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WOW!

For the first time on our European vacation, I wasn’t too well versed about a major attraction before visiting it: Hero’s Square and its environs. I’m glad I knew so little (even though at the time my wife expected me as usual to be more informative) because in this case, facts and figures would have taken away from the childlike wonder at discovering something new. After we got off at the second metro stop for the Square, I saw a mammoth palatial complex. I had no idea what it was so, at my wife’s urging, I climbed up lots of stairs to get to it. When I entered, I found out that this stately structure fit for kings was actually recreational: the Szechenyl Spa Baths. What a revelation! Beaming, I hurried to my wife with the surprising news. She was as amazed as I was.

The next thing we saw as we entered a park was a turret. My wife asked me what we were approaching. I wasn’t sure. I guessed that it used to be some part of a fortification. My wife wasn’t impressed with such an obvious conclusion, so again I had to find out more. It turned out to be Vajahunyad Castle, now unoccupied. My wife and I both felt that that it had a serene, unpretentious, old-world grandeur to it, as have so many notable attractions in Budapest.

After crossing a sturdy bridge over a lake filled with ducks diving for food, we saw Hero’s Square itself. Two unidentified museums flanked an array of monolithic statues. On closer inspection, I discovered that they were the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Ethnology, two superstructures that resemble ancient Greek temples. As my wife and I looked up at the immense statues in the square, we overheard a tour guide point out that each figure depicted one of the seven founding fathers of Hungary. These highly individualized statues had been so meticulously crafted that I felt drawn to each one of them; I’d certainly forget their names, but I don’t need to know who they were; the statues themselves are so lifelike my wife and I will always remember their imposing presence.

Young people today overuse the word awesome so much that it has lost much of its punch. But I can’t think of a better word to describe the lofty memorial statues and art museums at Hero’s Square and the surrounding park area featuring the Vajdahunyad Castle and Szechenyl Spa Baths. They are authentically awesome. It would be a shame to just briefly visit these sights, as my wife and I did early in our trip. We came back a few days later so that we could bask in their radiance—and to top it off, leisurely hang out at one of the cafes on the charming lake, one of my wife’s favorite pastimes that I am getting accustomed to as we traverse and immerse ourselves in the bountiful vistas of Budapest.

 

A Strange Night at the Opera

Last night, at the Hungarian State Opera House, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the companion operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The singing and acting was as good as we had expected, but there were a few things that we didn’t count on.

At the onset of the first opera, as the curtain rose, we saw a man stroke a horse and then lead it off stage, a truly rustic touch. Right afterwards, a house on wheels emerged and moved towards the front of the stage without any visible means of locomotion. As the opera progressed, other housing props rotated on their own.

At the beginning of the next opera, just after the curtain opens while the orchestra plays, a man somewhere in the balcony began repeatedly and viciously shouting in Hungarian. At first, I thought that this intrusion was somehow part of the opera, but I soon saw that it wasn’t. The rattled conductor stopped the orchestra, the curtain closed, and the only sound in the stunned auditorium was the man’s screaming. Within a minute, I heard a door open and close, and the cursing ended. Either the man left voluntarily or he was escorted outside. The conductor requested that the orchestra to go back to the beginning of the overture. Fortunately, there were no more interruptions during the rest of the opera.

Another unusual (to me) situation was that the two main male characters in Cavalleria Rusticana starred in Pagliacci. The diva who played Santuzza in Pagliacci didn’t look like Nedda, the one in Cacalleria Rusticana, but her voice sounded similar. During a curtain break, I asked my wife if she thought it was the same woman. She said no. The one in the opening opera was a bit stout and wore a bulky black church dress that fully covered her body. And except when she had on sunglasses, an inexplicable prop at the time, her face was obscured as well. And her voice was a bit harsh, almost icy. The main female lead in the closing opera seemed thinner and wore a very revealing costume. Moreover, her voice was less shrill. But when the singers were taking their bows during the last curtain call, the diva picked up a pair of sunglasses and winked at the audience. Ha ha! It was the same person in both operas. It turned out that all three main leads performed in both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Another unusual feature of the night was that the roles were reversed in both operas. In the first opera, the tenor was a philanderer; in the second, he switched to being the cuckold; in the first opera, the baritone was the formally dressed, outraged cuckold; in the second one, he became a sometimes clownish, sometimes brutal, unrequited lover. The diva in Cavalleria Rusticana was a jilted lover; in Pagliacci, she was the unfaithful one. Their transformation in character and in costume from one opera to the other was seamless and flawlessly executed.

