Last year, September to be precise, I went on a solo trip to Budapest. I wish I could say I went to Budapest for some deep purpose, like I’d always read about it in stories or I’d seen films based there and felt like I had to go. Reality wasn’t that glamorous.
The truth was I wanted a solo trip and Budapest was the cheapest, easiest place to get to.
I had never been close to Eastern Europe. Never really considered it much – except for maybe Prague. But Budapest surprised me in the best possible ways.
I had read about the architecture. Whilst I was researching Budapest I came across the term ‘architecture porn’. And I could see what that meant when I got there. The city was ridiculously photogenic.
I spent most of my trip walking around the noble streets of the city and indulging in its fantastic culinary scene. The sense of freedom enticed me; I was in charge of my own itinerary and I could randomly walk into a restaurant or a museum purely because I fancied it.
I knew, even when I was there, that I would one day write a novel based in Budapest. The city was a new love for me. I became evangelical about it. And what better way to evangelise than through fiction.
Halfway through this month, after a trip to Sevilla, I started writing the inevitable Budapest novel. Yet, it’s only a few days ago, knee-deep in writing, that I realised that I started writing the novel nearly a year after I’d been to Budapest. I had to ask myself why?
Falling in love with a city is like falling in love with a woman. When you’re in love you want to shout it out to everyone, right. But isn’t it also the case that you don’t know the nature of your relationship, its identity and style, until almost a year in?
This is the best reason I could think of as to why it took me so many months to pen my ode to Budapest.
When I was in Sevilla, recently, I did think of relocating the story I had thought of, the story of a couple meeting abroad and starting an affair that can never be consummated, to the Andalucian capital. I was also enamoured by Sevilla and once again I wanted to shout it out to everyone.
But even though Sevilla is still fresh in my mind and Budapest felt almost like an ex-flame compared to it, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t relocate the novel to Sevilla.
As I said, I loved Sevilla. And yet, I don’t yet know what Sevilla means to me yet. Memory hasn’t yet worked its magic on it. I haven’t been separated by a long enough distance as yet to know what place Sevilla will take in my life story.
And I don’t think this is an all-too-surprising feeling for any novelist. It must be the same for grand tragedies or events in living history. I couldn’t imagine an author beginning to write a novel about the twin towers attack on September 12th 2001. To do so would be crass, hollow and worse, opportunistic.
To carry on with the relationship metaphor, Budapest and I have ‘been together’ for nearly a year now. And I know that Budapest represents freedom for me. The freedom of solo travel, of falling in love with a city on your own terms, a place that is full of life that makes you awed at how free a city can become only a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
I can’t say I love Budapest more than other cities I’ve been to. They all mean something different to me. But now, with the help of memory fermenting and refining my feelings towards Budapest, I know why I’m setting this kind of story in Budapest. The characters in this story crave freedom and find it immeasurably in this city with the best kind of ADHD. And a year ago, I wouldn’t have been on that. I wouldn’t have been articulate enough. If you asked me then what Budapest was all about I would have ranted like a demented monk; it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s fantastic.
Ask me again a year later, and I’ll reply with a whole novel.