Budapest – The Pride in Melancholy

Melancholy is an underused, if not misused, word. Melancholy does not equal to sadness, anger or frustration. It derives from our rational and / or empirical understanding that the world is intrinsically difficult, and that life is composed of more grief than satisfaction.

Melancholy is also a national characteristic of the Hungarians.¹

The moment I reunited with Eszter, a true Hungarian I befriended with in Sheffield, on the platform of Budapest-Keleti Railway Terminal, I was also in awe of how beautiful the station hall is. The terminal was built in eclectic style, meaning it incorporated elements from different time periods or styles that eventually look good altogether. It was said to be one of the most modern buildings at its time and I definitely can see why. The station hall has a very high glass ceiling which makes it spacious and bright. It also looked very classy with the stones carvings / sculptures. It was a very warm welcome after a long journey.

Then we took the metro to Eszter’s brother’s place. I was very lucky and I am so grateful he gave me a place to stay despite I just asked Eszter for hostel recommendations in Budapest. As a result, Eszter’s brother, Márton had to stay with his friends for the few days I visited … I have shared a room with males before, like when I couchsurfed in Okinawa or when I stayed in a hostel in Prague. However since Márton and I guess Hungarian people are very polite and decent, they want to ensure that the guest is comfortable or that the situation will not be awkward.

Another reason I have to mention my accommodation in Budapest is because Márton’s place is very special, it is so special I would have no way to experience or even just to see it if not thanks to Márton. His apartment is situated in a former public housing block built at Soviet times. It corresponds with the H-shape public estate in HK that apartments line next to each other in the shape of a square, and in the middle there is an open air small garden. This gave me a sense of friendly familiarity and the second I entered the block I could instantly smell my childhood memories of hanging out in my grandma’s place in a public housing estate. Next to the stairs there are post boxes made of metal on the wall. When bumping onto someone in the stairs, Eszter always greet them even she doesn’t know them. Again, Hungarian people are polite and decent.

The apartment is perfect for 1-2 people. Like homes in France and Luxembourg, the toilet and the bathroom are separated. There is a door to the fairly big living / bed room, there even is a balcony lovely for smoking, beer, or just thinking. I describe the apartment not to over share Márton’s private life, but from the design of the apartment we could probably tell what were valued at the times these apartment blocks were built. In terms of homes, I was told that Hungarian middle class families often have a clean but messy household. They simply don’t care that much. Some scientific researches have shown that brilliant brains often work on messy tables. Maybe that says something about the Hungarians, as they were known to be one of the most intelligent people in the world ?

Eszter has very good knowledge on Hungary. On the Hungarian people, I asked what would she describe as a “typical Hungarian”. She responded besides being fond of making small complaints (like about the grass in their backyard), Hungarians are also very clever. They invented the Rubik’s Cube and played an important role in the invention of the atomic bomb. Apparently they also invented the ballpoint pen, Prezi and other awesome things.

Having very good knowledge on Hungarian history, Eszter explained to me every historic monument in Budapest and helped me make sense of all the architectures.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

A Roman Catholic Basilica named in honour of Hungary’s first King. Budapest’s largest Church.

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Under the Cupola, Towards the Sanctuary and Altar
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Spectacular view from the observation deck (I climbed 364 stairs)
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Soviet War Memorial

The monument was built to honour the soldiers of the Red Army who died in 1944-1945 during the liberation of Budapest. I have no idea why this particular Communist monument is not removed, and I guess the Hungarian people aren’t very fond of it either. I had it captured on camera under a grey sky.

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Imre Nagy Statue

Imre Nagy was Hungary’s Prime Minister twice, the second time for only 10 days during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The Hungarian Revolution is a movement of the Hungarian people in opposition to the oppressive Soviet Regime. Nagy was called by popular demand, but took down by the Soviet Union. 2 years later, he was secretly tried and executed by Khrushchev and remained a taboo subject for 30 years. Only in 1989 his remains were reburied, and 100 000 Hungarian people attended his funeral, marking the end of Stalinist government’s time in Hungary. Imre Nagy remained in Hungarian people’s heart, a great symbol of freedom.

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The Hungarian Parliament Building

The Hungarian Parliament Building and the Lajos Kossuth Square absolutely stunned me. As I turned around the corner from a narrow street, my eyes entered the huge, open space and were immediately set free. The symmetry of the Parliament façade renders the Square infinitely elogated, like when a mirror vis-à-vis another mirror in a lift, and it leads us all the way to the bank of the Danube. It is hard to imagine as many as 1000 people were massacred here on the Bloody Thursday during the 1956 Revolution, but it definitely is more visable that demonstrators occupied the Square in 2006 against the government because the prime minister confessed he had to lie to win the election.

Almost instantly I recalled the Civic Square of the Legislative Council of my very own Hong Kong. It is undoubtedly smaller than the Lajos Kossuth Square, but what makes it embarassing is that the Civic Square is guarded and closed most of the time, which is completely opposite to what it was designed to be – always open to the public of Hong Kong. Before I left for Europe, students started the Umbrella Movement protests there and wrote the most important page of political history of Hong Kong. I do not ask if democracy is the best form of society, but if one has decided to hold onto it, it at least has to show some devotion. I was stunned, embarassed, and eventually melancholic towards what I saw in front of my eyes and what came to my mind at that time.

