When In Doubt, Take A Bath

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

He Said:

"You could always tell which phone had the direct line to Moscow," he said. "It was the one without a mouthpiece." Chiulan had been in Krakow for an engineering conference, and the three of us swapped stories until well after midnight as our train rolled through Slovakia on the way to Budapest.

Apparently, Romania suffered just as much under communism as Poland, and we heard first-hand accounts of what those days were like. In schools, he said, they used to show videos on life in the United States. The images they showed included homeless people sleeping on benches and the underprivileged going without medical care. Again I sensed some nostalgia for those days, as everyone received free vacations and jobs, whether they wanted to work or not. Under the iron curtain there was at least one choice to make - either work or go to prison.

He also told us that the current government is now opening the former secret police files as part of public domain. People are able to read their own files to find out who had reported them for being anti-establishment. Nobody was safe. In many cases, wives had even turned in their husbands for making disparaging remarks about the communist government, something I'm sure MY wife wouldn't have done to me.

When we arrived in Budapest, their relatively new democracy was in full affect, and now that we've left so as not to worry anyone, I can say that we stayed right down the street from the television building that was the site of all the riots on the first night of demonstrations. The short version is that the prime minister lied about the state of the government and economy in order to maintain power (sounds vaguely familiar), so groups of right-wing headhunters are out in masses to call for his resignation (also vaguely familiar). We later found out that a small fraction of rightist extremists linked up with random soccer hooligans and caused the entire fracas. From what we saw, the shenanigans had all died down, and the demonstrations were completely benign. On Sunday, we even saw protestors leaving the Parliament on their way to church.

Our standard introductory walk of Budapest began at the McDonald's on Vaci utca, the main pedestrian shopping lane. It was the first McDonald's behind the Iron Curtain, so we chalked the visit up to a cultural experience. Back in the 70s and 80s, Hungary was under what many called "Goulash Communism", which was a lighter, less harsh form of government that often allowed for private ownership and westernization. This is why Budapest is light years ahead of other, former-communist cities, and it's also why people used to pilgrimage here from other communist countries for a taste of America. Aside from the black markets, it was basically the only place to buy a pair of Nikes. Though people are still "lovin' it" today, the McDonald's wasn't nearly as crowded as it used to be when lines for a Big Mac stretched out the door and around the block.

We quickly discovered that Budapest, though a very pleasant and electrified city with pockets of distinguishing architecture, really isn't anything special. I'd go as far to say that it's even somewhat overrated. Though there are some great pedestrian-only thoroughfares, it's loud and heavily trafficked like New York. But it's not New York, and despite local claims that their main drag called Andrassy ut is Broadway and the Champs-Elysee all rolled into one, I confidently threw the bullshit flag without yet having been to Paris.

Halfway up Andrassy ut on the way to City Park, we visited the much heralded House of Terror, a museum memorializing those who perished during Hungary's dual occupation. The building's overhang created an eerie shadow on the side of the building, which used to serve as the headquarters for both Nazi sympathizers and the communist secret police. For many older Hungarians, the House of Terror is a difficult trip through the recent history of their nation.

When it comes to war and politics, things aren't always as they appear. We learned this in Croatia upon hearing that their former leader was involved in secret discussions with Slobodan Milosevic as their two armies were fighting one another. The same can be said of Hungary during World War II. Miklos Horthy allied his nation with Hitler for many reasons, but they were reasons important to Hungary, not Germany. Horthy wanted to regain the land and citizens lost in treaties following World War I, and he wanted to retain control of a county independent of Germany, something he knew he wouldn't have in a war with the Nazis. As a result, Hitler basically let Horthy do as he pleased, which included protecting the Jewish population. Eventually the Nazis began to lose their hold in the eastern front, and Hitler began to require more and more from Horthy - more soldiers, more participation, etc. Horthy kept turning him away until he, himself, was overthrown by a Nazi puppet government that took over the nation. Within months, the Arrow Cross had trains rolling to Auschwitz filled with people that had, relatively speaking, managed to stay out of harm's way up until then. In close to a year, more than 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered before the Soviets liberated the nation.

This ushered in the second occupation, during which many people were spied on and executed in the basement of today's House of Terror. In the elevator on the way to the underground prison, an eerie film was shown describing how the communists used to torture and kill people, even though Hungarians supposedly had it relatively easy behind the Iron Curtain. The whole thing was sad and disgusting. Really, what the hell is wrong with people? People being persecuted, people being murdered, people being spied on, people being manipulated, people ruling by fear, people conducting witch hunts.

