We had our friendly ongoing debate for almost a year. What happened to all those Hungarian Jews during World War II? Who did what? And who, if anyone, is responsible?
One thing we do know: Somehow, 600,000 Hungarians, who happened to be Jewish, were removed from their country in a relatively short period of time toward the end of the war and murdered. We go back and forth during the 10-months. What role did the Germans play? How much of the accounting, removal, and abduction of Jewish property, was conducted by Hungarians?
My Hungarian colleague looks at me. Maybe she’s read my posts. She sees an older American English teacher who happens to be Jewish and perhaps leans a bit too strongly into this topic: Hungary and its Jews. After all, Hungary was once a popular home for Jews. Budapest was more than 20% Jewish in the decades prior to the second world war. It’s leading universities enrolled more than 30% Jewish students. Neighborhood synagogues were everywhere. Today, you can see former synagogues being used as sports training centers, some lay vacant, a number are still fairly active, but quiet. Some Hungarian Jews don’t even know they are Jewish. For others, there are only distant memories and stories. There is, of course, some denial. “Are you Jewish?,” I occasionally ask Hungarians here and there. “Well, sort of,” or “It’s a long story.”
Please show everyone how happily Jews can live in Hungary
I thought our ongoing dialogue had reached its end–I am leaving Hungary after completing my teaching contract here…But, she offers one last exchange via email:
“This is my last present to you. My husband was shopping in the Central Market the other day, and he took notice of this elderly Jewish man walking home from the same place peacefully, really unnoticed. (Could he be an orthodox rabbi?) However, he took the opportunity to take some pictures of him, so you can show everyone in the US how happily Jews can live in this country.”
After reading her note, I put my heavy heart aside for a few days. My Hungarian friend genuinely thinks that spotting an old Orthodox Jew walking the streets of Budapest is proof that Jews live happily here. I should, she suggests, show this photo to everyone in the U.S. as evidence.
Though I am not Hungarian, I know this man. I know his story
I write back:
“These photos are truly beautiful, especially when I slowed down and took a few minutes to appreciate them. Please thank your husband for me. Ironically, I am sitting in a coffee shop directly across the street from the Dohany Synagogue as I write this. My wife and two American friends are visiting the Synagogue right now.
I hope your assumptions about how the other people view this Orthodox Jew are as positive, if not innocuous, as you suggest. In all likelihood, however, given the actual history here, most of this man’s older family members were killed during WWII. It’s quite likely his grandparents, one or both of his parents, older brothers and sisters, aunts or uncles, were amongst the 600,000 Jews killed here in Hungary. Perhaps he’s even reflecting on their lives as he’s walking along this street today.
You are lucky. You are privileged to be able to view these photos and make positive attributions about him and his life. Though I am not Hungarian, I know this man. I know his story. It’s the same story of so many of my family members, and friends’ family members who lived across Europe for centuries.
This truly was a lovely gift from you and your husband. My gift back to you is one of humility. It is true this man walks safely today on the streets of Budapest. But please don’t make too many assumptions about the difficult journey he’s had to endure to get here on this day. Best always,
The holocaust was a horrific travesty, but it wasn’t an accident. “Accidents,” they say, “do happen.” They continue to occur every time we deny what is real.
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
Two short sleeved shirts. That’s what I ordered. Obviously I had not learned my lesson. I was once again trying to ply my way through the Hungarian postal system. I was tracking the progress of two summer shirts I had purchased from an outfit in the U.S.
If you are searching for a world-class bureaucracy, the Hungarian Postal System is a worthy model. Sure, some of it is my inability to speak Hungarian. I’m guilty of that. But, ask a Hungarian. You’ll get a wry smile and a handful of personal sagas reeking of frustration and inevitable hopelessness.
The tracking system indicated my shirts had arrived here in Budapest weeks ago. I imagined the package was somewhere in the bowels of a dusty, grey, poorly lit warehouse. I conjured up that last scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the box containing the sacred ancient covenant is being rolled down a corridor in the biggest warehouse in the world, never to be found again–or at least for a thousand years.
