After the 'non-revolution'

Two decades later, Budapest is still trying to come to terms with its new identity.

budapest synagogue 88 248 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
budapest synagogue 88 248
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
I've tucked away my guidebook and happily stumbled upon an unmarked bar on a low-key street in Budapest. The scene is relaxed - simple blue jeans on casually crossed legs, uncomplicated drinks like beer and wine on plain wooden tables. The bright lighting, high ceilings and a cluster of birds painted above the bar give the impression of openness. "Where am I?" I ask a man at a neighboring table. "Shirly," he says. I jot the name down and he looks on. "No," he says. He takes the pen and paper from my hands. "Like this," he says, drawing a firm accent line over the r. "Shirly. It means seagull." He offers my notebook and pen back to me. I write "seagull" and then my neighbor's unsolicited take on the scene. "It's traditional alternative. But post-socialist," he says. I'm still trying to unravel what that phrase means as I head to a small performance hall downstairs. The local band Bardo is playing. Its ensemble consists of an accordionist, a keyboardist, a drummer, a tubist and a guitarist who ends up playing the entire set with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. All are men, save for the lead singer - a woman with straight, blunt-cut black hair that she sometimes twirls around one finger as she performs. Dressed in head-to-toe black and clunky Mary Janes, she holds the microphone a little too tight and occasionally rocks back and forth. She's awkward but alluringly so. Her voice is powerful and deep, accompanied by funky guitar riffs that are somewhere between Jimmy Hendrix and Pulp Fiction. The mixed-age audience watches in silence. They seem to be in awe, hanging on to her every move. At the end of the show, I chat with the doorman, Tibi Labadi. He's got messy blond hair and dark blue, almost navy, eyes. "How old did you think Agi was?" he asks me, referring to the singer, Agi Bardos Deak. "I don't know. Thirty?" I say. He tells me that I'm off by about two decades. "The police used to come and shut down her shows," Labadi says. "Her music is very subversive." She's 50 and a "legend" of the post-socialist movement, he tells me. There's that word again - "post-socialist." LABADI, WHO holds a master's in English literature and linguistics and works as a translator, explains. "Czechoslovakia and Serbia had revolutions." He is referring to the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and Serbia's Bulldozer Revolution, or October 5 Overthrow, which ousted president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. "But in Hungary, nothing really happened. The same people who were in charge in the 1980s are still in charge." As he waves a friend in for free, he comments, "Corruption is still a part of the government." Why the lack of change? "We're a young democracy, living inside historical pressure. If the left wing tries to change things, the people get scared and call it communism. We're trying to find our identity without being bogged down by our identity," Labadi comments. To me, the outsider, it seems that Hungary's identity crisis transcends politics. The Hungarian language itself bespeaks the country's confusion - the sing-song intonation reminds the listener more of the Latin world than the Eastern bloc. But Hungarian, or Magyar, is neither. It is tied to the distant countries of Finland and Estonia, leaving Hungary linguistically and, many would argue, psychologically adrift. But history cements Hungary as a local bridge, connecting the Ottoman Empire to the Hapsburg dynasty, the Holocaust to communist rule. Hungary has also been something of a regional leader. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, though suppressed, was the first major revolt against Soviet rule. Hungary was again at the forefront when, in the spring of 1989, the country began dismantling its fortified border with Austria. This first tear in the Iron Curtain was made official in the summer of 1989, when Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, ceremoniously cut the barbed-wire fence that separated the two countries. The rest of the Iron Curtain was soon to fall. Hungary is an intrinsic part of Eastern Europe, but with a peculiar language and Budapest's Mediterranean vibe, it maintains an affected detachment. I float my theory by Labadi, who nods with excitement. "Exactly," he says, punctuating the word with a thrust of his beer. "Hungary is finding itself between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. And here in Budapest, people make their own place." BOTH LOCALS and tourists who are carving out their niche in Budapest actually have two cities to choose from. Budapest straddles the Danube River and is Buda on one side, Pest on the