(Watching the) elections in Hungary

Reply Mon 12 Nov, 2007 09:34 am
There is room, it seems, for a worldwide political movement for all those who enjoy uniforms and hating. The Uniform Hatred Party.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 06:41 pm
March 15, the day that the Hungarian nation commemorates its glorious, and gloriously defeated, national independence revolution of 1848. (In Central/Eastern Europe, the only national uprisings that really count are the ones you hopelessly but courageously lost.)

And when every political groups goes out to demonstrate, with as added bonus the last few years riots in the evening.

I skipped the last couple of events; once you've seen three riots you've seen them all, I suppose. But this time Anastasia and I went for the grand tour - she's new to all of this, after all. Let me write down some impressions.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 06:47 pm
We did miss the main demo in the afternoon by Fidesz, the mainstream conservative opposition party, which apparently several tens of thousands attended (big but not huge, then.) Fidesz has reason to celebrate: it won a referendum a week or two ago, which it had long been fighting for, about some of the public services reforms the government is undertaking. (The "reforms" mostly come down to a series of financial cuts and measures to make people pay more themselves. Confusingly, these are reforms undertaken by a Socialist government and condemned by the conservative opposition). They won the referendum convincingly, too.

At the end of that demo, the Fidesz speaker apparently called on the participants to please not go to the demo subsequently held by the far right Jobbik - on Blaha Lujza Square, at 19:00. (Anastasia suggested they might as well have added "nudge nudge, wink wink"; I'm not sure, maybe he was sincere.)

So instead, we went there. Because after we'd discovered we'd missed the main demo, we'd gone for some cake and tea and a visit to the artisan market, and then on our way back noticed that the road to Blaha Lujza (which is down the street from where we live), was blocked. So of course we went to take a look.

Young crowd. Maybe 1,000-2,000, not all too large. All decked out in flags, Hungarian flags but especially the "Arpad Flag," which is for the real patriots.

I was really amazed by how young the people were - 80% must have been under 30. (Great, a whole new generation discovers pseudo-facsism as its counterculture.) Lot of alternative types that in Holland you might find at a lefty demo, some squatters do or something; studded belts and the like. Lots of alternative student-looking types too, guys with thick long hair in a ponytail and the like. Coupla skinheads. But also just plenty of regular young guys. And a fair share of football supporter/hooligan types.

Overwhelmingly male; I said it looked like a mix between a Motorhead concert and a Marillion fanclub day (or what I imagine that to be).

Still, there were girls too, mixed groups, as well as a fair sprinkling of old people of at least 60 years old, sometimes in folkloric gear. It's a coalition of grandparents and grandchildren. Staz was surprised at all the different kinds of people, but I thought it was less of a representative slice than, say, a year ago.

The two speakers we saw werent great, but in a way that kind of spoke for them; the feeling was like they were also just regular angry protestors, who had somehow made it up to the stage. Not great orators, but sincere. Lots of talk about the politicians being "liars", and Hungary being sold out.

The mood of the audience, for the moment, was pretty tepid. Kind of apathetic, said Staz. Makes sense; after all, these protests have gone on for almost two years now, and they arent going anywhere, really. The government's approval ratings may be in the dumps, but it's not going anywhere, and all these people can do is vent their frustration.

The second speaker got them a little more fired up though. He cleverly paused after mentioning Prime Minister Gyurcsany's name, to allow for a rolling wave of boos and whistles to emerge and crest. And he was strident, very strident. In a hoarse and throaty voice, he railed against the government.

"This is the state our country's gotten in," he would say; and my Hungarian isnt good enough to catch much of anything, but it sounded like he railed against rising costs, against privatisation, against corruption. "And that's what I'm afraid of," he continued - not the police, but "coming to see, in our adult-age generation, our country become such a country; a country of liberalism!" He spit out the word, liberalizmus - "that is what I'm afraid of, not of facing the police and their teargas and their beating!"

Very loosely paraphrased, of course. That got a rousing applause.

