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Gypsies, heroes and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The Romani or Romany or Gypsies originally hailed from northern India it’s believed, and their overall population seems nigh-impossible to determine given uncertainties about heritage – gypsiness can no more be measured by DNA than Australianess. It’s estimated for example that there are between about 600,000 and 2 million Roma (another moniker) in Romania (no relation), and the figures are even stretchier for the USA, an apparently favourite destination in recent times. A people with no country and no desire for one, the ultimate internationalists. This sense of not belonging, of camp life and lightness on the ground, that’s attractive, but the inwardness, the apparent indifference to those not of their own, to the world of progress and development, that’s not quite repellant but unnerving – a challenge to renovation, modernity and the primacy of the individual. Where do I stand on these people with a reputation for scavenging and thieving, but also proof against the lure of property, investment and accumulation? I stand for diversity, I think, but there’s more. Since I was young I’ve felt and mostly enjoyed a sense of rootlessness, and a home of my own, supposedly the aspiration of every right-thinking Australian, has never been on my agenda. And as for being Australian, I only became one officially to get a passport to travel, and to return to where I have work waiting for me. So much for my gypsy traits, but the big difference is that I’m not an inward-facing ethnic-group member, more an outward-facing solitary, who admittedly enjoys the advantages of being loosely affiliated with a dominant culture.

Enough about me, back to Heroes’ Square where we wandered around in one group among many listening to our tour guide touching lightly on the soi-disant heroes of the nation, and particularly King Istvan (Stephen) I, the first Christian king, and so obviously the first real king, of Hungary, or the Magyars, or whatever. He was crowned, or anointed or whatever by the pope in 1000, and we gathered around a very macho central column atop of which was perched the Archangel Gabriel holding in one hand Stephen’s crown and in the other the apostolic cross, ‘saint’ Stephen’s symbol. He became a saint by converting to Christianity apparently, and thereby making his subjects Christians instanter.

Heroes’ Square is on the flat Pest side of the river, and we next travelled over to the hill-sown Buda side. The two sides only came to form one city in 1873, but now, according to Daily Cruiser, it’s seen as the queen of the Danube, a city that embraces the river with its many bridges. In the distance are I think the Carpathians. I love these European names from my reading youth and my fantasies, and this is where my story so differs from Wallace’s, apart from every other detail, because this was a European river cruise not a journey into the heart of a Bermuda-triangular darkness of Americana, and Europe’s a kind of mind-numbingly interesting place to scratch the surface of.

Buda is the upscale side of the river, and it’s geographically more impressive, though the Pest side has the university, the national museum and such, and seems to be a more lively cafe-arts hub. We crossed one of the bridges to Buda while our guide regaled us about the Emperor Franz Josef and his beautiful melancholic spouse. This was the first of a series of tales and mentions of FJ’s interminable reign by our various guides through the Austro-Hungarian region, and I wondered, here in a mildly crumbling Budapest, whether it made them feel still nostalgically proud to have been at the heart of a relatively recent Austro-Hungarian Empire. But our current guide seemed also heartwarmed in informing us that FJ never cared for Budapest, nor Budapest for him, so it was also the first mention of a series of local-national tensions among the denizens around these river courses, tensions that probably went back to the Thirty Years’ War and beyond, stuff I was intrigued by but keen to dismiss.

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

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Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2016 at 8:57 am

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