A city of contrasts

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August 17th 2009
Published: January 10th 2010
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As we prepare to catch the train to Budapest in the morning, Gabe says he can still feel the previous night’s absinthe. We drag our luggage along the village’s uneven sidewalks and buy our tickets at the Kengyel train station, which unsurprisingly also serves as a bar. The station is rundown, and once again I am in awe over relatively simple things that Hungarians do not invest in, such as seats for benches. (We later learn that the EU, which has granted money to widen local roads, is also in the process of refurbishing and upgrading train stations, and Kengyel is among those on the list.) Klara will be accompanying us to Budapest to pick up her friend, who will travel back to Kengyel with her for a few days.

We switch trains in Szolnok and ride the rest of the way on a train that appears to be around fifty years old. Once again I try to imagine the country when this locomotive was first put to rail, and things were quite different. We share seats with an old man who engages Klara in conversation while Gabe, Kristen and I occupy ourselves with our cameras. A woman with dark olive skin, black hair, and piercing eyes - features which stand out in the pale-skinned Hungarian countryside - passes us as she walks to the back of the car to the designated smoking section. Klara silently mouths the word, “gyp-sy,” to Kristen and me in a way which carries meaning that we do not entirely understand. Truly, it can be alarming to a traveler to hear the way even the kindest and most highly educated Hungarians will speak of gypsies, or, as they call themselves, the Roma. The old man complains to Klara about gypsies’ smell and says that he was relieved when, before we boarded the train, they moved across the car. After the man debarks Klara comments that he had a gypsy last name.

Anti-gypsy sentiments in Hungary (and the rest of Europe, for that matter) reach back centuries. The Roma are a subset of the Romani who originally ventured from northern India and Pakistan and moved further westward during the Mongol invasion. When other Western European countries forced them back east many settled in the one place they were accepted - medieval Hungary. Though this original group would largely assimilate, after the Turkish invasion new ones would come and their nomadic lifestyle would greatly contrast with the Hungarian’s newly adopted sedentary agrarian society. The Roma would become feared and mistrusted each time they set up camp near a village, and stories of thievery, murder, and even cannibalism erupted beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is difficult to distinguish real cases of theft from what are undoubtedly innumerous exaggerations. Things have changed little. Recent polls have revealed anti-gypsy sentiment to be found among the majority of the Hungarian population, saturated among all economic, educational, and generational lines. Even between those who identify themselves as right-wing and left-wing there is hardly a difference.

Gypsies remain a favorite political scapegoat for those running for election. In the months before we arrived they were being blamed for a recent crime spree, and tensions erupted when a Roma man and his four-year-old son were shot dead as they fled from their burning home (this in a country with a relatively low violent crime rate). Some believe racism was the motive. Riots have continually exploded between Hungarians and Roma over such matters.

The Roma have clearly suffered under this prejudice, as I can see evidenced by the drab, unkempt apparel of the gypsy woman on the train. The only other gypsies I have seen thus far were in Tiszaföldvár as we rode the wedding motorcade (virtually none can be found in Kengyel), and their situation looked much the same. Their integration in society is perpetually stunted (there are few exceptions), and the majority chooses, understandably, to live in isolated ghetto-like settlements far from towns and villages. Three-fourths of the Roma population lives in poverty and their health conditions are among the worst in the industrialized world (communicable diseases are also a rampant scourge). America is no stranger to the effects of racial prejudice, and I cannot help but internally draw comparisons to my own country’s history and feel proud of how far it has come.

After more than an hour’s ride we arrive in Budapest nyugati pályaudvar (“Budapest West railway station”), which was built by the Eiffel company and opened in 1877. The name refers not to its location, but to the direction it served. The old terminal is simple but capped with a grand glass and steel roof, while the exterior exudes a beautiful grandness (provided you can get past the vagrants camped out on the steps looking for money).

We have reserved an apartment just a short walking distance away, in the north side of the old town of Pest, and after finding Klara’s friend they join us to check out where we will be staying for the next three nights. We find the building but the woman informs us that a different apartment is available to us if we choose, for the same price, but which is much larger. We are skeptical but follow her along Teréz körút, dragging our luggage behind us, several blocks over until we reach a building with stunning relief carvings framing the door (a common feature of buildings around this part of the city). The area reminds me of the Montparnasse section of Paris, and almost all of Budapest is comprised of low-lying buildings. We enter a dark entry way with a spiral staircase that twists to a striking ceiling mural of blue skies and angels, which of course begins the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” playing in my head. We take an elevator to the top floor, and then walk along the courtyard terrace to a door in the far corner. The location alone has impressed us, however, the apartment is more than we could have hoped for, with a fully stocked kitchen, full bath with washer and dryer, upscale appliances, flat screen television, and tall ceilings complete with a chandelier. The woman also includes a cell phone for our stay, cards for which can be purchased at newsstands. Klara looks around impressively and tells the woman we would gladly use their service again.

