A Tale from Two Cities – Buda & Pest

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Travel, I have come to realize, is nothing but seeing, gathering, and sometimes living stories of lands away from home. Some are sad stories, some are joyful stories, some are miraculous, some run-of-the-mill; but they are all tales of people at once similar to and different from those we have grown up around, living lives that are often so like ours, but not quite.

Once in a while, you run into a story so powerful, so astonishing, that it absolutely deserves to be told. You turn it over in your head, like a Rubik’s cube you’re at the edge of solving but can’t quite get right. It grips you with the tenacity of a bulldog and simply will not let go. These are stories where words are, perhaps, simply not enough to convey the essence of what must be shared. Having run into one such story during my brief stay in Budapest, this is my first attempt at blogging with both photographs and words. I hope I am able to do some justice to it.


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A little over two years ago, the government of Budapest erected this monument quite literally overnight, from 20th to 21st July 2014. The entire square was cordoned off and guarded by the police, while workers labored through the night to set it up. There had been significant protests against the plans for the monument when it was announced earlier. Why, one may ask? The monument depicts an imperial eagle, representing Nazi Germany, swooping down at a statue of Archangel Gabriel, meant to represent Hungary. The problem, as the Jews of Hungary saw it, as the descendants of the Roma saw it, as the homosexuals, or as any decent person saw it, is this – Hungary was a willing ally of the Nazis. From June 1941 till Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad, Hungary was a staunch supporter in all their demonic policies (including the Holocaust, to which Budapest’s Shoes memorial still pays a poignant and haunting tribute). The occupation of Hungary only happened in 1944, after Hungary tried to back out of the alliance in fear of an impending defeat of the Axis powers.

The monument was a blatantly offensive attempt at revising history to make the Hungarian government, and the Hungarian people, look like victims rather than perpetrators. The Jewish community, in particular, protested vehemently, as did the opposition, rights groups, civil society groups, and the like. Vigils, marches, and human chains were organized against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

But the monument was not taken down. It stood, despite all protests. So the people of Budapest fought back in other ways.

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The barbed wire guarding the monument became the canvas of the protesters. It began to fill up with clippings, photographs, news articles, and memorabilia that showcased the truth of those times- the roundup of Jews, executions, a few extraordinary tales of bravery (like that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved nearly a 100,000 Jews in Hungary) and more. The people had decided that if the government would not demolish this monument, then they would ensure that the truth would find a voice.

There were attempts to have the site cleared. Multiple times, clearing activities were initiated.

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The mementos would inevitably return, more poignant and in greater numbers. The entire area became a symbol of honesty and compassion for the fallen, and the locus of rage against political machinations. People raised their voices against a government who sought to take control of the national narrative, not too unlike what we see in so many parts of the world today.

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In an era where textbooks are being re-drafted, where all one sees or hears is “us vs them”, where jingoistic nationalism and clickbait patriotism abound, it is impossible to stand in front of this monument and not be humbled. Humbled by the refusal of an entire people to accept the comfort of pretense, and by their bravery in revealing the rawness of their wounds in an effort to keep truth alive.

Budapest is a young democracy, only about 26 years old. They rose from a “gentle” Communism, which was preceded by a Stalin-esque dictatorship following the “liberation” of Hungary. There is, in the words of one of the locals, still a lot wrong with the systems of the country. But these are clearly people who will band together for the good of their nation. Theirs is not the patriotism so vehemently preached by the politicians of today. There is no loud chest-thumping to profess love for the country, no co-opting of institutions in the name of the “greater good”. There is simply a willingness to look at the rawness of history as it was, and to draw the painful but necessary lessons and use them to better their nation. There is compassion and empathy, a sense that both the persecuted and the erstwhile persecutors must now work together to erase the bloody stains of the past and live in harmony. This little square in central Budapest highlights so many lessons that the people of the world need to know today, that have been drowned out by the diatribe of those who would sow fear and discord in an effort to climb the rungs of power.


