Budapest Diary: Charlotte Mendelson’s pilgrimage of nostalgic greed

FT Life and Arts 17 February 2017: The novelist and author on her holiday reading and being gastronomically ruined

It’s midnight. I’m weighing Turgenev. My cab’s due in three hours and this is not normal, I do know that, but my happiness is at stake.

For most people, holiday reading is an afterthought, something to choose in the liminal zone after security, between a third pain aux raisins and pretending to be interested in the luggage shop. But for those of us for whom reading is life, a poor choice can break a holiday. It’s an impossibly fine balance: self-improvement versus pleasure; weight versus the risk of running out of words. Kindles are too unreliable; only paper can be trusted — but a carry-on bag barely justifies one 300-pager, not the 10 I’d prefer. I yearned for the analgesic of Scandinavian murders but wanted to want Crime and Punishment. Should I lug Halldór Laxness (380g on my kitchen scales) or the considerably lighter Sketches from a Hunter’s Album? Eventually I decided: a notably ugly paperback of The Age of Innocence.Two hours later, as the taxi arrived, I swapped it for Stoner: a depressing novel about America which, as we sped away, I regretted. By then I was too excited to care. I was about to enter the paprika zone.

Despite a semi-Hungarian childhood, I had never been to Budapest. My grandparents, technically (if not culturally) Transcarpathian Czechs, avoided it; the Hungarians, my grandmother confided, “were the worst in the war”. Wasn’t everyone?Besides, after her death I began to pine for the world I had lost, for the glamorous-yet-strict pensioners, their absurd-sounding language, the warmth, the self-discipline, the food. I had spent too many years sidling up to Hungarian accents on the street; after a stressful winter, mightn’t a few days of strudel and thermal baths revive me?My novel about Hungarian émigrés, Almost English, was published in Hungary, albeit as Broken Hungarian; actual Magyars wanted to interview me. It would be a chance to show off my extensive vocabulary: “dressing gown” and “small coffee” and over three dozen other words, mainly vegetables. How hard could it be?

The fun began on the plane. The Hungarian safety announcement immediately transported me back to my grandparents’ flat, eating cherry jam. As we flew over snowy roads, I felt a thrill of sentiment for the motherland I didn’t know, and that certainly didn’t want me.Fortunately, I was spared evidence of Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy”, let alone the further right. Swaddled in linguistic ignorance, as when one removes one’s glasses for that soothing myopic blur, I witnessed nothing to remind me that in Hungary, as increasingly everywhere else, tiny-minded bigotry will out. Instead, I could wallow in granddaughterly nostalgia: a theme park of Soviet 1960s typefaces, comedy pronunciation, folk embroidery and old ladies swimming outdoors in winter. Everything was quite as hardcore as I had hoped.A friend had warned me about the food, but she is a vegetarian and so unreliable. Besides, when one is on a pilgrimage of nostalgic greed — giblet broth; tongue; goose neck; pork-stuffed cabbage rolls refreshingly topped with cabbage; curd-stuffed pancakes; multistorey flódni of walnuts, poppy-seeds, apple and plum jam — no offal is too extreme or dumpling too leaden. I ate it, all of it, culminating in the platonic ideal of farmers’ markets: real farmers offering walnuts, honey, medlars in the bonkers ruins of Szimpla Kert. Would I like to try wild deer salami? Coiled ribbons of smoked parenyica cheese? A conveniently hip flask-sized bottle of Unicum, the alarmingly herbal liqueur that my grandparents had left unopened on their sideboard? Don’t stop. I wanted it all.

Like the Romans, the Hungarians know how to recover from overeating. At the Gellert baths, after lightly steaming in the outdoor pool beneath strangely familiar stars, I leapt into a large barrel of icy water; sat under the hot streams gushing from Neptune’s mineral salt-encrusted beard; marvelled at the bidet room, a tiled cupboard containing a metal doughnut-shaped stool above a water jet; got lost in the steam room; dodged the mysteriously silent curtained cubicles; and, at last, relaxed in the fabulously murky blue mosaic caverns of the thermal pools.

Then it was Tokay time. How could I possibly fit in culture, when the Museum of Fine Art was closed, and the Terror Museum, after lumping together homegrown fascism with the Stalinist occupation, offered the world’s least enticing gift shop? The streets themselves were an education: steps pouring with meltwater; furtive tobacco shops; Rococo ironwork; uncompromisingly brown crenellated granite buildings; houses entirely denuded of their grey rendering; slabs of ice rushing down the Danube. It was Voldemort Deco, post-Soviet Neo-Decadence: a scruffier, more subversive Prague, with better wine.

Linguistically the trip was a washout. My shy attempts to say köszönöm (“thank you”) went unnoticed and, without an opportunity to chat about potatoes or tomatoes, my new literary friends weren’t as impressed as I’d hoped. I also failed in the hunt for souvenirs. The junk shops’ plastic kitsch attracted me less than the older stock, potential additions to my collection of grandparentiana. But fear of previous owners inhibited me; who had owned this velvet-lined compass case, this ladle? Might they have been the Hungarians I’d heard about, from the war?Nevertheless, I want to go back. I need cake again for breakfast; am I addicted to poppy seeds? Wouldn’t all rainy walks be enhanced by Unicum? Yesterday, marvelling at a train-neighbour’s copy of Retro Gamer magazine, I misread “strider” as strudel. I am gastronomically ruined, and it’s wonderful.