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David Begun The taxi door slammed shut behind me. The hot sticky city air hit me like a mischievous wave. Before me, there was Budapest and its yellowish landscape peeling under an impossibly humid breath, like dusty hundred-year-old melted candles forgotten on a sacred altar. As I shuffled up and down some unpronounceable avenue, a row of buildings seemed to mumble a slow and tired hello, like anaemic and slightly unfriendly elderly folk.
Hungary, I would soon discover, is more than a country; it’s a state of mind. It is that place of permanent disquietude that lies inside the human soul, like a stage where long drawn-out suspense scenes take place in succession, with no climax, no closure, no dénouement whatsoever. Over there, just like a song that is imperceptibly out of tune, there prevails a sense of not-quite-rightness at every instant. This land was as real as it was imaginary, like a page ripped straight from an evil fairytale. Here I found all my feelings of unwellness sculpted unto its geography, like barnacles on a giant humpback whale. Hungary was some sort of twisted Wonderland, and I was some sort of Alice.
Despite my best efforts I had been unable for the past four months to work on my research project. My post-traumatic-hangover state of mind kept me away from my desk at university and just the thought of having to see this academic endeavour to its conclusion filled me with a mix of profound and almost physical laziness, angst and abysmal fear. I was trapped inside some Munchean canvas, screaming frantically to be released, except I didn’t know who to or what from. I needed the fieldwork.
Inside the hostel, the air was even hotter and stickier than outside. Clive, a statuesque Australian I had befriended, had just taken his first real shower in weeks. Towel around his waist, he expertly packed his bags for the next leg of his trip, while I adjusted the position of two fans directly over our beds, making sure the radius of both their motions moved synchronously and at mathematical precision so as to maximize breeze effect. We shared stories. He told me he was halfway through a four-month long bike journey across Europe, which explained his giddiness at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed. In turn, I explained how I was on my way to Rudabánya to dig for Miocene apes. In the dark, under the steady buzzing of the fans, we sat on the edge of my bed inspecting a map, like two lost strangers in search of some grand treasure. Bright yellow lines marked a route, which his hands travelled smoothly across the paper landscape. His fingertips swept gently towards its final destination, the Black Sea, directly across from my belly button. We were both half awake and half naked, trying unsuccessfully to survive the staleness of this Budapest room. While he spoke, I wiped little dew-like pearls of sweat off my chest at regular intervals. I looked at him, flashlight on his forehead, I could barely see his aqueous blue eyes through the rays of light flying in my direction; his voice was soft and deep and very Australian sounding.
The scene truly belonged in some version of Wild Orchid: Hungarian nights, except the main actress had suddenly forgotten her lines. Just like vibrations dissipating from the tinkling of a triangle, a steady but imposing wave of numbness invaded my whole body from the inside out. My skin was burning hot but my insides were ice-cold. An invisible force had transported itself into that room and had turned the volume on whatever it was I was supposed to be feeling, all the way down to muted. I said something nice that invited Clive to leave my side. I lay down on the bed that I now had all to myself, feeling the cool airflow of the fans taking turns sweeping heat off my feverish flesh. A subdued yet definite sense of contentment took over and I picked up my reading of David Begun’s “New catarrhine phalanges from Rudabánya (Northeastern Hungary) and the problem of parallelism and convergence in hominoid postcranial morphology.”
Yes, I had just chosen a dense scientific article over a man. Welcome to my experience in Hungary. If London was a coquettish and naughty middle-aged lady looking for trouble, Budapest was a wise-yet-slightly-broken young woman trying to make her way to some village in the mountains, except she’s tipsy and is carrying more baggage than she can handle.
Twelve pages into the article, and I was more confused than ever about the status of Rudapithecus among the Dryopithecines, about the ancestral locomotor repertoire of great apes, about my PhD research, my career choices, and also about myself. As my brainwaves fluttered between consciousness and pieces of a dream, disconnected thoughts played in random loops inside my head. Emerging from this noise, like an old recording from a 19th century gramophone, my friend Sara’s distorted voice asked unrelentingly: “What’s it like? What’s it like?” I imagined myself as an old yellowed peeling Budapest building on the side of a nameless avenue, frowning suspiciously at a tiny little Alice, and whispering in a slightly unfriendly tone: “You don’t find your way. You just learn to be ok with being lost all the time. You just accept it.”
PhD degrees often are as much about a personal voyage as they are about one’s academic maturing, and this trip, I knew from the beginning, was going to be as much about scientific inquiry, as it would be about an inner search. It was time for this lady to sober up and bury the excess baggage where it belonged, in a distant past, in a clay pit in Rudabánya, with its ten million year-old cousins. It was time to put away this dirt and dig up some fresh one. It was time to leave, to find this muted muddy fossil-ridden land of lost innocence and primordial beginnings.
On the morning of July 24th, I set forth to Keleti station, track number 13. In silence, I waved goodbye to the giant elderly folk now busy mumbling bitter insults at the hot Hungarian air. Down the rabbit hole I went. The destination was Kazinczbarcika via Miskolc. The road was to Rudabánya.
[Click here for the continuation: Anatomy of a Square]