visible, foreboding doors that are locked. Rooms with file cabinets floor to ceiling and rooms made to look like secret police offices.

The stairway winds down through an atrium at the bottom of which, standing in a foot of muddy water that runs over the sides of the enclosure, is a Soviet tank. The exhibit starts on the top floor, and every time you go down the stairs you see it, coming closer and closer. The walls of the atrium are lined with embossed pictures of victims. While you see each room only once, the faces of the victims and the approaching Soviet tank re-appear over and over again.

As voices and sounds and images float around you, unattached to a point of origin, you find yourself, like Dorothy, in a story — on the living set of a movie about the secret police in WWII-era Budapest. You start to see in black and white, opening each door with an excited bulge in your throat. You see the people around you as potential accomplices in this intrigue. You hear the beating of your own heart as it is entwined in the soundtrack and echoed in the footsteps of the other visitors (spies?). You start to suspect and hope that there is more here: more doors, more cameras, more plot. And you look for it. You start trying closed doors multiple times. You feel held, embraced by the plot of your own movie. You think: This terror couldn’t have been so bad.

History is told in leaflets whose fonts call to mind, not accidentally, samizdats (government-suppressed literature of the period). The Soviet tank hovers in the corner of everyone’s eyes, and behind it the faces of the victims, stylized to the point that they all look the same — not individual victims of a totalitarian system, but ”victims” the way that a kind of evil Andy Warhol might have seen them, reproduced a million times. Suffering. Suffering. Suffering. Suffering on a can of soup. Maybe suffering because there is no soup. 

There is an attempt to make this terror visceral, but all it is, is fun. And sad. Because whoever thinks that communism, one of mankind’s greatest and bloodiest failures, could be symbolized, explained, understood through the symbol of a Russian tank is missing the fucking point not just about communism but about everything around and beneath it. Those are the people that forget that Hungary, for example, had a pre-Soviet communist party. Those are the ones that generations later, in Poland, cannot forgive blameless generations of Russians for occupying their peoples’ land but have long since forgiven the Germans the evils they perpetrated against Poland’s Jews. Another of many historical ironies here: Germany takes inherited guilt to an unnecessary extreme, going so far as to place it above even freedom of speech, while others whose histories are just as guilty — at least with respect to the populations of Jews that they gave up, betrayed, and sometimes murdered, with no encouragement from the Nazis — are so entranced and elated by their newly found free commerce, so relieved that things are finally going their way, that they manage to ignore their debt to history altogether.

I sit at a café across from Budapest’s great synagogue drinking an iced coffee and lamenting the fact that this darn thing is so surrounded by trees that getting a good picture for my parents is damn near impossible. I don’t hear any English or Italian or Spanish being spoken. Mostly locals, puffing away. I inhale deeply, enjoying the guiltless second-hand smoke, and dip my nose in my whip cream. My nose is happy. I am happy. Around me the pony-tailed Hungarian men talk in low, somber tones, but you can see smiles in their eyes. They are not as grumpy as they look, nor as serious as their well-trimmed facial hair.

My nose is sick of the pauses between one sip of coffee and the next so it leaps off my face and lands square in the whip cream, splattering some on my neighbors. I smile at them sheepishly, apologetically, noselessly. In the whip cream my nose crinkles. Shit! You have no patience, I think at my nose, and drink my coffee, swallowing the whip cream and my nose all in one gulp. I could use a different one anyway, maybe one that is a bit more Jewish.

I am jet-lagged, waking up at 5:00 in the morning out of nightmares of goulash and blinis. I get an email: “Hungarians have some problems with historical memory,” it says — an unlikely correspondence with a young Budapestian. I asked him about the shoes. He warns me that I will not like the story. Close to the end of WWII, he explains, Hungarian Nazis sped up the deportation of Jews by simply shooting them into the river. When the question of blame for the Holocaust arises, everyone blames the Germans, he continues, but there are some dark stories. I am stunned and, for the first time in weeks, I feel the knot in my stomach relax a bit. I think this at him as hard as I can because I have no words to explain it in an email.

I know some of those stories, but to me the darkest of all is their place in history. There is something gone, gone, gone from there, those countries, that region. It is dead and relegated to the imagination. And that is the way everyone likes it. On our last day in Prague it rains and I stand on the corner trying to get a shot of a rainbow. A man walks up to us. “I always have camera, but today I don’t. It is...” He stops, puzzled. “Shameful?” he asks. I stand still, struck by what he has just said. Slava gently corrects him. “It’s a shame… Or we say it is too bad.” “Yes,” the man says, patting Slava on the back, “it is a shame.” We all stand looking up at the rainbow for a moment longer. And then we leave.

Afterword

I hear a voice singing in Arabic that God is great. My hands come up to rub my eyes and I stop them in midair. I am afraid to find out that I am not in Istanbul, that while I slept, I was mysteriously transported back to Eastern Europe. On the rooftop breakfast terrace I can see the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara in front of me and the Blue Mosque behind me. I dip my baguette in honey and breathe in the smell of smoke and tea and morning that I love so much about this place. Slava and I take turns staring over each others shoulders, struck alternately by the beauty of that which is made by men for God on one side and that which is made by God for men on the other.

I have been here before, have seen the same views and have eaten the same breakfast. I have heard so many times the layered adhans calling the faithful to prayer, telling us, all of us, that God is like a lamp standing in a niche illuminating the darkness. I put my pen and pad away — this is another story, a quieter one for later, lest I get the two of them confused.

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