Postcard Stories from Austria and Hungary December 2018

1stDecember 2018

Vienna

Overnight it has snowed. Vienna looks as it’s meant to look, which is to say, sugar-dusted, dreamy, Narnian. The snow makes strange animals of us all. Grey- winged bats of the guided tour men, armless beneath their thick, woollen capes. Grizzly bears of the old ladies in their brown, fur coats, clinging to the walls of the Belvedere Garten as they lumber slowly down the hill. Waddling penguins of some children, starfish of those who’ve been over-insulated in scarves, mittens, hats and 70s ski suits. They X across the Karlplatz clumsily, limbs so bulked they can barely move. And what creature are you in your impractical, blue velvet shoes, shod for pavements in warmer climes? An exotic bird? A cautious insect? A spider picking your way delicately from one gritted spot to the slip-free next? You catch yourself lurching in a café window. It is a common chicken you resemble most.

 

2nd December 2018

Kunsthistoriche Museum, Vienna

It’s closing time in the Kunsthistoriche and I pass a foot on my way out. The outer appendages are easiest to misplace. People are always losing the head and it’s not uncommon to sever a finger in a door or with a chopping nice. I once saw a man in Ballymena Casualty who’d cut his own arm off with a hedge trimmer; accidentally of course. This would’ve been around ’89. But, here’s a lad who hails from the old days; first or second century. Not quite Bronze Age, though he is rendered in brushed green bronze. My German’s not what it once was circa 1992 or 3, but I do my best to translate the gallery notes. “A Roman Senator’s foot, cast in bronze, separate from the rest of the statue.” I stumble, (no pun intended), over, “im sockel vergossen.” Surely, it can’t mean he’s forgotten his socks? He’s wearing sandals like a textbook Roman, but then again, my father always wears white sports socks with his sandals. He says it stops the sand getting between his toes. Forgotten socks are the least of this chap’s problems. He’s missing everything above the ankle joint.

 

3rd December 2018

Rathaus, Vienna

On December 25thwhen the last Christmas market closed its fairy-lit doors, and all the camera-happy tourists flew back to wherever it was they’d come from, and the pretend-to-be Santas hung up their false beards, and the decoration came tinselling down, and there was no more need for vats of roasted chestnuts, or girls dressed as elves singing Frosty the Snowman, and the festive sleigh rides jingle belled to a halt, and everyone declared that they’d drunk more than enough gluhwein out of mugs shaped like Father Christmas’ head, and the fake snow was rolled up and packed away in cardboard boxes alongside the fake icicles and the fake boughs of mistletoe and holly, and Christmas was over for another year, the people of Vienna were left with one small problem. What should be done with approximately five hundred empty, wooden garden sheds?

 

4th December 2018

MUPA, Budapest

After the final note is struck and the movement is clearly over, the conductor holds the entire orchestra in a ninety second silence. The audience have not expected this. They pause, one thousand six hundred of them, dressed in their midweek finest, hands up, like bookends just waiting to collide. The conductor keeps his back to the room and does not move, does not even flinch for almost two minutes. The silence seems louder than usual. It is a loaded kind of silence. You scan the faces of the string section, for they are stood closest to the pit. They are statues -every one of them-even the second cello who, mere minutes ago was thrashing about like a man possessed. The soprano, standing stage right, is barely breathing. She hasn’t blinked once in over a minute. This is not natural. You begin to wonder if time has slipped and stuck, like in that Kurt Vonnegut novel you love so much. You’d swear, actually swear, that the room was frozen. But then, the conductor turns, and bends at the middle and the whole orchestra unsticks behind him: strings, brass, woodwind, percussion melting into out rapturous applause.

 

5th December 2018

Nyugati Station, Budapest

An elderly lady sits opposite you on the train from Budapest to Debrecen. She is small and mousy, her hair escaping in cloudy handfuls from the edges of a knitted cap. From the shape of her cheeks and the way her lips pucker -similar to your granny’s lips, before she died- you can tell she’s out without her teeth. The old lady sits in the middle of the seat, sandwiching herself between a stout leather handbag and a rake of plastic carriers containing the week’s shopping. You smile at her. She smiles back and tips her chin. She says something in Hungarian. You say, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.” You lift your shoulders in an apologetic shrug. She doesn’t seem to hear or chooses not to hear and continues to rattle on in thick Hungarian. You smile. You nod. You try to appear interested. Your mother’s brought you up to be polite. Outside the train’s window the city slides by -architecture, billboards, telephone wires- but you cannot give it your full attention. You have no idea what you’re being told. You know you don’t look like a local girl; something to do with your patterned clothes. So, perhaps this woman has sought you out for your ability to listen and not understand. You’d kill to know what she’s telling you: a secret, a lie, a truth more suited to the confessional. When she rises to leave at a countryside station you feel the need to offer absolution but you don’t know the words for this in English. Where would you even start in Hungarian?

 

6th December 2018

Debrecen

In the park, next to the university, the pond has frozen in sections. Rust-coloured leaves, nuts and twigs are caught in the ice. Not moving. Not fading or rotting. This is the idea of Autumn, fossilized. Elegant, green-crested ducks skirt the edges of the melt, or dabble, flat-footed across the more solid sections of ice. Their squat bodies bumble and jerk. They are much too hefty for their spindly legs. Watching them, you are reminded of the snow-suited children learning to skate, waddling and stumbling round the rink in the square. Beneath the ice, orange peel carp swarm and flicker, their colours beaming through several inches of solid glass. You are three layers of sweater, coat, hat, gloves, jeans, scarf, socks and sturdy boots and still the cold has stripped the joy right out of your bones. You watch the goldfish dance round the limits of their frozen world. Their skin is so thin, almost translucent, yet they are sunshine and fire to look upon. It is a miracle, an actual living miracle, that the cold has not caught up with them.

 

7th December 2018

Debrecen

The Hungarian poet, Ady Endre, (say it first name second, as they’re wont to do in Hungary), is very much dead and rendered here twice in greenish bronze. Once, downtown, by the good cake place, sat with a book on an empty bench. All smiles, as he stretches his arm outwards as if to say, “sit down, join me, take the weight off your feet. Let us talk awhile of poetic things: love and temporality, patriotism and, obviously, death.” This perhaps was wishful thinking, or romanticism on the part of the sculptor and those various benefactors who commissioned the piece. The second sculpture shows Ady trapped inside a wall just a short wooded walk from the University of Debrecen where he studied Law for his second degree. Half his face is glaring out at his own face, which is coming back to meet itself. Both faces look equally angry or perhaps unimpressed, which is understandable really, seeing as Ady -dead at 41 from syphilis- now finds himself trapped, frozen even, in small town Debrecen, the place he once used as symbol/motif/metaphor for all that was worst in Hungary.

 

8th December 2018

Mucsarnok, Budapest

In 1994 the Hungarian artist Andras Borocz placed a number of his small Bread Head sculptures in Popieluscko Square, Brooklyn. The Square takes is name from a Polish priest who was murdered in 1984 for supporting the solidarity movement. Each of the sculptures was fashioned from a loaf of bread and resembled a human face. Borocz created these pieces during the early 90s surviving, almost entirely, on the white bread removed during the carving process. Each sculpture was coated in a translucent glue to preserve the bread from time and the elements. The artist noted that though Popielusko Square is rife with pigeons well-used to feeding on crumbs and scraps, for the duration of the performance they kept their distance from the Bread Heads. New York pigeons are particularly savvy. They know the difference between food and art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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