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Budapest In The Rain

'The constant presence of a minor key within the basic key of a major'

Well, I made it. I’m writing to you after midnight, having crashed hard a couple of hours after I got settled in my flat in central Budapest. When I woke up, I had slept so hard — there was no indication that I had moved even a millimeter in that bed — that I was sure it must be just before daylight. Checked my watch: one minute to midnight. Oh, great. I’m really glad that my bosses at the Danube Institute advised that I take today to get my feet planted on the ground and my internal clock calibrated.

It was not an easy journey, thanks to Covid. As you may know, you have to have had a Covid test no sooner than a day or two before your flight for overseas journeys (at least to Europe). I showed up on Friday morning to get mine at a walk-in clinic in Baton Rouge (this, for a flight leaving at noon on Saturday), and was told by the nurse that the standard test wouldn’t work. I needed to get a PCR test, and they only do those at one facility in town. Oh gosh. I called their facility in town, and was told that it would take up to 24 hours to get my results back.

“My flight leaves in 23 hours,” I said.

“Sorry, sir. They might come sooner, but we can’t guarantee it.”

I found another place in the city giving those tests. They made the same guarantee. I took a chance, which proved wise. As I was driving away from that place, the first lab called me and said sorry, because we were at the weekend, they couldn’t guarantee my results till Monday. As it happened. Lab Two sent me the results six hours later, and all was well. But still, dang.

At the airport in Baton Rouge, I was given incorrect information about Covid restrictions for my flight, and registered at the airline desk clerk’s direction for the German government’s Covid tracking system. I found out at the Lufthansa desk in Houston that I didn’t have to do that, as I was just connecting through Frankfurt to Budapest. I didn’t feel too bad about that; everybody is struggling with these difficulties, and it’s hard to know what the rules are for every country. The man in line in front of me at the Lufthansa boarding gate desk was denied a boarding pass because his test was one of the quickie ones. He was really mad, and I can’t blame him, but this wasn’t the fault of the Lufthansa staffer. He had no bags with him, so I assume he checked them at the ticket counter when he arrived at the airport. Why had no one told him then?

My advice to you, if you’re traveling abroad, is to go get the PCR test with plenty of time to spare. No test other than that one is valid for international travel. Do this even if you have a card verifying that you’ve been vaccinated, as I have. Nobody ever asked to see my vaccination card, but they checked my Covid vaccination report at every stage of the journey, sometimes twice.

The Lufthansa flight to Houston was not very crowded, I’m happy to say. I don’t find it easy to sleep on planes, and would have paid the extra $600 for an upgrade to business class had one been available. But I made out in Premium Economy okay, and would have felt like an idiot had I spent that money. On Lufthansa, at least, the only acceptable mask is an N95. I had never worn one of those. It’s pretty terrible, in fact. It’s hot under there, and until you get used to it (if you ever do), it can make you a bit panicked about not being able to breathe. I found it impossible to try to sleep with one of them on, so devised a hack: put the blanket the airline gives you for sleeping over your head, then pull the mask down under cover of blanket.

The Frankfurt airport was eerie. I’ve been through that airport before, and it’s always been super-busy. Not this time. Most of the stores are closed, as are most of the cafes. I’m really glad I had a three-hour layover, because it took a while to get through German border control, even though I was just transiting through. The police officer at the border gave me the third degree. You can’t get into Hungary now if you are a non-citizen, unless you have an official letter of employment, certified by the Hungarian government. I do have one, but it’s mostly written in Hungarian (because it’s meant for Hungarian passport control). The German couldn’t read the Hungarian, and was skeptical of my story.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked.

“I’m a writer.”

“And what will you be doing in Budapest?”

“I have a fellowship at the Danube Institute, a think tank there.”

“How do I know this is true?”

“That I’m a writer, or that I will be working at the Institute?”



I had the idea to pull out of my carry-on bag a hardback copy of Live Not By Lies that I had brought over as a gift. I showed him my photo on the jacket copy, and explained that my legal name is Ray, but my nom de plume is Rod. I was mortified, but in retrospect, that was a cool moment. Then I pulled up on my phone some correspondence between the Institute’s office manager and me about my gig there, and showed him. I still don’t think he wanted to let me in, but he finally did, then apologized, saying that Covid makes everything very difficult.

The Frankfurt-Budapest flight was completely full, and suddenly, even though I’m vaccinated, I was grateful for the N95 mask. At the Budapest airport, there were three levels of security: they did a temperature check as soon as we deplaned, then we had to go through a long line checking our Covid test status, and then we had passport control, which occasioned even more inspection of our documents. I felt like Victor Laszlo, trying to get out of Casablanca. Waiting in the second line, an old Hungarian man barked at me in English to STAND BACK, because I was too close to him. I wasn’t too close, in fact, but he was so clearly anxious that I didn’t take offense. The look on peoples’ faces here is tense and weary.

My friend Anna was waiting for me when I made it through, and boy oh boy, was I ever glad to see her. She was my interpreter and organizer of interviews in Hungary for the Live Not By Lies research. And she is a great and sensitive intellectual talker, exactly the person you want to meet when you come to Central Europe. Confirming what I had picked up at the airport, Anna told me that people here have been living under tight restrictions for so long that it has worn them all down. Until very recently, there was a 7 pm to 7 am curfew; that has now been lifted to 10 to 7. Restaurants are only open for take-out, but there’s hope that when the weather gets warm (it’s still rainy and a bit cold), that people will be able to eat on terraces.

We found my apartment, which is inside an older building in the center of the city, one built around a central courtyard, where people park their cars. My landlady K. is also one of those people you have to come to Mitteleuropa to meet: the descendant of dispossessed Slovak nobility who had family lands confiscated by the Communists, and who fled after the 1968 Soviet invasion. She is grand and full of life; I loved her instantly. She showed us the flat, which she has just renovated. It’s awesome. Inside it, I feel like a minor Habsburg. The kitchen is terrific.

“Oh, this is really wonderful,” I said. “I love to cook.”

“I love that you love to cook!” she replied, then told me that the Great Market Hall is about a ten minute walk from my place.

Guess where I’ll be shopping on Monday.

There are two Orthodox churches within easy walking distance of my flat. One of them has a website. It appears that they have been meeting in a limited way for services. I’m going to check that out today, because Holy Week is coming up, and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it.

After I said goodbye to K., I fiddled around on Twitter a bit before falling asleep. I said something about Hungary having suffered greatly in Covid, the lockdown, etc. Damon Linker pointed out that per capita, the Covid death rate in Hungary is about what it has been in my home state of Louisiana.

That astounded me. At our most restrictive in Louisiana, we were not nearly as locked down as Hungary has been. So I guess I mean the number of restrictions. I had been reading all along that Hungary has struggled mightily with this disease, but I had no idea that they were about as bad off as we have been in Louisiana — this, because the lockdown measures have been much looser back home.

I found out today that The Benedict Option has just been published in Hungary. 

I thought I had an offer to publish Live Not By Lies here, but I checked my correspondence from my agent, and I think that is wrong. A pity — there are several Hungarian voices in the book. Maybe I will meet a publisher while I am in the city, and can convince them that the book is worth translating.

OK, now I’m going to try to get some more sleep. It might have been best to arrive in Budapest in the chilly rain. I started reading the great historian John Lukacs‘s Budapest 1900 on the way over. Here, Lukacs is quoting from the works of Gyula Krudy (1878-1933), a novelist and journalist: