How does it feel when you land on a new place? A foreign land. What gets evoked? And when you leave, what do you take away? How different is it? Pondering on these questions, revisiting them, looking at old pictures — are all useful ways to live and internalize these trips and sojourns. With lives so consumed by the pressures of livelihood, and the changes enforced, it is easy to forget a vacation like a fleeting dream. Yes it happened but it did not make any difference.
I visited Budapest recently. Eastern Europe has longed intrigued me. It has always been an enigma. Behind the iron curtain, Eastern Europe was truly foreign. Indeed, growing up, I hardly knew anyone from that area or one who ever been to that area. Not surprisingly, it felt exotic in a rustic manner. Every few years or so they would perform in Olympics or the World Cup usually putting together a very strong performance. They always gave an impression that they had the ability to punch above their waist. Once the cold war was over, the gradual exposition was equally intriguing. There was an aristocracy once with splendid buildings, that got smothered under the cloud of communism. Really? Along with the communist drab, there was a history of art and architecture. Hungary, particularly is such a marvel. In many ways it is not like any other communist country; it had a lighter touch from the communists and enjoyed (if I may say) broader autonomy and discretion that some of its surrounding neighbors. So what was it like. What was it under the Austro-Hungarian rule and what happened during the communists and what is it today.
My interest in Hungary started with my early days of stamp collection, I had pages (yes pages) of stamps from Hungary. My inheritance from my maternal uncle was partly responsible but then the other part was collected as gifts from friends and family over many birthdays. Clearly Magyar Posta had posted a mark in my memory. Then there was football or soccer as it is known here. The football that mattered in Hungary dates back to the 50s and 60s. I heard the folklore from my grandfather and father on Puscas and the big deal when they defeated England. Today, it was quite interesting to see that victory plastered on a giant wall in a parking lot in Budapest. Where can one find an event such immortalized that is over half a century old. It happens if there is a poverty of achievements or if it was truly a defining moment. It was clearly the latter that reinforced the Magyar identify after the brutal war as the nation was picking up its pieces.
Well, my trip to Budapest was thus filled with anticipation and lots of speculation. I was eager to get there. The evening I was flying, there were attacks in Munich, but thankfully my connection was through Frankfurt, which was not that bad. In fact I was moved to an earlier flight and arrived an hour before my scheduled arrival in Budapest. The landmass of Hungary is connected to the European mainland so it is not that alien – yet as the plane was landing it was strikingly different. The houses were much smaller and more austere in the countryside. The green pastures were plentiful. Large open spaces. And clearly there was no modern look as one would see landing over Frankfurt, Schipol, or Munich. The airport is small but modern. It was filled with people and some very pretty models getting ready for the Formula 1 next day. While I was not able to go much into the countryside, the short 25-30 mile ride to Hungaroring for the Formula 1 race on the Sunday (August 31) gave me a glimpse what a suburb and the sub-suburban looked like and by stretch of imagination – what a rural setting would be.
There are some major developments that took place in the last 20 years in Budapest. Just after the end of the cold war, as I was told, the capitalists came in and there were a slew of quick investments. In many cases they messed up with the architecture. The lure of quick lucre is enticing. Clearly the Marriott hotel where I stayed most of my days in Budapest qualifies as one. Standing on the Danube on the Pest side, it is an absolute abomination compared to the beautiful buildings that line across the river bank. Just cross over the Chain Bridge, another marvel built in the late 19th century by Szechenyi and you will get that loud and clear. As my local guide and friend Zsusha pointed out – even the modern Sofitel hotel somehow was able to blend, but not the Marriott.
Looking into the city, one can’t stay away from the architecture. It is everywhere. The last day after several days of exploring and feeling the city and its people, the ruin bars and the hipsters, I was at the Boscolo, that houses the gorgeous New York Cafe. I got transported to an imaginary past to absorb the lovely raw beauty of the city. Lines of ornate houses. Indeed the end of the 19th century was the glorious period of prosperity. The Belle Epoch in France, the Edwardian era in Britain and the glorious days in Hungary before the world completely fell apart and changed in the 1910s. On the back of the industrial revolution Budapest became one of the prominent centers with a brand new metro system. The Line 1 which goes down the Opera to the Heroes Square still has the old world charm. At the turn of the 20th century, every country in Europe was looking for its own identity. Budapest was no different. It set ambitious plans – with the metro – with the lines of architecture. In the early 1900s there were so many writers in Budapest that as John LuKacs in his book Budapest 1900 writes – “there were so many writers that they complained that their readers turn out to be other writers”. My dessert that night in Budapest took place sitting in the mezzanine level and watching over the swarms of people seated at the central hall. For a moment – thinking about a hundred years ago – who would have thought that the place would still be there under a different cloak, with a solitary Indian native looking at their ghosts. Hundred years from now, who knows who will watch the ghosts that I leave behind.
My morning ride through the streets of Budapest met with the city that has just slept. Yes – the parties go to the wee hours of the morning when men and women strut and duel with their shadows to return to their abode. The taxi was speeding through the empty streets. I waited for my flight back to the west – first to Frankfurt and then to DC. As I left I kept wondering of the guy I met one day in the Irish bar. While I was clearly nostalgic and talking about preservation, he was tired of the old and wished Budapest developed, with better jobs, and better pay so that he does not have to work in Switzerland. While I was taking a romantic view dipping into the nostalgia of the glory once this city may have, he was quite tepid about my enthusiasm. I then realized on my way back that an outsider’s eye will never be the same as that of the local. What is beauty to me may not be of much value to those who have to make a living out of it. I sensed the same when I was in Istanbul a few years back. And perhaps, thats why I am drawn to these places. Who knows when they become so modern or disgustingly touristy that it departs from the roots of its past. For instance, one has to look for those remnants in places like New York. For now, it was comforting that I was able to gaze through the place, looked into the myriads of houses that are over a century old, people carrying on with their lives, each house with its own story.