We arrived in Budapest, Hungary on March 15th which, in addition to being my birthday, is also the country’s national holiday, the 1848 Revolution Day. DP and I napped for a bit in the afternoon (perhaps a too-long nap) and then set out in high-speed (underground) pursuit of train tickets to Prague before the train station closed at 7:00 p.m. After accidentally overshooting the train station on the metro, we changed directions and returned to the stop closest to the train station. This excitement was followed by actual running around the mildly-scary and not-well-lit train station with just seconds before seven o’clock. Happily, we managed to find the ticket office and buy our train tickets for Tuesday and, of course, the Very Kind clerk continued to serve customers for at least another half hour. We caught our breath, tried to wrap our minds around the conversion of the Hungarian Forint to the Euro, and then hopped back on the metro and crossed the old town. We were headed to a highly recommended Indian restaurant called Shalimar near Franz Liszt Square. (Yup… as recommended by Rick Steves). The city seemed incredibly quiet for a holiday although we did see a few people headed towards the city centre carrying Hungarian flags.
At ten o’clock the following morning, our tour guide, Adina, asked us if we had seen the riots.
“What riots? We thought people were celebrating.”
She laughed. “Yes. Celebrating Hungarian style!”
Suzy, our young cabin-mate on Tuesday’s train to Prague explained that there have been four such protests/riots over the last two years. She said the violence has erupted between Hungarians on the far-right and the police. Hungarian Conservatives are unhappy with the current Socialist government; in particular, they are concerned about plans to introduce fees for visits to doctors and hospitals as well as university tuition. These services are now completely free.
According to Suzy, the tuition being suggested is so low that she would be able to pay it herself with the income from her part-time job. She works once a week, for just four hours, and earns two Euros per hour. She thinks it is “crazy” that people are so upset, especially since the fees for hospital visits will apparently not apply to the very old or poor.
She told us that, traditionally, Hungarians have commemorated these holidays by wearing a small ribbon decorated with the colours of the Hungarian flag: red, white and green. DP and I saw some older people wearing these ribbons. Over the past two years, however, this symbol has become increasingly associated with the ultra-Conservatives. Suzy’s parents feel strongly that this symbol belongs to all Hungarians and have continued to wear it up until March 15th of this year when they stopped. Suzy continues to wear the small flag-ribbon but it is fastened inside her coat where no one can see it.
This state of relative ignorance is one of the strange (and somewhat scary) aspects of living and traveling abroad. If we had not had a tour with Adina on Sunday morning, we might never have known about the riots. We would not have understood why there were so many police cars on the streets nor would we have been able to identify the Soviet-looking “clean up” vehicles carrying city workers whose late-night task it was to extinguish car fires and make the city look as though the riots had never happened. When traveling on the metro on Saturday evening, we were set disembark at the stop that seemed like the most sensible place to make our connection to the restaurant. The train did not stop and several of us looked at each other, puzzled by the skipped station. Now we know that the station was closed as the riots were happening right above our heads.
We have, however, gained a deeper understanding of Hungarian politics and life in Budapest from two Hungarian women kind enough to share their stories.