My hair smells of chlorine and coconut on the west side of Oslo, where smatterings of French are heard frequently amidst soft-spoken Norwegian. When you are broke in Oslo but long for Paris, this is where you come. To Frogner. At least this is what a young woman at a party told me recently. Neil Young is playing softly over the stereo in Baker Hansen, a café where I have somehow become a regular. The sticky sweet pistachio taste from a Karlsbader pastry lingers on my tongue while steam rises slowly from my coffee. The crooning sounds of home – come a little bit closer, here what I have to say – mix with the voices of a table of Norwegian women. Outside is the sun, and daffodils, and a feeling of spring. Blue Chionodoxa gather in crowds, covering sparse lawns just like gossiping ladies catching up after a long Norwegian winter, hanging their soft blue heads in slumber at dusk. The sounds of ‘Harvest Moon’ fade into mundane pop and the ethereality of the moment is lost.
Blue Chionodoxa gathering in crowds, Oslo (2017)
In a vegan restaurant in District VI of Budapest just off of Hunyadi tér, four colleagues working on a film together chat. Two Brits and two Americans, their voices fill the small arched cellar space together with the smells of seitan and paprika. They compete over film references, directors and editors, discuss who has worked with who. A selection of British music from the 90s plays over the stereo here. I am surprised to hear ‘Common People’ by Pulp. I know every word of the song and the dance moves from the video too, memorised from my teenage years when I would dance with friends and emulate the lithe lead singer Jarvis Cocker. I listen bemused to the ensuing discussion: two Brits trying to explain Jarvis Cocker to Americans. They leave it at “eccentric British character” and the conversation shifts again. Tunes fade in and out and I find it difficult to concentrate on the book I am reading so instead I write what I am experiencing, a new kind of voyeuristic mindfulness. Jesus and Mary Chain plays and the sounds of unexpected shoegaze makes me feel dreamy.
In Frogner, I buy a single red chili and a piece of ginger from the little independent grocery shop, the ones with the best ingredients that keep their produce in tiers outside under canopies; the ones which Norwegians often refer to as “immigrant shops”. I do not care much for the term but I like the kind men who work here, Norwegians of middle-eastern descent with pleasant west-coast accents: my favourite Norwegian dialect. Their slightly British accented English is equally pleasant. Outside, are loose vegetables and ingredients difficult to find in chains like Rema 1000 or Kiwi or COOP. I contemplate bits of turmeric root that I am not sure how to use. Inside are fresh herbs and a counter that protects loose olives and antipasti, and there is Macedonian ajvar, British tandoori, American tortilla chips, smoked sea salt from Greece, and date syrup from I do not know where. I am reminded of home, in this heterotopia which is a welcomed momentary escape from the cultural monotony of the nation-state, away from knekkebrød and pålegg. The young man working the cash sneaks a package of apple chips into my bag when I am not looking. I always feel good here, where I stopped with a friend last summer to buy olives for an evening picnic and a late summer swim at Tjuvholmen.
There used to be a DJ at Szimpla Kert – the most famed of ruin pubs in Budapest – who had a little table set up in one of the front rooms. His name was Attila. I was bolder ten years ago and had a tendency to strike up conversations with DJs. On Wendesday evenings, he would play British music and I would pull up a chair and chat, make song requests and dance to Suede and Joy Divison in a small space which was really more of a broad corridor passing into the strange spaces one finds in a ruin pub: spaces filled with bathtubs as chairs, bits of rubble, crumbling walls and narrow stairwells, low lights and cheap beer, and no ceilings, no roof. That was ten years ago though. Since then, it is as if its very presence catapulted gentrification into the surrounding District VII – the Jewish quarter – like some hipster contagion. Now, blackboards with coffee specials written in varying fonts in English and white chalk are found amidst cake shops and taco stands. There is even a DIY eatery where you make your own food and on weekends there is a farmer’s market at Szimpla Kert, which now looks like a sort of theme park with a gift shop and all.
After this most recent trip to Budapest, I am suddenly more aware of the beauty of architectural detail on the west-side of Oslo where the heritage of the nineteenth century is immaculately cared for. I soak in the way that light falls on cornices and spills down pastel-painted facades with heavy doors opening into courtyards filled with bicycles and ivy. It is the effect of photography, I suspect, that brings this hyper-awareness. It is a way of looking, not just seeing: every shadow or perfectly posed leaf, swift movement of bodies and trams, all photographs waiting to be, so many moments that without a camera pass and and though observed, are not preserved.
