Liberty Square

In central Budapest, near the parliament Building and the Hungarian National Museum, there’s a large square, Szabadság Tér, in English “Liberty Square.”  It is lined with beautiful buildings dating back as much as 120 years.  The most notable of them were put up late in the 19th century, when the square was created by the clearance of barracks built for Austrian troops, who had implemented Austrian rule of Hungary.  The clearance of the barracks was the first gesture of liberty.

Some of the buildings were intended for public use, such as the Stock Exchange and the Hungarian National Bank.  Others, also in the Secession style of the times, became large mansions for the well-to-do.  Various monuments celebrating freedom decorate the open spaces.  There’s an eternal flame commemorating the executed leader of an 1849 uprising

Liberty Square 1

Liberty Sqaure, Hungary, American Embassy with bollards

against the Austrians, an obelisk commemorating the Red Army soldiers who died in the siege that took Budapest from the Nazis in 1945, a statue to American General Harry Hill Bandholtz, who protected the Museum from Romanian looting, and a life-size bronze of Ronald Reagan, the American president when the Soviet reign in Eastern Europe came to an end, in walking stride on the sidewalk at one end of the square.   All these effectively symbolize the long up-and-down struggle of the Hungarians to create and maintain a free nation and civic society founded in liberty.

The square today has open places for walking, sitting, relaxation.  There’s a bar-café in the middle, and others around the edge, and there’s a modern fountain consisting of a square marble space lined with three or four bands of waterspouts, shooting up two or three feet from street level.  The entire place exudes a spirit of liberty, of openness, of a free, confident society.

Except for one building.  It’s another graceful late 19th century residence, but it has been transformed into an ugly, armed bastion contrary to the values symbolized by the Square’s name and monuments.  It is the American Embassy.

We were in Budapest last week.  We strolled through Liberty park on the way to the Parliament, we had a light lunch there on the way back, we said “hi” to the bronze Ronnie, and we completely missed the embassy.  When we went back along the same route days

Liberty Square 2

Front entry, U. S. Embassy, Budapest

later, we realized that what we thought was some Hungarian security system gone mad, or some remnant of the Soviet occupation, like the many grim, gray cement buildings in certain parts of town, was is fact the Embassy of the “Sweet Land of Liberty.”

It is on the eastern side of Liberty Square, where the street is now blocked by the permanent security installations that encroach onto the sidewalk of the park itself.  Those installations extend half a block on either side of the embassy itself, and loom to block the view of the beautiful building in which the Embassy is housed unless you crane your neck to see the upper stories.  There are bollards, of course, at narrowly spaced intervals.  There are hydraulic blocks that jut up out of what was once the street to block motor vehicles, heavy, large, powerful, with black and yellow stripes plus big red reflectors.  Beginning around the corner on the side street and extending along an inner perimeter inside the bollards is a steel fence that looks like closely-spaced prison bars, about ten feet high and rock-solid.  It’s as if Piano and Rogers had applied their inside-out design style to the State Pen.

Liberty Square 3

No photos!

That’s a pretty good metaphor, in fact.  America has taken its skilled diplomatic staff, its warmth, its political and social power, its services to Americans abroad (like us!), its Liberty, and imprisoned all those good qualities inside this formidable, hostile barricade.  A sort of reverse Checkpoint Charlie, the symbolic message seeming to be “don’t even think about trying to get in, or we’ll shoot you down.”

Of course there are two very clean, efficient guard houses, complete with frosted-glass versions of the American Seal, where I am sure you go, state your business (appointment probably required), and receive permission to enter.

As we strolled by I snapped a photo of one of these with my point-and-shoot tourist camera, and was immediately warned by a Hungarian guard not to take pictures.  An American citizen not allowed to take pictures of his own embassy in a public place!  Guess the guard didn’t know that we had to sort that out with the local DC Police just a couple of months ago.  At home, Liberty won.  In Hungary, I was not going to debate the point.  We’d been to the Museum of Terror at 60 Andrássy Út., the headquarters of both the Nazi and the Russian secret police.  Though there is now Liberty in Hungary I had no desire to se the inside of any kind of jail cell involuntarily.

Better to let it go.  But that attitude is the whole problem.  I understand the practical needs for security, even if we do get too intense and paranoid in its implementation.  Yet such defenses, such paranoia, are not the “price of Liberty.”  Every single compromise of Liberty in the name of security, safety, caution, “common sense,” is just that, a cost, a loss, a concession to authority, power, control.  The American Embassy sends the wrong message, a message of fear, paranoia, hostility, confrontation, intimidation, adversarial attitudes.  There must be a better way.

Riding the Tailwind

We’ve had some windy days lately; if the air temperature is a month ahead of itself, the proverbial March Wind must be at least a month behind.  Wind always has symbolized the unseen, perhaps divine, perhaps immanent, power of the universe.  It seemed the essence of nature to the romantics, who saw the wind as the “trumpet of a Prophecy” (Shelley), a force that animates flowers to “[toss] their heads in sprightly dance” (Wordsworth), an awe-inspiring monarch who demands that his subjects, the trees, “bow down their heads” with “trembling” (C. Rossetti).