"And they say we cant win," he ripped loose, "but we won - that day, on Sept 19, 2006, when we were in front of Hungarian Television!" (At least, again, thats what I think he roughly said - but he was definitely referring to the occupation of the Hungarian national TV building).

Anastasia asked whether he was inciting a riot. Um, well. "And my brother brought a flag, that day", he started in on an anecdote. It roughly came down to that he brought this flag to the protests, that night, and there were fights with the police, there were beatings - and something got on the flag (I assume blood). And "he brought that flag home, and we will never, ever wash out this flag, our flag!" Another rousing applause.

The speaker, who I think might have been György Budaházy, appealed everyone to stand by their flag. When you see that flag, stand by it! Stand tall. I'm not quite clear whether he meant in general, or specifically to the flag they were carrying - as in, when we now go, keep an eye on this flag and let's try to stay together. Because that's where we went next.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 07:19 pm
The meeting was quickly dissolved, and while some people started wandering off, the bulk of the crowd followed that big flag and a throng of Arpad flags - right into a narrow sidestreet.

That was new; previously the protestors had always stuck to the big boulevards. I've often wondered about that - they would set off for the distant Socialist Party HQ along the big boulevard as riot police regrouped in the distance, when there was a neighbourhood Socialist Party office right down a sidestreet that nobody seemed to care about. Always the big boulevards. Not this time.

Down Markus Street we went, a left and a right into the narrow Somogyi Bela Street. The chants of "Ria-ria-Hungaria" and "Gyurcsany, clear out!" echoed against the residential buildings, people appearing at windows and balconies. The regulars at the pub on the corner on the sidewalk. "Is there a plan?", a guy asked me, turning around, "Where are we going?" I didnt know either. (Later, in the news, I saw that the aim was probably the Palace of Arts where Gyurcsany was speaking - a helluva long way out).

At Berkocsics Street we went left again, engulfing the car of a poor driver trying to still go through - with people calling at him through the window, a dog put on his hood for a moment, he already looked annoyed or scared, but probably didnt suspect there was still two streetlengths of people coming up.

That put us back on the big korut (boulevard) again. In the distance the flashlights of the riot police. "Ah, there you are!," a big guy in black called out next to us. The mood was pretty cheerful, but it didnt take a second look at the couple of guys (and girls) with balaclavas or these medical breathing caps, a guy with a motorhelmet on and a girl with skiglasses, and lots of guys with caps and sweaters covering most of their face, that action was being looked for.

We ground to a halt about 200-300 meter ahead of the police. Some went on - we rushed ahead so as to be in front of the demo rather than in it, and saw this guy yelling into the face of a cop, "fight, then, fight!". But surprise, something was amove further back. "Stop, stop!", people were yelling, and lo and behold, off the whole demo went into another little sidestreet to the right, a couple of hundred meters before the police, followed by a quick turn to the left in a narrow street parallel to the boulevard. Foiled!

So I told Staz how Id never gotten the thing about these protests sticking to the big boulevards, where the riot police amasses - why not try to go round? This was definitely a new strategy. Look, I said, pointing to riot police hastily cordoning off the next sidestreet back towards the boulevard - they're wrongfooted, they're improvising now. We were headed right to the Museum of Applied Arts, across from where our sidestreet would emerge onto the big Ulloi boulevard.

Maybe it wasnt such a good new strategy. That end of the street was cordoned off too. And we couldnt see what was happening out front, but we saw a couple of firy things (molotov cocktails or just firecrackers) being hurled towards the police, and within less than a minute tear gas grenades were lobbed into our narrow sidestreet. I saw a couple of guys stamping on one, a bottle of water quickly being emptied onto another, but pop, pop, pop, there were more and more.

Smoke spread, people surged back. I gave Staz my scarf and pulled up my tee over my mouth as we all turned around and tried to go back, and it was OK that we couldnt see anything anymore with stinging eyes because the street was now amassed so full that you were just being pushed forward. Slowly.

