ERSATZVAROS




Déli pályaudvar is Budapest’s southern station. Reposed, it looks something like the clubhouse of an exclusive ski resort, collaged out of a colour-saturated postcard of 1967. It might once have been perched at the top of nearby Sas-hegy, supplying off-piste Jagermester and pretzels to Austrians with blonde eyebrows, in thermal unitards. It might have careered down the hill in a landslide sometime in the eighties, ended up wedged behind the var.

You’d be forgiven for not noticing its pedigree, though. From the metro station escalator, you’re flung up into stacked, interconnecting walkways, atria and quadrangles. It’s low-slung dimensions induce a cautious stoop. Like most public spaces in Budapest, it contrives to serve your most obscure consumer whims: antiquarian books, home chiropody kits, lace tableclothes, yellow polyester harem pants, tanning, alongside the usual Budapesti surfeit of pastry snacks, shot-sized coffees and fags.


Budapest’s transport interchanges collect all that is most salty and decrepit in this exceedingly salty and decrepit city. Déli is no exception. Linger longer than a speedy transfer from metro to vonat and you’ll emerge coated with a thin film of clag that is not quite wet and not quite dry.

From the curved tinted glass in the ticket hall there’s a brown panorama of the XIIth. The view from Déli is already distorted, vignetted, blurred as through the meniscus lens of a Soviet toy camera.

STEP INTO MY OFFICE

Hundreds of column inches are devoted to prodding the mystique of what those that write for a living do all day. I’m thinking particularly of those picturesque writers’ profiles in the Guardian Review, often accompanied by a photograph of the writer’s desk: usually Habitat-level or above( or junk shop and artfully worn), framed by postcards and tasteful, not-too-distracting bits of art, perhaps the odd, intruding piece of domestic detritus. Writing, by these accounts, is comfortably incorporated into the day thus: one rises at seven, and is shuffling papers at her desk by eight, exhales the necessary 500-100 words by lunchtime and has the rest of the day free.

Well, in my experience, its not quite like that. Writing for a living (and a very bitty sort of “living” at that), for me, happens along a daily line of most resistance. Its a myopic, time-shrinking thing, marked only by the irregular peaks of hammering a thought into a just-about-satisfactory expression, a half-decent paragraph. It’s pacing, always overdoing the coffee and always falling asleep to the sound of a book (hopefully paperback) falling on your head. The commercial writing I do (which just-about comprises my actual “living”), however, is a wholly different matter. Its nigglingly riddly, but neat in the end, it grants the rewards of sudden expertise on subjects well outside your usual remit. If you’re pervy that way, you might even get a kick out of it.

Thank God, then, for getting out of the house. In Budapest, it’s quite permissible to move your home office operations (that’s a term I use to describe my yellow laptop, “Bigbird”, my pencil case and my kettle) wholesale to the nearest café. This is Central European café culture for you and, happily, it has granted my working day a welcome semblance of sanity – even productivity – at last. After all, under the scrutiny of twenty others engaged in their own similar pursuits, napping, pacing, growling at the computer screen and systematically splintering your arsenal of freshly-sharpened pencils with your teeth doesn’t seem quite right.

In Budapest’s Golden Era, cafés served a similar purpose to the gentleman’s club. Here’s John Lukács’ description from his very atmospheric Budapest 1900:

One could sit for hours over a cup of coffee, with a glass of water frequently replenished by a boy-waiter, and avail oneself of a variety of local and foreign newspapers and journals hanging on bamboo racks. One could send and receive messages from the coffeehouse. Free paper, pen and ink were available there… At a particular table – their reservation was sacrosanct – this or that group of journalists, playwrights, or sculptors and painters would congregate, usually presided over by one or two leading figures… In those frequented by journalists and writers the headwaiters (some of whom were celebrated for their knowledge of literature) kept sheaves of long white sheets of paper available to any writer who chose to compose his article or essay there. These headwaiters were also the courses of tips of the turf, of useful gossip, an – more useful to writers – of extension of credit as well as occasional loans of petty cash.

These days, sadly the fringe benefits have gone, but the spirit’s still there. In fact, I’m pecking away at my keyboard here in Szoda, just around the corner from my apartment in the VIIth. Though the music policy might be called questionable, its a damned sight better than sixth form smokers corner at Café Nero in Norwich.

If, by some mischance, you’ve stumbled upon this post looking for useful information, here are my picks for if you’re toting a decent book, writing your memoirs or have to edit a 10,000 word business report “by close of play today” (yeuch!):

Sirály
Király utca 50.
This place positively invites repurposing into an office, ersatz HQ or a classroom. In the sea of tables upstairs I’ve seen English lessons conducted and regular meetings of what looks (and sounds) like some particularly fiery and well-subscribed Students Union society.

