A Fatal Distraction – Bela Kun Memorial:  The Masses & The Movement (For The Love of Hungary Part 50)

It has been my experience that the most meaningful art exhibitions are those where I find myself drawn to a singular work that personalizes the experience and leads to a deeper connection. This connection is something that is hard to explain. It is that moment when you feel something transcendent and unexplainable. This happened to me in the least likely of places, Memento Park in Budapest. My first reaction to most of the statues and sculptures on display was one of curiosity and opposition. Curiosity, because I always wondered how the supersized statues and sculptures from the communist Eastern Bloc countries looked up close and personal. After making the rounds in the Statue Park portion of the site, I realized just how impersonal communism and the remnants of its propaganda were. Each piece was like ideology on steroids. It was hard to feel a personal connection with something so harsh and unforgiving. Communism was a force to be reckoned with and that force was applied to its extremity.

A Fatal Distraction - The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

A Fatal Distraction – The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

Radical & Revolutionary – An Opportunist Extraordinaire
Amid all the thrusting fists, muscular chests and exacting expressions, I searched increasingly in vain for something to which I might feel a connection. Communism as a governing ideology and socialist-realist art were just not my thing. Trying to find the humanity amid concrete, bronze and granite that had been shaped and sculpted into scowls was nearly impossible. I had trouble finding any semblance of humanity amid the sterility of Statue Park. That was until I found myself standing before the Bela Kun Memorial. Humanity and Bela Kun would usually be viewed as diametrically opposed ideas. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party, then later declared and led the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This short lived “Red Republic” lasted only 133 chaotic days. That period was long enough to convince most Hungarians that Kun was not the answer to their problems. If anything, he was the cause of further calamities.

Kun, the son of an alcoholic Transylvania notary, grew up on the edge of poverty. He pursued a less than successful career as a pseudo-reform minded journalist prior to the outbreak of World War I. It was the war which made him into a professional revolutionary. After being captured on the Eastern Front, he spent time in a Russian prisoner of war camp becoming completely radicalized during the process. Once freed, he fought with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. After proving his revolutionary credentials, Kun was sent back to Hungary with a large sum of money in November 1918 to foment revolution. He soon got himself thrown into prison, but the Social-Democrat Karolyi government was such a disaster that Kun was plucked from his cell and given control over the levers of power. The consequences of communist rule would turn out to be worse than that of the Socialists.  Kun was an opportunist extraordinaire. He took advantage of the chaos and confusion that beset postwar Hungary in his rise to power.

Red Tide Rising - Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Toeing The Party Line
Kun’s short-lived reign is best known for Red Terror, collapse on the military front and administrative incompetence. Kun’s government tried to nationalize nearly everything, expropriated land and businesses while managing to alienate most of the population. He was forced to leave the country when his government crumbled. It was a calamitous start for communism in Hungary. Kun’s legacy was a chaotic one that most would have liked to forget. He ended up back in the Soviet Union, where he first presided over the killing of thousands of anti-Bolshevik prisoners of war and then became a point man for oppression of the Crimean Tatars which resulted in more death and destruction. Kun ended up an official in the Comintern (Communist International) before he was arrested during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930’s. He was secretly executed in Moscow. In a dark irony, Kun was consumed by the same violence he had conjured throughout his life.

Kun was persona non grata until rehabilitated by the communists after the De-stalinisation campaign during the Khrushchev era. He was the closest thing to an iconic Hungarian communist founding father. As such he was venerated in many circles all the way up through the waning days of communist rule. A monument meant to glorify Kun was commissioned on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The artist selected to create it was Imre Varga, one of Hungary’s greatest sculptors. Varga was not the usual ideologue chosen for rigid adherence to the party line. He was skilled in the use of a variety of materials portraying a wide range of historical figures. His Bela Kun Memorial was less an honorific than a commentary on Kun and the effect of his ideals on the masses. It also happens to be the most memorable work of sculpture I have ever seen.

An Opportunist Extraordinaire - Bela Kun

An Opportunist Extraordinaire – Bela Kun

Lethal Roles – A Fatal Distraction
Varga’s sculpture captures the essence of Kun and his power to persuade others to action. He is portrayed as both a leader and strangely detached figure. He seemingly floats above the workers and soldiers set out below him. His left arm is outstretched and in it he holds his hat in hand, using the hat to implore the men onward. These men are packed closely together. They only look forward, taking no notice of Kun. Amid the metal clad soldiers, there are grim workers moving along with the mass. These men are headed off to war. A lamppost rises close to Kun. Some have seen this as a reminder of the gallows, the possibility of death looming above the entire scene.

The sculpture astonished me. I felt the magnetic pull of men headed off to do battle, thrust forward by a figure they do not even notice. The power of being swept up in a historical moment has overcome the men and it overcame me. For once, I felt the true power of a revolutionary movement. It was quite extraordinary that the sculpture could make me feel this way, since I believe everything Kun stood for to be horribly wrong. Subsequent history bore this out. That truth did nothing to take away from the Memorial’s attraction. I felt the power of the man, the masses and the moment. This was more than a Memorial it was the essence of a movement. Kun was the lead actor in this movement, while the soldiers and workers played a vital part. Tragically, these roles ended up costing them their lives.

Reversal of Fortunes – Ostapenko: Parleying With Fate & Fortune (For The Love of Hungary Part 49)

When I asked my future wife if she wanted to visit Memento Park with me, the answer was a resounding “No!” She followed her negative reply with, “Why would I want to go see those statues we were forced to look at for years?” This was a line of irrefutable reasoning. Only later would I learn the magic name that might have defeated her resistance, “Ostapenko.” That name is bound to elicit a certain amount of nostalgia for those Hungarians born prior to the end of the Cold War. If there is such a thing as Ostalgie, (German nostalgia for aspects of communism in East Germany) in Hungary, then Ostapenko certainly heads up the list. For multiple generations of Hungarians, “Ostapenko” conjured up pleasurable memories of departures for holidays at Lake Balaton or their arrival back home in Budapest.

A statue by this name stood prominently for over forty years on the southwestern fringes of the city in the 11th district. It was located at the junction of Budaors utca and Balaton utca, making it an unforgettable landmark for successive generations of Hungarians. Motorists and their passengers would see the bronze statue of a soldier dressed in great coat and holding aloft a flag. This was an unintentional signal that they were on their way to Balaton or perhaps Vienna. Conversely, it might mean that they were almost home. This was ironic since the man whom the statue was named after never completed his own journey. And for that reason, Ostapenko was sanctified in stone.

Brothers In Arms - Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Brothers In Arms – Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Right of Refusal – The Logic Of a Madman
Ilja Ostapenko was by present-day standards, Ukrainian not Hungarian. In 1944 he was a Soviet citizen and captain in the Red Army. Ostapenko was fighting, along with hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers, in the campaign to take Budapest. By December 29, 1944, Soviet forces had surrounded the city and put it under siege for nearly a week. This was the beginning of a very long, involved and ultraviolent process whereby the Soviets would spend several months attempting to destroy the Hungarian and German forces defending the city, but the Battle of Budapest did not have to turn out the way it did. In the last days of December, Captain Ostapenko was chosen to parley with German forces to present – by Soviet standards – rather lenient terms of surrender. Hungarian soldiers were to be released almost immediately and German troops eventually repatriated. Food and medical care were offered as well.

It was a deal only a madman could refuse. The problem was that Adolf Hitler had declared that Budapest be declared a fortress city. Both German and Hungarian forces were ordered to hold out at all costs and fight until the bitter end. This was a strategy based on cynicism. The Third Reich’s self-interest demanded it. The idea was to delay the inevitable offensive against Germany for as long as possible while weakening Soviet forces. The upshot was the sacrifice of the Hungarian capital along with countless lives. Ostapenko’s mission was fraught with danger. He, along with two others, would have to travel through the no man’s land dividing the respective forces. The same mission was given to Captain Miklos Steinmetz on the southeastern approach to Budapest. Both missions were to end in tragedy.

A Legend Before His Time - Captain Ilja Ostapenko

A Legend Before His Time – Captain Ilja Ostapenko

Live Targets – Powerful Pieces of Propaganda
At the German lines Ostapenko and two other Soviet envoys were blindfolded and driven to the 8th SS Calvary Division’s headquarters atop Gellert Hill. There Ostapenko presented the terms of surrender to the division’s commanding officer. These were then relayed to the overall German commander, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch. While he awaited an answer, Ostapenko engaged in some idle chit chat with the Germans. The negative reply from Pffefer-Wildenbruch took almost an hour. At this point Ostapenko and the two Soviet soldiers who had accompanied him prepared to depart. The Germans offered the Soviet delegation soda water to quench their thirst. After this brief respite, the Soviets began the same perilous journey they had just undertook, only this time in reverse.

Ostapenko, his men and the German officer accompanying them soon began to encounter artillery fire coming from the Soviet side. The German officer told Ostapenko that he should wait with him until the shellfire ceased. Ostapenko was adamant that he must deliver the negative reply as soon as possible to the Soviet command. At that point, the German officer bid him farewell. Ostapenko’s duty-bound zealousness ended up costing him his life when three shells exploded nearby, followed by a hail of bullets. Ostapenko dropped to the ground dead. In a bit of tragic irony, just before he was killed Ostapenko reputedly told one of the Soviet soldiers with him that “It looks as if we’ve made it. We’ve been lucky once more.” Ostapenko had spoken a second to soon.  Captain Steinmetz suffered the same fate. He was killed in extremely questionable circumstances. The Soviets would blame the Germans for the killing of both men.

The purported German murders of Ostapenko and Steinmetz would become the standard line in communist Hungary throughout the Cold War. Others believed the opposite, that the Soviets ordered the deliberate murders of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz. A more likely scenarios was that they were both killed by accident. Proper communication was lacking and confusion rampant between the two sides. The Soviets wasted no time propagandizing the death of Ostapenko, going so far as to fake a photo of a body amid battle debris. This photograph has long since been disproven.  Nonetheless, the deaths of Ostapenko and Steinmetz were powerful pieces of propaganda that would prove useful long after the war was over.

Giving Signals - The Ostapenko Statue

Giving Signals – The Ostapenko Statue (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Beloved Figures – The Long Afterlife
Statues in memory of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz were erected in the respective areas where they met their ultimate fates. Only after the Iron Curtain fell were the two statues placed in proximity to one another in Memento Park. They now occupy a prominent space at the back of the park. These are probably the only statues in the park that most Hungarians enjoy seeing. This is especially true for Ostapenko who became a beloved figure, despite or perhaps because few cared what his original mission had been. Ostapenko came to be viewed as a playfully iconic figure, one who was signaling to passing motorists. What Ostapenko might have thought of the strange turn of events that helped him achieve iconic status in Hungary is anyone’s guess. Ostapenko’s place in history turned out to be less as a peacemaker and more a roadside greeter for Hungarians. In forty years, he had gone from occupying a space beside a roadway to a place in Hungarian hearts.

Propaganda With A Pulse – Living History at Memento Park (For The Love of Hungary Part 48)

The only temple of tyranny I have entered was at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest. The entrance to the Statue Park portion of the site managed to be both strangely familiar and frighteningly unique. It consisted of a neo-classical façade constructed out of red brick. On one side was a statue of Lenin, while on the other side was a statue of Marx and Engels. The former portrayed Lenin as serious and studious, while the latter was the only cubist statue of Marx and Engels to be found anywhere in the world. It was not surprising to find these deities of communist ideology at the entrance. Both statues were done in socialist-realist style, the pervasive and aesthetically displeasing artistic form in communist countries. Seared into the entrance gate was “One Sentence About Tyranny” by the Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes. The poem is one sentence that happens to be fifty-four stanzas long. I did not need to read any of the words to know by the way it was written that the poem was a warning.

I entered the gate with both eagerness and trepidation. Suddenly I saw the statues, sculptures, friezes, bas-reliefs and plaques scattered along dirt pathways. Each of these pieces once stood in a prominent place somewhere in Budapest, now they were reduced to the city’s fringes. The forty-two pieces on display were impressive or depressive depending upon one’s perspective and extremely charismatic. Emphasis should be placed on “extremely” because there was nothing moderate or benign about these statues. They were slanted towards a single ideology. Each was as unyielding as the system they glorified. Fierce faces, serious expressions and ferocious poses were their hallmarks. The figures were marshaled and ready for a fight to the finish against invisible enemies.

The Will To Power - Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

The Will To Power – Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

Twinges of Madness – The Will To Power
Photogenic was one word that immediately came to mind as I looked over the statues. The risk with viewing the contents of Statue Park this way was that they might be defined as communist kitsch. These statues were nothing of the sort. They were harbingers of a life and death struggle. Back in their day, each one reigned supreme over the squares, streets and sidewalks of Budapest. A constant reminder to the masses of what their rulers stood for or against. The pieces were propaganda with a pulse. They died a slow death over many decades. Now they were buried above ground for curious onlookers such as myself to spend time scrutinizing.

