A Brief Insight: A Pestilent Problem

A litter patch along the Ferdinánd híd walkway, near Nyugati Railway Station

A litter patch along the Ferdinánd híd walkway, near Nyugati Railway Station

The city park is the last vestige of the lazy yet restless urban dweller who can’t be buggered to make the lengthier trek or train ride outside the city limits. Considering New York hoards over eight million inside the relatively tight squeeze of five boroughs, the numbers contained in the twenty-three districts of Budapest, with its headcount stretching to top even two million, might not seem so impressive. Still, with Pest (the portion east of the Danube River) covering about two-thirds of the city’s territory and given the continuous albeit staggered flow of tourists and immigrants alike each year, the toll on the land, and particularly the designated green spaces within, is apparent.

One of the most familiar features of the Hungarian capital, besides the grand castle upon its Buda pedestal west of the Duna, is Hősök tere, Heroes’ Square, unabashedly planted at the end of the route of Andrássy avenue and thus announcing the opulent entrance of the famous Városliget, or City Park. Beyond this monument and its vast mall are the splendiferous Széchenyi Fürdő and multi-era-style Vajdahunyad Castle, the former demonstrating the geothermal advantages of a thousands-of-years’ thinning of the earth’s crust in this particular region and the latter lauding the achievements of agriculture, forestry, and fishing since the arrival of the once-nomadic tribes in a down- and westward swoop from Siberia. Outside the castle doors inviting visitors to appreciate the efforts of conservation and environmental awareness, however, a moribund scene of few trees, some oaks with bulbous evidence of cancerous disease (in fact, on display in the forestry exhibition of the Castle’s Museum of Hungarian Agriculture) and trampled, dying grass throughout is not unlike many of the other smaller and often worse-off recreational areas within Pest.

Flea market wares in Pest's City Park

Flea market wares in Pest’s City Park

Only last weekend, the most unsavory of characters (said with the utmost adoration and interest) set out their treasures on cardboard pieces, dirty threadbare rugs, and worn car mats – a fine affair for the last-minute buzzard looking to peck out possible gifts for family and friends only a few days before Christmas. But woe to the grass that once was, as the area is now a frozen mud tundra littered with the waste of discarded containers, empty (or suspiciously half full) two-liter plastic wine bottles, and toked-to-the-last cigarette butts. All this despite the abundance of sidewalks and vehicle-free thoroughfares winding through the park.

Besides the troubling issue of trampled terrain and remarkable amount of litter in noticeably consistent locations in Pest, another eyesore remains the act of public urination – and sometimes defecation – in and around public parks. Given most businesses and public bathrooms charge a fee for use of their facilities, it’s not uncommon to see a squatter or wall-wetter even in the most visible of places, be it in clear view from a tram, next to a park bench, or shamefully (or shamelessly?) attempted behind a slight lamppost. As dog owners are apparently wont to do, these public load-pinchers don’t see the point in a post-clean-up either.

Pest's Parlament, equally fouled by politicians and pollution alike

Pest’s Parlament, equally fouled by politicians and pollution alike

Lastly on the Budapest bitching list is the status of the city’s air pollution. A jog through the dimbes-dombos (“hilly”, uttered mostly by children, yet irresistibly alliterative) region of Buda is a welcome reprieve to the smoggy lungs of the Pest resident, who unwillingly inhales the foulest poisonous fumes of diesel-powered cars along the districts’ narrow streets. The evidence grimly presents itself on the otherwise grandiose facades even on the fanciest hotels, museums, and shops, adding a gloomy layer of soot to match the miserable winter skies of December – a pretty town, nonetheless, when viewed from afar.

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Buda Treasures: Part I

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I’m a naturally curious person, but I have my limits. Even during one of my exploratory hikes, I often question why I’m pressing on, what I’m trying to find, and if my life is really just going in circles. Through this existential cacophony, I hear my mother’s words, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and, if only for a few extra tenuous moments, I’m no longer in my downward spiral.

As is my custom now, it seems, I took another stress-relieving hike after teaching English at a business far up Szépvölgyi út on a Buda hill. I trundled and stumbled over terraces of foot-tall stone walls – possibly remnants from wartime fortifications of the German holdouts during the Siege of Budapest – which seemed to wrap around the great mound like lacing around a wedding cake. At the top, I acknowledged another uneventful triumph of yet another Buda hill with yet another panoramic view of Pest. Then, I noticed the eyes staring at me with horror – or intense interest? – from the muddy ground. What I foolishly mistook for a rogue seashell I later discovered to be the shedding of Helix pomatia, a common relict in Hungary and the surrounding European countries and also known informally as the Burgundy or Roman snail. Against the pressed wet leaves matting the forest floor, they and the smaller, more cylindrical Phenacolimax annularis were easier finds than the spherical discs I was really after: Marasmius oreades. Known as the scotch bonnet, the fungi’s other namesake, fairy ring mushroom, more appropriately describes the phenomenon, rather, that I hoped to happen on. Imagine my shock then, when I looked down from a clearing and saw this:

Of course, I was disappointed on two counts, the first being that the patterns were constructed with rocks, and the second, that I’d be seeing no dancing devil elves on this day. A homeless man (or otherwise an unusual camper) was tidying up his tarpaulin shack nearby, and I asked what he could tell me about his fantastic lawn decoration. What with my poor grasp of Hungarian, I gleaned that he had no idea of its origin, as he was from Yugoslavia, having presumably escaped to Hungary in the early 90s during the Yugoslav Wars.