Tomorrow we go to our third opera, just one this time, at the Erkel Theater—hopefully minus the mad Hungarian.

 

Schizoid Budapest

Last night, after my wife and I attended the ballet at the Hungarian National Opera House, I noticed that this edifice is another example of the juxtaposition of the glorious and the grubby in Budapest. From the walls to the upper chambers, everything is pristine: the idyllic mythological tableaux on the ceiling, the Greco-Roman carved figures studded on the edges of the four-tiered balconies, the softly swirled orange pillars that perfectly harmonize with the gold-plated trim throughout the theater. As with the other main attractions in Budapest, there is none of the busy baroque extravagance of Prague or Vienna. Here, as I survey the Opera House, I see an age-old comforting understated elegance.

On the other hand, the orchestra area needs lots of work. The carpet in many spots is threadbare and a bit ripped. The paint on the floor has either worn off or is chipped. The same applies to the armrests of the orchestra seats.

I am told that Hungary is one of the poorest countries in the European Union with an astronomical national debt. That might well explain why there is still so much structural and cosmetic work to be done in Budapest.

But progress is being made as witnessed by the scaffolding buttressed against a few churches near our apartment and the painting crews touching up storefronts. In a few years, I predict that whatever is tattered and tarnished in Budapest will be restored to its original luster.

I found out very dramatically earlier in the day that there is as much contrast between the drivers in Budapest as there is between and within its buildings. As my wife and I had nearly finished walking across the street to a tram, the light turned red. Suddenly, the driver in a stopped car furiously accelerated towards us. Terrified, I alerted my wife, and we both rushed to the curb just as the car sped by. The driver, sober or not, obviously was upset that we were still in his lane. I don’t know if he had enough control of his car to have avoided slamming into us, but I’m sure glad that I, along with my wife —who was initially was oblivious to the danger—responded as quickly as we did. Even though I was outraged, my wife, as she customarily does, calmed me down, and my heart gradually stopped racing.

When we got off the tram, there was a crosswalk in front of us. As we carefully entered it, a car approached us. We stepped backwards to let the driver go through, but he stopped and gestured that we should continue to the other side. I motioned that it was okay if he went first; the driver again very pleasantly encouraged us to move ahead. After my last encounter with a driver, I feared that he might be goading us; but he appeared to be sincere. With a little trepidation, I escorted my wife across the road to safety, as the driver patiently waited. Although many of the drivers in Budapest don’t drive cautiously, this man was a grateful exception. I applaud him for being so gracious. I pray that he never encounters the reckless driver who taunted my wife and me. He deserves much better than that. Amen.

 

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center

Because the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center is not located near the much touted Jewish Quarter, my wife and I weren’t aware of its existence until by chance we came across a perfunctory reference to it at the back of the official Budapest City Card. In the section outlining the major attractions in the city, the Card gives information (in three languages) about the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives at the Great Synagogue but does not mention the equally essential Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center that contains an outstanding museum and the recently modernized Pava Synagogue. It’s a shame, a glaring omission.

The museum, which is only a couple of metro stops from the Jewish district, at 39 Pava Ut, provides exceptionally detailed and dramatic coverage of how the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators stripped the Hungarian Jews of their livelihood, their dignity, and their lives.

Before entering the memorial, you see a massive black wall inscribing the names of more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. This feat itself would be enough to make the Holocaust Center a must-see in Budapest.

The well-organized exhibition inside begins with an amateur film of a Jewish marriage ceremony just before the Holocaust and ends with an Allied documentary film of hundreds of rotting corpses bulldozed into mass graves after the Holocaust. As an introduction, there is a compelling 15-minute film on the insidious evolution of anti-Semitism. Nearby are blown-up reproductions from magazines and newspapers featuring caricatures of Jews as beasts of prey. As you proceed from chamber to chamber, you find small interactive TV monitors. There is footage of Jews and non-Jews freely bustling about in pre-Holocaust Budapest, demographics on the proportion of Jews in various professions, photos and graphics succinctly elaborating on the fate of representative Hungarian Jews, some who survived and some who didn’t survive the labor camps and the death camps at Auschwitz.

