Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Budapest - a memory of racing

The airline of course knocked all the carefully-laid plans into a cocked hat. I had 2 hours to make a connection at Heathrow, and the plane left Denver 2 hours late. Perfect. Another triathlete and I spotted one another in the rebooking queue, so at least the remaining journey wasn't a solo feat of endurance. How to spot a triathlete: the compression socks are a bit of a giveaway; also the only tanned gaunt people are usually endurance athletes of some kind, thus recognizable as kindred spirits. There are lots of gaunt grey businessmen, plump grey also, tanned plump tourists, but we bored them all with discussions of tri arcana. Charles is half my age and twice my speed.

In the Frankfurt airport we hiked well past the smoking areas (the smoke doesn't know to stay in its assigned area) to find something to eat. Here they have small folding bikes to get around the terminal - we discussed renting a couple to get in some training, intervals from corner to corner. Malev Air took us safely to Ferihegi airport where we found they'd contrived to bring my bike but lose Charles'. Midnight on the road and rain.

Next morning, dragged out to breakfast in the hotel for want of the energy to go out and find a better one. The penetrating drone of the Lesser American Bore rose above the murmur of conversation, "soon, I came to dominate my age-group". Boy howdy.

Blaha Luzja metro/tram/bus station is right next to the hotel. The grumpy lady at the metro ticket office sold a three-day pass for all forms of public transport, 3850 forint or about $16. Bargain. The whole complex is underground below a number of streets which provided a navigational challenge, six exits with forks on each one. A fast-motion video of me trying to find the correct tram platform would have looked like whack-a-mole, head popping up at all possible corners of the intersection. Apparently my sense of direction completely abandons me underground.

This is by the transition area. The Danube looks more like the great grey-green greasy Limpopo of my youth than its blue self. Perhaps the blue is upstream, where the waltzing is: or perhaps the blue is up a different river of time: up beyond any travelling, and only flotsam comes down to tell its obscure histories. The rain pelted heartily upon us all. On the tram back again, a young Hungarian couple were speaking English to each other, with careful and delicate accents. Even though they were talking about company websites, it was like listening to dancing. I on the other hand could make no headway at all with Hungarian. Smatterings of German, French, and Afrikaans were of no use, the spiky mouthfuls of consonants and strangely accented vowels would not yield.

The rest of the day went by in bike tinkering, team meetings where they confused us totally about the run course, and a bit of food shopping. I was too tired to attempt anything interesting in the evening, passed out early, rather a waste.

A pair of sphinxes guard the Opera House. She appears to have some prey clasped in her front claws, but I couldn't tell what it was. Across the street, breakfast at the Művész Kávéház was very pleasant - omelette with paprika and mushrooms, fresh bread and a couple of coffees, for half the price of a dull hotel breakfast.

I took out my favorite Waterman pen and pretended to be composing a poem on the back of an itinerary (actually I was writing notes for this blog post, how bathetic). The pen surely marked me as a poser, the attempted poetry even more so. The romantic definition of the origin of poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity. All I had was the tranquillity, did not want to ruin the hard-won moment with memories. The TV in the corner was playing music videos not so much suggestive as frankly vulgar, so I looked at the Andrassy Ut in the rain instead.

On an ordinary day I'd have walked the mile or two to Szechenyi baths. Sparing my frail old legs for racing, I instead caught the sweetest little metro from the Opera station. This was the first underground railway in Europe, built in 1898. The platforms are big enough for maybe 60 people, with handsome tiling, woodwork and brass. In contrast to the aboveground tram lines where changing lines requires going under the streets, here it was necessary to cross the street to get to the other line: which has a peculiar symmetry.

The entrance to the baths, "And the steam comes out of the grill / Like the whole goddamn town's ready to blow..."
I thought the horses and riders on the upper corners were just your basic St George with Dragon, but closer inspection showed that either the horse or the monster being impaled, has a fish's tail. That added a nicely surrealistic note.

