A Love-Letter to Budapest

BUDAPEST, Hungary – I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I'm not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don't compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I've flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

Nagymezo utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

Most striking for me, they scrubbed most of the spray-painted vandalism that has enraged and saddened me. I always saw it as a cry for attention from an increasingly thuggish younger generation that ranks as one of the prime “losers” of this economic transformation. The few jobs available promise a lifetime of financial hardship, surviving paycheck to paycheck, fretting about short- and long-term job security.

No wonder nostalgia for the past is on the rise: as long as you kept your head down and mouth shut, the Party guaranteed you the same minimal standard of living as everyone else – albeit punctuated by occasional deprivation – plus a dreary job the rest of your life. One drawback, though, was paranoia of a colleague spying on you.

Then, democracy in 1989 ushered in the freedom of speech – and freedom to spray-paint. Hardly a single building was unmolested. None that I saw was “artistic.” Primitive tagging, as if a vindictive, disillusioned youth, eyeing a future of despair, flipped a collective bird at society – and at modern Hungary today.

This summer, though, to see so little of that urban blight left enabled me to once again enjoy Budapest’s antique architecture and eye-candy of daily pedestrian life. Sure, the alcoholic and homeless seem to have proliferated. But at least I unleashed no more graffiti-related rants, for which my blood pressure is most grateful.

Then there are the slew of new pedestrian walkways and cafés. Kavéhaz kultura is always something I’ve adored about Budapest – and “Mitteleuropa” itself. I’ve now stumbled upon close to ten zones in Budapest that were once narrow streets packed with traffic – overflowing with parked cars and smears of dog crap – and but are now paved over and dotted with outdoor restaurants, cafés, pubs and benches.

Two weeks ago, I met a visiting Dutch friend – who likewise lived here in the late 1990s – at one such watering hole in front of the majestic law school, Eotvos Lorand Egyetem. With columns aglow, it was an ideal setting to catch up with my pal, and grow toasty from a few drinks. Dozens of others likewise schmoozed the night away.

Then there’s the emerging phenomenon of the romkocsma: literally, “pub in ruins,” but actually new eateries and hangouts built beside the unrestored ruins of a 19th-century building, left exposed for customers to revel in its noble dilapidation. In some cases, these joints have replaced a parking lot, so what better way to beautify an eyesore?

Sure, much of the clientele socializing in the romkocsma and pedestrian zones are tourists. But many Hungarians, too: young and old; elites who sweat no cost; a middle class that must pace itself; lower classes who splurge once in a while, likely spending beyond their means. Regardless, they resist the relentless negativity – where emigration out is a popular topic – to make the most of a bleak situation.

All of which fosters a more pleasant urban experience – and fans warmer sentiment for a city to which I’ll forever be linked. Budapest, I’m getting that old feeling again …

Follow Michael on Twitter @mjjordanink

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.