Coming Home (pt 2)

Home. Andrassy 19. My last flat in Budapest. Searching for the familiar old creaky door – I hope I can sneak in – I find in its place a glossy black replica, thrown wide open, flanked by potted lollipop topiary and a doorman in a dark suit and earwig. György Gattyán, who made millions on a popular porn website called LiveJasmin, has transformed my building into an impossibly posh clothing store – Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. He named it, quite cheekily, Il Bacio di Style (the Kiss of Style). At least it’s not il Eiaculazione di Style.

I pass through the perfumed air pumped onto the street and cross the threshold. I am sweaty and red-faced and wearing shorts and Tevas. I expect to be escorted out immediately, but the muscle only nods.

What was once dark and soot-covered is now brightly lit and painted a creamy white. All the cracks in the stucco have been smoothed over. In the courtyard two impeccably dressed attendants sit behind a glass case filled with designer sunglasses. The walls emit soothing Euro-style easy listening.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor, where I once lived. Inside the car, there’s a small flatscreen display and more perfumed air. The doors glide open and I step out. My neighbor’s flat – the one facing Andrassy – now sells men’s apparel. Two murmuring young attendants in dark suits smile and nod “hallo” to me. I remedy my slaw jaw and nod back, passing through backlit displays of crisp suits towards my front door.

My apartment now houses a pair of escalators. The “down” escalator starts in my bedroom – where, on their first mission, thieves once stole my beloved but not particularly valuable currency collection – and passes through my living room on its way to the 3rd floor. The “up” escalator starts in my teeny kitchen – where the same thieves, on their second time in my apartment, stole Tupperware, for lack of anything else of value – and crosses through my living room on its way to the top floor, where there is now a chic café/restaurant with views of the Basilica. And that’s it. No longer a place to live or linger, it’s a place from which you must move either up or down.

I return to the wide stairway and start down. After two flights I realize that muscle memory has kicked in. My legs know precisely how many stairs per flight and how high the risers will be. Descending the last flight I pass another patron, on her way up. She’s about 40, maybe 45, but her leathery face betray a tougher life than my own. Her hair is cheap bleached blonde. Tight, short, white cotton dress, with a peephole at the neckline from which protrude freckled, size FFF watermelons. I suspect she is a former, not current, employee.

On my way out, I take a picture of the Pink Panther statue.

Image

The next day’s walking tour of the 6th district finds surprising reminders of things forgotten: metal frames from broken window shades protruding awkwardly from a concrete-block building. Signs advertising Dréher, Borsodi, Soproni. The sharp, spicy aroma of a TV paprika. The 12-foot wide sidewalks on Andrassy, and the 2-foot wide sidewalks along cobbled side streets. The electric hum and rumble of the villamos along the körút.

For the first time in years, I’m gripped by a sudden compulsion to write…and don’t stop!

The crumbling, grey walls are painted with street art, with graffiti. Cafés, photography shops, kerts, and quality – it all add up to a tension and electricity that inspires creativity and seems almost…well, optimistic. My memories of Budapest are of dark cellar sörözö pubs, choked with cigarette smoke, packed with young people hunched over pints of beer. The pints remain, but now they are being drunk at ground level, outside, in “ruin pubs” (aka kerts) that have been tastefully and quirkily decorated to thoroughly out-hipster Brooklyn. By kilometers.

I wander the boiling streets compiling a list of things same and different. Same: air quality. Different: ability to buy “emergency chips & salsa”. Different: little to no dog shit. Same: crumbling walls, soot, graffiti. Different: very cool street art. Same: see-through dresses (though not so many), short skirts, cleavage. Different: an abundance of Thai, Mexican, Indian restaurants. Different: a fair sprinkle of brown-skinned people. Same: strip-tease bars, “szex” shops. Same: acrid cigarette smoke everywhere.

There’s a new modernity, a level of style, that was absent when I lived here: rare or unavailable comforts  like yoga studios, salad bars, well-made clothing. All this has been sprinkled on top of the same old city, fixed into place with a coat of clear varnish.

