Dispatch from Hungary

King Matthias

Crossing the border from Slovakia into Hungary our guide began our orientation by listing Hungary’s enemies and recounting the wars they mostly lost. The late 19th and early 20th century years were bright – a burst of economic and artistic growth; then two devastating wars, after which they were shoved behind the iron curtain. Recently there has been some growth mixed with much uncertainty.

It is impossible for me to imagine what my mindset would be if I hadn’t been born in a country that has always been free. What if I looked back on a history that dated to the ninth century and could only point to 50 good years?

The good old days

Our guide referred to “the good old days” many times. I asked what period of time he was referring to and he said it depends on your point of view; it could be those golden years that produced Franz Liszt, or the age of the Monarchy or the years under communism when the basics were provided and a job required you to show up but not necessarily to do any useful work.

People who have survived pagan raids, Habsburg rule and communist oppression are like the caged bear; upon release the bear continues to circle a small space rather than venture out into the unknown. An exception was the 1956 revolution; when it failed 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West and never returned.

Our guide put it in perspective for us. Politics and people are two different things. People just try to be happy in the circumstances in which they find themselves. In the late 1980s the communists lightened up on the Hungarians, a period they refer to as Goulash Communism. They allowed more ingredients to be added to the soup. Hungarians could travel. Grandpa was allowed to buy back the vineyard he never sold. Collectivism had proved to be unproductive, and so it goes.

Taking the waters

Hungary is blessed with natural springs that support a recreational and medical spa industry. In Eger we visited the Hotel Flora’s wellness center to enjoy the baths, shallow pools of warm spring water and a variety of saunas that included a steam and Finnish sauna and an infrared sauna. (I pay a lot of money for expensive creams to protect me from that!) It also featured an aroma therapy spa, nice in theory but a bit like orange cinnamon car scent.

Hungarians who are ailing get a prescription from their doctors to visit a spa to take the waters and enjoy a massage, “all for free with our socialized medicine,” our guide said with a grin. In my head I’m sketching this as a political ad for the system of medical care our government is contemplating and wondering if this would get votes or raise ire.

Square dancing

One lovely tradition in Central Europe is gathering nightly in the town square. A dance festival provides an opportunity to watch the young people interact, admire some fancy footwork and even join the fun.

Get Ruined!

Hungary is a café culture. Hungarians consume cake like Americans pop French fries, meeting in coffee houses where their fathers and grandfathers planned revolutions. Another popular place to meet is in a Ruin Pub. Dress up a bombed out building with relics from bygone days refashioned into tables and chairs and you have a very trendy bar!

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