The Opera House, the city’s pride, built in 1887 by Fellner and Helmer, the star architects of Belle Epoque Europe, their mark is the facade with the bulge on the ground floor area and the two floors high window above it, just like on the Comedy Theater of Budapest, planned by them eighteen years later. Next to it, the Salieri Café, and opposite it, already in full agreement, the Mozart Restaurant, and one house away the Figaro Confectionery – a bias unworthy of an opera city: the Italian opera fans, I tell it in advance, would look in vain for a Verdi Pizzeria or a Nabucco Night Club, just like the Russian fanatics for a Godunov Pirogda or a Kiev Great Gate rustic pub. This section of the Lanzherovskaya Street belongs to the few ones which have already heard the word of capitalism in this city of chaotic parking, and they collect money for the temporary occupation by a private car of the public land maintained of public taxes. “Jonapot” (good day, in Hungarian), says the parking guard after he navigated me in between two black BMWs. “Budapest, Kecskemet.” “Were you there as a tourist?” I ask surprised. “Oh, not.” “Did you work?” “Yes”, he says. Then he still remembers: “Szekesfehervar”. And this recalls me an old Soviet joke, and a bulb is lit on in my head. “Did you serve as a Soviet soldier in Hungary?” I ask. “Yes”, he says with relief that it was not his duty to utter it. “And how was it like?” “Oh, very good”, he says. “It was in 1975. Davnym-davno, long, long ago. God but we were young!” “Balaton!” also comes to his mind. “What did you do at the Balaton? Went there for a holiday?” I ask naively. “Ah, kapali, we dug like moles”, he says. I recall the common Soviet-Hungarian winter tank exercises in the Bakony mountains, to the north of this popular resort lake, I was never such cold in my life. “I also dug with you ten years later”, I say. “Oh, of course!” he says. “We traded with each other, sold and bought, whoever had what, we got along very well.” As I am picking out of my pocket the twenty hrivnyas parking fee, after fourteen he generously beckons, he estimates the former friendship at a value of six hrivnyas.
As I return a hour later, I find him closely next to the car. His face brightens up when he sees me. “Esztergom”, he blurts out as a long-sought treasure. “The cathedral at the river. Along the border.” “Were you inside, too?” “Once, on a seventh of November sightseeing.” “Nem tudom (I don’t know)”, he adds as I’m moving out with the car. “That’s all I know in Hungarian.” “The most important thing a common soldier has to know”, I encourage him. “In fact, nothing more was necessary”, he says.
The cars parking behind the Deribasovskaya narrow down the once two-lane street to one, the oncoming cars give way to each other at the gap on the principle of the two small goats. A huge black mafia BMW is pressing forward through the gap against me. I recall Ilya Varlamov’s thumb rule of the highway code of Odessa: the more expensive car has the priority. However, that’s not why I start to reverse, but because I would do so in Budapest as well. I beckon to the BMW, it slowly starts to come. When it arrives at my side, the window rolls down, the bald head is leaning out. I already look forward to its enriching with a new item my collection of Russian abuses. “Keszenem szépen” (thank you, in Hungarian with a Russian accent), he says smiling. I even have no time to smile back, BMWs are always in a hurry.
Walking all the morning in the Moldavanka, looking for the traces of Babel. The Moldavanka is not any more the gangland it once was. True, the house of Misha Yaponchik is still standing, with Benya Krik’s dove-cot in the courtyard, but the area became a decent working class district during the decades of socialism, with factories closed down and an unemployment high above the country’s average. A telling fact is that the only café in the entire neighborhood is on the main square, run by the charity of the Orthodox Saint Michael Church together with a children’s playground and a children’s deposit during the worship. “But why did you come out here in the suburbs?” the café auntie asks me. “No tourist has ever come here.” “I have read the stories of Isaac Babel, and I was curious about the neighborhood about which he wrote.” “Babel was a great writer”, she is nodding intently. “But do you know what? Go a little bit into our church as well. There one finds peace.”