It’s Halloween, a chance to contemplate what is more creepy: a truly beautiful person masquerading as a hideous beast, or an attractive costume that camouflages beastly hate? Two very different news items on Hungary, one on beauty, the other on beastliness, grabbed my attention in the last week. The first, the results of a Conde Nast Traveler survey, proclaimed Budapest to be one of the best cities in the world, tied for second place with Florence, Italy, according to readers. For a moment I felt smug that I had studied, lived and worked there on and off between 1988-1992, during and after college, as the country emerged from decades of socialist rule. In 1989, Viktor Orbán, a trim 26 year old, was the handsome face of Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), a political party whose vigor and verve blew like a brisk breeze through a musty mausoleum. To keep out the old guard and ensure a fresh start for the country, Fidesz even prohibited anyone older than 35 from joining their party.
My relationship to the city had been more intense than that of a typical foreigner. I had an obsessive love affair with it and Magyar, the language of my name. Budapest’s elegance, its wide curving boulevards, rolling hills and verdant parks, much of it easily accessible on a network of yellow streetcars, a swooshing underground and roaring blue buses, enchanted me. When I wasn’t there, I had intense dreams about it, as if the city itself were summoning me to return, again and again. I’d wake up infused with an indescribable longing, wondering why we were apart. I kept going back, finding different jobs that allowed me to be there. And I swooned over the language. That a famous poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, had composed a sensual, onomatopoeic ballad, “Ilona”, that many knew and a few people even recited to me from memory, gave my name a delicious context, offering me a kind of cultural connection I hadn’t experienced in the United States. That my name was celebrated, instead of badly enunciated, brought a huge social relief. That citizens of Budapest recited poetry, period, filled me envy, as did the cultural cohesion forged by common literature. Then, in my early 20s, I wanted to see, hear, taste, touch and smell Budapest’s beauty, despite knowing that the Hungarian government, decades before, had shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews, including my father and his family, to concentration camps, and murdered thousands of others on the spot. It would have been simple to write off the entire country for collaborating in the Holocaust, but how could I completely reject a place and its lullaby of a language that birthed my name?
The headline of the second item read “Hungary has Fallen.” I clicked on an e-mail from watchdog.net to read: “President János Áder has just signed away the rights of all that was left of Hungary’s opposition parties after years of gutting legislative powers, crippling the free press, and eliminating all mention of a ‘republic’ in the country’s constitution.” The news, on the heels of a New York Times piece on the resurgence of antisemitism in Hungary, did not come as a complete surprise. Since I started this blog, I’ve been loosely following Hungarian Spectrum by fellow writer and astute analyst Eva Balogh. Each time I scan an update, my heart sinks and my gut contracts. It’s as if I’m learning about an old lover who has relapsed into addiction and whose friends stand by helplessly as his life deteriorates. Indeed, the European Union and the United States have been looking on as Viktor Orbán, now a portly 50 and Prime Minister, has supported controversial changes to the Hungarian constitution that would have appalled his earliest backers and possibly his own youthful self. In recent days, Orbán has decorated three prominent extreme-right wing figures, including avowed anti-Semites. He, too, has become inebriated with whatever is the creepy, addictive strain that poisons Hungarian political life.
Several times in recent years, overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia for the land of my name and foods my late father used to make, I’ve checked prices on flights to Budapest. Then I’ll click on the news. I toggle between romance and reality, between a cavernous yearning and disciplined discerning. I debate the merits of going. Maybe I could revisit old haunts, admire what is new, binge on poppy-seed pastries and bid an intentional farewell. Or perhaps a trip would be disturbing and alienating, since most of the people I knew then have long since emigrated. Maybe I’d wish I had invested resources in a more civilized destination, a place I haven’t yet seen where I can travel without such heavy baggage of memory and expectation. Eventually, the tide of nostalgia recedes, and I forget about Budapest for awhile. Then I will hear about someone who traveled there and loved it. I feel a sharp pang of envy that they can enjoy its beauty without complication, perhaps oblivious to its beastly nationalism. That it’s a top-rated destination suggests that many visitors are not looking too far below the surface when making travel plans.
As I scrolled down the “Hungary has fallen” e-mail, I saw a link to a petition to EU member states: “Don’t let Hungary go the way of Nazi Germany — act on Article VII to ensure Hungarians’ rights and freedoms!” I clicked on it to sign. Then I wept. I cried because should I ever return, it will feel more like attending a funeral than an eagerly anticipated reunion.