Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Morning walk with Grandpa

My cousin Dave Bass dug up some interesting information on our shared grandfather.

When he was born in Budapest in 1902, he was named Bányai Imre, but his family soon moved to America, where he became Emery Bass.

Various of Grandpa's kids had gotten different documents like wedding certificates and birth certificates, and Dave and other cousins pooled what they had, allowing Dave to track down addresses, such as the site of our great-grandparents’ wedding and the house where Grandpa was born. Dave and his wife Becky traveled to various sites in central and eastern Europe associated either with his ancestors or with hers. Afterward he sent along what he'd found.

I’m in Budapest waiting for the arrival this evening of a colleague and our students for our January course on “Life after communism,” so I took the chance this morning to follow up on the trail Dave had laid out.

My plan was to stop by Parliament to see the ceremonial raising of the flag, then hop on a bus to the Óbuda (Old Buda) neighborhood of the addresses Dave had found. But I didn’t get out the door quite as early as planned, so I got there just in time to hear from the distance the trumpet melody that sounds as the flag goes up. Now I know it ends at 8:30, so I’ll try to get there a little earlier some other morning.

On the way, however, I did see a curb-side charging station with two cars plugged in: a chargeable Prius, and what I think is a fully electric vehicle.

And this time with a framing that tells you you're in Budapest:

A little close to Parliament I got an unusual vantage on the recognizable dome, hemmed in by the buildings on the street as you approach from the south.

On the main land-side façade facing Lajos Kossuth Square, you can see the Hungarian flag on the right, and the Transylvanian flag on the left. Thereby hangs a tale, but that’s for a different post.

Walking on from Parliament, I got to the bus stop to ride to Óbuda, but I was feeling stingy about my transit tickets and didn’t mind the walk, so I continued on foot.

Some time later I remembered that one of Grandpa’s favored activities when visiting a city was to ramble through it on foot, so it seemed a fitting homage to do the same when looking for “his” Budapest.

Just before crossing the Margit Bridge, you get another unaccustomed view of Parliament’s dome, this time from the north.

And I was happy to see some serious bicycle infrastructure: dedicated lanes, and traffic lights.

Crossing the Margit Bridge I saw this writing on the top of a building on the Buda side of the river: Autoexport Moszkva (Autoexport Moscow). The style of the logo and the lettering both suggest the communist period, and whether we’re talking about Hungarian cars shipped to Russia or Russian cars shipped to Hungary, I doubt there’s much of either of those happening these days.

The bridge is also enough outside the core of the city where tourists concentrate that you get a vantage you haven’t already seen on 100 postcards or map covers. That’s Parliament on the left, the Royal Palace with the green dome just left of center, and Mathew Church with the pointy tower just right of center.

A few blocks north of the bridge, now on the Buda side, a bus shelter had an ad for the kind of charging station I’d seen in use.

A kindly older woman approached me with what seemed like a request. “Nem tudom magyarul” – I don’t speak Hungarian, I said apologetically. “Angol? Német?” (English? German?). But she made a gesture of understanding the situation and turned away with what I took to mean, “I only speak Hungarian.”

Another block on, the side of a building at the corner of Hárcsa St. has this sculpture of a fisherman pulling in his net.

Getting closer to the heart of Óbuda, I stepped into a Baroque church. By the door, there was a crucifix with a plaque at the bottom.

I haven’t plugged the text into Translator, but it seems to be invoking St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary and the ruler who converted the country to Christianity. The occasion seems to have been the 900th anniversary of his death, in 1038.

1938 was also when Hungary got the first fruits of its alignment with Nazi Germany: as Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia, he gave his blessing for Hungary to acquire significant territories from Czechoslovakia, lands that had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1918. Hungary’s desire to undo the outcome of World War I contributed to its willingness to side with Hitler, a decision that was to cost Hungary dearly over the next several years.

The heart of Óbuda has what appear to be common buildings of a small city or rural area from the 18th or early 19th century, mostly spruced up with new roofs and windows and fresh paint, making a pleasant area for walking around shopping or going to a restaurant.

Not everything has been fixed up, but on this still-derelict building they’ve hung scrims with photos that may be of what the area looked like.

Linguistics side-bar: the Hungarian language is essentially unrelated to any languages in Europe except Finnish and Estonian. But the Hungarians have been in their current location since the late 800’s, so they’ve had over a millennium living around Slavs (Slovaks to the north, Slovenes and Croats to the southwest, Serbs to the south, and Ukrainians to the northeast), and several words in Magyar clearly are shared with Slavic languages. In some cases the direction seems pretty clearly to be from Slavic to Magyar, as with some of the days of the week. With others, I don’t know enough to know the direction, but I can spot the resemblance.

The part of this sign following “laptop” is pronounced roughly “tawshkaw,” which seems suspiciously close to Czech “taška” (tahshka), or bag, so this is a store selling cases for laptops.

Finally the address itself, 130 Lajos St. (Lajos utca 130), which is now a former warehouse rented out (somewhat) to businesses as “Buda Loft”).

As cousin Dave did on his visit, I too took a picture of the building next door, which gives a better idea of the kind of structure that would have been at number 130 when Jozsef Bányai married Rosalia Landauer.

Across the street is a long row of what look like communist-era panel-built apartment blocks (what the Czechs call “paneláky”). But these have been painted on a grand scale to depict various athletic pursuits.

I figured I’d walked plenty, so I made my way to a nearby trolley stop to ride back along the Buda side of the Danube to the Elizabeth Bridge, which I would then walk across to get back to my hostel.

Dave and Becky spent more time in the neighborhood than my lightning walk-through. He writes:
We ate at a wonderful restaurant in the neighborhood called Kéhli Vendéglő.  On the menu, it describes how the area was a cultural blend of Hungarians and Swabian Jews.  At a different point in our trip, a translator/host, who loved history, told us that sometime in the late Austria-Hungarian Empire days, Vienna was moving Jewish intellectuals from Swabia into the mountains of central Hungary to improve the tax base of the Hungarian territories. We will never know the true history of Jozsef.  But, it made me wonder, was he a descendent of those migrations from Swabia? 
But along the way I was distracted by the window of what might be a dentist’s office, filled with old-timey imagery dealing with teeth.

Three blocs further I was gobsmacked to stumble upon the ruins of a Roman military amphitheater, from Budapest’s time as the Roman frontier town of Aquincum.

Right there, occupying a block in the middle of residential and commercial buildings in Óbuda.

According to the gods of Wikipedia, it was built around 145 AD. Almost 1900 years ago.

Say what you like about those rampant imperialists, they knew how to build.

Here’s to Grandpa Bass, and the habit of rambling around unfamiliar cities.

And a big thanks to cousin Dave for sending me on this particular ramble.


  1. Is there a reason you didn't ask the old woman if she spoke Czech?

    1. By the time I was saying "Nemet?", she was already turning away.

      I didn't think to ask about Czech, and it's pretty unlikely she would have known that. Russian occurred to me about half a minute later, but it didn't seem right to go running back, "Hey, what about Russian?"

  2. I find your blog so enchanting even i`m writing articles on morning walk.


  3. I find your blog so enchanting even i`m writing articles on morning walk