Budapest, oh Budapest! The view from the Margit híd -- of the curve of the Danube, of the hills of Buda, and of the buildings on either bank -- doesn't age. After all I've traveled and been fortunate to see, I didn't expect that sight to be so electrifying, but it is. I gazed at it over and over.
So much of Budapest is, of course, new, changed, and improved. The past two-and-a-half decades have not been unkind to a country that well due its turn at the turnstiles of liberty and prosperity. In city where virtually nobody spoke English, English is now and young Hungarians are eager to practice their clipped accents, precise grammar, and perfect word choices on you. The major shopping arcades are nearly the exact same mix of retailers that dot the centers of every Western European city of any size, catering to middle- and aspiring classes. The Hungarians don't seem to love their dogs any less, but now they now pick up after them. Hungary is now its own country, not defined as a satellite of -- and hence, in opposition to -- distant Muscovite powers. Vörösmarty tér, now all cleaned up and gentrified, would be right at home in the better parts of Munich. A vegetarian can eat more than fried cheese.
But some things haven't changed, and others have just shifted around.
Two decades ago, there was a clear sense that hilly and sparse Buda was where the moneyed and aspiring folks lived, while flat, crowded, urban Pest was home to the working classes. I think that's changed; I think the center of gravity has shifted. Parts of Pest have rocketed in glamor and rents, but my trips around Buda suggested little had evolved. Perhaps a new social order, one built on urban mobility driven by education and economic freedom, has taken the place of a slightly more hierarchical society. One can only applaud that.
One does not get a sense of a vastly unequal society (its Gini coefficient is in the low 30's). The cars are for the most part modest, watering holes for the absurdly rich seem few, and old buildings have not been torn down to make way for guarded compounds, glass-and-steel offices, modern condominiums, or bling. What is less clear to a casual observer is whether this is the result of a more equitable society, a social sense of modesty, oligarchs having stashed their riches elsewhere, or there simply not being that much money to go around in the first place.
The problem, of course, is that Hungary is locked in in two ways. It has to maintain its own currency, one that isn't particularly For all its flaws, the Euro at least eliminates some evident friction in trade. Absent membership in the currency union, the Hungarians surely pay a premium to trade with their forints. The other lock-in is language. At least the Slavic countries get some cross-border linguistic benefit; Hungary gets none at all (Hungarian is like nothing you've heard or know, except just maybe if you're a Finnish linguist). Until Hungary works through both disadvantages (the latter one it can solve itself, and is working on; the former is complicated) it will surely remain at least somewhat poorer than its neighbors. That, in turn, will create an outflow of some of its best talent, which will accentuate the gap.
Watching television is instructive in this regard. There is the usual assortment of dubbed American programming (but again, the cost of the dubbing is not one it can share with any other country). Reality TV such as quiz and cooking shows provide a reliable steam of Hungarian programming. But the drama is of poor quality, of the melodramatic telenovela kind; a history channel featuring enactments of (I presume) Famous Hungarian Battles was mostly just comic.
When I was last in Budapest, I had only the most abstract understanding of jugendstil architecture: I'd studied it from books in some detail, but didn't have a visceral feel for it. But having internalized it over many trips to Austria, it's easy to see Budapest insists on its claim to be the "eastern capital" (of Austro-Hungarian empire), and feels slighted to not be recognized that. Indeed, much of central Budapest dates to two eras: the peak Austro-Hungary, and the Era of Concrete. One of those has not aged gracefully.
In fact, neither has. Twenty years ago, the city was a dull grey decades of accumulated soot and no money to clean it. The most touristed parts that are a staple of every Budapest tourism photograph have been scrubbed clean, but that's mostly it. Buildings that I recall being stained with age two decades ago have only gotten worse. You can see some exposed steel girders of imporant infrastructure, like the Nyugati flyover or the stairs at Széll Kálmán tér; yet right next door are flashy shopping arcades. That may say everything about the limits of Budapest's wealth.
This lack of resources manifests in other, small ways too. Budapest was (rightly) in a hurry to expunge the names imposed on its strees and squares by the Soviets. For instance, one of the main transportation hubs of Buda used to be Moszkva tér, a name that clearly had to go. It is now, and has long been, Széll Kálmán tér. Yet if you look really closely at subway signs, every now and then find the old name creep through. Similarly, most of the rolling stock is essentially unchanged in several decades (look for Cyrillic on some of the signage).
The diversity that has taken hold of other European capitals has somehat passed Budapest by. Hungarian eating, never particularly ambitious to my thinking, has not grown significantly broader, and there are few few of the immigrant populations you find elsewhere (who'd want to send home forints?). Not surprisingly, my hotel staff were resoundingly local too, even the maids who did the room (Margi's and Ibolya's).
Another thing that hasn't improved is the smoking. Oh, the smoking! Sure, there's an indoor smoking ban and people honor it. But absurd numbers of people seem to light up. The government has nationalized the sale of tobacco, putting it in a conflicted position; and the branding of cigarette stores (look for the sign Nemzety Dohánybolt) is surprisingly elegant, in contrast to other countries' attempts to make tobacco as unattractive as possible. I don't recall seeing a single anti-smoking sign anywhere, either. (Another, minor, unfortunate consequence of this nationalization is that the old tobacco known as "trafik" (think of a French "tabac") -- dealt in a bit of everything. Now they're shuttered up and those little things are harder to find.)
Still, it's important to put these remarks in their proper place. These are really just a description of growing pains, of the fact that the path from liberation to prosperity is never pure and rarely simple. While Hungary is hampered by unique circumstances language, culture, and currency, it's a resourceful country that has gotten by with a lot less. It'll be exciting to see what the next decades bring.
If you leave Hungary flying west, take a window seat and keep your eyes open. As you wend your way the Danube will disappear and reappear, snaking its way across the Carpathian -- or, as the locals prefer to call it, the Panonnian -- Plains. Periodically a bend will be lit up with a town connected by bridges, but for the most part you have just the river for company, always flowing, flowing, flowing, pointing and beckoning back to Budapest.
Thanks to Halácsy Péter, Baccifava Medea, Sadovnycha Katya, Bártházi András, and Czaplicki Evan for hosting a fun event and great trip!