Birdwatching in Budapest

This story is second in a series of ‘travel mythologies’ that seek to blend travel writing with local mythology. Art by Jono Hunt.

Birdwatching in Budapest / Zachary Fillingham / 2013

It wasn’t easy convincing my wife to visit Budapest.

At fault were a few lingering misconceptions, most of which could trace their lineage all the way back to the Cold War. It didn’t matter that I spent the first 13 years of my life there. Budapest was simply on the wrong side of Europe. She wanted Paris or Geneva – with their plazas, cafes, book stalls, and the street corners where this or that artist famously succumbed to exposure – not the Soviet brutalism and soggy cabbage rolls of an imagined Eastern Europe.

It took an extended, multi-pronged effort to change her mind, one that relied heavily on coordinated persuasion from friends and relatives. And no sooner had she relented than the next skirmish was being fought: our proposed itinerary. Or more specifically her proposed itinerary, because I was going to spend the bulk of the trip scouring some nearby woods for an exceedingly rare owl.

Taking advantage of a family excursion to check off an endemic species or two, this would be considered normal behavior for any committed birdwatcher. But to Margot it was unacceptable. She was used to a husband who subjugated his passion in the name of “together time,” freeing it only in short bursts whenever permitted: an hour or two here, an evening there. In other words, she was used to being with a casual birdwatcher. Budapest was to be a different story though. This wasn’t any ordinary trip; it was a golden opportunity to make a name for myself in the birdwatching world, and it had been twenty-five years in the making.

I had to find that goddamn owl.

We landed in Budapest at the crack of dawn, and one of Margot’s first impressions of the country was a poster warning of taxi hawkers and scammers at the airport. No problem, I told her – there’s always public transit.  We took a bus to an outlying metro station, where a decrepit train was laboring to a halt at the platform. I could see from my wife’s dour expression that some of her old ideas about Eastern Europe were being reanimated, but luckily this didn’t last long. A mere hour or so later the very same bygone technology – now in the form of an antique tram gliding along a tree-lined boulevard – had joined the swollen ranks of the “absolutely fabulous.”

Part of the compromise that had green-lighted Budapest was 24 hours of nice, normal sightseeing as a couple and, unwilling to risk having jetlag compromise my performance in the woods, I decided to get it over with on the first day. Our hotel was located in Buda, the hillier side of the Danube, which has a reputation for being pricier and more exclusive than working-class Pest. We began by walking uphill from Szell Kalman Ter and through the Vienna Gate at the northern edge of Castle Hill, a sprawling medieval fortress that looms over the Buda skyline.

On the elevated plateau of Castle Hill, with panoramic views in every direction, Margot was locked in a state of unending captivation. Our progress through the narrow, cobbled streets was frequently halted so she could duck into a shop, examine the menu at some posh café, or enjoy a moment of hands-on-hips reflection as to why we’re so afraid to paint a building pink back home. The slow pace meant we only had time to see the 17th-century Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion, a gothic terrace offering spectacular views across the river. The other two big-ticket attractions on the southern end of Castle Hill – the National Gallery and the Royal Palace – were set aside for Margot to return to in the days ahead.

The next morning was when the true business of the trip could get underway. I woke up early, and after gathering my notebooks, binoculars, telephoto lens, and camouflaged bucket hat, I set out for Gellert Hill – also in Buda, just south of Castle Hill. I remembered the quickest route from my childhood days: up the stairs at the base of the Elisabeth Bridge, past the hulking statue of St. Gellert, and along the hiking paths surrounding the Habsburg Citadella. As I made my way past the statue, it even came back to me how St. Gellert was martyred. The poor man was tied to a spiked barrel and rolled down the hill that now bears his name, the victim of some unruly Magyars who had not yet come around on the idea of Christian salvation.

Squatting in the bushes, equipment double-checked and ready to go, my watch could finally begin.  I let myself sink into hyper sentience, where all non-vital body functions shut down in favor of the observational faculties. My ears twitched at every rustle; my vision achieved an acuity in excess of 20/20; and my brain took on the detached efficiency of a computer as it ranked and catalogued all ambient birdsong.

Yet even in this elevated state, my mind wandered. I thought about my target: the Rezfaszu Bagoly, or the “copper penis owl,” a species that had never been photographed in the wild. My parents had often invoked it as a threat while growing up in Hungary. “If you don’t finish your dinner, the Rezfaszu Bagoly will kill you tonight.” And the one time I asked how an owl could kill a young boy, my father’s grave response was “in all of human history, copper has triumphed over flesh.”

