miércoles, 17 de abril de 2013

High expectations in Budapest's guts


Subways are a fascinating thing. In a way, they are the guts of a city and, with thousands of people moving everyday through them, they are a reflection of the character of the city and its inhabitants.

The urban legend says that under the soviet regime, it was considered that public places and notably, public transport systems, had to be public palaces to reflect the greatness of the Party. Old soviet republics inherited majestic metro systems from this idea, including the legendary Moscow metro, which is decorated with chandeliers, carpet and marble columns. I prefer the other ones, the ones that contain this intriguing subterraneous world within the dark and dusty tunnels. I like the versatile ones, like Paris' metro, in which whenever you wander beyond the touristic and modern ligne 1 (created to ensure that tourists move safely between the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and Notre-Dame), you might find yourself in a banlieue trying very hard not to look at anyone in the eye. I like chaotic ones, like Mexico City's metro, in which you can buy anything ranging from children's books to learn mathematics, to CDs with the best 500 salsa songs ever and granola bars, provided you're carrying 10 pesos with you. I like the filthy ones, like New York's gritty subway system in which a ride at 3 am is a memorable experience which may be accompanied by people in dinosaur outfits, wannabe-America's got talent stars, enthusiastic and drunk extroverts, random street musicians and a homeless man with his pants around his ankles. Those subways are the good ones: the ones with the greasy walls, with the bizarre urban characters and the intrigue of not knowing exactly who lives or what happens in the tunnels. Those are the ones that exhale life as it flows in the city.

Not long before my trip to Budapest, I watched Kontroll, a Hungarian movie about ticket controllers in Budapest's subway system. Granted, it may sound like ticket controllers in Budapest's subway system is a very specific topic, a niche if you will, catering only the most pretentious art-cinema aficionados. Except, it's not. Actually, Kontroll is a very good movie with a fairly simple but unusual plot, which follows every day life of a group of seemingly unpleasant ticket controllers who in fact turn out to be much more pleasant than they seem. There's something for everyone in this movie: a good plot, interesting characters, grim scenery, a dark atmosphere and people being pushed in front of the subway. But enough movie recommendations, I will shush my inner hipster now. All I want to say is that after watching Kontroll, I was looking forward to using the Budapest metro with all its grimness and character.

So there I was, absolutely disappointed to see that Budapest's subway is rather nice. The oldest and most touristic line, crossing the city from east to west is Line 1, is an incredibly cute train similar to a ride from Disneyland. It's only missing the funfair music in the background. As for the other two lines, they are somewhat old, in somewhat need for maintenance and repairs, but otherwise missing the drunk ticket controllers and people running through the tunnels. One thing I did notice and that was just as in the movie, were the extremely long staircases leading to the outside world, as if they were slowly taking you out of hell and back into the real world.



miércoles, 3 de abril de 2013

Km 34,031: The twisted islanders of Texel

Islands are the stuff nightmares are made of. Not the big ones like Australia or Greenland (which I recently learned, in a reverse case of "objects in the mirror being closer than they seem", is actually much smaller than it appears on the map). I'm talking about the really small ones, the ones you can hardly discern on the map and force you to squint and wonder if they're really there, brushing off imaginary crumbs from the map. Those are the scary ones: the lonely, deserted and almost unpopulated islands. Stephen King, the Lord of everything that is terrifying, was perfectly aware of this when he wrote, not just a short story or a book, but the script for a four hour long movie about what happens when people are trapped on a small island and go batshit crazy ("the Storm of the century"). Not to mention another group of imaginative people who kept us on our toes for a couple of years, spoon-feeding us horror stories about the adventures of a bunch of people being hunted down by a smoke monster and polar bears living on a tropical fantasy island in the middle of nowhere. I mean "Lost", of course, and its writers, whose heartlessness is illustrated by the fact they fooled a substantial amount of people (myself included) into wasting six years of our lives watching a series that wasn't actually going anywhere. The final episode of Lost left me with the feeling that I had just been dumped at the altar by a television series and I still have problems committing to watching other series after this betrayal. I ditched the Walking Dead as soon as I saw it losing its flavor and sassiness. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My point is that there is something inherently scary about being on a small island because you are isolated and vulnerable to whatever natural or supernatural evil lurks on this land that you are trapped on.

But no, Texel is nothing like that. Texel is the delightful island in the north of the Netherlands where Dutch people go to enjoy a sunny day during the summer. Measuring about 20 km from top to bottom and 8 km across, Texel is the motherland of the wooly and delicious Texel sheep. In fact,  if you show up in early spring and are lucky enough, you might be able to join for the "newborn lamb gazing"-themed 40 km hike across the island. Additionally, with almost one third of its surface being a natural protected area dedicated to restoration of the environment, Texel functions as a sandy sanctuary for mythical Dutch beasts such as wild geese, baby seals(!) and porpoises. And when the end of the day approaches, one can go to the Northern tip of the island to see the lighthouse and enjoy the sunset, while digging your toes in the sand. Nothing wrong with Texel, it's a wonderful place with lovely inhabitants living in peaceful harmony, both animal and human.
Texel beach on the north tip of the island.
That is until a couple of years ago, when a dead fox appeared on the islands, causing furor in local newspapers and much worry among the people of Texel. 

You see, the group of Frisian islands to which Texel belongs is the natural habitat for a lot of birds (in fact, the northern tip of Texel used to be a separate island called Eierland or "the land of the eggs"). Foxes are not, as the "Little Prince" may have led you to believe, cute creatures that can be domesticated by sitting progressively closer to them. Foxes are tbe type of  beasts that break into farms and decapitate half of the chicken living there, causing the other half to die from a heart attack. Foxes would be something akin to the smoke monster of any bird living on Texel, predating on bird eggs and just generally ruining life on the island. Happily for the birds, foxes are usually not found on the island (and happily for the rest of Texel's population, neither are smoke monsters). 

Thus, a fox corpse on the island represented some sort of post mortem incarnation of fear for the nature-loving people of Texel. Were their peaceful and harmonic lives at a stake? If foxes were to invade the island, would smoke monsters follow? Would Eierland be no more? Finally, a team of scientists came up with not one, but two answers after an autopsy. First, that the fox had been shot, as some shotgun pellets were found in its body. Second, somewhat tranquilizing, yet disturbing: among the contents of the fox's stomach were some beetles, found only in the southern and eastern parts of the Netherlands but not on Texel. This implied that the fox had eaten mainland beetles before being shot, thus that it had been on the mainland shortly before being shot and that, consequently, it was probably also shot in the mainland and then brought to Texel. Now, why would anyone shoot a fox and go through the trouble of taking its body across the sea only to dump it somewhere on the island? Apparently, the very serious conclusion of the study was that, as there are seemingly not enough things to do in Texel, people have to find alternative means of entertainment by hunting foxes and dumping them on the other side of the sea just to scare the shit out of the rest of the people on the island.

I told you. There is something inherently scary about small islands.

I call this one "Texel landscape with delightful company"