As I ride home this time of year with a tailwind, I feel like the wind itself, because I see the power and trembling all around me as I approach.  Along the trail green leaves newly dislodged, as well as some brown brittle leftovers from last winter, scuttle along just as Clement Moore described : “as dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly.”  They’re fleeing from me, running on ahead.  I am that hurricane!

Along the edge of the trail grasses wave, as well as the broader spikes of day lily leaves, the fat ovals of milkweed, and many others.  Most have paler undersides, which the wind exposes.  They nod in the direction I am going, as if pointing the way.

Beyond them shrubs and trees do the same.  The distinctive silvery leaves of Russian olive trees shimmer; maples and oaks lunge; tulip poplars find some of their blossoms dislodged.  Everything is a rush of motion and of sound as well.  It’s hard to hear the small noises of chain and pedal when there’s such commotion.

And the finest, most delicate gift of all comes in the scent of wild roses, which are out in their full glory right along with the wild blackberries (see the posting “Don’t Stop, but Smell the Roses,” 5/7/2010).  The strong gusts carry the roses’ perfume all over, broadcasting it far more widely and intensely than it carries in still air.  The whole length of the trail is infused with that fine, ultimate odor of spring.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Three to Two

Digressing slightly to other sporting cycles, if not cycles of sport, we Washington DC sports fans are watching a strange convergence.  It is on the score of 3-2.  The Nationals, the Capitols, DC United, and even the Redskins seem to be stuck on this number.  Only the Wizards, adrift in their own universe of hapless ineptitude, seem outside the black hole that pulls all local results inexorably into the sharp focus of that score.

The Capitols fiercely fought for it yesterday, since they were on the verge of winning a key hockey game, something that seems alien to the core of their nature.  With about 30 seconds left and leading 2-1, the Caps set up for a faceoff in their own zone.  Joel Ward was being crowded by his Ranger counterpart at the edge of the faceoff circle, so just as the puck was dropped Ward, who scored the Bruin-killing winner in the seventh game of the first round, swung his stick high and sharp, right across the Ranger’s face.  Slashed him and drew blood—a double minor.  One of the dumbest, most undisciplined, unnecessary penalties I have seen taken in a long time.  And at such a crucial moment.

The Rangers had pulled their goalie, something a team does in the desperate last moments to get an extra skater on the ice, a virtual man advantage.  But with the risk that if their attackers lose control of the puck, the Caps dump it into an empty net and break their collective back.  So now, with the penalty, New York has a two-man advantage in skaters in the offensive zone.  You know what’s coming, don’t you?  The Rangers do not lose control of the puck.  In fact, they tenaciously hold possession, hammer it closer to the goal, and one of their two uncovered men is able to skate in on the left side almost to the crease (a small area in front of the goal demarked by a red perimeter line).  The Caps goalie makes the stop but can’t control the rebound, and in the scrum in front of the net the puck slips across the goal line with 6.6 seconds left in the game.

So the Caps move the score closer to the 3-2 paradigm.  They could have done it another way, of course, when midway through the 3rd period Jason Chimera skated in alone on a breakaway rush.  But he hit the post, and as we all know that metallic “clink” betokens a point only in horseshoes.  Besides, a goal would have made the score 3-1, and the Caps are always uncomfortable with such a big lead.

Now comes the richness of Joel Ward’s double minor penalty.  When a team is penalized by having a skater in the penalty box and the other team scores a goal, the felonious skater can return to the ice.  (Didn’t used to be that way.  I once witnessed the Bruins score 3 times on the Rangers during one two-minute penalty in the Bahstun Gahden, circa 1956.  But Montreal got so good at man advantage scoring that they changed the rules.  This is still known as the Montreal Canadiens Rule.)  But a double minor is served consecutively.  So when the first minor ends, the second begins.  The Rangers hold their man advantage for the remaining 6.6 seconds of regulation time, and carry it over for 1 minute and 53.4 seconds of the first overtime period.

The Rangers needed only 1:35 of that to score the winning goal.  Final score: 3-2.

As for the Nationals, their staff earned run average (ERA) after 28 ball games is 2.59, almost half a run better than the next best staff’s.  And their starters are even better than that.  But with two of their best four hitters out for the last two weeks, and another of those just now going on the DL until August, their run production is tight; near the bottom of the league, they produce fewer than 3.5 runs per game.  Compare that with the Red Sox’ 5.5 runs a game.  (However, the Sox need all the runs they can get, as their appalling pitching staff is yielding 5.31 earned runs a game.)

The Nats play National League small ball to perfection, taking the extra base, hitting to the opposite field, sacrificing, and making every offensive feint count for something.  They have won games this year on a walk-off wild pitch, a couple of walk-off sacrifice flies, and the like.  The gem of gems happened the other night, as they faced the Phillies’ lefty Cole Hammels.  The Nats’ brash and much-talented rookie Bryce Harper came to bat in the first inning, two out and none on, and Hammels promptly plunked him in the back with a fastball.  (Hammels later boasted that he did it on purpose and was suspended for 5 games [one start].)  You could tell the pitch was intentional; it was thrown straight and true to the center of the number on his back, as Harper spun around.  But Harper got even.  Werth hit a soft liner that dropped for a single and Harper, running hard all the way, got to third.  Then when Hammels threw to first to keep Werth close, Harper stole home!  Better than shouting at him, better than a shoving match.  Harper gave him the message “you put me on first, buddy, and I’m going to hurt your ERA.”  Can’t say they won that game, but overall they’re scoring 3.5 and yielding 2.6 runs per game, close to the magical 3-2.

