Idylle en Bohême

«On the Chimney», 2011 (watercolor from film Postriziny) by Annie Nguyen-Bárány
«On the Chimney», 2011

— What are you playing at?
— Why, at soldiers.

— Play at whatever you like, but not here.

— Where are we to play?

— On top of the chimney for all I care! but quietly!

— The chimney?
— The chimney!


Vaše podlomené zdraví
pivo upevní a spraví.

Feeling weak and pale.
Down a pint of ale!

— Jiří Menzel’s Postřižiny (Cutting It Short)

Chile Rising, Rafael Sotomayor

This month, Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines released a special on Chile’s student protests that rocked the country for much of the past year and continues into 2012. With a largely privatized education system described as “capitalism’s ideal laboratory,” the cost of education is high and the state of public schools and universities in Chile are dismal. The faces of the students filmed were so bright, beautiful and young. They were demanding free, quality education to the rhythms of Chilean singer Anita Tijoux’s Shock, the song-turned-anthem of the movement, whose chorus went,

La hora sonó, la hora sonó
No permitiremos más, más
tu doctrina del Shock1

Rafael Sotomayor plays Hang, Römerberg, Frankfurt am Main, drawing by Annie Nguyen-Bárány

Rafael Sotomayor, a young Chilean man, had moved to Frankfurt am Main some years ago. We had met him as a street musician on the Römerberg, the central square in Frankfurt when the apples were ripe on trees and the sun still reflected upon the city’s skyscrapers.

It is common in Europe’s metropolises to walk past accordionists who churn out La Vie en rose, whether you are in Paris, Munich or Istanbul, or violinists who will interpret The Godfather on a tram in Warsaw or the underground in London. And it is the same in Frankfurt, the banking capital of the continent.

But Rafael Sotomayor was neither playing a famous melody nor any common instrument with his slender figures. In fact, we had not even spotted him by the fountain of Justice when the strange and rich undulating timbre halted my nightwatcher in his tracks. It seemed to warp time and space around us, drawing us into manifold resonances, successions of low rapid notes that caressed the ear, now as a soft reed brush, now as the tap of a fingertip. The air was already cooling, but a little party gravitated rapt around the seated young man tapping and waving his hands over what looked like upturned metal woks or alien saucers. A Japanese businessman, a couple from South America, a group of Indian tourists, we all stood still before the spectacle. The weekend bustle of the crowded square seemed to fade as the young man wrought his melodies.

The audience clapped heartily at the end of the performance, and the South American couple came eagerly to him, interrogating him about his strange UFOs, fingering his CDs. They were happy to speak a common tongue and listened intently as he explained how the instruments were a 21st century invention by two Swiss makers. They were called “hang,” from the Bernese word for hand, which was the only medium used to coax sound from the instruments— all handmade to this day by the same two individuals, whose artisanal production was dwarfed by growing demand. I can only liken the sound to the Indonesian gamelan, since the ensemble is composed of percussions, but it is a pale comparison.

Purses and wallets opened and CDs changed hands as Rafael Sotomayor bowed graciously and packed his instruments. The sun had set and the wind was rising.

The affable young musician told the crowd he would be playing in the city’s Königshalle (Emperor’s Hall) where kings and emperors used to be crowned, as well as at theatre and concert venues in and around the country. He also played in a band, The Art of Fusion, composed of musicians from Poland, Bolivia, Jamaica, Spain, India, as well other intermittent artists of diverse origins.

The crowd dispersed eventually, some still under the music’s spell.

It is time we should look him up again. “Chile Rising.” It seems to describe Rafael Sotomayor.

1 The bell has tolled, the bell has tolled
We won’t allow it any more
Your doctrine of Shock

The song makes a direct reference to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the name she gives to the free market economic policies of the “Chicago Boys” who had influenced Chile’s development under the dictatorship of Pinochet.


Shock, Anita Tijoux
Skies over Germany solo piece, Rafael Sotomayor
Inner Voice, The Art of Fusion-Rafael Sotomayor

Please Mr Postman

«Boîtes aux lettres» 2012 by Annie Nguyen-Bárány
«Boîtes aux lettres» 2012

So many days you passed me by
See the tear standing in my eye
You didn't stop to make me feel better
By leaving me a card or a letter

Please Mr. Postman, look and see
If there's a letter, a letter for me?

Please Mr Postman, The Beatles

woman women writing letters
Catching up on correspondence

Scenes from Budapest, Bomo Art

Hot air balloons over Budapest, Bomo Art
«Hőlégballonok Budapest felett» Hot-air balloons over Budapest (via Bomo Art)

C'était l'époque où les crinolines, les cages d'acier avaient pris leurs proportions les plus extravagantes, et il me semble qu'elle émergeait d'une véritable montgolfière de soie blanche.

It was the age when crinolines, those cages of steel, had taken on the most extravagant proportions, and it seemed to me that she was emerging from a hot-air balloon of white silk.

— Pierre Loti, Prime jeunesse (1919, p 34)

Touching that Pierre Loti, indefatigable voyager and Orientalist, lover of Istanbul, would in his old age depict the outmoded women’s skirts of his youth as hot-air balloons, so that even in a drawing-room, one was still elsewhere, circumnavigating the world and time in 80 days.

Something in that picture reverberates in the little shop on Régiposta utca 14 (14 Old Post Office Street), home of Bomo Art stationery, in its leather-bound journals and exquisitely printed original paper sheets. Surannée, like the pomaded locks of Valentino, or the waltz in a tango; dépassé, like an English rose at the piano, or a gentleman’s monocle; surannée, like the perfume of parchment maps, the gentle folds of a silken bow; dépassé, like skating on a frozen lake in the snow.

Budapest Operaház, Bomo ArtPraxinoscope (via Bomo Art)

Spinning the praxinoscope in the shop round, a child hovers over its rotating mirrors to glimpse a neatly trimmed corseted lady walk up and down a flight of stairs. Kaleidoscopes wrapped in embossed prints of painted birds and animals, compasses and astrolabes, lilacs and lavender, line the shelves above her, by drawers full of watercolor postcards with calligraphic greetings.

But by far the most charming print adorning journals, boxes and gift card sets is of a painting of hot-air balloons hovering over Budapest, like women’s crinoline skirts spread full in a magnificent ballroom.
Bomo Art shop Baba Yaga, Budapest
And the presider of the ball, a benevolent Baba Yaga with a bird’s nest of hair, will have her house on chicken legs carry you more swiftly than a wink to those long bygone days.

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Scenes from Budapest, Párizsi Nagy Áruház

Parizsi Nagy Aruhaz, Protests before Párizsi Nagy Áruház, Paris Department Store, ink drawing
«Protests before Párizsi Nagy Áruház, Andrássy út 39», 2012
Signs: “There will be a Hungarian Republic”, “Enough!”, “Solidarity”, “Democracy”, “Orbán, get out!”

Nothing betrayed the commotion outside the Alexandra bookstore of the Párizsi Nagy Áruház to its visitors but the assistants who had halted their rounds and stood motionless by the upper-floor windows. Arms crossed, their faces illuminated by the dancing lights on the trees of Andrássy Avenue, they reflected the shadows of thousands passing beneath their gaze. And as the music and chants grew more distinct, one could not, even in the opulent interiors of Budapest's own “Parisian Department Store”, one simply could not escape the sense that something was in the air.

Monday evening of January 2, wave upon wave of protesters rolled down the elegant thoroughfare towards the State Opera, where the prime minister and his coterie were holding a gala in honor of the country's new constitution, passed by his party’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The numbers of the opposition did not cease to grow into the night, and already by half past seven had congested quite a number of side streets, including the “Broadway” of Pest, Nagymező utca, as well as Liszt Ferenc tér.

The state television channel would later air footage of nearly-empty streets along with isolated skirmishes between young ruffians and the largely peaceful congregation, the former clad in black leather, and who had pushed themselves into the crowds to stir trouble and make Nazi salutes. But as I had seen it from above and later down in the streets, the procession was by and large solemn and grave, distancing themselves from the troublemakers with “Nazis haza!” (Nazis go home!).

What is a constitution that restrains the powers of the constitutional court, the speakers asked, that muzzles the free press, the judicial branch, the independence of the central bank? What is to be done with a prime minister who strips the country of the word “Republic” from its official name, invokes St Stephen and God to bless the Hungarians? Do “Heroes, Kings and Saints,” the exhibit Viktor Orbán opened at the Hungarian National gallery on the same day, impassion him more than the economic fears of Hungarian citizens today?

Parizsi Nagy Aruhaz, Lotz-terem Lotz Hall Bookcafé ink drawing
«Lotz-terem», 2012

In the Lotz-terem, the neo-Renaissance jewel of the Párizsi Nagy Áruház, where I was sitting at the start of the mobilization, a piano tinkled As Time Goes By. The artist of the hall’s vaulted ceiling, Károly Lotz, must have been dreaming of the Sistine Chapel when he painted the gilded frescoes in 1884. Between the arcades, in place of Michelangelo’s prophets and sibyls, he had depicted men and women hammering, measuring, drawing, cutting, building— in a fit of national glorification in crimson lake and cobalt blue. Sipping hot chocolate in such a place, one could feel the effervescence of those years of monarchy and empire.

