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I live on the fourth floor of a street-facing apartment block on Üllői út. When I was doing the rounds of flats all those years ago, the ever helpful Márta told me that I’d have to give ‘something for something’. If I found the right layout, then I’d have to sacrifice a view. If I found the best deal, then I’d have to live without an elevator. If I found the greatest kitchen, the loo would most likely be in the bathroom. Something for something, she said.

I found the perfect layout with a great kitchen and a separate loo, but I had to give up any notion of quiet. Truth be told, I don’t hear the traffic any more. I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me. But those days when I open the front windows to air the flat out, I realise what I’ve lost. Clean air.

exhaustOn a bad day, it takes just ten minutes for the exhaust fumes to permeate the two front rooms of my flat. Just walking into the room is like walking into a closed garage where a car has been idling for hours. I can practically taste the carbon monoxide, the sulfur dioxide, the nitrogen dioxide, the benzene, the ozone, and the particulate matter in its various sizes. But that’s on a bad day.

bad airI never worried unduly about it. It was a rare enough event that my days for opening the windows coincided with a bad air day in Budapest. But lately it seems like it happens three out of four times. And last week, on Sunday morning, with very little traffic on the road, it was particularly bad. I could see the smog hovering like a blanket at throat level.

Various websites tell me that air pollution in Budapest is classified as moderate. So I checked with the European Environment Agency and discovered that, as with many other parts of Europe, the level of ground-level ozone is on the rise. And in cities like ours, levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides occasionally (increasingly, I’d say) ‘exceed the health limit values near main traffic routes’.

pollutionBut forget the -ides… it’s the fine particles that put us at most risk in terms of air quality. And way back in 2004, more than ten years ago, about 170 people in
100 000 died prematurely from long-term exposure to high PM concentrations in Hungary.

That shocked me on two levels. No studies have been published by the EEA since 2004 on Hungary? Air pollution can kill?

A friend of mine making one of their semi-regular trips to Budapest from Ireland, commented recently on the poor quality of air in Pest. He said it was a combination of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. And while my knee-jerk reaction was to rise up in defence of my adopted city, I had to agree. It’s bad. And it’s getting worse.

Many moons ago, in another lifetime, I was sitting outside a restaurant in Carlsbad, California, having a quiet cigarette. A rather precocious child passed me by, complaining loudly to her mother that ‘that lady’ was ‘polluting’ her air. As they both climbed in to their SUV, I wondered who was doing the most damage.

For every study out there that says that second-hand smoke is more carcinogenic than exhaust fumes, there’s another that says the exact opposite. Both are bad. Both are noxious. Both taste awful. And knowing that I contribute in some small way to this might, once and for all, make me quit.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 March 2015

Mosque in Baku Azerbaijan

I am awake when I wake up. My usual sleepy headedness is noticeably absent. I check my watch – 9 am. I’d slept in later than usual. And then I remember where I am. Baku. Azerbaijan. Three hours ahead of Budapest. I am still on schedule. I decide to get up but as I move, I feel the force of some invisible hand pushing me back onto the bed. And then I remember that I’m on my holidays. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3 pm later this afternoon when I am to visit the Diplomatic Academy. Anyway, the lovely Ms Meddaugh doesn’t have an Internet connection in her flat. And it’s raining. So what’s my hurry?

Balcony in Baku Azerbaijan

car for sale Baku Azerbaijan

The drive in from the airport had reminded me a little of Bangalore and its chaotic driving. Battered Ladas complete with shiny new designer-brand SUVs for road space, in an amusing East meets West fight to the finish. They make Budapest’s rush-hour drivers look like pensioners on a Sunday drive. I counted three separate accidents and held my breath for minutes on end as the driver fast-forwarded through the mêlée. What struck me was the complete lack of any apparent order or system and yet, as in Bangalore, everyone seemed to know his place.

I lie still, listening to the noise outside. My room faces out onto a narrow, one-way street into which cars and trucks are released at traffic-light intervals. Somewhere down the road, they bide their time, waiting for the green light’s permission to move. And then, as if released from a starting box, they roar into Başir Safaroğlu Küg, pounding aggressively on their horns hoping the noise will somehow clear the road in front of them.  I time the intervals of quiet, strangely reminded of labour contractions. I am soon lulled back to sleep by their regularity.

Street market Baku Azerbaijan

I awake a second time to loud voices having an argument. I remember that there’s a market on the corner and imagine a delivery truck blocking the traffic and everyone in the vicinity adding their two cents worth. The language is strange. I know that people speak Azeri, Russian or English with those over 30 more likely to speak Russian and a little Azeri while the younger ones are more likely to have Azeri and English but little Russian. Such are the generations divided. The chap who drove me in from the airport last night has seen more than 60 Azeri winters and yet he speaks only Russian. As the voices drift through my window, I think its Azeri. Not that I know enough to tell the difference – it just doesn’t sound like Russian. They eventually sort it out and the blessed quiet resumes.

 

I awake a third time to the sound of music – a strange type of music. The muezzin is issuing the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. It is both pervasive and haunting. I finally get out of bed and venture out on to the balcony expecting to see a series of mosques dotting the skyline and crowds heading in their direction answering the call. I look up and down and can’t see anything that remotely resembles a church of any sort. The tannoyed music seems to be seeping from the walls. And then, in the distance, I catch a glint of gold. It’s dark and dreary outside, overcast. But to my right, way in the distance, I see what might just be a minaret. Baku beckons.