The Abandoned Forest

They lie on the sidewalk, cold and naked. Who knows what rural burg they were taken from; almost certainly they were more beautiful then. But that was before they were cut down and dragged to the city — dispersed, separated from kin, transformed into refugees, and propped up for the delight of others. And then the families that embraced them simply put them out into the cold and the dark. With bare limbs, they wilt and rot by the roadside, slowly fading into sicklier shades until by some mercy a municipal worker brings around the wood chipper, and shoves them in.

It’s a strange sight this time of year, these little patches of discarded forest. Some have been flocked in gold while others are humble, small and sad. They are all dying — needles turning brown and sloughing off. Yet they once brought so much joy and warm sentiment. Is this the Western equivalent of the Tibetan sand mandala: to dress a pine tree in a tangle of lights and ornaments, stuff its undercarriage with gifts delicately wrapped in paper that will be torn to shreds, and then pick it apart again and toss the whole thing out with the trash?

The imagery seems all the weirder here in the District of Columbia, in this seething, sinking swamp. All around it looks like a Lilliputian lumberjack went to town on a pine forest no one knew the city had, leaving his bounty by the stoop. And with temperatures this January that would sooner be fit for Southern California, it’s easy to forget that we even just had Christmas. But the evidence is all down the block, a littering of holiday spirit, now as lifeless as dried sap.

Our tree never was alive. It never felt the breeze winnow through its branches, the cleansing force of a soaking rain, or the freshness of the morning dew. But it never felt the pain of  being sawed from its roots either. It never grew. Like an android, it was made by man — pieced together in some Chinese boomtown like Shenzen by people who are probably now scrambling aboard a train to get home for the Lunar New Year. While it stood in our apartment, I noticed an ornament that I didn’t remember either my wife or I picking out: a paper triangle with a “B” on it. It was the product tag. It’s still on there, with the tree that now sleeps beneath our bed.

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Morning on Castle Hill, Budapest

Úri utca (Lords' street), Budapest

J and I wound our way up to the top of Castle Hill along the cobblestone path, just as we had done the night of our arrival in Budapest. Then it had been dark, and some of the stones had been covered in a treacherously thin glaze of ice. But our empty stomachs and the nine hours of plane travel — plus six spent fitfully trying to sleep in Amsterdam’s airport — had urged us out into the fresh night air.

Now, six days later, it was a pleasantly cool and grey morning; there was a slight mist in the air that I had to continually wipe from my camera lens. Compared with our earlier night walks around the Royal Palace grounds, the place was thronging with tourists. But we muddled through them, past the bronze sculpture of the mythical yet menacing “turul” bird, and a field of ruins being slowly unearthed. From a platform raised above them, we caught our first view of west Buda in the full daylight; we had seen it once before on Christmas Eve in the drizzle and the dark, and the lights of the buildings then seemed to float disembodied in the inky fog. It was clearer now, and the whole panorama unfolded. It was a surprisingly hilly region, in stark contrast to the flatness of Pest,  and dappling the landscape in the distance were haphazard clusters of houses. They looked as though they had been shaken out from a great cup, like sprinkles on a bundt cake.

While Pest and the Castle District of Buda where we stood were known to possess the architectural marvels of the city, this view was impressive in a special way. Below in those homes were the quiet and unknowable machinations of thousands of lives, linked to eras of both great human inspiration and destruction (a land impacted by Franz Liszt’s compositions and the shells of Soviet tanks), now appearing settled in a grey and calm moment. And beyond the mist, the whole stretching expanse of Western Europe.

We meandered the full length of Lovas út gazing at this scenery, occasionally turning our heads to look at the splendid old homes and down the alleyways. Invariably, J and I debated over which apartment we would want to live in, taking into account how the leaves of the trees — when they reappeared — would obscure the vista. There was one unit with a tiny deck and an appropriately small sitting hammock, which I liked. J picked out the deck two floors above where there was a small and simple table, just large enough, perhaps, for a couple of cups of coffee.

At the end of the street we turned toward Úri utca, Lords’ street, and a stunning view of the patchwork diamond roof of the National Archives building — looking like a shiny plate of ornamented clay, gold and turquoise scales. As we walked down the avenue, I found myself wondering where the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (who I’d been reading during our trip) might have stayed when he visited Budapest. I imagined the street bustling with life and the clacking of carriages and pull carts, as must have passed often that April in 1934. We went up between the conical pylons of Fishermen’s Bastion, designed, according to my guidebook, to resemble the tents of the ancient Magyars. From here we could see the whole of Pest, no hills to hide any corner, and behind us the jagged, sawlike steeple of the Mátyás Church.

Before descending into our final afternoon — we planned to tour the Opera House, an amazing and ornate structure — we found our way to the green exterior walls of the Ruszwurm coffee house, the city’s oldest, and ducked inside. I had a slice of cake with raspberry merengue and gel, while J had a double chocolate cake named after the cafe. We both ordered cappuccinos, and as at every kávéház in Budapest, they came served with tiny shot-glass size cups of water — a detail I loved. I tried to imagine all the people — the writers, aristocrats and diplomats — that likely inhabited this cozy space for brief moments; or in successions of moments, writing, dawdling, meeting with friends, and then one day never returning. But it was difficult without a firmer grasp on the history of Hungary.

While I was thankful for many things we chanced upon during our trip, among them was a new spark of curiosity and a morsel of knowledge about this part of the world. I had a feeling that we would be returning — an urge, really, already developing. It would be warmer, I think, with foliage on the trees, and some time not too far away.