Behind every window, in every courtyard, lit up along the river at night, live possibilities, stories to be invented and told. Perhaps these ghost-stories are what attracted me to this place so many years ago, and still do.

I find myself checking listings as I pass real estate offices: 24 million HUF for an 80-m2 flat? I quickly convert that to $100k for an 800-ft2 apartment. Not bad, but not exactly cheap. I can swing that if I sell my place in Brooklyn. Would I live in the 7th district, which is the center of all the nightlife but also all the packs of drunk Brits on lads’ weekends? Or else maybe the 6th, or 5th. Certainly not Buda again! Actually what would be nice would be a view of the river. Someplace on the top floor, of course, to avoid stomping neighbors.

The next day I keep walking, in the other direction, down Dohany utca, then on Kossuth to the rakpart along the river. I feel like I’m searching for some lost thing that I can’t define until I find it. Jégbufe, where it takes expert Hungarian and 4 bouts of standing in line in order to get a cake and coffee. The Astoria Café, delicately restored with chandeliers and red velvet, which should feel majestic but somehow remains dusty and lost in time. The way Kossuth ut seems to splinter apart as it approaches the rakpart.

It’s as if I’m exploring a city from a recurring dream, familiar yet foreign. Any moment now, the world will stop spinning for the briefest millisecond, everything will come into focus and I will know, wholly and completely, precisely where I am, my unique place in the universe.

But that never happens. Not really, anyway. Instead I rediscover a regular city, one dancing with the ghosts of memories.

I no longer become teary-eyed at the sight of a zöldség gyümölcs. I just go in and buy strawberries. It is now quite normal for me to see Tamás (or Tamás) for a coffee. The voice on the radio saying things like “következö” no longer elicits shivers. I get csokolom’d, and it’s all good.

Home.

Image

Advertisements

Ode to Eressos

I’m walking along the narrow streets of ‘pano Eressos late one Monday morning. Chatting with cousin Fani, I’m overcome by some strange yet familiar sensations. My throat feels more open, and more air can flow through my trachea. There’s also more room in my chest – room for my lungs to balloon and stretch, as if waking from a long hibernation. 

The muscles around my mouth relax and feel almost buoyant. They draw my cheeks and lips upward, causing the corners of my eyes to crinkle. 

My heart wriggles and then creeps out from its cave along my spine and into the great room of my chest cavity. Its quadrants expand away from each other, like those polymer toys that quintuple in size when placed in water. 

I feel larger yet much lighter, floating across the cobblestone alley.

Oh right. This is joy. 

 

A thin, sweaty line

The moment I shrugged and got in the taxi, I knew things had turned.

I had been told that the ride from Cancun bus station to the ferry port would cost 40 pesos (about $3.50). When I question the 70 pesos quoted by the taxista, he points across a busy traffic circle to a shared van. Faced with the option of hauling my heavy dive gear and over-packed bag 50 meters to save $3, I choose ease.

Backpacking, especially for an extended period of time, dramatically adjusts internal economics, the value of things. Yes, you absolutely haul your gear 50 meters to save $3, because $3/day saved over one year equals an extra month of travel. These transactions seem insignificant on a daily basis, but will have lasting effects.

But now I’m on vacation. I’m not backpacking. Yes, I’m staying in hostels and eating relatively inexpensive street food. I’m refilling my water bottle for free instead of buying a new one. For the most part, I’m hauling my dive gear instead of taking a taxi. But after three nights in a sweaty corner bunk in a 10-bed dorm, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and sleeping and average of 3 hours/night, the prospect of hauling my gear that extra 50 meters to save New York City pocket change seems impossible, if not foolish.

I shrug and get into the taxi.

A cure for bullshit

Whenever I need a break from bullshit, I go diving. I still remember July 2007, almost a year into the most disorienting and downright wacky job of my life, I took off for a week’s diving in Tobago. After just one dive, the salt cleansed every ounce of bile from my blood. The canned oxygen, sucked in through rented regs, oozed out from my lungs to find and repair frayed nerves. The warm water conducted away all the tension irradiating my body and drowned it like a rat.

And so last Monday morning at 1.30 am I found myself throwing bathing suits and dive gear into a bag. After overpacking in a sleepy delirium, I dug up my dusty passport and called a car service to carry me to the the airport, and freedom.