In twelve years, from 1944 when the Arrow Cross took over until 1956 when thousands of Hungarians were killed in an uprising against the Soviets, the collective frame of mind went from ratting out families next door to ratting out members of your own family. This is sick, and I wish I could say that the United States has been void of this kind of behavior, but we're not. One look at the Abu Ghraib photos or the film from the McCarthy hearings is all it takes to make us realize that we play that game, too. On a side note (I just can't let this one go), I saw a recent comment President Bush made on some of the laws created by the Geneva conventions. To paraphrase, he said he didn't understand the definition of treating prisoners inhumanely. "What does that mean?" he said. "That's up to interpretation." Are you really telling me that an outspoken, self-proclaimed Christian who graduated from Yale doesn't know the definition of the word "inhumane"? Please.

On a lighter note, we finished our Andrassy ut walk at the Szechenyi Baths. Hungarian baths are basically water parks for adults, and this was supposedly one of the best ones in town. There were hot pools, warm pools, green pools, medicinal pools, pools with currents that push people around in circles, and pools where old men play chess on waterproof boards. I really wanted to crowd in and watch the action, but you can only get so close to large Hungarian men in Speedos, so I respectfully watched the games from a distance. I also learned that the word 'towel' apparently means 'women's changing room' in Hungarian, because when a worker directed me downstairs, I saw some things I wish I wouldn't have seen. I guess older women in Budapest like their privacy, and the only thing down there I could have used to dry off were cold stares and angry words I couldn't understand.

That night we ate dinner at a lovely café under the dome of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Before our meal we read some interesting history about the much beloved and overly prevalent St. Stephen. He was the first Catholic king of Hungary, and he had is uncle literally torn in four different pieces for not converting. Apparently the Pope thought this to be very noble and Christian-like, so he had Stephen sainted shortly after his death. Dinner was good.

On our last day, we explored the Jewish quarter and the Great Synagogue, the second-largest synagogue in the world after the one in New York. We had two different guides - one for the interior and the Tree of Life Holocaust memorial, and the other for the Jewish Museum. Both guides were Jewish and had some interesting history. The first had a Catholic father who saved many people during the war earning him the title of Righteous Person, and the second was an older woman who had kids and grandkids in New York City. Alli and I asked them many questions, and they both said that there always has been and always will be people who hate the Jews. Both had experienced anti-Semitism first-hand, even recently, and according to our second guide, the right-wing demonstrators who want the current prime minister to step down could be dangerous to Hungary's Jewish population. Even without really knowing anything about the situation, I believed her because she didn't seem like the type of lady to hold grudges, despite her unbelievably harsh past.

It turned out that she was a Holocaust survivor. Not only that, but she was actually sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz with a fake bar of soap. She told us that she waited and waited for the water to come on until, a few hours later, the Nazis came in and told them all to get out. She was literally one of only a few hundred to actually survive the gas chambers. That was near the end of the war when many of the death camps were being vacated by the Nazis, and the prisoners were being sent to Germany to work in factories. We told her that we had recently visited Auschwitz, and I asked her if she had ever been back since then.

"No," she said. "I'm not going to use my own money to go there. Why go to Auschwitz when I can pay to fly to Miami Beach?!"

She Said:

After drinking honey from a to-go container on the train platform to toast Rosh Hashana, (we couldn't find any apples), we boarded one of the nicest trains we've been on this entire trip. There were not only three velvet covered beds, but also a sink and "wash supplies" (including a bottle of water, bar of soap, and a towel) for each passenger. Are you serious? It was nicer than many hotels we've stayed in! We met a nice guy from Romania, with whom we shared some interesting and casual conversation with for the first few hours. I dozed off as the conversation continued, only to be woken up for the first passport check. After one more passport check, and about 5-6 hours of sleep, we arrived in Budapest.

As soon as we stepped off the train, we were approached by the one and only person looking to fill her apartment with travelers. Although we agreed we would go to a hostel, she offered us a ride and a really good price for a private apartment. Justifiably hesitant after Croatia, we agreed to look at the place with no financial obligation. Her apartment was in a fairly good location, situated on the third floor of a quiet courtyard of residential apartments. After a thorough once-over, we agreed to stay, and she drove us straight to the bank to pay our four nights up front. That was the last time we saw her.

We arrived on a Sunday, and like most places in Europe, almost everything was closed. We headed out for a late breakfast and orientated ourselves to the neighborhood. Upon seeing riot police in front of a road block, we quickly realized we were down the street from the Hungarian Parliament building. We had heard about the local riots and knew of the political situation from brief bits we could catch on CNN. When we asked our temporary landlord about it, she assured us it was a peaceful demonstration at this point. She didn't tell us we were about five blocks from the rioting, but it turned out she was right, and by the last day, the police were gone and the roads were open.

