December 25, 2018
It’s been seventeen years since I first traveled to Budapest with my string quartet. The tour was scheduled to depart one week after 9-11, but all flights were grounded after the air attack on New York. I phoned each musician to ask if they still wanted to travel, and each gave the answer that was already on my mind—I had never wanted to travel outside of the country more than I did in that moment.
Air France came through with a full-capacity plane, and we boarded with Europeans who had been stranded for days. It was the first time we’d had to scrutinize every piece of carry-on luggage, and despite our efforts to follow the new list of suspect items, one colleague was stopped at security and stripped of his fingernail clippers. I glanced back in time to see his face turn beet red, but his frustration piqued only after we discovered that he could purchase new fingernail clippers inside the terminal.
The flight was quiet, and anxious. When we landed in Paris on 9-19 a loud cheer erupted from the main cabin, and travelers, even strangers, hugged each other.
In all moments of infamy (so I’m told) there are no strangers.
The people we met while performing and touring from Budapest to Amsterdam stayed on my mind, and when I received an invitation to return to Budapest the following Christmas, I jumped at the opportunity.
I needed to plan around a very late-season set of (Handel’s) Messiah performances at Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco, and at the Mondavi Center, in Davis. My flights took me to Vienna, and then to Budapest, where I followed instructions to a small but very clean two-star bed and breakfast near the sports arena. I arrived late on Christmas Eve, the sidewalks were frozen, and I was tired. The man at the desk was noticeably annoyed when I paid in Hungarian forints rather than American dollars. My little room looked out onto a wall of stark apartments with barely twinkling Christmas lights in some windows, and I thought, “I have come all this way just to be in Chicago.”
A note from my host Éva read, “See you tomorrow.”
But, two hours into my sleep, the phone rang.
It was Éva. She and her daughter were in the lobby, and I had minutes to dress and meet them at the car—we were off to midnight mass! This was the beginning of an adventure that would take a similar, unpredictable turn each day.
Groggy, and feeling as though I must be dreaming, I watched Éva’s little car careen through the narrow snowy streets of downtown Budapest. She parked on an icy sidewalk next to St. Stephen’s cathedral and we ran through the giant doors and up to the choir loft. She motioned for me to sit on a step next to the choir director, near the organ console. I was welcomed by everyone, and instantly steeped in the rich harmonies of Hungarian carols. A large congregation stood below us, illuminated by warm candlelight, and centuries-old traditions came to life.
Éva had been our tour guide and interpreter in 2001. She belonged to a musical family, and was trained, as all Hungarian children were, in the Kodály singing method. She had known Kodály in the 1950s and ’60s and thought it strange that our American culture did not support music education as the Hungarians still do. Their singing culture was, in large part, what had kept them buoyant and hopeful through decades of Soviet occupation.
On Christmas night, Éva’s husband brought me to their efficiency apartment where they lived with their 14-year-old daughter. I had brought gifts from California, including a lemon from a friend’s tree, and based on their response to that lemon I wished I’d brought more. Dinner was covered in a sauce that turned each food item into the same mysterious shape and color. All three of them stood behind me as I took my first bite, and waited for me to say “delicious!” before they sat down at the table. When I finished all but a morsel of that full plate, they asked, “didn’t you like it?” and then served another plate of almost the same volume when I replied to the positive.
We played chamber music that night, and every night. They also quizzed me on the benefits of democracy—something that was very new to them. They talked a lot about Canada, where Éva had spent a year on student exchange.
We were invited to a live broadcast inside the 1930s Art Nouveau radio station, and I attended a televised performance of Romani bands at the ornate Hungarian State Opera House with a friend of their family.
Following an afternoon in the thermal pools of the Gellert Baths, I drew the attention of streetcar riders as I returned across the Erzsébet Bridge on foot, in sub-zero weather, radiating enormous amounts of steam (through triple layers of clothing) from my well-soaked self.
In conversation, Éva discovered that we had the same birthday and that changed our relationship from an acquaintance to extended family. She repurposed that evening by sharing photo books from her birth to the present day, thereby introducing me to all of her relatives, living and dead. Days later, when we became lost in a snow storm en route to a violin shop outside of the city, she became agitated, but then remembered that we shared the same birthday and replied that it had all been worthwhile.
Christmas in Budapest is beautiful. I took the tram to the decorated city center each day, listened to street musicians, and enjoyed what was my last glimpse of the family owned crystal shops that once lined the Váci Utca. Small family businesses, including subterranean outlets that sold excellent Hungarian paprika, have since closed or changed hands, and much of the traditional character has been lost to escalating costs of living. Nevertheless, Budapest remains a remarkable destination, and EU funds have been put to use restoring its historic buildings and exquisite public baths.
I have returned to Budapest on two more occasions but I never saw Éva’s family again. We corresponded by email for a period of years, but ten years passed, and by the time of my next visit they had disappeared, somewhere, out into the world.
Photo: The Gellert Baths across the Danube River, and the Erzsébet Bridge.
Posted: December 25, 2018
Photos: Cynthia Albers
All Rights Reserved © Cynthia Albers, 2018