And on the last wall in the museum, there is a startling quote from Night, a book written by the celebrated Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel: it is a powerful reminder of the horror of genocide not just against the Jews but against all minorities: Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

The exhibition ends at the beautifully and buoyantly decorated Pava Synagogue used as a concert hall, especially for the Jewish Summer Festival. Inexplicably, religious services are no longer held here.  I’d like to think, however, that on the Sabbath, the souls of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews whose names are inscribed outside will congregate within the synagogue—and with one resounding chord proclaim their faith that someday, if Hungarian Jewry continues to prosper as it confronts renewed anti-Semitism, this synagogue may once again reopen as a house of worship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BUDAPEST (PART 2)

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A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Supermarket

The other day, I asked my wife to point out the quickest way to the supermarket nearby. I thought she said that I needed to go past the McDonald’s and then take a left turn. I did so, but after a few strides, I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings. No metro, tram, or bus stop was in sight, so I tried on my own either to locate the grocery store or to go back to the apartment. But as I searched for a landmark, I got deeper and deeper into the bowels of Budapest.

If I were just rummaging through the city, I would have appreciated what I saw along the way: a nouveau art library, a quaint church, an inviting park, and a congested square. But I didn’t take the time to pursue these otherwise sought-out pleasures.

I asked a hotel clerk for directions; he said he spoke no English, a common response here in Budapest from people who remarkably seem to understand every word of my queries. Thwarted, I vowed to find my way home without pleading for any assistance. After finding myself in more unfamiliar territory, I spied a square that I could identify: Kalman ter, a hospitable place where I enjoyed many Turkish-cooked meals at a local chain.

However, the only way I knew how to get home was by metro, and I didn’t have my transport pass with me. Then I saw a tram slowly approach. As a sign indicated, it was headed for the square close to my apartment. I hopped on, not worried about getting fined for being without a pass (only on the metro are there mandatory checkpoints).

Two stops later, I got off. And what did I see right in front of me: the supermarket that had eluded me for almost an hour. It was quite a curiously circuitous route, but I now could get some staples.

When I returned to the apartment, my wife swore that I had misinterpreted her directions. Perhaps she was right. If I get trammeled up again, I can always rely on a tram for safe passage home.

 

Not so Terrific?

Yesterday, my wife and I toured the House of Terror, a museum devoted to the communist regime in Hungary from the Red Army’s “liberation” of Hungary in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although I am fairly well versed in European history, I learned a lot from the dozens of handouts, slide shows, and videos about the following subjects:  horrendously debilitating labor camps for dissenters and people of questionable loyalty who were exposed through a network of unrelenting spies or on the testimony of envious neighbors or even family members, the Party propaganda apparatus, purges ironically leading to the execution of the executioners, the steady but discrete suppression of churches, and the extortion and starvation of the uncooperative peasantry (the Kulaks). At the end of the line, we were taken to the basement where accused enemies of the state were tortured. There were photos with inscriptions of the names of the many victims and victimizers of the regime. In the midst of all of this information, I realized that the House of Terror itself was the headquarters for the communist interrogation behemoth.

But I also found some inadequacies in the museum. One room was so dark that I couldn’t determine what was written on the walls, too many of the rooms had redundant information without any clear focus or chronology, and this is the biggest disappointment: throughout all of the exhibitions and data, only half a sentence was devoted to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, “there were only four days of freedom.” There were no details about what precipitated the revolt, what happened during those four days, and what the consequences were. This neglect of such a momentous event is inexcusable. Another defect in the House of Terror, one which concerned my wife, is that there was so little information about how the ordinary Hungarians persevered during the communist occupation.

Whatever your background, I’d recommend visiting the museum on 60 Andrassy Ut. But don’t inflate your expectations.

 

A Tale of Two Cafes: The Alexandra Book Café and the New York Café

The Alexandra BookCafé, at the top of Alexandra’s Bookstore, is a delight. It’s decorated in the Art Nouveau style, with wall pictures of idealized rural tradespeople above which are found an assortment of frolicking benign mythological figures. The café is a perfect setting for a romantic respite from sightseeing. In fact, we were seated next to a cuddling young couple who reminded me of my early marriage days. Before I could contemplate any more, my wife, evidently as nostalgic as I was, directed me to sit beside her instead of opposite her, where I had first situated myself. We cuddled with as much fervor as the couple beside us.

It didn’t take long for a very pleasant waitperson to accommodate us while we ordered and when we were ready to depart. In between, we leisurely sipped our coffee while we luxuriated in the gracious, laid-back ambience. 

