Unsure as to how much English the average Hungarian speaks, I prepare for my 2008 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit trip to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, by reading up on the country and the language. I start by googling two Hungarian playwrights, Körnel Hámvai and Pál Békés whom I got to know in 1997 as fellow Honorary Fellows of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
In addition, I find a Lonely Planet pocket guide for the Hungarian language, and start learning a few phrases. I post a message to the Global Voices 2008 Summit listserv, asking how much Hungarian I should try to cram in before I board the plane. I mention a few phrases I have learned, just to show off. Paula, a Brazilian who blogs from London, responds and exclaims how starkly different the Hungarian she has been learning is from the one I have posted. She provides a URL link to a podcast (a recording posted on the Internet) for first time visitors to Hungary, which I listen to on the plane. When I later meet up with Paula in Budapest, I suggest to her that one of us has been learning the swear version of Hungarian—we’re yet to find out who it is.
Hardly have I put down my things in my hotel room, and introduced myself to my roommate, when the phone rings. It’s Victor Kaonga, with whom we cover Malawian blogs for Global Voices. Victor arrived earlier in the day, and he asks what I am planning to do for dinner. When we get out of the Novotel Hotel with a group of other newly arrived participants, Nicholas, from the Caribbean
, leads the way to a restaurant a few blocks away. It’s around 8pm, and the sun is still up in the sky on this Hungarian summer evening. Victor comments that Budapest
looks more like an improved version of Blantyre
. The buildings look old, a few of them could use some maintenance. It’s unlike Sweden
, where Victor has lived for the last two years. On her facebook page, another newly arrived participant posts her photos, with the caption “Budapest
, no skyscrapers!”.
By Sunday, the conference has clocked three days, and a group of us take the tramway (metro train) to see the Danube River. In the background, I am hearing music I can not believe I am actually hearing. It’s the song Patapata, the version not by Miriam Makeba but the one by Dorothy Masuka, which is the one I actually love more. I nudge Juliana, a Kenyan who blogs about the environment from Chicago, and ask her if she knows the song. “Can you believe we are listening to Patapata on the tramway in Budapest!”
A few hours later while resting near a bridge by the river, Victor asks me if my cellphone’s ringtone is on. I pull the phone out of my pocket, and the inbuilt mp3 player is blaring Lawrence Mbenjere’s “Chikwesa.”
“Ah!! I hope it hasn’t been playing in my pocket all this time!! Gees!” Then it dawns on me. “I swear they were playing Patapata by Dorothy Masuka when we were on the tramway!” I was so eager to commend the Hungarians for their worldly taste in music, but now I’m not so sure anymore. I can’t believe the trick my cell phone’s mp3 player has played on me.
We have stopped on the bank of the Danube River to wait for another group which has gone in a different direction. Juliana steps closer and whispers to everyone, “Be careful. Those three young men over there--they have been following us.” In front of us is a gigantic, white, squarish building, with inelegant windows going up maybe ten floors. An elderly man who has been sitting on a bench across from us gets up and approaches us. He gets very close, and lowering his voice, asks us “Do you know about this building that you are standing in front of?” He asks in a cracking voice, with a Hungarian accent. “During the communist regime, there was a meat-grinder inside. The communists threw people into the meat-grinder, and their bodies ended up in the river.” I ask him how long ago this was, and he says he is not sure, as he was living in America at the time. “Maybe twenty or thirty years ago,” he says, before walking back to his bench.
We are stunned with the news. The other group returns, and the ever-cheerful Neha, an Indian blogger based in London, notices our mood. “Why is everyone looking so gloomy? You are so sad.” Victor turns to Neha and repeats to her the story we just heard. A few others on Neha’s heels close in to listen too. Everyone gasps in horror. “And it gets worse, Neha,” I say. “There’s worse news. I don’t know if you can handle it.”
“I can handle it.”
“It requires nerves.”
“I have the nerves. Tell me.”
“The fish we have been eating in the hotel? Comes from this river.”
Neha throws her arms in the air and shouts joyfully: “Thank God! I’m a vegetarian!” She is joined by Razan, a Syrian blogger who lives in Beirut. “I knew there was a good reason why I am a vegetarian also.” Everyone realizes I have been joking, and the mood lightens up again. “I thought you were going to tell her about the Shire River,” remarks Victor.
We proceed to walk by the riverside, watching passenger boats sailing under the bridge. We continue taking pictures as we approach an impressive neo-Gothic structure with a tall, cathedral-like dome standing above everything else on the Pest side of the Danube’s riverbank. “That’s the Hungarian Parliament,” announces Amit, a photo-blogger from India. “It’s one of the largest parliament buildings in Europe.” It was built between 1885 and 1902, as I later read in a guidebook, and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest. It is called Országház in the Hungarian language. Across the Danube on the Buda side is another impressive, historic site. It’s the Budavári palota, The Royal Palace. It was originally built as a fortress starting in 1235 AD, and reached its peak of glory between 1458 and1490, according to the Green Guide for Hungary and Budapest.
By 9pm, the sun is setting and a twilight sets in. We continue taking more pictures, and begin looking for a tramway station to return to the Novotel Hotel. Everyone is hungry, and Moussa, from Beirut, suggests a Pizza Hut he visited the other day. By the time we find it, the finals of the Euro 2008 championship have already begun, and the bars and restaurants showing the match are packed. Victor and I decide we will take our dinner back to the hotel and watch the rest of the match there.
On the plane back home, I continue reading Michael Korda’s Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which I started before the trip. I am struck by the way history has dealt with the Hungarian people. Korda’s description of the communist era in Hungary reads a lot like the recent history of Malawi during the one-party dictatorship. Another similarity: the Hungarians ended their communist era in the late 80s and 90s, the same period that Malawi ended its one-party dictatorship.
Labels: budapest, danube river, hungary