with a small c

Mickey and Minnie in the Lost Lagoon
by Eva Thury

Last fall we took time off from our usual revels in Budapest to visit Venice. The flood-watch "duck-boards" were just being put in place, the mob of tourists had shrunken from its summer peaks; gone also were the Carnival throngs we experienced in the past. Despite our different perspectives, we passed a pleasant couple of days trooping through museums and taking each other's picture in streets older than our whole country.

There's always a tug-of-war about our trips to Venice: I am enchanted by the flooded lagoon, but my husband says it reminds him too much of Disneyland. He shrinks from a venue he finds oppressively coherent and unrelated to his real world. We take the overnight bus from Budapest and, already on the vaporetto from Piazzale Roma, I can see the dear man brace himself for the collision, preparing to run chock-a-block into massive quantities of sensory input, blindsided by too many a's: architecture, African salesmen with knockoff designer bags, and art museums founded by thieves and robber barons.

My husband is a nice Midwestern boy who believes fervently that the street plan of a city should be laid out in a grid, and that it should definitely not be flooded by water: two strikes against Venice. For my sake, he has learned to love New York, but the city in the lagoon is beyond his powers of acclimatization, resembling as it does New York raised to some absurdly high power, to the medieval power of the seas. Enough to be discomfited by the pyrotechnic display of The Lion King, a trial in itself, never mind being dwarfed by the Palazzo Ducale and its Sala del Maggior Consiglio, a hall to seat the 1200-member Great Council, decorated with a frieze showing the first 76 doges, dating back to 804, not to mention the sixteenth-century paintings of Venetian naval triumphs. It's amazing and altogether too much, especially when you are viewing it in a swirl of all the flavors of tourists available, from garlic-smelling grandmothers in pursuit of dubious-bottomed toddlers, to lean, flashy Euro-crats busily explaining which items would look better at their house.

Like my husband, I too find the contradictions of Venice disquieting, but in a pleasant way. I enjoy my contact with past glory and appreciate watching the tourists as much as sighting members of the small hardy band of remaining locals. I slip easily into thinking of the city as a faded bohemian refuge, or as a tacky retreat for the middle class. I am reminded of old Atlantic City vacations in my youth–the collision between relentless waves of ocean and endless rows of fudge emporiums, tee-shirt shops and boardwalk hawkers of sideshows, knives, lemon-juicers, and kazoos. In Venice, I trudge unflagging through decaying churches, squinting at uncleaned frescoes depicting grandiose sufferings which can barely be made out even after we fork over the money to have their spotlights turned on. I sift through bin after bin of nearly identical glass beads, my mind transported to thoughts of Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. I press my body into teeming vaporettos, lurching and jerking in the wake of canal traffic, my camera poised for unique angles of venerable monuments, ducking to avoid including the overweight, overdressed tourists ducking to avoid photographing me.

Venice, despite its long history, is no fossil: the freaky blues of the looming Iraqi war served as background music for our visit. On our way to the Gallerie dell'Accademia, we paused to photograph a radical group taking over the British consulate, sending up DayGlo-colored flares and unfurling anti-Bush banners from its railings. In San Marco Square, protestors handed out leaflets advocating peace in four languages, while hundreds lay down, filling the square with a peaceful demonstration of their message.

On Sunday night we got back to the bus stop, our bags swollen by the usual chachkas: glass beads, museum catalogs, pannettone wrapped in tissue paper, a plaster mask pillowed in newspaper. We were joined by similarly equipped Hungarian tourists, only a few of them familiar from our voyage out. For Hungarians, the eighty-dollar round trip to Venice is too expensive to waste by spending only a weekend.

So back on the tour bus we go. We settle into our seats, stop at an overpriced rest stop, our dearly bought last chance for Parmesano Reggiano and Espresso Italiano. Then, the in-flight movie, Independence Day recorded from the Hungarian TV station RTL. I am reading a book by Gyula Krúdy, a Hungarian writer whose hero Szinbád the sailor represents a more landlocked, Hungarian version of the adventuring spirit of the Thousand and One Nights, a Proustian hero who originated before Proust, Hungarians are quick to point out. Krúdy's Szinbád is a melancholy, solitary voyager who slips in and out of the landscapes and memories of his youth, finding no peace in the fading era of the Hapsburg monarchy. My eye wandering in the dark bus, I slip in and out of what at first sight appears a dated, and absurd American movie.

