Communism, Baths, and Bars: One Week in Hungary

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Budapest wasn’t always one city. When ethnic Hungarians (“Magyars”) first arrived in this part of Central Europe, they settled along the banks of the Danube in the vicinity of two small Bulgarian towns perched on the very edge of the Medieval Bulgarian Empire. For centuries, Buda and Pest existed separately from one another, with Buda as the more important of the two cities– as well as the one most often attacked and raised by invading armies.

Today, Pest– where I have been living this past week– is the most important of the two halves of this city. It is in Pest that the Hungarian Parliament is located, as well as most of the city’s  population, several important cultural sites such as the Heroes’ Square and Jewish Quarter, and, just as importantly, the heart of Budapest’s night life.

That’s not to say that the other side of the river doesn’t have its own merits. Just across the Danube, the Castle District– named after the Buda Castle, which served as the seat of the old Hungarian Kings– boasts beautiful historical buildings, the Presidency, and more than a few camera-totting tourists. All in all, more than worth the day-trip across the river.

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The statue of St Gerhard, the first Bishop of Hungary, facing Pest across the Danube
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The 14th-century Matthis Church, in the Castle District
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The Courtyard of Buda Castle

This last week has been a bit of a blur– my sleep cycle, never fully recovered from the initial bout of jet lag, has led to me falling asleep at 3 or 4 and waking up closer to 11:30 each day (I haven’t slept like this since High School). Days are passed walking around the city, visiting museums and subjecting myself to grueling hikes up Budapest’s highest point, Gellért Hill (to the reward of beautiful views of the entire city– see above). Nights are spent with new and old friends alike, more than a few beers, and walking aimlessly around the city attemptng to get into one of the dozens of clubs and bars that make this city an (unfortunate) haven for British bachelor parties.

But it’s been good for me. Sometimes it’s nice to just let go, if just for a week or two, and not abide by any particular rhythm or need to do anything. For now, I’m just focusing on having fun, enjoying this city, and learning what I can while I’m here.

Such as going to museums. Last night, all of the museums in the city open their doors to the public, offering bands in the parks, stands selling lemonade and beers, and special events such as string concerts and tango dancing lessons tucked into museum rooms. It is nights like this that make me love summer in the city– just watching the entire town come to life at night,  the cafes staying open late, the bars packed to their brims. Young couples holding hands in the street, and older men and women walking arm-and-arm into the Opera.

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Museum Night at The National Museum of Hungary 

Budapest has dozens of museums — this city has one of the most storied histories in all of Europe, after all– but the one that stands out the most is the House of Terror, on the embassy-lined Andrassy Street. A beautiful building that could easily house an embassy on its own, for decades the House of Terror served a far darker role: as the heart of political persecution in Hungary, first as the headquarters of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which during the Second World War collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust and the conquest of Europe, and later as an interrogation center for the Hungarian Communist regime.

It’s a building that tells the darker side of this city and country that other museums, focused on art, history, and the old Hungarian monarchy, prefer to leave out, but it’s important because of that very reason. While the House of Terror served as the heart of terror for both the Fascists and Communists, the museum has a clear emphasis– some could perhaps say a bias– of the crimes of Communist times over that of the Arrow Cross Fascists. But what the museum does do is show just how much the Hungarian people suffered during those long decades, as well as highlighting their moments of resistance, such as the anti-communist 1956 Revolution, which much like the Prague Spring in 1968 was violently crushed by the tanks and armies of the Soviets.

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Inside the House of Terror. Victims of Communist purges can be seen on the back wall

Purges designed to replace the middle class with the more easily influenced landless peasantry, ethnic cleansing campaigns that pushed ethnic Germans out of towns they lived in for generations, political persecution of Jews, Liberals, and the Church– there are dozens of these stories within this museum, as well as the opportunity to walk through the very concrete jail cells build far below the street level, where political prisoners were tortured and disappeared for decades.

As I said in my last post, for all of the problems Hungary has with nationalism and anti-Muslim, anti-refugee sentiment, it’s remarkable how much the country has managed to push forward following its trials under communism. Visiting the House of Terror has only reinforced that feeling, while at the same time drawing questions on why modern Hungary is willing to admit the atrocities of its communist past (where it could easily make the case of living under occupation) while shying away from the equally horrible events of its nationalist, fascist history during World War 2.

But enough on that. To end on a high note: one of the must-see attractions in this city is the Szechenyi Bath, the largest and one of the oldest bath house within Budapest. Built over a thermal hot spring, Szechenyi not only draws throngs of tourists (again, especially Brits), but also local Hungarians seeking to spend the evening soaking in the quieter Sulfur pools or resting in the Sauna. To spend a full evening there with just a couple of friends, swimming, soaking, and just enjoying the evening summer air, was more than a perfect way to wash away some of the stress that has been resting on my shoulders these past few weeks.

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The baths at night

One week down, and only a few more days left to go. I’m beginning to be ready pick up where things left off, and to move forward one step at a time with life, this time for a full six months in Northern Ireland. After that– we’ll see. I’m trying not to think to far into the future lately, and to instead focus on enjoying each day as it passes by.

