The Land of Shaven Heads

Almost every Hungarian man I’ve seen in Budapest has a shaved head. At first I thought it was in response to elevated summer temperatures, though the hottest it’s been here is 32 C, vs 45 C in Greece.  No shaved heads there.  Some Hungarian men are particularly fierce looking, and the lack of hair accentuates this. It’s possible that at least some of them are skin heads, though I think it’s mostly a fashion statement in Budapest.  There was a contingent of people spouting xenophobic rhetoric in Hungary, as was evidenced last year in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Let’s build a wall.  Sounds like the US.

I came to Budapest for dental implants.  I reluctantly pulled myself away from Greece.  It was hard.  I was in culture shock for the first week here.  As I mentioned in the last post, I arrived in Budapest on June 27, schlepping 25 kg combined weight of my backpack and day pack. It’s probably not surprising that I am trying to find a way to do a long-term car rental or lease.  I walked about a mile to my AirBnb host’s flat after taking bus and metro from the Budapest airport.  I didn’t realize I had landed in a very working class neighborhood and that gypsies and immigrants make up the majority. The next day I tidied up before leaving.  My host is German and very fastidious.  He has already complained about a watermelon seed on the kitchen floor, as well as the fact that I asked if it was possible to shut off the glaringly bright hall light.  He said he didn’t want to have to change his lifestyle in order to accommodate me, so I quickly deferred and closed my bedroom door.  The problem is that I arrived during a heat wave.  It seems the effects of global warming are following me.  It is now 33 C, and only cools off to 21 C at night (a balmy 70 F).  I told him I’d buy a fan.  He said he’d rather do so and ask me to contribute $12.  I did, and am now able to sleep.  Well worth it.  The buildings here are not built to cool off at night.  They collect heat.  Climate change is going to wreak havoc in countries like Hungary.  No one can afford to rebuild, so people will be sweltering.  And most can’t even afford the electricity to run a fan.

I spent the first day orienting myself, got a few maps, checked out the bike rental system in town, and went to Hero’s Square in the city park, where up until 1989 a huge statue of Stalin dwarfed those of Hungarian heroes.  The park includes large tree-filled areas, a beautiful building hosting the famous spa (hot baths), the Vajdahunyad Castle, the zoo, and associated rides. Looking more like a medieval castle with tales of knights, Vajdahunyad Castle was actually built in 1896 in commemoration of the 1000th birthday of the Hungarian State for the Millennial Exhibition, along with such Budapest attractions as the Millennial Monument and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda Castle Hill.  The original building, called Tortenelmi Epuletcsoport, or the Historical Building Complex in 1896, was just a temporary structure made of wooden planks and cardboard designed by Ignac Alpar.  The name Vajdahunyad Var is the name of an old Hungarian Gothic Castle in Hunyadvar, hence Vajda-Hunyadvar (Hunyadvar was part of Austria-Hungary before 1919, now found in Romania). But the Hungarians loved the building complex so much that it was rebuilt from permanent materials between 1904 and 1908, with the beautiful additions of stained-glass windows, elaborately painted vaulted ceilings, and marble staircases.  The castle was built to highlight some of the most outstanding building elements from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (much larger than present day Hungary). Elements from 21 buildings in the empire were selected, made up of architectural styles from the Romanesque Middle Ages, Gothic, and Renaissance and Baroque.

As I still had my 24 hour transit pass from the night before, I decided to take advantage of the local transit and hopped on a city river boat.  The local ferries are cheap (350 for a single passage, equivalent to 1.50) vs day cruises, which are more expensive and essentially floating pubs.  I braved the jeers of four girls (read Coyote Ugly) who thought my purple Sunday in the Park hat rather uncool.  I felt like I was back in junior high, and temporarily removed it to lessen the sting.  Sometimes I want to fit in like everyone else.  Most times.  I resign myself to being less than fashionable and hip because of my advanced years (relative to the swarms of 20 somethings).  Young women think nothing of donning 5 inch heels and walking cobblestone streets.  Not far from Ginger Rogers’ retort of  “I can do anything a man can do except backwards and in high heels”.  A nice couple on the boat suggested I visit Szentendre, their town, located 20 km or so upriver from Budapest.  I met a nice French woman just here for a few days.  We had a nice chat in French, which was a good review, as I rarely speak it these days.  I studied it in 9th – 11th grades in high school, and went to Armenia last year in honor of my French teacher Yervant Andelian.  But I digress.

After about 2 hours floating up and down the Danube, we hit the end of the line and I disembarked.  Wandering along one of the main streets on the Pest side near Deak Ferenc ter, I found an interesting exhibit on the mutual support between Krakow and Budapest of the 1956 resistance movement.  I have a friend whose family escaped in 1956, and I am happy to say he flourished in the US and is a biochemistry professor at a community college.  There’s an exhibit on 1956 near the Parliament which I will check out as soon as I can.  I was intrigued by the vehement public response to the statue of the Archangel Gabriel depicting an innocent Hungary in WW II being attacked by a German eagle.  According to the writings of locals on and around the statue, in actuality the Hungarian government greeted Germany with bouquets, not bullets, and was complicit in the elimination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents.  They argue that the right wing government that had the statue erected recently used it to whitewash the Hungarian government’s participation in the atrocities against its own people.

I spent the next 5 days going back and forth from oral surgery appointments with an incredible bone and implant specialist, Dr. Peter Windisch.  Not only is he a wonderful doctor, but he is funny, kind, hard-working, and a professor to boot.  The surgery was a less than wonderful experience, as I had two 2 hour long surgeries over 2 consecutive days.  The first healed well, but the second formed a large necrotic mass of inert tissue.  I couldn’t speak nor eat much all weekend.  The doctor felt guilty when I came in Monday with such a serious infection, chastising himself for seeing me over the weekend.  Talk about diligence.  It’s now 2 days later and the wound is healing better, thanks to twice a day cleaning appointments with the doctor and his assistant.  It’s been tough going and coming, as it’s about 1.5 miles from where I’m staying, and I often end up having to walk as the bus doesn’t always come in time.  The transit system in Budapest is amazing though.  Between metro lines, above ground trams, electric buses, regular buses, and ferries, they have the most extensive transportation system of any city in Europe.  Or so they say.  I believe it.  I just wish I could figure out which bus to take.

On the weekend I decided to go to Szentendre.  I took the bus across Margaret island, then train 5H (difficult to find).  I met a lovely young Japanese woman from Kyoto and we talked and walked around together for a bit.  I’m too fast a walker, though, and too used to being on my own, so we parted ways and I explored the medieval city.  Szentendere was part of the limes the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire under the name Ulcisia Castra from the 2nd centuty AD. In the 13th century the Mongols destroyed the town.  The Turks took their turn in the 15-16th century.  It was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century and has been preserved ever since. After the Turks left Serbian refugees settled the town, later Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Greeks and Romanians. Each ethnic group had established its own part of the town.  No wonder the main church is orthodox (Serbian).  I wandered till I found the cemetery.  I am fascinated by cemeteries.  It is as if the dead can (and do) speak.  I find out something inexorable about the history of a place there.

What else did I do with my copious free time?  Remember, I had to run to the dentist twice a day, so I was on a short leash.  I walked along the Danube (Duna in Hungarian) from both sides (Buda and Pest), hiked along Margaret Island at night (they have a wonderful “singing fountain” like Vilnius where a water feature is choreographed to various rock, classical, and pop tunes), listened to a group of folks who meet weekly to sing Hungarian folk songs, wandered around the Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda castle, heard an incredible organ concert in Matthias church, went to the military museum’s very informative exhibit on recent Hungarian history, hiked around Normafa Park (more later), dropped in on the Petrofil Literary exhibit (famous Hungarian poet of the early to mid 1800s), found a good cafe for lattes, tried a Transylvanian cylindrical cake (Transylvania was part of Hungary till the Treaty of Versailles), and bought fruit and pastries in the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok), the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. The idea of building such large market hall arose from the first mayor of Budapest, Karoly Kamermayer, and it was his largest investment.  I still say the food in Greece is better.  It seems Hungarians fry everything.  Preparation for the apocalypse said a good friend.  I think it’s a recent culinary development.

So about Normafa Park.  Normafa, named after the beech trees (Norma trees) planted by King Matthias Cornivus in the 15th century, is part of the Buda Hills area, on the Svábhegy (Schwab Hill), close to János-hegy (Janos Hill), the highest point in the city.  It provides a 360 degree panorama of the city.  Speaking from experience, you can almost get lost in its beautiful managed forest (they selectively log).  Apparently it was expanded to its current size in the mid 1800s when Budapesters clamored for open space.  In response, the city purchased forest from landowners to create a large forested area.  Normfa has a little of everything – walking and hiking paths for both the casual folks, as well to more advanced paths for the weekend warriors.  I have it from reliable sources that in the winter, the fields are full of snow sleds and kids of all ages taking turns barrelling down the hills.  Sounds like fun.





3 responses to “The Land of Shaven Heads

  1. Ahyup – that whitewashing jibes pretty well with what I’ve learned growing up. My Hungarian grandfather’s entire family was happily handed over to the Nazi by their neighbors so the government could seize the house. My grandfather was the only one to escape and survive. Not sure I can ever bring myself to visit that country…


    • Wow Pablo. I’m not surprised having heard and learned more of the stories here. And I wouldn’t blame you for not visiting. Anti-semitism (and every other prejudice) is again raising its ugly head here. On the other hand, many Hungarians risked their lives to save Jews, gypsies, intellectuals, and other targeted individuals.


  2. your trip is so full of adventures!

    zsuzsanna has a childhood friends who is a controversial midwife in budapest. can’t remember her name but you are unlikely to need one.

    we return to palo alto tomorrow after having a nice trip. xoxo r >


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