One big guy in front of us, when catching Staz letting down her scarf, motioned to her - your face, put something up! Because you know, these are some of the politest rioters. Once we got out of the teargas, a local 24/7 was suddenly swamped with people, all buying water. One after the other, in line. Good evening. This, please. Thank you. Good night.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 08:23 pm
I think the group split around that time; one part had crowded up an alternate sidestreet towards the police there, another regrouped on the Korut further up. In the meantime we passed a fancy restaurant; inside the guests were dining and casting only a weary glance out.

Back on the Korut police was moving up too, though. More teargas grenades got lobbed. The crowd crossed into Baross Street instead; on the way, someone kicked at the door of the McDonalds, but halfheartedly, and walked on when nothing budged. Someone else tried breaking a big rock into more practically sized stones by throwing it on the street, but only ended up almost hitting someone else. And once we were out a bit on Baross, a police barricade loomed in the distance there too.

Yes, this is how repetitive and tedious riots are, really. Cat and mouse, over and over just cat and mouse.

Off the group of by now maybe a 100, 200 people went into another sidestreet. I wasnt liking this sidestreet strategy anymore. "Hey, this is the VIII district", someone said to his mate. Yeah, the other guy went - "Gypsies!" That's what this night is going to end up in, Staz muttered - some Gypsies being beaten up.

(I forgot this was one of the things the second speaker at the rally said too - how millions were being spent on things like Gypsies; insert boos.)

There was a right turn and a left and a left again, and we were up to Szigony Street now, where a first cluster of highrise apartment blocks signals that you're really getting away from the city center now. I've made a lot of pictures in this neighbourhood - it's the most ramshackle one within the city's inside circle. It's all fine to have a sidestreet strategy to foil the cops, I said, but if it ends you up somewhere out in the back of the VIIIth district, its not doing you much good is it?

I'm sure the people there hadnt ever had a demo pass through. They kept their windows well shut, too. Earlier on, there'd still been a woman, in her 50s or 60s, who'd opened the window and was cheering the protestors on, enthused: Ria ria, Hungaria! But she'd been the only one.

When we saw the protestors around us head down another narrow street while a police van silently positioned itself down the street to our left, we bolted. And turned round the block so we ended up behind the police line instead. Us and a teenager taking photos; and a young, handsome couple badgering the cops. Complaining, saying it was the cops' fault, not the protesters; that down street x and y they'd seen some mess, but it hadnt been the rioters, it'd been the police who'd done it. The cops were surprisingly patient with them. Didnt say anything to us either, standing on the corner right behind them. They must have been instructed to make a strict distinction between protestors and bystanders; they're polite to bystanders, and - well.

It was very different being on the other side. There were only about 15 cops, in a single row. Ahead of them, 150 protestors. Behind them, two three police vans awkwardly parked, the streets too narrow for much navigation. Soon the bottles started flying, and rocks. Some hit their shields or came bouncing through. A plain clothes cop was yelling into his phone - "Prater Street, Szigony, it's a mess, they're throwing bottles and all kinds of things". Another turned to us and softly said, "Inkabb hazamenjetek"; you'd better go home now.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 08:49 pm
We walked down some streets and Staz thought the mood was eerie. Parked police buses, even of the border police. People walking to and fro, in couples or small groups, to where the action is or away from it, in the dark and shadowy streets -- because I swear, the Budapest neighbourhoods around the immediate city centre make for a great filmset. If you want to recreate the 1930s, you do it here (it's one of the most popular film locations). People on their cell saying, "I'm on X street, what's happening there?" Or, "the police is to the left, about 400 meter" (you've got to wonder how they coordinated riots before the cellphone).

That was on Ulloi boulevard - after all. Protestors milled about aimlessly, much like police cars and vans passed and turned aimlessly. But suddenly an unmarked van had driven up, and a handful of riot police and plainclothes cops jumped out and seemed to grab a group of people pretty much randomly. Stuffed them in the van, climbed in behind them and drove off right as other people gathered round to shout and protest at the arrests.

