I don’t often revisit places during my travels, but I made an exception for Budapest, a city once coveted by Ancient Romans and Russians alike.
Once 20 years has elapsed, anyway, I consider a place -- and myself— to be brand new.
And, Budapest happens to have the largest flea market in Central Europe; reason enough for me to retread steps.
I visited Budapest in college when travelling through Europe during a one-year study abroad program in England.
During this year abroad, 1994 to be exact, Kurt Cobain leaves the world, Mad Cow Disease hits England and Budapest is still heavy from the years behind the Iron Curtain.
I remember feeling daring for venturing this far East, hearing a language so alien and knowing that others had dropped off at Germany or Austria.
This was also the year that I realized feeling daring also feels good, no matter how staid and safe the actual situation.
Since then, a lifetime has elapsed for me, and for this city. At the time, not a single neuron in my brain could have predicted that I would spend my adult life scouring flea markets to find “things” to rework into jewelry.
In Budapest, the geopolitical landscape has transformed, and this spring I arrived in a place that has emerged from repression and is now poised to highlight a more glorious past.
Unfortunately, so much of Hungary has been destroyed, from Mongolian invasions to Nazi bombs that crushed bridges and toppled building, even before communism snuffed out the spirit.
But what remains or has been rebuilt stands regal and grand against the Danube river which splits the old Buda section and the more industrial Pest sides of the city.
Much of the architecture is Art Nouveau offering a staunchly European feel to the city. But there is also a Turkic flair with its long-standing culture of therapeutic baths that take advantage of the thermal springs that run through the city. Byzantine elements appear within the infrastructure and landscape, reminding tourists that the city sits in a geographically transitional space.
The thermal waters offer Budapest a healthier atmosphere despite the Goulash and other meat-filled-meat options. (This is not a vegetarian’s paradise).
But it is a flea market junkie’s Nirvana.
About a half hour outside the city there is a sprawling area completely contained and spilling over with all the antiques and bric –a -brac that challenged the ever-so-charming Paris flea.
I entered through a huge sign that displays the name: Escersi Hasznaltcikkpiac, as if walking into a carnival.
To my delight, the very first table displayed handmade lace. The cloth designs have an Art Nouveau feel to them (to me anyway), with peacock feather-like shapes that I immediately knew would be made into a bead.
I shocked the old ladies with my decisive choices and purchases and walked away with my first pieces of Hungary.
The markets always remind me that history had to pass in order to accumulate all of these parts of people’s past lives. In front of me, in piles, was time.
In the market, I almost witnessed when the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the old spectacles and tobacco tins. I could imagine when they entered World War I with mustard gas masks placed next to old typewriters. Actual Nazi paraphernalia, ashtrays, stamps, documents are preserved at some of the stalls; a shocking reminder of how true history can be. Then, of course, the communist kitsch, the soviet sickle and hammer on pins and badges, so ubiquitous, like they were for a long time, until they weren’t.
As I walked through the lanes, I thought of the one thing I had not been able to find in any of the markets and desperately wanted to add to my collection: tarot cards.
I am not sure how I found them, but in a particularly full room, at the bottom of a glass display case, face down, was a small stack of tattered, dusty looking cards.
I asked to see them, and I almost started to cry (this is true, I have been searching for a decade) when I realized they were 100-year-old Hungarian Gypsy tarot cards. I imagine the dealer regretted charging me only five dollars, as I would have spent $100.
Now I can transform these little images that demonstrate people who wait for love, receive good news, face tragedy, bury their loved ones and raise children, into jewelry.
A single depiction on these cards says so much about what we all go through, what we all want and what we all face. I plan to keep the feel and design Art Nouveau in the spirit of the city’s architecture and time of when these cards may have been telling someone’s future in this place that has so much past.