Chicago is pretty much the coolest city I’ve ever visited, in the proper, old-fashioned, sense of the word.
So, I’m in the Midwest on what is, ostensibly, a research trip, but might be more truthfully categorised as a four-week long gawping residency. I’m at the marvellous and upstanding Dalkey Archive Press (support ’em, they’re the good ‘uns) at the University of Illinois, spending hot, sticky Midwestern days prying into the personal correspondence of writers too dead to complain about it, and too obscure for any (scratch that, many) other buggers to care. Man, if you only knew the handwriting I’ve caressed these past two weeks. The press itself operates out of what looks like a ship’s container, hoisted into the middle of the university’s Department of Veterinary Sciences. Perhaps this is all a Pygmalian-esque exercise in improving the reading habits of horses, I’m not sure. And, of course, I’m griping about the heat, the humidity, the rare-ass “sharp” cheddar, with all the vigour of a big old limey jonesing for her first shot at being “exotic”.
Anyway, here’s the bit where I note, smugly, that all your worst suspicions about America are true:
#1. Bread. Now, I’m not about to get all precious about crust and olive oil content, but, my God! I have never seen – and made puerile pantomime with – so many flaccid baguettes. Supermarkets here appear to be shilling tawny pillows with delusions of grandeur.
#2. Cars. On the subject of bread, it’s a 45-minute hike for a loaf. Yes, yes, I get it, I’m in a town in the Midwest, what did I expect? However, I still can’t get used to the fine-honed logistical operation required to, you know, buy a cup of coffee. These cities are built to four-wheel dimensions, and it’s making all my urbanist nodes ping. I didn’t see a single other pedestrian for the first four days I was here, and I’ve ended up feeling rather embarrassed about using the pavement, like the gap between the roadside and the verge is here for decorative purposes only, and I’m despoiling it.
#3. The constant imagined threat of tornadoes. The weather is big here, massive. On Memorial Day (in a despair at not receiving a single invite to a festive cook-out from my new friends on the checkouts at Schnucks), I was shaking the torrential rain out my hair outside Walgreens like a fetid Labrador, when a ginormous bolt of lightning came down from the sky directly above. It was quite the Gothic scene. Now, I’ve no doubt my colleagues’ stories of Tornado Terror are in almost completely directed towards, let’s say, “yanking my chain”, but “ominous wind” seems to mean something rather different here. Like a good and cautious Girl Guide, I demanded the pleasant be-slacked men in the Accommodation Office here drill me in What to do in the Event of an Emergency. Apparently you just hide in the cellar.
And with that, and the uncomfortable knowledge that my cultural experience thus far seems to extend as far as bread and cheese, I’m out.
I spent the last few days in Barcelona, a city half-remembered from visits in previous lives, like the Reading Week R n’ R I self-prescribed during my first year at University. This was a four-day exercise in being thoroughly over-excited that culminated in following a trail of rose petals along La Rambla in search of a friend, after she employed a bouquet as weapon of choice in a fight with a prostitute. Then, Barcelona seemed like a most lascivious city, a playground and enabler for the nineteen year-old waifs and strays that rolled in via Barcelona Sants Estacion to wear shorts in November and drink little tinnies of Estrella Damm until 10am, then squeeze in a bit o’ culture before retiring to their hostel bunks. A rather different place to the one I visited on a school trip at fourteen, where we followed our Spanish teacher’s itinerary, comprising a morning at El Corte Inglés – “Europe’s largest department store”! – and an afternoon spent touring a Royal Navy battleship moored in the harbour.
Barcelona appears to be cleaning up its act, however. The residents of the city have had enough of idiots like me ricocheting up and down the shady lanes of at all hours powered by the local brew and have put their feet down. Banners declaring “Volem un Barri Digne” (We Want a Decent Neighbourhood, opposing public boozing, sex and urination found on Barcelona’s streets – yes, generally at the same time – appeared first in el Raval, and then in other neighbourhoods like Barri Gotic and Poble Sec. Though the merriment doesn’t seem to have abated. On my first evening, lolling on the fountain at Placa Real supping a beer and feeling fairly nonchalant about the first drip-drips of rain that later formed a 48-hour torrential downpour that only abated on the morning of my departure, I met a pub crawl tout from Sheffield, a slightly desperate former Butlin’s bluecoat with a leatherette tan acquired from three weeks working the backpacker beat. He had a pat line in personal tragedy, said he’s split with his girlfriend whilst on holiday here (“She said we’re breaking up. I said, I can hear you perfectly fine, love”), cadged a summer job and was now having A Really Great Time All The Time (Honestly!) pressing the flesh in as many ways as he could muster.
The beach at Barceloneta is still full of dudes shilling henna tattoos, cerveza, then, after a sizing-you-up beat, hash and they’ll always be a gargantuan group of German schoolchildren in the hostel room next door providing a chorus of hurling all night long. The Barcelona Pipa Club, ostensibly a members-only pipe smoking enthusiast’s joint, is still patronised by ex-pats frazzled on something more than booze. You’ll still get lost in the higgledy piggledy lanes of the Barri Gotic, but always find your way home via the wide, planned boulevards of L’Eixample. Either way, I’m happy anywhere with a decent number of supermarkets (for anthropological thrills: live lobsters! inexplicable vegetables!), that gives good streetlife and has an urban spread that encourages walking so much your legs start easing out of their hip sockets.
There is something definitive, I think, about the gusts of pastry glaze and fag smoke that emit, at pavement level, from underpasses and metro stations here. Budapest, however, does also come in other flavours.
Before this week, we had yet to really breach Buda further than atmospheric transport interchange, Moskva Ter, largely due to the gargantuan, though no less atmospheric, Mammut Mall, which draws us in, every time, from square’s northern edge. (You might call us Mall Conneisseurs: we’ve visited three of the largest in the Budapest metropolitan area already, each time, as if on a whim, by accident, ‘oh look where we are!’).
On Monday, however, we scaled – no – scrambled – no – tramped up the Gellért Hill to the Citadella then over, via Deli Station (where in 2006 we missed the airport bus and endured a hair-raising and wrenchingly-expensive early morning taxi drive to Balaton Airport) and the Mom Park Mall (ouch, caught!) to the Roszadomb. In the Buda Hills, the city does a brackish, lemon yellow, stucco’d thing rather well. These suburbs are famously bourgeoise, positively chi chi, an enclave of residential confections strung over the hill that’s named after the flowers that dervish poet Gúl Baba, entombed nearby, is credited with introducing to the city.
Yesterday I went tramping solo on Margitsziget. This long, straggly island on the Danube has an altogether different feel. In season, it’s a pastoral pleasure palace, with baths, spas, lidos, tennis courts, bike tracks and incongruous contiki-style kiosks doling out canned drinks and (utterly gross) oversized pretzels to the sweaty. In winter, most of its attractions are closed and hemmed in by wire fences or functioning undercover, to protect tennis courts and outdoor pools from rain and autumn leaves.
What’s left is astonishing in its own right; modernist leisureworld architecture outcropped against skeletal trees, with the Buda Hills rising beyond on one hand and the concrete towerblocks of the Újlipótváros that line the Danube on the other.