The next day, we went to the much-touted New York Café in the Boscolo Hotel, a former palace. On the outside walls of the café there are about a dozen statues of the satyr Pan. But the inside of the café was hardly festive. The baroque paintings and the carved mythological figures surrounding them, while elegant, had a sterile aristocratic air. So did the wait staff. Every one of them ignored us. After 10 minutes or so, I finally accosted a snobbish waiter who begrudgingly took our order. Another waiter after another 10 minutes brought our drinks. He didn’t even try to be polite, never mind smile. If he had any expression at all, it was a slight smirk. When we were ready to leave, we nodded to one waitperson and then another and another. Not one of them acknowledged us. Eventually, one of the starchy maître d’s came over to help us.

What a difference between the Alexandra BookCafe and the New York Café. One is inviting; the other is off-putting. But there was one thing about the New York Café that topped the Paris Café: it was much closer to an exit.

 

Winsome Winners

Last night, my wife and I attended a Gala concert for the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition Winners. Of the 157 young contestants, four were chosen: third place went to Santiago Canon-Valencia from Colombia; two cellists were tied for second place, Ildiko Szabo from Hungary and Tomasz Daroch from Poland; and Taeguk Mun from South Korea took first prize.

Before the concert began, the three runners-ups and the four winners were introduced and given awards and invitations to study and perform in Budapest. For the most part, the judges, business donors, and contestants were patient, cordial, and appreciative as the ceremony progressed. There was a runner-up, however, who seemed as if she didn’t have any use for the proceedings. When her name was read, she hurriedly came to the front of the stage, pursed her lips, gave a perfunctory bow, and strode back to her seat; and for the rest of the half hour, she scowled and tightly folded her arms. Maybe she was unhappy because she didn’t win a trophy or because she, unlike the other three runners-up, received no extra gifts. During the intermission, I saw her going down some stairs. She still looked the same: unthankful, unimpressed, uninvolved, and spiteful.

While she was a downer, the four winners who performed during the concert were a delight. Santiago Canon-Valencia amused himself and the audience as he romped through fast-fingered, lighthearted short pieces by D. Popper.

The female who had tied for second place, Ildiko Szabo, performed a Beethoven sonata with dramatic flair. When she played lyrical passages, she closed her eyes and appeared to be in a trance. When more vigorous effort was required, she played as if possessed by a demon. Her frizzy hair, which sorely needed lots of conditioner, whirled about as if to complement her fierce bowing. She played so intensely that I was afraid she might mangle the bow. In less serious moments, she playfully smiled during the rare fanciful spots in the sonata. Although Ildiko was perhaps a bit too theatrical throughout her performance, she was very talented. In the future, however, she needs to control her unruly hair. It was almost a comical distraction from her otherwise flawless debut.

The other second-place winner, Tomasz Daroch, masterfully played a very complicated and heavy-duty Chopin sonata. He was so focused that he worked up quite a sweat (I could see every drop of it from my third-row center seat); his handkerchief came in handy. He had impeccable control and craftsmanship. Yet he allowed his emotions to seep into the sonata. At one point, he beatifically looked upward while playing a brief but touching meditative melody. At other times, he rivalled the speed of Santiago and the passion of Ildiko. Although he was an amateur, Tomasz was brilliantly adept and consummately professional. The only drawback to his performance was that the pianist accompanist played so loudly at times that it was hard to adequately hear the cello. She also was somewhat of a prima donna, histrionically raising her hands after playing some resounding chords and making bravura head movements as if she were the soloist.  In response, I shifted my posture so that the man’s head in front of me shielded me from her. It worked. I could hear the cello better when I couldn’t see the hotshot pianist.

After the intermission, the first-place winner, Taeguk Mum, was featured in the Schmann cello concerto. He effortlessly meshed with the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Although he was not as consistently expressive as the two second-place winners, he was superb. I never was too enthusiastic about the Schumann cello concerto. It always seemed pedestrian. But watching and listening to Taeguk as he expertly navigated through all of the intricacies of the piece changed my mind, especially considering the cadenza, his solo interlude near the end of the concerto. It was a tour de force. Taeguk's technical virtuosity was quite impressive, but what thrilled me was the burst of emotion that he displayed, which had evidently until then slowly but inexorably simmered. He received tons of richly deserved bravos.

All of the four winners have the potential to become stars within a few years, particularly Tomasz and Taeguk. My wife and I will be periodically checking their careers. They have immense talent: they have honored Pablo Casals, and if they continue to improve, they might even be as great as he was. Incidentally, when asked why he still practiced at the age of 90, Pablo Casals said that he was still trying to get it right.

