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Authors: Andrew Riemer

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We enter the Votive Church. The interior is, if anything, even more depressing. It is filled with devotional images and nationalistic emblems of a particularly offensive stridency. Our
guide embarks on a long and rambling account of the construction of the church, how the people of Szeged made a solemn vow to Our Lady that if she would help the city recover from the terrible effects of the flood they would build a splendid church in her honour. She tells us that the money needed for the construction was raised by public subscription and that construction commenced soon after, though the building was not completed until 1930. She reminds us that some of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe took centuries, not decades, to complete, so that it should not be surprising that the pride of Szeged took so long to finish, given that the First World War set back the plans of the city's devout citizens for many years. And then she returns to the topic of the bishopric and recounts how, after the consecration of the building, the bishop returned with the treasures and relics. We could now see these beautiful devotional objects around us in this church, faithfully restored a few months ago, following years of neglect, after Hungary had regained her freedom.

The historian's friend is champing at the bit. He doesn't like being inside a church; he thinks that people should be discouraged from all that superstition, which is, after all, only a way of keeping them in control, under subjection. The guide is beginning to show signs of distress: she has probably never encountered a western left-wing intellectual who seems to espouse the doctrines that had been, during her adolescence, the unquestionably correct point of view, but are now, as the cross around her neck declares, as much in disfavour as religion had been not too many years ago. I cannot but feel some sympathy for her, understanding, as I think I do, the complex inhibitions and insecurities she must be experiencing. For our guide, the young historian and her friend, who live on what I would regard as a fairly small income and face the prospect of unemployment once the historian's one-year appointment comes to an end, represent the glittering world of the west, a world of unbounded opportunities, of salaries undreamt of in Hungary, of travel and experiences which she, in this impoverished little country, will never achieve. Despite my
ambivalent attitude towards the growing nationalism in the ‘new' Hungary, accompanied by many obvious signs of xenophobia—‘Watch out for the gypsies!'—and supported, just as it happened half a century ago, by a narrow-minded, retrograde church (which seems to have been almost wholly untouched by Vatican II), my sympathy goes out for this young woman, who is now showing signs of a troubling confusion and perplexity. I should, it seems to me, do something to get her out of her embarrassment.

As she guides us to a carved crucifix in a side-chapel, and launches into an account of its sculptor, and how he had given the crucified Christ his own face, I draw the historian aside and ask her to tell her friend to stop needling our guide. The historian turns on me quite sharply: ‘Oh, he's not doing any harm, she can look after herself!'—and in a way she is quite right, yet I am conscious that somehow, in an uncomfortable way, I am caught between two currents, two loyalties. As always I feel much greater affinity with my Australian colleague, and decide that she's probably correct—or is it, I ask myself straight away, cowardice?—and therefore let the matter drop, for I too am troubled by this young woman's unquestioning acceptance of ambiguous national and cultural myths.

And so we continue our way around the huge interior, admiring a painting here, a reliquary there, a gilded inscription inside the dome, and mosaic in the floor. At length the glories of the Votive Church are exhausted. Over lunch in a cellar restaurant the atmosphere relaxes a little, my young companions find common concerns—the difficulties of student life in particular—despite the whiff of brimstone that still hangs in the air.

The guide asks what else would we like to do, assuming her professional manner once more. The historian's friend jumps in—he has obviously done his homework. He would like to see what he believes is a splendid art-deco building with an equally renowned café on the ground floor. He produces a piece of paper with the address on it, but we can't find it on the map—it is a socialist street name and our guide doesn't
know which holy or imperial name has replaced it. The young man tries to explain what he is talking about, perhaps she knows the building, but the term ‘art-deco' means nothing to our guide. So I break the inflexible convention I had imposed on myself throughout this tour—which has been conducted entirely in English—and try to explain to the puzzled guide in Hungarian, with the awkwardness of someone who has not spoken the language for many years, about ‘art-deco'. The attempt proves futile; she doesn't know the place—there are so many cafés in town, she says. The historian's friend has two other items on his list: the synagogue and, he believes, a Serbian Orthodox church with a celebrated iconostasis. He would like to see both, in spite of, it would seem, his ideological qualms about superstition.

