Early morning at the market

It is early on Tuesday morning, 6:50am. I slipped out of the apartment with both Dolora and Liam still fast asleep, Dolora wearing her eye patches and Liam sprawled out wide as if fallen from a great height. On my last morning in Budapest I needed to see the city come to life, go from near quiet to a gradual stirring. The place to view this awakening is the grand indoor market.


At 6:15am there are more pigeons than customers in the market, but in each stall the workers are in action. Each face is a story, each action worth studying. I’m especially fascinated with the butchers, of which there are many in this country ravenous for meat. (I don’t know if that’s true, that Hungarians are meat hounds, but I IMG_5560associate them with goulash and salami, not tofu.) A butcher takes a large slab of meat and lays it on a cutting board, turning it and turning it in search of something that only he knows—the line of a cut, the division of fat and muscle. There is no chatter with another butcher, there is no background music at 6:24. All is quiet, even the soft slit of the knife that glides without resistance through the slab of beef. He looks up at me. I had tried to be unseen but for a moment he sees me, this butcher who awoke at 4:30am outside of Budapest where the land is cheap. Our eyes lock for just a second, his knife suspended above the pink meat, and in that second I wonder what he is wondering: Who is this guy? What kind of man can be idle at 6:24am, strolling with the pigeons through this market at dawn? What kind of hands are those, soft hands without traces of scars that tell the tale of the butcher?


I walk on. In each stall some type of preparation is happening, not in a hurried way. By now I have made three loops through the market, and on each lap the one woman continues to pick through a carton of berries—for what? for twigs? for dead leaves? She is meticulous, as they all seem to be. The butcher sets a hand-sized chunk of meat—an oddly sensual sight—in a certain spot in the display case, then adjusts it, adjusts it again, then returns to sharpening his knife and slicing another thigh. Across the way a woman cuts off part of the IMG_5564sheaf around an ear of corn, then sets it just so. She has another hundred ears to go. In the stall next to hers, a young man is removing one plum at a time from a large crate, dusting off each plum with a rag attached to his belt and then placing each one on a pyramid that is a marvel of design.



Seven men are gathered around the window of one stall. It’s the coffee shop, and while Americans are lining up at Starbucks for their vente lattes, the Hungarian men in the market are buying their shots of espresso for seventy-five cents. More than the espresso, they are here for a IMG_5548quick chat, their voices friendly and gravelly from smoking. While chatting their hands often reach across to touch another man’s shoulder, another man’s forearm, and there it stays for awhile. When they part, they part with a kiss on each cheek. The lips don’t touch the flesh of the cheek, but the lips are puckered and there is a distinct sound of a kiss.


Men kiss. Men with gravelly voices taking a coffee break from butchering yet another loin of a calf—these men kiss, these men touch.


It is now 7:20 and the light has changed. It is more golden, and in the golden light are customers with their handcarts. These are not tourists. The tourists will arrive in many hours. For now, this time is local time, many gray-haired women asking for that apple pastry and so many slices of pecorino cheese. They are sturdy women. One over there has a cane, that one has a limp—yet both IMG_5557will fill up their sacks with blueberries without twigs and that one precise slice of beef over there in the display case, and walk home.


It’s time for me too to walk home. By now Dolora may be stretching in bed, still blind behind her patches; and Liam may be turning over from his death position into a curl. We’ll have a breakfast of yogurt and muesli, a staple in Sweden that we’ve continued here in Hungary. Maybe we’ll pack up and venture onward to Vienna for a day or two; maybe we’ll stay put for another day. If we stay put, I want to return here to this bench in the market to observe its life at 8am, then 9, then 10.


A pigeon is approaching my right foot. With each step it juts out its head and then tests the tile floor for a scrap of food. It stops a few inches from my toes. It looks up at me. It tilts its head, wondering along with the butcher what I’m doing, who I am, what kind of creature sits on a bench pecking on a small keyboard when there is work to be done.IMG_5562




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