After a month, I sought help. A Hungarian friend gave me a link to a contact in the postal system. About a week later came an anonymous request to complete a form. I did, and after assistance with the translation, I sent it back. Another week goes by. I again ask about my package. I receive a request for yet another form. OK, here you go. Another week passes. Can you sense my frustration? I send another email in both Hungarian and English, “Can you please tell me when will I get my shirts?”
Suddenly, I hear a voice from inside the fortress. It’s signed, “Lucia.” “The consignment arrives to the local post office today! Please be patient!”
I loved this. Please be patient.
I turned my chair in the school office where I work and spoke with my colleague, Judit. She has become my sounding board for sharing my experiences here in Hungary. She is clever, thoughtful, kind, and oh so patient. She bears witness to my year of living here in Budapest, asking me questions and challenging my assumptions. When does patience become pessimism?, she asks rhetorically. Hungarians, I think, have learned to be patient in the face of many things.
I decide to hunt down my package–no longer willing to wait–after all, the weather is getting warm here in Budapest, and I’d sure like those two short sleeve shirts. After a day of teaching, I bike over to my neighborhood post office. There, I am told, my package is at another post office about half a mile away. I bike over. I am in line and ask a young woman if I am in the right place. No, she says, packages are upstairs. I carry my bike with me up the steps. I take a ticket waiting for my number to appear in red numerals on the screen. Finally, I stand before the woman who is the face of the Hungarian postal system. She tells me I am in the wrong part of the building. Go out to the street, turn left, turn left again at the corner, and in 50 meters or so I’ll find the entrance where I can pick up my package. Ah yes, I tell myself, patience.
I have my shirts. There was an exorbitant customs fee to pay. And tacked on, for good measure, something called a “holding fee.” It appears that I was charged an additional fee by the Hungarian postal system because they held my package for 4-weeks.
Patience, we have been told time and time again, is a virtue. But when does that virtue become like a stone, slowly worn down over time? And when should we become more like water, going where we want?
We’re leaving Budapest this weekend heading south and west to Pecs (pronounced Pay-ch). I’m looking forward to it–about as much as I ever do for an upcoming trip. I’d prefer that a trip sneak up on me, and impress me–as they almost always do. I prepare for these visits in my old, perhaps too comfortable manner: I look at photos of the place on-line, read the Wikipedia entry, in this case, one on Pecs, and then, time permitting, check out the city’s Jewish history.
Each place in Europe has its own particular story regarding its Jewish residents over time. Vilnius in Lithuania, once had so many Jews it was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Remarkably, Vilnius once had 106 Jewish Houses of Worship. Today, only one active synagogue remains. Its active congregation consists of 15 members.
Pecs, too, has it own unique Jewish history. Nineteen forty-four was a particularly tragic year for the Jewish citizens of Hungary. Lively discussions are to be had about these matters. There is the side that reminds us that the German army was completely responsible, inserting itself with total control, throughout Europe. Let’s say, the “German accountability perspective.” This view tells us the German army organized and managed the collection, removal and extermination of local Jewish populations. Then there is the story describing local collaboration and the extent of its capitulation with the Nazis. This take is the “let’s not forget the locals’ role in this tragedy” view. Always too, are those who remind us about local citizens who courageously risked their lives to help Jews hide or escape, let’s say, the “things were horrible, but let’s focus on the heroes and heroines” frame of reference. Of course, all were true in turn. But alas, 600,000 Jewish lives were taken during just the last few months of World War II here in Hungary.
Nothing is clearer, or more poignant, than reading the actual day-to-day promulgations of the Pecs authorities during that fateful year of 1944. There’s April 10, when Jews had to report the possession of their radios. Then there is April 27, when officials announced Jews could no longer buy lard. Soon Jews had to relocate to the ghetto. Especially revealing was May 18, when the announcement was “The City of Pécs offers for sale Angora rabbits turned in by the Jews.” This otherwise mundane news symbolized the end of things for the Jewish population in Pecs.
