Sunday Morning ~ Budapest
May 15, 2022
I’d been to Budapest in December of 2012 when traveling from Warsaw to Zagreb. I’d taken an overnight train to Budapest then another to Zagreb which left from a station on the other side of the city. I shared the sleeping berth with an older woman from Romania who spoke not a word of English and I spoke no Romanian. Somehow we communicated, though, I can’t pinpoint how. She shared a thermos of warm chocolate with me in the morning. I carried her bag to her connecting train to Bucharest. We hugged goodbye. My train to Croatia left five hours later so I decided to walk from one station to the other a few miles away. That was my only experience of Budapest: an early morning, deserted, cold, and mysterious walk through a strange city. I gaped in awe of the architecture and planned to go back someday and really see the place.
My friend Matt is a geneticist who teaches at a college in Rochester, New York. He’s also a priest and helps out in our parishes in the summer months on MDI. He was doing a Fulbright scholarship in Ukraine, working on agricultural ethics, and last summer we talked about what he hoped to accomplish and I thought I might visit him in Uzhhorod, figuring it would be a great chance to see some of Ukraine. When the war broke out he evacuated to Budapest so a Ukrainian visit will be delayed a bit. Shifting travel plans I boarded an overnight train from Warsaw to Budapest on Tuesday and visited him there. This time I was alone in the berth and though I missed an opportunity to meet someone interesting, I loved the privacy (my own bathroom!) and good night’s sleep. I barely noticed the stop in Prague. An hour before arriving in Budapest, the porter brought breakfast. I didn’t even know that was done anymore. I arrived in Budapest well rested to bright warm sunshine into a gorgeous train station designed by the Gustave Eiffel company. Matt was there waiting with a map marking my guesthouse and other points of interest as well as a public transit pass. A perfect welcome.
The contrast between Warsaw and Budapest is striking. It’s interesting how these two cities, both devastated by war and communism, emerged so differently. I’m wondering how Budapest got such a party vibe? I saw scads of young people bar hopping, moving in groups as if it were a handsome/beautiful competition. I felt dowdy, like I should go get a nice pair of shoes and a better bra. I don’t know if it was graduation or international bachelor/bachelorette week, but there was some serious fun happening in multiple languages. You’d never know there was a war going on next door.
Hungary was always a mystery to me. As a kid I heard the term “Iron Curtain” and thought of it literally. All that transpired behind that drape was none of my business. I daydreamed in history class so don’t even know if Hungary was mentioned much there, not that I would have remembered anything if it were. I knew Zsa Zsa Gabor was Hungarian and that’s about it. So, I learned a lot this week.
I like to start a stay in a new city by just wandering around and getting my bearings. I had a luxurious five days, a nice amount of time to explore, so wasn’t in a rush to tick off the list I’d made of things to see. The scale! Everything is huge as if they built this city for giants. And I wondered why I always had such a romantic notion of the Danube? Must be from some song somewhere. The second longest river in Europe doesn’t sound particularly romantic, and it’s not wide or remarkable aside from splitting this city into Buda and Pest. Hills on one side, flatlands on the other. The first afternoon here Matt and I walked along the river bank on the Pest side and came upon the iron-sculpted shoes. It is a haunting memorial to the people persecuted and shot on the banks of this river after being forced to remove their shoes, a valuable commodity. Twenty thousand people.
It was the last year of the war, 1944, when Hungary fell to the nazis so they worked hard to do as much damage as they could in one year. Horrifying what desperation reaps. I could see so many correlations to current events it’s hard to take it all in. There is a museum I visited called the Terror House on Andrassy Ut, the huge main boulevard here. It is the building where interrogations and executions were held in 1944 and then again during the 1956 revolution. The museum is well done and indeed terrifying and sickening. I felt it was similar to visiting Auschwitz or the Equal Justice Institute which was once a slave market. It’s important to stand on that ground and pay respect to the people who suffered and died. As hard as it is to be present and learn what happened on those premises, I saw how important it is to acknowledge the past crimes against humanity and honor those victims. Whew. It was painful.
The city is full of the most amazing contrasts. The architecture is jaw dropping. Some of it was destroyed in the war but it wasn’t eradicated like Warsaw. Soviet influence is detectable here but it’s obscured by the grandeur. In Warsaw the architecture makes it very clear who occupied whom; here not so much. On Saturday, Matt and I took the metro to the end of the line, then a local bus to Memento Park, an open air museum in the countryside where the statues that were removed from the city after the fall of communism are displayed. It’s a fascinating and well-done display about dictatorship as a means of understanding democracy. The whole thing has a cemetery feel to it and the plaques have the location of the city where they once stood. Stalin’s boots, left from the toppling of his statue in 1956, are there. The grandstand on which they perch, looks obscene. We were the only ones there for a long while. We walked around, read the plaques, then sat and talked about where our lives were in 1989 when so much changed in this country. We talked about how events of such magnitude could occur while so much of the world remains clueless. What was happening back home then? Stock market instability? Kids’ concerts? Little league games?
I am now on my way back to Warsaw where I’ll have a few days of family time before flying back to the states. I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from my constant news consumption but get the drift of the perils women now face in my own country. This has got to end. As if it weren’t hard enough already for women to get health care. It’s clear what we need to do and I believe it’s possible. Only two more senators and maintain the house. Then we can clean up this shit and put these misogynistic mementos in a park somewhere. Deep breath and onward. They will not win this.
Love to all,