Budapest Portraits: The Face of Winter

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past.

Not just that they’ve endured so much history in their lifetime. World War II. Communist terror. Violent uprising. Kinder, gentler Communist terror. And now, 20 years of rocky “democracy” – distinguished by its Wild West capitalism, insatiable corruption and bare-knuckle politics.

Collectively, the pensioner generation is one of the clear “losers” in Central Europe’s entire transition. Meager monthly payments, amid soaring costs. It’s been a roller-coaster from hell, with constant worry about today, tomorrow and next year. Counting their pennies. Wretched decisions over heating bills, medical costs, or a cut of meat – if they can even afford one. Imagine living out your “golden years” in such indignity. No wonder more and more are nostalgic for the Communist past.

I see their faces in abundance on the streets of Budapest and Bratislava, or being jostled aboard public transportation. (Only a hardy few still drives their sputtering Trabant, the crushability of its chassis like that of a soda can.) They are a constant, disturbing, but essential reminder of the price of this grand post-Communist experiment.

On this trip to Budapest, though, I was particularly fascinated by their head gear. Most wear nothing less than Communist-era objet d’art. In their possession for 30, 40 or even 50 years. No new mall purchase for them. Why part with precious savings when I already have a fully functional cap?

Among women, the preferences are colorful knit hats, but faded and shapeless over time. It’s that or a furry, Siberian-style number – which have either victimized a poor forest creature, or been fashioned from a rough synthetic that, to the touch, immediately brings a frown to my face.

For fellows, it may be a limp but once-rakish beret. Or a cap that, well, looks like it would be employed by a woodcutter. Ear flaps flipped up, though accessible in case of frigid emergency.

Regardless of shapka – as both Hungarians and Slovaks call them – I can visualize what it must have been like decades ago: in a rusting Communist factory, a Party boss dutifully hewing to his “five-year plan.” Churn out X number of woodcutter caps, demand be damned.

Today, it’d be rare to see anyone from the younger generations decked out in such garb. Not to be too morbid, but … when these folks die, well, their hats will likely die with them.

To tell this story, I whipped out my 300-mm lens and planted myself on a Budapest street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might be punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

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