Dave Rimmer and I are in a rickshaw riding along the embankment of the Danube. The full moon paints a white sheen over the surface of the river, wide enough that it’s taken us fifteen minutes to walk across the steel bridge to the Buda side of the city.
“Budapest is the only city the Danube cuts in half,” he tells me along the way. It’s the third time I’ve crossed the Danube today. Pest rises up across the river, modern hotels set against the Parliament buildings, a Neo-Gothic sandcastle distilled from dreams, three blocks long, the old city a backdrop of architectural statuary (angels, heros, saints) embedded in the facades of the buildings, the buildings themselves designed by a hand with a bent for arabesques, curlicues, pear-like domes, often dotting several corners of the same building, their grilled balconies stacked one above the other, then arrowed spires, long thin spikes, another attempt at ascendancy, and finally the occasional addition of just a shell facade, above the very roof itself, the stepped sides reaching a squared peak, an art nouveau afterthought, as if the architect couldn’t stop building beauty.
All this says nothing of the broad boulevards and traffic below, teeming with outdoor cafes and restaurants, a flotilla of umbrellas picking up the slight breeze, where people eat and drink, night and day, some long-lost Paris we all might imagine, still thriving in Budapest.
Hadley, Marjo and Sebe follow the rickshaw on foot, Hadley having secured the rickshaw for Dave and I after a heated argument with a drunk Hungarian woman outside an outdoor club who insisted she was first in line when she wasn’t.
Hadley’s a slight thing, a natural beauty and charmer, a photographer who’s worked with Dave on numerous projects, Dave having edited most of the popular guidebooks in this part of the world, from Berlin to Budapest. Her Mainline origins long forgotten, she lives with a Hungarian DJ and speaks the language perfectly.
Then Hadley turns the argument over to Sebe, a tattoo artist with a ponytail and sleek goatee and the rickshaw’s assigned to us. Hadley, the organizer, insists that Dave and I hop on board while the rest of the gang follows on foot because the second rickshaw is presently having a bad wheel fixed by its young Hungarian driver.
As we all move off to party at Zöld Pardon, the drunken Hungarian woman shouts epithets regarding Hadley’s American accent, along with a few choice words for foreigners in general.
But on this soft summer night, a stillness shimmers across the surface of the river a hundred feet below, the lights of the long lazy riverboats adding to the cumulative glow, everything adrift in an easy floating way on this soft summer night, as if we might still live in a world where peace presided.
Dave and I are bouncing off the slatted seats as the driver charges forward, both of us laughing about the drunken Hungarian woman.
Dave’s a heavy-set guy, at east with himself, a confident man who lived here for five years, now back in London at a steady job. He wears a thin lace skullcap pulled tight across his dome, something he picked up in Marrakesh, his strong features sculpted beneath it.
“I’ve made forty moves in fifteen years,” he tells me. “I just wanted to get back to my roots and a proper job for a while.” He’s only here for the long weekend, an old friend of Rick Bruner who started Budapest Week, an English language weekly, and I was lucky enough to meet him with the rest of Rick’s gang at the Rudas Baths, a genuine Turkish Bath with rich mineral waters pouring in from the limestone foundation, the men in their section, the women in theirs, a simple loincloth concealing all displays, the central hot pool surrounded by four smaller ones in various degrees of hot and cold, beneath a domed ceiling, its pinpoint holes letting rays of sun pour through, the occasion being a weekly meeting of English speakers, among the unusual assortment of oddly overweight Hungarian men who strut proudly from pool to pool, their bellies the size of aspiring Sumo wrestlers.
Later, we all have a long lunch, another weekly ritual, at a Cyprian restaurant, sitting outside over bottles of mineral water and Hungarian wine while endless plates of food are passed. That evening some of us meet at Castro Bistro, a mix of expats and Hungarians and a trip to West Balkan becomes a must. While Pest is the heart of the urban pulse, the Buda side of the river is all green hills, thick with trees, the small clusters of red-tiled roofs peeking out from the tops of the hills where the richest people in Hungary live. The awesome Royal Palace is perched on its rocky ridge further up the river.
Then the road fades into a wooded area and the rickshaw takes the bumpy road through a gravel pit site and finally stops outside West Balkan. Giving the driver 500 forints, we head into the outdoor club and Dave goes right to the long open bar while I grab an empty table. The table is one of many strewn across the pebbled patio beneath the overhanging trees, a string of Chinese lanterns leading the way to the dance floor where the DJ spins vinyl rap. While Prague is all slit skirts and six-inch heels, here it’s small slinky tops, toreadors and espadrilles.
