(Unfortunately, I neglected to pack my card reader or transfer cable, so I’m not able to download and include photos taken on this trip for inclusion in this essay. Perhaps when we return home…)
Why Budapest? Why now?
As our flight from Los Angeles landed in Paris, I recalled an observation made by my father over thirty years ago, when he had flown to Europe for the first time in his life. He remarked how interesting it was, that in Europe (i.e. France and Germany, visible from his flight path) village boundaries are clearly delineated as houses are grouped close together, surrounded by uninterrupted farm land, whereas in the states, every family wants its separate homestead on its own plot of land. This is perhaps one example of “American exceptionalism”, in which the individual’s private wishes trumps the needs of and loyalty to the general community.
Why did we choose to travel to Europe at this time of year? …Simply because it was the only time that our schedule allowed us to take an international trip during the past six months or more. This is our first trip with Viking River Cruises, to sail in a 150 passenger long boat from Budapest, Hungary, via Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna, Austria, to Passau, Germany, four countries in seven days. Susan’s mother’s family was originally from Hungary, and so she had that extra incentive to visit the country of her mother’s family’s cultural heritage.
Blessed by a native guide
We were blessed on our first day in Budapest because a friend from Reno had arranged for friends of his to meet us at our hotel and take us on a tour of the city. We were met by a brilliant young woman (accompanied by her father, and later her husband) named Csilla, pronounced Shiela. Csilla (and her family, as well as our Reno connection) was born in Transylvania, a district formerly part of Hungary that is now part of Rumania, but still populated by many former Hungarians. Csilla’s family was of Hungarian extraction, and so her mother tongue was Hungarian. Since Transylvania after the end of World War II has been a part of Rumania, Csilla speaks Rumanian as well as Hungarian equally fluently. Csilla claims that her gift for languages is not so unusual in this part of the world, that she speaks nine languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and is currently learning Arabic. I questioned her reason for learning Arabic, and her answer was that she wants to be able to work in Rumania, teaching Rumanian and English to the many Moslem-Arabic-speaking immigrants who live in Rumania.
Csilla took us to on a tour of the incredibly ornate Hungarian Parliament, Europe’s second largest building, as well as the Fine Art Museum, which was featuring special exhibitions by Austrian modernist Gustav Klimt and Columbian artist Fernando Botero. Good art makes you think, i.e. it is very stimulating to the mind and imagination. My mind was rocking and rolling after visiting those two exhibitions. Gustav Klimt lived at the beginning of the 20th century and was the leader of a group of artists that rebelled against artistic traditions, creating new styles that challenged long-standing traditions. Fernando Botero is a contemporary artist who paints and sculpts in a unique style that depicts humans as inflated grotesque figures. His grotesques are so unique that having seen a few of his paintings, his unique style will be instantly recognizable for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, despite the overtly distorted representations of the human body, a sense of humor and sensitivity lurk within his paintings and sculptures. Google “Fernando Botero” to see what I’m attempting to describe.
A brief historical context
Budapest is a genuine “world city” that exemplifies “Old Europe”. A sense of history is inescapable as one travels around the city. Unfortunately, Hungarian history is filled with recurring tragedies, which I will touch on shortly.
The Hungarian language is unique, kin only to modern Finnish, though these two related languages are mutually unintelligible. They both trace their origins to wandering ancestors from the Ural and Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia. “Modern” Hungary traces its origins to the year 896, which King Matthias “Christianized” the previously pagan tribes. His statue depicts his with his sword, delivering the ultimatum, convert or loose your head. This was standard operating procedure for the Christian crusades of that age. Some traditional Moslems persist in this view of their religious supremacy, that anyone who doesn’t share their fundamentalist beliefs can rightfully be murdered, since unbelievers are going to hell anyway, there’s no sin in accelerating the journey.
Hungary has suffered over the centuries by being a small people overrun regularly by its larger neighbors. It existed as an independent country from the ninth till the fifteenth centuries. Thereafter, Hungary was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the Austrians, the Germans, and most recently the Soviet Union. Only since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990 has Hungary again been a free and independent state. Hungary attempted to revolt against its Soviet rulers in 1956, unsuccessfully. The US and NATO were not willing to risk starting world war three by coming to Hungary’s defense against the Soviets. After the uprising was suppressed, many Hungarians emigrated from Hungary to the US and other countries.
