Friday, June 23, 2017

30 years ago today: Saying goodbye to Budapest, and an era now long gone.

Previously: The time when the ghost of Yuri Andropov tried to punch me out, up in the Buda Hills.

As I write, it is the year 2017. I'll be 57 years old in August. 30 years ago, when I visited Hungary for the first time, a 57-year-old resident of Budapest looking back on his or her life might have noted these occurrences.

  • Europe's version of the Great Depression
  • The right-wing Hungarian dictatorship of Admiral Horthy
  • Budapest's devastation in fighting near the conclusion of World War II
  • Subsequent occupation by the Red Army
  • Communism's forcible implementation
  • The anti-Soviet Hungarian Uprising of 1956, which was savagely repressed by the USSR

At the point of failed revolution in 1956, our imaginary Budapester would have been all of 26 years old; if not already killed, maimed, purged or repressed, his or her whole adult life remained to be lived -- and by the time I arrived on the scene, much of it had indeed passed.

Hungary had been a relatively stable country for 25 years, and the citizen in question was close to retirement.

And yet, communism was inexorably eroding, and the Hungarians incessantly pushing the boundaries. Just three years later, in 1990, it was a whole new era, and everything had changed. Older people had it tougher when capitalism returned. By 2004, now 74, this retiree lived in a country that belonged to NATO and the European Union.

When I went to places like Hungary in 1987, these are the thoughts that filled my head as I wandered the streets.

At the time, so many Americans would have asked why Hungarians weren't fighting for "freedom." Actually, some were. Others accepted the status quo and went about their tasks. I was no fan of the system, and had little use for the regime. I was there to see how it worked, or didn't, and I tried to bear in mind that it takes all types to make a world.

Hungary was the sort of place I wanted to visit, not because I wanted it to be just like America, but precisely because it wasn't like America.


I spent far more time in Pest than Buda, and stayed in Óbuda my last six days in town. These areas weren't officially combined into one city until 1873. Pest's ample flat ground meant more space for building and growth than hilly Buda, and by the late 19th-century it had become the unified city's business district and commercial hub.

One of my favorite worker's cafeterias and a well stocked ABC supermarket were situated just down the way from the Dohány utcai Zsinagóga, or the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, the largest synagogue in Europe and second biggest in the world. I walked past the Moorish-style building often.

The story of the Holocaust in Hungary doesn't make for pleasant reading, and that's why there's always the need for a refresher course.

Right around the corner from the synagogue is a major intersection in Pest. Turning left from Károly körút is Rákóczi út, and a straight shot to the Keleti pályaudvar rail station. That's the station with the big window, way on down the street.

Keleti is where I caught my train to Moscow, after foraging up and down this street for provisions. The church on the corner is the Chapel of St. Roch, originally built as part of a hospital complex.

A right hand turn puts you on Kossuth Lajos utca, leading west to the Danube, and access to Buda via the Erzsébet Bridge. This photo of the 19th-century ambiance was taken close to the bridge. It's called Ferenciek tere and has been extensively revamped in recent years. It's hard to see but the Fountain of the Nereids is in the middle of the photo.

Perhaps two miles northeast of Ferenciek tere (take the subway) is Hősök tere (Heroes' Square), which is adjacent to Budapest's roomy Városliget (City Park). The inept photo doesn't properly highlight the Hősök tere's famous statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, but it does provide a glimpse of rush hour traffic.

Andrássy út begins at Hősök tere, running straight into the heart of Pest, with the city's first subway line directly underneath the street.

In 1987, I was unable to visit what has become one of Andrássy út's biggest tourist attractions, the House of Terror Museum.

House of Terror is a museum located at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary. It contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building.

I'm left with a few vignettes from my time in Budapest.

One day I happened upon an old-fashioned, coin-operated weighing scale and inserted my nominal forints. The result was 89.8 kilos, or 198 pounds.

30 years ago today, I may have weighed less than 200 pounds, and if so, it would be the most recent verified instance, and perhaps the last. I'm not sure I can lose 50 pounds at this stage.

Another time I was walking down the steps from the Fisherman's Bastion when a bearded man who looked remarkably like Ernest Hemingway stopped me to ask in perfect American if I also hailed from America. This was confusing at first, at least until I realized that he'd been drinking, and simply wanted someone to talk to.

We went to a wine cellar and each had a glass of Tokaj. He told me he was part of the Budapest community of expatriate American retirees who'd found it so cheap to live in Communist Hungary that a couple hundred of them were in Budapest alone.

I wonder what became of him (and the others) when the living got more expensive, a few years hence?

I also wonder what happened to the old woman with whom IBUSZ placed me. Her flat was a couple floors up in a 1920s-era building on a sedate, leafy street in Pest. I made it through the first night, then rinsed out a few smaller articles of clothing, placing them on the windowsill to dry.

Rest assured, I was very fastidious when it came to Woolite in the sink. In tight spaces, I'd towel-dry first; there'd be no dripping. Nonetheless, my laundry evidently ran counter to her policy, because she was waiting for me when I returned from a morning walk, literally throwing my belongings at me as I beat a hasty retreat from an eagerness to evade responsibility for her fatal heart attack.

Back at the IBUSZ office, staff already had been alerted. Their eyes were rolling, and the English speaker was apologetic. It wasn't the first time, and something would have to be done about the old woman. In the meantime, would a quiet suburb in Óbuda suffice for new digs?

It would, and while more isolated, the house and neighborhood were excellent, and downtown still accessible by tram and bus.

Obviously, my cranky temporary landlord would have been in her prime during the time of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. If you're interested in learning more about what happened in 1956, the late Tony Judt had much to say, as in this excerpt from his book Postwar.

A few Western observers tried to justify Soviet intervention, or at least explain it, by accepting the official Communist claim that Imre Nagy had led—or been swept up in—a counter-revolution: Sartre characteristically insisted that the Hungarian uprising had been marked by a ‘rightist spirit’. But whatever the motives of the insurgents in Budapest and elsewhere—and these were far more varied than was clear at the time—it was not the Hungarians’ revolt but rather the Soviet repression which made the greater impression on foreign observers. Communism was now forever to be associated with oppression, not revolution. For forty years the Western Left had looked to Russia, forgiving and even admiring Bolshevik violence as the price of revolutionary self-confidence and the march of History. Moscow was the flattering mirror of their political illusions. In November 1956, the mirror shattered.

I also recommend Under the FrogTibor Fischer's hilarious, poignant and informative novel, for insight into the post-war period. Fischer was born in London after his Hungarian parents fled their country in 1956.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Under the Frog follows the adventures of two young Hungarian basketball players through the turbulent years between the end of World War II and the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956. In this spirited indictment of totalitarianism, the two improbable heroes, Pataki and Gyuri, travel the length and breadth of Hungary in an epic quest for food, lodging, and female companionship.

The novel's title is taken from an old Hungarian saying: "The worst possible place to be is under a frog's arse down a coal mine."

Next: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

No comments: