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Your President Wilson! 

Richard, the Admiral and Gary

After the intensity of our visits to Czechoslovakia and Poland, we ran out of steam in Budapest.  This was the only time when Don showed signs of fatigue from his bout with cancer, but we all were tired.  Economists from Hungary then had a reputation in the Eastern Block for independent thinking, and we expected to find a somewhat watered down version of communism.  We weren't there long enough to find out, but, in any event, there were no major difficulties.


We were charmed by the strangeness of the Hungarian language.  In Prague and Krakow, it was always possible to recognize a word or two.  In Hungary, there was no clue, no clue at all.  Getting on a streetcar was an act of faith, and we sometimes had to reverse directions.  The Hungarians were unfailingly polite, but there were few English speakers.


The symbols of Hungarys past were present.  We took an excursion to the episcopal see of Estergom, which is a baroque jewel.  In Budapest, a large statute dating from the turn of the last century marked the coming of the Magyars to Hungary a thousand years before.  There were monuments to Louis Kossuth, who had fought for freedom for the Hungarians.  There were public buildings on a monumental scale, as befit one of the capitals of an empire.  There were fewer scaffolds than in Prague.  Despite the Hungarian uprising of 1956, there was no evidence of Soviet troops.  Old streetcars plied the streets, but there weren't many private cars.  You could tell at a glance that this was not Vienna, which had pushed ahead into the modern world.  The old Hungary was vaguely present, but a bit flat and empty.


We got a room in a private home owned by a retired naval admiral and his wife.  (We dubbed him Admiral Horthy, Hungary's pre-war leader.)  We were puzzled about an admiral of this land-locked country.  Where did your navy sail, we asked?  Why, the Danube, of course, and before World War I ended, the Black Sea as well.


As we got to know the admiral, he expressed his displeasure with the United States.  Your President Wilson!  Your President Wilson!  He ruined it all!  He blamed the Paris Peace Conference after World War I for all the worlds ills, but especially for the sad shape he thought that Hungary was in.  For a thousand years, the Hungarians ruled lands that your President Wilson took away from us -- Slovakia, Transylvania, Croatia all of it.  Who did he think he was?!  A thousand years!  


The good admiral, of course, had omitted the small detail that Austro-Hungary had fought and lost World War I.  There was no recognition that these other national groups might have wanted their own countries.  What was said of Austria after World War I was equally true of Hungary -- it was a head without a body.  And our host was an admiral without an ocean.


We fell in love with the cold cherry soup that was served in all the restaurants.  It was very refreshing on a hot July day.  Finding a recipe was not easy.  The most accessible Hungarian cookbook we could find was in German and had a picture of a roast pig with an apple in its mouth.  Despite the promising cover, there was no recipe for cold cherry soup.  We asked around and learned that, even though every restaurant in Budapest served it, this originally was a German recipe, so, of course, it would not be in a Hungarian cookbook.  We returned to the first restaurant where we had found it, and the chef was kind enough to write out the recipe for us.

Next chapter:  Bustend

Synagogue in Budapest

Last updated September 2, 2002.