Budapest, Day 2.
A happy day.
Budapest is a city that grows on you (one even starts to get used to the darker than usual streets eventually).
Today, being sunny and a Monday, there were more people on the streets than in the past two days: the city was vibrant and cheerful.
After changing rooms from the little old lady's guesthouse to a more youthful and social (and cheaper!) backpacker's hostel (which was very clean, very pleasant, and not too many people, plus, free internet!), I ran a couple of errands (had to buy new SIM card for mobile phone) and then finally wandered into the fantastic, beautifully decorated and delicious Central Cellar Restaurant and Wine Bar (1052 Budapest Vàci u. 11/a). I just had to rave about this fantastic place with fabulous decor and a delicious, not particularly expensive meal that started with a wonderful Hungarian Goulash soup that tasted a little bit like it was made with chipotle chiles, which was a bit weird and nostalgic (it reminded me a lot of my home country of Mexico), but very, very good.
After an incredibly delicious meal I started wandering eastwards along Andrassy Utca, one of the swanky boulevards of Budapest, heading towards City Park, when in my wanderings along a pretty side-street I stumbled upon the Hungarian Royal Academy of Music (though "stumbled" is perhaps not quite accurate, since when I fist heard the sounds of someone--not one, but two or three people--practicing concert-grade sequences, most definitely not your typical boring old music student excercise, on a concert-grand piano wafting from a window somewhere, my feet instinctively followed, to stop eventually at the entrance of this renowned institution), founded by no less than Franz Liszt himself.
Well, what was my surprise and nothing less than ecstasy when I discovered upon entering the building that the academy was currently hosting the 41st International Liszt-Bartók Piano Competition, with the final round to start in half an hour (can you believe it, Ian!?!!). I almost melted with joy, then, upon being told that the day's ticket cost only 1,000 Florints (that's approximately 5 bucks!), which gave you access to the full day of competition, starting at 3 p.m. and ending at 8 p.m., with 45 minutes per contestant with 15 minute breaks in-between, to come and go as you pleased throughout the day.
This was a dream come true! I had never seen a piano competition of this kind of repute and high caliber before, so of course I did not hesistate even a microsecond to cancel all my previous plans for the afternoon and settle myself for a very promising, terrific musical picnic. Oh, what luck! (And since I was half an hour early and there was general seating, I even got my first choice spot on the 3rd row just to the left of the piano, just like is should be, exactly like I wanted, for no spot could've been better). Oooh, lordy. This was absolute, perfect, bliss.
Anyway, as I waited around for things to start and glanced behind me to look at the audience, I noticed it was significantly "left-seating" biassed: 90% of the public had chosen seats on the left side. :). And, judging from the expressions on faces during parts of the performance, the tensing of the fingers of hands previously resting impassively in one's lap at key moments, the intent, concentrated, piercing look of the people in the audience, I concluded, too, that at least that percentage of it, was also composed of musicians.
There was a 2 hour break after the third performer (his name was Bernard Olivier, who performed the Liszt Sonata in B minor with a depth and beauty I had never heard anyone, not even on CD, play like before, so much so that it even brought tears to my eyes, so sublime that performance was. Oh, how wonderful!), so I headed over to the nearby (or rather, more or less nearby) City Park, which was of interest because it houses one of the biggest public baths in the city, and are just exactly like one imagines the Roman baths were way back when. It was kinda cool.
On my way back I passed by a bunch of older gentlemen playing, in true Eastern European tradition, chess, of all things, and of course I couldn't resist hanging out there for a while and observing a few of the games. It was not long before one of the gentlemen started a conversation with me, in Spanish, of all things (he had frequently visited Mexico and was glad to switch to Spanish from English when he found out I was from there), and, after comparing a bit what Hungarians are like and what Mexicans are like (we concluded they are very similar, the national character of both those countries is rather cheerful and light-hearted, and even our food has some similar features), the conversation turned back towards chess:
Me: "Say, is it true what I've heard, that kids here in Hungary have to take compulsory chess lessons in elementary school starting from 5th grade?"
(I had heard this from my Hungarian High-School Physics teacher, and had concluded, way back then, that were I to run the world I would make this subject a compulsory part of elementary-school education indeed. It is a wonderful way to teach people how to think through the consequences of their actions, to consider all possible scenarios and possibilities before making decisions, and to learn how to see a problem from your opponent's point of view--fundamental skills to have if you want to grow up to be someone who knows how to think and decide for yourself [and if you want to hear more about this and what subjects I think should be taught in schools apart from this one and instead of which others, all you need to do is trigger-topic me sometime]).
Older Hungarian gentleman: "Well, sort of. It is not compulsory, but it is an elective, and mostly only boys choose it."
Me (a bit surprised): "Huh. I see. Girls don't like it, or what?", I wondered.
Hungarian gentleman: "Well, it's not just that, here in Hungary a bit like in Mexico, I guess, we tend to think that maybe women ought to learn how to cook and take care of the home, first."
"I see..." said I. I was all too familiar with these kinds of attitudes, unfortunately, having encountered a lot of that myself back when I was younger, given that I didn't tend to exhibit your typical, boring, "girls are supposed to do it this way" type of interests.
"Say," said I, after a while, "Judit Polgar, right? She's Hungarian, isn't she?"
(For those of you not too familiar with these circles, Judit Polgar is the best female chess player in the world, and the 16th best player overall, having attained the Grandmaster title at only 15, and she's only 30 years old now! Not only that, but her sisters Zsusa and Zsofia are no chess weenies themselves...)
Hungarian gentleman (not quite knowing where I was getting at, beaming with pride): "Yes, she is!"
Me: "Say...do you think Judit Polgar knows how to cook?"
This took the gentleman a bit by surprise. He was so taken aback by this, in fact, that for a while he stared at me not quite knowing what to say, until I smiled broadly to make it clear it was just a joke. He relaxed and laughed then, and I with him, as he turned around to the rest of the gentlemen leaning over their chessboards, and repeated, in Hungarian, what I had said, whether Judit Polgar knows how to cook, which received some good-natured chuckles.
"Nah," he said finally. "She makes enough money being a chess champion. She doesn't need to know how to cook, she can just hire someone to do it for her."
So it goes.
It was amusing, though, and the relaxing chat, the stroll through the park and the kids on skateboards and bikes practicing tricks (they were really good) on the plazas, the sublimely beautiful music, the weather, the charmingly sunny city and the nice meal, the good luck and general pleasantness of the day's events, in other words, all contributed to make today into one of the happiest I have had in a very long while.