Our guide seems reluctant, she wonders whether there's enough time, whether either place will be open. But we prevail on her and finally she resigns herself to the inevitable and leads us into a sidestreet where we come upon a substantial iron railing behind which stands a nondescript building obviously much in need of repair. Here is a remnant of an aspect of the city's history that no-one seems keen to remember.

Szeged's thriving Jewish population was almost entirely wiped out in the course of the war, all that remained was this vast and crumbling synagogue, a memorial to a lost time and tradition. Recently the interior of the building has been subjected to a vigorous programme of restoration. This ‘eclectic' interior (the word comes from the official descriptions of the edifice) is once again resplendent with gilt and sky-blue, with inspirational texts painted on the walls in Hebrew and in Hungarian—in the latter case in elaborate gothic lettering. Chandeliers hang above the ample space of this imposing building, used nowadays mostly for concerts and cultural activities.

A handful of practising Jews remains in the town, far too few to be anything other than lost souls in this huge building. They receive visitors with undisguised enthusiasm, immediately extracting an entrance-fee of ten Hungarian forints (the
equivalent of twenty cents) for which they will give you a ticket with the quip that it's the cheapest movie ticket in town. They usher you into the synagogue, and before you have had time to take in all the gilt and blue, all the brass and marble, they will begin to enumerate, in a singsong voice, the cost of restoring the building to its former magnificence. So many millions for the roof, so many for the floor; so much for the gold lettering and for the hangings, and we haven't even started yet—we need many millions for the glass, and many more to make the structure sound. It is all very realistic and practical. But as the bent little man who has taken charge of us continues his fiscal litany, you cannot but begin to entertain disturbing suspicions about racial stereotypes—perhaps Jews are as obsessed with wealth and money as their detractors claim them to be.

Whatever the reason, this litany of restoration produces embarrassment in all of us, except in our guide, on whose lips I see the faintest of smiles as she translates some of the old man's monologue. Then something extraordinary occurs. The old man breaks off his account of the vast sums spent on the refurbishment of this place of worship and breaks into a long sinuous chant. His voice is unsteady and cracked, yet for all its imperfections, his chant pulses with echoes of a world none of us has experienced—a world of worship, belief, a sense of community with a people in its joys as well as in its sufferings, a world richer and perhaps more satisfying than our humdrum existence. And I begin to sense that despite the shabbiness of this old man, despite his unattractive singsong accounts of vast sums of money, his life may be fuller, more worthwhile and certainly closer to God than mine.

We are mercifully saved from further exposure to the glories of the synagogue of Szeged by the clock. It is time to leave. There will be no opportunity to search for the Serbian Orthodox church. Our guide seems to realise this, and looks not a little pleased.


When he was a young man in the 1920s, my father lived for a time in Aachen, Charlemagne's city. He boarded
en pension
with the family of a lawyer, an upright and inordinately proud gentleman who was mortified because the economic chaos Germany experienced in those postwar years obliged him to take in a lodger. The lawyer's teenage daughter was turned out of her pink-and-white room—she was made to sleep on a trundle in her parents' bedchamber—to accommodate the young student from Budapest.

My father's year or eighteen months in Aachen supplied him with a fund of anecdotes about life in those hectic times. He used to tell the tale of his career as a smuggler. He would slip over the Dutch border with a friend, to return with a couple of blocks of cheese for use as currency in the complicated barter economy that emerged in that world of galactic inflation. That was also the time when his fascination with opera led him to travel all night to a distant city—Dresden or Leipzig, even Munich on one or two occasions—to stand through a long performance, returning to Aachen by another endless night journey in third class. He also had a mild flirtation with the lawyer's daughter, the refugee from the pink-and-white room, which her parents condoned because it was kept well within the rigid bounds of propriety.

