Hungary is a hard nation to pin down. Like its people — the fiercely proud Magyars — this East (or is it Central?) European country defies conventional associations tagged in the region, easily dodging the stereotypes thrown into this “other side” of the continent. Sure, it’s a member of the European Union, the NATO, and the Schengen, but the similarities practically end there. Unlike its neighbors to the west and the north, Hungary’s language isn’t a member of the Indo-European family. And unlike its neighbors to the south, its people are more pragmatic and less emotional.
But to really do the Hungarians justice means to immerse oneself in the people’s complicated culture, reputedly one of the highest in Europe. The country has produced some of the greatest minds in history — Bartok, Rubik and Matthias Corvinus, to name a few — and literacy hovers at just a shade under a full percent. Unlike most of the Balkan states, religion doesn’t play a major part to a significant chunk of the population, although Jewish neighborhoods are flourishing in the post-Communist era.
It’s not all roses, though. With the wounds of the Iron Curtain barely healed, Hungary is still coming to grips with its economy, needing a massive bailout from the IMF in 2008 to rescue the country from its financial crisis. Its accession to the EU has also drawn mixed results from its residents; proponents hail it as a sign of modernization for their country, while critics lament the end of absolute political freedom.
“Everyone gets excited about the EU but actually, it’s overrated,” our hostel receptionist said. “Of course, there’s prestige but when the excitement dies down, everyone’s like… what was the big deal? Prices are going up, freedom is lost, and so on.” He’s from Romania, one of the newest members of the 27-nation bloc. The accession hasn’t produced exactly a smooth result so I see the point in his cynicism.
At the center of all this drama is Budapest. The Hungarian capital dictates the political, financial and cultural weather of the country, with major events regularly held in this charming city that straddles both sides of the Danube. Budapest, a conglomeration of the Buda and Pest districts, has eventually grown to be one of the most interesting cities in Europe. Surely, it doesn’t hold up to the heavyweights of Western Europe, and even Prague and Vienna, but the city has its own unique charm that, once it hooks you, is hard to shake off.
A classical concert entirely in Hungarian, an off-the-beaten track museum, a xenophobic bus driver, a privately run bookshop, thermal baths, a lunch buffet… all of these defined our Hungarian experience. Most are listed in guidebooks, but a few are the products of inadvertent trip off the main road.
Ah, that lunch buffet. We alighted the hop-on-hop-off bus at the Hungarian Parliament Building, hoping we could get a glimpse of the building’s interior. Unfortunately, you can’t unless you schedule beforehand. So we just loitered outside. Crew members of a TV station were preparing as a female reporter was rehearsing her lines in front of the building. Not far away, a group of construction workers were boring holes on the concrete with their jackhammers, making one wonder how the TV crew would handle the noise.
Elsewhere, a lonely woman was distributing leaflets at passersby. She handed one to me. The flier said “Lunch Buffet at Low Price!” The restaurant was Trofea Grill. I showed it to the rest of the group, who, having had no real meal since dinner the previous day, quickly jumped at the prospect of a feast. Much like the country itself, the restaurant was hard to pin down, especially when taking the bus from the Parliament building. We reached the place, nonetheless, and were greeted by a charming female staff, who led us to our table as we helped ourselves to the astounding array of food on display.
The next day, after a few more sightseeing, we were already packing our bags as we prepared to go the airport in Vienna, Austria, where we will head for Rome. The hostel receptionist was clutching to his cellphone, just seconds after he called the driver of the service van that would take us to the Budapest bus station. He was making small talk with our group.
“You have a nice country,” Tito Boy said.
“That’s because you’re tourists,” the receptionist said. “If you live here, you wouldn’t say that.”
Maybe he’s right, I thought. Maybe Hungary won’t look so nice if I’ve been exposed to it for so long. But I doubt it will make me love it less.