Sunday, October 30, 2011

Adventures in "Budapescht"

Greetings from Budapest, my favorite East European Capital, where I'm enjoying 5 pleasant days -- mostly work, but with some time for pleasure. The following link provides an entertaining musical introduction to the city, especially if you speak German or Yiddish:  (

Although not as beautiful as Prague, I find Budapest more enjoyable because it doesn't have the constant tourist herds Prague has become famous for.  Also, a favorite aunt was born and raised near Hungary's Lake Balaton before immigrating to the US in her teens.  When I was a kid, she told us stories about her early years in Hungary which no doubt peaked my interest. Gertrud and I were also here about 5 years ago and enjoyed the major tourist sites and the city's ambiance together. 

But, since arriving in Budapest last Wednesday, I have been thinking back to my first trip here in 1964 from Salzburg where I was on a semester abroad.  A favorite professor arranged for several International Relations majors to take a three-day trip to Budapest over the April 4th Hungarian Holiday when we would be hosted for an evening by a group of students from the Communist Students League.

Our meeting on the first evening was with about 20 student leaders in the Communist Student Club.  A few spoke English and were surprisingly open with their opinions when their adult supervision was distracted.  They were especially interested in hearing about our lives in the West and solicited our frank opinions on Eastern Europe.  During our free time on the following two days, we Americans were supposed to stay with our official "instate tourist guide" who would take us to the authorized tourist sites around the city.  However, the Hungarian students encouraged us to try to slip away and they would meet us for more open discussions in the city park. A few of us succeeded on one evening and it really opened the eyes of a young student from Utah.

April 4th is still when Hungary celebrates its liberation from the Nazis but in the Cold War days of the 1960s, the Russians were central to the holiday and were of course touted as the liberators. The primary focus was one of those large military parades the East Bloc was so famous for.  Marching soldiers, tanks and other military equipment passed by for hours with planes flying overhead. A few of us again slipped away from our official guide. We initially had a hard time viewing the parade because so many heads were in the way.  But we soon noticed that there were empty seats on a controlled-access viewing stand that had some Hungarian and foreign student leaders on it. To get to the seats, we observed that they simply showed the guards a variety of picture IDs issued by their home countries.  We decided to try to bluff our way to the seats by showing our American student IDs, which we assumed they couldn't read and that they would simply consider us to be from another bloc country. It worked and we had a fascinating time sitting among communist students watching a parade of propaganda directed against "the Western Imperialists."

This visit was also the first time that I had ever been in an American Embassy.  Our professor arranged for us to receive an embassy briefing on US policy towards Hungary and Eastern Europe and on the roles of the State Department and the Foreign Service abroad.  I had no idea then that I would one day become a Foreign Service Officer myself.

An important historical cold war incident also highlighted that visit.  Those of a certain age will recall that Hungarian Catholic Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, a well-known spokesman for religious freedom and against communism, was convicted of crimes against the state and took refuge in the American Embassy before he could be tried. He lived in the Embassy for 15 years before being released and transferred to Vienna. Although we didn't meet him, we knew he was living in a room in the Embassy while we were there.  (

Here is a panoramic viewer for Budapest that you can maneuver in all directions with the buttons on your computer ( Don't miss virtual tours of the Buda Castle District, the Great Synagogue, the Szent Istvan Bazilka, the Vaci Shopping Street and the Hungarian Parliament.  And also take a ride on the castle funicular!


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ceaușescu - the Gaddafi of Romania

This week I'm in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.  I've been here several times before, but on this visit I'm seeing things in a much different light due to the recent death of Muammar Gaddafi.  Nicolae Ceasusescu, Romania's former head of state, lived a life much like Gaddafi's and also died a violent death at the hands of his countrymen. Here is a 1982 youtube time warp covering a state visit by Gaddafi to Romania (  It's not in English and is not worth watching very long, but it does document an interesting snippet of history. The following links on Ceausescu are actually much more interesting:

I've had several opportunities during the past few days to talk to Romanians about the country's past and present.  And it reminded me that I indeed had a fortunate birth.  Most Romanians say that life has improved but that the Ceausescu legacy will burden the country for many generations to come.  Although the country now holds membership in the EU, it exports very little and most of its citizens struggle with daily life.  I have seen progress in the nation's infrastructure over the past few years (probably financed by the EU), but most Romanians say they must leave Romania to realize their dreams, unless of course, one is a corrupt politician or businessman -- and there are many here. 

From a tourist point of view, the so-called "People's House" is what one usually remembers most about Bucharest. Ceausescu had it built near the end of his reign and it houses the Romanian Parliament and a few other government offices.  It has several floors below ground and is supposedly the world's largest office building, even larger than the Pentagon. The architecture is appropriately dictator style and ghastly.

Transylvania is supposedly the nicest part of Romania and worth a visit.  Of course the Dracula legend spices it up and the farming communities created by several generations of German settlers are said to be picturesque and quite prosperous.  

Isn't it amazing that Germans always seem to do well, even after their fall from grace during the Nazi years.  Yes, the Marshall Plan helped, but their engineering genius and their determination to keep exporting is what really keeps their economy going.  Today, they seem to be the only country holding the EU together.  A couple of Romanians shared this sentiment with me and one even said he wished Romania had been annexed by Germany or Austria. Obviously he wasn't a Jew or a Gypsy!

Here are a few more links on Romania for anyone interested: