Last night approximately 50,000 protesters demonstrated in front of Hungarian Parliament, demanding the resignation of the entire cabinet. So how can my life remain so unaffected? The protests—and especially the few violent clashes—have been all over Hungarian TV. But most of the action is on the other side of the city center, far from our little apartment. (Imagine there are protests in Union Square and we live near South Street Seaport.)
We’ve walked down to Parliament to see the handful of daytime protesters, but most of the protests are at night. We’ve seen TV crews interviewing students near the main University. We’ve heard sirens during the night. But other than that life is normal. The line at the Szuper Dizscount is too long. You’ll encounter the random marching band or wedding procession on back streets. You still have to hunt for seats at Szimpla. People go about their business calmly. It’s possible that everyone is talking about nothing but the protests—but I’d really have no way of knowing that.
Intrigued by the contrast between street reality and TV pageant, I’ve been interrogating all English speakers I know. “Is it true that a lot of these protesters are right-wingers?” Hungarian Zoltan: Oh yes, they are all right-wing. The socialists and the left wing are also angry, but they would rather have the left in power than these conservatives and nationalists. They are all liars anyway. UK Ben: My English students are all upset, no matter what their party. I don’t think it’s sectarian. Then again, they’re teenagers. Hungarian Zoltan: All the violence is from football hooligans who just want to fight. They don’t need an excuse. These reforms will need to be made no matter what. The budget needs to be cut, and the economy has got to be reformed. The socialists say that they need to raise taxes and cut benefits. The right wing says it will cut the budget by cutting taxes and raising benefits. It’s impossible.
It gets more complicated the more you learn about it. It doesn’t help that Hungarian political parties don’t necessarily mirror their American counterparts. Here’s what I’ve gleaned: the nationalists are socially conservative, sort of like our Republicans. But they are for the welfare state and giving hand-outs. The socialists are socially liberal, like our democrats, but are allied with free-market liberals—they want to remove government controls on the economy and say that the welfare state as it exists now is not sustainable.
Thank god we’ve found Pestiside.hu, a sort of English-language Village Voice for Budapest.:
We’ve been watching a lot of BBC. They seem to be as puzzled by the situation as we are, and have concerned themselves mostly with how the press is covering the event.
Serious Blonde BBC Anchorlady: One side says one thing, one thing says the other. Who is telling the truth? Only one thing is certain, 50 years after the uprisings against communism, there are rioters in the streets of Budapest once again. I have here with me the Hungarian ambassador to the EU. Ambassador, what do the protestors want? Ambassador: They want the prime minister and cabinet to resign. BBC: And why haven’t they resigned? Ambassador: Well, it is a complex situation. The Prime Minister feels— BBC: There ARE thousands of people in the streets, aren’t there? Does the government not care what the people want? Amassador: Yes, but we have to see that this is all happening within a context. The economy— BBC: In a sense, this is much like Hungary’s 15 minutes of fame, is it not? This is your country’s time in the sun. Ambassador: Some type of coverage is the wrong type. This is a very complex story and— BBC: A complex context, too often ignored by the press. Everyone has an opinion, and there are many sides to the story. Is the international press doing its job? Are we really getting the full story? Ambassador: We are getting…one side of the story. BBC: Indeed. Will there still be international interest in this story when the protesters are gone? Will the press disappear the moment the story is over? I, for one, don’t intend to follow it.
Coming Soon: Rosh Hashanah in Budapest and Sarah’s First Hungarian Bluegrass Gig
Last night at around midnight, Rick was taking a walk and saw fire trucks and policemen headed towards Heros' Square. He grew uneasy, and wondered if he should go up there, but decided not to. A little later he saw a bunch of kids with Hungarian flags and figured it must be a soccer rally. Remember, we just got here and we know barely any Hungarians--we don't speak the language and watch, but can't understand, Hungarian TV--we've had no time to learn about politics here. In the middle of the night last night we heard fire engines and then heard our neighbors' TVs being switched on. This morning: "wait, What????"
From the BBC's website today:
Budapest clashes as protest grows
Police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators Police in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, have used tear gas and water cannon against protesters who threw bottles and stones and set cars alight. Thousands of demonstrators had gathered in the city, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. After several hours the police withdrew, allowing protesters to break into the state television headquarters.
