October 22, 2016
I had a Hungarian bucket list for this visit.
1. Turkish Bath
I wanted to go to a genuine Turkish bath. I was hoping that the shwitz would help me with my cold. I also wanted to cleanse myself and be pure for the celebration.
Z and I went to the Király Thermal Baths on Fö utza (MainSt.) just on the Buda side of the Danube. It was 500 hundred years old. And looked it. It was not where the tourist went. The tourists tended to go to the more modern, posh ones near Geller Mountain. This was where the locals went. The outside of this two-storey stucco plaster-peeling, Hapsburg-looking building was half below road level. Soon as we entered, I could smell the difference between the outside, fresh, crisp October air and the Bath’s sulphur steamy air. Walking into the central cupola roofed bath area was like (so I thought) walking into the 500-year-old past of the Ottoman Empire. The room was dark with just enough light to let you see where you were. The mosaic floor changed into a pool with mosaic steps. The water looked like it might have been also five centuries old. The water was, according to the sign, 30 Celsius. Men and women sat on the stairs, in a circle, submerged to their necks, their sweaty faces gleaming like pearls. I joined the string. There was hardly any talking. The occasional word sounded like droplets of water into the pool. I let out a sigh, took a deep breath and looked up. The roof had small sky windows through which light shone. It looked like you were seeing stars. Each hole had a sweat stain tearing down. It was almost awesome. For some reason it wasn’t totally awesome. I was hoping for a sultanic, shimmering, blue, mosaic ceiling. This was the proletariat Turkish bath.
After soaking a while, I walked into the sauna part. Boy, was it sauna, camphor- scented steamy hot. The haze was mirage thick. Everyone looked like flesh-pink ghosts. They could have been the 500-year-old invading Turks sweating out the battle of the day; one of the many invaders of Hungary, who have taken a bite out of it. The phrase 'Hungary, something is eating you' came back to me.
Breathing was a conscious act. My pores felt metres wide. The camphor steam entered through my mouth, nose, ears, eyes and skin. Buckets of steam poured off me. I could only take ten or so minutes at a time. I could only deal with it by leaving and coming back. The veterans sat stoically becoming one with the steam.
There were faucets for drinking in the 30-Celsius area. It was lukewarm and smelled. I looked up and saw a sign that said “mal water.” I mentioned it to Z and said I thought that it was French for bad water. He pointed out to me the rest of the faded sign. It said “Thermal Water.” He told me that people drank it because thermal water was supposed to be good for the organs. It tasted like rotten eggs.
This darkened bath reminded me of the hot spring caves around Argenta, B.C. except those were totally dark. Those were used by the First Nations people to cleanse and heal. I guess early humans saw the connection between bloody battles, spring baths and cleansing. I certainly felt better. I’m pretty sure that the cleansing and healing helped me to deal with the loss of my cell phone.
2. Matyas Pince
After the Turkish bath, we hooked up with A and went to Matyas Pince (Matyas’s Cellar). It’s a famous Hungarian restaurant on the Pest side, near Elisabeth Bridge. Budapest is a city of bridges. There are about ten bridges (not counting rail or other specialized bridges) connecting Buda and Pest. Buda is where the rich and powerful went to hide against plagues and invaders. It’s now the place where the better off and the nouveau riche hide from the homeless. In that way, Buda is like every city of the rich. Better the defendable high ground than the moral high ground.
I wanted to go to Mátyás Pince because I’ve heard a lot about it. The front is nothing special as far as European-old architecture goes. According to its web page, the building that houses Mátyás Pince was built by the Dreher Brewery, so it made sense that the ground floor house a beer place. It was named after King Mathias, who, if he was a true Hungarian, probably loved his beer. It opened in 1904 and didn’t shut until WWII (my presumption). It reopened in 1947 on the day of Budapest’s first beer festival and competition. Matyas Pince took first place selling 3,050 litres of beer on that day.It was nationalized by the communist government in 1949. I had heard that in those good old communists days, it was THE place for high-level comrades and their mistresses to wine (and beer) and dine; drink Bull’s Blood and consume hearty goulash and knocki (first “k” in knocki is silent). I imagined a wine cellar-like place. Mátyás Pince – now – is not really in a cellar. It may never have been. It was only a few steps down. It was huge. It could seat and feed hundreds. Immaculate white linen table cloths, covered solid-legged tables, pyramid-shaped linen napkins rose from white china dishes, heavy weight silverware gleamed beneath arched and stain-glassed ceiling awaiting beautifully bejewelled ladies and tuxedoed gentlemen. Z in a zippered jacket, I in jeans and a hoodie and A, the only one with any class, in her mauve sweater, light grey vest and delicate necklace with a single pearl were the only ones there. When they saw us, the four-piece Gypsy orchestra, in traditional Hussar like vests, immediately started to play a traditional gypsy song. I asked my friends if the “Gypsy problem” still existed? Yes, they answered. Z told me it was a complex problem that involved reality and perception. He spoke of some who were good hard-working people and those who, due to their nature, were devious and dishonest. Sounded like all groups of people to me. A told me that there were systemic roadblocks placed in their way: poorer schools, poorer social services, lack of political leadership and policies decided for them not by them. Sounded like our own First People’s “problems.” Except the Roma had no legal land claim advantages, or any other leverage points. We sat and listened. Z explained the Gypsy had a class system. The musicians were at the top of it. I don’t know if this hierarchy is of their making or imposed. I forgot to ask. I asked the musicians for permission to take their pictures. The leader, the violinist Istvan Lakatos, told me that he had a cousin by the same name who was an excellent Gypsy musician and owned a restaurant in Montreal. Holy coincidences! I knew Montreal Istvan. I had eaten in his restaurant a number of times. So fine— both the food and the music. I actually had had the CBC radio show that interviewed me before I left for my book tour play a cut from his CD. Quick Csardas. I was scheduled to be on the same show upon my return to talk about my visit there. I bought Budapest Istvan’s CD so that CBC could play a cut to bookend my tour. Nice coincidence. Nice image. Sometimes nice things happen.