Well, here we go again! Another summer, another trip around the world. This time, we’re heading out across Eastern and Central Europe– but at present I find myself at terminal C14 in Amsterdam. It looks to be a beautiful day in the Netherlands– clear and blue and cloudless– but we’re only here for another hour or so, and then we’ll be jumping on our second plane of the day (days?), and heading to Budapest, Hungary.
I did make a good faith effort to try and sleep, I promise– I put on a sleep mask, took something to try and knock me out a little, plugged in some weird indie ambient music (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for the curious), and very concertedly kept my eyes closed for two and a half hours.
So! I set off for the far edge of the Ottoman Empire, the land of the Magyars and paprika and Attila and goulash, and I’ll be doin’ it without sleep.
Let’s see how this goes.
[Flash forward something like twelve-ish hours or something, it’s hard to know at this point.]
Well, aside from the fact that it was far hotter than I think any of us were expecting, it actually went pretty well? I feel rather like I’m on a boat at the moment– the room feels like it is moving slightly– and there were definitely points where the sleep deprivation really hurt a lot, but my brain is actually somewhat functional right now, so I’ll count it a win.
Our flight to the Netherlands was largely unevenful, although we hit some turbulance right after they served dinner, so that had us grabbing for drinks and hoping the chicken or pasta or whatever didn’t jump off the tray and onto our laps. But the bumpiness was shortlived, and most of us tried to get a little rest afterwards (although, as I mentioned, not all of us were successful in the venture). Once we arrived in the Netherlands, we cleared customs for the EU and Schengen Area countries (hi, Switzerland!), and made our way to our gate for the next flight to Budapest.
Our second flight was shorter, smaller, and– alas– still a sleepless one for me. But that did mean I was awake for our descent, and I could watch the green fields and red tiled roofs of Hungary grow larger out the window. I’m not sure if I was expecting forests and mountains, but the flat plains makes sense for Hungary, if I think about it historically. This was the land of the Magyars, after all– a central Asian nomadic pasturalist population. Plains and grasslands are pretty much their bread and butter. (Bad metaphor. They weren’t farmers, ergo: no wheat, no rye, no bread. Plenty of butter, though.)
So we landed in Hungary, and drove into the city– which is much, much smaller than I anticipated. There are about 1.8 million people who live in Budapest, and from the hills on the Buda side of the Danube River, one can pretty much see the entire city spreading out on the Pest side, low and checkered with churches and 17th and 18th century buildings that look a little worse for the wear of time (and Soviet era neglect). Driving into the city we passed row upon row of Soviet-era apartment blocks, actually– all Brutalist architecture, the sort of thing I always think of as Stalinist chic. There were political ads for the May 26th European Parliamentary elections still on the lampposts and telephone poles that I couldn’t read because: Hungarian. Definitely not a language I have experience with, so that’s fun.
After arriving in the city center, we briefly hit up an ATM for some of us, and then went in search of lunch. We found it at a street food park in a sort of artsy area of the city, close to the old Jewish Quarter. This intrepid reporter is pleased to note that most of our students decided not to go for pizza or anything particular familiar, but instead decided to try goulash or some sort of delicious fried dough with sour cream and goat’s cheese on it (that’s what I went with, and it was awesome).
We then went on a brief walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, and talked about how World War II affected the Jewish population here in Budapest in general and Hungary as a whole. Our tour guide, Flavius, told us that during the war, 590,000 Jewish inhabitants of Hungary were taken prisoner and deported, sent to concentration and extermination camps. In Budapest, the old Jewish Quarter was walled off, trapping 200,000 people in the terrible conditions of the ghetto. We also learned about two men who falsified documents during World War II to provide travel papers to Hungarian Jews, saving thousands of lives– there are large, and quite beautiful, monuments to both of them. But I will say that I was somewhat interested and concerned to note that there was very little public commemoration of the incredible loss of life for the Jewish community at large– at least, not that I noticed, or could read.
I suppose that’s not unexpected. Hungary has some– concerning– politics at present, with a very conservative Christian nationalist party gaining considerable parliamentary power. And a long and painful history of anti-Semetism.
After finishing our tour at the large Synogogue at the edge of the Jewish Quarter, we met up with the students who had to take a later flight out of Amsterdam, and together we walked to Saint Stephen’s Basilica, the Catholic Church build to honor Hungary’s patron saint. Stephen was the first of the kings of the Magyars to convert to Christianity, and so he’s both a nationalist figure and a religious one. The basilica forms one side of an enormous open square, its two bell towers framing a triangular Neoclassical pediment that wouldn’t look out of place in Washington, DC. It’s an interesting architectural mishmash, I think– construction was finished in 1903, so there’s a late Victorian ornate quality to the interior that’s pretty overwhelming. The ceiling is coffered with Beaux Artes designs, and everything– EVERYTHING– is gilded. Including the glass tile mosaics on the great curved ceilings. Honestly, that was what interested me so much about the basilica– it’s not very old, compared to some of the great Gothic cathedrals, or early Roman basilicas– but there was an interesting blend of Eastern Orthodox style in the architecture, although the church itself is Catholic.
Also– the timing of the construction is pretty cool: it was built right about the time that Hungary gained a significant amount of autonomy from the Austrian Empire, as a result of the 19th century nationalist agitation which was so prevalent across Europe. (And which would, you know, eventually lead to that whole World War I thing.) So you have this enormously ornate basilica built to honor a national saint, right at the moment that it becomes the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not the Austrian Empire, and Hungary gains a parliament and legislative independence. Religion: there’s always politics, too.
After giving the kids time to take pictures and maybe grab a gelato, we hopped on the bus, and drove over to our dinner for the evening, and then walked to the hotel. As everyone– including the chaperons– were exhausted, we declared room check for 8:30 PM local time, and collapsed.
So. That’s day one. Tomorrow: full tour of Budapest, a visit to the former Soviet monuments (I am exicited about this), and… some other stuff I can’t remember right now. Sleep calls. I must answer.