One of the most interesting pieces for me was a statue of a half Lenin beside a frieze of soldiers lying on their sides. Lenin was only visible from the waist up, his face grave and determined. I could sense a snarl lurking behind his expression. From the looks of it, he seemed to be in the process of delivering his usual revolutionary rhetoric. To the side of him were soldiers and workers lying flat upon the ground. I imagined this for what it was not meant to be, a metaphor for the millions who were laid low by the revolution Lenin worked so tirelessly to promulgate. There was a twinge of madness about the piece. The same could be said of Lenin’s dream of worldwide revolution which turned lethal for those who followed his words with deeds. It eventually became a nightmare for almost everyone infected with communist zeal. One could not look at such a piece of art and feel anything other than fervor, discontent and the will to power.

Frontal Assault - Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

Frontal Assault – Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

A Pantheon of Has Beens – The Presence of a More Recent Past
One of the more disconcerting aspects in Statue Park were the many pieces on display of officials and personages who I had never heard of before. At the front entrance had been those who were synonymous with communism, but scattered about the park were more anonymous personages. I consider myself rather well read on the communist era in Hungarian history, but some of those glorified in stone had more in common with missing persons than they did the Kadar’s, Rakosi’s and Nagy’s of that era.  These included such low level luminaries as Ede Chlepko (one of the founders of the Hungarian Communist Party who ended up dying in a Soviet prison), Janos Asztalos and Kalman Turner who both died while fighting for the communist party in the 1956 Revolution) and Robert Kreutz (his most notable trait was passing out leaflets and getting himself shot by the Germans in 1944). There were several more of these heroes who used to be glorified. Here was a pantheon of has beens. Usually they met a violent end. It was hard to find anyone who lived past the age of 60. Communism was hard on the masses, it was often worse for its heroes.

Some of the statues on display were of such force that it was hard not to have an emotional reaction when confronted with them. The one that looked most furious to me was the Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic, which portrayed a man running with full force, his fists thrust outward while he gave a full-throated scream. In his left fist he gripped what looked like a scarf, but more likely was a banner. The energy and dynamism of this statue was highly impressive. This was the pose of a zealot rushing toward revolution. The revolution certainly did not falter for lack of belief or motivation. The forty-two pieces on display all seemed rather lonely figures despite being surrounded by their fellow travelers. Propaganda taken out of context from the political passion and turmoil which gave rise to it was rather hard for me to comprehend.

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Silent Witnesses – Shaking Hands & Fists
Of course there were statues of soldiers. They looked solid, committed and ready for battle. Perhaps the most important of these from a historical standpoint were part of the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial. The Memorial consisted of two figures, a Soviet soldier and a Hungarian worker. The Soviet soldier offered his hand in “friendship”, but his posture was restrained while the Hungarian worker grasped the Soviet soldier’s hand with both of his own. The Soviets were obviously in charge. The memorial was completed in 1956. With the failure of the Hungarian Revolution that autumn, it was obvious the Soviets were going stay in charge. Their continued occupation led to the creation of even more statues, many of which still stand today as silent witnesses at Memento Park.

An Era Of Terror – Memento Park: “Stalin’s Boots” in Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 47)

Any park that has as its centerpiece “Stalin’s Boots”, is bound to demand your attention. In this case, “Stalin’s Boots” were not made for walking, they were made for trampling. Trampling the hopes and aspirations of Hungarians until one incredible day in October 1956 the people had enough. That was when the massive statue of Stalin was pulled down. Along with it went hardline Stalinism in Hungary. It would eventually be replaced by “Goulash Communism”. One of the most powerful photos from that historic day shows Stalin’s giant head laying on the ground. This was the face plant felt round the world. The only thing still standing of that Stalin was his boots. The massive symbol of Soviet might had been cut down to size.

“Stalin’s Boots” became an iconic and ironic symbol of a stagnant, stolid system that was stuck in place. For no Stalin ever appeared again in Hungary to fill those boots. Like the communist system, “Stalin’s Boots” could still stand on their own, but the menace that filled them had disappeared. In its place, were straw men, invisible men, who no longer dictated, but decreed and directed. The power of Stalin’s boots was the period it evoked. The era of terror, total control and all-consuming fear that gripped Hungary from 1948 to 1956 came screaming to a halt during the Hungarian Revolution until the uprising was put down by Soviet forces. The power of those boots and that dark history can be felt on a visit to Memento Park. This is where “Stalin’s Boots” joins a sobering series of magnificently awful communist era sculptures set aside in a park unlike any other I have ever visited.

An Arresting Reminder - Stalin's Boots at Memento Park

An Arresting Reminder – Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Discarded Detritus – Communist Curios On A Superhuman Scale
When the iron curtain fell, so did thousands of statues all over Eastern Europe. Hundreds of these were pulled down in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. The pantheon of communist heroes such as Lenin and Marx, a wide range of local apparatchiks, fierce looking soldiers and joyful workers were pulled down. They were replaced by a whole new cast of characters, democratic, capitalist and aristocratic heroes began to reappear in the same squares where many of them had once stood decades earlier. The understandable reaction among the Hungarian populace that had labored under totalitarianism was to have the communist era statues discarded once and for all time. Yet this was also history that could not be wiped away so easily. These same sculptures and statues not only represented a failed system, they also represented the past. One that in the heady rush to freedom and democracy most of the population wanted to forget.

The dustbin of history during the early 1990’s was overflowing with the discarded detritus of totalitarian set pieces. A few brave Hungarian voices in Budapest stated that the statues should be set aside and interpreted for what they were, communist propaganda etched, carved and written in stone. These people understood that an important part of the past would be lost if these set pieces were not preserved. In the nation’s capital, a novel idea took root. Rather than destroy propaganda from the recent past that had pockmarked the cityscape, they would instead be moved to an open-air museum and placed in proximity to one another. Tourists would be welcome to visit what most Hungarians would rather forget. It would be a trove of communist curios all on a superhuman scale.

A Revolutionary Reappraisal - Lenin still standing

A Revolutionary Reappraisal – Lenin still standing

An Arresting Reminder – Meet The Parents
For me, as for the 40,000 tourists who annually visit Memento Park, getting there was not exactly easy. The park is nowhere near the city center. Instead it requires a bus trip to the distant southwestern suburbs of Buda where the park stands in a former farm field. I made my way to the park by first taking a tram to Kelenfold Train Station where I then picked up one of the buses that regular travel the route. Onboard the bus, I noticed that the passengers were almost all locals. I would not hear a word of English spoken on the 20 minute ride. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand when I first boarded and said “Memento Park” while pointing at myself. I assumed that he would notify me when we arrived at the correct stop. That is exactly what happened twenty minutes later.

Departing from the bus, I found myself along what could have been any highway in the countryside. Budapest seemed a long way from here even though the city center was only five kilometers away. The development was not nearly as dense out here along the city’s periphery. I quickly walked across Highway 7 towards the park. I was almost immediately greeted by a strange sight. On the right side of the road were two wooden barracks that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a labor camp and strategically placed near the entrance to Memento Park. The barracks acted as an arresting reminder of where communism often ended up.

