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Hungarian Impressions

By Anaïs JEANNERET Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge

Impeded by misshapen bags that bump and catch on the arm rests, two passengers are going up the airplane aisle with difficulty. The man behind me grows impatient and thumps my shoulder hoping, undoubtedly, that I free the passage towards the exit quickly. I could care less about the slow pace of the disembarking, but I am furious. Furious with myself. Furious for having accepted this escapade at the very moment my editor was pressuring me to turn in my new novel. What’s more, I am furious for not managing to move forward in my work, as if paralyzed for weeks by the fear of not living up to the reception my last book got.

 

I had received the invitation in midsummer. It involved spending three days in Budapest then writing a few lines for a tourist guide. I didn’t know the city, I was still in the euphoria of success. I had shown Croatia to Sonia. She laughed all the time her hearty laugh, her skin became browner, softer each day and I loved her incredible body and her expressive face as varying as an Atlantic sky. We would spend the afternoons in the coolness of our room making love. Then we’d run barefoot on the white stones to the sea and dive in the deep water. Without thinking, I had accepted the proposition. Then I had forgotten it.

On the gangway connecting the Airbus to the air terminal I can feel, despite the glass walls, the ice-cold December air that is awaiting me outside. It is four in the afternoon. A grey fog has already dimmed the daylight. The idea of going back to Paris without even leaving the airport crosses my mind. If I had missed the plane, if the stewardess hadn’t reopened the check-in for me, I would be home, seated at my desk. For that matter George Valenet, the director of the travel book collection, wasn’t at our meeting place at Roissy. He must have waited for me then left, surely thinking that I was no longer coming.

The airport resembles all the other big airports in the world. Same rushed crowd, same signs, same shops as in New York or Rome. Nothing indicated that I was I Hungary rather than Singapore. Someone taps me on the shoulder.

– Arnaud Milan! Hello. George Valenet. I thought you had changed your mind and decided not to come.

– I nearly missed the flight.

– Glad that you’re here. I thought I saw you tumble into the plane but I wasn’t sure, I was sitting all the way in the back.

The woman smiles at me. This woman first-named George. I must look like an idiot because an ironic spark flashes in her eyes. Evidently she is used to surprising those she meets for the first time. I had had her on the phone in August. Her voice composed and rather deep, then a few mails that I had received signed with this first name whose resonance is devoid of ambiguity had sufficed so that, in my imagination, George Valenet was a delicate man. My escort is the exact opposite. Long silhouette full of self-confidence, George is an elegant blond, – this is how to refer to pretty women when one does not desire them. Or when one has ceased desiring them. The adjective rang like an insult to my ex-wife. “You can keep for yourself your old husband’s compliments. Before, you found me sexy ! Now you find me elegant.” The divorce had closed the debate. But Elegant had become the novel to which I owe my new stature of a recognized writer, a stature all the more inhibiting as I didn’t think I had written, there, my best text.

 

While George gives our hotel address to the taxi driver, I am thinking about the three days I will have to share with this stranger. Things would have been simpler with her male version. I would have announced up front my wish to visit the city alone, to better let myself be charmed by Budapest. But I received an education where gallantry is not optional and my guide was already running through our program: the Parliament, the baths, a boat trip on the Danube, the synagogue, Pest, then Buda and tomorrow evening, dinner with the French Ambassador. Of course, she added, these are only suggestions.

-I hope you won’t mind, but this evening I must see a friend. You are welcome, obviously,unless you prefer to rest.

I try not to let any of my relief show.

-That’s perfect, I’ll make the most of it by working.

-So, we will meet again tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock, does that suit you?

I arrive in my room. Seized by the view, I throw my travel bag flying onto the bed. Budapest is offering itself to me at last. Earlier, in the taxi, I didn’t see anything but the motorway in the twilight, then the frozen drizzle that erased the stone facades and the Danube, certainly wider than the Seine, which cut the city in two. Night has now fallen and through the bay window, I discover a painting of shadows and gold. On the opposite bank, a church and a vast palace, both illuminated, overhang the river and the bank where I am. Below, the bridges sparkle with thousands of lights. On my right, a monument, all jagged with Neo Gothic towers projects its amber reflection on the waters it grazes. Everywhere, on the embankments, in the streets, the headlights shine like agitated fireflies. As many lights that light a thick, low fog. Wrapped in this opalescence, the city seems isolated from the rest of the world, timeless. Since when have I felt such intoxication, such a sense of freedom ? I am elsewhere. I am in a closed universe animated by agitations perfectly foreign to me. It seems to me I have reached an unreal country peopled by muffled elves who run in all directions. My daydream is interrupted like a soap bubble bursts with the ringing of my cell phone.