I usually approach my visits to European cities with an open mind and a great deal of curiosity. There’s a 3-4 hour train ride awaiting–almost always a good thing. Invariably, there’s an “Old Town” with cobblestone streets, historic churches, and a river with curves, providing sanctuary to local swans and ducks. Somewhere, under its layers of history, is the story of how a city treated its Jews. This, is the narrative I seek most. More than dates carved into stone buildings, statues placed in parks, or tales tweaked and reshaped over time, how a city treated its Jews, reveals a great deal about a place.
It wasn’t easy leaving for our winter break. Our departing flight from Budapest was delayed because of high winds in Amsterdam. With less than an hour wiggle room, we ended up missing our connecting flight at Amsterdam’s Schophol airport. Our journey back to the States had to be re-routed. Go with the flow, we decided. An apt metaphor for our 6-months of living and working in Budapest.
While we call Portland, Maine home, we were headed to “the other Portland,” the one in Oregon, to see our newest grandchild, Julian, and his parents. Europe, with its melange of countries and cultures, feels like it’s about a zillion miles from Oregon. Hungary, positioned as it is in the heart of Europe, is roughly the same size as Indiana. Getting anywhere in Hungary can be accomplished with a several hour car ride, a bit longer by train. Almost any European city is within a one or two hour flight.
Living in Budapest as an expat, or anywhere for that matter, allows you the chance to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the host-country’s culture. I feel the river’s current propelling me as I commute each morning to the school where I teach. I exit the subway along with Hungarian workers and students and shuffle up the moist stairs. At the station, I pass fruit vendors and bakeries with fresh baked goods in dimly lit windows. I switch to the tram which takes me within a block of my school. There’s a panoply of faces on this journey, from the commuters whose sullen stares could be found anywhere, to the students I see at school who too often seem ambivalent, at best, about their own daily grind. When I play the role of tourist, I tend to miss these nuances of people and place. I’m more likely to focus on where I am headed, my thoughts somewhere between the content of Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor.
Being back in the United States, albeit temporarily, affords the chance to look back at our experience in Budapest. The international flavors of the city are striking. Riding the Metro’s number 1 line here, as we often do, you can overhear almost any language being spoken. Even in the dead of winter, the streets of downtown Budapest are filled with tourists drawn by the Christmas markets and the seemingly endless string of holiday lights. Refreshingly, Christmas here is more a celebration of lights, than one of religion.
Then there is the yin and yang of economics here in Hungary. Hungarians are said to make roughly a third of their counterparts in some other parts of Europe. That is tough on our Hungarian friends and colleagues. For tourists, on the other hand, it makes Hungary surprisingly affordable in comparison to trips to say Prague or Vienna, and certainly London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Dining out, and savoring fine Hungarian wine, costs a fraction of the prices you encounter in other European cities.
If you’re coming to Budapest for the sights, for the food, or the intriguing history, you are coming to the right place. Few things are more breathtaking than catching a glimpse of the city’s remarkable skyline along the Danube at dusk. This stretch is a World Heritage Site. So too, is the glorious Andrassy Avenue, from one end at Heroes Square, to the other, near St. Stephen’s Basilica. These two points are connected by the Millennium Line, Europe’s second oldest subway (after London) and my favorite line here in Budapest, with its smaller-scale orange cars and beautifully tiled white and maroon stations.
Being car-less in Budapest, as with other European cities, is easy and preferable. Public transportation is readily available and getting around is almost always seamless. But one encounters another challenge while navigating the streets of this great city: endless clouds of cigarette smoke. It seems that nearly everyone smokes in Hungary. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes could be the national song here and sadly, cigarette butts are everywhere, not just in the containers attached to waste bins for that purpose.
Regardless, Budapest is a must-see city. However, if you have several extra days, visits to Hungary’s smaller cities and sites are well-worth the time. Consider Eger, Lake Balaton, and Szentendre-all short trips that will give you other tastes and snapshots of Hungary, beyond the capital city. And yes, certainly enjoy the country’s signature dishes, Goulash and Langos, but don’t ignore the other world-class international culinary options also available here. Certainly, no trip would be complete without a few hours spent relaxing and contemplating life in one of Hungary’s famous baths. Before I depart Hungary, I promise myself to take-in a few more visits to Hungary’s famous baths, such as the Szechenyi Thermal Bath, located in City Park, just a short walk from our flat. The hot, calming waters and billowing steam, a few ingredients that are part of the mysterious embrace that is Budapest.