Jelen
Blaha Lujza tér 1-2,
Big and barn-ish, there are nice, big tables here to liberally sprinkle the contents of your bag over.

Ibolya Presszo
Ferenciek tere 5.
Where ELTE students, squirreling away at the library opposite, go for their tea break. Also, strange cushioned around out the back, if you need a lie down.

Muzeum Cukrászda
Muzeum körút 10
And finally, a good bet for afternoons when you’re full of good intentions but know that, in fact, all routes inevitably lead to egy korsó sor, kerem. That is, this place serves coffee, but also booze, cake and is open 24 hours.

By no means feel restricted by this list, however. I’ve seen people, four pints in, whip out their laptops to deal with some urgent correspondence in the middle of a heaving Saturday night out at Szimplakert.


ALPINE PURSUITS/ Life from the pages of a Modern Languages Textbook


If I’m ever reincarnated as a person less wrapped up in books and more bent on commerce, I’d happily return, after a day’s pen-pushing, to one of District II’s neoclassical mansions. As it is, I just have to waft precariously past them as I’m hoiked up Janoshegy on a chairlift.


As a UKer more familiar with spending weekends going “up town” (despite being far away, I’m always keen to perserve the linguistic anomalies of Hullish), down the pub and perhaps for a quick redemptive sortie around the local park, I’m dead keen on Euro-style leisure habits. Weekends are much more wholesome here, some shops close after lunch on a Saturday and many head for the hills for outdoor pursuits. Though in downtown Pest its just a bit parky, at the top of the hill there were four inches of snow and Budapestis togged up in ski suits jogging, kids toting wooden sledges and (as it was Valentine’s Day) a fair few bashful teenage couples grabbing at oneanother’s be-mittened hands.

ART AND RELATABILITY/ Dóra Maurer at the Ludwig Museum Budapest

Relative Swings, 1973

I have a dreadful confession to make: I still don’t get visual art. This admission has been a long time coming, I think I first realised this whilst levitating past an advertisement for, you know, Caravaggio or something at the Haywood Gallery on an escalator in the London Underground some time in 2003.

Despite this I’m a regular gallery visitor; I find they provide good grist to the drift; the pacing, the silence and the squeak-squeak of rubber-soled shoes are unmatchable in encouraging thoughts to wonder. Although, perhaps in this sense none have matched the Toledo Museum of Modern Art: marked on maps and street signs, we arrived at an apartment block en el centro de la ciudad to find all the usual signs of an art museum – entrance, corridors, ticket office – but no galleries or exhibitions.

Anyway, frustrated and somewhat shamed by this I’m trying to find a way in. I’m as far as posturing as naif at this point; after all, about the sum total of my understanding currently rests on Hogarth and a long streak of the grotesque. Art Appreciation 101 stipulates it’s okay to laugh at the mischievous dog in the corner of the canvas, permits one to speculate on the knowing look in the sitter’s eye, fine to snigger at the aristo’s get-up to grasp towards a grasp that might be superficial, but at least it’s proper.

With all this in mind I took myself off to the Ludwig Museum, which relocated from its Buda Castle home to a industrial no man’s land turned cultural regeneration centre just north of Csepel some years ago. Though I’m pleased to note that their permanent collection of fairly tautological twentieth-century big hitters now includes selected Hungarian works, I was more interested in Limited Oeuvre, a retrospective of Budapest-born graphic artist Dóra Maurer.

Etude 3

Modest conceptualist Maurer is into the the stuff of things. Her abstract geometries trust form’s own logic. Instead of privileging the action, she’s content to make her early intervention then allow forms to play.

Once we had departed

Maurer’s graphics, photographs and films eschew representation in favour of the pleasures of form. She dirties graphic design and sullies mathematics to make neurotic investigations of proportion and seriality that not only emphasise the physical but also expand the remit of graphics to include traces and residues:

The craft of reproducible graphics, on the other hand, has an aura about it. Its materials have a fragrant smell, the work is a precise one that requires attention. It breaks down into phases, and the concentrated anticipation of what is not yet visible is a good feeling.

Overlappings, no. 16

Her recent Overlappings force geometry to dance. Maurer’s brightly coloured forms unfurl and overlap like washing in the wind or juggled hankerchiefs. These are forms that aspire towards non-materiality. They reflect, or perhaps parody, changes in the grammar of contemporary graphics, whose forms deny their nature, appear lighter-than-air or quasi-organic. Like the difference between the cover of Esquire magazine in 1972 and the Microsoft Vista operating system, say.