On the day I was to present my Letter of Credentials to the President of Hungary, an official car arrived promptly to pick me up at my residence. The convoy advanced, solemn and with sirens blaring, toward the Castle. When crossing the Danube from Pest to Buda on the Elizabeth Bridge, I turned to my companion, the Director of Protocol, to comment on how much I liked the river and how impressed I was by its beauty and the history it carried.
I couldn’t get my bearings; I was too new to the city to recognize the streets and I was overwhelmed by the prospect of my new responsibilities, but I was surprised – after a period of self-absorption – to find myself crossing the Danube again, this time in the direction of Pest, via the Chain Bridge. It must be magic, I thought, this river is zigzagging, contorting itself like a seductive snake, so that I may see it from all angles. I crossed the Danube five times before finally making it to the President's Office in the Buda Castle. Our motorcade was to arrive exactly at the scheduled time, neither early nor late. These official acts have their own choreography and the person presenting his Letter of Credentials after me was the new U.S. Ambassador. The Director of Protocol apologized, saying we had to make the little detour on the river because they had miscalculated the heaviness of traffic. I know that I must attribute the route of our detour across the Danube to the kindness with which my comments were received on this occasion and to the pride that my hosts felt in showing me the Danube across different bridges and from different perspectives.
Streets and seasons
I cannot paint, I cannot compose music or sculpt, so, the best way for me to express myself is through writing – and I have to express myself, I have to tell stories. A few years ago, having published some novels and a collection of poems, I decided to try my hand at writing short stories about streets that had caught my attention. The streets provided the frame for the stories I had invented. I was travelling much at the time for professional reasons and these streets converted themselves into streets of the world in a book entitled ‘El vuelo de los días’ (‘The Flight of the Days’). It is a telling title because of its embedded double meaning of connecting the sense of tempus fugit – ‘time flies’ – with the fact that a large number of pages had been written on airplanes. Slovenia, where I was posted for six years as Ambassador, is a country of poets, and that must have inspired me, because my time there resulted in two poetry collections, ‘Invasiones’ (‘Invasions’) and ‘Revelaciones’ (‘Revelations’), as well as an alternative and personal guide entitled ‘Estaciones en Ljubljana’. Again, there was a double meaning in the title with regard to the Spanish word ‘estaciones’, which, on the one hand, can refer to the four seasons of the year and, on the other, can mean the various stations of a journey, the various crossing points of one’s travels.
When I arrived in Budapest, the Ambassador of Ireland invited me to his residence to celebrate Bloomsday with a Bloomsday Breakfast. James Joyce’s journey through Dublin inevitably steered the conversation to literature. This literary trail allowed me to meet some people who would become good friends over time. I had just returned from the Madrid Book Fair where I had been signing copies of my recently edited ‘Revelaciones’. When I mentioned this to a university professor, Eglantina Remport – a very nice woman with whom I shared a table at the Bloomsday Breakfast –, she said we should arrange a launch of my poetry collection in Budapest. I could not quite see how this would work: launching a book by a person who had just recently arrived to the city, was little known (if at all), who wrote poetry (thought to be the fancy of a minority) and whose book was written in Spanish. But Tina was adamant, and we went to see Tony Lang, owner of Bestsellers Bookshop. Tony is a charming compendium of universal history who was born in Lebanon. With his experience as bookseller, he suggested we should launch ‘El vuelo de los días’ together with “Revelaciones” to balance out the poetic side. All of this sounded a little nonsensical to me and I imagined that the launch would involve the three of us looking gloomily at a door through which no one entered. But if they were enthusiastic and willing to go ahead, I was surely not going to be the one to let them down, so we got down to business. On the day of the book launch, the bookstore (which has a great selection of international books but is not very large) was packed. Whether it was because of my books or because of the wine and tortillas de patatas served, I do not know, but the evening allowed me to have a very literary start to my time in Hungary.
Music and literature
I was struck by two things in Hungary. The Danube, to which I referred at the beginning, and the Great Plain, the puszta: flat, flat and flatter – neither La Mancha nor the Pampa rival this flat feeling of depth. But if I had to pinpoint an artistic expression that would define this country, I would say it was music. This is because of the great composers, performing artists, and locations where one can either listen to music or play it – the multitude of concert halls, churches, bars, restaurants. And there is, of course, that slow and rhythmic applause – the ‘applause of iron’ – that greets performers at the end of the night. I enjoy the incomparable programs at Müpa (the Palace of Arts) and the Liszt Academy, which is at a walking distance from my residence. I would say that if Spaniards are asked about Hungarians, first, they will say that they are likeable and I am pretty sure they also imagine them happily playing the violin. I had that image in my head, which changed as I delved into Hungarian literature. Excellent, yet so tremendous and so devoid of hope. I am discovering that what local literature narrates or describes corresponds to the character of this nation, which has suffered a lot in its history and, if I may say so, reassures itself by constantly remembering that suffering. The Danube is the protagonist of the first poem I wrote here, and I was moved by the surprise gift the students of Pázmány Péter Catholic University prepared for me on my first visit to the Spanish Department. It was a translation of one of my poems, the first of my writings translated into Hungarian.
Curiosity fills the Ambassador
The ability to feel wonder is the elixir of youth and curiosity is the engine powering one’s walk through life. I am curious about everything in Hungary, I keep my eyes wide open, with my antennas alert to what happens, and I am amazed by some of the things I experience. For example, I am still amazed every time I cross the Danube or when I ride my bike along its banks. And I record my adventures daily in a notebook, all my reflections and ideas, because even though I may not know what will transpire from them, I know that this is how I always start.