BUDAPEST, Hungary – It’s 8:30 a.m. on a work day, we’re exiting a subway with a hundred other people, and it’s dead quiet.
I mean, I don’t hear anything other than feet on concrete and swishing clothes.
Budapest isn’t exactly the quintessential large, cosmopolitan European capital city. That’s true. People don’t tend to go for flashy or even colorful clothing. They’re not loud or demonstrative. It’s a working-class mentality.
Still, walking out of that subway and not hearing a peep from a huge crowd is eerie. Then I realize: It’s Monday. The start of a work week. And who’s all bubbly and talkative at the start of a work week? Well, at the Deak Ferenc Ter station, on a Monday morning, nobody is. Nobody.
There’s a starkness, some would say grittiness, one sees in Hungary that isn’t evident across the western border in Austria. The latter is a country of obvious wealth, if not opulence. For two countries that shared control of a vast empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s intriguing to note how their paths have diverged.
In the 17th century, the Austrians, then known as the Habsburgs, helped the Hungarians kick the Turks (Ottomans) out of Hungary. The Habsburgs decided to stick around and rule for a while, but after they lost a war to Prussia (Germany) in 1866, they took on the Hungarians as essentially equal partners. The twin capitals of Vienna and Budapest ruled the vast Austro-Hungarian empire.
Being on the losing side of World War I was a death blow to the empire. The partners split up, and, in the process of making war reparations, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, including Transylvania in modern-day Romania. Almost as important as losing the home of Dracula, Hungary lost a good amount of its resources and raw materials.
Austria and Hungary both joined (under pressure, no doubt) Nazi-led Germany for World War II – the war during which pretty much all of Europe finally got the idea that killing people in bulk isn’t so much fun after all.
In any case, post World War II is where these once-powerful cohorts radically diverged.
Austria rebuilt under the U.S.’s Marshall Plan. It is now economically sound, environmentally aware and, to be honest, not the cheapest place to travel.
Meanwhile, Hungary was coerced into the Soviet bloc, and oppressed both by the Soviets and Hungarian communist hard-liners. Even after escaping from behind the Iron Curtain in 1990 it has been financially distressed. But it is cheaper for the traveler.
This juxtaposition is seen in the infrastructure. While Budapest does have some modern subway cars and trams and buses, many are what a Westerner would call antiques, possibly 50 or 60 or more years old. Again by Western standards, many of Hungary’s bathrooms, light fixtures and roads just seem dated and worn.
Austria is all about modernity and tidiness. Just check out the immaculately cultivated fields as you cross the border. Everything is neatly tilled and trimmed. The well-behaved cattle seem to stay politely on the edges of bright-green grass fields, not to ruin the bucolic scene. The autobahns are wide, and rest area bathrooms large and clean and state-of-the-art.
Or compare architecture. Sure, Buda and Pest (the twin cities linked by numerous bridges across the Danube River) have fantastic, impressive architecture, mostly 19th-century creations, in the old parts of town. But hike up to the Buda Castle and look toward eastern Pest. Off in the distance are the blocky, gray, drab but functional apartment buildings constructed quickly and cheaply in the communist era. Austria has no such conforming, government-issued structures.
Maybe one day, maybe soon, Hungary will bounce back. On Monday mornings in the future, subway riders will alight with a bounce in their step and smile on their faces. (Don’t count on it – that’s just not Hungarians’ style.)
But before it can move on, Hungary still has a lot to put in its past. Memento Park on the western outskirts of Buda is one attempt at that. It’s where Budapest put 42 communist-era statues once prominent around the city, our tour guide Dora Szkuklik tells us. Stalin’s public statue was pulverized during the 1956 uprising that the Soviets squelched, but there’s a Lenin, a Marx and plenty of happy workers. There’s a gargantuan 30-foot-high statue of a Soviet soldier running with a flag, once positioned in Heroes Square. The locals jokingly call him the “cloakroom attendant” – he appears to be running after someone who’s forgotten a scarf.
It’s obvious the past won’t disappear overnight. At the House of Terror, now a museum at the sight of the former state security headquarters, enemies of the regime were once imprisoned and tortured. Hungary may eventually look back at its era under communism and laugh long and hard, but not yet. To me, one House of Terror display says it all:
As you complete your tour of the exhibits there’s a wall of victimizers, people known to have been in charge of imprisoning and torturing. Below each head shot is a name, year of birth, and year of death. And this is what struck me: For many faces, the year of death has yet to be filled in.