There’s a rumble, then a strange metallic buzz, the glow of amber lights, doors open and close, and in less than 10-seconds, the yellow-orange cars are moving on to the next station. My favorite subway, the old Millennium Line, rolls its dignified way along the 11-station route only a few feet under Andrassy Street, the entire length of which is a World Heritage Site. First constructed in 1895, it’s Europe’s second oldest subway, and the first here in Hungary’s capital city, Budapest.
I love trains, pure and simple. It’s been a lifelong passion. As far back as I can remember, I looked forward to my dad setting up our family’s Lionel train set right around Christmas every year. As an adult, I’ve seized just about every opportunity I can to ride trains practically anywhere. I’ve taken Canada’s national train, VIA, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, clear across the plains, over the Canadian Rockies, and on to Vancouver. That experience sealed my love for those old-fashioned, glass-enclosed observation cars. On Taiwan, I rode a crowded, small-gauge, red-colored train that crawled its way up Ali Mountain, a traditional honeymoon destination for Chinese couples. In North Korea, I entered the deepest subway in the world, gripping an escalator that seemed to have no end. To most tourists’ surprise, the Pyongyang subway is glorious in its own right, with large colorful lights in the shape of flowers, and giant sweeping propaganda murals depicting workers, artists and farmers happily joining together for the good of the State. On that capital city’s diminutive subway line, passengers seem intensely uncomfortable when they suddenly find themselves riding alongside curious foreigners.
To my complete pleasure, Hungary has its share of special train lines. There’s the Children’s Train high in the Buda Hills, managed and operated by kids. Here in Budapest, there are three major train stations, the one closest to our flat, the dignified, though in dire need of renovation, Nyugati Station, designed and built by Gustave Eiffel’s office in Paris. Yes, that Eiffel. Trains regularly depart Nyugati Station and its two counterparts, for destinations clear across Europe.
Budapest has a robust subway system which I unofficially refer to as the Green, Blue and Red Lines. Then, there’s my favorite, the old Millennium Line. While small in scale, it’s impressive in its quiet elegance. Like an old man sporting a beret and a well-waxed mustache, the train requests your admiration. Each station is adorned with oak doors, closets or lockers, and covered with white and maroon tiles that are so shiny, they look like they were just washed by Mr. Clean. The exclamation point on the platform is a wooden ticket booth, occasionally staffed by a transport employee dressed in dark blue.
Both ends of the line feature notable tourist destinations. Near the eastern terminus, you’ll find Heroes Square and the world famous Szechenyi Baths. At the western end, lies busy Vorosmaty Square, steps from the Danube, and at the northern end of Vaci Street, the busiest tourist lane in Budapest.
Not surprisingly then, while riding the Millennium Line, one almost always hears passengers speaking languages from around the world. The tourists are invariably chatting about what they’ve just seen or excited about where they are headed. It’s safe to imagine that their stay here in Budapest is meeting, more likely exceeding, their expectations.
Old photos and drawings reveal images of those early cars that rode the Millennium Line’s rails back in the 1890’s. They have all but disappeared, except for one solitary car. And, if you want to see that last surviving original car, you’ll have to head clear across the Atlantic Ocean. The last Millennium coach resides in, of all places, the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.
So, whether you’re heading to the baths, or considering riding on the city’s majestic ferris wheel, the Budapest Eye, the venerable Millennium Line will get you there. While in Budapest, if you want to get there in style, ride the Millennium.
“Budapest is a world-class city — a joy to behold…but you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.”
Seventy percent, sixty percent, at least fifty-five percent, my students were calling out, one-by-one. “Thirty percent,” I said. My students smiled skeptically. “No way,” they said in near unison, doubting the statistic I presented, referring to the stat that 30% of Hungarians smoke. I had to agree with their skepticism. It does seem that nearly everyone here in Budapest smokes.
It’s early in the AM when I scoot down the old marble steps from our flat heading off to teach English in a local high school here. I pull open the heavy antique wooden door that leads to the street and my first contact with each Budapest morning is invariably a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. Person after person, seemingly way more than half, are walking by me lit cigarette in hand. I am navigating through their smoke trails before having my second cup of coffee.