We were approaching the big Korut again when we passed a Gyros place, and quickly jumped back. Fisticuff inside. A black-jacketed bald guy with a Hungarian flag cockade was being pushed back by the Greek owner and his staff or customers. In no time he was on the floor, being kicked into a corner. A mate of his dragged him halfway out, but even gashed and bleeding, the guy, drunk up his neck, wasnt having it. Aggressively he lurched forward into the Gyros place again. "I'm Hungarian!", he yelled, a lot of times, and "This is our country!", and "you're Greek!"

A scene ensued that pretty much encapsulated the evening. Lots of posturing. The gashed, slightly beerbellied rioter yelling that he was Hungarian, but also complaining - "I was alone! I came here alone! You are with five!" He had a point. From the inside, a lanky guy with half-long hair and a t-shirt with Coca Cola written on it in some other script ("he's gay", said Staz) postured back. He alternately pushed the guy out awkwardly, offering him a pile of napkins to wipe his face with (which the guy refused), and himself burst out again, lurching towards the guy.

One moment the rioter was out, the next he was back in and grabbed the lanky boy at his throat. Mates on both sides were doing the "let him be, let him be" thing pulling them back from each other. At some point the guys inside managed to haul closed the door, only for some random guy in black to bounce by out of nowhere, kick in the door and run off.

But this was also political. The gashed up guy had backup from fellow protestors milling about. An overweight blonde woman with a bomberjacket yelled at the guy inside the shop: We're Hungarians! So am I, the guy yelled back. "Well then why are you working for them?! Why are you working for Greeks! You should be working for Hungarians!"

Eventually the guy exploded, catapulted himself onto the sidewalk and gave the speech of the night. Pivoting round, he yelled at everyone, What is this country? What is this kurva (whore) country? Three times yes or three times no (a reference to last week's referendum), is that's all it f*cking is now?! Everyone's crazy! This is insane!"

This was before the cockaded guy, after being once more dragged out of the shop by his mate, slammed his fist hard into the glass window next to the rotating gyros meat, instantly splintering it. It took two seconds for a couple of press people to rush on, in their fluorescent yellow jackets saying "PRESS", camera in hand. It took twenty seconds for a phalanx of riot police in bulky black gear to storm in. They swooped down on the scene like a precision gun, and ran past in a split second of military black to go after the guy who'd by now run off. Another ten seconds later they all swooped back out again, without the guy. It was all quite impressive, confusing and useless at the same time.
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 08:59 pm
Thanks, nimh and staz..
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Reply Sat 15 Mar, 2008 09:31 pm
In the end it was a seriously large protester in black who broke it up. Angrily. He too seemed to come from nowhere, and he too practically gave an impromptu 30-second speech. What the F are you doing here? You shouldnt occupy yourself with things like this! We have to go to Kalvin Square! There's police! Why are you occupying yourself with this small ****! Go already!

Or something that roughly came down to that. He's the guy who actually cares, we decided - cares about the bigger picture. The bigger far right picture, in this case, of course. But still it was hard not to sympathise; I mean, that's the guy in the most thankless position. He actually believes in the struggle as he sees it, and on the one hand you've got police randomly beating people up, and on the other this motley crue of hooligans, white trash, random angry kids, old age fascist veterans, and lots of people generally angry at the government but pretty reluctant about his whole movement too. Like herding cats.

So we followed his instructions and headed for Kalvin Square. Not expecting much anymore, because by now the boulevards were really almost empty - though we did see that handsome couple that'd been badgering the cops out on Szigony (not such random civilian bystanders, then). Mostly just desultory little groups heading home.

We walked down the sidewalk as police vans passed by. Ahead of us walked two guys. Carrying flags, but otherwise pretty much minding their business. Going home, probably. Suddenly another van screeched to a halt ahead of us. Riot cops catapulted out and just jumped on those two guys. I grabbed Staz to turn back and by the time I looked around they had those guys pressed against the wall violently. An upscale looking man with a Hungarian flag cockade on his long coat stopped where we were standing with his two friends, and I blurted out, "they were doing nothing! they were just walking!". They nodded quietly, then pointed out that the police van was also another unmarked white van.