Sarthak is a member of LSD and is currently on a “study tour” in Europe. He blogs at: https://thecrediblehulksite.wordpress.com

Croatia, stirring thy soul

Language is a powerful paradox. On the face of it, it just has functional utility of communication. But as you peel off the layers, you unravel an intricate art spun from words. Deep in this web are some words that are special, having the potential to stir souls as no one can. If there was one word to describe these words, it would be exquisite. Countries pose a similar paradox, with the layers indicating only the usage of countries for habitation but as these layers are peeled off, you see some countries that stand out from others. For their nature, for their gifts and for their beauty. Croatia is one such exquisite country.

The Adriatic Sea coast enroute Dubrovnik, from Split

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The wild wild Budapest

Money is a strange thing. It changes not only its color but also its worth as it changes hands and places. And money is truly powerful when things come cheap. For then, it injects shots of greed into your blood and makes you crave for new experiences. And Hungary is an embodiment of that greed. But Hungary is one temptation you should not resist. After all, as Gekko said, “Greed is good.”

Hungary wants you to taste it, lick it, devour it and throw it as if it were a chocolate bar, leaving a sweet after-taste. Hungary has been bedded by a lot of colonial powers, from Romans to the Soviets. Her compromised virginity has now made her like a prostitute, who seduces you into her brothel, wants you to make rough sex to her and forget her, but not the amazing time you had. And that makes Hungary wild.

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Austria

Austria is in many ways a close kin of Germany, emulating its language as well as rudeness. But it still has its own distinct character. And continuing with my previous articles, if Netherlands is trippy, Austria is musical. And a lot of the accolade goes to arguably the greatest composer of all time, Mozart. There is also this Sound of Music connection with Salzburg, as the entire classic was shot there. Again, musical!

Salzburg breathes Mozart, visibly and otherwise. There is the Mozart birth-house, Mozart living-house, umpteen Mozart cafes and hotels. Even while the extent of commercialization is pitiful, it pains me when an entity tries to owe its entire identity to a single person. As Saral da says, “A system is greater than the sum of its parts” and so is a city. And the soul of an entire city/town is ruined in one shot if a single person is the only towering influence. This over-exploitation of Mozart ultimately led to Salzburg being just another nudnik town, quite different from what I had expected.

There are two good destinations quite near Salzburg — Werfen Ice caves and Hallstat Salt mines. Mountains give me immense joy (and that in a way signifies the quantum of pain as I am not doing Iceland this year). And the Austrian Alps were no exception to that, as we had a brush with them during the Werfen trip. It was quite early and foggy (and even snowed a bit) when we had started and the fog hid the alluring snow-clad Alps, just as a veil hides a beautiful bride. It’s not really cold until a strong gush of wind greets you at the entrance of the caves. After that, you enter a 42 km (read that again) ice cave, the largest in the world. There are steep glaciers, long icicles, natural sculptures created by the wind and limestone ceilings. It doesn’t actually feel like 0 degrees in there, may be because the limestone absorbs all the cold in the winter season. Nevertheless, only the 1st km of this cave is open to the tourists. And truth be told, it was not that great. The icicles should have been longer and denser, the wind stronger and the cave colder.

The guide inside Werfen Ice Caves (Clicked by a friend)

Nonetheless, when we exited the cave, we were greeted with a view spectacular as any, as the bride had lifted its veil by then. The curvy waist of that bride, the Salzach river, in its pale blue water flowed in between the cave mountain and the majestic Hohenwerfen castle, overlooking the snowy mountains, created the picture that any second-grader draws when asked to describe scenery.

The next day we hopped on a train to Vienna and went to Vienna’s most famous destination — The Schonbrunn Palace. I particularly liked this one because of its bright colors and mammoth size. Palaces are usually dull from the outside, with greyish tones and reddish bricks. But this one isn’t. The Palace and its gardens, spread over 435 acres, make you forget the city buildings, as you walk calmly alternating between arrays of lush green trees, orange autumn leaves and creepers.

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Can Someone be forgotten?

Are you embarrassed with a picture which you put on internet that cannot be removed now? To what extent will you go to remove some information about yourself from the internet? We all have that moment of insanity when we put something online without thinking. People have the tendency to search online if they require any information regarding a particular individual. Internet age, in which we live, doesn’t allow that information to be removed. It haunts us for rest of our lives. Take a simple example of Facebook statuses: if you read the statuses updated by you some years back, you will surely think, “What was I thinking?” Now imagine if you have the power to remove all this information from the internet and live in peace. Continue reading →