Of course, the Parliament Building is absolutely gorgeous. It is so delicate, and the surface with details so refined. It definitely is one of the most beautiful parliament buildings I have ever seen. The use of colour brings out a subtle but imperial touch. And like Hungarians, the parliament building is never easy to understand. If I were to make a sketch, it would take me days to complete; and a miniature months. On the other side of the river, it was even more stunning to see.

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Sorry to have distorted the building because my panoramic skills is to be improved

We also visited the Hereo’s Square, the Millennium Underground and the German Occupation Memorial.

The Hereo’s Square is an interesting monument. I wouldn’t have noticed without Eszter that all the statues of the great leaders of Hungary were made according to their most notable accomplishments. The Millennium Underground was nostalgic and very interesting as well. It is the first underground railway in mainland Europe and was built in the 1890s. I feel like people at that time had better esthetic taste. The German Occupation Memorial though is a controversial momument for obvious reasons. There were a lot of protest banners and ribbons. In front of it is a modern style sensor fountain where kids play in. Sarcastically weird enough.

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Eszter, Reagan and Me

Then Eszter was off to mentor a Maths Camp (for smart kids, of course) and I continued to explore Budapest on my own.

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House of Terror

I did not enter the museum, as the line was too long (see photo below). However the metal plates on top were scary enough. On a sunny day the shadow projected on the building walls will scream facist and communist “TERROR” (look at the left side on the photo, you couldn’t see it right away but it shows the characters clearly).

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The Iron Curtain
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Displays outside the House of Terror

I took boat trips to and from Buda and Pest to admire the great bridges of Budapest.

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Chain Bridge
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On the Chain Bridge
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Liberty Bridge
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Elizabeth Bridge
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Royal Palace Budapest, on the other side of the Parliament Building

And I can’t leave a blog post without talking about some food:

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This is from a Hungarian brand / cafe chain. The yogurt is fresh and with homemade jam. You need to stir (or not) when eating. This is the thing I missed the most, as I never had some yogurt such tasty.

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This is a kind of lozenge candy made from a herbal White horehound (marrubium vulgare) and is good for coughing, sore throats etc. Lozenge candies were not meant to be swallowed all at once but it just had that magic I consumed the entire pack in a day (shame on me). It wasn’t very sweet, I think it tastes like licorice, but not entirely … It’s hard to describe. But I like the packaging.

One evening Márton very kindly brought me to a cool place. Google has an office in Budapest (apparently, to exploit the Hungarian intelligence) and there is a place for the employers and friends to hang out too. The location was quite secretive and again, I would never have been to this place if Márton didn’t host me ! There I was recommended a glass of fröccs which is white wine and soda water. I don’t drink but this has immediately became my favourite because it wasn’t too strong or too bitter. The place was really cool, like a secret playground for people who still are kids at heart. 😉

While on the way to the Google bar I asked Márton a question regarding a thing I observed on the Hungarian people. Whichever shop I am at, I would always be asked at the cashier if the price is ok, even if I obviously couldn’t say “no” because the price is fixed, like postage. I was asked at the post office, the souvenir shop (a rather big one), the cigarettes shop etc. I guess I was the first person who had ever asked him this question because for him this practise is so normal and not many foreigners pay attention to these things when travelling. It was still an observation worth noticing and a good excuse for me to read some text on the Hungarian culture.

The other thing I observed was that Hungarians are very hospitable people. Needless to mention Eszter and Márton – I was even treated with home made food – but also people on the streets. The girl in the cafe always wears a smile (not to attract customers, I could tell) and when I was lost on the streets someone came to offer help. While on the streets, a thing which makes me jealous about Hungarian women in particular, is that they are very beautiful and not just the young ones. Their eyes always sparkle and their skin is always clear. They always seem a little melancholic but their smiles melt, not as buffoons, but as classic, modest and intelligent women who are sensitive of the world surrounding her. They also have good style in dressing. This is their very own charisma, not to be found on anyone else. They would also make very good mothers according to the Chinese folk wisdom that ladies with a fair bottom give birth to healthy babies.

I started this blog entry with a small paragraph about melancholy and the Hungarians. Hungarians are known to be extremely clever, but a little sad at times. I attempted to link the two and I think melancholy is a trait inherent to intelligent people. Melancholy derives from our understanding of the world, and helps us become stronger humans in facing the difficulties in life. The Hungarians have this capacity, and they use it very well.

However, from what I have observed as a foreigner, Hungarians are not only melancholic. They have pride in themselves and it is respectable. Their pride comes from good knowledge on history, good reasoning (intellectual capacity) and generally being Hungarian. (Another group of the smartest people in the world are the Jews but I have never been to Israel so I couldn’t compare, but it would be interesting.) Budapest and all the historical architectures have given me this complex feeling that I would need to decompose it to understand. All in all, I had a great experience, and I wish I had higher intelligence to understand more of how things work in Hungary.

Reference
1. István Bori, 2012. The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of Nationhood. Massachusetts: New Europe Books.

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