other. They were united in 1873, subsuming historic Obuda, Hungarian for Old Buda, in the process. Today, Buda and Pest are linked by a series of bridges, each offering picturesque views. Though tourist attractions are clustered on the Buda side, residential Pest shouldn't be neglected. It has more than its share of nightlife and restaurants, and immerses the visitor in the rhythms of daily life. It is here that locals work, play, and sip coffee - and tourists are welcome to do the same. History has left its mark upon Pest, as well. The neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House, a source of national pride, was completed in 1884. Designed by the celebrated architect Miklos Ybl, its interior is decorated with seven kilograms of gold, rendering it a gilded testament to European decadence. Hungary's Gothic revival-style parliament building, which was completed in 1902, also sits on this side of the river. From its bank on the edge of the Danube, elegant and imposing, it serves as a silent but grand witness to past and current events. Parliament bore a red star during the days of Soviet rule; I pass it one evening and see remaining riot police standing guard. Earlier that day, thousands of Hungarians gathered to protest the induction of the new prime minister, Gordon Bajnai. An independent, Bajnai was handpicked by the resigning prime minister, socialist Ferenc Gyurcsany - one unpopular politician handing the baton to another. Though the protesters are gone, I see a picture of Gyurcsany, torn from a newspaper and taped to a metal barricade. An addition to the photo perhaps sums up protesters' anger and fear - a black mustache identical to Hitler's. Further down the Danube, there are other reverberations of World War II. Empty metal shoes, their toes pointed toward the water, serve as a memorial to the Jews who were shot on the river's bank. They were the victims of Arrow Cross militia men, an arm of the National Socialist Arrow Cross Party that was loyal to the Nazis. Though Budapest's Jewish Quarter isn't completely silent today - the city is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, boasting an 80,000-strong community - it is noticeably still. I spend an afternoon there, starting at the Central Synagogue, located on a busy main thoroughfare and marking the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The brick-red and sandy-yellow Moorish exterior is impressive. The interior is immaculately maintained, the wood of the women's section above polished to a shine. But as I leave the Central Synagogue and head deep into the Jewish Quarter in search of a synagogue my guidebook refers to only as "synagogue," I find myself in a rundown neighborhood. Litter lines the curbs. Paint peels from buildings. I look up. Through open windows I see an apartment's ceiling laced with vines. And then there is the synagogue. Like the Central Synagogue, its façade is Moorish and the colors are similar - yellow and dusty red. Unlike the Central Synagogue, this structure doesn't stand alone; it is wedged between the neighboring buildings, joining one to the next, out of place but entrenched into the landscape, a bit like Hungary. I head toward the door and a burly man stops me, demanding a small admission fee. Is he collecting the money for a reason? Is he guarding the synagogue? Or is he just extorting tourists? I don't know and I don't ask. I hand over the cash. When I enter the now-nameless, unused synagogue, I see a few dangling electrical wires and a cement floor. Sections of the decorative blue and red stucco that covers the walls have fallen off. There's not much left to see, so I leave. I walk through the streets of Pest back to my hostel - the small but centrally located HBC, a humble place that takes up a few rooms of an apartment building and that is manned by the mustached and pleasantly meddlesome Anton. I think of the night ahead. I plan to hit A38, a retired Ukrainian carrier ship that now serves as a live music venue popular with the alternative crowd. I've spent the day trying to understand Budapest's history; I want to spend the night trying to feel Hungary's music. AT A café in Buda the following day, I strike up a conversation with two guys I mistake for tourists. "Oh, no. We're locals," they insist. "But you were speaking English with each other..." "We both have master's in English," the bespectacled one, who introduces himself as Michael, says. I remember the doorman at Shirly, also with a master's degree in English. It seems that the nation is looking to the West. Even though they live in Budapest, we get into that typical travelers' talk - where are you from, what do you do? When I tell them that I live in Tel Aviv, Daniel, the one with curly auburn hair, tells me he's Jewish. I recount my walk through the Jewish Quarter. "The seventh district," he says. "It's poor. There are lots of Gypsies and Serbs there now." But it might