“Buda Pest? Ne, Budu Pit” -E.A
Written by Aliza Bran (Washington University)
Central European Studies in Prague, Student Correspondent, Spring ’12
The weekend of April 19th was not only special because it was my birthday, but also because our program went on a short trip to Budapest. Jewish Studies and Central European Studies alike woke up at 5 am to meet and pile into the train cars for our seven-hour journey. Though many slept, a few watched Austin Powers (and decided to over-quote it for the next week straight) and the rest of us relaxed. There was a snack car, which, unlike the usual American snack cars–which have sandwiches and burgers–sold me a surprisingly fantastic goulash soup. I stared out the window as the verdant grounds became a kaleidoscope of green and the sky brightened as the day became afternoon.
As per usual, our arrival did not mean that we were free to rest, but that the trip had officially begun. In our lecture about Hungarian history and culture we discussed the 1956 Uprising and time under Communism. Visiting Budapest was interesting because under Communism it was one of the more beaten-up nations, and you could see this history in the peoples’ behaviors today. In our homework a month earlier for the traveling seminar, each group of 4 or 5 students had to read and present an article. My group had presented on sections of the book Café Europa, which detailed the post-Communism mentality of Central and Eastern European nations and how you could see this mentality through the citizens’ behaviors. Budapest was the first place I continually saw this. The waiters that I had tended to be cold verging on rude, a non-Western trademark that associates being paid by the hour and not by tips. And surprise, when the check came for our party of four for dinner, a lofty tip was already included! Though that is not to say that all of our waiters were unfriendly, for there were several gems that stuck out, especially at this one little hole-in-the-wall place The Hummus Bar. And as someone who is just discovering a taste for falafel, I couldn’t recommend it more. Though be careful, those hummus plates are bigger than they look! One thing I would not recommend (though I think everyone should try it) is Budapest’s famous cheese curd-related desserts. While I love cheese and I love dessert, the cheese curd dessert on a stick was not my thing. However, my flatmate Grace enjoyed them, scarfing down hers and mine alike and holding onto a third for later.
And this blog would not feel like a complete discussion of Budapest without a critique of the Museum of Communism. I don’t frequently enter a museum and wonder what the intent is behind it, but I have never been as skeeved out (yes, skeeved, which I consider one level of creepy above “creeped out”) as I was in that museum. The bright, flashing lights, leaving most of the rooms pitch black or red in color (or something else overwhelming); the cacophony of videos and voices playing in each room, each vying for your attention and ultimately making a sea of mental static in your mind; and the heat of the building creeping up on you as you walked. It could not have been more uncomfortable. On our maize-like walk, we passed through an all-black room with a car behind a curtain. Sinister music flared and the lights of the car flashed. There was nothing else in that room: no historical facts or writing or anything of the sort. And two rooms later we ended up in the most stressful and terrifying spot of all: the elevator. Being claustrophobic, I never should have gotten in, but who was to know that the elevator doors would close, and the elevator would go so slowly it would take six whole minutes to go down three floors?! And I wasn’t the only person uncomfortable. The elevator was warm, and as we descended slowly into the basement (dungeon?), a movie about torture techniques began to play and the ominous music swelled. It was straight out of a horror movie. After surviving the museum, my group tried to make some sense of what we had just seen. Our conclusion: the current fascist government (which is getting more and more extremist and anti-Semitist) wants people to fear communism so much that the whole museum is filled with scare tactics. It was clear that the museum, because of the set up and the fact that the majority of its writing was in Hungarian, was not meant for us as much as it was meant for its own citizens. All I can say is that I’m glad that the program reimbursed us for one museum trip in Budapest, for I could not wrap my mind around spending my money there. Luckily, Rachel had grabbed several “special deal” cards at the hotel and we finished that morning by drinking one free flute of champagne each at a nearby café.
NOTE: Final recommendation to students and parents alike: Szimpla, a famous ruin bar in Budapest. It is a chill environment for anyone who would like to hang out, have a beer, and look at the awesome and random furniture/decorations (i.e. bath tubs, goofy paintings, etc). Emily’s parents went and enjoyed it just as much as we did, so it’s a fun venue for most ages.