Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Goulash Communism

The first thing that caught my eye on the Metro from the Deli Pu train station was the cozy way Hungarian lovers tap their tushes as they strap hang. They may just be getting into Consumerism with a capital C, but they are already world class at copping sweet feels on the subway.

The second thing that caught my attention is the intensity with which people on the street scrutinize consumer goods in store windows. The first time I saw a clump of people absolutely fixated, I sidled up to check out the object of their affections. Refrigerators.

Why not? I remember what a pain it was, summers up at Lake Huron, emptying the always brimming-full melted water pan. The only people who take consumer goods for granted are those who have grown accustomed to them.

What I can only call consumer zeal was evident as well in a very long, very patient line in front of an Adidas store. Just a manageable crowd was allowed in—the future shoppers were quite content to savor their forthcoming moments of truth.

A few blocks away, lunch-time crowds tiptoed on benches to get a better look at an improvised fashion show during which the freshly-bedecked models sashayed out into the admiring crowd.

When President Bush was here in July (the first standing president to visit this country), he gave a rousing speech at the Karl Marx University of Economics in which—churlishly, it seemed to me—he cheered that Das Kapital had just been dropped from the curriculum.

When I went inside the university’s building to better examine its excellent architecture, it seemed to me that the huge sitting statue of Karl looked dyspeptic. When I asked two students if he looked ill because of the new free market ideas generated here, they cracked up.

Bush also announced the Alexander Hamilton professorship in business management—a Federalist allusion that would be lost on a great many Americans, I’m afraid. He also boasted that since English had become the lingua franca of international business, it was logical that in 1990, 60 Peace Corps volunteers would fan out across the country to prepare the Hungarians for world business—the first European country to receive such a blessing.

But business works in mysterious ways. In my three-star Hotel Astoria, there was Rupert Murdoch’s new Sky Television, a satellite-fed news, sports, entertainment service for all Europe.

And today the global media baron announced his purchase of half-ownership in the two new Hungarian free-market organs—the 380,000-circulation weekly Reform, which has become the largest weekly by featuring bare boobs in color, and the 80,000 daily Mal Nap, which is just as feisty but in black and white. Murdoch can take half his profits out of the country, but he promised to reinvest in Hungary’s media future.

Robert Maxwell, Murdoch’s Czech-born rival, is about to print English-language editions of the Russian daily, Moscow News. And the Hungarian News Agency’s four-page freebie Daily News announced that the printing press seized in May 1988 from the clandestine Council of the Association of Free Democrats was released to its owners. The media pot boils.

I wish the Peace Corps well, because Hungarian is absolutely opaque to this American language maven. It took me a bus, a tram, a train, a metro and the final leg in tow with a visiting Danish geography professor to find Buda Castle, where the Hungarians welcome foreign journalists.

Mischievously, the Hungarians have swapped the “y” and the “z” on their typewriters, reducing my speed to about a word a minute.

And goulash communism is not all glory. My three-star hotel tried to nick me several bucks on my mini-bar tab. Coke—in the marvelous old-fashioned Raymond Loewy designed bottles—is a merciful 60 cents, but a can of bad orange juice is an outrageous $2.

Still, the public transportation is clean, frequent and—eat your heart out, SEPTA—eight cents a pop. My first three-star night cost me $70. I’m living now on the outskirts with a family for $12 a night. I’m lost a lot of the time, but Budapest is a great place to be lost in—temporarily.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large (no date)

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