The broken heart of Budapest

(This was my first column for Getaway travel magazine, commissioned by Sonya Schoeman)

There was a woman I loved but she didn’t love me any more, so I was in Budapest alone. Travel is supposed to ease a broken heart, but it didn’t work for me. I woke too early and simmered in the high-summer heat and wished I was somewhere else: at home, or in a coma, or wherever she was.
I went out walking. As long as you’re moving, your heart is too busy to break. I walked while the sun rose and the city woke, through the narrow side streets, past the dark basement wine bars and a café selling goulash soup. I drank white Hungarian wine for lunch, standing up somewhere off Garibaldi Utca. ‘Sit down,’ said the barman. ‘Enjoy the shade. It’s hot.’
He was right: in the evenings the thunder rolled like a big copper-bound wine barrel down a cobbled alley and during the day it felt like the sky was the inside of a low metal lid. But I had to keep moving.
‘It’s all right,’ I told the barman. ‘I’m from Africa.’Budapest is shaped like a broken heart itself – the high hill of Buda with the castle and the old city looking down across the flat plains of Pest, and the Danube running between them like an arrow, green in the sunlight but blue where clouds pass over it. Ducks and gulls ride downstream from bridge to bridge, two by two, looking back in the direction from which they came.

I crossed the Chain Bridge with its big stone lions that don’t have any tongues and past the Americans waiting for the funicular up to the palace. I climbed the stairs and the stairs went up and up and I started to feel dizzy. I remembered that coming from Africa meant I should know well enough to stay in the shade.

I stumbled through the palace grounds and tried to dunk myself in a fountain but a guard moved me along. Somewhere on Fortuna Utca I tried to sit down on a doorstep and missed the step and rolled a little way down the pavement.

An old man with white hair and a white moustache helped me up.

‘Drunk?’ he said.

‘Hot,’ I replied.

He helped me around the corner.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked.

Even half-witted, broken-hearted fools from Africa need to know where Hungarians with white moustaches are taking them.

‘We go to my shop,’ he said.

He unlocked a blue wooden door and led me into the cool and took out a bottle of beer and told me to wait while he went to fetch lemonade.

I was in a small bookshop. The walls were lined with high wooden shelves holding paperbacks and hardcovers, all in English. The sunlight came through chinks in the wooden shutters in thin marbled sheets. It smelt like paper and ink and shade.

He came back with the lemonade and poured us radlers and we sat and sipped and spoke about business. He doesn’t do very well any more, he told me. These days people travel with Kindles.

I asked him why the stone lions on the Chain Bridge don’t have tongues. ‘They do,’ he said. ‘You just can’t see them from below.’

I told him about my broken heart and he fetched a framed photograph from behind the counter. It showed a man and a woman, arm in arm on a Budapest street, posing for the photographer with smiles as bright as the sun. They were young and they looked very happy.

‘We were married for 35 years,’ he said.

He told me that not everyone finds the right woman.

‘How do you know when you have?’ I asked him.

‘She doesn’t go away,’ he said, and with his finger he wiped away some droplets of moisture on the side of his beer glass. ‘Not until she has no choice.’

The dusk was falling blue outside, like the inside of a mussel shell.

‘If you don’t have a broken heart when you come here,’ said the old man, ‘Budapest will break it for you.’

I bought a fine hardcover copy of Ficciones by Borges but it cost 2500 forint and I didn’t have enough on me so he gave me a discount. I said goodbye and he sat in an armchair with a tasselled lamp behind him and opened a book on his lap.

I crossed the road to walk back down the hill to the long, dark river where the orange lights from the piers and the bridges made broken golden streaks on the black water. When I looked back I saw his lamp glowing in the window, an old man with his head bent over his book.

Travel won’t mend your broken heart but sometimes it shows you other hearts, and that is nearly as good.

Getaway, 25 August 2014