The protests follow Mr Gyurcsany's admission that his Socialist government told lies to win a general election.
The BBC's Nick Thorpe, in central Budapest, says the trouble at the state television station began when a small group of protesters who had spent the day outside parliament tried to hand in a petition. A clash with riot police ensued and the square rapidly filled with mainly young people, some waving Hungarian flags.
"Nothing like this has happened since 1956," one young protester told Reuters news agency, referring to Hungary's failed uprising against Soviet rule in October 1956.
[...] Mr Gyurcsany's comments were heard in a tape of a meeting he had with his MPs a few weeks after April's election. It is not clear how the tape was leaked. In excerpts broadcast on state radio, Mr Gyurcsany says harsh economic reforms are needed. He thanks "divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks" for keeping the economy above board. In a speech sprinkled with obscenities, Mr Gyurcsany says: "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening." The prime minister has received the backing of Socialist MPs who on Monday voted unanimously to support him.
However, Hungary's President, Laszlo Solyom, said Mr Gyurcsany had created a "moral crisis", and opposition parties have called for his resignation.
Matyas Oersi, an MP with the Free Democrat Party - the junior coalition partner in the government - told the BBC: "It's a surprise - though understandable - that the people are angry at a political leader who, for the first time, is telling the truth: that the whole political class was lying."
Local elections are scheduled in two weeks' time. The Socialists and their liberal coalition allies are trailing Fidesz in the polls.
I visited Budapest two times before moving here. The first time was in 1999 with a certain Emily J. Farmhouse. After our previous two stops, London and Amsterdam, Budapest felt like the end of the world. It wasn’t prettified or squeaky clean. The train took us past blackening communist block houses, and boarded up factories. The old mansions we saw were crumbling in the heat, the streets were wide but quiet, empty. There were graffiti murals—good ones—on the cement trainyard walls. Because I am a sucker for anything that smacks of Indiana Jones, we laid down good money to visit the Labyrinth, a maze of secret medieval tunnels hidden beneath the castle district. All there really was to discover down there was a series of awkward life-size “spiritual” dioramas (for instance, “The Court For Shadows” and “Spirit Hunt”). Mud-colored mannequins tried desperately to look medieval while tinny speakers piped in synthesized flute. It was all fun and games until the lights went out. We were caught in the pitch pitch dark, groping along walls and calling out for help. After a half hour I was convinced we’d have to spend the night down there. Luckily the resourceful Farmhouse located some German tourists who had paid extra for the Lantern Labyrinth Experience. They took pity on us and lighted our way to the exit.
I’m making the city sound horrible, but it actually just felt undiscovered, off the map. The second time I visited was last summer, when Rick and I stayed with Ben, who was in his first year of the master’s program at CEU. Living alone in a palatial apartment, he was eating and drinking very little, but reading and smoking a lot. He took us on a series of long curlicue walks—really jogs—through the city. Down to the Danube, back up to city park, over to the synagogue, to the island park, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Crazy outdoor club/sculpture garden, bar in a bombed-out warehouse, talk, talk, talk. Medieval guilds, Derrida, Palestine, Artaud, Is Johnny Depp Actually a Good Actor—it was hard to keep up, both mentally and physically. Ben had done no sightseeing and had no interest in starting. We brought him to what may have been his first Budapest tourist attraction, the communist sculpture park. It turns out that after communism, the city tore down the bulk of its soviet monuments. They would have been sold for scrap metal, but luckily one enterprising businessman bought them all up, put them in a fenced-in park, and started charging western tourists money to see them.
Those two big trips were all about big differences. Now that I’m living here I love the process of discovering the small but subtle differences. We’ve gotten used to living a couple blocks from the Danube, seeing eye-bleedingly beautiful buildings on every corner, walking to the 19th century thermal baths—now it’s the small things that seem exotic. A partial and incomplete list:
-Budapest is full of ice cream. Everyone eats it, and it is dirt cheap and good.
-People have no understanding of how to walk in crowds here. They ride bikes through huge crowds of people, don’t watch where they’re going, stop dead in front of busy metro doors.
