Pilgrims, or The Coming Together of Buda and Pest

JEREMY PASSED MUCH OF THE AUTUMN SEARCHING FOR THE SECRET OF EXISTENCE IN PRAGUE. He didn't find it, although he met some cool people and took his first line of speed. It was a typical autumn in Prague, in other words. The dark skies of winter set in, and life retreated to the bars and Christmas markets. Jez, being Australian, became annoyed by the high numbers of young Americans in Prague because it was trendy or a good place to reflect. One particularly depressing December morning, stuck on a koan on devotion, Jez bundled up his diaries and self-help manuals, walkman and tapes, loaded his backpack and caught a train to Hungary.

Budapest was like Prague before grunge. It was due to the Danube River, no doubt, and all the remnants of Soviet kitsch. Still lugging his backpack Jez caught a tram down Kosztolányi Dezső tér to Deák Ferenc tér, traversing a good part of the inner city. He strolled over Vörösmarty tér, a large grey square, followed the Danube to the granite Chain Bridge. Crossing in a narrow pedestrian lane, elaborate ironwork sprouting, stout men in overcoats touting, Jez felt some sort of Old World nostalgia, the type of nostalgia in which it doesn't matter if you've never lived in Europe, even if you don't have a single European gene. It just was (or so to speak).

Sunset on the Danube, in the 1990s, courtesy of Bing Image Create

On the far side of the bridge, Jez puffing in the pale air, a steep cable car clambered to Castle Hill. He climbed it and spent close to an hour just entranced by the view. A Korean couple in ski jackets asked if he could take their photo.

That evening he stopped at a cafe which looked cosy enough and ordered a big plate of gulyás (goulash). He drafted quick character references on the patrons for future reference, in one of his journals:

Some bloke who had to be called László, a wannabe kickboxer;
A dour actor who had discovered that now his plays were legal, no-one came to see them;
A doodling youth in a Béla Tarr T-shirt;

x, y, and z, the smoky atmosphere of the place, the streetlights through the fogged windows and cobblestones beyond, all that nostalgic stuff. The revolutionary newspapers folded paprika stained around the cafe. It was the sort of establishment Jez could set a spy thriller in, if he ever got around to it. Then there was this woman with dreads and what appeared to be a marble threaded in her hair sitting in the corner, reading an anthology of lesbian fiction.

Not really Soviet kitsch at all, and barely Old Europe. Their eyes met.

She went back to reading her anthology. An hour later, while Jez was struggling with a Hungarian phrasebook to order Rövid kávé, served with a shot of espresso, she strolled over carrying her anthology still open to the page.

<<I knew you were a foreigner>> she said flopping into one of the empty seats. <<Let me guess: English?"

<<Australian>> Jez confessed. She was American and sounded west coast. <<I'm Jez. Let me guess: LA?>>

<<No>> she said, <<San Francisco. I'm from the big Jewish community in Berkeley. I'm trying real hard to be Hungarian though. Obviously it's not working.>>

<<Fucking hell>> Jez gushed <<I know that feeling. I was on Castle Hill this afternoon blending into the ambience, putting on all the local mannerisms, when a Korean couple asked if I wanted them to take a photo of me. So they could take it home and put it on their fucking mantelpiece. It spoiled everything.>>

<<God's sake>> she hasn't even given her name yet <<you were on Castle Hill.>> And she gave him a look which assessed the extent of his idiocy as well as implying exciting sex.

<<Oh yeah>> Jez conceded. <<And I suppose my backpack kind of gave it away.>>

My writing is full of these coincidental meetings, these neat symmetries and three-dimensional ironies. The real world is far more ironic than I could even comprehend. To be honest, the above conversation is mostly fabrication. Lisa and Jez did meet in the Matyó Kávézó on a cold December night, but there was no doodling youth, and he drank decaf instead of the harder stuff. In actuality they spent most of the first half hour talking about Hungarian food. Lisa then explained she was studying literature in Budapest for the year but was having trouble finding friends. Jez broached that he was searching for the meaning of life.

<<That could be an endless quest. There could well be no meaning. How exactly did you end up in this obscure corner of eastern Europe?>>

Jez signalled for another coffee. <<That's a very good question. Maybe I felt drawn.>>

<<Perhaps you lived here in another life. I'm pretty sure I did.>>

<<Oh gawd>> Jez said, a bit melodramatic in retrospect, "another reincarnation convert.>> Praha had been full of them and many of them had dreads.