A Recent Memory - Memento Park

A Recent Memory – Memento Park

No Laughing Matter – The Power To Destroy
Between the two barracks I could see “Stalin’s Boots”. This reproduction was not an exact replica of the original, but the model sufficed. Of note, was the austere concrete platform where communist officials would have stood with Stalin’s presence hovering over them, a figure of towering and unassailable omnipotence. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those who stood as I did below the platform peering up at the massive sculpture. The statue and platform were an awe-inspiring symbol of vile statecraft. Hungarians were forced to look up to Stalin just as he was looking down upon them. He held the power of life and death over them.

I then turned around to enter the open-air museum portion of the park where 42 statues and sculptures stood. Looking at the open-air museum, I felt a sense of irony. It was like viewing the world’s largest advertisement for failure. Yet communism and its remnants were no laughing matter. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lost their lives and/or their livelihoods due to a system that sacrificed the individual for the state, substituted human creativity for mind numbing conformity and demanded the subjugation of the masses in pursuit of a twisted dystopia. Viewing these statues and contemplating what they stood for begged the question: If communists were trying to represent heaven on earth than I could only wonder what would have been their idea of hell.

A Land That Lives By Its Own Rules – Kecskemet (For The Love of Hungary Part 44)

Of the nine cities in Hungary with a population of one hundred thousand or more, Kecskemet can lay claim to the most sublimely remote location. The city is located out on the southern Great Plain amid a netherworld of ever-expanding agricultural fields, pancake flat steppe land and horizons that provoke thoughts of forever. Sand and soil were the defining traits of this region for generations. Modern agricultural techniques were the only thing that saved the area from becoming a Hungarian Sahara. The rather recent, at least in historical terms, agricultural cultivation of this land did little to ameliorate the effect of a rail ride into a county (Bacs-Kiskun) that has less than a hundred meters of elevation change throughout the area in which Kecskemet is located. The city itself comes on like a mirage, materializing an hour and 22 minutes by train outside of Budapest. The length of travel time is deceptive. Budapest seems like it could not possibly be that close or for that matter exist at all. Such was the landscape’s effect upon my perception of time and distance that I felt as though I had entered a land that lived by its own rules.

The Midpoint of Nowhere - Landscape around Kecskemet

The Midpoint of Nowhere – Landscape around Kecskemet (Credit: Csepege)

The Mid-Point Of Nowhere – Pass Through Country
Location meant everything to the historical development of Kecskemet. The city stands at the exact mid-point between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, halfway between Szeged and Budapest. Hungary is much too small to have fly over country like the Great Plains of the United States. Nonetheless, it has plenty of pass through country in its eastern portions. Kecskemet could be called the capital of pass through country. On my journey, I got the feeling that Kecskemet was a thousand miles from anywhere. One hundred kilometers on the Great Plain, was equivalent to ten in northern or western Hungary. Sky, grass, turned up earth and belts of trees were the only things marking what must have been a limitless horizon in prior centuries. The cultivation of trees till could not hide the growth of sky which was by far the most dramatic feature of the landscape. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes in this land.

It was with a fair amount of relief that I arrived in Kecskemet. The journey seemed to take much longer than I imagined. Upon my arrival, I had the disconcerting feeling that this was the kind of place I was never meant to visit. It was Hungarian through and through. Gone was the cosmopolitan air of Budapest, a provincial spirit pervaded Kecskemet. The Magyar tongue was the only language I heard spoken on the streets. There was an insular quality to this city, made more so by its seeming isolation. I hoped that whatever attractions the city might hold would be of greater interest than its immediate surroundings. I suspected that Kecskemet’s size and importance were due to its role as a large center of trade and commerce somewhere in this outer Hungarian space. Population, agriculture, pastoralism and the conduct of human affairs demanded as much. In that sense, Kecskemet was much like another metropolis of the Great Hungarian Plain, Debrecen. Both were surrounded by spaces that demanded a center. Kecskemet would turn out to have an astonishingly vibrant one.

Coming Into Its Own - Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century

Coming Into Its Own – Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century (Credit: Ferenc Somorjai)

Shifting Wasteland – From Existential To Environmental Crisis
I assumed that Kecskemet’s history was pockmarked with the excesses of Ottoman Turkish occupation. This was true to a lesser extent when compared to most other places on the Great Hungarian Plain. As the Ottoman war machine surged northward it laid waste to outlying settlements. Refugees fled to Kecskemet. Its population was swelled further when it gained protected status. Because of its role as a market town and trade center, Kecskemet came under the Sultan’s direct control. Any taxes paid went to the pasha of Buda and Ottoman treasury. Other areas on the southern Great Plain were not so lucky. Corrupt military commanders ruled in what was known as the Spahi system, where their income was derived directly from squeezing the land and business owners in the areas under their rule. Conversely, the Sultan and his administrators held a vested interest in Kecskemet which kept the town under the rule of law and relatively prosperous. This meant the town continued to undergo development rather than destruction during a century and a half of Ottoman rule.

An environmental rather than an existential crisis buffeted the city during the 18th century threatening its commercial livelihood. Tens of thousands of cattle grazed the surrounding steppe land until its already sandy soils were reduced to shifting wastelands. The pastoral economy completely collapsed. It took almost a century for the region’s economy to recover. A vigorous campaign to re-vegetate the Great Plain surrounding Kecskemet was encouraged by a massive tree and vine planting program. This led to the development of fruit orchards and vineyards. The cultivation of apricots was perhaps the most notable offshoot of this economic reorientation. Kecskemet soon became the center of production for Hungary’s delicious apricot brandy. In addition, the sandy soils proved to be the best defense against phylloxera, a nasty insect which caused vine rot across Hungary. Phylloxera devastated the country’s wine growing regions during the late 19th century. Vines entrenched in the sand in the area around Kecskemet proved immune. Production soared to meet demand. The led the city’s economy to a commensurate expansion.

Stopping Point - Kecskemet Railway Station

Stopping Point – Kecskemet Railway Station (Credit: B.Zsolt)

Architectural Inspiration – An Exotic Jewel Box
The redevelopment of the surrounding landscape from pastoralism to viticulture, orchards and cropland brought prosperity to thrifty landowners. This newly acquired wealth led to the construction of public and private buildings in the city center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of Hungary’s most magnificent examples of Art Nouveau architecture were constructed during this time. These buildings have become Kecskemet’s calling card for visitors. As I was about discover, the city’s downtown was marked by a spaciousness clustered around four interconnected squares showcasing Art Nouveau inspired wonders. The astonishingly exotic buildings could not fail to impress precisely because they were beyond the modest expectations anyone might conjure up for the city. Kecskemet was more than a large city in the middle of nowhere, it was a self-contained jewel box filled with treasures from a time when architecture was informed by the most spectacular manifestations of creativity. Those manifestations would be the highlight of my visit to the city.

