Thursday, October 06, 2011
Budapest - more dumplings and communism!
When I was a kid, for a brief time I had a stamp collection. You could order stamps by mail, and there was some kind of book where you organized them. The only thing I remembered about this stamp collection was that I had an abundance of stamps from "Magyar Posta". I had no idea where that was. My parents didn't know either. Half of my stamps were from Magyar Posta, which sounded like a very exotic place, but it would have been nice to have some VARIETY of stamps. Then I gave up the stamp collection and probably went outside to climb a tree. I completely forgot about this until yesterday when I saw a truck that said "Magyar Posta (Hungary postal service)". OMG, I thought. Magyar is another name for Hungary. I finally made it to Magyar Posta!
After a train ride with in a car with a man who smelled like onions, I arrived back in Budapest and moved closer to the center of Pest, near a beautiful Basilica (above). Here is the view out my window:
What started as a marathon trip has really turned out to be "Sara's dumpling and communism tour". I don't know when I turned into such a history buff. I just can't get enough communism stories. You heard me ramble on and on about the Berlin wall. As my first order of business, I went on the communism walking tour. It was absolutely fascinating! Led by a woman named Aggy and an older man named Zoltar, they pointed out things around Pest that were left from the communist years, such as this locked, underground bunker:
Aggy grew up during "happy communism", or "communism lite". Prices were regulated by the state, and salaries were very equal. (but unfair because doctors and ordinary workers made near the same salaries - which led to resentment and laziness). However, when in your own home, you could do as you wished. Religion could be practiced quietly and privately. There was coca cola and MTV. But also state regulated, educational television (which both Aggy and Zoltar raved about). Here is the Magyar TV station:
Communism was horribly strict in Hungary until the 1956 uprising. It gradually got better and better for people through the 60s, 70s and 80s. People still couldn't travel, though except to OTHER communist countries. They made travel to Vietnam and Cuba very cheap for people. I loved hearing their personal stories about growing up here. Aggy went on vacation with her family to the Black sea. Train tickets were really cheap for everyone. But going to western Europe was only possible for a very small section of the population. It was easier to travel to, say, Vietnam or North Korea than to Rome or Vienna.
Western goods were sold, but not in huge abundance. And prices were regulated so that everyone could afford the same things, which led to shortages. They seemed a little wistful for the old TV programs, cars and prices. Like David told me in Cesky Krumlov - when communism ended, it was a very tough adjustment for senior citizens. I asked them about advertising after 1990. I got the answer I expected.
Budapest has a lot of homeless people who fell through the cracks after 1990. To get good care in a hospital today still requires a little bribery. Bribery is still a hidden part of the culture left over from the communist years.
Here is a soviet statue, which they cannot knock down because Russia still takes care of Hungary's military. But everyone wants it gone. It keeps getting defaced, so they had to build a fence around it. Aggy pointed out plain clothes policemen to us, hanging around the statue.
And what a coinidence, Russia built that statue to face the American embassy. Another coincidence, The United States built a statue of Ronald Reagan behind the soviet statue. Hmmm! I was the only American (there were a lot of South Americans and a few Australians) on the tour and was put on the spot a few times. There's your president! Zoltar said.
A statue of Nagy, Hungarian hero, who lead the 1956 uprising.
Here is an example of a modern business on the first floor, and a decayed second floor with bullet holes in it:
Alcohol was very cheap during the communist years. Going to work drunk was generally OK. They wanted to keep people happy and content. Here is a bar that still caters to the old workers, a dive. With crazy cheap prices.
Aggie told us about the communist architecture. People still live in the block apartment buildings outside of town. Originally, poorer people could have separate apartments but share a kitchen and bathroom. With the new block apartments (that look like CHA housing), they built VERY small kitchens and no common areas. The communists didn't want people to linger in kitchens with their friends and gossip. They also built this horrifically ugly building across from the basilica, that was just slightly longer - to show people that something could be bigger than the church. It was very symbolically placed. It's a real eyesore among the beautiful buildings in the square. And will be torn down in three years. Thank goodness. It is butt-ugly!
They showed us a tourism book for Budapest of photos that was published in the 1960s, for publication in the west. It was all UGLY communist architecture and showed none of the beautiful historic buildings of Budapest. This is the image they wanted to project to the world.
After the walking tour, I went to an old jewish restaurant I found in Lonely Planet. It was a bit of a walk, but the paprikash was phenomenal. The owner came over to talk to me. I went out for streudel and a little night-time walk around my hotel and basilica. It remided me a little bit of Italy - people lingering around a fountain drinking wine from the fancy wine bar next door.