We part ways with Klara and her friend and set out to find some lunch, settling on an inexpensive Turkish restaurant with outdoor seating on Andrássy út, Budapest’s most celebrated avenue. It was completed in 1872 and connects Elizabeth Square with City Park. In 2002 it was recognized as a World Heritage Site. A square known as the Oktogon divides the boulevard, and we trek up its eastern half where it widens considerably. We stop by the Terror Háza, which contains exhibits about the dual oppressive regimes which used the building, both fascism and dictatorial communism, but discover that all museums are unfortunately closed on Mondays. Along Andrássy’s length are elegant and numerous neo-Renaissance palaces, many of which are now universities or foreign embassies, the latter having small private parks before the lavish buildings.

Andrássy ends at the Hősök tere, or “Heroes’ Square,” the imposingly austere entrance to City Park. The square is flanked on both sides by two art museums: the Museum of Fine Art and the Palace of Art. We sit for a short while beneath the portico of the latter, behind its imposing columns, where there is a small open-air café and tables, before examining the Millennium Memorial, Heroes’ Square’s central monument and a landmark of Budapest. Originally commissioned in 1896 it was not completed until 1929, only to be greatly destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in its present form. At its center is a towering column topped with the archangel Gabriel, while at its pedestal base are mounted statues representing the seven Magyar chieftains who swore a blood oath of unification in 896 C.E., effectively creating the Hungarian nation. Árpád, who among them would rise to be king, is at the front. Two colonnades wrap in a semi-circle around the back and have more statues depicting great heroes in Hungarian history. This location has been home to countless cultural celebrations, among them the reburial funeral of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the symbol and martyr of the ’56 Revolution who was hanged by the Soviets in 1958 and thrown into a prison grave. In 1989, as the Iron Curtain was crumbling, Hungarians gave him a proper funeral, filling the square with over a quarter of a million people. Also next to Heroes’ Square is the Serbian embassy, formerly the Yugoslavian embassy, which granted Nagy short-term asylum before his arrest. While the vastly open square provides for ample photo opportunities, on yet another sun scorching day it does not provide shade. We watch as skateboarders launch off the pedestal before moving on to the welcoming trees of City Park.

City Park is a picturesque area ideal for relaxation and leisure. From the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries Hungarian kings were chosen here. In the early nineteenth century it became one of the first public parks in the world. We head towards the impressive and whimsical Vajdahunyad Castle, built at the turn of the twentieth century as a replica of a Transylvanian castle of the same name, but demonstrating multiple architectural forms found throughout Hungary. It was originally built of cardboard for the millennium celebration; however, it was so popular that a permanent structure was built. Today it houses the Agricultural Museum. We enter its gates and explore the architectural variety and statuary that is found within, including a hauntingly enigmatic statue of an anonymous cloaked chronicler seated and holding a fountain pen.

We walk over to the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths to find long lines of people waiting at each of its entrances, all eager to escape the summer heat. Neither of us is in the mood to stay in line and so we resolve to beat the crowds here early the following day before heading to the Buda side of the city.

We come to the nearby metro and find two entrances descending beneath the ground, each providing the metro’s direction with a sign of the terminating stop. Unfortunately we are without a map and do not know which platform will bring us back to our apartment. We decide to go down to one of the platforms to find a map and figure out which to take, a decision which leads us into nearly being scammed of tens of thousands of forints. At the base of the stairs are two uniformed women - metro controllers - and beyond them are waist-high machines on poles that simply state that one’s ticket must be validated within thirty minutes of riding the metro. Beyond that, inconveniently, is the wall map that tells you where the lines and stops are. Nowhere are there signs stating that a ticket is required to be on the platform. The women silently watch us pass to look at the map just feet from them, where we discover we are on the wrong platform. As we turn to head back up the stairs the women demand in Hungarian to see our tickets as though we have just exited the metro. The women tell us that without a ticket we are each to pay them what amounts to about $50. I try to join in the argument but the women pretend to both be the only people I have yet to find in Budapest who know no English and proceed to ignore me and descend on Gabe. In short, he angrily explains that we were simply looking at a map and that they allowed us to walk into a trap to scam us. Eventually a large man who speaks English, and who we quickly take to be their plain-clothed associate, pulls us aside and shows us how we can buy a metro pass for multiple stops at a kiosk. He either takes pity on us or feels we are three Americans who are not worth the hassle to scam because the women finally relent and allow us to leave and go to the other platform.

