For many years during my business travels I had actually come to believe that the city’s culture made the people. London for their cockneys, Paris for their Parisian arrogance, New York for its brazen dry humour to mention a few. Even capitals such as Caracas or Copenhagen or Cairo…in all of these cities the culture of the people reflected the culture of their cities.
But a series of trips to Budapest destroyed that belief. It was during a third visit to this cultural icon that I met Janos. I’d actually met him on my previous visits, but only as a business acquaintance. As my local contact Janos would take me to various work venues, sometimes followed by an after work beer. And that did happen again during my last visit. The same routine – show me the office I’d be working from and then an evening drink. Budapest locals enjoyed their beer, especially during long summer evenings.
But this time it was different. For a start, this was a ten day visit (normally three days max). And it was summer, my previous visits had been winter and early spring. So an evening beer was a way of life, sometimes more than just a single beer.
And this time we did have more than just a single beer. And I remember so clearly Janos’s reaction when I gave him that now that now well worn phrase, albeit for the last time, “I love the way this city shapes the culture of its folks like you!”
Janos had been trying to explain to me the reason Budapest had so many different cultural centres such as museums, religious centres, art galleries, concert venues – and that’s when I made my ill-timed almost reckless statement.
He reacted immediately. “We make the culture. We, the people of Budapest, make the culture. We are the culture. Budapest is a city that hosts the culture. Our culture”. By then I had had enough beer to say to Janos, “Ok man, you are the culture – I get it!”
A drunken reply yes, but not too drunk to make me forget his reaction. So I agreed the two of us would meet up the following evening at The Boscolo Hotel; a rich, ostentatious if not downright aristocratic watering hole. A place you could see how wealthy wealthy people were. From the Concierge to the Bell Boy, from the Housemaids to the Waiters. And the guests as well, they all appeared to love being part of this culture Janos had referred to.
That following evening Janos did appear. He was wearing loafers. Frayed jeans. An old t-shirt showing a Frank Sinatra silhouette with a couple of worn holes. And Janos himself was not much better……..unshaven, sweaty and even a tad smelly.
I was about to suggest a quick shower before the Hotel Manager himself appeared, I assumed for quiet word in Janos’s ear. Not so. An event, an unexpected and peculiar event, occurred. A formal handshake, then a slight bow before a grand hug. Formal, then very formal, then totally informal; it didn’t make sense to me.
Janos then looked at me, his expression directing me to a small table in far corner of the lounge. And a nod that said, quite simply, ‘sit’. So I did, as did Janos. As we did he began speaking. “I saw your reaction yesterday when I told you our culture comes from us and not from Budapest”. At that moment a waiter appeared with what appeared to be a nice red wine. The label read ‘1964 Banyuls’ and it looked expensive. It was. I knew enough about Banyuls to realise it was indeed a vintage. We savoured a glass each before Janos continued.
“Our culture is captured in this hotel. You see this as a palace because it wants you to. Do you know what Boscolo’s history is?” I paused before I said, “Not really. It looks like a palace to me, it appears to have the lasting opulence of a palace but you’re going to tell me it’s not, aren’t you?” “Perhaps”, he replied. “Then I have no idea. Tell me please”.
“An insurance office”.
“’New York City Finance’, eighteen ninety four. All the changes this city has seen, such as a couple of world wars and some occupations, they are captured not in this grand hotel, but in its people. Let me explain……..”