Archive for Destination Hungary

Extravagance and Devotion

For a study in contrasts, we visited the Esterhazy Castle and Pannonhalma Abbey.  The view from the monastery made me feel closer to the heavens.  It is also school where the students can make use of the largest monastic library in Hungary. 

Ironically, it is the Esterhazy Castle that is looking more worn for the wear.  Unfortunately it was abandoned for over 100 years and also used as a Soviet military hospital.  It was–and still is–the home of the Esterhazy family, as well as Hayden.  One thing is for certain–Hungarians have enjoyed very intricate, gilded (read busy and over the top) design work for centuries, and I am becoming hard-pressed to find a building with clean lines, white space, and modern design.  Perhaps I will find something more my style at the WAMP fair this afternoon in Budapest.  There is beauty in restraint!

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At the Austrian Border

After our exploration of communist oppression, it was only fitting for us to start our weekend vacation in Sopron, the sight of the PanEuropean Picnic in August of 1989.  Communism was fading fast and the leaders of Austria and Hungary had decided to hold a picnic celebration at the border between their countries.  The plan was to open up the gates (part of the Iron Curtain itself) and have both leaders walk across to show their friendship.  The picnic was heavily adverstised, and not surprisingly, many East Germans rushed to Sopron in hopes of making their way back to West Germany through Austria.  The miracle is that the border patrol, who were surprised to see hundreds of people approaching the gates hours ahead of the schedule, did not shoot at them (although they had orders to do so).  They realized that doing so would turn the happy chaos into a memorial ground.  For those few hours, hundreds of refugees left their cars and often families behind for a chance to be free…it was the first “brick” to removed from the Berlin Wall.

A note about the pictures–if it looks like we are driving through a wheatfield, that’s because we did.  The road to the border was “closed,” so our intrepid bus driver took us on a tractor path through the woods until we could no longer drive.  This is when our guides thought we were close, so then we walked over a motorcross path, until they realised we were nowhere near Austria.  This was followed by us returning to the bus, driving through more wheat, and finally making our way to the blocked road–which had only a chair and caution tape to stop us.  In the spirit of resisting oppression, they took down the caution tape (after all–the helpful folks at the local prison told us we could) and we drove on through the wet cement.  Then, while at the border, we watched as the Austrian Police blocked those trying to go around the closed gate to Hungary.  So much for an open EU!

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Goulash Communism

After begging the Russians for help in getting the Nazis out of their country, Hungarians were surprised to find out their “liberators” would stick around for almost 50 years afterwards!  Most of the Communist memorials, statues, and other public relics were taken down immediately after they became a democracy (between 1989-1991) but fortunately they have been collected at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest.  The park contains a facade, a cyclical road to nowhere, and ends with a final wall–what a metaphor!  My favorite parts included sitting in the Trabant–a famously cheap car whose body was made of recycled cotton and plastic.  I also enjoyed watching a movie about how to become a secret agent.  Hint: you’ll need a keen eye for searching among the roadway litter for the special containers that hide messages.

We continued our look into Communist Hungary the next day with a visit to the House of Terror Museum, former home of the Nazi “House of Loyalty” and also the Arrow Cross party headquarters.  The Communists soon turned it into their AVO and AVH (secret police) building.  So after years of symbolizing inhumanity and dread, it has become a memorial building for those who dared to speak out against dictatorships, particularly the members of the 1956 Hungarian Revloution.  (You must see Children of Glory to get an idea of politics of the time…)

1956 wasn’t that long ago, and 1989 is just as important.  It has been amazing hearing presenters who remember it all–it’s clear Hungarian history has just begun.

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The Countryside

Budapest is beautiful, but driving through the countryside was literally a breath of fresh air!  We started in Debrecen, then went to Hortobagy, Eger, and  Holloko.  Impulsively, we decided to add Slovakia to our itinerary, too, since we were driving by it anyway.  Being part of the EU means there’s no checkpoint, no gate, no passport needed–just a desire to walk across the bridge. 

Our bus driver was waiting in the middle of the roundabout waiting for us silly Americans to get back on the bus.  I don’t think he could grasp how much fun it was to literally be standing in two countries at once–much like he couldn’t grasp the idea of driving more than 50 km/hour–even on the M roads.  Elderly drivers were passing us and making inappropriate gestures!

