Reckoning With Memories of Budapest
In early April, when my flight arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport, László Borsos was waiting for me at the arrivals gate. I hadn’t seen the man in 28 years. I scanned the crowd and found him standing there with a wild grin on his face, his glasses dangling elegantly over a white collared shirt.
After a quick hug, and with a wave of his hand, he gestured for me to hurry along; he was parked just beyond the sliding glass doors. And so, feeling myself slip back into an old habit, I threw my duffel bag over my shoulder, shook my head in disbelief and did what for four years as a child had been part of my daily routine: I followed him outside for a ride through Budapest.
Budapest’s Castle District, in the distance, framed through a stained-glass window in the Parliament building.
It would be nearly impossible to overstate how dramatically the course of my life changed when my family moved to Hungary in the early 1990s. Both of my parents grew up in Ohio — my mother in a poor corner of Youngstown, and my father in a middle-class neighborhood in the sleepy town of Dover. When I was born in 1985, the last of three children, we lived in a small split-level house in Austintown, a suburb of Youngstown. My dad, one of the few people in my extended family with a college degree, was 11 years into a promising but as-yet unexceptional career as a finance manager at General Electric. Neither of my parents had ventured far from their childhood circumstances.
In 1989, though, as political reforms swept through Central and Eastern Europe, General Electric strode into Hungary and purchased a light-bulb manufacturer, Tungsram, then one of the country’s largest and most iconic brands. The acquisition, orchestrated by Jack Welch, made for front-page news — and my dad, riding the wave of a stunning historical moment, accepted an overseas assignment to help introduce capitalist practices to a business with a long-running communist past.
We arrived in Budapest in the summer of 1990 — with my grandmother improbably in tow — to find our reality entirely transformed. My brother, sister and I were enrolled in an international school, where, unlike in suburban Ohio, our classmates’ nationalities spanned the globe. My parents, who until then had barely left the United States, were soon shepherding us on trips to Krakow, Madrid, Rome. We bought a brand-new Volvo station wagon. And perhaps most lavish of all, which to my parents must have been a comically unfathomable luxury: General Electric hired us a driver — a man named László, who arrived each morning in his impeccably clean Opel Kadett to ferry my siblings and me across the city to our school.
In the 32 years since then, Hungary has undergone its own dramatic transformation. Once considered the most entrepreneurial and Western-friendly of the former Eastern Bloc nations, it has, of late, become a poster child of nationalism, illiberalism and the erosion of democratic values, offering a political vision that has been emulated in Poland and admired by populist figures in France, Italy and the United States.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, now the longest serving elected leader in Europe, has steadily consolidated power by rewriting the Constitution, overhauling election laws to favor his Fidesz party, undermining the independence of the courts and bringing most of the country’s media under the control of his political allies. The influence of his autocratic tendencies has also seeped into the country’s civic and cultural life, leading to the expulsion of a liberal university and affecting the leadership and offerings at theaters and museums.
I sensed some of the troubling undercurrents within minutes of my arrival, when László, on our drive from the airport, began echoing Kremlin-friendly conspiracies about the war in Ukraine, which have been widely disseminated via the state-owned media and pro-government news outlets.
Despite its modest size and economic output (its population, under 10 million, is roughly that of Michigan, and its G.D.P. roughly that of Kansas), Hungary has garnered outsize media attention in recent years because of Mr. Orbán’s self-described illiberal agenda. A number of Western journalists have descended on its capital and returned either with ominous reports about the country’s lurch toward autocracy or with obsequious interviews extolling Mr. Orbán’s conservative values. Meanwhile, amid the steady stream of polarized dispatches, I felt as though my increasingly distant memories and personal impressions of the place were being supplanted by a series of politicized caricatures.
And so, earlier this year, after spending much of the pandemic traveling around the United States, I opted to push the limits of remote work and settle for a while in the city where I formed my earliest lasting memories. My hope was that I could retrace certain elements of my childhood, dust off my long-dormant language skills, reconnect with old family friends, assess the city’s political reality and, perhaps most important, get to know the place — learn its rhythms, appreciate its culture, observe the life of everyday Hungarians — from the loftier perch of adulthood.
If Hungary has become the European Union’s most defiant state, then Budapest has become Hungary’s most defiantly liberal enclave — to the extent that short-term visitors to the city might easily miss the signs of a tense political environment.
The opposition parties are noisy. Protests are commonplace. In part as a response to the passage of recent anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, the Budapest Pride march has drawn huge crowds in recent years, and L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly venues are on the rise. Even the existence of progressive community centers — like Auróra, a social hub that offers a bar and a concert venue and has rented office space to N.G.O.s that focus on marginalized groups — suggests a kind of political and intellectual tolerance.
And yet behind many of the organizations that are out of step with the ruling party’s politics is a story of instability — regarding funding, legal protection, reputation. According to a 2022 report by the Artistic Freedom Initiative, Hungarian artists and institutions that oppose Fidesz “find it increasingly difficult — and some speculate even futile — to earn state support without yielding to governmental demands and thus compromising their artistic or personal integrity.”
