Took another big walk today. That’s what I do in cities; walk around. I rarely take mass transit during trips, but I do consult lots of maps. (This never helps in Boston, of course, which I’ve pointed out is built along 4-dimensional principles.)
As with my previous posts, all the photos are in links at the bottom. I don’t have much time on the wireless network here, so I’m writing up in my hotel room, off the network, then going down to the lobby, uploading all the pix, and formatting the text in Blogger. Like you care. All you wanna know is: What’s the city like? How’s yer hotel? Didja jump into the Danube nekkid? Did you get accosted by every strip-club greeter, pimp and prostitute along Vaci ucta during your walk to dinner last night?
Glad you asked. Stick around, and you’ll have the answers to some of those questions and more! For instance, I did get accosted by all of the above on my way to dinner. I’m not sure if it’s because I was dressed okay, or because I was walking alone, but it started just past the Elizabeth Bridge on Vaci Utca, when a guy came up to me, pointed to a side-street, and said, “We got girls with big tits! 100% natural! No silicone!”
Can you believe the nerve of this guy? I mean, English isn’t his first language, but surely he knows that you don’t start a sentence with a numeral!
Disgusted at his lack of cleanly transcribable grammar, I kept on down the utca. Two more strip-club greeters tried to entice me to go to their establishments. I averred.
Then two pretty girls asked me for directions. I replied that I just got into town and didn’t know my way around. This may seem like a smooth way of establishing that you’re cruising for prostitutes, but in fact, it was a smooth way of establishing that I had no idea what district I was in, and that I’d never had any sorta conversation with a prostitute before.
I blithely went on my way until I noticed that the next several beautiful women who walked past me were looking me right in the eye and saying, “Hello.” I’m so goddamn thick sometimes.
Eventually, I found a neat, trendy restaurant, had a lavish meal (St. Jacques scallops, Nepal steak, and a poppyseed chocolate confection for dessert, along with a G&T), and paid only $42 for the privilege.
I meandered back to my hotel, talking with more greeters, prostitutes and older women who wanted to introduce me to their younger compatriots. Crossing the Independence Bridge, I marveled over the lights of the city. It’s not Paris, of course, but it’s a heck of a show. (I’ll bring my camera next evening I go out, and try to post some good pix, but the Minolta Dimage isn’t great with nighttime shots, esp. long-range ones.)
Home, I opened the window and the door, since 65 euros is only getting me a room sans air conditioning. The hotel’s pretty nice, though. It’s home to a thermal spring and spa, in which I plan on partaking on Thursday (report to follow).
I stayed up pretty late reading Trainspotting, after finishing that Lester Bangs book (his finished work was so much better than the unpublished stuff, and his fiction was disastrous, which helps reinforce a conversation I’ve had with some people in my life who’ve told me not to stress over my inability to write fiction, when my non-fiction is so darned entertaining.
But this particular run of posts has, in general, been more about chronicling. Today, while I was on another big walk, I thought about how I haven’t really offered any insights to what I’m doing and seeing here. I thought about writing, “Sorry I haven’t offered anything profound yet, but it’s not like I offer anything profound at any other time.”
Only we both know that’s bullshit, don’t we? It’s not just the jokes and the occasional wacky situations that you tune in for. You expect something a little profound, or at least a sign of deeper thinking than “I went here, then I went there.”
One way to describe today: Today I went to the House of Terror, then I walked back to my hotel.
The other way to describe it’s a lot longer. Here goes:
I took a pretty long walk today, through the shopping districts, over to the Parliament building, up to the central train station, and through a western-style mall. Bought a pair of sandals during the walk, as I needed something more comfortable than my Merrell Chameleons (great for nature-walking, but city-walking can get a little iffy).
After the mall, I decided to head south on Terez krt and go east up Andrassy ut (where I walked yesterday). On Andrassy, I visited the House of Terror. This building used to be the home of the secret police. Now it’s a museum.
I’ve been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, before. I’ve seen images of terrible atrocities. I’m not sure I ever really grasped the institutionalization of evil before today.