 

 

A Confrontation With Mortality – Memento Mori In Vac: Death Becomes Us (For The Love of Hungary Part 41)

Vac was clean, lively and laid back. Its squares were filled with those enjoying a sun filled sky as early autumn took hold. The cluster of churches in the city center was well worth visiting. The town’s most lasting architectural attributes had come from the Baroque era, one of the more positive and peaceful eras in Hungarian history. This made Vac seem even more welcoming than it already was. Thus, it was shocking that the town’s most notable attraction lay beneath all the happiness of Vac’s city center. The one attraction most likely to lure a tourist out from Budapest and up to Vac was dark, cold and hidden away. It was with a sense of curious trepidation that I made my way to the Memento Mori.

Crypts were never my thing. They are always chilling, both physically and metaphorically. The descent into them begins with a rush of cool air that starts off as refreshing, quickly becomes bracing and always ends up stifling. The heavy, moist air does not help matters. This is accompanied by a weighty silence, the soundtrack to mortality. One gets a feeling that death is just around the corner, as it inevitably is. I always get the feeling that something terrible is going to happen in a crypt, but it already has. The life went out of these spaces long ago. At least that had been my experience in prior visits to crypts. The Memento Mori in Vac changed my opinion of what a crypt could be. I would soon discover that the crypt was as much about life as death. It would also cause me to confront mortality.

Hidden Passageway - The Dominican Church in Vac

Hidden Passageway – The Dominican Church in Vac

Rediscovering The Dead – Memory Bank
In 1994 during restoration work on the Dominican Church in the center of Vac, construction workers discovered a vaulted crypt that had been bricked off for over 150 years. They had made an astonishing discovery. Inside were 265 stacked, hand painted coffins of parishioners, priests, nuns and others who had been buried there between 1731 and 1839. Then somehow the crypt was all but forgotten. Because the temperature and relative humidity inside the crypt were stable, the deceased were mummified. 166 of the corpses were in such good condition that they could be positively identified. Even more intriguing than the corpses were the clothes and jewelry that adorned each one. They were dressed in period clothes, wore rosaries and other accoutrements offering ethnographers a treasure trove of details concerning the life and customs of Vac’s inhabitants during the Baroque era.

Incredibly, every one of the 266 coffins discovered was unique. A variety of symbols were painted on them to represent the lives of the deceased. These included quotes and bible verses in Hungarian, German and Latin that acted as epitaphs and remembrances. The coffins and clothes were symbols of life, offering a different take on death and how it was perceived two centuries ago. All but three of the corpses are now in storage at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest where they have been scrutinized down to the most intimate details. Scientists studying the mummies uncovered evidence of tuberculosis which raged in Baroque era Vac. This was caused by people moving from the countryside into town. The information gleaned from the mummified remains has been a boon for scientists. This has helped them learn about tuberculosis before antibiotics were available.

Grave Misgivings - Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Grave Misgivings – Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Freeze Frame – State Of Preservation
The three mummies and coffins on display at the Memento Mori were representative of the entire discovery. These included a male, female and an infant. As I began the “tour” which was little more than being led downstairs into the crypt, I was told that photos were not allowed. I certainly did not have any problem with this rule. Almost immediately, a creepy, voyeuristic feeling came over me as though I were entering a mysteriously ancient morgue that mortals were not supposed to visit. The atmosphere in the crypt was quiet and funereal, just as one might imagine. The problem for me in the crypt was that it forced me not so much to confront the corpses and coffins on view, as much as it did my own mortality. I discerned right away that this was where we were all headed. Maybe not to a crypt bricked up beneath a Baroque Church, but to our own silent, cold graves. The effect was multiplied once I peered inside the wooden coffins at the inhabitants dressed in their finery.

It is slightly disconcerting to peer into a wooden coffin and see a woman’s skull wearing a bonnet. My initial reaction was one of horrific bemusement. The bonnet covered skull sounds was like something out of a 1950’s horror film. In another coffin was a was man who had gone by the surname Martinovics. I distinctly remember his name for a reason that I will never quite fathom. Looking at the man and woman I was shocked. So this was what dead people looked like semi-preserved. It was hard to imagine a living soul had ever inhabited their bodies. While his clothing was colorful, the body of Martinovics looked fragile, as though he might crumble at any moment. Was this really going to be me one day? That thought was interrupted by a more disturbing one. This would be me, but only if I was lucky enough to be preserved.

Confrontation With Mortality - Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

Confrontation With Mortality – Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

A Silent Scream – Saving The Worst For Last
The memory of Martinovics was not what would come to haunt me from that visit. I managed to save the worst for last. When I peered into the third coffin, I was suddenly confronted by a horrifying scene. In a small coffin lay the skeleton of a small infant. What caused me to recoil was the opening where the infant’s mouth had been. It formed the outline of a scream. This was beyond my capacity to process. This sight filled me at first with terror, then pain. I knew infant mortality had been inordinately high in centuries past, but the reality of a single death was brought home to me in the moment I looked at that infant. There in front of me was the reality of life and death two centuries ago in Hungary. Suddenly I realized that it was still a reality today. Many things have changed over the centuries, but death has not. That was my final impression of Memento Mori.

 

An Era Of Perceived Greatness – Komarno & Klupka’s Square (For The Love of Hungary Part 39)

The Danube River is a great watery ribbon that acts as a connecting thread through a large swath of Europe. It connects Central with Eastern Europe, the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, the Black Forest from its beginning to the Black Sea at its end. The river is a natural phenomenon that has a unifying effect on disparate peoples. Germans, Magyars and Slavs can all identify with the river they respectively refer to as the Donau, Duna and Dunaj. Where else in Europe can a river be found that touches the lives of both Bavarians and Bulgars? Only the Danube has a foothold that ranges from Mitteleuropa to the Balkans with the Carpathian Basin squeezed in between for good measure.

Border Control - The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

Border Control – The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

A Fluid Border – The Natural Dividing Line
I never thought of the Danube as a divider, at least not until I arrived on its southern shore in the Hungarian town of Komarom (pop. 18,000). Just across the river in Slovakia stands what might be called its bigger brother, Komarno (pop. 33,000). During the late 19th century, Ujszony (present day Komarom, Hungary) was the town located on the south side of the river while Komarom (present day Komarno, Slovakia) was a small city on the northern side of the river. In 1896, the two were combined into a single municipality. This was logical since both sides of the river were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. That would change radically after the First World War. The Danube suddenly became the southern border of Czechoslovakia, leaving 750,000 Hungarians who lived north of it in what they considered a foreign nation. Either side of the Danube became a controlled border. The river made a natural dividing line to demarcate the boundary between the two nations. That division, though much softer than it was during most of the 20th century, can still be felt today.

The only reason I felt it necessary to pay a visit Komarom was due to the massive fortress, the largest in Hungary and one of the largest in all of Europe, which stands on its outskirts. It is part of a militarized complex built by the Austrians during the mid-19th century that once straddled the Danube in this area. Before visiting the fortress, I could not help but walk across the elegant four span, steel truss, Elisabeth-Danube bridge which connects the northern and southern banks of the river. The fact that I could saunter across the bridge uninhibited was one of those miracles of post-Cold War history now taken for granted. Hungary and Slovakia might still have their differences, but accession to the European Union in 2002 collapsed border controls between the two nations. This had the effect of reconnecting Komarom and Komarno in a way they had not been since the early 20th century. It also allowed me to walk across the bridge, crossing over from one nation to the next in a mere five minutes. This would have been unimaginable only twenty-five years before. What some might call unrestricted access is what I would call progress.

Say That Again - Trilingual sign in Komarno

Say That Again – Trilingual sign in Komarno

Downside Up – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Once I had set foot on the Slovak side, it was not long before the two town’s dueling identities were on display. The first sign I saw after crossing the bridge was trilingual. First there was Vitame Vas! (Slovak), then Udvozoljuk Ononket! (Hungarian) and below that Welcome! A few paces further down the road were signs with the town’s name. The top one of course was in Slovak (Komarno), the lower one in Hungarian (Komarom). It was the exact opposite on the Hungarian side of the bridge. Besides the signs in Slovak, I had an eerie feeling of still being in the same country that I had just left behind. Komarno was like landing in an Eastern European version of the Twilight Zone brought to the modern world courtesy of the Treaty of Trianon.

It was only a short, but fascinating walk through the historic heart of Komarno. I was impressed with how everything was tidily kept with not a speck of rubbish to be found anywhere. The town could have been Koszeg or Kaposvar rather than Komarno, such was its resemblance to other downtowns in provincial Hungary. The most memorable area was Klapka Square, located in front of the deliciously vanilla coated Town Hall. On the western side of the square was the delicate splendor of the Zichy Palace. In the center of the square stood the statue of Gyorgy Klapka, a military hero who gained notoriety for his fearless fight beyond the finish during the Hungarian Revolution. Klapka led his troops to victory in the Fourth Battle of Komarno, the last Hungarian victory of the conflict. While all the other Hungarian forces had been defeated, Klapka held out long enough to get decent terms of surrender for his soldiers. General Klapka managed to escape into exile. Later he would return to Hungary after the Compromise that created Austria-Hungary in 1867.

An Air of Defiance - Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Air of Defiance – Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Inherent Irony – The Shifting Tides Of History
Klapka was now immortalized in bronze while soaring over everything except for the beautiful buildings that flanked three sides of the square. The statue, with the Komarno Town Hall’s tower rising directly behind, managed to make Klapka look just as heroic as his exploits. It portrayed him with a sword at the ready in one hand, while his other was balled into a fist. Klapka’s upper torso jutted out as he struck a charismatic pose of defiance. From the statue, I ascertained that Klapka was selected both for his martial exploits as well as his long record of heroic deeds. His presence evoked pride, courage and honor. Traits That I suspected the town’s Hungarian inhabitants must have seen as unique to themselves.

The statue was riveting, but also a distraction from its own inherent irony. Here was a famous Hungarian military commander towering over a town in Slovakia. This was history in more ways than someone who did not come from Hungary or Slovakia could possibly imagine. Klapka signaled the town’s ethnic Hungarian majority as much in the present as the past. He was a stand in for an era of perceived greatness. He also represented staying power. Hungary’s rule over this region long since slipped south of the Danube. Nevertheless, Hungarians still had their feet firmly planted on Slovakian soil, the shifting tides of history have yet to fully dislodge them or their history.

The Invisible Women of Hungary – A “National” Pantheon In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 36)

The architecture and design of Dom ter was exhilarating to the point of distraction. One that almost caused me to forget the first thing I noticed after entering the square. Inside the arcades that surrounded Dom ter were a series of 80 mounted busts. They featured a wide range of famous Hungarians in what was termed the National Pantheon. These included everything from physicians to musicians, poets and politicians. At first glance, the National Pantheon was a seemingly exhaustive one with the likes of Kodaly, Kos and Keleman, Bercsenyi, Bathhyany and Bathory, Ady and Arany. As I walked from bust to bust, a troubling feeling began to creep over me. While these Hungarians came from an array of backgrounds and disparate occupations, they all had one thing in common, each person represented was male.

The Old Boys Club - The National Pantheon in Szeged

The Old Boys Club – The National Pantheon in Szeged (Credit: Wikipedia)

Willful Ignorance – A Celebration Of Chauvinism
Finding a female in the National Pantheon was an exercise in futility. I searched in vain for a famous Hungarian woman. If the idea of the pantheon was to bring together the greatest contributors to Hungarian history, politics and culture than a large percentage of the population had been left with no representation. Not a single female was to be found among the eighty. The National Pantheon was a closed shop. A men’s only club, that oddly enough was not totally limited to Hungarian men. In a couple of cases there were even foreign men, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and engineer of the Chain Bridge, Scotsman Adam Clark.

There was no room in the exhibit for Franz Josef’s much more famous wife Queen Elisabeth (Empress Elisabeth of Austria or Sisi), a beloved figure for Hungarians. I have heard Elisabeth referred to as “our Queen” by more than a few Hungarians. She is rightfully exalted in Hungarian circles for her love of the people. She would have been a much better choice than her husband who imposed martial law on Hungary after the 1848 Revolution. While this was but one example, it was a particularly glaring omission. The fact that Elisabeth had been overlooked was a symptom of the overall problem, the National Pantheon was as much a celebration of chauvinism as it was of the nation’s favorite sons. Favorite daughters were nowhere to be found.

The fact that not a single woman was represented made the exhibit both alarming and irritating. It meant that half the population had been willfully ignored. From what I would later learn, the National Pantheon had been installed at the behest of Hungarian Culture Minister Kuno Klebelsburg in 1930. Klebelsburg was a virulent nationalist and anti-semite, who most have had little to no regard for the achievements of Hungarian women. Considering the time period when Klebelsburg held office, his views were not that surprising. More alarming was the fact that in the past eighty years not a single woman had been added to the Pantheon. This was an astonishing oversight, one that was either deliberate or more likely revealing. It was a not so subtle expression of the power of men and the anonymity of women in Hungary.

