People and Places

Budapest finale

Posted on January 10, 2011

We arrived in Krakow, Poland today, just two short flights from Budapest.  Like New England, Central Europe does transportation really well on one axis (in their case, east-west; in ours north-south), but not at all on the other.  So while the physical distance was not great, there was no good rail or even bus connection, so we flew north past Krakow to Warsaw, only to connect and fly south again to our destination.  In all events, it went smoothly and LOT seems a fine airline.  More on Krakow later.

Budapest has emerged as our favorite stops thus far.  We took a cooking class yesterday and our chef/teacher Marta, a charming 23 year-old, asked in wonderment, “Why would you come to Hungary?”  That typical Hungarian upbeat attitude again.  In contrast, I just yesterday read another Top 50 “Must See” list in some travel article and there was Budapest again.  So with no prioritizing, I will list tidbits of our Budapest experience and see if it adds up to a compelling case for this quirky, charming city.

  • Coffee on the second floor of the Alexander bookstore, a cafe those grandeur would put the Boston Public Library to shame.  And you might walk by it dozens of times and never guess it was there. If you wanted to write a novel, you could do worse than to park yourself in one of the overstuffed leather chairs, order a coffee, and write every day in the same glorious, inspiring spot.
  • The mix of crumbling facades and faded glory with the newly restored and refreshed.  The result of that mix, often on the same block and with adjacent buildings, contributes to a sense of surprise and incongruity that is refreshing.  We had dinner in one such building that had been redone to its 1970s Communist era style, all orange and fake wood veneers.  So Communist chic, ironically framed, is the atmosphere for one of the more popular restaurants among Hungarians too young to remember Communism.  Wierd.
  • Chatting with a shop owner who three months ago opened a shop specializing in American sports gear, mostly NFL logo items like blankets, jackets, bobble-head dolls, and the like. He explained that Hungarian television started showing NFL games on the weekends, coinciding with the Patriots glory years, so the Pats are the favorite team of Hungarians (followed by the Steelers and Packers) and the Lakers are their favorite NBA team (followed by the Celtics).  He is hoping to leverage this newfound fascination with American sports with his new shop.  Everywhere in Budapest is an entrepreneurial spirit as this next generation seeks success in ways that were not available to their parents.
  • Touring the Hospital in the Rocks, an underground system of caves that were used as a hospital during WWII and then converted into bunkers during the Cold War.  A lot of the original medical equipment remains intact (we wondered if fifty years from now people will look at our state of the art medical equipment and scratch their heads at its obsolescence).    The complex was turned into a nuclear bunker during the Cold War with elaborate equipment for providing fresh air and uncontaminated water and boxes of supplies are still piled everywhere.  For decades a couple secretly lived in the bunker, him maintaining the equipment and her changing all the hospital bed sheets every two weeks, waiting for a nuclear war that never came. Seems like the making of a great short story. This is where we had the world’s saddest tour guide who in lowered monotone would say things like, [use a Boris Badanoff or Alex Manus accent here]: “You will see the mushroom cloud only once in life.”  Really it could have been a Monty Python skit.
  • The Grand Market, reminiscent of those great wrought iron and glass railway stations in Paris and London, but in this case housing food vendors of every kind.  I would do all my food shopping there every day if I lived in Budapest.  Then, to top it off, I would carry my bags home on the quaint 1930s style trams we came to love.
  • Lovely wines.  The Communists probably killed off the Hungarian wine market for Americans when they exported this swill called Bull’s Blood in the 1980s, but Hungarian wines are actually every bit the equal of what we enjoyed in Austria (the proud Hungarians would say they are better and also cheaper and might be right).
  • Architecture, whether the fabulous Chain Bridge that crosses the Danube, or the amazing Art Deco interior of the Four Seasons Hotel (we could barely afford to have tea in the lobby never mind stay there), or the Victorian Great Market, or the over-the-top Parliament Building.  It is a city where one spends a lot of time with head tilted back.

We missed some quintessential Budapest pleasures.  Our days there sadly coincided with the post-holiday breaks of their world famous opera and ballet troupes.  We passed on the baths — in part because we have done the Turkish baths elsewhere and they fall a bit into the “once a philosopher, twice a pervert” category of pleasures.  Think big old Hungarians with beer bellies and Speedos and you get my drift.

We did tour one of the newest and most popular museums in the city, The House of Terror.  Dealing with the Nazi and then Communist “occupations” and housed in the former building of the notorious secret police, the AVO, the museum chronicles the oppression and horrors of those periods. It is VERY high end in terms of design and is quite moving, especially the actual cells in the basement where political prisoners were kept, tortured, and often executed.  It includes the cell of Raoul Wallenberg, whose ultimate fate at the hands of the Soviets is still unknown.  It ends with a room containing the pictures of the tormenters, many of them still alive in Hungary, though quite old.

Our discussion afterwards was quite animated and our girls were more critical than me.  They pointed out that the atrocities were genuine and awful, but that the museum does little more than elicit our horror and dismay. It sheds little light on the context. It doesn’t help us understand how a country or a people might become complicit in these horrors (Germany seems to willingly confront the question with admirable boldness).  The implicit and often explicit message is that OTHERS have done terrible things to US, but to never delve into the moral no-win zone into which those times often cast people.  It doesn’t channel our indignation or point us towards those places where political imprisonment and torture (direct or indirect) happen today: Guantanamo, Israel, Iran, North Korea, China…..the list is depressingly long.

We discovered afterwards that the museum was a creation of Hungary’s center-right party and was designed to erode support for the Socialist Party, which had gained strength.  Our host explained that the implied connection is that Socialism is Communism in new clothing.  Our kids were right: the museum was designed not to shed light, but to whip up resistance to some other. In this case, their political opposition.  It is cynical and a bit frightening, it was done so well.

The museum speaks to a larger tension in today’s Hungary.  It is trying to decide what it wants to be. It is in transition from the repression of the 20th C. (or repressions, I should say), trying to reclaim the glories of the 19th C, and to grasp the promise and potential of this new century.  It is very much a work in progress and its success remains uncertain.  No version of it will carry along a lost generation of workers unskilled and unready to compete in a capitalist economy and they, with due cause, remember with some fondness the predictability and security of the Communist period, even if the bar was set low.

Frustrated with high unemployment and slow progress in casting off Communist era economics and infrastructure failings, Hungarians have voted in a conservative government (sound a bit familiar?).  But what brand conservatism and how much of the country’s hard won freedoms might be surrendered for economic prosperity?  For example, the EU is pressuring Hungary’s conservative president to temper worrisome new restrictions on the media.  As if to remind everyone, a modest monument to those killed in the 1956 Uprising, just next to Parliament, reads:

“The system of Communism has failed in every sense.  However it  will be very hard to get rid of Communists, for there is nobody as dangerous as the usurper of a failed system, who abandons the system but guards his loot and position.”

Who will guide Hungary forward and towards what vision is the compelling question to be answered in these next years.  It was exciting to spend some time there and to get a feel for the transition that is underway. If we were young and getting a start in life, we might be sorely tempted to be in Budapest for a couple of years.  It is that kind of place.  You’d find me in the second floor cafe of the Alexander, in the same corner, writing the great American-Hungarian novel.

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