Ode to a Muddy Stream- A Year of Walking by the Rákos-patak

It came in waves, like the sea, but the unpleasant sort, a cold sea with mud and plankton. Wave one, the paranoid days. Cases in Hungary were still low in spring, but as lockdown loomed, we stayed inside and, quite unnecessarily as per the latest studies, disinfected doorknobs and beer cans. Wave two, the second half of spring, when warmer weather subliminally convinced us that a walk outside would be quite alright, as long we kept away from busy places. Wave three, over the summer, when life in Hungary seemed almost normal. Perhaps we were hasty, though, and I insisted on keeping my distance from popular areas, such as Normafa or Margaret Island, which became uncomfortably crowded on sunny weekends, even by ‘before Corona’ standards.

But at least we had the patak. I don’t really remember the first trip to the Patak (I shall capitalise it, as by now it has become a concept, rather than a simple stream of water), I can only assume that we headed towards it because it was there, far from the madding crown, a thin blue strip on the map of the city. Its full name is Rákos-patak, its source is near the town of Gödöllő, its width a maximum of 3 metres in ambitious places, its length a mere 44 kilometres, most of it through districts XVII, X, XIV and XII of Budapest. Many of these districts have neighbourhoods with the Rákos prefix in them, known collectively as ‘Rákosborzasztó’- ‘Rákosdreadful’, a dark underbelly of the city teetering on the edge of the decrepit, the boring and the slightly ominous. Rákos itself means that which has has/contains crabs, but all current descriptions of the stream insist on mentioning that it no longer harbours any significant wildlife. That may be true when it comes to crabs and fish, but our repeated expeditions have informed us that Rákos-patak and its environs are home to ducks, seagulls and well fed rats, plus a plethora of domesticated creatures from the class of the ‘diminutive ankle-biting suburban dog’.

Our usual route towards the Patak takes us along Andrássy avenue, then through Városliget, crossing the underpass at Kacsóh Pongrácz street and surfacing near the BVSC sports complex. In non-lockdown days, this is where we would normally stop for a pint at Sport Bisztró. Initially we were somewhat wary of it, as it looked a bit like those nondescript canteen type establishments which mushroom next to sports complexes, but we were positively surprised to discover that they have excellent pizzas and tapas, and are a great option to watch games when pubs and bars in the city centre are packed. When lockdown hits, you can still sneak close to the fence for a socially distanced glimpse of BVSC Zugló’s performances in Hungary’s third division. They are doing quite alright, closing the autumn half of the season in fourth, and have at least one diehard fan, whom we witnessed watching their game against Salgótarján in splendid solitude.

The next ‘attraction’ is a big favourite of the blog’s industrious co-photographer, another Rákossomething, namely Rákosrendező train station. The station lived its glory days in socialist times, when it was one of the most important freight train stations in the country, but it gradually lost its importance after 1990, when the Hungarian economy slowly shifted away from heavy industries, and the freight trains still running were redirected primarily towards Ferencváros station. These days Rákosrendező feels a lot more like a Rákosrendezetlen. Do excuse the cringeworthy Hungarian pun: while rendező is used here to refer to a triage station, rendező can also be used to refer to someone who instills order, or a film director, instilling order in a cinematic sense, with rendezetlen meaning disorderly. The half abandoned buildings looks desolate, especially on overcast or foggy days, the paint is peeling, hardly any trains stop here. The only definite sign of life, in non-lockdown days, is the little bar by the barrier, which shelters an assorted range of local winos discussing the usual juicy topics of football, politics and whatever falls in between.

Here we turn onto one of the streets which run parallel to the tracks, usually Jász street, as the blog’s industrious co-photographer enjoys its fairly cosy residential architecture, and proceed towards the Patak. Having reached the stream, we turn left. This, with a good dose of generosity, qualifies as the stream’s more scenic bit. Recent landscaping work has resulted in running and walking tracks, patches of flowers and shrubs, open air sports facilities and dog parks. The right bank is overlooked by a residential neighbourhood with an enjoyable Brutalist twist to it, while on the left side one soon encounters the type of building which has come to symbolise Hungary’s recent social tensions: a newly built stadium. In our case, it’s the Rudolf Illovszky stadium, belonging to local club Vasas, currently ‘enjoying’ a fairly undignified run in the second division. Possibly their biggest claim to fame is the one season spell, at the end of the 40s, of László Kubala, who went on to become and remain one of the historic top scorers of another red and blue club, FC Barcelona.

Even in the second division, Vasas remains a well-loved club, with a visible and vocal fanbase in its geographical area, a real community builder with the kind of romantic aura that many major clubs have long lost. As such, while there is a tendency to immediately demonise all stadium building, it does probably make sense to invest in the facilities of the club, including training grounds for youth teams. Nevertheless, there is definitely little wisdom in building dozens of tiny but expensive stadiums- Rudolf Illovszky has a ridiculous capacity of roughly 5000. If Vasas would soar to unseen heights and qualify for a European competition, they would have to play their home games in another venue.

At the opposite end of sports facility sizes is the Duna Arena, looming large over the tiny estuary where the Patak meets the Danube. Built for the 2017 watersports world championship, the Arena is a bulky colossus with little to no practical use. While Hungary is both very fond of and very competent at water sports, water polo games or swimming championships which pack the arena are few and far between, and the facilities can be used by non-athletes in an extremely limited manner. Logic and practicality are of course rarely the strong suit of decision makers, especially if immediate profit is to be made from an undertaking.

You do however have the option to simply turn your back on the failed Noah’s Ark (it’s supposed to look either like a boat, or the waves of the river itself) and take in the peaceful scenery. There is something elemental, life affirming, almost primal, to places where two natural flows of water meet, even when one is just tiny Potok meeting the majesty of Europe’s queen of rivers. We may be stuck in our current cage of miseries, a little desperate, a little frustrated. We may be unhappy right now, but it’s a strange consolation to know that the rivers flow on.

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