Monday, March 26, 2007

Riot Day

I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve been dreading writing anything about National Day, March 15. Fellow bloggers: you know when you feel like you can’t write about anything because there’s something you should write about first, but don’t want to? That’s my problem.

Why? I guess I’m sick of thinking about worrying about all the Árpad flags on the street (you can read all about the significance of the flag on Dumneazu's great post). I’m grossed out by “protesters” who are clearly just skinheads who want to throw things for fun. I’m disoriented by being caught in the middle of demonstrations I can’t understand, surrounded by signs I can’t read, listening to chants of “vashty vashty vashty.” I’m just done, you know?

But bowing to popular demand, I set down for posterity my personal experiences on last Thursday, March 15, AKA Hungarian National Day. Make of it what you will.

11:00: National Museum.

Rick and I check out the official commemoration of the 1848 revolution at the National Museum. It appeared to be a little pageant—poetry readings, narration, music and folk dancing, people dressed as Hussars riding their horses up the steps of the museum. Rick and I found ourselves in the biggest clutch of Árpad flags I’ve seen yet; and I marveled at how normal the flags’ bearers look. People I pass every day. When government officials took the museum stage there was loud chanting, hissing. Some of it almost sounded like English: I could swear I heard “Less than a poor man” over and over. Angry hard faces, whistles. Unease and almost panic. Thinking about the resonances in Hungarian history; the 1848 revolution was crushed largely thanks to the Czar’s Russian forces; the far right associates the current Socialist government, many of whom started out in the Hungarian Communist party, with Russians; hence the right claims the 1865 revolution as their own.

1:00 Violence on the Streets!

The crowds have left, and there’s a children’s fair going on outside the National Museum. Kids are making Hussar hats for themselves and learning how to chop off an enemy head from horseback.

As we leave Melissa asks me, “Wait, they lost this revolution, right? This is a memory of a defeat?”

2:00 Marcius 15 Ter.

Apparently a couple hours before the mayor of Budapest got pelted with eggs, but Melissa, Rick and I enjoyed the crafts fair.

4:00 Fidesz Aftermath.

Melissa, Rick, Ryan and I wade through the crowds leaving the big Fidesz rally. It’s pretty claustrophobic. The crowd between the bridge and Astoria is thick and intimidating.

5:00-10:00 Síraly!

There’s a party going on at Síraly, a bastion of irony and critical remove from the wild nationalism outside. The top floor features a DJ and several art installations playing with the image of Petofi, the star hero of National Day.

Ryan does a magic show. The crowd is puzzled at first but as the Dreher and pálinka flow they get into it. Ryan communes with the spirit of Petofi. Ryan does an incredible act with grapefruit.

10:00 Saddle Up.

Eszter, who knows Melissa is a journalist, comes up apologetically: “I am sorry but I know you work for the radio…my mother has just called to tell me there are riots at the Octogon, and you probably want to go, but please I think you should stay here.” It’s time to go collect some audio.

Melissa uses her press pass to muscle past lines and lines and lines of riot cops. She has me play the role of her “interpreter” (ha ha) as we question police and other journalists, but this is such a joke that I start claiming the title “guide” instead. I admire her technique; the one press pass should only get her past the lines of cops, but she manages to claim me as a guide, Rick as a producer and Ryan as her husband.

However, we’ve missed the riots. On the deserted Andrassy we see the detritus of some sort of action: an overturned phone booth, a wooden scaffolding torn down and used as a barricade—but the people are long gone. Smell of tear gas still in the air.

10:45 Bajcsy-Zsilinszky útca.

Lines of riot cops face towards Astoria. Drama! Cops and protesters face off.

We pass a guy with blood on his face. This is the scariest part of the night.

We see small groups of protesters—about 15 or so Soccer Hooligan-looking drunk kids staring down lines and lines of riot cops, wondering whether to rush them or just run away now. The whole thing reminds me of capture the flag or paint ball or something; it doesn’t feel like anything is actually at stake.

11:00 Gyros.

We retire to the gyro shop and call it a night.

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