Twenty hours later I was 20 meters deep, following the bubbles of Ugo de la Sala, co-founder of the  Megalodon Dive Center on the island of Cozumel. It doesn’t matter what we saw, or which dive sites we dove over the past 6 days. What matters is that those 11 dives hammered at my reset button until it took.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since I returned from my experiment with the Range Life, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of flailing. Constructive flailing, however; I did, after all, buy an apartment. And focused flailing; most of it has been experimenting with the right balance of motion for me; always on the road, but not always away.

Now I’m reset. I’ve stopped flailing. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Bear market

“Are you wearing purple on purpose?” Kirstin asks, interrupting my conversation.

I take a sip of wine, blink, and turn my attention away from Dave. I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about. “Uh, well I knew I would be wearing purple when I put on this shirt,” I snark.

Kirstin is the “organizer” (loosely defined) of the evening’s event — a mercifully untelevised, middle-class version of The Millionaire Matchmaker. The men have paid $100 and the women $25 to be matched by Kirstin with other single professionals. The name of the “service” (loosely defined) is Invest in Love.

So far about ten people have filtered in to the event, held in the salmon-and-grey multi-purpose function room of a high-end apartment complex near MIT. The ambiance suggests urban luxury…of the bland sort favored by real estate developers. I imagine the tenants above us, all financiers and VPs of sales & marketing, who wear suits and khakis and talk bigger than they really are.

Down here on the ground floor, we singles mingle. Our ages range from mid-20’s to mid-50’s. Our attire ranges from tight minidress, to navy suit, to jeans the color of dishwater; both they and the person filling them look like they’ve been salvaged from a Dumpster. “Dress code is whatever makes you feel good,” the invitation had said. I’m wearing ink-black cords, mary janes with a 3-inch heel, and makeup hastily bought from Walgreens the day before. And a purple top.

“Oh, don’t you know?” Kirstin prattles on. “Today it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride day. You show your support by wearing purple.”

Is she asking me if I’m a lesbian? After interrupting a conversation with a man she purportedly “love-matched” to me? Is she insane?

Kirstin, as it turns out, is spectacularly incompetent. She has all the frenetic energy but none of the outrageous personality of Patti, the ridiculous yet oddly compelling title character of Millionaire Matchmaker. Patti gets results. She is the Judge Judy of matchmaking: whiny and demanding and opinionated and self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. She is shiny, collagen-enhanced lips; flat-ironed, glossy hair; 6-inch platform heels; décolletage. Perfect sick-day TV.

Kirstin, on the other hand, is a flowered wrap dress and sensible heels – the event planner, say, for a bar mitzvah. Her wavy, mouse-brown hair is inelegantly tousled. Morning mascara still clings to her lashes, though her peach lipstick is fresh.

It’s 15 minutes into the event and most of the guests have yet to arrive. Kirsten, a furious cloud of manic anxiety, periodically interrupts her guests’ halting attempts at sociability to announce a text or call from an attendee-to-be. “Jane says she’s stuck in traffic,” she shouts over the awkward flirting. The harsh panel lighting illuminates the sweat on her brow. “But she’ll be here in 10 minutes!” None of us knows, or cares, who Jane is.

When she’s not blockading the very reason we’ve all paid her to be here, Kirsten hurries around looking for her phone, perpetually misplaced on the microwave or among the bottles of $20-or-less wine each guest was asked to bring. To ease her anxiety, her customers ask if we can help — find glasses for the wine, perhaps. As we wait, sipping from plastic faux wine glasses, she implores us to eat from the trough of Pad Thai in the kitchen.

In the end, about 25 people show up. Among the men, there’s a lot of greased-down curly hair — nerd-extras escaped from the set of Porky’s IV, perhaps. There’s also Amelie, a bubbly Red Sox fan, and Yvette, an intriguing Japanese/Korean/Mongolian/Polish woman from in Ulan Ude, Russia (“You know it?” she cries, amazed that I have marveled in person at the disembodied concrete Lenin’s head that sits in the town square). Rounding out the group there’s Hair Club For Men guy trying soooo hard to be charming, a frizzy-haired Russian woman wearing a muumuu, and a young Ugandan man who won’t look me in the eye.