-So, how is it there?

-Not bad.

-They say Budapest is very romantic. I’m going to join you. I found a flight tomorrow morning.

 

-We’ll come back another time.

-Why not now? We’ll discover the city together, and I can sleep next to you. I hate sleeping without you.

-It’s just three nights.

-Exactly, it’s very long.

-No, Sonia. I’m going to take advantage of being here to pick up the thread of my novel. I really have to get back to it. In the end, it’s a good thing. Aside from strolling the streets, I won’t be distracted by anything.

-I don’t like it when you call me Sonia.

-And yet it’s your first name?!

-Usually you give me tender nicknames. Sonia, that’s when you’re not in love.

-Listen, I’m not here to have fun but to work. We’ll talk later.

I hang up with the impression of deja vu. Immediately popping up on my telephone screen is a photo of a pouting Sonia. Then a text. “Since you aren’t succeeding in writing your novel, you have only to write another one which will be entitled Sonia”. I hold back a bitter smile.

 

Upon waking, I open the curtains. I simultaneously squint, dazzled by an unexpected brightness. The flakes fell on the city that the night had buried under a heavy blanket of snow. Like two lines of charcoal, the embankment buttresses underline the grey-green Danube. All the rest is white, – the streets, the roofs, the smoke that escapes in scrolls above the buildings’ chimneys, the sky, the least oxygen particle. I stay in front of the window a long moment. Winter is a festival. The cold doesn’t affect me. Death doesn’t exist. Time is motionless. It doesn’t last, my mobile rings. I hope that George is not already waiting for me in the hotel foyer. But I hear Sonia’s childish voice, that voice I have never gotten used to as it exaggerates our age difference. I met Sonia last year while participating in a television program for which she was working as an assistant. So her thirty years of age gave me a feeling of power that rendered my turning fifty painless, a milestone which plunged my friends into acute nervousness.

-I hope you had a bad night.

-To tell the truth, I slept like a log. I went out last night. I found myself in an open-sky bar, in the courtyard of a building. There were lots of people, it was quite gay. It was freezing cold. To warm myself up, I drank two glasses of Hungarian alcohol, a terrific thing. When I got back, I fell asleep in two seconds.

-I’m arriving this evening.

-I’m dining with the ambassador.

-I’ll go with you. It will give me the oppotunity to wear my red dress.

 

-No red dress, no ambassador. You are staying in Paris. It’s snowing here, you wouldn’t like it. I’ll be there on Sunday.

Her silence was interrupted by a second call signal.

I find George in the foyer. She is wearing fur-lined boots, a heavy coat, a huge scarf and a wool bonnet pushed down to her eyes. Nothing to do with the photo I have just received of Sonia languishing on the bed. Every time, I’m torn between self-indulgence and annoyance. This mode of communication entertains me less and less. In the good times when we were separated a several days , my wife and I would each kept an in-absence diary. During our reunions we’d read each other’s. The selfies Sonia ceaselessly sent me fed my nostalgia for sentences bedded in paper, from the voluptuous process of writing springs the wildest of dreams.

 

-Good morning, Arnaud. We’ll walk, if that’s okay with you. It’s the best way to see a city. George seems to know Budapest perfectly and guides me with assurance. The crackling of our

 

steps on the fresh snow fills the silence. A few cars go by in a hiss. My guide sometimes slows down in front of a building, raises her head, I do likewise and thus discover an art deco facade, a neoclassical building, a baroque church.

We criss-cross the streets all morning. The snow has stopped falling and the automobiles transform the roads into streams of black water. George stops in front of a bistro. The waiter greets us in Hungarian and hands us two menus. It is an incomprehensible language that resembles nothing familiar, except, perhaps, an imaginary language from Game of Thrones . George orders something in English. I don’t know what to have, the names of the dishes don’t mean anything to me. Seeing my embarrassment, the waiter suggests: “Take the same thing as your wife .” George seems not to have heard. She’s looking outside. Impossible to tell what she is thinking of. “Okay, give me the same”, I say, so that the man would go away.