Since 9/11, I’ve contemplated history an awful lot. Mostly, it’s been about putting the world into context, so that events aren’t seen as simply self-generated. To me, everything we’re currently going through is a working-out of the cold war, history spasming out of control after an 8- or 10-year stretch in which we tried to pretend history was over. A few days after the attacks, I said to a friend, “The U.S. and the Soviets warred across the planet. Every time there’s a war, you get war babies. In Afghanistan, the metaphorical war babies were the mujahideen. Like any angry, abandoned child, it wants to kill its parents. As far as it’s concerned, it already succeeded at killing one parent. Now it wants us.”
(This is my way of saying that, yes, we shouldn’t have bailed out on Afghanistan after their war, and let the country fail and become a breeding ground for Muslim terrorists. However, the point that people seem to avoid mentioning is that the Soviet Union shouldn’t have rolled motherfucking tanks into the country in an attempt to brutally subjugate it into status as a “buffer” country. No Soviet rampage, no need to fund an army of Muslim guerrillas.)
When I was at the ticket counter, the clerk asked me if I wanted to buy a ticket for the temporary exhibition in the gallery, too. I asked what it was. “Children in the Holocaust,” she replied. I sighed and shook my head. Maybe I could just pay for someone to run up and kick me in the nuts instead?
The entry to the museum involves a walk around an atrium. The back wall consists of photos of people who died in the building. To see them, though, you have to look over the giant black Soviet tank on a platform before you. I was whomped by the sheer mass of it, the image it evoked of dozens of them rolling through the streets of this city to quash the rebellion in 1956.
But that’s only the beginning, dear reader. Your correspondent ascended to the second floor of the building, where the exhibition starts, and listened to his audio guide. It began with a description of the post-war resettlement and deportation scheme, in which hundreds of thousands of people were kicked out and others were kicked in (like Czechoslovakia’s Hungarian-descended population of 200,000 people, who were “resettled” in Hungary in 1946). The gray-walled room itself (no photography allowed) had a few flat screens displaying old film footage, but it was dominated by this Soviet limousine, which was surrounded by gauzy black curtains. The lights in the room would periodically dim into darkness, heralding the impending age of terror, I guess.
Following that was a short hall of quotes from party officials, offering standard propaganda about getting rid of enemies of the Revolution. Some of the officials were kind enough to mention Jews specifically, while others mentioned “bankers” and “speculators” instead.
Then came a room explaining the policies toward the peasant farmers. They were blasted to shreds in the name of collectivization. The most disturbing part of this room was its shape. It was a pseudo-labyrinth, composed of off-white bricks that read “1 KG [something long and Hungarian]”. When I touched one of the bricks, I realized it was sorta waxy, and slightly pliant. There was no explanation of this, and I suddenly feared that they were meant to represent human fat. I sure know how to vacation, huh?
The next rooms were the anteroom and office of the head of the political police (the AVH). The audio guide explained the history of Gabor Peter, police head for a few of the ugly years. It was nice that, pretty much each time one of the heads was mentioned, it eventually was revealed that he’d ended up in the cells down in the basement, and was tortured and hung.
A room like an assembly hall followed, and the Soviet style of justice was explained here. The benches and walls were upholstered (papered) in reproductions of court-transcripts. From here, it was a long haunting hall about the persecution of churches. The hall was dominated by a huge white cross in the floor. It was set up as though the cross was under the floor, and floorboards had been sawn away to reveal it. Speakers in the back of the chamber played dirge-like chants. There were numerous religious items in displays in the walls, including a haunting (for me) tallis-and-tefillim. The audio guide told the story of Cardinal Mindszenty, who was (of course) tortured but not (surprisingly) executed down in the basement. He spent fifteen years living in the American Embassy (1956-1971) before the Vatican and the Hungarian government pressured him into leaving the country.
All this is still chronicling, isn’t it? It’s not really getting at what I felt. I was weighed down by the exhibits (Mindszenty was the last area on the top floor). While we waited interminably for the elevator, I thought about the sheer evil of the regime, and how on earth anyone could hope to live like a human after it.
I’m thinking now of Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File, about what he discovered when he petitioned the former East German government to let him see the file the Stasi kept on him (he was a journalist who lived there for several years). Many East Germans did the same, only to discover that their loved ones had been reporting on them for years. I wondered how you live like that, how you keep the secret, and how you try to trust someone after you’ve learned that secret. When something like this is institutional, does that make it easier? That exhibition on the 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide raises the same questions for me, of course. Or Croatia, where I saw a news item last night about the rebuilding of a bridge that had been blown up during the civil war. How do you live next door to someone who tried to kill you? How do you turn out the light and lie beside someone who was telling the Stasi about your reading habits?
