an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘Budapest

Gypsies, heroes and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

leave a comment »

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

with one comment

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

first hours in Europe

with one comment

First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

We had to line up to get our passports checked, walking through a pointless zigzag of blue cordons and then we had to wait to be called by one of 3 or 4 inspectors. They all seemed admirably forensic in their analysis, which meant the queue moved very slowly, giving me ample time to scrutinise their scrutiny. I’m sure my limited knowlege of Hungary as a struggling ex-communist nation was infecting my impressions. In the eighties I had a near-fetish for so-called eastern bloc literature; Konwicki, Brandys, Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, mostly Czech and Polish writers mapping the fortunes of non-conformity under ultra-conformist regimes. But that was 30 years back in my eternal-present existence. I was finally called to a checking station by a hunched, pinched elderly woman, about whom it was easy to imagine all sorts of inhumanity, either suffered or perpetrated. She looked as if she really hated me – or her job, or foreigners, or her country, or herself. In any case she didn’t spend much time on my fresh, near-virginal passport, and handed it back with a look of profound contempt. Or maybe it was just a 50-year rictus.

So with dampened spirits we were released into a small sign-holding crowd; our assignment was to seek out the ‘Travel Marvel’ sign. Over time I discovered that the ‘travel’ tag was part of an attempt by our hosting company – half-hearted at best (which was a good thing) – to convince us that we were travellers in the tradition of Marco Polo (the notorious 13th century tourist) rather than mere tourists.

Our man with the sign was a tall balding young Hungarian who shepherded four of us into a waiting kombi van while extolling half-heartedly (or again, so it seemed) the virtues of his city. Our two fellow-travellers were also Australian, leading me to at least two discomforting prophecies; all the cruisers would be coming on two by two, and they’d all be Australian. And also, they’d all be kipping the night at our Budapest hotel. Only the third turned out a failure.

It was a longish ride into town. The back seats had no seat belts, presumably not de rigueur in Hungary. We passed through a large resi-area, its colourful houses looking decidedly run-down, their steep-sloped roofs dark with what I assumed was mould. And lots of abandoned factories, railyards and carparks jungled with vegetation. It was all very green. Closer to the centre, the buildings got more solid and Euro-impressive, an architectural style I’ve hit upon, which is basically defined as ‘not much in existence in Oz’, yet still they looked a bit neglected. I had an odd sense of the guilts about my thoughts, that I was judging the place way too harshly. The cold drizzly weather was surely affecting my judgment. There’s getting to be a real accumulation of solid evidence that such externalities as temperature affect mood and hence judgment far more than we’d like to admit.

There was nothing too dilapidated about the Mercure-Korona though. We were greeted by a charming Hungarian (presumably) damosel and taken to our ‘privileged’ bedroom suite. I don’t know why we were treated as Privileged Guests at the hotel – my TC tried to explain but I didn’t get it – but it meant not only a room with the Biggest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (didn’t take a pic as I’d not yet switched to the camera-clicking mode which is the sine qua non of the tourist), but elite breakfast in the elite dining room, set in a sort of glass bridge overlooking a mall. Budapest was looking up.

Written by stewart henderson

May 6, 2016 at 5:32 pm