<<It goes against established Jewish belief, to be sure. But it makes a lot more sense than the Judeo-Christian alternative. To live 70 years, attend church or synagogue twice a year and go to Heaven... what's the point of that? What can you learn in 70 years, what can you contribute to Creation? I laugh at this world of overstressed, dysfunctional fools who expect to be transformed into beings of bliss the moment they pass the pearly gates. If they went straight to Heaven they'd take all their dysfunctions and prejudices with them. Before long it wouldn't be paradise no more.>>

The conversation had become by this stage an indivisible movement between them, a series of cafe gestures endlessly repeated over the course of two hours. It was as if a cellular division had occurred, and they carried the trace of a shared thing in their voices... or maybe they were just copying each other. This doubling is quite ordinary, really, and also quite necessary for the evolution of the planet. Had you been there, you would have been struck by the two mimes. The two talking heads, here nodding in agreement, now shaking in opposition, thrust and parry, harmony in the extremes. She couldn't remember what he said but she was certain she was listening, that she raised her hand toward her chin and rested her head there, which he followed, that she creased her brow preceding his brow creasing, that she responded with a pre-arranged face made up of all the writing he had told her to read and all the writing she was, and he repeated her, or she him, and then again the same whatever he said, she said.

<<I've got one main problem with reincarnation>> Jez was arguing at one point. <<In Buddha's time the population of the world was much smaller than it is now. Maybe there were only 10 million people tops. Now what is there, five billion or something? And the population is going up every day. Where do all those extra souls come from?>>

LISA WENT HOME WITHOUT leaving her phone number and Jez wasted the next three days wondering where she was. He'd picked up women in grimy London pubs and Dutch coffeeshops but with Lisa it was different, there was kind of a longevity to her smile which implied more than exciting sex. Sex might be a part of it, but their compatibility radiated into more dimensions than the grindingly mundane. He knew at once that they had to be meant for each other.

Jez tried looking for work in backpacker bars but it was too cold, it wasn't the tourist season. So he rode the villamos (tram) from bridge to bridge and snapped b/w photos of the Danube (I know it's a cliche). It snowed and he got into a snow fight with some kids in knitted headwear who then rammed ice down the back of his shirt until he said "Give!>> He caught the flu from that. In the end he spent a lot of time hanging around his lonely pension listening to underground techno radio stations and perusing those self-help manuals. They weren't much help now.

I know it's a cliche... one night Jez was walking near the Central Market when it commenced snowing hard. Seeking cover on account of his flu, he ducked under the nearest awning... which happened to be belong to the Gerbeaud Café. The windows were fogged over but somehow betrayed scents of paprika and freshly ground coffee. He entered, ordered a plate of lángos and then noticed Lisa reading her anthology by the fireplace.

<<Oh shit>> Lisa exclaimed <<these weird twists always happen...>>

<<I haven't been doing too much>> he related over his first Turkish coffee <<Ijust play the fucking tourist role (and I said I'd avoid it!) I've just walked around the city, and I've got caught villamoses to all the castles, and I've taken pictures of Communist graffiti. Oh, and I've seen more fucking stone bridges than all the Korean tourists in Europe.>>

<<Those stone>> she insisted <<fucking bridges, you don't know how important they are. They're the ligaments which hold this city together. Have you heard the story of Buda and Pest, how they overcame the separation of the Danube to unite in this wondrous, breathing, Paris-of-the-East metropolis?>>

THE UNION OF BUDA and Pest is such an excellent metaphor for the story of Lisa and Jez. It's even more brilliant because it was completely unintended... I only realized it halfway through paragraph 15. As Microsoft Encarta described, Budapest consists of two core districts, Buda on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east side. They have been settled since before the Christian Diaspora and variously occupied by Romans, Vandals, Avars, Germans and Tatars. In 1361 Buda became the capital of Hungary; Pest became instead a leading European commercial centre. During the Ottoman invasion of Hungary Pest was taken in 1526 and Buda in 1541. When the Turks were driven out in 1686 both cities were in ruins. They recovered quickly, however, and became focal points of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1872, after nearly 2000 years of separation, the cities were united into Budapest. The Iron Curtain of the Danube had been breached.17

<<Kinda like yin and yang Jez not even aware of how Prague he sounded around her.

<<The universe is basically the story of how opposites merge>> Lisa not aware of it either.

