Kaposvar, Yugoslavia, lumberjacks, Croatia, Kingdom of Serbs, Tisza River, forints, policemen & Keminsky Kovrin.
If I stayed in the same place, and lived long enough in the Balkans, I would visit several countries. I heard a man, who was ninety, claim that he had been to eight different countries without ever traveling more than forty kilometers from his hometown. The countries changed and came to him. I think he counted Hungary and Austria, and then the German invasion as living in Germany, the Italian invasion as living in Italy, and then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, two Yugoslavias, and then Croatia. His travelogue of going nowhere and yet being in eight countries would be fascinating and stirringly deep, no doubt. Instead, you are stuck with my more conventional travelogue of restlessness and superficiality.
As a kid, I yearned to go far, to Tierra del Fuego or New York. Hungary interested me the least since it was the closest, only forty miles north of my hometown, Daruvar, which itself was part of Hungary for eight hundred years before World War I. If World War I had played out differently, I would have been born a Hungarian of mixed roots, typical for the Danubian region—Croatian, Slovenian, Czech and, I am afraid, Hungarian. Daruvar means “stork-town” in Hungarian.
Anyway, I heard that my grandparents used to speak Hungarian at home. My great-grandfather died as a lumberjack near Pecs when my grandfather was only three years old. A tree crushed him. Should that count as Hungarian roots? And I was born during the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising. The thing that intrigued me about Hungary, though, was the Soviet enigmatic and anti-charismatic presence. I had visited close to the Hungarian border, as my brother worked as a doctor only ten miles away from it. The closer you got to the border, the more boring it became—the houses were more neglected, mortar more decomposed, there were more geese in the streets, the peasants looked gloomier and fatter. It would only get worse if I went farther north, I was sure of that.
When I got back from the States, at the age of twenty-two, the first thing I did, before visiting Yugoslavia, was to go to Hungary from Vienna. I realized HU was a great country and rebuked myself for not visiting it when I first went abroad. Instead, I had gone to Italy, when I was fifteen, to Trieste, where my eyes became bloodshot from car exhausts and greed. In Budapest, while looking for a place to stay, I got into a conversation with a bunch of students who invited me to play ping-pong at their dorm. A Chinese engineer won and I came in second. Then we went out, listened to gypsy music in a suburban tavern and bought wine using my money. In the morning, recalling little of the night, I was back at the train station, and my wallet, passport, everything was still sticking to my ass.
From Budapest south, the train got stuck in deep snow, and the car got progressively colder. While conversing with several people in my compartment, a girl invited me to go home with her. She said it was only two kilometers away, and that we would be very comfortable in her bedroom. She was remarkably beautiful, blonde and curly haired. I said that sounded good. We trudged through the whipping snow and got to a house in a small town near Pecs. She prepared me hot red tea, gave me a glass of Tokay and opened a jar of black caviar from Russia. Her English was poor. She said that men grew wild when they ate caviar, but to make sure I wouldn’t grow wild, she would go to her part of the house. I realized her initial communication was merely a standard masterpiece of bad English; she had no intentions. She locked, with a large key, the glass door separating the house into two parts, undressed nonchalantly so I could see what I was missing (maybe that was intentional) and disappeared behind a huge door. I finished the jar of caviar and the bottle of Tokay and slept in a tall bed with my clothes on. In the morning, my hostess walked me to the train station, where we exchanged addresses. She said to write, and I said I would. But I never did. Nevertheless, my first impression of Hungary was good.