 

The Hungarian Parliament

When I am in a foreign country, I prefer not to take any guided tours. I like to visit places on my own (after doing some research) and go at my own pace for as long as I please. My wife and I agree on this modus operandi. But we haven’t been able to get into certain main attractions on this European trip without a tour guide. There may be no fee, but the experience for me very often has drawbacks.

Besides being rushed from one area to another, always having to adhere to the guide’s schedule, we are very often paired off with a docent who has a thick accent and speaks rapidly as well. When that’s the case, which is most of the time, I have a couple of options. I can get frustrated trying to figure out the jibber jabber and become irritable, or I can completely ignore the speaker and within the short amount of time allotted, take in the wondrous sights—whether they are at a municipal tower or at a cathedral cemetery. Usually, I try the first route first, and when the speaker becomes more and more incomprehensible, I detach and just enjoy the surroundings.

The other day during the pitifully short tour of the Hungarian Parliament, the young lady guide walked us quickly through the chambers that we were allowed to see and spoke so fast that even if she didn’t have a pronounced accent, I would have had a hard time understanding her. After a minute or two, I tuned her out. I wanted to enjoy the spectacle, and I succeeded. Although we had only five minutes per chamber, I lovingly admired everything I saw: the palatial dome, the truly golden arches, the inlaid mythological paintings, arrays of heroic statutes, and the medieval royal crown and scepter of King/Saint Stephen.

The tour was supposed to take about 45 minutes. We were shepherded out in about half that time. If I had attended to the tour guide’s spiel, I would have missed much of the interior glory of the Parliament. Whatever she did have to say, and it was mostly data, as my wife later testified, could easily have been found on the Internet. 

While I wasn’t able to spend much time gazing and gawking at the interior of the Parliament, there is one consolation. The stupendous exterior of the building, day or night, is never off limits. From every angle, if you didn’t know its history and current use, you’d think that it was the mammoth imperial headquarters of the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.

Last night, my wife and I spent some time with a Hungarian friend of ours. As a former attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, he was the translator for foreign dignitaries who had relationships with Hungary, including every President from Jimmy Carter to George Bush.

As he drove us by the Parliament on the way back from his house, he commented (in a slight accent and with excellent diction) that this Hungarian icon is so gorgeous, so perfectly splendid that it could only exist in a fairy tale. Now what a great tour guide he’d make!

 

 

WOW!

For the first time on our European vacation, I wasn’t too well versed about a major attraction before visiting it: Hero’s Square and its environs. I’m glad I knew so little (even though at the time my wife expected me as usual to be more informative) because in this case, facts and figures would have taken away from the childlike wonder at discovering something new. After we got off at the second metro stop for the Square, I saw a mammoth palatial complex. I had no idea what it was so, at my wife’s urging, I climbed up lots of stairs to get to it. When I entered, I found out that this stately structure fit for kings was actually recreational: the Szechenyl Spa Baths. What a revelation! Beaming, I hurried to my wife with the surprising news. She was as amazed as I was.

The next thing we saw as we entered a park was a turret. My wife asked me what we were approaching. I wasn’t sure. I guessed that it used to be some part of a fortification. My wife wasn’t impressed with such an obvious conclusion, so again I had to find out more. It turned out to be Vajahunyad Castle, now unoccupied. My wife and I both felt that that it had a serene, unpretentious, old-world grandeur to it, as have so many notable attractions in Budapest.

After crossing a sturdy bridge over a lake filled with ducks diving for food, we saw Hero’s Square itself. Two unidentified museums flanked an array of monolithic statues. On closer inspection, I discovered that they were the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Ethnology, two superstructures that resemble ancient Greek temples. As my wife and I looked up at the immense statues in the square, we overheard a tour guide point out that each figure depicted one of the seven founding fathers of Hungary. These highly individualized statues had been so meticulously crafted that I felt drawn to each one of them; I’d certainly forget their names, but I don’t need to know who they were; the statues themselves are so lifelike my wife and I will always remember their imposing presence.

Young people today overuse the word awesome so much that it has lost much of its punch. But I can’t think of a better word to describe the lofty memorial statues and art museums at Hero’s Square and the surrounding park area featuring the Vajdahunyad Castle and Szechenyl Spa Baths. They are authentically awesome. It would be a shame to just briefly visit these sights, as my wife and I did early in our trip. We came back a few days later so that we could bask in their radiance—and to top it off, leisurely hang out at one of the cafes on the charming lake, one of my wife’s favorite pastimes that I am getting accustomed to as we traverse and immerse ourselves in the bountiful vistas of Budapest.

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