-Because it’s so cheap to fly to Budapest from London, the city is full of British stag parties every weekend. Often, the bachelors dress up in matching t-shirts (“Craig’s Last Stand”) or even outfits (superheroes, transvestites, janitors, deer.)
-The school next to our house has no bell; it signals the end of periods by playing little opera arias on what sounds like a car horn.
-Cherry juice, cherry soup, cherry soda. Paprika in everything.
-Dixieland is everywhere.
-Fooseball in most bars.
-Some Budapesters (I’m reluctant to even write this) put ketchup on their pizza. Eeew!
-Assigned seats in movie theaters.
-Underpasses not crosswalks. Most underpasses have casino/bars.
-Dental Tourism. It’s major.
-All apartments have lofts.
-Exhibits on theater history in multiple metro stations. (!!)
-If you want to find the closest violin store (like, say, yesterday) just walk out your door and head in a general direction. When you see someone with a violin case (and you will, guaranteed, within 10 minutes) just ask them where the nearest violin shop is. They will give you 2-3 options.
Why must posts have an ending? This one could go on for months.
Today Rick told me one of the best stories I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s about one Ms. Pam Grier (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Foxy Brown, Coffey, Scream Blacula Scream). Apparently back in the 70’s, Ms. Grier was shooting a movie called The Arena, in which she played a badass sex bomb gladiator. In the movie’s finale, she was supposed to ride a giant horse up to the camera, with no bit and no reins.
Pam rides her horse up to the mark and stops. A cheeky crew member decides to play cute by smacking the horse on the ass. The horse freaks out, gallops off the soundstage, and starts streaking through the studio. Pam, who is riding bareback in a tiny leopard skin bikini, must grab the horse’s mane and hold on for dear life.
In a sublime coincidence, FELLINI is shooting Amarcord on the studio that day. He’s shooting some very subdued scene, when suddenly the now-topless, afro-ed, leopard-skin bottomed Pam Grier charges onto his set on a rearing white horse, screaming at the top of her lungs. Fellini stops the shoot, falls to his knees, and screams “My dream come true!”
It’s pretty strange to live in a place where you absolutely do not speak the language in any way shape or form. Here is my acquired Hungarian vocabulary so far:
Good Morning (but not good evening or goodbye) Thank You (but not please) Do You Speak English? Yes/No/Good Hello/Goodbye, for use on telephone (cheating, as it’s actually just “Allo”) Pardon (“pardon”) Soda (“szoda”) Sex (“szex”) 1, 2, 3 (but not 4-10) I would like…(point to the thing you want) Tomato Milk Pancake
This actually gets me through a surprising amount of interactions. The language barrier, however, keeps rearing its head in other ways.
For instance, on the second floor of our building is a mysterious office. It advertises itself with a cartoon of a smiling dinosaur in running shoes, but is constantly haunted by miserable young people. They smoke cigarettes sullenly, tag up the first floor stairwell, and avoid your gaze when you pass them in the courtyard. Outside the door, boys get in shouting matches with their fathers, couples comfort eachother, and young girls hiss urgently into their cellphones. Rick and I decided early on that it must be a rehab center or a parole office. I’ve even wondered if it was a family planning clinic. Well, yesterday we saw our landlady and asked her to solve the mystery. “It is a lady,” she started confidentially, “She helps the young people…with these things…how do you say this…where you give the money to the state…the tax. She helps easy with the taxes, for all the people. Her sign say, so easy the taxes, so quick, I make you good price, please I am better than the other lady.”
Today Rick reported that a woman in front of him in line at the Diszcount ABC bought 20 candy bars, all different brands and prices, then tried to pay with Hungarian food stamps. RICK: The checker started yelling at her. SARAH (not thinking): What did she say? RICK (giggling): VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY!!!
At least we can’t hear anyone making fun of us as we stumble and fumble our way through life’s simplest interactions. Thank God for small mercies.
I’ve been in the US for the last two weeks, first in Arkansas to see family, then in California to be in a dear friend’s wedding. The time flew by; lost in wedding land, doing arts and crafts projects, and running around trying to help with logisitics, I forgot to do a lot of things I should have (and didn’t get to see a lot of people I wanted to.) Just a couple hours after the wedding, I got on the plane. Two red-eyes and a 12-hour layover later, I’m finally back in Budapest.
