Friday, September 11, 2009

1989-2009: Sept 11: Hungarians made history, I bought towels

As I wrote yesterday, I arrived in Hungary on September 10, 1989, just as the reform communist government announced it was letting the 60,000 East German refugees in the country escape to the West. (My piece on all that is in yesterday's Monitor.)

The ruling took effect at midnight, and on September 11, 1989, ten thousand of these East German "tourists" fled to Austria (and on to West Germany) by any means they could: Trabants, buses, trains, hitchhiking, you name it.

I, on the other hand, had gone without sleep for 36 hours to get from rural Maine to Budapest's Ferencvaros neighborhood via Boston, Zurich, and Vienna. (It was cheap!) I read my journal entry for this historic day -- and my first full day in Europe -- and what did I do? I bought a towel.

Yes, despite having read Douglas Adams' books, I'd come all that way without packing a towel, and the Jeno Varga Dormitory at Karl Marx University certainly didn't provide them. So it was off to the towel section of the old Corvin Department store on Blaha Lujza ter (No trendy rooftop bar back then, I assure you.) My first Eastern Bloc shopping experience made an impression. "The clerks were all highly amused by my ignorance about socialist shopping," I wrote in my journal afterwards. The towels were stacked behind the counters (still are in many smaller shops in the region) and could only be examined through the graces of one of the people behind the counter. "Four people were required to handle my purchase: one to take down the towel, another to carry it to the register and then to a wrapping station, a third to take my money, and a fourth to wrap my purchase in brown paper." Maximum employment I suppose. Looking back on it I'd guess three of those people were out of work a year later while the value of their savings and benefits evaporated.

My other recorded "accomplishment" of the day: at 20, I was apparently legally served a beer for the first time. The location is lost to history.

Fortunately I'd interface with history much better in the coming days and months. I'm not entirely sure if it was entirely clear to us at the time -- pre-Internet days these -- exactly what the Hungarians had just done. I seem to remember hearing about it all as if it were all rumor, passed from person to person like jaw-dropping gossip. You weren't sure if it was all entirely true, but it sounded extraordinary.

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