In Budapest, where the art waits to meet you

When people say that a piece of art is “accessible,” they’re usually saying it’s easy to understand1. But a lot of art is inaccessible in a much more fundamental way: either locked up behind museum doors or put up on a high pedestal, far from the grubby hands of the masses.

Of course, the public is rarely cut off from art entirely. Street art is democratic and accessible, but it can be ethically problematic 2. And then there’s public art, the murals and statues local governments install to make their towns less drab and depressing. Most public art is only public in the loosest sense of the word — and much of it is terrible3. Does a third-rate bronze statue on a high column really make a city a nicer place to live?

Budapest is the exception. It’s filled with compelling bronzes placed at eye level. You can walk right up and touch them or sit down beside them. But their accessibility is about more than just a lack of barriers. Many of the statues have a wonderfully familiar quality. They draw you in, as if the bronze itself is giving you permission to come and say hello. You want to sit down with them, as if they’ve been waiting there for you this entire time.

Here’s a gallery of some of the statues Blair and I saw there — but the city actually has many, many more that I either didn’t see on my trip or didn’t have a chance to photograph. Many cities have an approachable bronze or two, but I’ve never been to a place that embraced the concept like Budapest. These statues do more than break up the monotony of concrete buildings. They make the place feel alive with characters.

  1. Whatever that means.
  2. I’ll get around to writing about street art at some point, I swear.
  3. European public art is no better or worse than American public art when you look at it as a hits-to-misses ratio. But when European public art fails, it can nosedive into a hellscape of unimaginable kitsch. When American public art fails, it’s merely banal and unremarkable. I’m not sure which is really worse.

Beware Britons bearing burritos

Another failed burrito quest.  At least the portions were generous.
Another failed burrito quest. At least the portions were generous.

London is best food city in Europe.

Which isn’t to say that British food is the best. It’s not 1. But that’s the point. Paris has wonderful French food, but little else. Rome has great pasta, but heaven help you if you want pierogi. Meanwhile, London is filled with people from all over the world, with all their culinary greatest hits in tow. And London is so far culturally removed from the rest of the country 2 that traditional British food becomes just one note among many. London is a city without a cuisine and so it is a city of all cuisines. No matter what you crave, London can satisfy your appetite — unless you want burritos.

After two years of searching, I’m ready to call it. There is no great Mexican or Tex-Mex food in London. I’ve checked high-end restaurants and street-food vendors and everything in between. I’ve been in the ballpark a couple of times, but those near-misses just remind me what I’m missing. I’ve reconciled myself to a burrito-less lifestyle 3 for the time being. But that hasn’t stopped me from wanting to understand the problem.

At first, I thought it was an issue with specific ingredients.

  • Back home, Tex-Mex places always use long grain rice, which stays fluffy and separate. Here, they use a medium grain rice that’s much heavier, less aromatic and turns to paste if it isn’t handled right 4.
  • Salsa in the U.K. is sweet instead of spicy and acidic. Back home,  it adds heat and balance to a dish. Here, it’s just chunky ketchup.
  • Their spice blends are milder.
  • They try to pass crème fraîche off as sour cream.
  • Corn tortillas are always way too thick 5

But those are just nitpicks right? They should be easy to fix. And we live in an age of global supply chains. How hard is it to get the right kind of rice?

how to mexSo maybe the issue isn’t about product. Maybe it’s about talent. Maybe it’s unfair to expect talented chefs from Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. to move all the way to the U.K. to ply their trade. There is an ocean in the way, after all.

I was really happy with that theory until I went to Sweden. The tacos at La Neta in Stockholm are legit — and the people making the food are a long way from home. Since then I’ve had good (and sometimes even great) Mexican food in Hungary, France and Lithuania. Those places are all farther afield than London. So it’s not just that no one can be bothered to make the trip.

This isn’t a problem of produce or immigration. It’s about education. As much as I hate to admit it, most of the things that bug me about Mexican food in this country are probably intentional. Mexican food is unfamiliar and a little intimidating. Many Mexican restaurants still hand out little brochures explaining what all this crazy North American fare is and just how you’re supposed to go about eating it. Even Doritos are marketed as an exotic treat.

mexeduThere’s a popular chain of burrito places here that proudly proclaims their food comes “from Mexico via San Francisco to the U.K.” It’s like a game of telephone. Mexican flavors must be dialled down and brought into line with local expectations, just to get people to give it try.

I choose to take heart in this. Maybe with time and a little exposure, better Mexican food will be able to find a foothold here.  And if not, I can take comfort in the fact that I’ll be back in the U.S. in a year, and all of this will be like some kind of nacho-less nightmare.

