Monday, September 13, 2010

An Unplanned Arrival

When I was living in Paris, I had a 10-day period in which I had absolutely no responsibilities, so I naturally decided to travel somewhere.

But where?

A lot can be seen in 10 days, and there is still a massive chunk of Europe I’ve yet to explore, so I was surprised at how long it took me to choose a place to visit.

It seemed like everything I pondered was something I could include in another, longer trip.

Spain and Portugal? I already had a trip planned there with my sister when she graduated college, so that was out.

Norway? Aside from being expensive, I envision seeing Sweden and Finland at the same time, and I had nowhere near enough cash.

In the end, I decided to pull out a map and find a place that I wanted to see, but for which I wouldn’t really plan a trip from the States.

And it was such an obvious choice: Budapest, capital of Hungary.

A few hours later, I was in the WHSmith bookstore on Rue de Rivoli buying a guidebook with an inflated price. I booked an EasyJet flight and looked forward to my leaving in four days.

It turned out that I would be arriving on Oct. 23, 2009 – a date that held no significance to me, but means a whole lot to Hungarians.

It was on Oct. 23, 1956 that the infamous uprising started, which ended with Soviet tanks crushing an ill-conceived rebellion and about 2,500 Hungarian deaths.

But Oct. 23, 1989 was a day of celebration for Hungarians, as the country reverted to Hungarian rule for the first time since World War II.

My flight was delayed, so I arrived at my hotel on the Buda side of the Danube rather late, and I immediately ignored the hotelier’s advice and made for Pest, where any demonstrations or celebrations would be going on.

The site had seen some riots in 2008, but if you tell that to me, that just means it’s the first place I’ll stop. It’s a characteristic that helps somewhat with journalism and gives my mother headaches.

The first thing I noticed, as I made my way from the Fisherman’s Bastion to the river, was that the Hungarian Parliament was lit up in red, white and green, the national colors.

This was only my second time behind what was once the Iron Curtain, and I was not expecting to see such a stately building so well-done (and with the front recently cleaned).

I took the metro under the Danube, riding down ridiculously fast escalators to board trains straight out of the communist era, complete with a triumphant horn sound before the doors slammed shut (yes, slammed. I was used to the Paris Metro’s half-shut, bounce back, then fully shut system, and I was glad my arm wasn’t in the way).

I rode the train with other passengers who were a motley mix of stereotypical grizzled Eastern Bloc workmen, older ladies who had seen it all – from the Nazi occupation in WWII to Soviet oppression and finally freedom – along with younger Hungarian guys enjoying the holiday and an unnaturally high percentage of stunningly beautiful women.

When I arrived at the Parliament, I was disappointed to see that there were no big celebrations or demonstrations. I honestly would have been as happy with a cheering crowd celebrating 20 years of freedom as a borderline riotous march in which Hungarians exercised that freedom.

What I found was much more somber.

I walked through a park, past a statue of victorious soldiers to a flagpole. The Hungarian flag flew proudly, but with a gaping hole in the center that made it look like it had been hit by a cannonball from a Napoleonic ship of the line.

I remembered then that during 1956, the rebels had cut the holes in the center of their flags to remove the communist emblems from them, and the flag I looked at 55 years later had the same hole in it to commemorate them. The flag in the photo below is the same thing, but the photo is from several days later in the nearby town of Szentendre.

I stood in silence while a few older Hungarians lit candles at the base of a monument in honor of the fallen.

Nearby, an eternal flame burned in a marble pillar, and the entrance to the Parliament was draped with Hungarian and European Union flags.

I spent some time wandering around and reflecting on how lucky I am to have, through some accident, been born in the United States, where our great civil rights struggles can generally be won in peace at the ballot box, our press isn’t controlled by the government and we can leave if we wish. When I later went to the House of Terror and saw what Hungarians went through, it brought that feeling home.

Over the next eight days I spent in Hungary, I got a good feel for the country, but I don’t think it would have been nearly the same if I had started it any differently.