It was very interesting to talk with Scilla about her experiences of growing up under communism in Romania. In addition, the Slovakian-born cruise director gave a talk on his experiences growing up under communism in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1989, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by other former Soviet countries declaring their independence. Czechoslovakia separated in 1993 into two separate countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, marked by their two different peoples speaking two different languages. For Slovakia, a country of five million people, it marked the first time in history that the Slovak people were independent and not dominated by some larger stronger country.
A sad historical legacy
On our third day in Budapest, we toured the major castle and cathedral in the morning, and in the afternoon walked to the grand synagogue, Europe’s largest. In country after country, the legacy of the Jewish Holocaust remains an ever-present reminder of the Nazis barbarism. There is a memorial on the banks of the Danube consisting of bronze shoes of different sizes, commemorating the execution of hundreds of Jews who were forced to take off their shoes and clothes before being shot and thrown into the river. Before the war, Budapest was home to over seven hundred thousand Jews. Hitler’s “final solution” resulted in the deaths of five hundred thousand. Of the remaining two hundred thousand, one hundred thousand emigrated after the war. The remaining Jewish community of approximately one hundred thousand remains stable. Whereas there were previously over twenty active synagogues, only a few of them are still actively in use.
The Grand Synagogue was built in the middle of the 19th century. It is quite opulent, unlike typical synagogues, modeled more after typical ornate Catholic cathedrals, in order to demonstrate that the Jews were “typical” Hungarians fully integrated into society. These attempts to gain acceptance and integration were ultimately a failure in the face of the centuries-long legacy of anti-Semitism that continues to plague the world. Attached to the Grand Synagogue is a Holocaust museum, containing similar disturbing photos and relics of other Holocaust museums that I’ve visited, of executions, of starving prisoners, of piles of dead bodies. There is a cemetery adjacent to the synagogue, which is the last repose of thousands of nameless victims of the Holocaust. Such painful reminders of the Nazis’ sordid legacy exist as memorials in every country invaded by Germany.
A wonderful “world city”
Setting aside the reminders of Hungary’s tragic history, Budapest is a fantastic city. It contains more spa/public baths than any other city in the world. Scilla wanted to take us to a five-hundred-year-old Turkish bath, but we were too tired from jetlag. Instead, we took advantage of the spa within our ritzy hotel. Budapest exhibits the positive qualities of New York, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, and other great world cities I’ve visited: incredible museums, great cathedrals, grand public buildings, impressive boulevards, an amazing variety of high-quality restaurants, and a rich ethnic mix of natives and tourists visiting the city during all seasons.
I carried my flute, my most portable instrument, and was able to jam with the lounge pianist at our hotel. He was excellent, having been the two-time winner at a contest, sponsored by Roland Musical Corporation, to name Hungary’s top club pianist. Once again, I was reminded that music, particularly jazz, is America’s best and most successful international export. We also witnessed excellent folk dancers performing at an outdoor Christmas market. On television, we saw a broadcast of Rumanian gypsy musicians, in which the public danced to a folk tune in a seven-beat measure. I had previously been told of Indian musicians performing in Rumania and Bulgaria in which the general public was quite competent at clapping along in seven beats. Thus, one can assume that the high level of Rumanian language fluency is matched by a similarly high level of musical fluency, based no doubt on the geographic convergence of European and Asian cultural influences. After all, all these countries were part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire for centuries.
The most famous Hungarian folk instrument is the cymbalon, a hammer-dulcimer-type instrument that corresponds to the Indian santur. Two great video links of cymbalon players are:
Many buildings in Budapest show the Islamic influence. The Turks turned the cathedrals into mosques, destroying all the statues (human representation being a form of blasphemy under Islam). Now the cathedrals are Catholic again, having been restored and repaired from World War Two’s destruction, with restoration being done according to the original ancient specifications. The statues are back, including huge crucifixion depictions. Visiting these buildings…cathedrals, castles, and government buildings, is like traveling back in time. There are no new buildings being constructed anywhere to match their historic grandeur.
Our tour continues to Bratislava, Slovakia and then Vienna, Austria, the following day.
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