Letter from Budapest

By convention, the lives of local and Hollywood stars in Greece (it’s the same in America if I am not tragically mistaken) are treated as newsworthy. Well, aren’t journalists who write about Despina Vandi’s love life called reporters? Therefore, when I was in my tender teens, I tended to associate anything Hungarian with an actress (officially at least) named Zsa Zsa Gabor. You must remember her: Born in Hungary, she was famous more as a whimsical celebrity sex symbol and for her nine weddings, rather than for her bit-performance in Orson Welles’s classic «Touch of Evil.» Now that I know, and have a higher regard for, this beautiful, flat, landlocked country, which led the movement in the late 1980s to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, I am well aware of worthier Hungarian personalities than the notorious Gabor. Spring is irresistibly pleasurable in Budapest, with the trees over the Danube nearly in blossom at this time of year. A cheerful mood was a likelihood on April 12 when voters agreed to be part of the historic eastward expansion of the European Union. «Do you believe there are two kinds of Europe? An old and a new one, as expressed by the head of the US State Department?» I asked the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs, 64-year-old Lazlo Kovacs – whom we met at the headquarters of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (opposite the Erkel Opera) – two Saturdays ago. «No, I do not accept any such division. Europe has been divided long enough between the east and the west. That’s enough,» he replied. When we later interviewed (with Pantelis Savvidis for ERT3) the leader of the Hungarian Civic Party and former prime minister, the youthful-looking Viktor Orban («Constantinos Karamanlis is my friend!» he exclaimed), he insisted that his party has supported EU membership since its inception, 15 years ago. Yet the governing Socialists have often accused the center-right opposition, led by the Hungarian Civic Party, of being far too lukewarm in their support for Europe. «Nevertheless, we should consider why 84 percent of those who took part in Saturday’s referendum backed the Hungarian political parties’ pro-Europe stand – but only 46 percent turned out to vote,» we were told by Viktor Orban whom we had met just off Heroes Square, and near the classic Hungarian eatery Gundel’s, the eponymous restaurant opened by Hungary’s best-known chef in 1894. He emphasized on that day that something had to be done to convince the some 600,000 Hungarians that joining the EU was positive for them too. Despite the fact that the Hungarian economy is still in the doldrums – «Everything is so incredibly expensive. Hardly affordable for normal consumers,» says Hungarian-born actor Nikos Dimoulas – Hungarians tend to be optimistic after having agreed to be part of this historic eastward EU expansion. «They are just great people,» says Dimoulas – son of a Greek civil war refugee. «You must consider that it was the only socialist country which welcomed us in its capital. All the others sent the Greeks to rural areas, in far-away places. That’s how we got to have a far better education than the rest and to learn from all this culture around us.» The beauty of Budapest, with its turn-of-the-century feel, is what really makes it stand apart. Its broad avenues, leafy parks and harmonious blend of architectural styles has earned it the sobriquet of «the Paris of Eastern Europe.» The city is well laid out, and ideal for walking, particularly on the Pest side of the river, where broad boulevards are lined with roomy sidewalks. The subway system, one of the oldest in Europe, is efficient, clean and cheap. This time I was lucky enough to find a room at the Danubius Gellert Hotel, an extravagant, stunning Art Nouveau building erected just after World War I. There is an indoor swimming pool so that one can «take the waters» in a relaxing thermal spa. More than a decade after the end of Communist rule, the city looks increasingly prosperous. It is not. Miraculously, the money was found to scrub down many of the most spectacular public buildings in Europe, such as the elaborate neo-gothic Parliament. Last May, and after some fiercely contested elections, former Finance Minister Peter Medgyessy, who was not a member of any political party, was sworn in as prime minister. The Socialists won 178 seats in Parliament and their liberal Free Democrat partners 20, giving them a combined majority of just 10 seats over the previous conservative alliance led by Viktor Orban. All the same, wandering around this late 19th century construction boom that transformed Budapest into such a gorgeous capital, one can still see some communist-era apartment blocks blackened by what seems like eons of soot. Some are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the fighting at the end of the war and from the 1956 uprising. Hungary, the first Eastern European country to embrace aspects of the market economy while still under communist rule, is also known as the first of the formerly communist-ruled countries of central Europe to apply for EU membership, back in 1994.