Minutes later, though, they also had that guy who'd put his fist through the Gyros shop window against the wall. I dont know where he came from, honestly. At least one person got what he deserved tonight.

It was still just 10:30. We were home by 11.

It's hard to easily identify the good guys and the bad guys in all this. Good guys, especially, seem to just be in very short supply. And yet how easy it turns out to identify with pretty much any of them, at different moments. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but dont ask me.
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Reply Sun 16 Mar, 2008 06:50 am
Wow, excellent writing!! The situation itself is fascinating but the writing was also top-notch. Feels a bit shallow to say so I guess -- but had to comment.

Thanks much, really got a feel for the whole situation.
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Reply Sun 16 Mar, 2008 09:59 am
Thanks, Osso and Soz!

That was one long-ass description in all those parts, but I found it interesting to just write down everything I saw, even just the small stuff. Glad you found it of interest too!

And thanks for the compliments, Soz - it's just raw, I was just typing it all out, didnt take much care of how...
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Reply Sun 6 Apr, 2008 08:31 pm
There's a tiny squatter movement budding in this city, and the anarchists are making their presence known in the neighbourhood with the odd bit of graffiti, handmade posters, or improvised stickers.

"Not left, not right, but freedom!", it's scrawled on the wall across from the half-demolished former bath house. "Say no to politics!," a sticker says. And an elaborate little poster on a lamppost on the boulevard, attached with sticky tape, shows the Darwin sequence of drawings from ape to human, except the other way round: first the upright human, then the primitive man with spear, than manape.. at the end, a ferocious ape with a grin of teeth, and a red-and-white Arpad flag insignia.

"The Holy Hungarian Evolution," it says above.
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Reply Sun 6 Apr, 2008 08:47 pm
What we need is more reporters out there, getting their own stuff, and fewer rewriting each others. Good job, Nimh.
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Reply Fri 30 May, 2008 02:30 am
hey hey, homeboy! just read this, finally - awesome job!

i was also compelled to write something about that night - but was submitting it for publication, and i wanted it to be all my own writing, so i didn't read what boyfriend wrote. mostly forgot about it, 'til now. <s>

i don't think what i wrote will be published - they're looking for more literary angle than what i present here - a snippet of that evening, from my point of view:

Alien Privilege

I tasted tear gas for the first time yesterday. It tasted like nothing.

It felt like nothing, too, at first.

We'd gone about a block and a half - from Baross Street, past a side street where people had been making fun of the dozen riot police officers who were running toward us.

"Ha ha! We got past the police line. Stupid pigs."

Small, burning embers flew over our heads and landed on the ground behind us. Boots stomped out the resulting fires. And then all of the people who'd just marched with such determination down Maria Street were suddenly hurrying back up the narrow lane.

I wondered if the police were still on the corner - or if they'd moved back up to the boulevard, afraid of being trampled. I wondered if it were possible for this gentle, polite crowd of protestors to trample anyone. I wondered why we were backtracking.

And then I wondered why I couldn't breathe.

My friend pulled the scarf off his neck and wrapped it around my head, covering my mouth and nose - and very nearly my eyes. I pulled it down again. I did not want to be wearing that candy-cane striped scarf on any part of my body when we passed those riot police. Red and white are the colors of the "real" Hungarian national flag - the nationalist flag. I did not want to be arrested as an insurgent. All I wanted was to take a breath.

I gasped once. Twice. My friend had buried his face in his coat - everyone was burying their face somewhere. The street was packed with cars pulled up onto the sidewalk that we were attempting to scuttle down, five across. We pressed forward, climbing over bumpers and sliding across car hoods. I stopped attempts at breathing - conserved oxygen and concentrated on moving with the crowd and thinking of anything other than the sting in my eyes and the vise-clamp pressure in my chest. There were tears dripping off my chin. Panic welled. I would be trampled any moment. There's no way people will remain calm in the face of this. Etiquette will fly away - up and up on those ashes; past the tops of the four- and five-story apartment buildings, into fresh air - leaving us below to claw our way out.