By all accounts, Budapest is on the rise. Secret be told, Budapest is a world-class city, far less expensive than Europe’s more well known tourist destinations like Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Prague. Graced by the Danube, awash in picturesque vistas, punctuated by historic buildings, the city is a joy to behold. But you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.
Help me understand this, I implore my students. Like everything else about Hungary, it’s complicated.
In Japan, where over 21% of the population smokes, one rarely, if ever, sees a cigarette butt anywhere. In Japanese culture, largely influenced by its traditional belief system, Shinto, everything has a proper place, its right connection. From perfectly coiffed plants, to famously manicured rock gardens, nothing seems neglected, everything is where it should be. A cigarette butt belongs in its rightful place, hidden in some out-of-view trash container. From the surface, one could conclude, quite mistakenly, that few people in Japan smoke.
Back in Hungary, some people suggest that folks just expect someone else to clean up after them. Others will offer that smokers here are just slobs and lack pride in their city. Either way, it’s a huge turnoff for tourists who, out of necessity, have to dodge second-hand smoke and ignore trash bins overflowing with cigarette butts and public sidewalks strewn with these disgusting little things.
Smoking, of course, is an international problem. Few countries have escaped its wrath. 6.2 million people die worldwide each year from smoking, and another 1 million die from the effects of second-hand smoke. In Hungary, with a population of less than 10 million people, some 25,000 people die each year from smoking.
It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that Hungarians will suddenly become Zen-like in their approach to cigarette smoking. But people can and do make surprising behavioral social-shifts when things become compelling enough. Witness the behavior of dog owners who follow their dogs around with little green poop bags. I routinely observe the people who ride public transport here and religiously keep their paid transport passes on their person. They know that transit officials ride those same buses and trams and regularly ask to see their tickets or risk getting handed an annoying fine.
Smoking is chill, my students tell me, adding that it reduces their stress. So, if you’re coming to Budapest, and please do come, get ready to dodge the smoke and ignore the ubiquitous butts. Much like the smoker who denies he’s addicted, sadly, people here don’t seem to think there’s much of a problem.
“Sweet dreams are made of these, Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas, Everybody’s looking for something…” The Eurythmics, 1983
I don’t know exactly when or where this started. Perhaps it was in high school, although I think I may have been hooked many years earlier. From my earliest memories, New York’s streets were replete with them. Along with kosher hot dogs and knishes, every yellow and blue umbrella’d Sabrett cart sold them. In the seventies, after I spent a few years overseas, I returned only to find they had disappeared, replaced by some frozen ersatz version, a substitute as unauthentic as a New York Yankees cap made in China.
Pretzels have a heralded history in Europe going back to the Middle Ages. More recently, Pennsylvania-Dutch immigrants to the U.S. brought their pretzel-making skills with them from Europe giving us the hard pretzel with its longer shelf life. My personal favorite commercial pretzel is Splits, which I discovered in Maine just last year. They are crunchy, salty, baked to be hard, and oh, so delicious.
But it’s those large soft pretzels that I have a true passion for. That personal relationship probably started on the streets of New York City many years ago. It was rekindled in the late 90s on a business trip to Munich, Germany, while walking through the English Garden there. I saw pretzels almost the size of basketballs, so big in fact, people would stretch their arms through them to make carrying them easier. A huge cold glass of Bavarian beer in each hand made this necessary.
Naivety led me to think I’d readily find real pretzels here in Budapest. I thought I was on to something, but what look like pretzels here are pastries made of bread, and basically just as dull. They are, in fact, taking up loads of shelf-space in nearly every bakery here. Hungarians love them. But for me, they’re just a mirage of the real deal.
I then took my search to Prague, surely I would find pretzels there to go with their great Czech beer. A weekend’s worth of sleuthing around that city proved unfruitful. Yes, there was great food, world-class beer, and an endless supply of their beautiful garnet jewelry. But tragically, no pretzels.
Then it was on to Krakow. Certainly I could find pretzels in that wonderful, old Polish city. Yes, there were plenty of street vendors selling something that looked like pretzels, but sadly, here too, they were more like circles of bread.
