I skip over a paragraph laden with dark history and continue with John Lukacs’s description of winter in the Budapest of 1900:
And then, one morning – it would come as early as in the third week of November, and surely before the middle of December – one of two new things was happening. A clear day had risen over Budapest again, with the paler gold of a winter sun refracted by the crystalline cold. Or the sky was gray but rich, great flakes of snow were coming down all over Budapest: a celestial filling, like the goose down in the comforters of its bedrooms. In 1900 in Budapest winters came earlier than they come now. They were colder and snowier. There were still years (though not in the calendar year 1900) when the entire stretch of the Danube was frozen, and adventurous men could walk across the ridges of ice from Pest to Buda. There was a sense of feasting and of innocence in the air. Unlike in the snow-laden country, winter in Budapest was something else than a season of long rest and sleep; it was another season full of promise and excitement. The streets of the Inner City were filled before noon, with women and girls parading in their winter finery, and with promenading gentlemen in their fur-collared greatcoats. Girls without furs were equipped at least with a furry muff. They were stepping in and out of the confectioneries and the flower shops and the glove-makers with tiny packages wrapped in rosy, crinkly papers, hanging daintily from the tips of their little fingers. Among the horse-drawn carriages on the avenues in 1900 there still slid in and out a few sleighs – black-lacquered, drawn by black horses, and with silvered tackle, with the laps of their passengers wrapped in ancient fur-lined blankets. What the city offered was this agreeable and satisfying contrast of exterior ice and interior fire: of the diamantine, light blue, crackling cold climate of the streets only a few steps away from the inner atmosphere of the houses with the cozy woarmth of their coesseted bourgeois interiors, with deep-red carpets underfoot and perhaps with crimson tongues of fire not only in the grates of the tile stoves but in many hearts. Even in the dark, grimy streets, with their forbidding doorways and freezing entrances, the white snow thick around provided not only a contrast in color but in atmosphere: gazing inside to sense the hot interior fug, or looking outside from their cramped interiors into the snowy streets was equally good. The crunch of the snow, its odd chemical smell, the roofs and the windowsills and the shop signs and the monuments of Budapest picked out in white gave the city a compound of secure feeling. Behind those windowsills the housewives patted the long square insulating bolsters between the double windows into place; and the few walkers along the quays or up along the deserted streets and parapet walks on Castle Hill must surely have been lovers.
It was the season of long dinners, of heavily laden tables with the roasts, sausages, bacons, fowl and game sent up to the families from the country; of the smells of wet wool and leather and pastry cream and perfume in the shops of the Inner City; of the anticipations of Christmas, of dancing assemblies and balls; and for the young, the chance of meeting on the skating rink of the Budapest Skating Club on the frozen lake in City Park, under electric lights on weekday evenings. When the little blue flag of the club was up at Octagon Square it meant that the ice was sufficiently hard for the skaters – and for their flirtations, while the girls’ chaperones would gossip behind the windows of the clubhouse that was warm as an oven, aglow in the dark like the redness behind the isinglass of a stove, reeking of oiled leather, coal-smoke and the milted ice on the rough floors of that waiting room. It was a city of distinct anticipation and of distinct seasons, more distinct than now.
But I cannot let one bit from the historical paragraph between this and the last post pass:
On All Souls’ Day thousands of people streamed toward the cemeteries of Budapest, with flowers in their hands, on that holy day which is perhaps taken more seriously in Hungary than elsewhere because of the national temperament. Temetni tudunk – a terse Magyar phrase whose translation requires as many as ten English words to give its proper (and even then, not wholly exact) sense: “How to bury people – that is one thing we know.”
This mordant thought marks the end of a long passage near the beginning of the book (pages 10-14), but there is much more of eloquence, lightness, darkness and supreme interest in the rest of the book – Budapest 1900 for those who did not get in at the beginning. It can be purchased through Amazon here.