My wife Mara and I spent a wonderful week in Budapest, Hungary at the beginning of the month. After suffering delays here and at JFK (as an aside you’d think terminal number whatever would have something higher caliber to eat in than a Burger King,) we arrived to a city singularly suited for visitors. That is if you like history, food, walking, convenient trains and buses, architecture, music and literature. For bonus points you can throw in public mineral baths too.
Beyond just wandering around we took some self guided walking tours and 2 quasi-organized group tours with an organization called Free Budapest Walking Tours.
The company ostensibly makes its money on tips. I refer to them as quasi-organized because while the tour is scheduled and well-prepared – who comes and how many people there are isn’t. The information simply says to meet at the Lion Fountain at Vörösmarty square at 9:30 or 3:30. (For future reference you should note that the public fountains in Budapest with cherubs, people, animals or gods spitting water are suitable for drinking from; it’s all potable and refreshing.) One of the tours we took was the Free Communist Walking Tour. It was about two and a half hours, and was more about the whats, rather than the wheres; the specific sites were less important than learning about what happened. The tour touched on the
Our guide, Gabor, was 39 year old university educated political economist who labeled himself a “Cold War Kid.” He gave a good overview of the history and personalities, as well as an honest assessment of how he grew up; what being a “communist” meant as a child, and how the collapse of the iron curtain affected him and the country. There were only a few of us in a group of 25 who actually grew up and remembered the period. We were fascinated to find out that his Saturday mornings were almost like ours – watching Tom & Jerry, the Flintstones, some English cartoons and Czech animations. He never felt any sense of deprivation or that he was missing something since his standards of comparison were not the same as ours. There were some specific socio-economic barometers he mentioned though, that were indicative of the differences between east and west at the time.
Three “events” stood out for him. The first was the arrival of bananas, which only came 3-4 times a year and activated the universal neighborhood grapevine system (like how we all knew the ice cream truck was around.) Somehow the word got out, and mothers across the neighborhood would send their children out to stand in line for them. The second happening was the arrival of fresh citrus, like the bananas an occasion necessitating the use of the local grapevine and juvenile line sitters. The last indicator of ideological feast/famine were the several parades held each year. May Day, Liberation Day and Independence Day were all celebrated with parades and mass gatherings – kind of like Red Square without the ICBMs and Brezhnev. Why were they significant? Balloons. The only time Gabor and his friends remember being able to get balloons were at these parades. Of all the things we might take for granted.