The Arcaded Way - Dom ter in Szeged

The Arcaded Way – Dom ter in Szeged (Credit: Berosz)

Femme Fatale – Heroines Are Hard To Find
If the National Pantheon was meant to be symbolic than the message was clear, no females need apply. I must grudgingly admit that the exhibit was effective on at least one level, it caused me to think back across my travels in the country, searching my memory for the famous females either in statuary, sculpture or naming conventions. I was struck by how few I could recall. If love is blindness than my romantic view of Hungary was blind to the reality that women were marginalized to the point of invisibility. Heroines rather than heroes were hard to find in Hungary. I had stumbled upon the original sin of omission in the country, one that left me searching for signs of famous females while asking myself exactly who should join the feted figures to round out the National Pantheon.

Right off hand, I could name only three famous Hungarian women. The folk singer Marta Sebestyen, the author Magda Szabo and the most famous Hungarian woman of all time, the infamous Elizabeth Bathory. The latter is a litmus test for power and controversy when it comes to Hungarian women. Anytime, a reputed serial killer is a nation’s most famous woman that says something about the way powerful females are viewed in that country. What many have overlooked in the hysteria surrounding Bathory’s exploits (which were grossly exaggerated) was her role as one of the most powerful people in Hungarian history, male or female. She held fortunes in land, villages and other property that were greater than that of the Habsburg emperor.

After Lady Bathory’s husband, the vaunted military commander Ferenc Nadasdy died, Bathory was left widowed and at the less than tender mercies of the male powers that be. The Habsburg King Matthias and Hungarian Palatine Gyorgy Thurzo had a vested interest in having her scandalous behavior brought to light. That is just what happened, with Bathory spending the rest of her life imprisoned and losing all of her property in the process. Did Bathory contribute enough to Hungary that she should be included in a national pantheon? Due to her murderous crimes the answer must be no. Nonetheless, she was resolutely opposed to the Turks and supported Hungarian interests at a time that they were threatened from both within and without. Not to mention the fact that Bathory had more effect on Hungary’s direction than any number of figures represented in the National Pantheon.

Invisible Woman - Rosika Schwimmer

Invisible Woman – Rosika Schwimmer (Credit: Lackner,Vienna)

Silent Voices – A Study In The Exclusionary
No other female comes close to Bathory’s fame or infamy, but other women have certainly left a lasting mark on Hungary. Take for instance, the noted feminist, suffragette and internationalist Rosika Schiwmmer. The daughter of a Budapest produce merchant, she was a pacifist at a time when war was all the rage. Schwimmer was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Switzerland following World War I. Her efforts helped Hungarian women gain limited suffrage in 1918. The communists and fascists vehemently disagreed on just about everything, except for their universal loathing of Schwimmer, which says something remarkable about her principles. She was forced into exile, but continued to fight for various causes. In 1947 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not so much surprising as it is sad that Schwimmer is not a member of the National Pantheon.

The irony of the National Pantheon is that much of it is attached to buildings that belong to the University of Szeged, an institution whose student body is majority female. Do the women studying at the University realize their marginalization is being openly presented to the public right in front of them? What are their thoughts about the impact that famous Hungarian women have had on the nation’s history, politics and culture? What females would they recommend for inclusion in the Pantheon? These questions have never been answered, let alone asked. The voices that need to speak the loudest continue to remain silent.

More Than Anyone Can Imagine – The Seduction of Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 32)

One of the most appealing aspects of travel in Hungary is the ability to make day trips to the far corners of the country from Budapest. Almost any point is accessible by rail in less than three hours. This includes all the major cities. Fancy taking a day trip to climb Sopron’s Firewatch Tower, it is a straight shot by rail only two hours and twenty-two minutes away. Want to see a magnificent example of a fin de siècle train station, hop on a train from Budapest to Miskolc and in one minute less than the time it takes to travel to Sopron you can arrive at Ferenc Pfaff’s confectionary creation. Or what about viewing the famed Reformed Church in Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome”? All it takes is an affordable train ticket to glide across the Great Hungarian Plain for two hours and thirty-five minutes on the railway to Debrecen. I found every one of these options appealing, to the point that I found myself staring at the Hungarian National Railways map in a state of barely contained rapture imagining all the dreams that could soon become a reality.

A five hour round trip train ride through the Hungarian countryside may not be for everyone, but it is my idea of travel at its finest. Passenger trains are nothing more than a novelty in the United States, but in Hungary they are the preferred mode of public transit. As such they link up every point of the compass, shuttling Hungarians across the countryside hundreds of time each day. Train travel is a way of life for many as they shuttle from city to city, village to city and village to village. For the masses in Hungary this is a necessity, whereas for me it was an opportunity to go anywhere I chose. That is how I ended up riding the rails to Szeged on a Saturday morning in late September.

On The Border - Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

On The Border – Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

Paved With Grass – The Path To Conquest
Traveling by train to Szeged offered me the opportunity to see the landscape of southeastern Hungary, which I soon learned was a yawning extension of the Great Hungarian Plain. If not for Szeged, there would be very little reason for foreign tourists to set foot in this region of sublime expanses, limitless horizons and pastoral landscapes. This is a land with no natural borders, a fact which proved of great detriment to its history. Marauding armies found little to stop them other than Hungarian forces which were dutifully cut to pieces. Once they were dispatched, these grasslands were thoroughly overrun, occupied and starved of Hungarian development for a century and a half while under the cruel administrative thumb of the Ottoman Turks.

One of the great revelations regarding the region occurred when I came across a map of Hungarian castles. Southeastern Hungary, with only one exception – Gyula Castle – showed nothing of note when it came to castles. Those that once rose from the Great Plain have long since been reduced to ruin. Their dusty residue blew away centuries ago. Rather than defend a defenseless land it was better for Hungarians to head north and west for the hills. Hundreds of settlements and tens of thousands of people disappeared from southeastern Hungary. The population density has never really recovered. This makes the city of Szeged an outlier in the region, a city of the plain that improbably sprung from the flatlands. It is an urban outpost on an otherwise unknown frontier that offers more than anyone can imagine.