All this useless beauty. No pictures from the baths themselves, unfortunately, as rain stopped play. The entrances, exits, lockers etc are electronically mediated with a bracelet purchased at the entrance. I wandered around confusedly until a kind Hungarian gentleman showed me the tricks. It was a good cold day for warm baths. The bathers displayed that fine European heedless unconcern with physical appearance. This was something of a relief after all the meticulously honed tri bodies, the more so since my own erstwhile hard-edged finely tuned tri body is in a sad state of flab: still that unconcern tends to lead to a series of unfortunate Speedos.

Back on the metro to Oktogon and thus to hotel.

This is the alley not taken, just by the hotel entrance, a sort of urban canyon which I did not have time to explore. Another sight I did not see is Memento Park, a collection of gigantist Soviet statuary, including Stalin's boots. As the Budapest Guide in our race package said, "several hundred tons of Communist fun!" though really it's a tragicomedy like life. The boots are all that's left of the monstrous statue that used to dominate the square, after the revolution toppled it. There was a post on Poemas del rio Wang about being a child in the square at the time of the revolution, but I can no longer find it. I still wanted to reference the Poemas weblog, as Giovanni observes, it is art that could not happen in another medium: try doing that on Facebook or Twitter, or indeed in any 'old' media.

It was time to join the bike ride from the hotel down to the transition area, three miles of congested city-center traffic. As we assembled in the foyer, bemused wedding reception guests fought through the clots of cyclists and machinery.

The ride itself was a unique experience of dodging cars and buses on a tri bike. The real Budapest bike riders pushed impatiently past our group, one with a small pink-clad girl on his bars. Coach Kris did an excellent job of herding us all safely down to the river. For the first time on this trip, it wasn't actually raining, just gloomily lowering. As we racked the bikes the u23 elite race was starting.

Tram back to the hotel yet again, talked to Duncan on the way. Last night he'd eaten at Klassz restaurant, where I planned to go this night. The attraction was their extensive list of wines by the glass - I wanted to try both a Bikavér and one of the famous Tokaj dessert wines. Fine dining the night before a race probably isn't optimal, but then nothing about this race preparation had been optimal. Duncan's brother runs a Hungarian winery and was presenting his wines at the Budapest Wine Festival the next day. He kindly invited me to come along with him and his parents to the festival after the race, which I looked forward to most happily.

Klassz was excellent and I can recommend it to any traveller. I showed up like an American at a ludicrously early hour, but at least there were plenty of open tables. Lamb knuckle with ratatouille and a glass of Takler Bikaver Reserve 2006, followed by an île flottante with Oremus Cuvee Tokaj-Hegyalja 2006. Beautiful. Home in a mellow gastronome'd daze, to pack bags and breakfast for the race.

The wedding guests had their revenge with a continuous thunder of drums from the band reverberating through my room until 2am. I took refuge from this aural equivalent of war in a usual solace, the Mass in B Minor, losing the aches in that cathedral of polyphony.

Morning and the five alarms set plus the wake-up call were all wholly unnecessary. Trams and trains and a bridge walk to the race site, with a New Zealand couple to talk with. Talking about Colorado, I'd preferred cross-country to downhill skiing, which provoked a story. Two years ago he was home on New Year's Eve, resting up for a qualifying race and pathetically reading tri magazines instead of partying. Three lines of small print advertised a South Pole trip. Last New Year's he was at the Pole after fifty-three days of skiing.

We went our ways to the bike racks to putter with pre-race necessities. I'd been working hard on replacing ambition with a calm acceptance and had nearly achieved resignation.

Usually I can swim towards the front of the pack and stay in clear water. At Worlds I'm firmly middle of the pack where it is as Chuckie V says, more like open water mixed martial arts. Some guy kept punching my calf ? a judicious half stroke followed by hard kicking discouraged him. Out of the water in 24 minutes, respectable but not enough.

