Budapest without Tears

By in


“WE ARE VERY SORRY FOR THE ELEVATOR IS BEING OUT OF ORDER,” reads the sign on the only lift in the Budapest hotel. Four flights later I arrive at my room. Double doors worthy of a bank vault open to a large space with two beds and a wardrobe that could have been part of the original 1911 decor. Not so bad, I think as I step inside. The parquet separates like cracking ice and I sink a half inch into the floor.

“There is much money but it is little,” explains the concierge as he hands me thousands of Hungarian forint in exchange for a single banknote. A smile appears under eyes touched with a melancholy that will become familiar during my stay in Hungary.

Evening falls. In the hot, antique mezzanine, two barmaids leave their post to sit for drinks and cigarettes with the only other patron. One reads a magazine, and the other measures the man’s advances. The ground floor restaurant is somnolent, so staff disappear into the lobby for gossip. A babyfaced waiter gropes the curves of a buxom colleague. My veal arrives over a bed of potatoes and tomatoes served cold from the refrigerator. The manager, fidgety and earnest, apologizes in German, the second language of Hungarian tourism. “Nicht schlimm,” I assure him. (“Not important.”)

The sooty buildings that lead to the Danube wear their years of communist grime like indigent dowagers in faded ball gowns. Rákóczi ut, a main avenue, looks as if under curfew. A few young couples finally appear. Lamps glow in the next hotel; photographs of the floor show promise bare breasts. White bulbs turn the cables of Chain Bridge into waves of light across the Danube. On the opposite shore, the Castle Palace commands the night under the glow of floodlights. Suddenly, darkness. The Castle Palace is a black hulk. The bridge must have submerged. It is eleven o’clock on a Saturday night in a European capital of two million. Lights out.

Buda rises on hills along the western shore of the Danube. With its castle holding the most defensible peak, it served for generations as the fortified center of Hungary. Pest, on the flatlands of the eastern bank, poked uneasily into the surrounding farmland. When the two cities merged in 1872 to form Budapest, it was Pest, with its broad avenues and pliable boundaries, that became the center of government and commerce.

Pest still has the best shops, a gift of the comparatively liberal “goulash” communism of the final Cold War years. Along the river, Pest works up a bit of Saturday night street life. Couples stroll the pedestrian walkway behind deluxe hotels. Entrepreneurs sell ex-Soviet military equipment, hats and insignia from sheets illuminated by flashlights. Young prostitutes patrol just beyond, calling softly in English, “Business? Business?”

At the Vigadó, a theater with an extravagantly romantic facade, a group of U.S. neurologists and their wives ascend a tour coach. Dressed in black tie and evening gowns, they call to each other with American gusto. They have come from a show staged to tell tourists about life in Hungary, and they look like actors in inappropriate costume, like the cast of a Noël Coward comedy stepping onto a Wagnerian stage. I take a cab to my hotel.


The chambermaid who prepares the bathroom down the hall taught herself English from a textbook. She wants to know all about America. I say that I live in New York and explain what Big Apple means. She tells me her name; here I will call her Anna. She is only twenty-one and small, but she has the stern, solid look of early maturity. It is a face unused to comfort. When I am ready to leave, I think that here is a chance to give away some of the cigarettes that I have brought for barter and tips. (Lung disease is comparatively low among Hungarian worries; many people smoke, and American cigarettes are luxuries.) I give Anna a pack and thank her.

As I walk to the staircase, I hear little feet scamper after me. It is Anna. In halting English, she asks, “When are you leaving?”

“Tuesday,” I reply. The small, hard eyes grow wide and imploring. “I’m free on Monday.” I extend my stay through Wednesday.


Margaret Island, in the center of the Danube, is a public park where Budapest spends its contemplative hours. There are tennis courts, jogging paths, a Japanese garden, acres of clipped grass and much charming woodland. In a city of 123 registered thermal springs, spas are seemingly as commonplace as barbershops. The Hotel Thermal, on the island, is one of the best, and I take Anna to its café for pastry. She cannot believe my generosity; I am amazed that, even in a place finely maintained for tourists, everything is so cheap.