And then there’s Mr. Senator – old white guy, greying hair, dark blue suit. Kirstin makes a point of introducing us. “You two have a lot in common,” she says. He smells like talcum powder and aftershave.

“I just flew in from New York,” he starts, by way of explaining the suit. “IBM just bought us.” I sip my wine. Soon we’re talking New York real estate. “Two bedroom, two bath apartment on West 57th Street,” he says. “Guess how much?” (Translation: “What’s the rent in the least interesting part of Manhattan?”)

It’s common knowledge among New Yorkers that all conversations eventually turn to sports, sex or real estate. I’m genuinely distressed to find that the disease has spread north to Boston.

I finish my wine and look around for a refill. “How far west?” I hedge. The stem falls off my “wine glass,” leaving me holding just the bowl. The good news is that I need neither stem nor base; I’m not planning to put the glass down anytime soon.

“Eighth Ave.,” he says.

I throw out a random number, cupping my wine bowl like Shackleton would a hot cup of tea.

“$6800 a month!” he cries. “Do you know what I can get for that in Cambridge?”

The first bright spot of the evening comes when this conversation is interrupted, by Kirstin. Based on a questionnaire we’ve all filled out, she has arranged us into cliques of 4-6 men and women. Over the course of the evening, each clique will spend about 15 minutes talking, aided by party-game conversation starters (Scruples, Two Truths and a Lie, etc.). Then everyone will rotate to another clique, then another. One of the men in one of the groups should spark my interest. In theory.

First session: A Harvard researcher of psychotropic drugs. Cool! Except then he launches into a monologue about how he and his best bud Paul Simon (yes, that one) stole Sting’s limo once. Somehow this story morphs into a lecture on Asian dishes that involve bugs. When I butt in with my own story about sharing a bag of wok-fried bugs with a young Cambodian on a bus to Siem Reap, his eyes dart back and forth in panic. Apparently he’s just realized there’s someone else in the room. To ease his troubles, I let him interrupt and impress me with his Japanese language skills.

Second session: Fifty-ish guy in a comically stereotypical cheap suit, the shininess of which is offset by the matte brown of his hair and goatee, freshly Just-for-Men’d. He wants to hear about my writing, about the places I’ve traveled. But grim, frizzy-haired Russian woman isn’t having it. She keeps interrupting to argue. “My cousin who traveled to Mongolia and wrote about his experience had his story picked up by the Wall Street Journal,” she sniffs. You’re right. I think. I’m wrong. It’s actually really easy to be a travel writer. I change the subject.

Third session: Dave, a film producer/director (in his mind) and real estate agent (in reality), is talking about his favorite subject: himself. Kirstin interrupts to ask if I’m a lesbian. It’s a relief, to be honest. Soon Dave is engrossed in conversation with Amelie. They’re talking about real estate.

The structured part of the evening is over. I fall into conversation with Chris, one of the evening’s “expert” speakers, who also happened to be in both my second and third sessions. He’s the only man here who is relaxed and smiling. He cracks a joke. His eyes sparkle. He’s engaged and confident. Conversation is flowing. I’m interested.

And then he says, “……my wife…..”

Cliche, cliche.

Right now, at this very second, there are 14 just-started, half-assed, or almost-finished blog posts sitting in a cute little folder on my computer. The folder, for what it’s worth, is called “writing.” That number – 14 – is quite impressive, given that over the past 2 weeks, every time I read good writing, or sit down to write, or even think about writing, I feel like puking.

So tonight, in an attempt to end this nonsense, I decided to join the pantheon of writers who have, at one point or another, written about not writing.

I hesitate to call my recent bout of hysteria writer’s block. It’s not that I lack ideas. The words are swimming around, flying about in, and pouring both into and out of my head. I fear they’ll start leaking out my ears. Which would be embarrassing, and possibly cause a stain.

But for all these messy, persistent words, when I sit down to start typing my heart leaps into my chest, my head swims, my eyes roll back into my head. In short, my body performs all sorts of tired old cliches. You should see the cliches my fingers type.

