A Warm Welcome

To Desmond McGrath, adding his expertise, wit and wisdom to the AFOE mix as a guest writer for the next three weeks. Desmond is based in Budapest, Hungary, so we are getting a few forints’ worth along with all of our euros. If we’re really lucky, he’ll explain the wonders of the double-long vowel and old Hungarian currencies.

Though Canadian by background, he’s been in Hungary since the early 1990s. He remembers when FIDESZ really was a youth party, Meciar’s first tangles with his country’s Magyar minority, and all the heady days of looking forward to EU membership. Now that Hungary is on the inside of the tent, he’s continuing to give astute analysis as an editor at Hungary Around the Clock.

He’s said that his first post will be on the ironies and peculiarities of Hungary’s current minority government. Welcome Desmond!

Well-kept Secrets of European Airports

I’ve been on the road recently. So:

1) The Billa Supermarket in Vienna International (Wien-Schwechat). It’s located on the arrivals level; walk out of customs, turn left, go past the McDonalds, down the long corridor, and turn left.

In addition to the usual supermarket stuff, it has cold shelves full of salads and sushi, an icebox full of smoothies, and a deli that makes sandwiches to order. All fresh and tasty, and less than half what it will cost at one of the overpriced eateries on the departure level or out by the gates. The only drawback is that there’s noplace to eat it, but this didn’t slow me down — I sat on the stairs outside, while everyone went by on the escalators.

2) The showers at Frankfurt airport. Terminal 1, Departure Hall B, outside security. Two each, male and female. Used to be 5 euros each though that might have changed. Nobody knows about these, which is a damn shame. If you’re travelling in Europe, you’ll have to spend some time in Frankfurt airport, so why not take the chance to freshen up?

3) The kids’ playroom at Budapest Ferhegy. Okay, I wouldn’t exactly call this a secret — it’s not hard to find — but it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen: a small indoor playground with a toy chest, free video games and a changing room. Weary parents and squirrelly kids alike will find this a blessed oasis. If only more airports had this!

Add your own.

Under the Frog

Novermber 1955:

Tired of trying to crack the problem of the informer, Gyuri settled down to think about being a streetsweeper while he gazed out of the window at the countryside that went past quite lazily despite the train’s billing as an express. The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum that Gyuri popped in on long journeys. A streersweeper. Where? A streetsweeper in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn’t that fussy. Some modest streetsweeping anywhere. Anywhere in the West. Anywhere outside. Any job. No matter how menial, a windowcleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do it, just carry out your job and you wouldn’t need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn’t have to look at pictures of Rakosi or whoever had superbriganded their way to the top lately. You wouldn’t have to hear about gambolling production figures, going up by leaps and bounds, higher even than the Plan had predicted because the power of Socialist production had been underestimated. Being a streetsweeper would be quite agreeable, Gyuri reflected. You’d be out in the open, doing healthy work, seeing things. It was the very humility of this fantasy, its frugality that gave the greatest pleasure, since Gyuri hoped this could facilitate its coming to pass. It wasn’t as if he were pestering Providence for a millionaireship or to be handed the presidency of the United States. How could anyone refuse a request to be a streetsweeper? Just pull me out. Just pull me out. Apart from the prevailing political inclemency and the ubiquitous shittiness of life, the simple absurdity of never having voyaged more than two hundred kilometres from the spot where he had bailed out of the womb rankled.

The train went into a slower kind of slow, signalling that they were arriving in Szeged. This was, he knew from his research, 171 kilometres from Budapest.

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These are my impressions of a recent trip to Budapest.

My father’s parents grew up in Budapest. The Waldmann family has returned on 5 or so occasions. Caroly, Erzebeth and Thomas (dad) went back in 1937 to tell the folks it was time to bug out of central Europe (they didn’t listen). Dad went back in 1989. I was there in 1997 after hopping on a train from Vienna. My sister was there on her honeymoon but didn’t take photos. I was there a month ago.

The main sight I went to see is Hojos 3, my grandmother’s family’s apartment. Dad took a camera to document the effects of war, 70 days of siege and 44 years of communism. Grandma didn’t notice any changes.

I was there in 1997 and found a used car dealership on the ground floor. Also the sweet shop across the street had turned into a bar. I had alarming thoughts about the relative power of the market and bombs in making everything solid melt into air.

Also I had never felt so foreign. Here I was in the city 2 of 4 grandparents came from and I couldn’t read anything. I mean I look at a sign that says something street and I don’t know which word is the name and which word means street. Also, for the first time in my life, I had to look carefully at the little stylised picture of a man and of a woman to figure out which was the mens’ room.

Budapest in 1997 had embraced the market and was smothering it with hot kisses. The city is at least as beautiful as Vienna (OK I’m prejudiced) and not totally out of Prague’s league, but the Budapest approach to attracting tourists was Las Vegas East (sorry central). I personally stopped at the “Las Vegas” casino but I still had money when I left so it is OK. I also have to congratulate the guy who impersonated a police officer (with no ID) accused me of changing money on the street (for no reason) inspected my foreign currency holdings and gave back most of them to me. Embarassing and expensive, but that’s the way to treat idiot tourists who are being paid strangely large sums to teach about economics while clearly lacking the most basic concept (don’t hand over your money to every guy in a suit who asks to see it).

By 2004 things seem to be going pretty well. Budapest seemed markedly richer. In fact it seemed like a normal functioning European city. OK the Las Vegas casino is still right across the Danube from Buda (next time I am not going back to it). Also there is sign advertizing a strip joint legally attached to one of the poles of a fence around a municipal playground. Still the place looked clean efficient etc. Also instead of the Eastern tin can cars people were driving normal Western cars (that means cars made in the far East).

Also the language had changed. I mean people still spoke Magyar but about half of commercial signs and bill boards were in English.

Finally there was positive proof of integration into the global capitalist consumer society — billboard advertisements for “motercycle diaries” the film about the young Che Guevara.