Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The Floods in Budapest

The stone banks alongside the river contain the city. Despite them, here is the river, rising.  Silently, swiftly the waters swarm downstream; the swell of water does not much alter the river’s appearance.  You know there is more of it now only because benches, parks, and the bike road are being submerged.  It has not yet risen to the main city wall, about 20 feet higher; three more days of flooding expected.  


The whole impulse of the city is to rise above. The immensity of Buda Castle sits on the hilltop plateau. Gothic church spires prick the sky, stone stairways curve up the tree-covered slopes, connecting the old layers of the city. Copper monuments are the most pronounced angles of the cityscape, emerging from its cavities as if on point to take off, hinging the mythical life of the city with the terrestrial one below.


On Gellert Hill, at the far eastern end of Obuda, the old city, the Lady of Liberty, a palm leaf held over her head, presses off of her tall column. Built to commemorate the end of the Soviet Era, she inhabits—or, rather, becomes the highest point of the city, her whole arching body drawn upwards. From an edge of the palace wall, the Turul Bird, guardian messenger of the Magyars, guards over the city. Also massively formed of moss-covered copper, spreading his 16-foot wings, he clenches a flaming sword in his claws and bares his teeth over the Duna’s sprawl.


River rising. Photo by Christopher Herring.
Rising river. Photo by Christopher Herring.


The flood
At first the water just lapped thinly over the sidewalk and the sandy riverside. Even then, people came to see. Many on their own, walking to the river’s hem or the bridge ledge above, stopping, bending just slightly their attention and bodies, to see the river so barely overcome the curb. It was then that the feeling of the flood, the relationship between city, river and human was most delicate and precise. There has been sparse rain here in Budapest, a gentle shower yesterday. The clouds, though, are thick and voluminous. Their stratified layers occlude the sun, but not the diffuse brightness of the flat sky. And by reading their full forms, perhaps one could discern something abnormal, some glint of drama below. For without coming to the bridge or the river oneself one—well, I, in this case, deaf to the local language—could easily go on clueless as to the flood.


The river widens. For all it moves in and overtakes the city, it remains nearly imperceptible. Save for one spot below the center of the chain bridge, where whirlpools form in the wake of the pointed ice-breakers, and a triangular stream of more turbulent counter-current is formed between the whirling rafters, the water moves with a kind of slow consistency, as though the river were in its depths still accomplishing some great work, constant and never seen in parts. The waters continue spiraling another thirty meters, before the broad current is again unified, carrying on to the next bridge, and bringing along the presence of the river’s own pace, a timing wholly distinct from the city standing to either side. If anything, the increased water muffles the harsh sounds of the city, softens the resonance of motors and voices on the cement, as all of the water in the air also mutes, suspends animation.


Full flood. Photo by Christopher Herring.
Full flood. Photo by Christopher Herring.


The first days

Midstream, submerged up to her bared feet, the steely statue of a woman—a saint or common woman made miraculous for a moment — on bent knee, bows forward.  Folding fully over her form, her hands joined before her heart.  Ten feet out by now, before a tree with its trunk half flushed, we can only see her in sharp profile, fastened straight as the road.  The waters rush around her—she faces the tide directly.  There in stone she is planted, for what purpose I don’t know. In prayer, virginal beauty, she seems nearly a sacrificial form.  All of her prayers go against the stream of water, or honor piously its force.  She and the river are in contradiction, the waves of their engravings marked in opposing flows.  The waters part around the solidity of her clasped body, gathering more force from the resistance.  To their horizontality she submits some part of her verticality.  At her feet, a solitary duck swims upstream. After managing about 20 feet, slowed by the rushing water at the base of another monument, she takes wing, skimming close to the water.


The last days

By the time the waters had reached their height, no one in the city seemed interested anymore. Walking by, people would look to see, naturally, but the delight and intrigue that reined the riverside those first days were by this point gone. Maybe it was because the waters had themselves calmed, stilled, and at summit, were now clearly no threat to the city. The water, though completely covering the tram road and street signs nearest, was now just sort of there. With the loss of the flooding momentum, so had the stories stopped, and normalcy resumed.


There are still groups of workmen, the ones in charge of bringing and levying the sandbags. In brightly colored shirts and blue over-alls, they watch and patrol, sit together on the stone embankment. This morning they were seated there in a line along the Buda side, backs to the river. One was crouching over the water, and washing something from his hands. Nearby, two ducks flowing sideways, and more slowly, with the fast current downstream.


The news tells different stories. Towns and villages without the fortifications of the City flooded more severely. Everyone pitching in to fill and move sandbags to the encroaching front. The stories displayed how everyone, across cultural boundaries came together for the relief effort, how this kind of disaster shows the true unification possible among people, and the good will they harbor, the strength encouraged in numbers; images of Orban as leader of a nation, meeting on the dykes, now showing its “true face,” etc… I do not know so much about this, but while in Vac on one of the first days, young men drove trucks filled with bags, residents on the waterline made what barriers they could in preparation. The able men deployed, it seemed quite naturally. Turning down a small alleyway between houses leading to the river, we passed one in those same blue overalls. He was walking up the stone road, solitary, with firm steps, from building a wall of the white sandbags where the road and homes began. The park we came to was nearly under water by then- a swing-set and green bench going under. A couple sits on the stairs, in conversation, smoking. The Sycamore-lined promenade, with leaves all full and green, the particular wide and light shade you can look up through, parsing over the path. Another strip of green land, hillier than the one we were on, visible across the river.


At a cafe right on the waterfront there sat a table of adults, watching the water, drinking tall beers and talking. The one woman is on her phone. Many schoolchildren are out in groups. The boys and girls split up. They ate ice cream and chatted. There are fewer boys than girls; the four of them take the front table, halfway in their seats and halfway wiggling up and out to look around. An older man walks out to the water’s edge, looks out, far away.


In retreat. Photo by Christopher Herring.
In retreat. Photo by Christopher Herring.



I walked to the bridge last night, around the time of sunset. The flood had taken over the two side roads and tram tracks running slightly raised just along the river. At the extremes of these margins, the tide has fallen, but they were still full with water, forming long pools diverted from the main stream. While the river carries quickly downstream, these pools on either side are still. Glassy ponds reflecting the sunset which the tourists out try to capture on the palace, the river and old city seen from the Chain Bridge. There were people sitting down there. Their forms held solidly, almost in premature silhouette against the sunset light from sky and water, and with a sheen imparted by the pools’ clarity. From steps still above the water line, they watched the patchy river go by. Image of the Intoned contrast of these two states of water side by side: movement, stillness, light both held and reflected.

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  1. I’ve read your stuff . Great. John Parman is reviewing my 2 new books for TRACESF so soon you can soon read about them there..
    &/or see barbarastauffachesolomon.com.

    Is there really a Wittenborn Art Book Store in SF? I thought of them (what used to be them, what I remembered of them, the kind of books they carried) all the time while making these new books.

    Please contact me when you have time. 415-421.4619. b.st.solo@comcast.net

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  2. Thank you Elizabeth for staying above the floods and capturing the reality of Budapest.A City’s reality is often elusive. Barbara Stauffacher does not know that Wittenborn Art Books really is in SF since 1996 at 1109 Geary and at http://www.art-books.com. As Yogi Berra put it: doch sieht jeder nur was er versteht.

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