No contemporary portrait of Budapest could overlook its grandeur: its opulent architecture, its stirring public spaces, its many richly appointed interiors. The bathhouses — Gellért in particular, with its Art Nouveau ornamentation and stunningly beautiful tiles — are among the city’s most treasured attractions. (Hungary is rich with thermal water springs; there are 123 in Budapest alone.)
Other highlights include the Hungarian State Opera House, which reopened this year after an extensive restoration, and the newly minted Museum of Ethnography, part of an ambitious development project — opposed by local politicians — to transform Budapest’s main park into a must-visit cultural hub for tourists and locals.
Working New York hours in Central Europe meant that my days were largely free until 3 p.m. (after which I worked until around 11 p.m.), leaving me with an abundance of time in the mornings and early afternoons to explore the city.
Some days I spent in single-minded pursuit of specific artists: the architectural splendors of Ödön Lechner, whose work has come to define the Hungarian Secession movement, a localized expression of Art Nouveau; or the mosaics and stained-glass art of Miksa Róth, whose legacy is scattered throughout the city.
Other days I spent roaming more freely, poking my head into the charming courtyards of unassuming residential buildings or visiting with former teachers and old family friends.
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On rambles through familiar places, I felt the nostalgic potency of long-ago memories bubbling up to the surface: Here was the apartment building where Balázs Szokolay, our beloved piano teacher, lived with his mother, a sculptor. Here was our school, where, during the Persian Gulf war, the Hungarian police stationed armed guards at the gate. Here was the park where, when curiosity got the best of him, my brother ignited his shoelace with a match.
In the afternoons, my feet sore from walking, I often settled in to work at a cafe or at one of the city’s many publicly accessible (and unexpectedly resplendent) libraries.
My favorite pastime, though, was meandering through Budapest’s grand cemeteries: Kerepesi in District 8, Farkasréti in District 12, Kozma Street in District 10. All three lie outside the popular tourist zones, which meant that, coming and going, I came to appreciate a broader swath of the city.
I found that the cemeteries, filled with gorgeous statues from a range of eras, some exhibiting elements of Socialist Realism and others classically suggestive of the life’s work of the people buried beneath them, were microcosms of Budapest itself: trimmed and stately in their well-trafficked stretches, and unkempt at their fringes.
It was the small, quiet moments that I savored the most: at first strolling past, then waving at, then eventually stopping to meet Erika Bajkó, who ran a small dog-grooming business around the corner from my apartment near Rákóczi Square; glancing up at the domed ceiling inside the entranceway to Széchenyi Baths; making an emotionally charged pilgrimage to my old home in Törökvész, a neighborhood in the Buda hills; joining the evening crowds at the middle of the Szabadság híd, or Liberty Bridge, where the heavy winds over the Danube helped wash away the late-spring and early-summer heat; studying the poetry of Miklós Radnóti, a celebrated Hungarian writer who was murdered in the Holocaust, as I wandered through the neighborhood where he lived.
“I cannot know what this landscape means to others,” begins what is perhaps Mr. Radnóti’s most famous poem, completed less than a year before his death in 1944. Touching on themes of patriotism, foreign perception and national identity, it offers an instructive comparison of the appreciations of the land by the native-born poet and a passing enemy airman:
If you want to truly know this place, he seems to be telling us, then be attuned to its details, its people, the joy and suffering hidden in its everyday moments.
At Öcsi Étkezde, a small restaurant recommended to me by Tas Tobias, whose website, Offbeat Budapest, highlights the city from a local’s perspective, I earned my first Magyar nickname: Pityu, a diminutive of István, the Hungarian form of Stephen.
Charmed by my attempts to order from a menu that lacked any hint of English, Erzsébet Varga, the chef, balked at my choice of two dishes containing pickled vegetables — they wouldn’t sit well in my stomach, one of the regulars explained with a laugh — and instead delivered the most delicious bowl of goulash I’d find anywhere on my trip.
And yet, as the weeks went by, I found it increasingly difficult to overlook Hungary’s political backdrop. Nearly all of the young people I met in Budapest expressed a nagging malaise about their country’s future. A few, of course, supported the ruling party, but most were vehemently opposed. Many had friends who, noting the political headwinds and a relative lack of economic opportunity, had departed for Paris, London, Vienna. Others were sticking it out, though the landslide victory by Fidesz in the elections in April — despite an unlikely coalition made up of wildly divergent opposition parties — left them with a gnawing sense of hopelessness.
Heroes’ Square, which serves as a gateway to Városliget, or City Park, seen before, during and after sunset. (I learned to roller-blade here in the early ’90s.)
In mid-May I met András Török, a Budapest-born writer and city historian, at a colorful cafe in Lipótváros, or Leopold Town, a historic neighborhood in the center of the city. His guidebook, “Budapest: A Critical Guide,” updated regularly since it was first published in 1989, is as playful as it is insightful and had helped me reacquaint myself with the city. (Another project he manages, Fortepan, which was founded by Miklós Tamási, offers a staggeringly rich collection of old Hungarian photographs.)