Budapest is a huge city, much bigger and more cosmopolitan than I thought. It's filled with pedestrian streets, avenues of shops and restaurants, big cathedrals and skyscrapers, and a river with bridges connecting Buda and Pest (I had no idea Buda and Pest were two different neighborhoods separated by the Danube). It sort of reminded me of NY, but not really. But I did begin to wonder if the four days we planned would be enough to see it all.

We found a restaurant with a 1900's ambiance for breakfast and began to practice speaking the language. Unfortunately, the Hungarian language is very difficult and the only word we could successfully figure out on day one was "Koszonom", thank you, and with that, we elicited the first smile of the day from our waiter. We then began to explore modern-day Central Pest in one of the main pedestrian streets lined with overpriced shops and restaurants (much like many bigger cities we've been to, including NYC). This is where all the tourists can be found, and every five steps is another "touristic menu". Thankfully, our walk pointed out aspects of historic Pest that were still revealed through the modern urban sprawl. The walk actually included a McDonalds to Chad's delight. This time, though, it was for its "landmark status". It seems this was the first Micky D's behind the Iron Curtain, so Chad felt compelled to eat there for the "cultural experience." We strolled along the Danube to get back to our neighborhood for what seemed like miles and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

The next day began with the scene of the protest and what would later be the subject of about a million pictures - the Parliament building. This was a massive, Gothic looking building, which lent itself to numerous photos from all its angles. Unfortunately, tours were cancelled due to the current situation, but we were more enthralled with seeing Hungarian democracy than taking a building tour anyway. There were tents set up everywhere (as many people had been there for days), food tents, banners and signs of protest, police, photographers, and news crews. Banners hung with messages of protest against the president, calling for his resignation, and gratitude towards CNN for exposing their deceitful leader. There was no violence. People sat around discussing amongst themselves and offering opinions to news crews; through it all, the tour groups continued to tour the Parliament.

We crossed the Danube and entered Buda, where we rode up the funicular to Castle Hill. Yes, another castle. Chad spared me the tour of the interior, but we walked around the exterior to not only appreciate the medieval architecture, but also to get great panoramic views of Pest. I sat in what was probably an old moat or something and enjoyed the sun while Chad went on a photography spree (just be thankful I wouldn't let him post all the pics he took of the Parliament in the blog!). Interesting sites in Buda included: the president's office (no protestors there, surprisingly, but guarded anyway), active excavations of the old Jewish Quarter, the Ministry of War building with remaining bullet holes in it, a modern day Hilton built right into medieval ruins, and a great café where we enjoyed a local beer with a great view. In case you were getting worried that we didn't visit a church, don't fret, WE DID! This time, instead of a replica of a holy relic, we saw a replica of a crown of Hungary. Don't I sound impressed again?

After all that, we decided to check out the Labyrinth of Buda Castle. These are old caves below Castle Hill, an effect of Hot Springs, used historically as caves for prehistoric man, wine-cellars, torture chambers, jails, and a treasury. It is now a marketed as a conceptual and spiritual experience that traces human history through a maze of dark caves. We were the only ones in there as we walked through, sort of a Disney World attraction in my opinion, but cool use of the space (better than torture chambers). When Chad put his head under the wine fountain of some old king named Mathias, I decided it was time to go. We weaved our way out and took the "physical challenge" through the Labyrinth of Courage in complete darkness. We walked back over the bridge to Pest and enjoyed some highly recommended Indian food.

The next day began with a walk down Andrassy Ut, what the locals call a mix between Broadway and Champs-Elysee. Not so sure I agree with that statement, but it was a traffic-ridden avenue lined with anything and everything under the sun, so I see where the comparison comes from. We started with...anyone? Yup, a church. This was the church of St. Stephen, where we not only climbed up to the bell tower for more panoramic views, but we actually paid .50 Euro cents to light up the main attraction. Are you ready for what that is? Ok, I will tell you, it's the "holy right hand" of St. Stephen himself. We paid to light up a 1,000 year old stump!

As we traveled down the avenue, we stopped for café and Langos (a local pastry) at a popular restaurant described as having a "kitchy communist theme" in a hip square. I felt like I was in "That 70's Show" with an overwhelming interior of oranges and browns. I also realized that this was the décor of many of my homes growing up and smiled as I remembered our brown couches and bright orange rug in the living room.