Always On Time - The Szeged Train Station

Always On Time – The Szeged Train Station

Sealing The Borders – A Treaty of Transformation
A few of the things I learned about Szeged before arriving in the city were not that surprising until I considered its location. Hungarian to its core, home of the famous Pick Salami and one of the nation’s leading universities, the city’s population is 93.5% ethnic Hungarian. Nonetheless, it is located close to foreign soil. The point at which the borders of Hungary, Romania and Serbia meet is just 20 kilometers from Szeged. In terms of Hungary, Szeged is the most isolated of its largest cities. Taking a more expansive view of the area’s geography by incorporating the old Kingdom of Hungary’s borders, Szeged happens to be not nearly as isolated. The city of Subotica, which is now located in the northern extremity of Serbia, was only 50 kilometers away. The cities of Arad and Timisoara now in Romania were only a little over a hundred kilometers to the east. Like everything else in post-World War I Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon caused massive upheaval. Today a train to any of those nearby cities from Szeged can take up to six hours since none of them go there directly.

In the time it would take a passenger to ride one way to Timisoara, they could ride from Budapest to Szeged and back with time to spare. It was a good thing I was going to Szeged on this day, because trying to cross the Romanian or Serbian borders by train from Szeged is a tedious task. Szeged’s political, economic and cultural life was unmade and then transformed by Trianon. The world class university that Szeged is so proud of today, moved from Transylvania after that region became part of Romania. It also became the regional powerhouse now that all its nearby competitors were in other nations. Its geographic situation just inside the new national borders also brought about an influx of ethnic Hungarians from lands that had been lost due to Trianon. Thus, it became what it is today, the powerhouse of southeastern Hungary.

Upon Arrival - Szeged is a banner city

Upon Arrival – Szeged is a banner city

Extreme Makeover – From Flood To Flourishing
Szeged’s post-World War I makeover pales in comparison to its radical transformation due to the calamitous flooding of the Tisza River in 1879. The cityscape of Szeged that stands today, is part and parcel of a massive rebuild that occurred after the flood waters receded. The reason I had chosen Szeged for a day trip was almost entirely due to the flood of 1879. The city’s rebuilding provided a staging ground for Austro-Hungarian architectural styles. This construction took place in a period without precedent in Hungarian history. Economic growth flourished throughout the land and most prominently came to an apogee on the reconstructed streets and structures of Szeged. As the train pulled into the city’s main station, I could barely contain my excitement to see the many wonders that awaited me.

 

A Future That Never Arrives – The Road From Esztergom (For The Love of Hungary Part 31)

I arrived at the Esztergom train station to take a bus that would only get me halfway back to Budapest. This was a fitting finale to a daytrip that did not work out as planned. Esztergom had been strangely disappointing for me. It had not lived up to my grandiose imaginings of a sparkling riverside city that would serve as the setting for arguably the most important spiritual structure in all of Hungary. Everywhere I visited in the city turned out to be less than I could have ever imagined. The Basilica was too big and empty, the Castle Museum lacked anything of more than mild interest and the Maria Valeria Bridge was a replica rather than an original. The sky was gray, the river brown and the town all but dead.

It was one of those anonymous weekdays that make up much of life and so little of memory. My trip’s less than ideal beginning, with a public transport transfer and detour, turned out to be indicative of all that was to come. I spent almost the entire visit disconcerted, discombobulated and disenchanted. My opinion of the town owed much to my mindset. I went there thinking that Esztergom was so filled with greatness, that greatness would visit with me. Rather than discovering magic, I suffered the ordinary. Little did I know that my most lasting memory of Esztergom would be made just before boarding the bus taking me out of town. And it would not be a good one.

The Forever Wait - Esztergom Train Station

The Forever Wait – Esztergom Train Station (Credit: Sandor Antal)

The Life Of A Stranger – A Little Closer To Reality
His name was Robert and he was dressed quite nicely for a man about to take a short bus ride. He wore a dark dress jacket, a nice pair of slacks and button up shirt that in America would be viewed as appropriate attire for a dinner date.  He was standing close to me as we waited to board. I noticed him because he made eye contact. This was not unusual in Hungary, but to make continued eye contact was. We nodded in acknowledgment to one another as we stood among a small crowd. He came a bit closer and introduced himself. I was surprised when he began speaking to me in English. We made a bit of small talk about the inconvenience of having to take a bus rather than a train. His English was much better than that of many Hungarians.

I should not have been surprised since he could not have been much older than thirty, part of a newer, more outward looking generation. Usually I am guarded at public transport stations, but in this case the day had been such a letdown that I was willing to converse with almost anyone. It was not long before Robert was sharing his story. He tried to emigrate to Canada while searching for work. He had some family connections, but neither the education nor job skills necessary to be allowed anything more than a short-term stay. Since he was Roma, the asylum angle was worth a try. He had claimed discrimination on account of his ethnicity, stating that he could not find work in Hungary. According to him, Hungarians were not going to employ someone of Roma descent. It was nearly impossible to find a decent paying job. A career position was out of the question.

The Outsider’s Perspective – A Slight Hint Of Resignation
I was taken aback by his nonchalance when he stated this while standing among a crowd of Hungarians. I am certain that none of them understood, let alone cared, what he had to say. Nonetheless, it was more than a little bizarre to hear him say all this while keeping his emotions in check. He stated it with such calm, dispassionate reason that I was a bit shocked. There was no anger in his tone. If anything, there was only a slight hint of resignation. My only real issue with Robert was that he stood too close for comfort when talking to me. This would not have been a problem except for the putrid smell of his breath. It caused me on more than one occasion to step out of the direct line of his conversation. I was relieved when just before boarding the bus our conversation ended.

Onboard we sat several rows away from each other. Midway between Esztergom and Vac, the bus stopped. Robert got out of his seat and prepared to get off. He suddenly paused, turned around and looked me straight in the eye for a couple of seconds. He then got off the bus and disappeared forever. I still wonder to this day what has happened to him. I have a strange feeling that he is still getting off and on that same bus, standing outside trains stations or bus stops always waiting for a future that never arrives. That is what I imagine, because it is what I fear most. Not just for him, but also for me. Constantly traveling and still going nowhere, much like my trip to Esztergom.

Nowhere In Particular - Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

Nowhere In Particular – Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

The Drizzle & The Deluge – Into The Future
Once on the train back to Budapest, the grey skies which had threatened a downpour all day finally let loose. In a matter of minutes, a drizzle turned into a deluge. I stared out of water streaked windows, barely able to make anything out beyond the rivulets which coursed in trails of watery tears down the glass. Ironically my mood began to brighten. The weather may have been miserable, but I was surrounded by teenagers, at times rambunctious, at other times gossipy.

They were taking the train home from school. I had never seen a single school bus in Hungary. This was a much more accommodating substitute. I looked at all those kids oblivious to the world around them and I suddenly wished their experience had been mine. They were on their way to the outskirts of a great European capital city. These lively Magyars in miniature were enjoying an experience they could only know as normal. To be young and Hungarian, with the future in front of them. It was the opposite of Robert’s experience, one that these kids would never know. Sometimes the future is not what you make of it, but what it makes of you.