So, I loved Hortobagy and the horse-drawn cart ride through the National Park.  I loved seeing the really old library in Eger.  I now know a children’s song about going to Debrecen to buy a tom turkey–in Hungarian!–because we were forced to sing it all the way to Holloko.  Shame we didn’t sing it while actually going to Debrecen, but tempers were already flaring when our tour guides realised we were running two hours late on account of our bus driver’s methodical driving.

The great plain was fun, but now I am happy to be back in Budapest where I can rely on the tram, bus, train, and subways for transportation.

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Hanging Out with Huba

Although he’s not really old enough to be my grandpa, Dr. Huba Bruckner sure feels like one!  He has been a really wonderful and cheerful Hungarian host.  He invited us over to his apartment following the folk dancing presentation we saw the other night.  The apartment is surprisingly large, with a beautiful view of the Danube and Parliment right outside his balcony.  As we all rushed out to take pictures, he warned us, “No more than four at a time on the balconies, please!” 

His daughter and wife are equally gracious–Mrs. Bruckner offered to carry my offically “heavy” bag up the escalator steps at the airport, and I look forward to getting introduced to the local hangouts with his daughter tomorrow night.  I’ve heard that Hungarian men are internationally regarded as excellent husbands, but I will only be looking on behalf of my single friends.

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Varosmajori Gymnazium and Primary School

What a joy to finally visit a school in Budapest.  Whereas we are often assigned schools by the district we live in, the Hungarians are able to choose and the state pays for it.  However, that means that very good schools such as this have many more applicants than they can ever accept.  The truth is that many of the children in poorer areas will never be able to take an entrance exam to get in, and most of these well-regarded schools have supplemental town money to provide the best for their children.  So, unfortunately the best education is really only available to the already privileged students.  Sound familiar?  The teachers barely make a tremendously low salary–in fact they simply can’t live on it, so most work three or four jobs–walking dogs or house cleaning in the afternoons and relying on their spouses and families for making ends meet. The Hungarians really do value education, but they are struggling with a decling population and twice the amount of teachers and schools needed, but no politician dares mention shutting down half the system to make it sustainable.  And so the challenges continue…

The school buildings themselves are quite charming and clearly the students take pride in building their own community.  I wish we could have seen the schools in session, but they were out for summer vacation of course.

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Hungarian Jews

While much of my trip has been a celebration, we were compelled to remember the sad history of the Jewish communities of Budapest.  During the Holocaust, over 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary within a matter of months.  The Synagogue and Museum offer reminders that we must never forget.  The ramifications of this “final solution” is that there are very few Jewish communities left in Hungary–where as they used to be a significant part of the population and inhabit a large part of the city.  Many of the very few Jewish families left in Hungary are still afraid to worship, tell others of their faith, or live in area at all.

The monuments we saw were moving and remind me that even amongst the horror, there were those who helped save others’ lives while risking their own.

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I Once Was Lost…But Now Am Found!

After a long day of lectures and project work, I was eager to feel like I was on vacation again.  So Franzie and I went to discover the Labyrinth caves under the Buda castle.  It turns out getting there is harder than walking through them!  After begging my hotel concierge to write down the metro and bus stops for me in Hungarian, we felt well prepared to get there (plus we has walked by it the day before).  Turns out the bus number was wrong, but we did take a nice stroll (and climb) through some lovely residential parts of Buda–the hillier side of Budapest.  Fortunately the caves were very cool, but also a little dank and wet (big surprise!)  On a more serious note, the people of Budapest lived in the caves during bombing in World War II and even created a hospital in them, so it must have been a very difficult and scary place to be. 

Also interesting was the installation piece called the “Panthenon.”  I’m going to have to read more about this to understand the artists’ intent.  There were lots of everyday items on display in ice cubes and in the rocks of the wall, plus some carved into ancient dolomite rocks.  Note the cellphone and Coke bottle…

Afterwards, we came out by the Fishermans’ Bastion and ate a little bit while admiring the view of Pest–the more modern and flat part of the city.  Prices here are quite reasonable and I was lucky enough to watch some impromptu folk dancing by a girl next to me while I ate.

In other news, I finally have my own hair dryer and won’t need to keep signing out one of only three the hotel has…

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