If Prague is relaxed, Budapest is downright reclining. The rest of the crowd sits in pleasant circles on the grassy section next to the patio, still beneath the hanging trees, twenty yards from the Danube. By the time, Hadley and the others arrive, Dave’s all set with beers and we gather around the table to talk and watch the dancers, content to dance in our seats, each of us improvising our own jerky movements. After a while, Dave and I share a joint by the fence between the grassy area and the river, admiring its bridges, an alternating mix of modern and antique.
“I never get tired of crossing the Danube,” he says in a sentimental moment, reflecting on five years on living here.
Seal’s “Crazy” starts playing as the buzz comes on and the two of us start moving to the music in our own light reverie.
“You’ve got to be a little bit crazy sometimes, if you want to live a little.”
As the night moves on, and the DJ segues into disco and Detroit, I get the feeling Dave, a former music journalist, knows the opening bars and lyrics to every song ever written. We continue to drink at the white plastic table, all enthused about our new acquaintance.
“I have the name of a boy,” Marjo (mario), the Finnish woman tells us, “and I look like a boy, but I’m a girl,” and cute she is, the thick black glasses, the light gray eyes, the dark tousled hair falling over her forehead, the creamy skin.
She passes around her travel diary which begins in Berlin so everyone can make a personal entry. By now Sebe has neatly placed his forehead on the table for an extensive break, if only to save himself from death by intoxication.
Then an electric blue-black appears through the trees, the moon still high above them, the Danube blue for a fleeting moment, more an illusion of light than reality.
The crowd has thinned and the rickshaw’s are waiting, the bad wheel now fixed on the second, and we get ourselves a deal so the five of us can ride for the price of two, and we’re off to the bridge again, bumping butts so hard on the wooden slats that I tuck my fingers between them trying to hold myself down.
“I’ve got a boney ass,” I tell Dave beside me.
“I’ve got a fat one,” he replies. “It doesn’t bother me.”
As the bridge appears before us, I think of the lines I’ve written in Marjo’s diary:
“I saw the moon across the Danube. I saw lanterns across West Balkan. Budapest is best when it’s balmy. It’s always dawn before you want it to be here. You’ve got to be a little bit crazy sometimes. The planet’s armed for extinction. Live the best of it while you can. The castle still stands.
Hard to believe, but that same afternoon we’re all back in the Buda hills for the Castro Bistro picnic, off a meadow in a cluster of trees, two goats turning over wood coals, goulash cooking in a large traditional bucket, three Senegal drummers with a Hungarian lesbian with buzzcut blowing riffs on trumpet, bottles of beer in big ice buckets, men and women going off to the woods, half of us in chatty circles in the high grass, two women taking turns dancing in front of the drummers, feeling the primal beat, then the American woman jumps up and throws off her little leather backpack in the meadow to confront a Brit who apparently’s been hassling some women, and she says come on let’s go, challenging him to come fuck her out in the field, and the guy is stunned into silence as she continues to challenge him, come on, you fucking pussy, let’s go, and all he can do is murmur weak replies and then something lame about her being a veggie, as she throws up her skirt in front and back, comically revealing her long yellow drawers, continuing to insist he accompany her and calling him a pussy again and again, then she starts a comical shadow-boxing, challenging him even further – she’s a looker to and me wishing I could act as surrogate, but you don’t want to get into the middle of this – it’s him she wants – and when it’s over Dave goes off to get some goodies in the village because the goulash and goats are taking so long, then some of the men go off to play soccer on a field farther down the meadow, me and Marjo settling for an afternoon flat on our backs in the grass looking up at the clear blue sky, the size of an ocean, until Dave comes back and we all share the treats until the goulash and goats are finally ready at twilight, the final touch on a magical day, the sunset a broad smear of orange and violent and crimson against the dimming blue sky, until we trek through the woods in the dark toward the tram in the village where some still talk of a late night drink at Castro Bistro, but I’m getting off near Kings Hotel, an oasis for Orthodox Jews in the middle of the old Jewish quarter with a kosher dining room and men in black hats, black coats, long beards, everyone glad Sabbath is over, feasting in the dining room when I got in for a cup of coffee and drag myself up to my room for a sleep that lasts fifteen hours.
Sure, Budapest is best on a balmy night, but you’ve got to be a little bit too.
Illustration by Jamie Muir