Budapest is very big, very old, and very beautiful. Long ago it was two different cities that united to straddle the mighty Danube. It is poised near the edge of the Orient. You might think the maturity of the city, like the grand prospects from the tops of its high hills, would lend a certain, objective perspective on history and politics, but you would be wrong.
Example: Everywhere you look are monuments, statues, churches, etc. dedicated to St. Stephan, the ancient king of the Magyar (Hungarians) who, in the very early days of the second millenium, decided his people should give up looting and pillaging, settle down, become good Christians (mainly so they’d fit in better with the powerful kingdoms all around them), and take up farming. The king retained a Benedictine Abbot named Gellért, from mighty Venice, to tutor his son in the ways of his civilized, Christian neighbors. Gellért remained in the country for many years under the protection of the king. It was an era of peace and prosperity for the kingdom.
This whole “peace and prosperity; can’t we all just get along?” shtick didn’t go over very well with some of the nobles. Several years after Stephen’s death, they captured Gellért in Buda and attempted to erase that chapter of their history by shooting the messenger. According to legend, they stuffed him in a barrel pierced with nails and rolled it down the steep hill overlooking the city.
The revision didn’t stick, however, and Gellért and King Stephan were both canonized.
Take heed, all ye who think to do something good for your fellow Hungarians: you will be punished. Then, later, they’ll remember you fondly, and they’ll rewrite their history in monuments and legends to help themselves feel better about what they did to you.
I have to say, I find it hard to believe that the Austrians and the Hungarians were united for hundreds of years at the head of a powerful empire. The people seem so different.
Ask a few Hungarians the most basic question about their origins—a reasonable question, considering that their language is unrelated to anything around them— and you’ll get any number of different answers, all adamant that the others are full of nonsense. Even on the question of communist dictatorship versus freedom, the people of Budapest seem divided. The fall of the Soviet block may one day be framed here as a brief interlude of chaos and insecurity before order was restored. At least, that seems to be the plan of the current government.
The newest monument in the city commemorates the victims of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. One million Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals were killed in Hungary during the war. Just a reminder, Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, so you have to wonder how it is that the city was “occupied.” The explanation, we were told, is that the current government is revising the past in order to cozy up to Putin. There seems to be a bit of denial going on around the role of Hungary in the Holocaust. There was such an outcry of protest when the plans for the monument were announced, the final installation had to be delayed for months and was cancelled on the appointed day. A few months later, under the cover of darkness (and a contingent of 100 police officers), some workers were sneaked in to finish setting up the statues. There have been daily protests ever since.
Never mind all that. Karel and I felt tired and grubby after our long day of travel. We needed an interlude of our own, to do laundry and recuperate a little.
There weren’t many options for laundry; in fact, only two. We set off on foot for the nearest one, only to find it (miraculous that we found it at all, off the street, inside a courtyard, unmarked) closed. OK. Plan B was a shopping center several blocks away. We slogged along the complicated sidewalks (sometimes narrow, sometimes blocked, broken, bumpy), went underground to get across busy roads, ran the gauntlet of taxis pulling into a bus station, and finally arrived at an enclosed shopping mall. It was vast, but we managed to find the cleaners, which—the signs proclaimed—provided both dry cleaning and regular laundry service.
A man and a woman were sitting a few feet away behind the counter. They looked up in surprise and dismay as we stepped up. The woman rolled her eyes, sighed, and exchanged a meaningful look with the man, as if to say, “See what I mean? I have to come in to get my paycheck, and get stuck dealing with these stupid customers!” He smiled slightly, as if to say, “I sympathize.” They turned and looked at us blankly, without moving, as though hoping we’d change our minds and run away. I waved a laundry bag around. “We’d like to have these cleaned, please.”
The woman heaved herself to her feet with another big sigh, and walked slowly to the counter. She lifted the bag an inch or two off the counter, then dropped it. “1600 per kilo,” she moaned, shaking her head sadly. Surely that would scare us off. But no, we were inexplicably willing to pay (it amounted to a few dollars). “When can we pick it up?” I asked. She continued to lift and drop the bag on the counter repeatedly, then shrugged. “I don’t know. A few days, maybe next week.” We’ve had laundry done a few times in our travels, and we’d never heard longer than 24 hours. I explained patiently that we were leaving the next day. In the end, she agreed to have it ready by late in the morning. The problem was, we were starting part two of our tour with a new leader, and we didn’t know when we’d be leaving. Also, her reluctance to truly commit to anything didn’t inspire confidence. In the end, she got her wish; we decided not to chance it. We could hold out a couple more days and find a way to do laundry in the next city.
The morning was not a complete loss, though. We stopped for a coffee break to rest our tired feet. On the way out we came across a kiosk selling leather goods, and I insisted that Karel pick out a new wallet. The saleswoman and I had a good laugh when he opened his old wallet in order to pay. It was disintegrating in his hands!
We were starting the long walk back to the hotel when Karel realized he didn’t have his iPhone. We retraced our steps and found it back at the coffee shop, in the care of our waiter. Phew!
After lunch, we found the E-Bike office. Once again, we lucked out. It was just the two of us and one guide. Zsolt appeared to be a little hung over, after spending the previous day at the international music festival, drinking raki, which is a very strong alcoholic beverage that was being served there, literally, by the bucket. He still did a fine job showing us around and telling stories. I asked lots of questions (as I always do), and gradually coaxed Zsolt to express his own opinions and tell us about himself and his life.
Zsolt, who is in his early 20s, has a technical degree, but can’t find work, so he’s understandably pessimistic about his future. His view of the political situation in Hungary was also quite dark, with increasing corruption, meddling in elections, and the current leadership making friendly overtures to Russia. He expressed a true cynicism about his own countrymen, who have a “take what you can, today,” attitude, “because tomorrow they’ll take it away.” His life right now, as a young man with good friends, working as a tour guide, riding around his beloved city on a bicycle, is happy and fun, but it isn’t going to get him very far.
What striking differences between some of these great cities of Eastern Europe! And how heavily the past weighs down on some of them!This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe