The world is full of “discreet heroes,” to use a phrase from Mario Vargas Llosa. The heroes are those people who make their way through life in quiet desperation, always struggling to make it in the world, while the world largely ignores them. Hungary is full of such people. On a recent trip to Budapest, my second to Eastern Europe in two years, I encountered these discrete heroes in the streets, the shops, and coffee houses. They are everywhere. They live quiet, unassuming lives so that the rest of us can go about our day in relative comfort.
When I first got to Budapest I noticed how happy everyone looked. This is a city with a lot of young people, many of them American and British, walking around. The cafes and restaurants were filled with people drinking, eating, and smoking. Budapest seemed very cosmopolitan to me. The city has a population about just over 1.7 million. Compared with Boston, the closest city to where I live, where the population is about 618,000, Budapest still feels like a small city. It’s crowded, but not to the point where a person feels claustrophobic.
But things are seldom what they seem.
I was in Budapest attending a conference on the art of attention, and one morning I got to talking with one of the plenary speakers. He was an American professor who had been living in Hungary for decades. When I told him my first impressions of Budapest were that everyone looked fairly happy and content he informed me of how wrong I was. For foreigners, he remarked, Budapest is a wonderful and fairly inexpensive city in which to live. But for the natives of Hungary things are bad. Most Hungarians have to work several jobs just to make ends meet. The government takes an enormous amount of pay in taxes. They lived in small, cramped apartments left over from the Soviet era. In addition, a European Union report states that Hungarians consume more alcohol than any other European country. Although Britain leads Europe on binge drinking, Hungarians drink much more to excess. The life expectancy for Hungarians is quite low, with men living on average to around 69, and women to around 77. Then there is the paranoia that comes from decades of living under a totalitarian state. On the outside, it seemed to me that capitalism was alive and well in Budapest. But the professor told me that feelings of paranoia and resentment were still quite high in Hungary. People had not forgotten who the informers were during communism. Considering that Soviet troops did not leave Hungary until 1991, the country is still struggling with its transition to a free and open market. In a recent survey an astounding 78% of Hungarians claimed that they were better off under communism. But then, until very recently, Hungary has always been a country subjected to foreign rule. We often forget that what informs a capitalist market is uncertainty. There is no guarantee that business will be successful from one day to the next. At least under communism you knew that you would eat—maybe not well, but you’d eat.
My colleague went on to explain that the professors at Hungarian universities also had a difficult time making a living. Most were working without offices, and most had to take on private students to tutor in order to supplement their income. My romantic idea of what it was like to be a European professor was crushed. Again, reality barged its way into the dream. I remember listening to my colleague talk and thinking that I would try to complain a lot less about my own professional conditions back in the states. Compared with professors in Hungary, we have it pretty good.
Like everywhere else in the world, homelessness is also a problem in Budapest. With the exception of Lisbon, and New York in the late 1980s, I have never experienced the amount of panhandling and begging as I did in Budapest. At one time I could not walk one hundred yards without someone telling me about his or her homelessness and hunger, asking for money. I gave what I could here and there, and mostly to women. It is against the law to be homeless in Hungary. According to a recent report on NPR, Hungary now has the toughest anti-vagrancy laws in Europe. The criminalization of homelessness is shameful for any government to impose, but in Hungary it’s especially brutal. Sleeping on the street is a crime punishable by jail time. I saw a number of people sleeping on the streets in Budapest, and every time I passed them I wondered how long they would be there. In the Astoria metro station I almost stumbled into a man pissing on the floor. I barely had enough time to side step the stream of piss that would have hit me on the pant leg. There he was, this little man with his limp dick hanging out for all to see, seemingly oblivious to the passerby in the station. When he finished he just zipped up and walked away.
For me this was the saddest part of Budapest. Like the Giuliani regime in New York City a number of years ago, which attempted to do something similar with the homeless, criminalizing the homeless does not address the problem, it just sweeps it under the carpet. Out of sight out of mind.
So, after my conversation, I went around Budapest with a different idea of the city. Now that my eyes were open to the reality of what the lives of native Hungarians living in Budapest was like, I could see the struggle more clearly. One quiet morning I walked from my hotel to the Central Market (Vasarcsarnok), a huge indoor marketplace like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal. Among the food stalls I could see the competition and almost desperate need to sell goods. Yet, people still seemed pretty happy. The smells coming from inside the market were amazing, and everywhere I looked fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit were being sold. I was there quite early, so not that many tourists were walking around. Those shopping were obviously natives of the city. No one was haggling over prices, and the shop owners were doing a brisk business.
I was struck by the number of young Americans I saw, or rather, heard, wandering around the streets of the city. In addition, there were a number of British students as well. One night, as I was walking along the fashionable Vaci, I heard two British girls talking right behind me. They passed me by and, as I had no place to go, I decided to follow them. I should add here that they were part of a large group of British college aged students obviously off to some formal event. I thought that it would be interesting to follow them without knowing where they were going. For several blocks we threaded our way through the streets and avenues of Budapest. We finally came out to a plaza where I could hear loud conversations and music. The students gathered outside, waiting to get into the building. I stood outside looking into a large window. Inside were dozens of students, all formally dressed, most of whom where drinking champaigne out of glass flutes. The event looked elegant and the students seemed to be having a good time mingling. After a few moments I decided to wander off in search of my own alcholic beverage.
In the United States we are used to customer service as a premium experience. However, in Budapest customer service is completely lacking. The first café I walked into had me waiting nearly ten minutes before a waiter came over to take my order. It was another ten before I got my coffee. There seems to be no sense of urgency in the cafes and restaurants in and around Budapest. At first I thought it was the café I had chosen, but in each place it was the same. In the United States we are spoiled by the idea that the customer is always right and is entitled to good service. However, I quickly learned that I needed to just get passed that sort of thinking while being waited on in Budapest. Fortunately, the excellent coffee and the food helped me with this. As often as I am critical of capitalism, customer service is one aspect of capitalism I can get behind.
All in all the people of Budapest are pleasant enough. I never felt unsafe or threatened in any way. Although Budapest does not have the fairy-tale quality that exists in Prague, it is still a wonderful place in which to roam around for a while. As I made my way back to my hotel late one night I was surprised at the amount of people still filling the outdoor seating in the cafes I passed. I walked through a park, only to slide into the pungent aroma of pot coming from a group of people sitting on a bench. I stopped for a moment, taking it all in, then started on my way back to the hotel.