The elevator came. We learned why it had taken so long. It goes down nice and slow so that everyone on board can watch an interview with a man whose job it was to clean out the execution chamber following a hanging. He explained the whole process, and editorialized a little: “Why do something silly like grant a last request? What good would that do?”
The elevator took forever and, right before we reached the end of the descent, someone’s cell-phone rang. I swear to God this is true. I wanted to be mad at first, but then I thought that maybe it was a really important call this person was expecting. Her tone was pretty flippant, which got me back to infuriation. The elevator door opened to a recreation of the torture cells in the basement. The audio guided explained the conditions the captives were under, and the treatment they received.
Each chamber contained photos of individuals who were tortured there. A larger room contained a table with some torture implements, including a hotplate and a dental drill. I was hollowed-out, in a fugue of sorts. Not numb, exactly.
And then I got to the hall of the 1956 Revolution: filled with video screens of footage, mementos of student riots, walls with reproductions of graffiti. I started to cry. Not sure why that room did it, but my eyes welled up. It’s as if, looking at it now, that the tortures of the post-war era were just a historical disaster. I mean, the Soviets were in control, so of course there were fucked-up, Stalinist secret police torturing and murdering dissidents. That was “according to plan,” if you get me.
But the revolution, man, that fucked me up good. It was that idea that these people wanted liberty, that they were willing to fight for freedom after a decade of this post-war monstrousness. And all it got ’em was tanks like the one in the atrium. Imre Nagy, the PM at the time, negotiated a peace and withdrawal of Soviet troops, but the Russians reneged and went apeshit on the populace. Nagy got executed in 1958. In 2004, I looked at the brick wall with the Hungarian for “Russians Out!” in graffiti, and I hoped my contact lenses were going to stay in despite the tears.
There were a few more rooms. One had a series of screens showing footage of the Soviet withdrawal and the opening of the museum itself. Another was a long, narrow hall of “the Victimizers,” those who committed the denunciations, tortures and executions, or did nothing to stop them. Christ, you could’ve put the entire human population into a hall like that.
(When I got home, I saw “EU threatens sanctions against Sudan” on my TV. Took ’em long enough. And the sanctions are bullshit anyway. The leader will make his concessions in word, blow off the deed, and the EU will threaten greater sanctions. I’ve been agitating about this genocide for, what, 10 weeks now? People like Samantha Power have been on it much longer than that. Why should it take “public opinion” to sway governments to act against a motherfucking genocide? Why, when I know what’s going on, doesn’t Colin Powell, or Joschka Fischer? Too late now, anyway: Sudanese knew what they were doing. Now the rains are coming, and any aid isn’t going to make it to the refugees. The world fucking hems-and-haws over this stuff, every time. And it’s not just when Africans are involved. I really need to go get some dinner; I’m starting to get really bitter.)
Last room. That’s the one. It’s dark, and the wall’s a ring of names (cut out from black marble), illuminated from behind. They’re the names of every person who was killed in this building, the dissidents and the tiger-catching-its-tail secret police who got fingered by their own, like Kadar and Peter.
The interior of the room is filled with thin, wrought-iron lamps. They stand at odd angles, and their bulbs are dim enough that you can see them all. Some lights have stencils of the Star of David inside to symbolize the Jews who were brought down here.
A few weeks ago, when planning this trip, I thought about taking some side-trips. Primarily, I thought about going to Romania, where my dad’s from. But I also thought about Athens. I’d never go around Olympics-time, but I thought that, before I’m gone, I want to go down to the Piraeus, to walk in the same place Socrates (allegedly) walked in during the night that led to The Republic. I had this urge to tie myself into history.
On the way out of the exhibition, I walked into the gift shop. Wrecked, I thought about buying a Hungarian edition of 1984. I went up to the counter with it, and saw a display behind the clerk. It was filled with the most ridiculous knick-knack: candles in the shape of Lenin’s head; T-shirts about “the American Beetle”; and coffee mugs in the style of prison cups.
For a moment, I thought about how tasteless, how inhuman it seemed to sell that stuff. And then I thought, “Maybe that’s the best response freedom has to offer. Freedom to laugh.”
So I bought this.