In which we repent a season of overindulgence

Tuesday 9 January 2007

I saw in the new year in Budapest, running around in the Vörösmarty tér setting off bottle rockets, drinking plastic cups of glühwein and shouting in Italian. The city is full of Italians: it seems the locals were more likely to understand Italian than German, and were probably better at both than English. I counted down into the new year in Italian, after a cod-English community singalong amongst the entire crowd of “Twist and Shout”, which I don’t think is the national anthem of either Hungary or Italy.
The Hungarians had a democratic, do-it-yourself approach to fireworks. As far as I could see there was no organised display anywhere in the city, but the council had cleared a space at either end of the square for anyone who wanted to bring their own fireworks and toss them about. Which they did, insistently, all night. I almost spilled my glühwein when a stray rocket spiralled under my bench: about half a second later I saw a youth briskly swept away into the night by a pair of large men in day-glo coveralls.
Budapest is not an entirely cruisy city to hang out in. I almost got myself arrested the night before, during a little misunderstanding with some ticket inspectors on the Metro (my fault for not buying a ticket, but not entirely my fault for displaying a healthy skepticism that they were real inspectors). Then, earlier on New Year’s Eve my friends and I got into an argument on the street with the proprietor of a restaurant who had kept us waiting the better part of an hour before repeatedly attempting to serve us the wrong food.
We stormed off feeling all empowered and assertive, not realising that on this day all the cafes, bistros and restuarants in town close at 6pm. Ha! Who wants to enjoy a meal out on New Year’s Eve? Certainly not tourists! We spotted a few clumps of forlorn revellers wandering the streets from one darkened door to another, before we finally got lucky at a bar that was booked out (funny that) but who scrounged up a little table for us, bless ’em.
A lot of bars did open up later on, including the wonderfully-named Beckett’s Irish Pub. Yes, the walls were decorated with a few drawings of the titular Nobel laureate. Doesn’t that sound like a fun place for a cheery drink and friendly conversation? I was going to stop in, but the dustbins were all occupied.

I had planned to spend New Year’s Day at the Statue Park, which is somewhere on the outskirts of town, inspecting the detritus from the years of Soviet rule. After 1989 it was decided that all the less-securely attached monuments shouldn’t be destroyed, but all corralled together in some out-of-the-way place – sort of like a communist version of Monster Island. Unfortunately, you have to change buses at least once from the centre of town to get out there, and a lot of buses in Budapest use the same route numbers, but the numbers can mean very different things depending on what colour they are. So I spent most of the day ruminating upon another legacy of the communist era: riding around block after block of drab apartment towers until it got dark.
Even without the communist trappings, Budapest is still crammed with monuments and statues from different regimes. I was very reluctant to photograph them because most of the time I had no idea what they were, and the ones I did know about all seemed to have been used at one time or another as a rallying point for some nationalist, fascist, or Stalinist group or other. What with all the rioting lately, I became paranoid about being seen as some sort of sympathiser and getting into yet another street altercation. At least at Statue Park I would have been safely classified as a tourist.
As well as the Mystery Bar that fed us on New Year’s Eve, I have to thank Café Eklektika for giving me shelter on the first, after I’d finally found my way back into the city. Apart from being the only bar in Hungary to have sufficiently gotten over the heady days of liberation to move their record collection on beyond 1990, they let me loll for as long as I wanted in a comfy couch drinking Mitteleuropan pilsner before stuffing myself with a New Year Stew of smoked pork and lentils. It made me realise how much I miss the cafés of Melbourne.

A substantial part of any European vacation is properly spent watching TV. The whole time I was there, the Italian channel (of course) on the little telly in my communist-era hostel-turned-hotel obsessed over Saddam Hussein’s execution. They really miss Mussolini, don’t they? Meanwhile, the German telly was showing the 2006 German Comedy Award [sic]. They didn’t even spell “Comedypreis” with a K – pathetic! I switched on for a bit and saw a bloke in a rubber nose. The Hungarian stations all seemed to be showing karaoke at a local bar.