 

She lets me talk, which I do too willingly, probably to avoid the silence I feel her capable of. When I ask her questions, her answers immediately bring us back to me or to trivial subjects. Her most intimate confession, is admitting her love for the works of Bosh and Bacon. I ready to ask her if this preference comes from the painters’ perspective on human tragedy, but she has already moved on to something else and informs me that Hungary was the birthplace of numerous photographers, among them: Brassaï, Robert Capa or Lucien Hervé. For the rest, I have no idea if she is married, if she has children, what she does when she’s not looking after the tourist guide collection. Knowing nothing suits me and adds to the feeling of a complete change of scene. I like that this woman keeps her mystery. I’m satisfied with her smile, serene and solar.

 

She decides to take me to discover the Szechenyl baths before the snow melts. Considering the weather, I only moderately feel like getting into water, even if it were hot. But I am curious to see the famous chess players, bare-chested, bodies immersed.

We go by the hotel briefly to take our bathing suits. I find several messages from Sonia on my answering machine. The last one announces that she is preparing to go to dinner with a friend, “Just for the pleasure of putting on my red dress”. I don’t call her back.

The subway reminds me of my childhood, when everything was in earthenware tiles and varnished wood. But this is a miniature subway. In a few minutes we arrive at the end of the line. We are, again, in open air in the middle of a park, and discover a huge neo baroque building whose dark yellow explodes in the snowy landscape.

In the changing room, the men, mostly young, speak loudly and sharply and their voices resonate in the shower maze. I undress hurriedly, impatient to leave this noisy and humid place without having more desire to go out into the cold, nearly naked and what’s more pale and with my three kilos too many. At that instant, I dream of regaining the cozy solitude of my hotel room.

 

I push the door that leads to the outdoor baths. Everything is blurred before this vast vaporous space surrounded by ochre walls. In contact with the frigid air, the water at 38 degrees releases a thick fog in which the bathers get lost. This surrealistic scene leaves me breathless, as much by its timeless beauty as by the thermal shock. I continue on the terrace. Two plunge pools surround a swimming pool. The one on the right is packed, I opt for the one on the left. The snow burns my feet. I look for George in all this evanescence. But she must still be changing her clothes. Sliding

 

into the hot water, I understand instantaneously the enthusiasm for these thermal baths. My muscles relax. My breathing is freed. In spite of the lack of privacy amid all these strangers, I feel like I’m returning to the amniotic world. Each one is submerged to the waist and wanders like an astronaut in a weightless environment. A girl passes in front of me. Her spectacular breasts, barely covered by a tiny bikini top, brush against me and offer themselves to my glance before being erased by the swirls of smoke. She is headed towards a group whose howls of laughter ring out just nearby. I just have the time to notice her totally tattooed back. Sonia, she also has a tattoo, a multi-colored butterfly perched on the nape of her neck. Each time I get a glimpse of it, it’s like seeing a bloodstain.

– Arnaud!

I turn around. So as not to wet it, George tied her hair up in a negligent bun. I see her delicate and square shoulders and her graceful neck.

– There are so many people everywhere, she seems to apologize.

-You hadn’t told me we were going to a rave party ! She laughs.

-Of course not, you would have never come.

-And there isn’t a single chess player. I, who came all the way from Paris especially for them !

-With all this steam, they would have a good amount of trouble seeing the chessboard.

-Indeed. But I thought there were only old people crippled with rheumatism here ! – You must never trust tour guides ! She murmurs with a smile.

Two couples bump into us. The boys are body-built and the girls made up as if going to a night club. They start hopping in place while shouting at the newcomers.

The crowd thickens. Bodies mingle, odors mix. I grab George by the hand and lead her to a slightly calmer corner of the plunge pool. We progress slowly in water that feels hotter and hotter. I plow through the fleecey opacity. It’s like when an airplane, seen from the cockpit, enters a dense cloud formation. You think you’re hitting a wall, but no, nothing happens. Just a fugitive sensation of imbalance. I am overtaken by giddiness…It is pleasant. I could close my eyes and I wouldn’t lose myself more. Sonia…she is here. In front of me. Half erased in the suffocating fog. In the middle of a mob, she is dancing, her head tilted back in an expression unknown to me. I jump up and turn around in an avoidance instinct. I bump into George. My arms open, close around her, hold on to her. It’s so soft. I feel her skin against mine. My heart is racing. It seems to me I have known her from eternity.