I write close to two hundred hand-written pages in Budapest, between coffees and photographs. Nothing at all to do with my dissertation or my work at hand. I become so inspired that I stop on bridges and rest my notebook against columns, at the base of statues, on the steps of the Bazilika. It is the kind of inspiration that philosophers write about. Sometimes it is just the mundane. I sit and write my surroundings. Like a photograph, my words attempting to capture and preserve a moment; this particular arrangement of people and light, sounds and smells, that will never again exist. I eavesdrop unintentionally and intentionally. I watch people, their actions and interactions, their appearance and manner. In an eco-café, I have a near panic attack when I suddenly realise that I am surrounded by Norway, despite my hopes of respite from the North: a table of four Norwegian girls immediately to my right, a table of five to my left. I am horrified when one begins opening something wrapped in aluminum foil. It is a matpakke, the unwrapping revealing a piece of knekkebrød and sweaty Norwegian cheese. Despite any affinity I might have for crisp breads and cheese, this typical Nordic lunch disturbs me, especially here where one can avert these canapés of sadness in favour of the cakes of empire. I shake the panic and instead focus on the colour blue. The blue of sublime that I keep thinking of. The blue Danube. The blue hills of Buda stuck to the horizon like photo-montage above the river. The hills appear between buildings too, like they do not quite belong there. Like blue spring flowers.
New growth on Dogwood and blurred Chionodoxa, Oslo (2017)
I walk to work today in a short skirt and pale grey stockings, the very same that I wore on a date once. I have my camera and I take photographs. The sun is absent now, and the skies a mix of grey and effervescent white; gentle warnings of the rain that later comes. My knees are cold and I see little blue flowers again. Blue Chionodoxa are sprinkled behind fences along Sognsveien on my ascent to work. I think about pilgrimages as I walk, about the Camino de Santiago specifically and wonder if I can manage a week of 30 kilometres a day in the Spanish sun of August, among chaparral and succulents. I wonder what is blue in Spain.
There are blue Chionodoxa too at Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest, gathering at the bare feet of stone lovers locked in embrace; the tiny blue vernal blooms bursting through thick carpets of waxy ivy. I wander the grounds, gazing at stone angels and signs of spring. Sixty years ago, guns were fired here and Soviet tanks rolled through nearby streets during the revolution of 1956. Tibor Fischer describes these altercations in his bittersweet novel ‘Under the Frog’, filled with humour and sorrow: the book I read in the vegan restaurant. The bright yellow petals of Forsythia are framed by wrought iron fences and the late March trees throughout Budapest are covered in fascinating forms, green softness untouched yet by dust, unfurling to the breath of the city, opening in slow motion in the warm air. Tourists look past the buds and the branches and all these small miracles of new growth, look past to the staid stones of history: the neo-Gothic parliament buildings as seen from across the Danube from Buda or the Chain Bridge flanked by lions, or the countless other larger miracles of architecture and monument in the city. I look at these too and each new visit brings me greater appreciation for the grandeur and the history that steeps these streets along the flowing Danube. I think of Budapest, like Pessoa thinks of Lisbon. Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us, he writes. I carry Budapest heavy in my soul. I know that when I walk those úts and utcas again and again, that I write them, inscribe them, etch them more indelibly in my being. So much so that the city is now in my genes and any future progeny might bear inexplicable memories and feelings of longing for weary facades and tales of revolution. There is something of the sublime in Budapest. It is more than just beauty, it is contrasts and history, architecture and cakes. Architecture like cakes, and cakes like architecture. It is revolution and dissidence, resilience and struggle. I think of blue Chionodoxa and the blue depths of the Széchenyi baths under the open sky at night that I dive deep into at the base of marble beauties, in the witness of stars. I think of the blue sky and the blue Danube, and everything sublime.
I wonder what is being etched on my soul in Oslo. I watch as twenty-something year-old Norwegian boys buy strawberries and snus at the Rema 1000 grocery store on a Friday night. They pile onto their City Bikes and take off noisily into the evening. I buy sparkling water, my hair still smelling of chlorine and coconut, still wet from the pool. The evening air is warm and all I want is a little peace, to listen to Neil Young on my headphones in a moment of nostalgia and homesickness, to enjoy the warm spring air and look up at the aurora spinning around the nearly full moon, and maybe do the dishes.