In case you’re wondering how I missed out Austria which is between Germany and Hungary, I didn’t, it’s just that since I had to turn back through Austria and I’m writing about each country after I’ve finished, I will write about Austria later. My original plan was to go via Hungary to Serbia and down to Greece, but it seems the railway connection is dubious, and someone who was Serbian warned it might prove difficult, so I made a last-minute reroute.
Anyway I went to Budapest on the train from Vienna. I was kind of curious to go over the old Iron Curtain (that’s what the barrier between Soviet-aligned and Nato-aligned states used to be called, kids) because I had once in my life, as a child, been on a train to Berlin and been over the real Iron Curtain. I remembered the barbed wire and guard towers.
The train went out through a lot of flat, agricultural country (if you’ve ever seen The Living Daylights, this may be a disappointment) with dark soil and shedding birch trees, and the most enormous wind-power array I’d ever seen. Thousands and thousands of turbines stretched for miles, on both sides of the border. We got to a station called Magyarshalom and nothing happened, except the Austrian catering crew got off, and a Hungarian crew got on. The Hungarian lass was dragging a catering trolley that had to be plugged in, with a mains plug, into the in-seat plugs, any time anyone ordered a coffee. A guy who I think may have been Indonesian rudely demanded to get past, which clearly wasn’t possible. I’d read that Hungarians don’t like Muslims and I wondered if, considering, he could been less of a jerk.
Outside, we went past a business park, plastered with western names, and the corpse of an old Soviet-era factory, no longer functioning. We ran alongside the motorway, which was entirely and epically filled with lorries hauling stuff in and out of the place. I wondered what was in them.
I went to the restaurant car, noticing how most people on the train were foreigners, and ordered from the (Austrian) menu. There were Some Americans, as well as two drunk and obnoxious middle aged Indian couples, taking up two tables, unnecessarily, and playing Hindi music on their phones. Another couple arrived, who might have been Turkish, or from the ‘stans. They proceeded to bark orders to the Hungarian staff. By this time I was cringing.
We arrived in Budapest. It seemed safe, although scruffy, and I realised that like a pillock I’d assumed Hungary ran on the Euro: it didn’t. I bought a ticket – first time I’d seen a contactless system since I left the UK – and was surprised it was the same price as Vienna. I descended into the subway. It sported a 1970s-Soviet style colour scheme that’d make a Hipster weep.
The backpackers was in a hugely ornate and rather run-down building right in the centre. I got to the front desk and apologised for my stupidity about the Euros. The guy behind the desk raised his eyes, heavily. “Before Hungary goes on the Euro,” he said, “The EU will fall apart. We are always on the wrong side of everything, in Hungary.”
I said I was from the UK, so clearly as a nation, we had our doubts, too.
“I think EU is a good idea,” he said. “But it is all about bringing things in from abroad. In twenty years time people will want local things, that they can rely on. Things used to be local. Twenty years ago I used to go to Greece. Everything was local and fresh. It was good. Now if you go everything is from abroad. People will not want this, in twenty years. They will want local good quality things. The EU is all about shipping things in.”
Considering what I’d seen from the train, this seemed remarkably relevant.
He said he’d lived in the UK for two years. He looked kind of unhappy, but then, as I realised when I went out later, people generally did. The area was stuffed full of beautiful buildings, and lots of tourist restaurants, charging more or less what you’d get charged in Vienna, or Germany. I went to one, tricked out in pretty traditional floral décor, and ordered a cutlet. It was distinctly lukewarm, and later, I was ill. As I walked back, feeling queasy, I passed an array of Western brand names I hadn’t seen since I left the UK, as well as pricier design names that I couldn’t afford, holed up in freshly renovated fin-de-siecle shopfronts. Behind the main streets, if you looked carefully, you could see dinky little arcades in the bottom of the residential blocks that must’ve once been local shops, but they were all empty, and darkened.