We spoke briefly about the optimism many locals had experienced in the late ’80s and early ’90s — “Suddenly the color of ink I used in my fountain pen, which I ceremoniously bought in Vienna every year, was available in the corner shop,” he said wistfully — before turning to present-day concerns.
“The victory by Fidesz was so devastating that it’s obvious people want this system,” he said. “It’s an epoch in Hungarian history now,” he added, referring to Mr. Orbán’s tenure.
As a response, he said, many of those disheartened by the ruling party have taken an inward turn. “I cultivate my own garden; I write my books,” Mr. Török, who is 68, said. “I talk to my grandchildren and to my friends — and I try to enjoy my life.”
“And,” he added, “I accept that I will never in my lifetime see the Hungary I’d like to see.”
Of course, supporters of Mr. Orbán’s, a minority in Budapest but a majority in Hungary overall, don’t express the same pessimism. At the Ecseri Piac, a flea market in the city’s Kispest district — where, during my childhood, I marveled at the overwhelming assemblage of Soviet memorabilia — I met Erika Román, who was selling a range of textiles. Declaring her ardent support for Mr. Orbán, she explained that “Hungary is a little country,” and that “Hungary is for Hungarians.”
Behind that sentiment, which is widely popular throughout the country, lies the belief that true Hungarian identity — threatened by globalist progressives and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, whom Mr. Orbán considers to be existential threats to the European way of life — is inextricably bound with race and religion.
“There are more people living in New York City than in the entire country of Hungary,” the conservative writer Rod Dreher points out in a recent article, “which is partly why the Hungarians are so anxious about being assimilated out of existence.”
The more I reflected on Hungary’s autocratic turn, the more I was haunted by something Mr. Török mentioned during our digressive conversation in May.
To experience Hungary’s transformation from totalitarianism to free democracy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he said, was a wonderful thing. “Earlier I’d thought that I had been born at the wrong time,” he said. “But then I realized: Oh! I was born at the right time after all!”
A home video taken in 1992 shows the condition of Mátyás-templom, or Matthias Church, in the heart of the Castle District.
And yet he had “a sort of secret fear in the back of my mind,” he said, that the transformation had happened entirely too quickly — so quickly, as others have argued, that Hungarians, having lived for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, weren’t given enough time to appreciate or internalize their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
“We seemed to have been given a free lunch by Gorbachev and Reagan,” he said. “And I think we are learning now, somehow, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
How much, I began to wonder, had General Electric’s quick entry into Eastern Bloc markets — which, despite high hopes, quickly led to labor tensions and slashed payrolls and ultimately proved to be more fraught than expected — helped hasten Hungary’s too-rapid transformation? How much had the frenzied reach of American capitalism helped set the stage for Mr. Orbán’s rise?
How much, I wondered, had that earlier tide of history helped shape today’s?
In late May, I caught wind — through 444.hu, a self-consciously edgy news site, and, alongside Telex and HVG, one of Hungary’s few remaining independent outlets — that a sprawling field of poppies had bloomed in District 15, near the edge of the city. I hopped on a bus for the 40-minute ride, gazing out the window as we wended our way through timeworn residential areas and past Soviet-era panel housing estates.
Exiting the bus near a discount grocery store, I looked out across its parking lot and saw a vast sea of brilliant red petals that stretched for half a mile toward the M3 motorway.
The flowers, of course, weren’t long for this world — merely a momentary splash of vibrancy in Budapest’s weary periphery. Nor was the field itself destined to last: It would soon be paved to make room for a housing development.
How fitting, I thought, since transience, in the end, was one of Hungary’s abiding lessons. After my family moved back to Ohio, where the homogeneous suburban scene accentuated the richness of the culture we’d left behind, I learned that the only constant I could rely on was the promise of constant change. So much simply faded away. My parents divorced. My international-school friends scattered like seeds. My grandmother was withered by cancer. In time, Tungsram would decay, as would General Electric, as would the influence of Western liberalism.
But Budapest, in my memory, stands like a land before time. No doubt that’s why I feel such a connection to the place. No doubt that’s why it feels like home.
Standing on the outskirts of Budapest, watching the poppies dance in the wind and contemplating the ephemerality of this age-old city, I was reminded of a quote from Péter Molnár Gál, a Hungarian critic, that I’d read in Mr. Török’s guidebook.
“In Budapest,” he writes, “you can’t dunk your bread in the same sauce twice. The city is going through a time of transition. As it has been doing for five hundred years.”
By then, I think, wrestling with the past and the present, I’d begun to see the central question about Hungary’s future as one that posits pessimism and optimism as equally naïve: If the historical tides of the last 30 years are anything of a guide, then how could we ever hope to know what the next tide will bring?
Stephen Hiltner is an editor and photojournalist on The New York Times’s Travel desk, where he edits and contributes to the weekly World Through a Lens column. His last essay was about a kayaking trip through Florida’s Everglades. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.
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