Nearly back where I started my now three-hour expedition, I veered off the path in another direction, this time to find a perfect container for my growing collection of Buda treasures: a spun ceramic jar from Kecskemét Cannery, 50-some miles from Budapest and which first opened and produced these candied goods containers from 1901. A rigorous scrubbing later at home would reveal a red crest with a rearing goat (“kecske” in Hungarian), the official coat of arms of the city. Not only was this the birthplace of a favorite famous Magyar musician of mine, Zoltán Kodály, but it is also now linked with Universal Group (Univer), the products of which my flat mate Heather is very fond (look up their popular squeeze-tube flavors such as Onion, Goulash Cream Mild, and “Erős Pista” or “Strong Steve”).

At the end of the day, I felt my silly little trek turned out to be another time-waster, something to fill up the pages and pass the hours, ending exactly where I had begun. But perhaps not. Maybe my trajectory was and is more of a line than anything: Maybe the reason I can’t see where I am or where I’m going is because I’m not going in circles but rather a line, which stretches onward and can never go back on itself. And, after all: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

A Budaerobic Brief

One flat mate calls me a crazy man, the other merely shakes her head, while my ever-overprotective mother even some 7,000 kilometers away in the eastern United States vehemently warns me against the follies of being ill prepared and naïve, cautionary tales of lone outings gone awry and horrors abounding for unwary wanderer.

What were my whole being to burst as a result of pent-up energy that I would not take to the hills at least three, maybe four or five, times a week; only having moved here a month ago, I’m now well addicted to running up the Buda hills, rousing myself in the early morning to beat the tourists to the top of the Citadella.

Barely a quarter of the way up the meandering slope of the hill’s southeast side

With Pest being flat as a potato pancake as it is, I’d be in need of a new set of kneecaps jogging in circles around Varosliget every day. Nothing can compare to the short warm-up and cool Duna air to fill the lungs crossing Erzsébet Híd, only to surprise the body with a sudden vertical charge up Géllert Hill.

I return a righteous peace sign to an enviable rock-hard Géllert standing and signing vigilantly to the flaccid spread of Pest before him, say my “Sziasztok” to the two aged women selling embroidered table cloths on the slick staircase, and kick my motivational motor into high gear as I take on the excruciatingly mildly steeped paths meandering ‘round the great Buda mound. I give a friendly wave to the homeless gentleman rolling up his sleeping mat in the more wooded part of the hill, feign retching — very difficult to do at this point between the labored panting — at a couple christening a splintery red love seat (read: bench that a certain homeless man certainly did not piddle on moments before) just off the main path, and add injury to insult by guiding my poorly shod feet onto a boulder-strewn, unpaved path which I fondly deign “the fairy road” for its tiny, yet deep hollowed-out grottos.

Vendors at the base of the Citadella, selling everything from traditional embroidered throws to wooden puppets smoking sticks of incense

At the top, once the heart has slowed from my 235-metre-high fortress siege, I’m rewarded by the lady-in-waiting (-to-pop-off-a-giant-beer-bottle-top), the uniquely named Statue of Liberty, and, below, her worshippers hawking her miniatures to sagging tourists exhausted from the jaunt to the hillside stronghold from their  felt-seated coach buses some fifty feet away.

I make it a point to pass my favorite vendor, a serially surly Romanian man whose most curious souvenirs are a collection of flimsy hats purportedly made from the area’s indigenous mushrooms. Past the anachronistic artillery and archery range and ‘round back of the tower lie pebbly paths snaking, as the Danube does around Margit and Csepel islands, around a colorful, undiscerning blend of Gerber daisies, marigolds, wave petunias, and feathery fiery red and orange cockscombs. The ground gives way to cracked pavement once more, and I begin my jiggly descent down dangerously steep, crumbling stairs, a fatal tumble made more possible by common wall lizards flitting in and out of dark holes.

A giant statue of a turul, a creation myth symbol of the Hungarians, sitting atop a lightpost at the base of Géllert Hill

As the pulse levels out along with the grade of the path, I slow enough to admire the blocky statues of heroes past and graffiti-tagged murals depicting faceless, square-shouldered Hungarians forging and fording the country’s way into the age of industry: an extra push to run harder and, upon reaching the bottom just before the grand entrance of the famous Géllert Hotel facing the forest-green Szabadsag hid, the energy to do it all over again.