I ‘ve visited many times since, usually in transit. In 1983 I stayed for two months in the annex of a neglected synagogue, Garay utsa 48, in an apartment filled with books written in Hebrew. I spent my time trying to write on big slabs of raw paper made in a shop below, exploring the city, playing chess with old men in the hot baths and eating goulash in dives. My typewriter broke, and I gave it to an East German mathematician in exchange for his inviting me to stay with him in Berlin for two weeks. I wrote both about Budapest and Berlin some measly twenty pages, but I already told you about that, so I won’t linger…
I almost got into a relationship in Budapest, meeting a girl in the British library. I needed a good dentist, I told her. Obviously, I had no intentions with her, but I just told her the truth. She said she knew one. She led me to a dental office and waited for me while the butcher dug into my jaw. Anyhow, my tooth did not hurt after it. And Csilla was flirty, a brunette with curly hair and large swinging breasts. She had a spark in her eyes, and bright white teeth. Her father had been a diplomat. Later she visited me in Zagreb, but wouldn’t sleep with me. She slid the sheets under my body and over her body so we were sheet-separated, and that is how we slept. When we were on the bus, she asked me to show her my teeth. She said, I am not going to marry you. You have had cavities and that is dangerous for the heart. I said, That is good news. I don’t want to get married. Five years later, when I was in Austin, Texas, she gave me a call and said, I am getting married in three days. Do you have anything to say? I said, I have nothing to say. And she said, That is sad. Later, I thought, She still wanted us to get married? What sense did that make?
Out of curiosity, in 2006, twenty-three years after our teeth conversations, I visited her in Kaposvar. She lived in a large house with splendid black beams. Maybe one of these fell on my great-grandfather, contributing to my family being relatively weird. Her husband was on a trip and her daughters were there. She cooked beans, bacon, onion and pasta. It tasted good, but I wondered why one would eat that; on my own, at home, I wouldn’t eat poison like that.
You look good, she said. I visited Croatia, and so many people there were tall and healthy looking… You know, I have heart palpitations, there’s something wrong with my heart.
I didn’t say anything. Of course, if you eat bacon and spend your early twenties not fucking, you will have heart problems. She also told me she was more Croatian than I was; two of her grandparents were from there. I said, Oh, now it makes sense. I never got along with Croatian women. I don’t know anybody who did.
Most of my post-1983 trips to Hungary were in transit on the way to Croatia or St. Petersburg, as there were no direct flights to Zagreb, and hardly any to St. Petersbug, from New York. Usually during changeovers in London, Frankfurt and Budapest, there was too much time, and I joined—too early—the people waiting at the gates, who seemed to wilt from boredom. Not that they ever looked like flowers in bloom, but they still managed to wilt. Short layovers are a great solution to hectic and boring travel. I arrived in Budapest from New York at eight in the morning in 2002. Too much time to wait, and just enough time to go to the city and sightsee.
I took a minibus to the city, and it took me to a five-star hotel that I named Keminsky Kovrin because it was the most central. There, a concierge opened the door for me and I walked north along the river to the parliament. As a child I collected postcards, and this building always looked most splendid to me, with so much detail, devils under the roof, no doubt, quite baroque and grand. I had had five postcards picturing the Hungarian parliament. That is the thing about Budapest, since it was the center of an empire that included many peoples, and in size it was almost as large as France. I gazed up across the river to the Fish Castle. There was a palace and a castle and a cathedral of Saint Stephen, but the skyline was wrinkled by the Hilton hotel built on the old ruins. No matter how subtly it was done, it was a new structure. Now that was a true empire: Pax Americana hoteliering, with air conditioning and ample showerheads to chlorinate you.
I used to take the Budapest subway for two forints a ride in 1983. Now, twenty years later, I got a ticket, which was 106 forints. I wondered, why 106? Why not 100? Or 120? I didn’t notice that there were machines where you could get your card stamped. I passed by a policeman, who was staring at my pocket. Perhaps he thought my wallet was strikingly fat. The subway station looked just like a Moscow peripheral metro station, except this one was central. A controller standing at the bottom of the stairs looked—I thought she would welcome me.
Which way to Deak Ter? I asked, though I knew.
Show ticket, she said.
I showed her the pale strip of paper. I thought maybe she would puncture it. She called over a policeman and demanded that I pay a fine, 1,600 forints. Not much money, but much principle.
No, I didn’t know where you cancel the ticket, I said.
You must pay the fine, sir, she said.
Your passport, said the policeman, standing unsteadily on the big slabs of cement.
I showed him the passport. When he saw it was American, he said, 1600 forints, mister. Standard fine.
Both of them insisted in horrifying English, and I replied in German, You should help foreigners who get confused if you want tourism, rather than practice your old socialist tricks. All the signs were only in Hungarian. I decided to walk away and tore the ticket and put it in my pocket.
