Thursday, 22 May 2008

Budapest, Part 4: Miscellanea

Some leftover thoughts on Budapest:

One of my favorite fixtures of Europe are the unique architectural oddities that each city or region has. While cellars are numerous in other cities, Budapest has a special claim. They are bars and tea houses and restaurants. There was a very traditional, yet utterly un-kitsch Hungarian cellar restaurant we went to one of the last nights I was in town. I was able to try a lot of specialties in restaurant form. I had venison stew with potatoes and a tomato salad. Then I ordered dessert, crepes Gundel, which was a wonderful flambed crepe filled with walnuts, raisins, and chocolate floating in a walnut (?) liquor (that the waiter lit on fire with quite ceremony).

The Hungarians believe in dessert. Not only did I have the excellent crepes Gundel, but I also sampled various pastry at several Viennese coffee houses (one was in a cellar!) and various poppy seed creations. While I was not very fond of generic Hungarian cooking, at least they do enough correctly - wine, dessert, and tea. They're already outdoing the British by at least one.

As for museums, I wandered in several history museums, all of which have such vaguely similar names. However, the National Museum was my favorite, documenting the history of the cities of Buda and Pest, starting with neolithic carvings and ending in the modern era at the fall of the communist regime. Not only did they have historical items of interest, but they incorporated clothing, furniture and standard objects in their displays. Unfortunately only half of the signs were in English and my general lack of Hungarian history left me curious and dissatisfied. The Historical Museum was very similar in themes, but with less objects and more English signs with repetitive and useless knowledge. They did have a portion of the old palace that it is housed in open and I was able to wander in the cellar, built sometime in the 1500s, I believe. Not only was it deliciously cool and crisp inside, I felt I had discovered some hidden passage in the tradition of Indiana Jones. With the lack of tourists, besides two older British women wandering away, for a moment it was as if I had my own castle.

I did not have time to go to any art museums unfortunately. I tried to go into the National Art Gallery, but I walked in through an unlocked side door. There was a sign outside saying it was the National Art Gallery, but as soon as I entered some woman came up to me and started to say something to me in Hungarian. I said in extremely broken Hungarian, something along the lines of : "I No Speak Hungary." She then asked if spoke either German or English and then explained that I had to go through the main entrance. After escorting me over to the pain entrance, I was too confused (and tired of museums) to bother figuring out the proper way to get in. I wasn't particularly interested in any more medieval carvings, which is the brief glimpse of what I saw when coming in through the side door.

I did go to the Terror Haza, or Terror House, which was once the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, and then the later communist terror organizations, the AVO and the AVH. As it was a museum of "terror", they tried to document the crimes of both organizations against the people of Hungary. After reading the guidebooks, I was not sure I wanted to go as they described it as a shocking exhibit of past crimes against humanity. But I felt I should go, if for no other reason to see the building. I did take an upper division history class on the history of the Soviet Union at Berkeley after all.

The museum itself was one of the most beautifully curated museums I've ever seen. It is visually stunning, in its subtly vibrant colors that all seem to accentuate each other. The displays were simple, but aesthetically pleasing, and the orientation was easy to follow. I think what I enjoyed best was seeing the various memorabilia and objects from the communist era. The stairwell of communist art was incredible - the busts of Lenin and Stalin and others moving spirally upwards.

What struck me as strange though was the fact that the museum was not that shocking, at least in the terms the guidebooks used. Perhaps it was because I knew a lot more about the specific "terrors" of communist regimes in Europe. Compared to visiting the Nazi work camp Dachau, it was not even as close to being as horrific. The other thought I had while walking through the museum was the extreme bias. I understood and in many ways agree that the museum was an attempt to create a remembrance for all those who were persecuted then. But the general sentiment was that everything the communists did was evil (they did not focus much on the Nazis, besides including some uniforms and relating how many Nazi Arrow Cross members became part of the communist secret police). One of the things I realized while taking the history of the Soviet Union class was that although there were many things done as a means to solidify communism that were horrendous (ie. Stalinist purges), we have a hard time differentiating the propaganda we were fed against communism. The Soviet Union was one of the most progressive places for feminism and literacy, two things a lot of people don't realize. I am not trying to suggest communism is the means for a successful government, far from it actually, but I think as an American I long thought of that "great Communist evil" which I am now unsure exists or ever did. Rather, it was a much more complicated process, one in which communism folded in on itself.

One aspect of communal living I did enjoy while in Budapest was the Roman baths. At first I was a little nervous about parading around in early April in a bathing suit. But the baths are extremely user friendly - old men were playing chess in the outdoor bath while drinking beer, Italian tourists running around in droves, the one little boy kept narrowly missing other bathers when jumping into the pool, and of course there were the euro trash couples making out in broad view. But this just made it more comfortable to be there. I also learned how to properly enjoy a sauna, moving from it to a cold pool and then back again. It was extremely refreshing, unlike the claustrophobic experiences I had as a child in random hotel saunas.

I'm sure there are a million other things I am forgetting about my trip to Budapest. But at this point, with another trip, looming on the horizon, I feel like I've covered enough of it. Lena will have to remind me if I forgot anything.

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