- Can You Go Home Again? A Budapest Diary 1993
The excerpts that follow are from a diary I have been keeping since early February , when I began a six- month residency at the Collegium Budapest, a new Institute for Advanced Study modeled on those in Berlin and Princeton. When I was invited last year to come to Budapest during this inaugural year of the Collegium, I accepted immediately. Besides the usual luxuries of such a Fellowship period, the invitation offered me what I thought of as a near- providential opportunity to continue the autobiographical project I had started some years back, and which was assuming increasing urgency.
I left Hungary with my parents in the summer of 1949, and rarely thought of it again until thirty-five years later, when I decided to return as a tourist with my two sons, then aged 14 and 7. That return triggered a desire to reconnect with my childhood and native city, a desire that took the form of writing. I published two short pieces I occasionally allude to in the diary (“My War in Four Episodes,” Agni, 33, 1991; “Reading in Tongues,” Boston Review, May–August 1992). Then, as a preparation for my current trip, I wrote a longer memoir, still unpublished, about the 1984 return and the memories it brought back. The decision to write the diary did not crystallize until after I arrived here—I simply found myself writing on my computer, sometimes for hours, at other times for a few minutes, from the first day on. After a while, I realized that I was writing “for a public” as well as for myself, and the project of a published diary began to take shape. Since these excerpts have had to be radically excised from a much longer text that is still in process, I decided to limit my selections to a few themes, chief among them the current resurgence of nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary (as in Eastern Europe in general), and, not unrelated to the first, my personal history. Out of a desire to protect the privacy of people I mention, I have used only first names or initials, which are not necessarily factual. In the case of public figures, I cite their full real name. I have tried to keep the writing very close to that of the first draft, but have not resisted making occasional stylistic changes. The order and tenor of the entries have not been modified. Some of the major cuts are indicated by suspension points in brackets.
A few Hungarian words: utca means street, ut means avenue, ter means square (like “place” in French), korut is a round avenue, korter or korond a round “square,” villamos means tramway. Hungarian names are cited last name first, given name second. Hungarian vowels have a variety of diacritical marks, but they cannot be reproduced in this electronic publication.
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Wednesday, February 3
My apartment is the whole top floor of a three-story building, very big and nice.
[...] I didn’t want to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, so after taking a hot bath and changing clothes, I went to the Collegium. I walked part of the way, down toward the Gellert Hotel on Bartok Bela ut, a wide, busy avenue lined with shops. I stopped at one to buy a toothbrush and some paper handkerchiefs. It felt strange to be speaking Hungarian to the young woman in the store. I thought I was speaking badly, like a foreigner. After walking a while longer I took a taxi, which cost 240 Forints—just under three dollars.
The Collegium occupies a historical monument, an 18th- century building, newly renovated, in what is surely one of the most beautiful spots in Budapest—on Castle Hill above the Danube, across the square from the Matyas Church. The Church and square look positively dreamlike when they are lit up in the evening. My first sight of them was that way, for it was dark by the time I got there...