As for the other teams, the case is admittedly iffier.  DC United wishes they were scoring 3 goals on average.  The ‘Skins, given the relatively weak talent around RGIII, are likely to win and lose a lot of games by around the 3-2 level, if you count that in scores per game.  Translating to football points, that would be like 13-6 or 21-13.  But you get the point.  Here in DC, contests are low-scoring, tight, and interesting.  But would it just kill the hockey gods to make the next one low-scoring, tight, interesting, and also victorious?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Rain

When you’re all wet, you can’t get any wetter.  So you might just as well ride on.  That’s the common-sense philosophy I applied today, when I probably rode longer in rain than I ever have before.

Not that I ever plan my rides to happen that way.  Life is too short and good days too plentiful to hop out there in a downpour.  Why court discomfort and even, perhaps, illness while there are plenty of other cycling prospects?  Besides, in the rain the equipment gets soaked, even mushy, starts making strange noises, and can end up creaky and rusty.  So can your bike.

But this morning was lovely.  No early fog or cloud layer, though there was a prediction of scattered thunderstorms this afternoon (complete with all the usual Terrorist Weatherman warnings about heavy downpours, damaging winds, and hail).  The sky was blue, with a thin veil of high cloud, through which contrails could be seen.  The sun was out, and by 10:30 it was already 76˚.  Perfect!  I suited up, but donned a simpler jersey, and decided to ride the Fuji.  Not that I expected rain, but I wanted to head west and the trail work east of Hunter Mill Road continues to force us onto the bridle trail with its loose gravel and mud.  The Fuji has shocks in the front forks and wider, softer tires with tread, instead of the carbon forks and thin slicks of my Trek.

Between the time I started to dress and the time I rolled out of the driveway, however, the sun had given way to a denser overcast which still looked broken, light, and non-threatening.  As I went westward toward Vienna I could start to see some darker layers of cloud off to the southwest.  By the time I got to Hunter Mill Road the sky was even darker, especially where a straight line of dark cloud seemed to be working in my general direction but bypassing the trail to the south.  Exactly as the Doppler radar map I checked on the Internet before leaving had indicated, this seemed to be a small cell that was destined to miss northern Fairfax County.

But just after I crossed Hunter Mill a few drops started splattering down, propelled by cooler gusts of wind.  Stray drops, I figured, drifted from a couple of thousand feet up by the wind.  And so it stayed for a while.  The asphalt looked speckled, not saturated; where trees sheltered it the Trail was dry.  Just after the top of the climb west of Hunter Mill I heard the boom of thunder off to the south.  Fairly distant, it seemed.

But right afterwards, as so often happens, the rain began to fall more purposefully.  I was already soaked, and it was not raining hard enough to distort the readings on my cycle computer, so all I had to remember was not to get going so fast that I had to slam on the brakes.  Not much chance of speeding on the uphill section I was riding, anyhow.  I was even discovering I could see pretty well even with raindrops on my sunglasses.  By the time I got to Sunset Valley Road the Dulles Toll Road overpass provided a comforting respite from the rain, and when I crossed Wiehle Avenue I decided I would stop about a mile farther on, at a large shelter just before I got to the 7-Eleven.

When I arrived there was another rider there, a woman who kindly rearranged her bike so that both my bike and I could stay dry.  She was heading inbound, and planned to cycle the W&OD and the C&O.  She had sort of homemade panniers, and an older bike with a chain guard and fenders.  We chatted a bit and watched a couple of groups of strong riders blast by.  A cycle team car painted up with the sponsor’s name and logo was parked in the lot across the trail.  I wondered where they were, and guessed they were not stopping.  There was more thunder and some pretty heavy rain, but there was lighter sky off to the west and when the rain let up a bit, after 10 minutes or so, we both took off.

The rain didn’t give up easily.  There were loud rumbles of thunder, and for a few minutes the drops got a “hard” feeling, probably meaning that they were actually melting hail.  It was still falling lightly when I reached my turnaround point at the skateboarding park just west of Herndon.  To the everlasting shame of those skateboarders there was no action on the ramps.  “Sissies and cowards!” I thought somewhat smugly, and headed for home.

Finally the precipitation petered out into drips and drizzle somewhere along the way back.  I noticed places where leaves and/or gravel had washed over the road, though I don’t think I ever experienced any rain that heavy.  The sky transformed itself from the blur of falling rain to the gray legions of clouds moving away in orderly echelons toward the northeast.  Joggers and walkers re-emerged on the Trail almost immediately; cyclists who weren’t already soaked like I was seemed by their absence to be more circumspect about afternoon exercise.  I got back unscathed, my soaking clothes serving as a badge of honor.