not remain that way. For years, some have speculated that the area is ripe for gentrification, that the seventh district is poised on the edge of change. Daniel and I agree that it seems to be toeing the edge of collapse. "If you really want to see Gypsies, go to the eighth district," Michael says. "They have alternative tours there. Of course, it will cost you a little bit of money. And the Gypsies there aren't poor anymore - they get paid to let tourists see their home." "They hide their Mercedes around the corner," Daniel quips. "There's a great restaurant down there, too," Michael says. They grab my guidebook off the table and attack it with a pen, leaving the map dotted and annotated with galleries, restaurants and bars I must see - some in the eighth district, some not, all in Pest. "We come to Buda when we don't want to see anyone we know," Michael remarks. As I'm walking away to start my sightseeing, Daniel calls after me. "Wait, we forgot to tell you about Sheket." "As in the Hebrew word?" I ask. "As in the band that's playing tonight at Godor," he says. "It means 'quiet,'" I tell him. He shrugs and doodles directions on my map. I say good-bye again and, because tourists are obliged to, head toward Castle Hill. HAVING BEEN destroyed and rebuilt many times, this incarnation of the Royal Palace sits atop, I like to imagine, its own remains. Crowning a hill, the Royal Palace offered past armies a great defensive position; today it offers spectacular views, courtyards and the Hungarian National Gallery. Though the building itself is relatively new, incorporating remnants from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it bears traces of Hungary's mythological history in the form of the Turul Statue - a large bird grasping a sword in its talons, its beak open, its wings spread. The bronzed figure appears to guard the palace. Legend has it that this falcon-like bird was the forefather of the Magyar tribe, and thus Hungarians. The Turul is also associated with the Huns, of Attila fame. Some Hungarians believe that Attila (and his Huns) is their real forefather. Attila utca, a street just down the hill from the Royal Palace, stands as testament. It's all the mythology I can take. I walk off to find something more concrete - a tomb, located on Mecset (mosque) Street. I keep my eyes trained to the sky, looking for the minaret that is sure to appear on the horizon as I hike up another hill. But there is no mosque on Mecset Street. And there's no sign that reads: tomb this way. I'm lost. A woman leans out a second floor window. "Gul Baba?" she yells. "Yes!" I shout back. She points and I follow. I see a slender gold crescent and a dome; I've reached the Tomb of Gul Baba, one of the few architectural remainders of the Ottoman era. Gul Baba was many things - a Bektashi dervish, a poet, a dear companion of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. My Time Out guide also tells me that Gul Baba is credited with introducing roses to Budapest, an act that seems it would warrant a more impressive tomb than the tiny one I see before me. Sure that I will find a better example of Ottoman architecture, and a relaxing afternoon to boot, I head toward the Kiraly baths, another one of those must-do things. When I get there, I don't need a sign. I know the angles of the windows, the curve of the aged-green domes, the time-worn stones. And there's that slim crescent again. I try the door. It's locked. I manage to decipher a note on the door; they're closed for a holiday. I pass the afternoon on Margaret Island instead, relaxing in the manicured parks, watching couples and families lounge on benches and the grass. Kids eat cotton candy. Men drink beer. And, at some point, a gang of neo-Nazis walks past. One has a swastika tattooed on his elbow. His arm swings as he moves, making it look like the swastika, too, is walking off, receding into the distance. GODOR IS literally underground. I have a hard time finding it; I walk back and forth past the entrance literally dozens of times before I realize that I ought to look down rather than forward. I arrive just in time to get a glass of wine and a seat. The place is packed and the crowd is hot, hip - in an offbeat, intellectual way - and young. Sheket is less of a band, more of an orchestra. And with a trombone, fiddle, clarinet, guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and vocalist, it's anything but quiet. The songs have a decidedly Jewish-shtetl feel, but the ululations of the singer lend some Middle Eastern flavor. The trombonist dons a mask, similar to the one worn by American hip-hop artist MF Doom, lending the scene a surreal quality. The crowd begins to move, each dancing in his own way to rhythms that come from somewhere deep in the past. We are dancing under layers of history, below roads that slice their way through it all as they move toward bridges that connect one side to another.