But until then– there are plenty of bars, museums, and cafes that still need to be seen in Budapest. A few more days of this city isn’t so bad of a thing.

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Discovering Budapest

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After another semester in the cold and snow of Boston, as well as a brief, month-long return home to North Carolina in May, I once again found myself on the familiar, three-legged journey to Europe (Charlotte to Boston, Boston to Reykjavik, Reykjavik to Paris), and, after a brief weekend in France, on yet another flight from Paris to Budapest. I’ll be in this city for the next two weeks or so, before beginning an internship in Northern Ireland (where I’ll have to go through the entire airport ordeal again, of course).

It’s been only a few brief days since I arrived in Budapest, where I have been staying with a good friend of mine from North Carolina who is  on study abroad here for the summer, but already Hungary’s capital has proven itself to be an unexpectedly captivating and beautiful city.  I can let the (regrettably, Iphone) photos speak for themselves:

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Budapest is, if anything, a city of architecture. Viennese-style Austrian buildings mix with more recent structures created during a time when Hungary was still part of the communist block, while older churches and castles display a more unique, “Magyar” style that straddles Western Germanic and Eastern Slavic designs. All in all, it all comes together in a beautiful, if unorthodox, mosaic of a city, full of bars, cafes, parks and museums in a city split in two by the Danube — the same river that, eventually, will snake its way all the way south to Belgrade, Serbia.

Parts of Budapest do remind me of Serbia. It’s not just the communist architecture that’s built up alongside older, Austrian or Parisian style buildings (although Budapest doesn’t quite show its wear and age on its sleeve the way Belgrade does). It’s the people as well, who lived generations under communism just like in Yugoslavia. You can see it both in the little things, like how everyone still waits at crosswalks for the lights to turn green, as well as in the larger concepts at play, like how ideas suppressed during communist times such as religion (Catholicism here instead of Serbian Orthodoxy) or nationalism have resurfaced and become a part of people’s identity stronger than ever.

There’s a lot of pride in the country, like there is a lot of pride in Serbia, but not for Hungary as it was during communist times, or not always even Hungary as it was during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead, its a nationalism that seems to harken back to an idealized time, when Hungary was a country of and for Magyars, encompassing the entire Hungarian-speaking part of Europe which is today split along the borders of multiple countries, including Serbia and Austria. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s current far-right leader and one of the E.U’s staunchest voices against Syrian refugee resettlement, is perhaps the most high-profile example of how that feeling has come to define modern Hungary.

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The Square of Heroes, featuring several Magyar national leaders

But there is also something here that is unlike Serbia, or anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia. A few days ago, a friend of mine studying in Greece mentioned how Greek people were similar to Serbians or others in the Balkans, but that they seemed lighter, like there wasn’t so much weight sitting on their shoulders. The same is true here– yes, there was the horrors of the second world war, and under communism there was political repression, secret police, work camps and dozens of other trials the Hungarian people had to endure. But there was also not a genocide or ethnic cleansing here twenty years ago, and there have been no recent bombing campaigns against Hungarian cities. Even if this city’s history and current nationalist-tinged politics seems familiar when compared to Belgrade, it’s a city moving on in a way that Serbia, or for that matter Bosnia, hasn’t yet been able to achieve.

Take the growth of the tech sector here, which many of the people I’ve met during my short stay here are studying or taking an internship in. Software development, computer science, graphic design, 3D modeling– giants like Microsoft, Linux, and more have taken a keen interest in this city, turning it into a “silicon-valley light” hub with access to markets in both Eastern and Western Europe. Or take the rapidly expanding tourism industry, which sees Americans, Chinese, and more than a few Brits extending their European backpacking tours from Germany and Austria into this former communist nation. It’s an encouraging thing to see, especially given that only about twenty years ago Hungary lay firmly behind the Iron Curtain.

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A quick aside: Hungarian is a language unlike any I’ve ever heard before, neither Slavic nor Germanic, and probably one of the more difficult I’ve ever had to try to use– even pronouncing “Thank You” is a feat in and of itself. But it certainly sounds gorgeous, and is a treat to catch bits and pieces of when walking down the street.

Like I said before, I’ve only been here for a few days, and that’s not nearly enough time to get a full feel for a place– nor is two weeks, for that matter. But I’ll keep this blog updated over that time, and see what thoughts come out over these next few days.

Yesterday, while sitting in the Budapest Opera House watching the German opera “Aradiane auf Naxos,” my friend Silas turned to me and asked if I would have ever pictured the two of us in that exact situation three years ago. And he’s right– life is constantly throwing surprises, some amazing like visiting a new city with a good friend, some more difficult, both of which I’ve had to experience over these last few days. But each experience grows you as a person, and each challenge– whether that’s learning how to say “Thank You” in a new language, or learning how to move on after a difficult stumble when life seems to have gone upside down– presents some kind of opportunity to evolve.

After Bosnia and Serbia, Jordan and Paris, these years have made me into a person that I don’t believe I’d recognized as myself three years ago, and that’s for the better. Even if challenges have come and gone in those years, and even if obstacles and trials continue to present themselves when least expected, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about these past couple of days, and will continue to keep in my mind as the time to leave Hungary for Northern Ireland draws near.

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