I went up the escalator and passed by another policeman upstairs. He did not react. In Russia, I got used to slotting tokens at the turnstile. In New York, I slid the ticket at the turnstile.
They could have insisted more vigorously that I pay the fine, and, of course, I would have paid it. Or they could have arrested me, which would have made for a better story. But I was glad that I didn’t get a better story from the encounter and that I would not be going to Deak Ter, but would roam in the streets, looking for good coffee.
Each trip to Hungary contained some strange experience.
I flew to Hungary for my mother’s funeral, in November 2006. The fare to Zagreb on short notice was going to be two thousand bucks, but Budapest was only $650. I went to the Alamo counter at the BP airport, but next to the counter, a Hungarian car rental representative said, You are better off renting with us. We’ll give you a ride, we are only a kilometer away from the airport and our prices are low: thirty euros a day, including insurance.
Fine, I said, and went with the man to a car rental place, which was some ten kilometers away. To rent a Skoda, the host said, he’d have to run my credit card. He gave me the papers, and at first I thought that I had paid a $2,000 USD deposit, in forints, but then, when I reckoned more carefully, once I was on the road, I realized that I had put down $20,000. That made me nervous. What if the car got stolen? I’d never get that money back. And how would I find the rental place when I came back? Was the address written anywhere? What if it turned out that they just sold cars that way? You think you are renting, and then you end up with a car, paying twice as much as it’s worth?
P erhaps I would have the same experience as I did with my publisher in Russia, Amphora. The editor offered me two thousand dollars for the rights to my Fiction Writer’s Workshop. I said, Wonderful. Can we sign now? He said, Lusche—next week. Then I will have the money and we will have written the contract with all the necessary clauses. A week later, when I came, along Chernoia Ryechka, the building was locked. There was no activity there. A guard showed up and I asked him whether Vadim was in.
No, he said. He is gone.
When is he coming back?
But we had an appointment!
The company moved to a new building.
Where is the building? Do you have the address?
They are not there yet. They will continue with business in May.
When I got together with the publisher’s assistant, she told me that he wouldn’t buy my book anyway, that they suddenly decided to change direction, that there were too many bad writers in the world, and that a book like mine was dangerous because it would encourage more bad writers to send books, and that the best thing for them now was just to publish tested books, international best sellers and Nobel Prize winners. That’s how I lost 2k—or at least didn’t get the 2k.
And what would happen now? What the fuck do I do with this car? Normally, I would have turned right back, but I didn’t want to miss my mother’s funeral. How could I? What is more important in a life than burying a mother? I was tired. The sun was terribly bright, and the traffic jam around Budapest was as bad as the approach to George Washington Bridge during rush hour. I don’t remember whether I had slept on the plane. I probably didn’t. Anyway, nothing seemed to matter. Burying my mother preoccupied my thoughts, but the discomfort of having a strange car rental kept resurfacing in my mind. Maybe it was a good distraction from grief. I drove next to the river Tisza, and it looked amazingly calm, green, and the sky was hazily blue. I was tempted to feel free and elated. I would no longer need to keep visiting Croatia, as I had no mother. I would no longer have to keep visiting Hungary, as the transit to Croatia had lost meaning. And the river view was amazingly calming, with barges, of course, barges. What the hell did they transport? Cabbage?
In Duna, a town on the Tisza River, I went to a gas station restaurant. I parked the car in the lot, using the automatic lock, and walked in. I bought a double shot of cappuccino. It was bitter, so I put in some sugar. Why do Central Europeans save on coffee and serve the cheapest, oldest, raunchiest mud? I looked to the other side of the room, and there stood an amazingly statuesque brunette with blue eyes. She was wearing low-cut jeans with pubic hair overflowing and had a flat sunburnt stomach, thin nose, full lips and graceful hands with long fingers, which she kept moving like a pianist. Why am I noticing this? Aren’t I grieving? I better not look at her, it’s immoral. Not that I had any impure thoughts—I was merely struck by the sight of a beautiful woman. When she laughed, her lips revealed terrible dark teeth, some of them obviously rotten. Or were they merely smudged by coffee-mud? No, definitely rotten.