We continued onto a more somber museum fittingly called the House of Terror. Former headquarters to the Nazis and the Communists, this well-put-together museum demonstrated how Hungarians suffered through a double occupation. The staff seemed to match the theme, with terse instruction and a cool reception toward those touring. Room by room, we saw meticulously set-up displays of both occupations, one more chilling than the next. As the slow moving elevator took us down to the basement, former torture chamber/jail/execution site, a three minute video plays of an ex-guard describing in excruciating detail how executions were carried out. One of the last two rooms was called the "Room of Tears", a memorial for those killed by the Nazis and Communists. It reminded me of the anniversaries of 9/11, as the room simply displayed pictures and an audible of different voices reading the names of those killed. The final room made me think about something Chiulan, our train friend from Romania, talked about. It was a wall full of pictures of the "victimizers". These were the people, many still alive, responsible for the atrocities of both occupations, never brought to justice. All I know is that if I was a family member, no matter how far removed, I am personally making sure each and every one of those still living are found and brought to justice. Irony is that the following morning, I read in the paper that a 92 year old man, ex-officer from Hungary, was hunted down and charges were being brought against him for crimes committed during the war. Maybe there is some hope for justice, even if only for a few...

After the museum, we walked through something called Heroes Square on the way to City Park. As Chad photographed statues of some historical heroes, I found myself once again lost in thought after the museum. Krakow seems to have opened a proverbial can of worms to a deeper understanding of history (specifically of my ancestors) and revealed first-hand the harsh reality of how cruel mankind can be. Cruelty towards the Hungarians came not only in the form of exterminating all those "undesirable", but also those who did not conform to the communist way of life. I began to think about a heated "difference of opinion" that I had with someone very close to me. I began to understand her fear and urgency to act a little more clearly in regards to history repeating itself. But at the same time, I do not believe that we must live in fear of the next attack or regime that wishes any of our kind dead. It is a delicate balance, I've realized, between choosing to live and fight for a people, consequently being forced to live in fear that another shoe will drop, or refusing to live in fear and hoping that democracy and education of the past and present will do their part in allowing people to live as who they are peacefully. I believe we need both.

In need of something "lighter", we headed for the infamous Hungarian baths. In case anyone doubted that I've gotten over some of my phobias, here is a perfect example of how I have. I not only went in one thermal bath, but also in a medicinal bath, a cool bath, and a whirlpool-like bath that was about 99 degrees! I am not sure if the fear of Legionnaire's disease, men in Speedos, or an elderly couple suspiciously having sex in a corner scared me more. Nonetheless, I forced myself to ignore the negative possibilities and enjoyed the warm water and scenic experience. The complex was huge with tons of indoor and outdoor baths. Upon getting out, I immediately showered off and forced Chad to do the same. Unfortunately, he took that to suffice as his shower for the next day or two, whereas I went straight home and showered once again. But it was a fun and a relaxing Hungarian experience that we thoroughly enjoyed. On the way home, we stopped for some traditional fare and I had my first bowl of goulash. It's not thick and hardy like in the states, but very tasty and served in a big bread bowl.

Hungary is another country that lost many Jews to the Holocaust, and another country that housed many of my ancestors. As we read about the Jewish population in today's Budapest (1/2 of 1% in all of Hungary are Jewish), and walked around what is left of the Jewish Quarter, I began to wonder why anyone came back. Unlike Krakow, there really is no evidence that this was once a thriving Jewish Quarter. We took a guided tour of the Great Synagogue (only second in size the one in New York), which included a tour of the museum. The synagogue was beautiful and decorated in a Moorish style with meticulous detail. It was recently renovated and continues to receive restorations as needed. As our guide took us through the history of the temple and Jews in Budapest, a couple walked up on the stage and began singing. They sung a traditional Jewish song, Adon Olam, both with amazingly soothing voices. I closed my eyes, and I remembered going to synagogue with my family 18-20 years ago, listening to this familiar tune. When they finished, they simply walked off the stage and left the synagogue. I have no idea if they were tourists or employees, but they were in their own moment, completely unaware of anyone else in the synagogue.

As we entered the museum for the second part of our tour, a woman with a cane approached us with the sweetest smile and warmest presence. She was our guide, and one of the first things she shared with us was that she was a survivor. She took us through Jewish culture and festivities/high holidays as was displayed in the first part of the museum. She was thorough and took great pride in providing details for those not Jewish, (I was the only Jew in our group, and she made sure she told me that Chad was too thin!), and intermittently boasted of "her David" and his kids, like a truly proud mother and grandmother. She took us bravely through the Holocaust exhibit and told us her story as if it was yesterday. She told us of anti-Semitism going on right now in Hungary and the hardships she has endured since the war. As the tour was ending, she gave us a recommendation for a restaurant to get some matzo ball soup and Chad and I thought of asking her to lunch after the tour, but we could not find her again once the tour was over. What we really wanted to do was offer her the rest of our money to send her to Miami Beach. Surely, this was a trip well earned!
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