Anna explains that she grew up in Transylvania, a Balkan shuttlecock that, in the twentieth century alone, passed from Hungary to Romania to Hungary and back again. The Hungarian minority suffered along with the rest of Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu but endured ethnic resentment as well. With a friend, Anna fled Romania after the dictator’s fall. The two women slipped into Austria and, in Linz, surrendered themselves at a police station, asking for asylum. They spent three weeks in jail while the Austrians examined their case. The verdict was to drive them back to Hungary.

The hotel offered Anna the job of switchboard operator, but she asked to be a maid because, at $115 per month, the pay was better. After one year, she must return to Romania.

Anna was lucky. Refugees, many of them other Hungarian nationals fleeing Romania, are homeless throughout the city. Whole families, entering Hungary through the noisy, smoke filled East Train Station, had gotten no farther, forming a neighborhood on blankets across from the ticket windows.


“The soldiers shot from the roof,” said Laszlo Lukacs, now of Dearborn, Michigan. He pointed to Parliament, a romance in neo gothic along the Pest side of the river. We are standing on the castle parapets on the opposite shore. “They fired machine guns into the crowds, and the bodies were cleared away in busloads.”

Mr. Lukacs was in the crowd that October night in 1956 when demonstrators pulled down a statue of Stalin and launched the Hungarian uprising. He saw the Russian tanks roll in, ultimately to crush the rebellion and destroy much of the low, broad city across the river, sending Mr. Lukacs and 190,000 others into exile.

Now Mr. Lukacs is a prosperous American, on a visit with his family. His son bought embroidery from one of the old women who now guard the crenulated walls, selling handicrafts to Western tourists. I departed for Fisherman’s Bastion, a fortification completed in 1902 in the general style, and with all the defensive capabilities, of Cinderella’s Castle.

The castle district is clean and restored, a display by Budapest of how it wishes to be seen. There are streets of fine, old houses. Buskers entertain and merchants sell trinkets. I buy a T shirt with a picture of Stalin over the legend: EAST EUROPEAN TOURS, 1924 1989.

The government tourist office has a mobile exchange booth, to satisfy any urge to convert hard currency into forint. Behind the moneychanger is the church known as Matthias. The neo gothic interior is full of arabesques and wall paintings in surprisingly vivid earth tones. The guards, all middle-aged women, futilely scold the tourists to show a respectful silence. At the nearby Hilton, a dapper Russian amiably charms Western businessmen with stories of Moscow taxi drivers. Outside, a vendor offers for sale an entire Soviet Army uniform.

A Bath and Vivaldi

Anna does not know how to swim. I go alone to the spa at the Gellért Hotel, another of the graying ladies of Budapest’s past. After a dip in the pool, I transfer to the male thermal baths. Here men exchange their swimsuits for loin cloths. Hungarians predominate—Magyar Tarzans, in to take the cure. They lounge in two medicinal baths in a great, blue tiled room under an arching roof filled with cracked and stained-glass blocks. Hot water flows from taps shaped like heads in grand fountains topped by nymphs. More faded Budapest glory— aquatic edition. The entire entertainment costs about three bucks, including the purchase of a plastic bathing cap (obligatory for the pool) and the rental of, literally, a dishtowel.

Masterpieces at the Museum of Fine Arts share the walls with peeling paint and white spackles. From a room filled with large canvases comes a Vivaldi concerto, the gift of a chamber orchestra visiting from Perugia. The Italians play beautifully, but the triumph belongs to the Hungarians for showing how to make the best of limited resources.


I know that the restaurant that Anna has chosen is not for tourists: It is inexpensive, the food is good, and the menu is not in German. A woman comes by, selling flowers in bunches of three. Anna tells her to leave, explaining to me that the price, the equivalent of $2.50, is exorbitant. I buy her the roses.

The West Station has no refugees, but it has a nineteenth-century restaurant restored into a swabbed and buffed McDonald’s. My night train to Prague is waiting. The Czech attendant speaks English, and for that alone he wins a pack of cigarettes. Anna says good bye. Her small, hard eyes are furtive and sad. I suppose mine look about the same. I board the train and leave her in the dark of the empty station.