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The International Writers Magazine: Travels in Hungary 1966-2007

Magyar Magic
Malcolm Hawkins

My first trip to Budapest was in 1966. I hopped on a train in Vienna and arrived four hours later at Nyugati Palyaudvar (Western Station). I have lingering memories of occasional glimpses of the Danube and a surly passport inspector, brusquely ordering an elderly gent to remove his  spectacles as he glared at the man's ID.   
 Not knowing a word of Hungarian, I made my way to Ibusz (state travel agency) and was directed to a cheap lodging, a few tram stops away. The following morning I was offered  bread with some greasy spread and paprika for breakfast. My father's position as British Council rep in Vienna smoothed the way to an embassy cocktail party, followed by an invitation  from a  secretary, on whose balcony overlooking the broad sweep of the river from the Buda hills we sipped and chatted.

Hungary then was under the Soviet boot, as it still was when I returned three times in the eighties, the longest stay being four months in 1986 with a scholarship to study the music education system founded by the great composer Zoltan Kodaly. This was an opportunity to get to know Hungarian students and teachers, marvel at how well, or how badly, they spoke English, and admired Britain, and hear the self-deprecating magyar jokes about life under communist leader Janos Kadar.

 (When God found Reagan or Brezhnev weeping, he would console them with reminders about their country's positive qualities. When God found Kadar weeping, he would sit down on the parliament steps and weep with him).

Nobody believed what they read in the newspapers. There was a rag called International News, translated into English. 'Tonight's concert', we would read, ' will be under the bottom of celebrated conductor...'

      It was ill-advised to buy anything mechanical, unless you had a personal contact or were ready to bribe. Otherwise it was unlikely to work. You could go into a store and after minutes of struggle with the assistant and your dictionary, point in exasperation to the desired item on the shelf only to be told 'nincs!'  - not available- this was a display model.

With three girls - Hungarian, American and Portuguese,  I took the train from Kecskemet , with its incomprehensible loudspeaker announcements, into Budapest to see an opera. A gloriously ornate foyer awaits the visitor to the Budapest Opera, with its links to Gustav Mahler and Bela Bartok. We missed the train back, and stayed overnight in a hostel: in a contest for style and comfort it would have finished about equal with H.M. Prison Wormwood Scrubs, so on the Sunday morning we sauntered down Lajos Kossuth utca for a coffee.

We later discovered that the only train back after an evening performance was the Pushkin  Express, which left at midnight. Officially, it was designated for international travel only, but if you bribed the ticket collector with a 100 forint note discreetly folded into your ID., he would let you off at Kecskemet before the train rumbled over the Yugoslav border on its way to Moscow. Unfortunately Charlotte, the American girl, fell asleep one night and woke up at some remote station in Yugoslavia.

In November she and I took a train from the deli (southern) station which proceeded down the eastern shore of Lake Balaton at roughly the speed of a horse and cart. I thought we would never get off it, but we did, and plunged into the thermal lake at Heviz. Here is a pretty old town painted mostly in the Austria-Hungary deep yellow, where the night life consisted of a bar where a corpulent pianist sang Broadway hits in Hungarian. Another enchanting venue was brightly coloured Szentendre,  a little town favoured by artists a few miles from the capital and just south of the Danube bend.

The restaurants were amusing if a little downbeat,  The menus frequently offered pork, pork and more pork in various guises, washed down with a red wine such as Egri Bikaver followed by a Palinka (plum brandy) -  sometimes  to the strains of a gypsy band.

We spent Christmas in Sopron, a town near the Austrian border. As we stood in line for a quaint thee carriage train to Vienna, a fugitive from Saddam Hussein's war - torn Iraq begged me to take him along. He was not the first - there was a student at our Institute whose entire family were holed up in Kecskemet. 

I returned to Budapest recently to do an American-Hungarian concert.  The whole city is vibrant - the restaurants full, late into the evenings. Alongside the ageing Trabants and Ladas, shiny BMWs sweep across the bridges. (The Trabant, assembled in East Germany, probably from old cereal packets, was the most pollutive little car ever to hit the streets, and a standing joke among Hungarian owners). Even at Ferihegy airport, the change was immediate. They barely glanced at my passport. Long gone was the official who shouted 'formular,formular' at you if you failed to produce a document, and long gone the fresh-faced soviet troops who stamped about in the vicinity of our place of study.
Within moments of collecting your luggage, you proceed to a counter where a  low-cost collective taxi to your hotel in the city is arranged.

Hungary is in the EU. Bottoms up! - or egeszsegere, as they would say. The prices, of course, are much higher now, at least in Budapest, with the influx of Western European investment. There is no point in shopping in tourist venues like Vaci utca, but you can get a coffee and superb cakes at the old and famous Gerbeau in Vorosmarty ter at prices well below Vienna levels. Gerbeau was Swiss, and his confections made their way up-Danube to the Austrian capital to be sold at inflated prices at Sacher's to the imperial entourage. A variety of restaurants can be found near St Stephen's Basilica, and the old food markets are worth a visit, especially Nagycsarnok.

One of the attractions of Budapest is that you can stay in a hotel either side of the river and see the whole city on foot. A walk along the river, up one side, down the other, will take in the Matyas church, the chain bridge (British engineered), the funicular up to the Fisherman's Bastion  for the classic view over the domes and towers of  Pest, the parliament building, and a wallow, if you so wish, in the thermal baths at the hotel Gellert. You can walk all the way up the Kossuth Lajos utca which bisects Pest and visit the art gallery, which has sections devoted to a wide range of styles and periods, and contains the most captivating Rodin statuette I have seen.

Many of the public buildings are in the  wedding-cake style of the Austro-Hungarian empire of 1867-1918, with massive pillars and ornate statuary, almost begging to be replaced by the  functional  modernism of the twentieth century. The unmistakable Parliament is surrounded by such architecture, and  close to the Chain Bridge the Art Nouveau Four Seasons Hotel, restored from a 1906 builiding, contains amazing ceramics (a great tradition in Hungary) and stained glass.

The city is a meeting point of Western and Eastern Europe; the language has no relationship to Anglo-Saxon or Latin tongues, and the sounds of Hungarian folk music, often redolent of the country's  tragic history of oppression, are utterly unlike those heard in, say, German music.  The housing looks shabby, by comparison, when you cross the border from Austria -  from the affluent capitalist world to the post- communist, and the apartment blocks are as dreary as any in Eastern Europe. But -there is no shortage of lovely Hungarian girls -  so attractive they make you want  to learn their difficult Finno-Ugric tongue..  My first faltering question in Kossuth Lajos Utca was met with a sympathetic smile, as if to say "thanks for trying". She wrote down an answer for me. At least she had grasped the drift.

For all the investment from abroad, Hungary's economy is still weak - the earnings for the most part low, and Budapest celebrated the 50th anniversary of the anti-Soviet uprising with street riots. Though in no way comparable to the events of 1956, these were voices of discontent with a government apparently unable to change much for the better. The fact that the prime minister had been recorded admitting as much did not help. All this should keep a lid on prices and further erode the value of the helpless forint, giving the visitor from Britain the opportunity to see the crown of King Stephen and enjoy the night life of this city for, relatively, a song.

Charlotte and I were married a year after our meeting in Hungary. We were one of three couples of different nationalities to have turned that course of study into a wedding. Those gypsy violinists were quite effective.  And oh yes, they still are.

© Malcolm Hawkins November 2007>

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