<<Lisa," he began, as butterflies ran amock in his stomach <<I've been inter... er, thinking a lot about you these days. I'm really glad, you know, this second meeting.>>

<<I'm really glad about the first meeting>> she said. She took a long sip of her cup coffee, seductive as a siren, feminine as fuck. <<Shit man, all you have to do is ask. I'm free tomorrow.>>

Hungary made the mistake of siding with Germany in the Second World War and was roundly punished. On February 13, 1945, after a 50-day siege, Budapest was taken by Soviet armies. In 1956 the city was the center of a popular uprising against the Soviet-influenced government, which was brutally put down by the tanks of the Red Army.

<<I was thinking about our little discussion on reincarnation>> Lisa said. <<The population of the world is going up all the time, but the number of souls should stay the same. So where do they all come from?>>

<<Yeah, that was the one>> said Jez hopefully.

<<What if souls can split into separate incarnations, living at the same time but in different parts of the world?>> she pondered.

Jez was skeptical. <<How could the same soul be in two different bodies at once? That doesn't make any sense.>>

<<It might not sense to you, because you're not seeing the whole picture. Your oversoul would be able to grasp it though and understand. Your smaller self might also glimpse those other yous in a dream, or hear about them on the news. If you're lucky, you might even meet them in the flesh. Your soul-double, your soul-brother or sister. Your soul family. When you meet them, you will know. That moment of intense connection.>>

<<I thought I saw my doppelgänger in Portugal>> Jez admitted.

<<They're out there, dude. But that doesn't mean you should got looking for them>> she warned.

IT WAS RAINING SO HARD the next day they didn't go anywhere except Lisa's apartment, located in a backstreet of the Jewish district. It was an ornate affair only faintly modified by grunge: up an intricate spiral staircase on the third floor of an Art Nouveau building, which she shared with a gay Hungarian couple who spoke sparse English, some Bosnian guy who looked happy enough despite the war and a Portuguese exchange student girl who liked trance and hard house. They cleared off when Jez arrived and he was escorted to her bedroom, incense curling in his hair and books, titles in French and Hungarian and English, stacked roughly on shelves and heaped on the floor with her bottles of perfume and abandoned frocks. Because he was nervous he flicked through one of the books, an English translation of the Hungarian poet Móricz Zsigmond.

<<It's amazing how many streets are named after writers or intellectuals here>> Lisa gushed. "<<here's József Attila utca, Petőfi Sándor utca, Móricz Zsigmond körtér. I see you're reading him now.>>

<<What amazes me more>> Jez said, <<is that both of us are here, thousands of miles from our respective homes, in the middle of this cold winter. You're from sunny San Francisco and I'm from sunny Sydney, and we're struggling to make do in this strange city, and what the fuck does Hungary mean to us anyway?>>

small><<I try not to think about it too much>> she said. small><<I've just always had the urge to travel, to experience foreign cultures. Like I said before, it could be that reincarnation business...small>>>

<<Reincarnation has nothing to do with it. The reason must go even deeper. I know what you mean about that travel itch, I've always had it. But it's more than just a desire to move on, to see new things. The latest new thing. It's a pilgrimage, you could say... and it burns like nothing else.>>

Lisa kissed him on the forehead and, meeting no resistance, gave him a pash18 to write home about.

"Fucking hell>> Jez said some time later. "Kinda like yin and yang, huh?"

"Shush!" Lisa said and pashed him again.

ONE YEAR LATER JEZ was in on Koh Phangan Island, Thailand for the Full Moon party and he was raving mad (quite literally.) The moon was rising, he'd swallowed a concoction of pills and the bass drum was pounding like a demented jackhammer. Momentarily craving for noodles or iced coffee, he headed to a beachside bar which had thatched palm leaves for a roof and a bunch of plastic tables and chairs. Then there was this woman with dreads and what appeared to be a marble threaded in her hair sitting in the corner... anyway, you get the picture.

Full Moon party, on Koh Phangan, Thailand, back in its heyday.

<<Three times in one year>> Lisa noted, grinning wildly. >>And people say there's no such thing as a higher force!>>

Jez might not have thought this initially, but I did: Why is that things always happen in threes? This tripling is quite ordinary, really, and also quite necessary for the evolution of the cosmos. It is not cause and effect and there's no meaning to be deciphered either - the medium is the message, it is what it is, shit happens. Her legs up against his shoulders, his hands kneading the swells of her body, the thrusting, the yielding. Necks straining, all the curves in flux and pulsing as in a race or contest. The violence and ecstasy of reunion.

It doesn't really matter where or when it happened and it certainly doesn't matter why. The details are superfluous. At the very least, all you can say is that stuck on a koan on devotion, Jez met Lisa in a cafe. All the rest is theater.


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Literary Me, at the Halfway House Squared