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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

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2016 at 8:57 am

still in Budapest, distracted by gypsies

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HUN-2015-Budapest-Heroes’_Square

Heroes’ Square, Budapest. Not my pic, but I was there, really

So after these introductories we had our first on-board meal in the restaurant – not gloriously-named à la the Nadir, just the restaurant, found on level 3. The lounge on level 2 was called the lounge. As far as pampering went, the restaurant was tops, though I’m no gourmand. Lots of colourful cuisine minceur dishes floated to our tables on the arms of a multicultural array of servitors whose grace and allure was surely felt as a threat to the plumper members of our party. Our first lunch, though, was a light affair as our first tour buses were approaching.

I’d already experienced Budapest twice, first through google earth and then on foot in the region around the Mercure-Korona, including the distinctly odorous riverside (distinctly less tangy from our vacuum-packed boat), so I felt a worldly iffiness about another maiden experience – my first tour bus. Again I was disarmed – our particular guide was a caustically humorous and attractive local who set us straight on Hungary’s post-war history (Hungary was on the wrong side in WW2, and suffered significant damage as a result, and I’d say it’s still in recovery mode). Yes, communism was revolting before the 1956 uprising, which was put down in typically revolting fashion, but afterwards it was clear that a softer approach was required. In fact this destalinising approach really began with Stalin’s death in ’53, and the forced resignation of Stalinist leader Rakosi, a poisonous lump of dogshit apparently. Anyway, after ’56, a seminal year in which a substantial proportion of the population fled the country, Hungary garnered some most-improved nation gongs with a high GDP and relatively relaxed censorship and travel laws and such. Nowadays the economy is supposedly doing relatively well, but relatively is a very flexible term and I’d seen plenty of dilapidation, though to be fair the ginormous and still glamorous old buildings I saw on the Pest side would’ve required busloads of money to renovate.

We got off the buses at Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) for a dose of monumentalism and Hungarian history, watered-down with plenty of wryness from our guide, but the first thing that struck me, more or less physically, as I alighted (funny word, that) was a gypsy, one of a bunch, selling some kind of colourful tea towel or scarf or whatever by flapping it in my face and babbling in rapid-fire foreigner. I don’t know if gypsy is an acceptable term these days, and of course I don’t know for sure if this woman was Romany, except that there had been word going around about a gypsy problem and that day’s Daily Cruiser, our first and the minor-key counterpart to David Wallace’s Nadir Daily, had a paragraph on pickpockets, which it deemed not much of a problem but keep your hands on your wallets in your pockets just in case, and word aboard was that pickpocket was a non-racist euphemism. So I ignored them like everyone else but of course a lot of attention has to go into not paying attention to them, and it inevitably sent my mind back twenty-five years when I attended an informal graduation dinner with some diploma of education classmates and the topic of gypsies arose big-time. The half-dozen other attendees were all female, and all were at least ten years my junior, and all had travelled in Europe. This got my back up for starters, but when the gypsy subject came up there was a rising fury of agreement about their dirtiness, creepiness, slyness and over-all despicability. Each of these fair young ladies had a story to tell, more horrorshow than the last, like Monty Python sans humour. I naturally tried to side with the underdogs and was howled down with more hair-raisingly humourless tales, and with a couple of taunts, one of them unanswerable  – ‘you need to experience it yourself’ – and the other maybe more questionable – ‘they mostly target females’. The whole experience left me stunned and thoughtful for days. Was I really sympathetic to the Romany people or just being Romantic? I realised that  I felt probably more antipathy towards my fellow-diners than anything, but that was also because they were so much younger, richer and more established than me. I was something of a gypsy in comparison.

Romany in Budapest. Again not my pic. Love the clothes

Romany in Budapest. Again not my pic. Love the clothes

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2016 at 12:37 am