So, I’ve lost my way. The screen is too close for comfort. Something throws a wet blanket on my efforts. It’s an uphill battle. A tragedy of epic proportions.

The only thing left to do, really, is pop a Lorazepam and watch the Red Sox lose. Again.

The DIY revolution

“We’re still in the punk rock stage,” says Aziz Isham, president of Brooklyn-based digital media publishing house Arcade Sunshine.

He’s talking about the revolution.

No, not in Syria. (Or in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al.) Nor is he talking specifically about Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

He’s talking about one part – publishing – of the do-it-yourself revolution.

From community-made and driven political upheavals in northern Africa and the Middle East, to out-of-nowhere media sites like Instapundit, Gawker and their bazillion me-too spinoffs. From self-organizing interest groups creating metaphysics Meetups and Ron Paul rallies, to real estate being bought and sold without the involvement of any Realtors (r) (and without paying their commissions).

Much of this activity is driven by free or low-cost technology that has dramatically reduced the cost – in some cases, to zero – of starting a business, running a not-for-profit activity, or just getting things done. Free blogging sites like WordPress (which powers this very site!) let anyone become a publisher. YouTube, Vimeo and such let anyone become a video producer or star. Free Google analytics tools let publishers understand their traffic. PayPal makes it (relatively) easy for individuals to make and collect micro-payments. ITunes, Amazon and the like provide a marketplace for anyone to sell music or ebooks. Zillow was among the first to provide transparency to the secretive info-hoarding in real estate.

And these are just some of the well-known platforms and tools; there is a steady stream of new technology services being launched all the time.

Most critically, these transparent, collaborative technologies allow fellow DIYers to share knowledge and experience, and Google, Twitter and Facebook help them find each other.

This isn’t exactly news. Linux Journal senior editor Doc Searls has been talking about DIY technology since 2004. Four years later, thinker, teacher, and and social technology expert Clay Shirky published a book on “organizing without organizations,” called “Here Comes Everybody.” (I’ve always wondered if he stole – sorry, “borrowed” – the name from the Autolux song of the same name.)

Even so: as Aziz’s quote alludes, we’re still in the playing-the-church-basement, couchsurfing, Our Band Could Be Your Life phase of the DIY revolution.

Much more recently, DIY has gone mainstream…at least by my own observations; as Herman Cain once said, “I don’t have the facts to back this up.” In the US, it’s riding a wave of populism. And as I think more deeply about my own plan, and about what “Taking the Fork” really means, I keep noticing DIY everywhere.

Beyond easier-to-use technology, social and economic forces have driven more types of people – critically, non-techies – toward DIY. The theme here is a growing mistrust of institutions.

In the US, the Tea Party movement, not to mention the activist base supporting the candidacy of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, reflects a mistrust of public institutions. The general tone of their battle cry is, “self-sufficiency!”

Private institutions have fared no better. Most blame the financial meltdown in the US on unconscionably idiotic risks by private financial institutions, allowed both by deregulation and the underfunding of any regulatory agencies that did exist; our private institutions screwed us, and our public institutions didn’t do their jobs.

A similar theme is playing out in Europe. An economics-obsessed friend tells me that the Greek crisis came about because of the naive execution of the Euro: Monetary policy, he says, is centrally controlled by the European Central Bank, while fiscal policy is controlled by each member state, with little or no central oversight. So once again, great institutions, because they lacked imagination into the worse cast scenario, failed to do what was expected, if not promised.

And then there’s the issue of transparency – from WikiLeaks to Super PACs to the privacy missteps of Facebook to the growing mistrust of Google, people are demanding better transparency from powerful institutions.

I could point to a thousand more examples of institutions letting people down: sex scandals in the Catholic church, airlines charging you to have a wee, the historic flameout of the Red Sox last September (or maybe that was just one institution returning to its old ways? Anyway.).

There’s a million more examples of DIYing: Home-schooling, micro-loans in the developing world, the slow, locally-sourced food movement, and on and on.

Where is all this going? Stay tuned. Long live the DIY revolution!