The neo-Renaissance palace on Andrássy út 39 that was refashioned into a department store of Secessionist expression owed its conception to the wealth gleaned from such an empire, the very same that had erected the State Opera, its ceiling also signed by Lotz. On that evening, the audience of the prime minister’s gala and the visitors of the Lotz-terem Bookcafé were gazing up at the same inherent tension— burgeoning nationalism rendered in the cosmopolitan aesthetic of an imperial multiethnic constellation.

The Párizsi Nagy Áruház and its Lotz-terem did not offer the circumstances to contemplate such paintings after the Second World War, when it was converted for some years to a book storage warehouse, no doubt at the time the finest of its kind in the world.

Scenes from Budapest, Moszkva tér

“In the old days, this square used to be called Moszkva tér”

The voice of the metro had announced the stop, “Széll Kálman tér,” just as the train pulled into the station. Nothing had changed, apart from its new and freshly pasted name. The people still arrived on Soviet trains, steel blue compartments with leather cushions from 1970, the year of Line 2's inauguration. They mounted the tunnel escalators, still interminably long and windy, at the end of which the ticket inspectors guarding the entrance still nodded a deferential “jó egeszséget” (good health) to the elderly.

From the metro doors streamed forth the passengers, among whom emerged a little boy, polar bear clutched in one hand, his grandmother's mitten in the other.

“In the old days, this square used to be called Moszkva tér.”

The boy made this remark with extreme gravity, although he was no older than three, and his grandmother, like the grannies who had overheard him, was moved to a soft chuckle.

His words hung in the air like an air of Khachaturian...

The old name plates were crossed out in red before vanishing from one day to the next. But they cannot erase the past so easily. At the bar just above the metro entrance, there was still “Moszkva tér bisztro” printed on a London underground bull's eye; across the tram lines to the market, a “Moszkva tér ticket booth.”

Or can they?

Morning breaks over the bridges, streets and squares of Budapest as Ivan Sings. Köztársaság tér (Republic Square) has become II. János Pál Pápa tér (John Paul II Square); Lágymányosi híd (bridge) has been renamed Rákóczi híd. What was known as Roosevelt tér on the Danube is now Széchenyi István tér. The nameless square by Margit bridge is baptized Elvis Presley tér. And soon Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) will cease to be, as will the poetic Pablo Neruda utca and Lukács György utca in Óbuda.

And it was so that the reigning party committed what those they condemned had done before: uproot by force, remold the memory of the people.

Vörösmarty Christmas Fair

Vörösmarty tér«Vörösmarty tér», 2009

Les nuages oranges du couchant éclairent toute chose du charme de la nostalgie; même la guillotine.

In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

— Milan Kundera, L’insoutenable légèreté de l’être

The annual artisanal Christmas Fair on Vörösmarty square dismantled its chalets two days before the New Year. Passing by the stalls with merchants selling their last wares or folding them away, I felt with sudden intensity the year drawing to a close.

On days I cross the river to the Pest side, a tour of the fair is always obligatory, perhaps because time itself slows there, and because the handmade traditions delight me in a way no sleek Kindle or iPad ever could. At the risk of sounding kitsch, the souls of these handmade entities seem to mingle with the wide-eyed children and adults of the square, inhaling the smoke of grilled sausages and the cinnamon-coated kürtőskalács pastries of Transylvania. Just like the child who abandons the screen when he spies a black teddy bear laying in wait of his arms under the Christmas tree, we still long for these warm things we can touch and smell, things we can really care about.

Exquisite crimson embroideries from Kalotaszeg, sheepskin capes, felt vests adorned with cord and polished buttons, black and white postcards of ancestors carving musical instruments from wood or standing in front of a cauldron of goulash somewhere on the great Hungarian plains, wrapping paper with ink motifs of hot-air balloons hovering over Budapest, kaleidoscopes, hobby horses, leather purses stamped and gilded, like the ones carried by the horsemen of Hortobágy or some Byzantine lord, shadow theatre, fairytale marionettes, gothic mirrors framed in wood and painted birds and flowers in enamel, ceramic teacups graced with tiny foxes and hedgehogs, Halás lace….

The best of the chalets clustered around the statue of romantic poet Mihaly Vörösmarty betrayed nostalgia for an era before the dawn of mass production, while fighting vigorously for a place in the present world.

Dragon Princess

«Dragon Princess», 2011«Dragon Princess», 2011

“The clouds and waves parted as the river dragon spirited the maiden far far away.”

The tale comes from the illustrated manuscript of one 17th century Nara-ehon book from Japan. A maiden chosen by her village to be sacrificed to a wrathful dragon is miraculously saved by the same beast. The dragon is itself an enchanted creature waiting to be freed from a spell. A Japanese Beauty and the Beast?

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