I was sure if it was the cutlet, or my growing suspicion that we’d simply turned the place over to business, and screw the consequences, that was making me feel so ill.
I got up very early the next morning (terrible snoring in the dorm) and watched it get light over the river. The skyline was stunning: the old Hapsburg palace on the hill, the Communist era statues on the next peak, the lovely bridges over the Danube. There was traffic pouring into the city for the day, and plenty of expensive cars. Many people seemed to favour large, black cars with darkened windows. As I watched, trying to work out where to cross the road, one of these dark cars, caught in a snarl, suddenly put on blue lights and pulled away, accompanied by a motorbike outrider. I realised it must be an unmarked police car.
Later I went to the university district and bought a book from the foreign-language bookshop. There was an advert for a critical book about the Hungarian president, Orban. It had the feel of a sole outbreak of dissidence, in a sea of getting on with whatever comes. I sat outside, drinking a coffee, and realised the building opposite still had damage from the war: the lintels were cracked, there were shrapnel marks in the facade.
Later I walked up to go to the ethnography museum, because I wanted to see all the Hungarian folk costumes. On the way I saw a memorial to Imre Nagy. I didn’t know who Imre Nagy was, and had to google him (you never know how little you know about a place until you arrive there). Imre Nagy was the man in charge of Hungary in 1956 when they decided to try to break away from the Soviet bloc. The Soviets invaded, and murdered him. Quarter of a million people fled. The memorial was festooned with flowers. There was another memorial near the museum, to this sad, failed uprising.
Inside the museum, it was almost completely empty. There was a huge display of lovely folk costumes and folk culture, and the oddest thing was that all the display panels were quite uninhibitedly sneering: at the peasants, their backwardness, their stupid ways and beliefs. I have rarely seen anything so offensive in a museum. I wondered if the person who had written those descriptions had spontaneously felt that disgust for their ancestors and culture, or whether Communism had trained it into them. I left, feeling very disconcerted.
Next day I went to castle, and the museum of Budapest, which I thought would be about the city but was mostly about the castle. This same display of self-loathing disdain was there, as well, and the whole thing had a very odd focus on history’s big names, like normal people didn’t even exist. It’s very weird to have it shoved in your face just how much communism despised ordinary people – which is of course exactly the opposite of what it claimed to do! It was sweltering in the museum, like the communist-era heating only had an on-off switch, and when I found an open window I stuck my head out. Outside, the enormous green life-giving flood of the Danube swept past, as if it had had nothing to do with the this, the civilisation, or the town, like the great men had done it all!
By now I had taken in enough Hungarian history to get a quick list of who they’d been beaten up by: the Germans, the Turks, The Austrians, the Romanians, and I think it’s fair to say, the EU. In short, everyone in the vicinity had had a go at some point. And now they were waiting, I figured, to see who got to go next, and hedging their bets a little. Possibly the Russians: the metro was being refurbished, I was told, and the Russians had got all the contracts.
In the cafes and restaurants, everyone seemed to be foreign. I did a quick sum, and looked up the average Hungarian average wage versus UK average wage. Then I multiplied the price of coffee by the differential, and came to the conclusion that by Hungarian standards, it was £8 for a latte. I felt a bit off about my coffee, after that.
I have to say that everyone I spoke to in Hungary was polite and pleasant. It was also very safe. (Of course it was safe, any one of those dark cars could’ve been the police). It’s just I think they got sold, when they were in a vulnerable position, and instead of helping them, we cleaned up. We closed down all their businesses and sold them to German industries and Austrian banks and Tesco and T-mobile, for a pittance. And now there’s nothing to do except work in a service industry, selling £8 lattes, or flogging dubious cutlets to tourists, or Dior to oligarch’s wives. And I kept wanting to put my hands on my face and go ‘Oh my God, I’m so so sorry, and will you be alright?’ except of course I don’t know what the answer would’ve been.
On the bus on the way to the station I saw someone wearing a Momentum badge. I felt really ambiguous about it, considering.