We are too embittered by the experience to enjoy our ride on Budapest Metro’s Line 1, the third oldest metro line in the world. It is a stark lesson that we are no longer in the friendly and accommodating countryside. We expected Budapest to be different, however, aside from pickpockets we now know to be weary of officials as well. Gabe’s family had throughout this trip demonstrated a mistrust of Hungarian infrastructure and authority, and I now feel I finally understand where such sentiments germinate. Likewise, while planning this trip I had watched the Hungarian movie “Kontroll” - a very good film - which showed the contempt people had for metro controllers. In this moment I can sympathize.

We cool off in the apartment for a little while before setting out again and wandering towards the Danube, at one point passing a building on a narrow street that is riddled with bullet holes. We assume that these violent blemishes occurred either during WWII or during the fighting that took place in the streets during the ’56 Revolution. Either way, it is a sober reminder of this city’s history. We continue on until we come to Szabadság tér (“Freedom Square”). Despite seeing what I take to be signs prohibiting dogs in this symmetrical park, canines and their owners abound. At the northern end of the square is an obelisk with a star on top. It is a memorial commemorating the Soviet liberation of Budapest near the end of WWII, and it is the only remaining monument dedicated to the Soviet Union left in the city. I have to wonder if it is an intentional insult or a twist of fate that the U.S. embassy is located next to it, barricaded with guards who I learn do not like cameras pointed anywhere in its direction. As an American, I find it uneasy seeing my embassy so fortified and isolated, especially considering the building’s history. During WWII the Swiss occupied the space and provided an arm for U.S. interests. This is where Carl Lutz operated, the diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from extermination. Across the square is the Hungarian National Television Station, now also looking barricaded after riots erupted here in 2006 after it was discovered that the Prime Minister had lied about the economy.

We head towards Parliament but first pass through Freedom Square to stand upon Witnesses to Blood, a statue placed here in 1996 depicting a life-size Imre Nagy standing on a bridge looking towards Parliament, which is where we go next.

Budapest’s Parliament is truly a wonder to behold. Completed in 1902, it is second only to London’s Parliament in size, and shares many of that building’s characteristics. Built in a Gothic revival style with a neo-Renaissance dome, it sits beside the Danube as a proud icon of the city. Truly, no matter where one is in the city, if this building is anywhere within sight (as it usually is on the Buda side of river), one cannot help but have their eyes drawn towards it. And it usually takes a moment to realize you’re staring.

We watch the sun set over the Danube, the ferries and barges moving slowly across the amber water. On the other bank grand buildings and historic monuments await our discovering tomorrow. Below us, though unfortunately out of our sight and beyond a dangerous street, is a walkway along the river where one can find a line of bronzed shoes. These serve as a memorial to the Jews who were lined up, shot, and tossed into the Danube as the Nazis were retreating from the city in the final days of the Holocaust. It is a somber reminder that Hungary was a supporter of the Axis powers, particularly the Nazis. For a period of only a few months near the end of the war the Arrow Cross party ruled the country, a pro-Nazi regime that in its short rule killed 15,000 Jews and sent another 80,000 to Auschwitz. Gabe tells us that anti-Semitism is sadly still prominent in Hungary, and sadder still it is not unique in this respect to much of Europe. It is a cruel irony that until 1989 such a magnificent Parliament building as we were beside stood without a democratically elected government for most of its existence.

The narrow streets are lit only with street lamps as we walk them, as most of the windows are black. Coming across a university on an empty street we are struck by beautiful choir music drifting from a lone lit, open window at the top corner of a building. We lean against sign posts as secret, shadowy admirers and listen to the voices drift like ghosts through the night. It is enough make me finally fall for Budapest and forget about the frustrations with the metro controllers.

Finding many shops beginning to close, we head to the WestEnd City Center, which opened in 1999 and was until recently the largest mall in Central and Eastern Europe. I am usually one who avoids malls as though entrance means instant castration, however, Kristen wants the opportunity to shop and, like dancing, I am far more willing to endure small tortures while traveling. Besides, my stomach is hungry enough to settle for a crappy food court. The mall is nice but, expectedly, grossly overpriced and we leave empty-handed save a costly gelato.

We head back to Andrássy út and find crowded restaurants with outdoor seating on a ribbon of green called Liszt Ferenc tér. Whereas when much of Budapest is quiet and dark, this boulevard is where people can be found. We sit at a table enjoying the warm air, a televised soccer game, and the Italian-style food which we order.

Before turning in for the night we stop at a 24-hour general store around the corner from our apartment to stock up our kitchen. It takes a fair amount of going through television channels that I cannot understand before I can finally fall asleep.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

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