  1. Though I maintain that British food is much, much better than most people give it credit for.
  2. Think about the relationship between New York City and the rest of the U.S. and then exaggerate it a bit for good measure.
  3. Actually, that’s not true. I still give it a go every once in a while, because I’m a glutton for punish. And burritos.
  4. It is never handled right.
  5. I realize that this list makes me sound like a food snob. I promise I’m not. I can appreciate low-brow Tex-Mex. Heck, I even crave Taco Bell sometimes. I don’t care if a dish is authentic, as long as it’s tasty — and British burritos just aren’t.

Tintern Abbey

And when we say that we know what we mean — set it down in stone and walk away — the story does not end.

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Tear the roof off and it reappears, wider now, enclosing the arc of grass and rock and river. Burn the books and the words leak out, silence men and they never stop echoing. Words not for speakers, prayers not for answers, echoes not for hearing — but for moss and wind and stone and sky.

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Here is the outside come in. Here is the window that is the world, the silence that echoes, the fire that has no flame.

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Shouldn’t be hot to the touch, then? If energy has a present and a future — why not a past? A memory. A song. A story. A secret. Shouldn’t it be boiling here? How can you stand it? The veins of the place, stretching out like lines of magma into the heart of the earth and rising up again through your fingertips and into the air.

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Trace a finger along the arc of stone and shiver. The spark of like-meets-like along a conduit. The shock of being recognized in a crowd. The sound of your own name.

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Is it conceivable, then? That there was a time that is not this place? Or a place when you did know what you are? That even you forgot you — before you were remembered?

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Kneel here. It is stranger than it looks, the thing we sing to, less unknown than unknowable. That it grows stronger in the silence, louder in the stillness, closer in the banishing. Argue and it waits. Turn and it finds. Fall and it catches.

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All of that and none, none of that and then some. And who are you? And why did you come here? And now that you’ve come , what measure of you can leave? No stone is forever, anymore than violets, but nothing said is unsaid and the name rolls forth forever.

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Stanchakistan, Ukraine and the peril of false homelands

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Lady Liberty, seen from the water.

Whenever I read depressing news from eastern Europe 1, I look up and utter a short prayer. It goes like this:

Thank you, great-grandfather. 

I’ve never met him. He died before I was born. But he did more to shape my life than anyone I’ve ever met. A little more than 100 years ago, he decided to leave Ukraine and come to America, leaving behind all the terrible things that would happen in that part of the world in the century to come. Because of him, those problems are all someone else’s. Not mine. 2

But the story of the Stanchaks in America isn’t like most European immigrant stories. There was no master plan to start fresh in America, no drive for a better life. My great-grandfather wasn’t one of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. He came over on a lark and then one thing led to another and then there was a war and he just kind of … stayed. 3  He left people behind. And some of those people must have died in the horrors to come, but not all. Some survived and had children, who had kids of their own, who had kids of their own. And some of those people came to America later and are some still over there. I know. I’ve checked. 4

***

When I was nine or ten, I asked my father’s father if he spoke any Ukrainian.  He was quiet for a second, like he hadn’t heard me. Then sat down beside me, looked me in the eye and said,

“You don’t need any of that. Always remember that if it were better there, we would have stayed.”

That was good enough for me. At least, until I went away to boarding school.

My school had students from all over the world. I disliked them all instantly.  I told myself it was because they insisted on speaking German or Thai or Korean to each other, which I saw as both rude and foolhardy. Didn’t they know English was the best language? Didn’t they know that if wherever they were from was better they would have stayed?

But of course, I was just jealous. Nothing puts a middle-class Pennsylvania childhood into sharp relief like hearing about someone else’s much more exotic upbringing. I envied everything about their homelands, even the parts they found embarrassing. Being from another place gave them a story to tell, a secret to share — and an excuse for any and all uncool behavior. 5  I wanted what they had. I wanted a better story to tell.

I started to play up my Ukrainian heritage. Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about Ukraine, its people or their customs. I was just making educated guesses by extrapolating family traits into national ones. My dad was always feuding with one of our next-door neighbors, so blood feuds became a part of my ethnic identity. My grandfather was a great salesman, so of course I came from a mercantile culture. You get the picture.

If I’d been more modest in my fabrications, the whole thing would have been out of my system in a week. Someone would have called me out for making stuff up and that would have been the end of it. Very embarrassing. But I never tell a small lie where a big one will do — and luckily the big lies were funny ones. The whole thing morphed into a series of running jokes about my “homeland” and its goofy traditions. As the hyperbole got more ridiculous and profane, I started to feel bad about pretending I was still talking about Ukraine.  And so I made up a new homeland for myself: Stanchakistan.

One spring I wrote a gag article for the April Fool’s edition of the school newspaper about a new class being offered in Stanchakistani studies. I sent a copy to my dad. He responded with a list of “factual errors” in the original piece. From then on, Stanchakistan wasn’t my joke; it was ours. Now we bat around ideas for national mottoes on car trips, we debate what the currency should be called over lunch. At this point, my dad has added more to the mythos than I have. He’s drawn up maps, people. Real maps for a fake country. 6

***

Does that mean I’m from Stanchakistan?

