Europe '96: A Letter from Budapest

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June 18, 1996

Much to my amazement, I just found a cybercafe here, a pretty fine one, and in a great location in a beautiful 19th century building, the Mucsarnok on the Heroes's Plaza.

[Addendum 2002: I haven't been back to Budapest since, but I'm sure cybercafes are ubiquitous there now, as they are in cities throughout Eastern Europe. I suppose the previous paragraph now reads like someone in 1906 remarking on seeing an automobile.]

Budapest has been very interesting, occasionally confusing, but on the whole a good time. Coming in on the train, I was approached by a young, polylingual man with the doubly biblical name of Aaron Moses, clearly a bit of a hustler, but -- I guessed correctly -- a pretty honest one, a man who literally makes it his business to know just about everyone in Budapest with something to buy or sell, which is to say everyone in Budapest.

You can get anything here for the right price: sushi, jewelry, sex, exquisite pastries, hand-made lace, guns, probably six-year-old boys wrapped in the pelts of endangered species, but those were not the markets I was in. I needed a place to stay. A few questions about my preferences (cheap, clean, central, no problem sharing a bathroom) and a cellular phone call later, he had lined me up a room and transportation to it, very central, right in with the US$150-a-night hotels, for about US$23 a night. Not a bad room, either, nice building, bathroom shared with only 2 other people.

As I said, everything seems to be for sale here, at some price. In a Chinese restaurant (there are many good ones) I believe I saw a ring exchanged for approximately a bushel of cashews. I believe so, at least, but the exact nature of the transaction was not clear, nor was the nationality of the half a dozen people somehow involved in the deal, though most (not all) were clearly ethnic Chinese. From what I could hear, conversation ranged across English, Hungarian, and Chinese, and one Chinese man seemed to be talking to his Caucasian girlfriend, or something like girlfriend, in Russian.

No one has tried to sell me drugs (which is just fine by me) but I have been approached by more prostitutes this week than in my life before. No doubt this is partly because if they didn't approach men, there would not be much to set them apart as prostitutes. If anything, they are often more modestly dressed than quite a few other women in the city. I have learned more about Budapest women's taste in underwear than I would ever have expected to learn without acquiring a Hungarian girlfriend: there is a big thing here for skirts which are slit up about as far as a skirt can be slit, and/or made of completely transparent material (as are many blouses). Although this is truest of the young and fit, the spectrum of women dressed this way is much broader than I think would ever be the case with such a style in most other cities: I have seen this look on women clear into their 60s and quite regardless of body type. (By the way, similar comments could be made about public displays of affection: not, here, a monopoly of the young.)

The prostitutes all easily accept a polite "no." (By the way, their approach is as unsubtle as an Amsterdam hash dealer. They walk up to you and ask, "Sex?") The black market money dealers are another matter, downright pesky. Given that the florint is virtually a hard currency, these guys must all be rip-off artists: there's no room for an honest profit giving the rates they quote. You'd probably get demonetized notes, or some such. (I've heard Polish zlotys turn up.)

All that said, much of Budapest is very beautiful, and even what is not is often intriguing. Buda, the old hill town, has some really fine architecture, most of it looking rather old, but I gather much of it is actually not: Buda was bombed hard in WWII, and a lot of it was rebuilt after the war, including the palace. There are a lot of pieces of very old buildings, often in courtyards of current buildings. I gather that in the 60s they peeled plaster off of everything to see what they could find. Among other things, they found a chunk of a lost Sephardic synagogue. Good thing they didn't find it 30 years earlier, or we probably wouldn't have it.

of entrance to the main Pest synagogue] Speaking of synagogues, the main one in Pest, which is enormous, is in the latter stages of repair/reconstruction. I gather that Tony Curtis has spearheaded the fundraising for this. The work crew, about 40 people, is about 4 times as large as the next largest work crew I've seen in the town, which seems to me to make an impression I'm not sure I'd want to make. Then again, it's not like there is no local Jewish community: it's estimated that there are still 80,000 people of Jewish ancestry in this city, mostly in the historically Jewish part of town, which still has quite a few distinctly Jewish restaurants, some kosher, some not.

No question either that it's an overwhelmingly Catholic country: Szent Istvan (Saint Stephen) is a very big deal here, lots of Catholic statues (though fewer angels than Vienna), and there are some lavish churches, some of them (like the Matyas Templom) very much in the mode of the Church Militant.

Communist relics, on the other hand, are mostly swept into the dustbin of history, or, more precisely, into the Szorborpark, a rather unique museum. 40 communist-era statues, plaques, etc., are recontextualized in a setting which tries neither to trivialize nor to glorify them, though it certainly pokes a bit of fun. Exhibits wind in 3 figure-eights around the straight path which leads from an unenterable gate to a blank wall. There is a small amount of deadpan humor in the mostly factual catalog of the exhibit: each figure-eight has a name beginning, "The endless parade of..." One pedestal stands empty, for a truly lost statue which, judging by the catalog, was rather interesting. Four large statues at the back either wave or reach forward: in the context, they seem to provide a warning against trying to proceed further in that direction.

I went to the Gellert baths, very 19th century elegant, luxurious, and rather entertaining to boot. Immersing myself in history, as it were. (Oh no, I'm turning into the sort of person who would say, "as it were." Let the record show that the defendant acknowledges his use of the dreaded phrase...) I gather that there is a wide range of services offered, everything from mud baths to "galvanic treatment" (I don't want to know) to massage, but I opted for just swimming (well, soaking) in the indoor and outdoor thermal baths and lying in the sun on a very nice terrace out back.

Good Fine Arts Museum here, probably the best collection of El Greco outside of Spain, but that's been about my only museum-going here. Lots of public statues, though.

I'm going to see King Crimson do an outdoor show tomorrow. That should make up for a few bad cover bands and the Princeton University Orchestra. Guess no one ever went to Princeton to become a musician (not that my alma mater Wesleyan's 🔗 orchestra was any better, actually it was rather worse, but we never sent them to Europe to embarrass us so publicly in the great concert halls). At best, they could be described as "spirited." They butchered Ives and (insult of insults) Bartok, did OK by the overture of Bernstein's Candide (it's following me!), played an actually pretty interesting piece by a current Princeton Ph.D. candidate, and then took on Beethoven's Eroica. Beethoven's dead, so he can't sue. Actually, some of it was interesting, sort of the Carl Stalling or John Zorn approach to Beethoven, maximize the contrasts, give no thought to unity. For a while, this was fun, but by the scherzo, it got old, and their instruments were going out of tune (they really should have stopped to retune after the second movement, but they didn't) and one of the two french horn players should really just give up and learn the piano or the guitar or something.

I've been walking a lot to make up for a diet of pastry. Great city for walking and for pastry. And for cheap gelati: the history of ice cream may be written in Italian, but the history of cheap ice cream must have at least a Hungarian accent. About 25 cents a scoop, about an eighth of the going price in Italy. Of course, you don't find an exquisite unsweetened blackberry or a marvelous basil-flavored concoction, but, hey, at this price, who cares!

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Originally written: June 18, 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

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