In the States, you’d hardly ever see such a stunning woman, and if you did, she wouldn’t have rotten teeth. I was puzzled by the paradox. What else do I need? Water, of course, water. I bought a plastic bottle and, making sure not to look at the rotten beauty, whose melodic voice floated after me, I walked out. My car wasn’t where I left it. I looked around. No grey Skoda. What the hell? Somebody already stole it? Did I lock the door? I talked to a gas attendant. He didn’t understand English. He understood a little German.
What is the car license plate?
I have no idea, I said.
What is the rental company?
I completely forgot. It was a strange name, written on a paper in the car. I had a car key, but it had no information, no alarm button. I talked to another gas attendant. I was frantic. They didn’t share my excitement. One of them smoked and looked bored. Probably it happened at their gas station often. Or at any rate, it was nothing unusual in Hungary. Cars changed owners.
Are there police around here? I asked.
Luckily, my wallet and passport were on me. The rest was nothing. It’s only money. It’s only $20,000, why fret? My mother is dead. Of course, I wouldn’t inherit any money; she was broke. I would need to pay $2,000 to share funeral expenses with my older brother. The hell with money. When you lose, you might just lose as much as you can, and start anew. How will I go to Croatia now?
I walked around the gas station. There was a gray Skoda, much closer to the restaurant than mine—in fact, right outside of it. It looked just like the one I had rented. But this one was a little bigger, and the metal wasn’t as new and shiny. I came up to it and looked inside. My black jacket, which I bought for the funeral, was inside. I took out the key and it clicked the doors open. I sat inside and felt a moment of joy and relief. Shit, am I losing it that badly? What got me? Sleeplessness? Now I drove south and I sped. I didn’t care if I got a ticket. So what, I have the car, and what if I have to pay a fine. I could pay one hundred or two hundred, what difference did it make? But what, if in my state of zombiehood, I cause a car crash? I could run over a drunk, kill a dog…
Crossing the border was no problem. The trees in early November were colorful, a bit like New England, without the maple red. Rusty red and brown from oaks, yellow from beeches, lots of green from ash, but no red. OK, I will not describe getting into my hometown, nor the family gathering, the funeral, etc.; I have written an essay about that, much more essential than this one. Instead, I will skip to my trip back.
I found the car place easily and returned the car. They credited back the $20,000, and ran the card again so I would pay 210 euros, the weekly rate. They walked around the car, complained about a scratch, but then waved and went back to their kiosk. Their assistant gave me a ride to the airport, and there I got a cab to the center of the city, where I rented a hotel room. It was near the old Fish Castle. I walked down to the other side of the Danube to Pest and listened to some gypsy music in a nearly desolate restaurant. The violinist came to me and played for me. Of course, I tipped him and that encouraged him, so he played more and wanted to sell me his CDs. His hair was oiled and you could see where he’d run a comb through it.
I walked in the streets. I had emailed Tibor Fischer, my writer friend, who is usually in Budapest when I visit London, and now he was in London, so there was nobody for me to visit. Strange—I had spent so much time in Budapest, but that was before the Internet, and I’d lost touch. The few people I could still see lived in different towns. No matter. I was decompressing from the funeral, and my feet, now in sneakers, enjoyed walking after being stuck in stiff black shoes.
I walked on cobbles. There were prostitutes in the streets. Not such a wonderful invention, sex for money. One, plump, in a miniskirt that was way too short, came up to me and asked, Would you like to buy sex?
No, I said.
It’s only 150 euros.
That’s not only, I replied.
I spend two hours with you.
I continued down the street and another one, a tall brunette with rotten teeth but not as good-looking as the one from the gas station, came up and asked, Would you like a sex massage?
No, I said. Then I asked, out of curiosity, How much?
Eighty euros, she replied.
Well, that much I had, but I still said no. What kind of behavior would that be, coming from your mother’s funeral? I kept walking, wondering whether there was jazz now in the jazz club near Vaci. There wasn’t. It was closed. In the street I saw a truly beautiful blonde. She smiled at me. Her teeth were great. I will not go into detail, but she also had a spark about her. She was just friendly; she couldn’t possibly be a prostitute.