It’s 2008 now and I’m having lunch with a cousin I don’t see very often. 7 I make a casual reference to Stanchakistan and she stares at me blankly. I explain the joke. It’s not that she doesn’t understand it — she’s just not sure how she feels about it.

At this point, I’ve been making up my own heritage for a decade. My immediate family might think its funny, at least part of the time. But I’ve never consulted any of my other relations about Stanchakistan. Explaining it to my cousin, I feel embarrassed. That’s never happened before. 8 I realize how weird it must sound to her, hearing that I’ve invented a shared identity for my family without consulting them — especially since a lot of the mythology centers around us being shiftless, untrustworthy schemers. The trouble with being the father of your country is that you’ve got to share it with other people.

***

I’m willing to bet that before last fall, the average American knew nothing about Ukraine. A small percentage would be capable of one of the following three sentences:

  1. That’s where that nuclear power plant exploded, right?
  2. Is that the one with all the mail order brides?
  3. The Ukraine is weak! 9

I know a little bit more about it, but I’m no scholar. After all, if it were better, we would have stayed.

A lot of the uncommon stuff I know about the country comes from a charity flower show Blair and I attended, which was sponsored by the Ukrainian embassy. The day was dedicated to the handful of things Ukrainians do really well —  decorating eggs, braiding hair and pretending that cold beet soup is edible. Volunteers were handing out a tourism brochure called “Ukraine? Ukraine!”. 10 The booklet was a list of incredibly specific “frequently asked questions” such as “Was Odessa one of the largest cities in the world in the 12th century?”, “Did Balzac have a Ukrainian lover?”,  and “Is the Bandura the national instrument of Ukraine?”. 11 Of course, anyone who would be capable of asking those questions would already know a fair amount about Ukrainian history and culture. They gave us too much credit. They should have started off small — maybe with “So where exactly is this place?”

I went home conflicted that day. On the one hand, I really dodged a bullet here. Ukrainian history is incredibly sad and the cultural highlights are beautiful, but they’re also very specific. On the other hand, none of that matters.  You don’t get to choose your ancestry. You may as well say you don’t care for the moon.

***

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says we are all Ukrainians.

I don’t think that’s true. Many people don’t know or care about what’s happening there now. I won’t pretend that I have an especially deep understanding of the conflict — or that my blood somehow makes my opinion more legitimate than anyone else’s. I’ve read more than enough copy in the past few weeks written by people who have deputized themselves as speakers of the cause. It upsets me, perhaps more than it should. I suppose it’s because I think that in difficult times, people draw comfort from the knowledge that they’ll get to tell their story one day. I think that comfort is being chipped away at in Ukraine.

I’ve never been to Ukraine — and now I probably never will. 12 I know my place is far away from it. I will read the news and fret. I will worry about all the strangers there who bear my last name.  I will think about doing something. I will realize there’s nothing to do.  The sun will go down and I will fall asleep, untroubled.

What is happening now is a Ukrainian problem that will, for good or ill, be resolved by Ukrainian people – real ones who live and die by their decisions. Ukraine is not Stanchakistan. It doesn’t conform to whatever narrative we place on it. Homelands don’t have narratives; they have people. And every last one of them gets to tell their own story. Remembering that is all I can do. That and say the family prayer.

Thank you, great-grandfather.

 

  1. Is there any other kind?
  2. You could argue that I wouldn’t exist at all if he hadn’t left, because then my exact genetic makeup would never have occurred.  I like to think I am more than my DNA — but even if that’s the case, there’s a still a decent chance my direct ancestors would have been wiped out in one of the wars or man-made famines or political purges or nuclear disasters that casually befall Ukraine from time to time. The odds were not in my favor.
  3. You could do that back then, apparently.
  4. They’re on the Internet and they’re not hard to find.
  5. If nothing else, it seemed like coming from a foreign culture would make the whole teenage rebellion thing much easier. How do you cast off Pennsylvania? Root for the Bengals?  Forswear UTZ potato chips? Move to New Jersey?  That hardly seems worth it.
  6. I used to insist that Stanchakistan was an “unmappable land” — that its territory consisted of everywhere Stanchaks happened to be at any given moment. I liked the idea that I was always on home turf — that I carried a nation with me when I walked.
  7. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people. Even people I really like.
  8. Not even when I came up with the moves for our national dance, The Funky Shrew.
  9. I actually own a t-shirt with that printed on the front. I no longer wear it.
  10. How can you not love a country that is the answer to its own question?
  11. You bet your sweet ass it is.
  12. I’ve lived so close by for more than a year before the trouble started. I didn’t go. I thought there would be time! I always think I will have more time than I do.
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