He often spoke about the shortages and privations—the lack of fuel and food but especially of coffee, Central Europe's essential drug of addiction. All sorts of substitutes for those unobtainable beans were tried by the ingenious Germans, but they were, according to his account, uniformly vile. From time to time you could get hold of some real coffee, or something approximating to it at any rate. Those were red-letter days. So precious was the substance, however, that it was made into a very watery, weak brew, so weak indeed that you could clearly see the flower painted on the bottom of your cup. It was called
—flowercoffee—as a sardonic commemoration of its weakness.

The history of Central Europe in the last two hundred years or more is marked by wild fluctuations in the consumption of coffee—vast quantities of thickly glutinous ‘espresso' in good times,
in the bad. In 1942 and 1943, when the war was beginning to encroach on Hungary, my parents spent more and more time scouring Budapest in search of a few hundred grammes of the precious beans. The last batch they were able to purchase consisted of unroasted green beans—our flat was filled for days with the pungent aroma of coffee roasted in a pan on the kitchen stove.

Now, almost fifty years later, the citizens of Hungary are still conscious of their deprivation. Coffee is plentiful, but it is mostly poor stuff. To have real coffee, people tell you, you must go to Austria. And, of course, every visitor brings some back, even though the cost is crippling. But then coffee is the spiritual staple of Central European life. Though café-life involves much more than eating or the consumption of coffee, coffee is nevertheless the vital ritual object in its ceremonies. It lubricates the conversation and the gears with which social relationships are made to work. You cannot sit in a café without a cup of coffee in front of you, for it establishes and validates your membership of a privileged society. A foreigner ordering tea in a Hungarian café commits a faux pas of considerable gravity.

Szeged's chief café is called
, The Flower. The coffee served under crystal lights in its ample, flock-papered rooms is probably a far cry from the watery flowercoffee of my father's youth. It is, nevertheless, dreadful stuff—you suspect that finely ground, powdery coffee has had steam forced through it any number of times in the café's porcelain-clad (and, of course, flower-embellished) espresso machine. Gossip insists that if you go to the café shortly after it opens in the morning you might, if lucky, get a cup out of the first or second infusion. As the day wears on, so the quality of the coffee served in the café's faded rooms, or on the ample terrace in fine weather, deteriorates.

Like so much else in this city, the place seems too large for the patrons it is able to attract, or indeed for a town of this size. Like the vast Votive Church, or the blue-and-gold synagogue, or indeed the National Theatre with its tiers of boxes rising to a domed ceiling, the scale of this café speaks of Szeged's former pride as an important outpost of Kakanian pomp. When the city commanded the rich agricultural and pastoral lands that now lie in Serbia and Romania, the café, the cathedral, the theatre and perhaps even the synagogue must have played essential roles in the public rituals, embracings and exclusions that gave substance to that world. The complex reticulations of a heterogeneous society no doubt met and diverged, to refashion themselves into other meetings and divergences, in places such as this.

Sitting in the nearly empty front ‘salon' at that hour of the afternoon when the cafés of Budapest are buzzing and crowded, I cannot help trying to visualise the clientele for which this place had been designed. They must have been very different from the few people here this afternoon—jeans-clad students, a harassed mother with two tots whose faces are covered with custard, an elderly couple, ethnic Hungarians on a visit from Serbia, converting their worthless dinars into somewhat less worthless forints, and at the table next to mine two squat middle-aged men in loud shirts displaying quantities of gold in the shape of chains, bracelets and signet-rings.

I try to imagine how this place would have looked around the turn of the century, at the time when this café together with the rest of the flood-devastated city was rebuilt, refurbished and converted into an embodiment of the Kakanian good life. No doubt its patrons would have been more elegantly and appropriately dressed, observing with provincial dedication the elaborate sartorial rules that governed so many aspects of life in this part of the world. Landowners and their wives, in town for business or pleasure, would have displayed the insignia of their caste—the women in clothes purchased perhaps in Budapest, but more likely in Vienna, the men decked out in the carefully chosen rusticity of tweed and loden-cloth.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
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