Saturday, June 26, 2010

Art Nouveau and the Opera

Our hotel room is very nice but unfortunately, my bed is directly under the windows and they only have a thin screen covering. As a result, I woke up earlier than I wished. Since we took our towels to the spa yesterday, they were too wet to use this morning, so I simply went down for breakfast. There were fewer options than in past places we've stayed (e.g., no hard boiled eggs), but other than that, it was pretty much the same (rolls, butter, jam, cereal, tea, ham, cheese, etc.).

The weather today has been indecisive. It keeps threatening to drizzle, but it changes its mind just when it seems like it's actually going to start to drizzle. As a result, it's been rather cool and humid today.

I decided to spend the day going to places I've never visited before. I started off with the Great Central Market. It's right off the tram line when you cross the Danube and it's absolutely fantastic. Built out of bricks in a wild art nouveau style in the late 19th century, it has three floors of stalls and booths. I began with the ground level, full of green grocers, bakeries, and butcher shops. I was so full from breakfast I could only look longingly at the rows of tall, whip cream filled slices, but I did buy a sack of sour cherries and a small hallah for lunch. The butcher shops even stocked wing tips and feet, essential for good soup stock, but almost impossible to find in regular American supermarkets.

Upstairs were mostly stores with tourist items: matrushka dolls, porcelain, embroidery, and the like.I past one stand where men were smoking and drinking beer, so I checked my watch: I wasn't imagining it. It was only 9:15 am and they were drinking. At another stand, some men in their 70s or 80s were enjoying glasses of red wine. Most of the embroidery, if not all, looked to be machine made, and the fact is, I can't tell the difference.

The downstairs has the fish stalls and a grocery store.

From there, I headed up Andrassy ut. to the Hungarian State Opera. Tonight they are performing Bizet's Carmen, and after the fiascos in Vienna, I really didn't want to miss this. The lobby is stunning: arches, inlaid designs, marble pillars and chandeliers. I went to the window and was told that only the most expensive seats were left, and just a few in scattered places. My choice was the second row center or a box; I chose the box. Last time I saw the opera here I had almost no leg room. Luckily at that time I was seated on an aisle and could position my legs into the free space. I figure I'll have better luck in the box.

Yet even at the most expensive price level it came to only the equivalent of 41 euros; a similar quality ticket in LA would go for at least five times as much. One of my books says that the operas are usually performed in Hungarian, but the clerk said no, their policy was to sing in the language of composition, in this case French, and then post supertitles in Hungarian. I guess I'll be working on my French tonight.

I popped into a little market around the corner and picked up some cheese and water; the former to go with my bread, the latter to wash the cherries. I found a nice bench opposite a fountain in the theater district and ate a light lunch.

In fact, I've been losing weight on this trip, in part, I think, from eating light lunches. I haven't stepped on a scale in weeks, but I've lost at least half an inch off my waist (either that or my belt is stretching).

After lunch, I went back to the center of Pest and searched for the Boede Haz. This is dedicated to art nouveau and the pale green exterior has the classic undulating vines and curlicues one associates with the movement. The interior houses as eclectic, if sometimes odd, assortment of period furniture and objects. This is probably the only place I've ever gone with a large, art nouveau style mens room door.

While have a latte in the cafe I panicked when I realized that I couldn't find my watch. It wasn't in my bag or in my jacket and I feared I left it on the bench during lunch. Finally, I remembered that I had taken it off earlier when I checked my email in a cafe off Vaci ut. It isn't a valuable watch (just a cheap Timex with a very worn elastic band), but I find it comfortable as it's easy to take off. I raced back to the cafe and the clerk gave it to me.

From there I headed to the Hungarian National Museum. This is devoted to the history of Hungary from the Magyar conquest to the present. I wasn't really interested so much in the actual history but rather how that history is presented, and most importantly, who is included in it. The exhibits reminded me of many of the museums I had seen in Poland. Hungary was settled by the Hungarians, and no one else is really a part of their history. While Jews had lived in Hungary for many hundreds of years, the earliest mention in the museum is the inclusion of a painting of a Hungarian Jewish merchant published in London in the 18th century, as part of a large series of "types" that can be seen in Hungary (it also includes the only mention of the Roma in the entire museum).

The first actual textual reference isn't until later when in the museum adds, almost as an afterthought, that in the latter half of the 18th century there was a large Jewish community in the country. Jews only appear three more times in the museum: in a display of non-Catholic churches (a torah plate and two rimonim), in a reference to growing tension over Jewish assimilation, and finally in the brief references to the Holocaust.

The last is probably the most disturbing. Like the House of Terror across town, the Hungarian National Museum basically whitewashes the Nazi period, rehabilitating Admiral Horthy's authoritarian rule by tying it to the efforts by Hungarians to recover territories wrongfully taken by the victorious allies at the Treaty of the Trianon in 1920. Since only Nazi Germany and fascist Italy would help Hungary, they had "no choice" but to ally themselves with those countries, who, the museum texts state, put pressure on Hungary to adopt discriminatory anti-Jewish laws, but that the state refused to physically harm its Jews.

Of course, what goes unmentioned are the anti-Jewish laws adopted first in the 1920s, and the slave labor battalions created by the Hungarians for Jewish men during the war, where thousands of Jews perished under conditions created by the Hungarians. While the museum text notes that the roundup and deportation of Hungarian Jews occurred with the assistance of the Hungarian state, it claims Horthy managed to save the Jews of Budapest when in fact he only stopped the deportations after he mistakenly concluded that an allied bombardment of the city was in retaliation for the deportations. Oddly enough, while all other material in the museum is in Hungarian, with only occasional English subtitles, the map of the deportations and the description of whence and hence people were taken and sent is in German.

After leaving the museum, I headed back to the pension to shower and shave and change for dinner. I have my dress black tennies on, as well as my frayed chinos. I decided to have an early dinner at Gerbeaud and read the paper. I had a very nice smoked salmon sandwich on a long, whole wheat, seed-studded role, along with dill sauce and cucumbers. For dessert, I had a cafe latte and a Gerbeaud slice. This is a layered dessert. There are four thin layers of a dry, almost crispy cake, separated by layers of apricot jam with a small amount of crushed walnuts added. The whole thing is topped with a thick coating of dark chocolate. It was very good.

So now, feeling sated and rested, I'm ready for my opera box and a three and a half hour performance of Bizet, the first opera I ever saw (not counting "Invasion of the Glabolinks," an opera for children performed by the San Diego symphony, which I also saw in 4th grade). I also just received confirmation from Gundel for my reservation for three for brunch tomorrow at 11:30. I'm only going to eat a light breakfast to save room for the heavy, heavy lunch.

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