I returned to Budapest having given up all hope. I’ll return to Germany again someday, I thought, but for now, I’ll just have to put my search on hold. I just couldn’t keep putting my heart on this emotional rollercoaster any longer.
Then out of the blue, came a social media contact from a friend. “Steve, check this out, I think this place has them.” I was reluctant to be falsely seduced. But, jeez, the link she attached had a photo that looked just like the real deal.
Off to Buda we headed. Looking for an old-school Bavarian restaurant a few blocks up from the Danube. We sat ourselves down in the heavily wooden German-style eating establishment. I ordered a beer and some sausages, and with trepidation, asked if they had pretzels. There was a pause, would my heart be broken yet again? “Of course,” she responded, “They’ll take about 15-minutes to bake. How many would you like?”
They were everything I could have hoped for: big, soft, warm, with just the right amount of salt sprinkled along the inviting brown curves. We ate three as appetizers and took another four home with us in case the world came to end that evening-at least I would have my real pretzels with me in my last remaining moments on earth.
I’ve stopped looking of course. I know where to find my soft, glorious, authentic, Bavarian pretzels. They await me just across the river in Buda, a short metro ride from my flat here in Pest. The world seems like a better place now.
My sweet dreams are made of these. What, I wonder, are yoursweet dreams made of?
If you’re like me, you probably have never heard of the place. Few people outside of Hungary have. My lack of familiarity accompanied me through the spring of 2017, until I was walking along an enchanting path across northern Spain, meandering my way to a city I had never seen, and will never forget, Santiago.
I am describing, of course, the intoxicatingly spiritual adventure that is the Camino de Santiago. It’s a path along which pilgrims from around the world find themselves walking together, sharing space, if only for hours, or even minutes. These encounters could be a glance, a conversation, or a budding friendship. In this instance, I came across a particularly friendly guy with an unfamiliar accent, Csabi (“Chubby”) from Hungary. We exchanged introductions. With a bad knee in tow, I mentioned I was giving up jogging for biking. “Ah,” he said, “You must have heard of Balaton.”
He described a lake in almost heavenly terms: it was beautiful, he said, large and clean, with unusual blue water, bordered on the northern side by endless vineyards, and lined on its southern shore, in summer, with busy beaches and hotels.
So it went. Sometime in the future, I told myself, I would find my way, accompanied by my folding bike, to the shores of Lake Balaton. I placed it on my proverbial “Bucket-List.”
Fast forward, months, not years. A teaching opportunity ironically took us to Hungary. Balaton beckoned. With Hungary’s Indian summer extending into late October, I grabbed my Brompton, and snuck off for 5-days of solitary biking magic.
Well-marked and well-maintained bike paths surround the entire lake. While it’s true that latex-clad bikers with a penchant for speed, cycle the 150-mile circumference in a day, my choice was to cycle Balaton over 3 full days, with half-days on each end. I started out in Baldatonalmadi in the northeast, mid-day on a Wednesday, and finished in the same town, the following Sunday afternoon. In my case, 5-days of glorious, carefree biking, stopping wherever, and whenever, a whim would land on my shoulder.
The biking lanes were uncharacteristically empty – after all, even the shoulder of the busy Balaton summer season had reached its end. I was accompanied by colorful, cascading leaves, blessed by biking-friendy temps in the 50s and 60s, and treated to views few see without hordes of tourists.
Along Balaton’s northern shore there are rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, by the way, should you be able to get some, is a best-kept secret. The lake’s south shore alternated between quiet lanes and mostly deserted towns and villages. They are no doubt filled with people and traffic during the late spring and summer months. The hotels alone, when open, would assuredly attract tons of cars and traffic. I was pleased with my decision to bike Balaton outside of Hungary’s vacation seasons.
Every turn was an introduction to a new scene with a different feel, a new flavor. The palate of colors rotating, the shoreline evolving, the skies overhead changing. My plan was to cover about 35-miles a day, to allow time to observe, reflect, to become familiar, albeit fleetingly, with the places and people I encountered.
