Traveling to Hungary wasn’t something I’d planned much at all, but when the opportunity came to fly to Budapest for eight days, I hopped on an EasyJet flight and skimmed my Rick Steves’ Hungary guidebook on the way over.
I arrived on Oct. 23, 2009. The day held no significance for me, but Oct. 23 means a whole lot to Hungarians.
It was on Oct. 23, 1956 that the infamous uprising started, which ended with Soviet tanks crushing an ill-conceived rebellion and about 2,500 Hungarian deaths.
But Oct. 23, 1989 was a day of celebration for Hungarians, as the country reverted to Hungarian rule for the first time since World War II.
I arrived late and made my way to my hotel on the Buda side of the Danube River, and I immediately ignored the hotelier’s advice to stay away from Pest.
The front of the Parliament building had been the scene of riots the year before, but you can’t tell me that there might be riots and expect me to stay away. It worked when I was a journalist, and it also gave my mother headaches.
The first thing I noticed as I made my way from the Fisherman’s Bastion to the river was the Hungarian Parliament building lit up in red, white and green, the national colors.
This was only my second time behind the former Iron Curtain, and I wasn’t expecting something so stately: My views of Eastern Europe as a dreary place were completely wrong.
Some of that Iron Curtain function-over-form mentality was noticeable on the metro, with its its ridiculously fast escalators, older-looking cars, doors that slammed shut (no room for error there) and their warning — a two-note horn that instantly made me think it had a place in Soviet propaganda.
I found myself among a bunch of Hungarians for the first time. There were quintessential Eastern European workmen, older women who’d seen it all — from Nazi occupation through Soviet oppression and finally freedom — and of course young Hungarian guys enjoying the holiday with an unnaturally high percentage of stunningly beautiful women.
When I arrived at Parliament, I was sad to see the area devoid of big celebrations or demonstrations. No crowd of thousands of revelers celebrating 20 years of freedom.
What I found was much more somber.
I walked through a park, past a statue of victorious soldiers to a flagpole. The Hungarian flag flew proudly, but with a gaping hole in the center that made it look like it’d been hit by a Napoleonic ship of the line.
I remembered that during 1956, the rebels had cut holes in them to remove the hated communist emblems.
I stood in silence while a few older Hungarians lit candles at the base of a monument to honor the fallen.
Nearby, an eternal flame burned in a marble pillar, and the entrance to Parliament was draped with Hungarian and European Union banners.
I spent the time wandering around and reflecting on how lucky I am to have, through some accident, been born in the United States, where our great civil rights struggles can generally be won in peace at the ballot box, our press isn’t controlled by the government and we can leave if we wish. When I later went through the House of Terror and saw the enormity of what Hungarians went through, it brought that feeling home.
Those interested in Hungary’s experience in World War II should really watch the film “Gloomy Sunday.” As the title suggests, it’s not an uplifting movie, but it’s extremely well-done, and it shows Budapest in a bygone era.