We spent the first 24 hours or so in Budapest without seeing a clock—at least one that worked. There were no clocks in the hotel room, and only when we were checking out at the end of our stay did Rhonda notice the clock above the hotel desk, cleverly disguised as a red satin pillow, as though subordinated to some kind of Late Bordello décor.
In the meantime, the one clock we had seen clearly was the one in this photo, far up on the Castle Hill in Buda, right across from the Matthias Church and atop one of the few buildings not leveled by the firefight between the Nazis and the Soviets in the siege of the city. According to our guide, the Hungarians loved this clock not only for its survival, but also because until several years ago it had stopped running entirely. There it was, a frozen relic of the city's endurance, described with a kind of amused affection by this smart, educated Hungarian who was showing us around the town.
So, why the fuss over a stopped clock? Or better yet, why the delight in its "silence and slow time"—a phrase from Keats about his Grecian Urn, also famous for its pause and stillness? Are there ways, perhaps, in which the clock was not silent at all, that it gave us a take on both time and survival and how they fit together? More than once, our guide waxed humorous over Hungarian, Russian, and (most acidly) Soviet time-wasting and disorganization. No doubt he was playing to the crowd in assuming our dislike for the Soviets (his own was deep, and given his country's history, understandable), but it was interesting how charitable he was to what he saw as Hungarian inefficiency. It was a kind of, "we're casual, but that's the way we are" attitude, and the Soviets were far worse—both inefficient and authoritarian.
I've read somewhere that the minute hands on clocks were added late in the 15th century at the insistence of merchants' guilds in order to determine more precise times for work hours, deliveries, and meetings. But the first working clock we saw in Budapest was in a place where it would seem that relaxation trumped efficiency—the city's famous Szechenyi Baths, atop the Art Nouveau locker room/community building, clearly visible from the middle of the hot springs pools. Rhonda and I went there on a frigid Thursday, mainly because so many people had encouraged us to do so, though I thought that hopping out of 90 degree water into 30 degree temperatures sounded like a terrible idea at the time. You'd wonder why a clock was so prominent in a place of relaxation until you read the signs—in English, French, and German, as well as the Hungarian—cautioning that it was wise to stay no more than twenty minutes in the hot water.
A clock, then, whose operation was not only crucial but medicinal.
Of course we overstayed the water's welcome, not only seduced by the heat, but also welcoming the contrast to Budapest's prevailing December damps, made more dismal, it seemed, because you got the readings in Celsius, and single digits are by nature colder than double. We were teased out of thought, as Keats would say in the same poem. Duly warned, though, by numbers we could understand atop the functional clock, we were seduced by a kind of eternal present, knowing that time was dutifully passing as we lay in hot water doing nothing. We emerged from the baths weak-kneed and good for nothing else that evening, having lulled ourselves into holiday, but reassured by the security of measurements that there was still a time we were passing, perhaps wasting, but that the numbers on the clock were little more than abstractions by which we steadied ourselves in uncertain country.