In my book, the hero is looking up an old flame, now married to a village doctor who, fortunately, is not home. "I am the one you have been waiting for," he announces, "I am Szinbád." She stands leaning against the armrest of a chair, theatrically lifting a very white arm and stroking her smoothly combed hair with a hand bearing a single, green-stoned ring. She declares that she never thinks of him and has not been waiting for him. In his absence, she has become petite-bourgeoise. On the very next page, however, she is retracting her denial as she sinks sadly into her chair. She declares that she has pined for him for ten years, longing for the lost dream world of plays, balls, beautiful dresses and sparkling jewels, and, on her infrequent visits to Budapest, seeking him in their old haunts, searching for him in theaters, supper clubs and cabarets. Szinbád leaves town by evening, thinking of his former love, his reminiscences mingling with her heady, unpleasant perfume.

On the screen, President Bill Pullman is making a speech, a call to bravery in the face of annihilation. He is speaking Hungarian, a language especially suited for speeches of brave defiance in the face of inhuman aggression. My brain shifts and I see black and white footage of tanks rolling into Budapest, soldiers firing on the crowds. It's easy to see the history of the world as the regular shifting of empires when you are barreling through the Alps through the night in your state-of-the-art Mercedes Volánbusz, heading for yet another great European city, its history dating back hundreds of years, centuries of struggles, conquests, defeats and glory.

I find myself musing on the Roman Empire, as rendered, absurdly, by the cartoon Asterix and Obelix. In America we don't get the movies featuring Gerard Depardieu as Obelix, but the story may be familiar from the books, occasionally marketed to children in the U. S.: in Roman times, a small village in Gaul provides active resistance to the spreading of the Empire. The story originated in France in the 50's. It is a parable: you supply the meaning. The Romans can be taken to be Charles deGaulle, or the British, or if you like, modern-day Americans. They are regimented, full of themselves, and ultimately fall victim to the cute and funny provincials who live in what amounts to modern-day France. They are fiercely proud of their culture (with a small "c") and are not about to give it up to a bunch of self-important invaders.

Before our Venetian adventure, we have just seen Asterix and Cleopatra, in which our Gallic heroes are brought to Egypt to help Cleopatra complete a temple to Julius Caesar in record time, and by their efforts demonstrate the superior power of the indigenous people over the decadent forces of the invading Romans. Like my experience of Bill Pullman, my acquaintance with these adventures is in Hungarian only. The entire movie was rendered in rhymed couplets: I wondered if the French version takes this form as well. To the Hungarians in the movie theater with us, the Romans were best read as Americans, arrogant in the face of victory, petulant when met with defeat, short sighted parvenus opposite the Egyptians who are bolstered by a culture stemming from hundreds of years more history.

In the beacon of the bus, we return from what was once the Venetian Republic and head toward what was once the Hungarian People's Democracy. I look at my watch and sigh at the enormous distance still to be covered in the night. I am far from home. What do we Americans know, or care, about the history of Europe? Well, you say, why should a magnificent power like the U S of A study the experiences of a tiny cabbage worm of a country located somewhere behind God's back? But, I say, do Americans realize that their country wouldn't even be here today if England hadn't been too busy worrying about the onslaughts of Napoleon in 1812 to crush their tiny republic?

With globalization comes the illusion of shared experiences. Venice is just like Atlantic City, barring only the 12 centuries of power under its belt. My mind drifts back to Bill Pullman and the American Empire. We have been invaded, at the heart. Suddenly I am watching the fall of the Empire State Building, I guess it is, and, on the bus thrumming through the Alps, I am moved, frightened for the empire of my heart, stricken with sorrow for the events of the World Trade Center. As an American, it's hard for me to watch, but the other people on the bus see these events with much more distance, much more equanimity. For many of them, September 11th was just another special effect. However, I remind myself, for many Americans, Hungarian experiences in World War II seem just as unreal.

Hungarians see what's wrong with everything, they don't just pick on Americans. They love telling you that their language is too hard to learn. A typical American, I always respond by saying, "It can't be that hard. I see that even babies manage to become proficient at it." We Americans expect things to be easy, and to an extent we end up inhabiting the world we have conjured with our expectations.

Eva Thury has been a student of culture (with a small 'c') in a variety of ancient and modern civilizations, including post-war England and Germany, New York City, Philadelphia, and most recently, post-reform Budapest and modern Mycenae. She teaches in the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel. Her URL is: http://www.thury.org/