Notes from a Budapest Lockdown

I crack open my front door and inspect the immediate proximity. My possibly Ukrainian neighbours, often prone to unsettling fits of what I hope is merely smoking induced coughing, are not around. This releases my tension somewhat, I do a last careful inspection of my pockets: sanitizers, handkerchiefs, my ID, just in case the authorities take a sudden interest in my hopefully effaced presence, my credit card as I’m in for some quick shopping. In the first days, paranoid me won, and I would choose outfits that could be washed as soon as I returned, ideally purged in hell’s fire, as the virus doesn’t seem to like heat. Several informative reads later, I’m a bit more relaxed. Also, I’ve been stuck inside long enough to crave an hour of being the regular carefree hipster of old, and I complement my anti-corona arsenal with all the accoutrements that come with the territory: Kånken backpack, Paez shoes (spring has definitely sprung, pretty much directly into summer), ALT-J in my headphones and my camera.

I dash out, and into the staircase. The staircase is dark and fraught with dangers. Should someone come from the opposing direction, most of it is too narrow to allow for correct evasive manoeuvres. The incident has happened a couple of times, and divided humanity into two: decent human beings and arseholes. The first category will notice your presence just as you do theirs and try to make sure to avoid coming too close- this is of course weird in a narrow staircase, so there will often be a sheepish smile on both sides. That is good corona interaction. Bad corona interaction is when the arsehole, generally engaged in some arseholeness such as blindly fingering their phone, will navigate into a location that gives you no option but to pass by them closely, at which point, sensing your hesitation, they will give the arrogant look of someone who is not afraid of ‘a bout of the sniffles’.

This time around the coast is clear, and I uneventfully reach level one, the dumpsters, and commence the ceremony of ‘minimum contact’ disposal. As usual, some arsehole threw their food into the paper container. Arseholery is of course a permanent state, merely made more visible by our current predicament. Once outside, I dowse myself generously with disinfectant (a gift with my recent order from the lovely people at Mad Scientist, don’t forget to support your local bars, shops and breweries). It dawns on me I miss people watching, so I decide to walk a bit more slowly and take the landscape in. Andrássy is sparsely populated, but not desolate- it’s almost noon, the weather is splendid. There are dog walkers aplenty, couples in loose embraces, parents with children and the ubiquitous army of delivery girls and boys, keeping the city fed with quiet determination. A lot of people wear masks, I make a mental list: medical masks, white or mint green, biking masks, industrial looking masks, evidently homemade masks with the patterns of the shirt they once were, fashion masks, colour coordinated with the outfit and the gloves, statement masks from the brands that were quickest to snap into action (a nice option in the vein of the aforementioned support for local enterprises is the one from Pizzica).

Oktogon feels like a Sunday morning until tram six glides by, carrying people with glassy stares sporting more masks while actively trying to avoid each other. I haven’t boarded any means of public transport since early March- in all honesty, I do not miss it. Nor do I miss drunken stag parties, the aggressive rush hour traffic under my window, intersections so crowded you basically need a machete to get through. Last weekend, as we walked across the Chain Bridge, we hardly met anyone, it was eerie, quiet, the Danube’s aquatic breeze enveloping us in a soft embrace. Later, we watched as an otter/ beaver-it was too far to accurately tell- swam upstream the river, we watched it for a long while, as we had really nowhere else to be except there and then. After the initial shock, it felt almost as a relief- not to need to be places, even if they were pleasant ones, concerts, cinema dates, drinks with friends. But I miss them ever more, sometimes just a flash, a small detail, like the cold feeling of the front row fence at concerts with the warmth of the thousands of pulsating bodies in the background. I wonder when will I be able to enjoy that feeling again and not be at least a little afraid. And I miss the football, sometimes I think I miss it the most because it was something I watched almost ceaselessly at home, while doing chores at the weekend, the satisfying buzz of a random game. It meant everything is exactly as it should be.

There is an orderly but somewhat tetchy queue in front of the iStore, one lady in fashionable protective gear is inside, taking all the time in the world to inspect the new models. Quiet hatred is welling as I stride by, then reach level two, the drug store. Mask on, I enter the belly of the beast. I know exactly what I want to buy and dash to the shelves- I miss that too, the carefree minutes of idling in stores, inspecting things I don’t really want to buy, reading the Lithuanian on labels because it sounds exotic. No disinfectant hand gels, of course, bless Mad Scientist again, and hardly any soap. Under my mask, with a satisfied grin no one sees, I think of the kilos of soap my boyfriend bought last summer on the Aegean coast. Top quality olive soap, to last us this quarantine and beyond. An arsehole rushes in between me and the detergent shelf, stops and randomly touches several containers. I realize, with both pleasure and disappointment, that he does not see the judgmental faces I pull under my mint green medical mask.

Mission accomplished, I turn back towards Városliget, a small detour to Hunyadi square, where only three stalls are open at the market and the little park is closed, a wiener dog tentatively smelling the rails and beckoning its owner to enter. ‘Not now, some other time’, she pulls him away, they loiter, both looking a little lost, the dog finally peeing with no conviction onto same random blades of grass spurting from the pavement. At the other end, two girls talk to each from about two metres apart, clutching Starbucks cups and laughing out loud that this feels so silly. The closer I get to the park, the less people there are, the ‘embassy stretch’ after Kodály körönd is almost empty. Next to the empty newsagents on the körönd, the same old lady in shabby clothing that I had seen on all my previous quarantine walks seems stuck in some Beckettian wait for deliverance. I suddenly realise I am being watched. There is movement in one of the windows, and what looked like the love child of a cleaning mop and a shaggy carpet turns out to be a tiny white dog- we have become a city of fearful people owning puzzled dogs, who are either taken out too often, or left on windowsills to bathe in the sun and oblivion.

Much has been said about the good people of Budapest being unruly in city parks these days, but I have never seen large groups in Városliget. It’s always the same sedate landscape of runners and dog walkers, plus parents trying to steer their children into order- well, good luck with that. Almost everyone keeps their distance. I am reminded of an article I recently read, about a choreographer observing the way people move in public spaces, before the pandemic, and now. How we suddenly become more aware of how we use our bodies, in relation to objects and especially people. It’s something that has actually always annoyed me: how most people are oblivious of where they move in relation to others, fixated solely on their own immediate reality. Don’t chat right at the entrance, don’t barge into someone on the pedestrian crossing, don’t ride you bike in zig-zag on a crowded pavement. If from all this (some) people learn how to be more mindful of others when we navigate public spaces, something will have definitely been gained.

On the way back, I am caught in a sudden swirl of golden petals lifted by the wind, the air is warm, clean (yes, much cleaner than before), it all feels a bit like one of Virginia Woolf’s epiphanies. It doesn’t last, but its memory lingers as I carefully soap my hands down while slowly counting to twenty and beyond.

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