I fell in love with Budapest on my first evening there. It was late August 2011, and I was starting a three-month literary residency with the József Attila Kör association. As I traveled in a taxi toward Veres Pálné Street, the light fell in a rich afternoon dazzle, and the trees bowed over the grand boulevards under the emerald weight of their foliage. Cyclists whizzed along paths, and people crammed onto bright yellow trams. Aside from the incongruous graffiti, the setting resembled a 19th-century period film.
That night, I wandered through cobbled streets where sidewalk cafés buzzed with conversation, crowds danced around street musicians, and couples sought privacy in the shadows beneath lush trees. A building pockmarked with holes from World War II mortar fire was a reminder of the miracle of this city—that so many of its old-world treasures remain intact. The Danube was astonishingly broad, the light-flecked hills of Buda towering on the other side, the blazing dome of Buda Castle perched at the very top. I flowed with the crowd across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, past its massive lion statues. Standing on the Buda side of the river, I took in the fantastical double view of the House of Parliament and its reflection. The building's neo-Gothic domes and spires were lit up against the indigo night, creating Impressionist dapples on the river. I hadn't expected the elegance and splendor of the grand Art Nouveau buildings, both imposing and delicate, casually arrayed along streets and boulevards in various states of decline, as if they weren't architectural marvels. I'm ashamed to say I'd imagined Budapest to be blockier, dulled by Soviet brutalist design. As someone born and raised in Beirut, I thought I was above making easy assumptions about a place. After all, my city, too, surprises visitors with its vibrancy.
The city rewarded me for my attentiveness: exquisitely carved moldings above entrances; wondrous courtyards hidden behind nondescript doors. The nightlife was raucous, with revelers dancing among the ruins of their painful past. The Seventh District, with its underground nightclubs and eclectic ruin bars that started cropping up about two decades ago in abandoned homes and dilapidated stores, was one of Europe's largest Jewish ghettos before the Holocaust. After that came the Soviet occupation, and though the Hungarians bravely resisted, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was violently put down, and the country's outsize creative talents—from the writers László Krasznahorkai, Péter Nádas, and Magda Szabó to the filmmaker Béla Tarr—were exiled or labored discreetly through the era of Goulash Communism to compose masterworks of symbolism and metaphor.
When I first arrived, every Hungarian I met assured me that all Hungarians were dour and unfriendly—usually as they were insisting on paying for a drink or patiently explaining the finer points of Hungarian grammar or history. New friends described the same kinds of upheavals I'd experienced in Beirut. In the years following the revolution, life was narrow and difficult but full of the communal closeness and the small joys of hard times. And then, in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there came a giddy sense of a wide-open future. Budapest was electric with life and tender with romance. But two decades later, the dream had soured, beset by economic uncertainty and fears of mass immigration. During my visit, I witnessed enormous demonstrations against the new Hungarian constitution put forth by the right-wing Fidesz party, which would subsequently allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to consolidate control of the state. After my own experience living through the Lebanese Civil War, I identified with the people's passion for the fight ahead.
Unforeseen events led to the writers association funding an extra month's stay for me. One night I biked to a poetry reading at a café in Buda. I didn't understand a word, but I loved the music of the language. I knew then that I would live here. That night I met the man who would become my partner. I ended up staying with him in Budapest for two years.