There were a lot of great things about this wedding—besides seeing my oldest friend get hitched—dancing with friends’ mothers, watching people who haven’t seen each other since high school hook up, crying a lot, laughing a lot. Our Top Stories:
Bridal Hallucinations At the rehearsal dinner, Sunshine, the best man’s wife, told elaborate stories about hallucinating on her wedding day. Sunshine remembered feeling like everything around her had expanded to enormous proportions, that objects were far larger and denser than they appeared, and everyone was moving in slow motion.
The morning of her own wedding, Mel told us she was feeling absolutely normal, almost disappointingly so. Our preparations passed quickly, and suddenly it was time for her to go get married. The bridesmaids rode together in a rental car, and Mel sat by herself in the back seat of the fancy wedding car, in her wedding dress and veil, for twenty long minutes, up, up, into the hills.
We finally reached the wedding meadow and piled out of the car to check on Melissa. She looked radiant, wide-eyed, and juuuust a little, well, off. “How are you doing, Mel?” “I thought I was getting ready to go on a space ship…” she said in a curiously musical voice, laughing a little, “but I don’t have a space suit…I really felt like I was going into space…deep breaths…” Laura and I exchanged looks: Daaaammmmn!
Luckily she was completely together by the time she walked down the aisle, and a goood time was had by all.
Groom Stories Ryan, the groom, is a magician and Capoeira brown belt. The highlight of the wedding, for me, was when a Brazilian drum corps showed up and rocked the reception. Ryan has a lot of great magic stories, but his latest may be my favorite.
Ryan belongs to the Magic Castle, a members-only magicians’ club housed in a spooky old LA mansion. It can only be entered by secret passage, and only by those who know the password. One of the Magic Castle’s main attractions is a piano played by a ghost. To prove it’s not just a player piano, the ghost takes requests, and claims to know every song ever written.
Not too long ago, Ryan brought a bunch of Brazilian friends to the Magic Castle. They loved the idea of the ghost, but doubted that it actually knew every song every written. What about Brazilian songs? Would it know those, too? The Brazilians spent a long time huddling, brainstorming a song guaranteed to stump the ghost. Finally, their spokesman hurried up to the piano, glowing with excitement, and blurted out: “Girl from Ipanema!”
Needless to say, the Brazilians were amazed when the ghost knew their song. Ryan tried to explain that it’s a popular song in the US, too, but they just kept insisting “But that’s a Brazilian song! A very famous Brazilian song!”
Seeing Old Friends I haven’t seen Joan in a long time. As always, she had a million crazy stories about her life (driving around Europe doing street performance out of a converted ambulance, for example. You know, the usual.)
The Story of How Joan got her Famous Chicken: When Joan and I lived in New Orleans I was terrified of her chicken. (Chickens who live alone with people are often scary: See “Rooster in Love With a Boot, Rowan’s.”) I never knew why Joan owned a chicken, but at the wedding it all came out: she bought a rooster in order to teach it to play piano. Of course.
“I wanted to teach it to play piano, like in old state fairs, you know? Where you put mirrors or whatever on the keys, and it plucks them. But I fed my chicken regularly, and so it was not musically inclined. I had to work with what it was already good at, which was eating.”
So Joan made the chicken her fortune-telling partner. She’d ask an audience member to put its hand on the chicken, and the chicken would start shaking. Then the chicken would walk over to a big box of fortunes, pick out one, and bring it back to mildly impressed client. Add some witty banter, a couple chicken jokes, and a crazy outfit, and you’ve got yourself an act. After the fortune was read, and the client tried to pay Joan, she’d tell them, “I didn’t do anything, pay the chicken!” The chicken would take their dollar, walk back over to the fortune box, and throw it in.
“That was the beginning of four years of bad behavior,” Joan sighed. “On the chicken’s part?” I said, remembering its beady little eyes peering out at me from behind her screen door. “On my part,” said Joan, “The chicken behaved quite well, once it got a job. There’s nothing like understanding the value of the dollar to make a chicken get in line.”