But they simply turned around and started walking in the opposite direction - their eyes streaming, hands pressed against the backs of the people in front of them. Gasping and coughing. No one trying to pass anyone - perhaps realizing that moving as one unit was the only way to escape that invisible pain. I concentrated on not breathing. On not losing my companion, my consciousness, or the scarf I'd torn from my neck that was now hanging uselessly from my right hand. I needed air. Fresh air - not some ridiculous filter facsimile. A guy just ahead was yelling something at me in Hungarian. Rather, he was speaking mostly with his hands, pointing to his own scarf-enshrouded head. "Thank you," I mouthed back, and held my scarf up to my face long enough for him to ride the wave of people past me. "I need to not breathe, is all," I said to myself again. "Don't breathe."

I had forgotten the police by the time we flowed past that side street. I still don't know - were they blocking it off, or allowing the protestors to use it as an escape route?

About a half a block separated me from uncorrupted oxygen. I was light-headed and dissociated, and remembered the recurring dream I have where I am stuck underwater, in the ocean, after a tidal wave crashes over me - and when I just try to breathe, I find that I can. But surreality is not dream reality. No matter how strange it feels, it's still real life. Misplaced for a second, I think I am under water, and take a breath. Or attempt to. Sobered and suddenly awake again, I keep walking as I choke - unable to inhale deeply enough to cough properly.

Finally, we were able to turn a corner and feel a fresh breeze on our faces. There was a tiny shop open, with a line running out the door. Every one of those people came out with bottles of water. Some of them splashed it into their eyes, and their faces contorted again as the fine powder irritant on their skin mixed with the water and resurrected.

Each one of the people in line waited patiently, stunned, holding their bottles. Approached the cash register. Said "hello". Handed the cashier their money, took their change and said "Thank you. Have a good night," as they left.

One by one or in tiny clusters they headed back to the main boulevard in an attempt to regroup; looking for a leader or a direction; someone to tell them what they were supposed to do now.

10 minutes in that narrow street, moving forward solemnly and then retreating as one body to escape that invisible pain - it was the only really cohesive act of that group of demonstrators. Nationalists, fascists - some of them. Shitdisturbers and agitators - a handful. Nostalgistas and old-timers unable to give up the ghost of security that communism afforded them - for sure. College students scared about their future - maybe. All of them simply fed up with the way the government runs and runs over people in the name of democracy.

As a fairly a-political American expat, I realized - about a month ago - that I have no idea what's going on in their country. In my adopted country. My realizations are coming slowly, although the crash-course I've had has been intense. If I introduce the topic to my students, entire class hours disappear; textbooks lay neglected on the table.

MSZP is the Socialist party, and the party in power. They must be good. Because socialism is the pole that draws my logical magnet. The opposition party - Fidesz - is conservative, and conservative is bad ... right?

I'm learning that this is not necessarily true in Hungary. Like everything else - from theater and literature to mathematical sensibilities - politics in the new Europe comes in a mildly absurdist flavor. They're reinventing reality, practicality - and democracy.

Gyurcsány - the prime minister - resembles Harry Potter, but his wizardry lies in his ability to look more like George Bush on paper. The socialists are republicans, and the conservatives act like socialists. When I got on that plane, I didn't really go to Hungary. I went Through the Looking Glass.

I don't recall celebrating the day Hungary threw off the shackles of communism, but that might be because no "celebration" happened that day. No rallies. No parades. No speeches. No fireworks. No riots. But since September 2006, there have been about a dozen demonstrations in the streets of Budapest, each coinciding with a national holiday commemorating a failed revolution. The irony is not hard to spot.

The "Cause" that's getting people into the streets isn't affiliated with either of the major political parties. The driving force is a collection of far-right leaning, often militant groups who seem to speak more to the frustrations than to the collective social conscience of the Hungarian people. They speak loudly, and give the disillusioned, effectively disenfranchised public very big sticks any chance they get.