There are times, even in late October, such as a Saturday afternoon, when families fill a park or a square. I found these occasions to be welcoming, after all, they were few and far between.
All good things eventually come to an end. So too, a bike trip around Balaton. My trip began with a conversation along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It ended with a smile on my face a year later in Baldatonalmadi, Hungary. If you love biking, traveling, exploring, add a loop around Lake Balaton to your list. Balaton beckons you.
Expats, after landing in a specific country, tend to get asked the same questions over and over again. Years ago while teaching in South Korea, I was fascinated that my students asked me the same four or five questions as if they were pulling a cord from the back of a doll. “How old are you?”“Where is your hometown?”“Where did you graduate from college?”“What was your major?” Most Korean students were shocked that I majored in American History. After all, American History was only about two-hundred years old. How could that possibly be a major? On the other hand, Korean history was five-thousand years old. Now, that’s a major!
Here in Hungary the Q & A goes something like this: “So, you moved to Hungary? But why?” I usually say something about Hungary’s great central location in Europe, and the fact that I’ve never been to Hungary. Next comes the “work question.” “What are you doing here?” I respond that I’m teaching English at a high school here in Budapest. “Really? Teaching? The school’s are horrible here. Why would you ever teach here?”
For the moment, allow me to side-step complaints about the education system. I’d rather direct your attention to another surprising phenomenon–the nearly universal sense of pessimism, sullenness and self-deprecation one finds here in Hungary. There are both historic and contemporary dynamics causing this general sense of malaise.
Hungarians, it is often pointed out on tours here, have lost almost every military action undertaken in their history. Most notably perhaps, is the loss of about 70% of their territory as a result of being on the losing side after the first World War. Hungarians have come to accept defeat as almost preordained.
Then there is the very real brain-drain that has been bleeding the country for some time. With salaries roughly a third of what counterparts are earning in other countries, doctors, scientists and other professionals, have been leaving Hungary for the UK, western Europe and more locally, Austria and Germany. Anna Gat, for example, a young playwright and political activist, claims she moved to London not only to advance her career, but also to escape Hungary’s oppressive and politically suffocating atmosphere. Well more than 100,000 of Hungary’s 10 million people have left for better paying jobs in Western Europe. This dynamic has negative ramifications for Hungary’s economic growth, its competitiveness and its appeal to investors.
You wouldn’t know it from walking through Budapest’s hip, vibrant Jewish District on a Friday or Saturday evening–or any evening for that matter–with its endless assortment of pulsating bars and restaurants. The air, filled with music and cigarette smoke, gyrates, fueled by the unlimited energy of people in their twenties and thirties. But behind this seemingly intoxicating state-of-affairs, is a country that currently ranks 69th of 157 countries on the U.N. sponsored World Happiness Index. Let it be noted here that Hungary has made significant inroads in the last several years, having improved from a ranking of 91, just 3-years ago.
Hungarians have witnessed a recent re-writing of their constitution. According to most observers, these changes help ensure that the current folks in charge can more easily maintain their grip on power. They note with regularity that the country is building a number of giant sports complexes, while modern, well-equipped hospitals are the kind of investments that are really needed. These trends are cause for concern and tend to dampen any hope people might otherwise have for the future here.
Hungarians seem to hunker down and accept this state of affairs fatalistically. They’ve learned to accept corruption and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy here, as givens, as much to protect their sense of sanity, as to recognize the Herculean effort it would take to change them.
I’ve noticed that there are no buttons here on street crossings. One simply waits patiently for the lights to work through their unintelligible machinations. Conversely, on a recent trip to Prague in the Czech Republic, I found crossing buttons everywhere. One has a sense of control: I press the button and I can stop the flow of cars. I can influence my evening in a small way. I mentioned this almost metaphorically to a Hungarian friend, who assured me that the crossing buttons have almost no effect anywhere in the world. They are, in fact, called “placebo buttons” in the trade. You push a button thinking you have control, when in fact, you don’t. But the analogy was not lost on him. No crossing buttons in Hungary. Not even feigned control. He later confided that perhaps as a spirited English teacher here in Budapest, I can provide students “button to press,” not a placebo version, but a button for real control in their lives. We’ll see.