The only thing I actually managed to spot on that first day was Margot, visible from afar in her purple cloche hat and unwieldy handbag, slowly ascending the stairs of Gellert Hill. I checked my watch; it was late afternoon, time to pack it in. I paused for a moment to enjoy the view while she made her way up: the celestial upheaval casting shadows over the hills of Buda and bathing Pest in a hallowed light. And between them the Danube, on the threshold of night and day, painted gold by an exhausted sun. My reverie was broken by Margot’s voice, sounding more anxious than usual.  She said we had to leave at once because the woods fill up with muggers and rapists at night. A waiter had told her so.

We ate at a small restaurant on the Buda side of the Danube. Over the occasional hum of a tram going by, Margot told me about her day. She had spent most of it in Pest, shopping in exclusive boutiques on Andrassy Avenue and strolling through Heroes Square and its surrounding parks.  The subway was singled out as a real thrill. Her eyes twinkled with excitement as she described the No.1 Metro Line (the first subway in continental Europe!), and how one had to leave the station entirely and cross the street overhead just to get to the opposite platform.

Sometime during her description of the station’s elegance and how it might encourage people to dress a bit smarter when they rode public transit, I glanced out the window at the lavishly floodlit Hungarian parliament across the river. High above its gothic dome, birds were visible in the column of light, circling in a slow vortex. Margot’s voice became a distant murmur, and then was gone completely.

How was I going to find that owl? That fucking copper penis owl…

I left the hotel at dawn the next morning. A short time later, I was scanning the treeline atop Gellert Hill; the last day of my watch had begun. Anxiety gnawed at me with the passing of each uneventful hour, and long-repressed questions began to float to the surface, like “What if the Rezfaszu Bagoly is nocturnal like most owls?” and “What if it doesn’t actually exist, like the cave-dwelling mumus, the man-with-the-sack, or any of the other bits of fiction that our parents use to terrify us?”

I drove the doubts away with the totem of a childhood memory, the very same that had brought me to this radical fringe of birdwatching in the first place. It was of a school trip to the Habsburg Citadella decades ago, one that culminated in scandal when four of my classmates ran out of the woods screaming hysterically about the Rezfaszu Bagoly. Among them was Gyula, my best friend and someone who I had never known to lie or exaggerate in the slightest. I remember the desperation on our teacher’s face as she tried in vain to calm him down. But more importantly, I remember that Gyula had pissed himself – unmistakably, thoroughly, and irrevocably.  Who would take on that scarlet letter of the schoolyard for a prank?

“Why would who piss himself?” Margot piped up from somewhere behind me, causing the binoculars to slip and smack against my chest. It was early evening, and I had apparently been mumbling to myself.  “Did you get to see one?” She asked sweetly, though her voice carried a discernable note of apprehension. I could only sigh by way of response as I carefully folded up my carbon fibre tripod. My watch was over. I had failed.

Somewhere amongst the erratic fits of sleep I managed that night, I awoke to the sound of fluttering wings and a deep, mournful hoot unlike anything I had ever heard on my birding podcasts. My god! I thought, bolting upright. I grabbed my glasses from the nightstand and peered at the source of the noise. On the windowsill stood an owl in silhouette, set against the sepia cone of a streetlight. As if to know what I was thinking, as if to remove any possible doubt, the owl shifted to a profile view, projecting a disproportionately large and shadowy shaft onto the wall opposite.

I whispered for Margot to grab the camera, but there was no response. I reached out to rouse her, unwilling to take my eyes off of the magnificent specimen before me, but my hand groped at empty space. Alarmed, I switched the lamp on and turned to look.

My wife wasn’t there.

But I wasn’t alone in the hotel room. A face was staring back at me from the other side of the bed. Human or not, I couldn’t be sure, but the hatred in those two ashen globes bulging from its skull was beyond doubt. I instinctively made a lunge for the door, but the imp was on top of me before I even got halfway, scratching and clawing and trying to wrench a coarse material – some kind of sack – over my face. I thrashed and kicked but could do nothing to stop the sack’s downward progress, and even after the darkness became total, blows continued to rain down on my defenseless body. In a lull I heard some frenzied hooting and speaking in tongues, maybe provincial dialects. Where was my Margot? Someone had to tell her I was right this whole time. More blows thundered in from the other side of the sack.

And then I was soaring high up in the clouds with a flock of crested ibis.

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