As a freelance English teacher, I won't, generally, have the opportunity to meet "those people" - the demonstrators. By definition, Hungarians studying English are not good nationalists. Right? So I went out to Blaha Lujza square yesterday, on March 15th, to feel them. What sort of person becomes a fascist? Is it some kind of genetic defect? Missing chromosome? Biological anomaly? Are they monsters? I can explore these questions here in a way that I could never in the States. At a traditional KKK or White Power rally in the U.S, I would not only be sniffed out immediately as a "bleeding heart liberal", I would also have a hard time concealing my contempt. My dismay.

"If you can't say something nice, don't go to the party." So I never did. But in Hungary I have Alien Privilege, since I have no personal stake in the Hungarian reputation. Objectivity follows. It is possible to observe, and to realize that "those people" are, in fact, just people. As long as I don't open my mouth and actually reveal myself as a foreigner. (Although, again, once I say that I'm a writer interested in the Hungarian Condition, I am welcomed, treated to a drink, and regaled with opinions.)

I miss out on a lot of the goings-on in "real world Hungary". I live in a spacious, gorgeous apartment in an historic and vibrant, up-and-coming neighborhood. I don't sell flowers in the metro to supplement my pension. My resources are, of course, limited - and I have trouble with finances, but that has more to do with being hopeless with money than with any lack of income. The majority of my friends are expats who apparently lead equally magical, self-created lives. My Hungarian acquaintances are primarily my students, who are paying for English lessons to help them along in their professional careers. They feel empowered to push their lives forward. Our struggles and problems - our mutual and personal complaints - are afflictions I might have fantasized about - could only have aspired to - as a child/product of the welfare ghetto in the States. So I think I know, if only generally, how the majority of these unhappy Hungarians feel.

The people I teach do not go out and march. They are too busy leading fairly successful and fulfilling lives; they don't lend themselves to "hopeless causes". To a man, my students do not understand the protestors. And the funniest thing is ... they don't generally vote with the two major political parties, either. They're more liberal. Maybe their version of protesting has to do with making their way in spite of the government.

I do think that by standing out there and listening to the speeches, by eavesdropping on the conversations of people as they walk the streets, I've been able to draft a more complete picture of the situation in Hungary as a whole than I ever would be able to imagine by simply sitting in a pub, waxing idealistic and philosophical with members of the intellectual class. Maybe I'm a dilettante. But I'm a dilettante with empathy, dammit.

Sidi laughs every time I bring up the subject. He has a LOT of opinions, and he is not shy about them. He's not some run-of-the-mill, 8-hour-a-day professional example of a Hungarian, either. He's a top 40 pop sensation. (Record sales in Hungary put his band at #4) Not only that, he is a leather-clad and dreadlocked, guitar-shredding, Nü Metal Rockstar (soon to be discovered), with the actual autograph of Slash (ex-Guns and Roses) tattooed on his arm. He is Hardcore.

And still - he is affected by contentment. His life is a-typical of any American Superstar - we usually meet in the coffeehouse around the corner from the guitar store he owns and works in. People recognize him occasionally. But mostly, he lives a regular life as a business owner - he has a wife who works as a graphic designer, and lives in an apartment they just bought and renovated so that the former kitchen is now a bedroom. So now they have two rooms. And his favorite television show is Friends.

"What is their major malfunction?" he asks, being able to keep a mischievous twinkle in his eye while looking perplexed. These protestors make absolutely no sense to him. "What do they really have to complain about? I don't get it."

Barbara pays me $23.50 to spend 90 minutes a week gossiping about guys and discussing one of our mutually favorite topics - new age philosophy. She doesn't have time to worry about politics. She's in the same boat as everyone I talk to - adrift in an ocean of contented apathy. She works for a major television network, and worries about who she might settle down with, when she's ready. There is no sense of the End of Days in her cozy, recently-constructed apartment.

"WHY? Why do they do this?" She asks, and then admits, "There are so many things wrong with this government."

So we have a vocabulary lesson about apathy.

"How many voters does it take to change a lightbulb?" I ask.

After I explain the context and set-up of the joke, she gets it. "I don't know," she says.

"Zero. Because voters can't change anything."