Would you like a relaxing massage? she asked.
What does that mean? I asked. Anything you want, in all positions.
That sounds interesting, I said.
Yes, she said, top, bottom, behind.
And how much?
Forty euros, she said. A whole hour. We walk to your hotel, and will be good.
No, thank you, I said.
You want it? she asked.
No, I said.
Why you look at me then?
Well, good point, but no, can’t do it.
She swore in Hungarian and walked off. It seemed the better-looking the prostitute, the less she charged. Why would she charge so little? Maybe she was desperate. Maybe she was a drug addict and simply needed cash right away. She had a point. It was rude of me to look at her and waste her time. I walked to the hotel up the hill. It was unusually warm and I was sweating. Maybe it was good exercise. No, it wasn’t. By the time I got to the hotel I sneezed and coughed and shivered all night long. I was disturbed. Life was death.
In the morning, images from the funeralkept coming back to me: the cold forehead of my dead mother, the unavoidable cruelty of putting her body in the wet and cold soil, the sounds of the fistfuls of soil hitting the wood, the bees landing on the red and purple carnations… The weather, of course, had been amazingly beautiful…
I passed airport customs and drank the obligatory dung coffee. An elegant girl in a miniskirt walked past me, with an air of a ballerina: easy grace, effortless control of arms and legs. She sat close to me and then a young man came over. He had gotten permission to cross into the boarding area by showing his passport. The guards, two women, yielded to his pleas. He came over and kissed the girl, gazed at her soulfully, stroked her cheeks; they hugged, kissed more. He left and she walked a little, looking at the jewelry and then came back.
On the plane we sat a few seats apart and she gave me a look that was perfectly unexpressive. The plane went to Milan, where I changed to NY. Now that is outside of the Hungarian travelogue, but I will trespass here. In Milan, I walked all around the airport and drank fine macchiato. Even airport macchiato in Italy is better than the mud we drink elsewhere. Then I decided to get a slice of pizza and, to my surprise, found the same brunette at the counter, talking to a blonde in lively Russian. I joined the conversation, asked them what city they were from. The brunette was from St. Petersburg and the blonde from Moscow.
I know the city, I said to the brunette. I have lived there for a year.
Very interesting, she said. Would you like to join us?
Sure, I replied.
Later, I asked her, By the way, I saw you in Budapest. Your boyfriend accompanied you, and he looked devastated that you were leaving.
Well, he was leaving too, she said. Going to the States.
Will you see him again? I asked.
Probably not. He came to Budapest to marry me. But he got only one room at the hotel, so I told him, Who do you think I am? And he said, Look, I flew all the way from America to see you and I paid for your trip. So I made him buy another room, and it was very expensive, but that must have taught him a lesson.
Not to draw any conclusions about us Russians. People think they can just buy us. They are lucky if we don’t buy them.
And he still wants to marry you?
You saw, he is desperate. But that puts me off. And if you are curious, no, we didn’t sleep together. The closest he got to sex was what you saw at the airport. In private, if he got that far, I would slap him.
That looked like very far from sex.
How cruel, I said. He paid for everything!
He felt like it. And if I liked him more, I would marry him. I have other suitors, she said.
Maybe you are my suitor?
I have enough problems.
You think you do.
Anyhow, at least that was a cheerful conversation, and to my mind it was still Hungary. Getting onto a 747, I had no sensation of going home, or leaving home, but of being contained in a metal tube, for a reverse burial, in the sky, for eight hours, without oxygen.
Last summer I was supposed to fly to Budapest on the way to Zagreb, but at the last minute I managed to change the ticket to a direct flight to Zagreb from London. I had a layover in London, and I emailed Tibor Fischer, who responded that he was in Budapest and that I should visit, that the city was full of…something or other. I forgot full of what.
Josip Novakovich came from Croatia to the United States at the age of twenty. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has published a novel (April Fool’s Day), three short-story collections (Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust), two collections of narrative essays (Apricots from Chernobyl, Plum Brandy: Croatian Journey) and a textbook (Fiction Writer’s Workshop).