The transition area was mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.

The bike course was 3 laps, with each wave of age group starting at 15 minute intervals. This meant a crowded course and great difficulty in avoiding drafting, which was a little frustrating. I'd expected to ride about 21 min/lap - recorded a strong 17 minutes on the first lap. The course was short by about 3 miles, unexpected at a world championship, though it assured us all of personal best times.

The run took off down the Danube. I felt good but was getting passed a lot more than seemed right.

I'd written HURT on my forearm, in the place where goal splits for each kilometer of the run would have been written, in the days of actual racing. When young, racing, and starting to hurt, I took it as a challenge: now it's just more pain that I'd rather not deal with. The HURT was both to remind me that racing is supposed to; and to set the only realistically achievable goal for this effort. An honest effort is all the ambition I had left.

I'm thinking about the lions.. what happened to the lions ?

The run course was marvellous: over the Chain Bridge, along the cobbles past St. Stephen's Basilica, then another loop. In the end I'd thrown everything I had into it, improving on my 2006 placing in Lausanne by a whole one place. That wasn't the plan, but all I had this year.

The finish was some miles upstream of the transition area. The organizers provided a boat ride on the Danube to take us back. Walked the bike back to the hotel, as I did not have the stomach to ride on the road. After a couple of hours of washing mud off gear and disassembling the bike to pack it again, the sleepless night brought me low. Duncan called about the wine festival but I'd reached exhaustion, a pity.

All but one of the race pictures are from the ITU gallery. The other is from a Slowtwitch post on Facebook - visit it soon, before it vanishes in the shifting sands of that unreliable site. There's also video from the ITU of the race. I'm in one of the green caps swim wave, but scarcely identifiable. The pictures below by Miklós Tamási and Krisztián Ungváry, via Poemas.

Update February 2011: Poemas leads us to the time machine, emerging dazed in the aftermath of the siege of Budapest, 1944-5. All the bridges were down. Here is the wreckage of the lions with a background of ruins.

On the corner of Blaha Luzja Ter, the actors of the National Theatre clear away its rubble.

At the outlet of the Szechenyi Baths, it's laundry day.

Perfectly astonishing.

To go back before the war, I can recommend Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water. This casts a roseate hue on the landscape, still it places the country clearly in its historical context, with yet more heartbreaking memories. This is the second volume of a promised trilogy. Rumour has it the third is a pile of notes on Sir Patrick's desk. He turned 96 just a few days ago, so we will continue to hope in anticipation.

Update 2019: Hungary has fallen. Fidesz and Orban have created a neo-fascist state.

"Four million people live below the poverty line and one million are in extreme poverty – in a country of fewer than 10 million. Doctors and nurses have been leaving hospitals in droves and the most recent cancer treatment medications are officially denied to people above the age of 75. The economy has been in steady decline since 2008, unemployment is masked by community work programs that pay about half the minimal wage – and which are compulsory for job seekers or those seeking unemployment benefits – and homelessness has been made a crime. Poverty is as palpable on the streets of Budapest as it was in the early 1990s, and the €87 million provided weekly by the EU is channeled with no monitoring almost directly into the pockets of four or five oligarchs loyal to Orbán.

On Oct. 1, 2018, Fidesz changed the law regulating demonstrations such that a meeting of two individuals counts as a political gathering, just as it did under communism. Second, several opposition politicians are under investigation after they attempted to exercise their right to enter public TV premises in December to demand extra airtime for five political demands – beyond the five minutes they got during the 2018 election campaign. Third, the government is silently preparing to establish a set of courts under its direct control for cases concerning the state, a move that would essentially mean the end of the separation of powers."

South Africa in its apartheid days had a similar law for 'political gatherings'. It always struck me as odd that the governing apparatus of Russian communism and apartheid were so similar, given that we were supposed to be deadly enemies of the Russians.
Christ only knows..
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.