International Writers Magazine: Travels in Hungary
a word of Hungarian, I made my way to Ibusz (state travel agency) and
was directed to a cheap lodging, a few tram stops away. The following
morning I was offered bread with some greasy spread and paprika
for breakfast. My father's position as British Council rep in Vienna smoothed
the way to an embassy cocktail party, followed by an invitation
from a secretary, on whose balcony overlooking the broad sweep of
the river from the Buda hills we sipped and chatted.
My first trip
to Budapest was in 1966. I hopped on a train in Vienna and arrived
four hours later at Nyugati Palyaudvar (Western Station). I have
lingering memories of occasional glimpses
of the Danube and a surly passport inspector, brusquely ordering
an elderly gent to remove his
spectacles as he glared at the man's ID.
Hungary then was under the Soviet boot, as it still was when I returned
three times in the eighties, the longest stay being four months in 1986
with a scholarship to study the music education system founded by the
great composer Zoltan Kodaly. This was an opportunity to get to know Hungarian
students and teachers, marvel at how well, or how badly, they spoke English,
and admired Britain, and hear the self-deprecating magyar jokes about
life under communist leader Janos Kadar.
(When God found Reagan or Brezhnev weeping, he would console them
with reminders about their country's positive qualities. When God found
Kadar weeping, he would sit down on the parliament steps and weep with
Nobody believed what they read in the newspapers. There was a rag called
International News, translated into English. 'Tonight's concert', we would
read, ' will be under the bottom of celebrated conductor...'
It was ill-advised to buy anything mechanical,
unless you had a personal contact or were ready to bribe. Otherwise it
was unlikely to work. You could go into a store and after minutes of struggle
with the assistant and your dictionary, point in exasperation to the desired
item on the shelf only to be told 'nincs!' - not available- this
was a display model.
With three girls - Hungarian, American and Portuguese, I took the
train from Kecskemet , with its incomprehensible loudspeaker announcements,
into Budapest to see an opera. A gloriously ornate foyer awaits the visitor
to the Budapest Opera, with its links to Gustav Mahler and Bela Bartok.
We missed the train back, and stayed overnight in a hostel: in a contest
for style and comfort it would have finished about equal with H.M. Prison
Wormwood Scrubs, so on the Sunday morning we sauntered down Lajos Kossuth
utca for a coffee.
We later discovered that the only train back after an evening performance
was the Pushkin Express, which left at midnight. Officially, it
was designated for international travel only, but if you bribed the ticket
collector with a 100 forint note discreetly folded into your ID., he would
let you off at Kecskemet before the train rumbled over the Yugoslav border
on its way to Moscow. Unfortunately Charlotte, the American girl, fell
asleep one night and woke up at some remote station in Yugoslavia.
In November she and I took a train from the deli (southern) station which
proceeded down the eastern shore of Lake Balaton at roughly the speed
of a horse and cart. I thought we would never get off it, but we did,
and plunged into the thermal lake at Heviz. Here is a pretty old town
painted mostly in the Austria-Hungary deep yellow, where the night
life consisted of a bar where a corpulent pianist sang Broadway hits in
Hungarian. Another enchanting venue was brightly coloured Szentendre,
a little town favoured by artists a few miles from the capital and just
south of the Danube bend.
The restaurants were amusing if a little downbeat, The menus frequently
offered pork, pork and more pork in various guises, washed down with a
red wine such as Egri Bikaver followed by a Palinka (plum brandy) -
sometimes to the strains of a gypsy band.
We spent Christmas in Sopron, a town near the Austrian border. As we stood
in line for a quaint thee carriage train to Vienna, a fugitive from Saddam
Hussein's war - torn Iraq begged me to take him along. He was not the
first - there was a student at our Institute whose entire family were
holed up in Kecskemet.
Within moments of
collecting your luggage, you proceed to a counter where a low-cost
collective taxi to your hotel in the city is arranged.
returned to Budapest recently to do an American-Hungarian concert.
The whole city is vibrant - the restaurants full, late into the
evenings. Alongside the ageing Trabants and Ladas, shiny BMWs sweep
across the bridges. (The Trabant, assembled in East Germany, probably
from old cereal packets, was the most pollutive little car ever
to hit the streets, and a standing joke among Hungarian owners).
Even at Ferihegy airport, the change was immediate. They barely
glanced at my passport. Long gone was the official who shouted 'formular,formular'
at you if you failed to produce a document, and long gone the fresh-faced
soviet troops who stamped about in the vicinity of our place of
Hungary is in the EU. Bottoms up! - or egeszsegere, as they would say.
The prices, of course, are much higher now, at least in Budapest, with
the influx of Western European investment. There is no point in shopping
in tourist venues like Vaci utca, but you can get a coffee and superb
cakes at the old and famous Gerbeau in Vorosmarty ter at prices well below
Vienna levels. Gerbeau was Swiss, and his confections made their way up-Danube
to the Austrian capital to be sold at inflated prices at Sacher's to the
imperial entourage. A variety of restaurants can be found near St Stephen's
Basilica, and the old food markets are worth a visit, especially Nagycsarnok.
One of the attractions of Budapest is that you can stay in a hotel either
side of the river and see the whole city on foot. A walk along the river,
up one side, down the other, will take in the Matyas church, the chain
bridge (British engineered), the funicular up to the Fisherman's Bastion
for the classic view over the domes and towers of Pest, the
parliament building, and a wallow, if you so wish, in the thermal baths
at the hotel Gellert. You can walk all the way up the Kossuth Lajos utca
which bisects Pest and visit the art gallery, which has sections devoted
to a wide range of styles and periods, and contains the most captivating
Rodin statuette I have seen.
Many of the public buildings are in the wedding-cake style of the
Austro-Hungarian empire of 1867-1918, with massive pillars and ornate
statuary, almost begging to be replaced by the functional modernism
of the twentieth century. The unmistakable Parliament is surrounded by
such architecture, and close to the Chain Bridge the Art Nouveau
Four Seasons Hotel, restored from a 1906 builiding, contains amazing ceramics
(a great tradition in Hungary) and stained glass.
The city is a meeting point of Western and Eastern Europe; the language
has no relationship to Anglo-Saxon or Latin tongues, and the sounds of
Hungarian folk music, often redolent of the country's tragic history
of oppression, are utterly unlike those heard in, say, German music.
The housing looks shabby, by comparison, when you cross the border from
Austria - from the affluent capitalist world to the post- communist,
and the apartment blocks are as dreary as any in Eastern Europe. But -there
is no shortage of lovely Hungarian girls - so attractive they make
you want to learn their difficult Finno-Ugric tongue.. My
first faltering question in Kossuth Lajos Utca was met with a sympathetic
smile, as if to say "thanks for trying". She wrote down an answer
for me. At least she had grasped the drift.
all the investment from abroad, Hungary's economy is still weak
- the earnings for the most part low, and Budapest celebrated the
50th anniversary of the anti-Soviet uprising with street riots.
Though in no way comparable to the events of 1956, these were voices
of discontent with a government apparently unable to change much
for the better. The fact that the prime minister had been recorded
admitting as much did not help. All this should keep a lid on prices
and further erode the value of the helpless forint, giving the visitor
from Britain the opportunity to see the crown of King Stephen and
enjoy the night life of this city for, relatively, a song.
Charlotte and I were married a year after our meeting in Hungary. We were
one of three couples of different nationalities to have turned that course
of study into a wedding. Those gypsy violinists were quite effective.
And oh yes, they still are.
© Malcolm Hawkins November 2007
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