I read the joke on the Internet - and it was directed, specifically, at American voters - but she laughs.

"Exactly." She doesn't think there will be a change in the Hungarian governmental system - that things won't be good - until a woman is elected prime minister. "Maybe in ten years. I mean, look at Pakistan. They had a female prime minister ... and they are a Muslim country."



"Benazir Bhutto was assassinated."

"Why can't they assassinate Gyurcsány?" She's joking. Kinda. "Having a woman in charge will be the only way to have the change we need. Rioting won't do anything."

Earlier today, I had a class with Adrienn. Her theory is that people are bored. She has a full-time job, a family, and is pursuing a master's degree part-time. Maybe the reason these people are protesting is that they simply don't have enough to do.

"You mean because they're unemployed?" I ask, a bit sardonically, thinking about statistics.

"Well, that." She nods, thinking. "But also, they don't have any interests. When I'm not at work, I'm studying or learning something. I have hobbies. My family. Things that keep me occupied. I'm too busy to worry about protesting."

She thinks that people who go to protest marches are generally frustrated, angry individuals who want to break things. Smash store windows. Burn cars. And she's right, to an extent. Some people who go to protest marches, obviously, are looking for an excuse to be vandals. To kick some ass.

After the tear gassing, during the demonstration, my companion and I headed in the same direction as a largish group of people - into a "bad neighborhood" - the 8th district. (Incidentally, we were headed in the opposite direction of the original intention of the march - which was to the Palace of Fine Arts, where Gyurcsány was attending a party.) We were walking alongside a couple of young guys who were physically agitated. They weren't sure what was going on anymore, or if any action was going to happen. One of the guys was obviously nervous, washed in the anticipation of finally being able to Smash It Up. He tugged nervously on the dormant, dejected balaclava around his neck.

"Where are we going?" he asked his friends,

"The 8th district, I guess," one of his companions answered.

He didn't understand, at first. "The 8th district?" Nothing important happens in the 8th district. But then he seemed to remember something ... "relevant".

"Ah, yeah - the gypsies live there."

God help us.
0 Replies
Reply Fri 30 May, 2008 10:58 am
A great window into your Hungary.

Thank you..
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Reply Fri 30 May, 2008 11:20 am
But they simply turned around and started walking in the opposite direction - their eyes streaming, hands pressed against the backs of the people in front of them. Gasping and coughing. No one trying to pass anyone - perhaps realizing that moving as one unit was the only way to escape that invisible pain.

Impressive behavior, especially from what I would otherwise call a mob.
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Reply Fri 30 May, 2008 11:29 am
yeah. hungary's prolly not the best place to have your first riot. <grins> the people are too awesome.

osso ... i'm practicing being an essayist. heh.
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Reply Fri 26 Dec, 2008 04:38 am
And you thought you had a voter registration fraud problem

Talking with Americans about voting fraud - or rather: voter registration fraud - gets you two kinds of answers, depending on whether you talk to a Republican or a Democrat. Either way, the subject's yielded much fodder for controversy. Well, here's a reality check from Hungary. You thought you may have a problem? The Ferencvaros byelections feature byzantine cascades of deceit.

Yearning for a “none of the above” ballot option

In Russia, voters used to have the option of foregoing the available choices and instead voting "none of the above". Judging on some recent opinion polls, there's plenty of Europeans who would love the option. In Britain, ambivalence marks the feelings about the main party leaders. But any disaffection there is trumped by the political alienation in Hungary.
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Reply Tue 13 Jan, 2009 06:21 pm
Hungarian NGOs quit government anti-corruption body


Transparency International and the Civil Liberties Union have quit the Hungarian government's anti-corruption co-ordination board, saying the government has shown no interest in its work. The advisory board was established in September 2007, but Transparency complained that none of its recommendations had been adopted since February.
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Reply Sun 15 Mar, 2009 07:36 pm
In case anyone's interested, since it's March the 15th again, I posted about Hungarian goings-on at my new blogging home:

Budapest riots: not what they used to be anymore
0 Replies

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