Friday 31 May 2024

Reflections on a City








I had the pleasure of being spirited away on a business trip to spend much of the last week in and around the old town on the castle hill of Budapest. 

Hungary is a country that, to the European outsider, is encountered through a thin veil of fantasy. The Hungarians are Europeans, no doubt, but they retain a hint of the vast Eurasian steppe about them. Their language, and the aesthetic preferences rumoured in their art, crafts and architecture, speak of roots in an altogether different substrate to that of the peoples who surround them. 

The consequence is that Budapest, to the non-Hungarian, is a city that feels as though it ought to belong in a different plane of existence. It is a city with magic in the air - rumoured in the distance, or stowed away in secret attics, or hidden behind ornate doorways or at the end of high narrow alleyways. Never even really glimpsed except, if one is fortunate, at the extreme periphery of one's vision, like a flitting shadow. 

A feeling that there are things being said and done behind closed doors that one cannot dream of but suspects are filled with strange import and concealed meaning. A feeling that beyond upstairs windows are meetings and whisperings in rooms decorated with signs and symbols in gold leaf or etched in silver. Summonings and secrecy. Old books in old languages filled with old knowledge and paged by old fingers, read by ancient eyes. 

A feeling that one is on the border of something grand and mighty and distant - a shard of another reality that stabs into our own.

A feeling that it is a city of adventure - of cellars that lead to labyrinths and mazes, of wizards' studies, of collectors of rarities and obscurities, of pipe-smokers and calligraphers, of softly murmured rumour in coffee shops and over goulash or dishes of river fish, of antique shops selling merchandise of unknowable origin and vast heritage, of sidelong glances and whisperings in ears. A city defined by a public face which cannot fully conceal the private mind. 

Ultimately, the city-based campaign is one of great appeal. A city can contain worlds within it. Dungeons hidden beneath streets, of course, but also portals to other dimensions - not to mention conspiracies, plots, assassinations, subterfuge and secret war. What is especially noticeable about it is that it presumes that much of what passes for adventure is to a greater or lesser extent deliberately hidden. What goes on in terms of adventure must in some degree go on in a fashion concealed from polite or 'normal' society. A visit to Budapest was enough to kindle my appreciation for this kind of game, since as an outsider I was by definition required to approach the city in that vein - as a place whose real nature was partially disguised from me. I recommend a visit.

15 comments:

  1. Awesome! Tbilisi is similar, and even stranger...

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    1. Georgia also sits in a strange position to the Western European, because it isn't processed by readily available cliches and mental categories.

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  2. A quite "eldritch" post. Wondering if there's an art to writing in such a way that the most prosaic object becomes transformed into a limit of mystery. I'm reminded of my disappointment when I found out that Lovecraft's beloved "gambrel roof" was not some weird pointed colonial architecture like a witch's hat, but more prosaically the kind of feature you might find on a red-painted barn in Ohio.

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    1. I might have been thinking of mansards, which crept into the sensibilities of a generation thanks to the architecture of the Addams and Munster family houses.

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  3. This is why I order all my adventures from EMDT

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  4. Brits love to complain about how they live in a neoliberal shit hole, but this type of nostalgic endearing is honestly how many Americans feel about your country! You are fortunate to live somewhere with even an iota of character. ūüôŹ

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  5. Man walks into the second most obvious tourist trap of the whole city, and goes "Whoa, the locals here are some mystical creatures with MAGIC and shit."

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    1. Man reads blog post and totally misses the fucking point.

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  6. Lol Noisms pulling a World of Darkness: Gypsies for Hungarians

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  7. When I visited Prague we made friends with a town guard and he showed us a secret back entrance into the castle. Admittedly so we could skip the bag check queue, not to sabotage the alchemist's laboratory, but it was still cool.

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  8. Your description of Hungary having a veil of fantasy made me think of "The Martians." I was reading about Paul Erdos (quite a character!) and came across this little bit of apocrypha:

    "The Martians" (Hungarian: "A marslakók") is a term used to refer to a group of prominent scientists (mostly, but not exclusively, physicists and mathematicians) of Hungarian Jewish descent who emigrated from Europe to the United States in the early half of the 20th century.

    Leo Szilard, who jokingly suggested that Hungary was a front for aliens from Mars, used this term. In an answer to the question of why there is no evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth (called the Fermi paradox) despite the high probability of it existing, Szil√°rd responded: "They are already here among us – they just call themselves Hungarians."

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  9. every city is full of hidden stuff -- in almost no case is it that interesting. Past a certain point you just go "bruh, I don't care that you're a spy, you throw awesome parties" or "oh, look... many headed dragon god? I'll ask what that's about later" or "huh, they killed all the cooks 50 years ago so now you can get italy-quality pizza and american-quality hamburgers in the heart of SE Asia" or "damn, where in town do I find X?"
    like, okay, if you actually really DID go behind those doors in Budha-pesht (that's how it's properly pronounced -- also, prague is really praha) then what you'd find would be, at its most interesting, political groups trying to take down orban, political groups trying to go even further to his right, organized crime, russian spies, american spies, chinese spies, and perhaps the odd cult

    Weirdness Table -- 1d6:
    1. Group to the ruling party's left, trying to do a revolution -- roll on Revolutionaries Table, -10
    2. Group to the ruling pary's right, trying to do a revolution -- roll on Revolutionaries Table, +10
    3-4. Organized Crime -- roll on Organized Crime Table
    5. Cult -- roll on Cult Table
    6. Spy -- roll on Spy Table

    which is a subtable of Mild Weirdness Table, which is itself a subtable of "What's in This Unmarked Building?"

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  10. Whoa, I was born and spent my life so far in a city that should feel like Providence, Rhode Island. Too bad it doesn't - perhaps I should leave and come back after a while.

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