Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1989-2009: 20 years ago, Hungary at the Threshold

Twenty years ago today I was in Yugoslavia for the first time for one of what would become a series of whirlwind three-day weekends throughout the region.

By late September I'd gotten my bearings in Budapest and felt a mild sense of disappointment: it seemed that the "big events" of '89 -- the symbolic dismantling of the iron curtain, Imre Nagy's funeral, the Pan-European picnic, and the mass release of East Germans -- had happened before I had arrived. We'd all been holding our breath: would the Soviet Union crackdown, whisking reformist prime minister Miklos Nemeth off for a Nagy-like execution and rolling the tanks as they had in 1956? As days passed it seemed less and less likely. Hungary, amazingly enough, seemed to be on its way to joining Yugoslavia as a non-aligned Communist nation, open to East and West.

Of course, we foreign students were hardly the best informed, but we had one big advantage. Two of our professors at the Karl Marx University of Economics -- Geza Jeszenszky and Peter Akos Bod -- were members of the semi-legalized opposition and were participating in round table talks with the government that were supposed to lead to free elections in 1990. Both kept us apprised of what was going on at Parliament. Bod, who would later serve as head of the Central Bank, taught a class on socialist economics which emphasized the tragicomic effects of central planning on the average person. Jeszenszky, a future foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, darkly warned of the military threat posed by Ceausescu's Romania, which (as I would soon see) had entered its final Orwellian phase.

Three things stuck out for me about life in Budapest in 1989: moneychanging, air pollution, and the lack of computers.

Black market moneychanging was everywhere, especially the first week I was in country, when tens of thousands of East Germans were trying to secure hard currency for their flight to the west. Street changers -- most seemed to be East German refugees, Romanian exiles, or Middle Eastern students -- offered nearly a third more forints for your dollar, making everything in Hungary a third cheaper. Having grown up poor, the inflated exchange rate made me feel affluent for the first time in my life. My monthly public transportation pass (above) cost less than a buck; a full meal with drinks and appetizers, $4; a round-trip overnight international train ticket with a sleeping couchette, $4.25. Changing on the street had its dangers. There were plenty of thieves who would count the money they were to give you in front of you and, with a sleight of hand, swap it at the last second for a bundle of low denomination notes. An East German refugee pulled this on my roommate, presumably to help get his family out of the Soviet bloc.

Budapest's air pollution was staggering. An eye-watering grey haze hung over the city as often as not, the result of leaded fuel burned in cars without pollution controls, including the two-stroke engines of East German-built Trabants and Wartburgs. Sometimes the clouds of exhaust were so thick you had to hold your breath and run for cover. I know Budapest still gets wintertime air inversions, but this was in the early fall and was much more intense. This and other profound environmental problems I encountered in the region later caused me to become an environmental journalist.

But it was the utter lack of computers that most affected my day-to-day life. By 1989 most U.S. college students had a computer and western banks, travel agencies, and airlines used networked computers to process transactions. In Hungary, most banking and travel transactions were done by hand, with occasional telephone calls (over a barely-functioning phone system) to other offices to verbally collect dispersed information. The result: two-, three-, and four-hour lines to buy international train tickets (and mandatory seat reservations) at the Hungarian State Railways reservation office. And there was no way to secure a seat reservation for the return trip to Hungary; you had to stand in line for hours at your destination and hope there was still a place for you on a return train before your Polish or Czechoslovak visa ran out. Throw in the lines to secure transit and tourist visas at foreign embassies and it sometimes seemed one spent more time waiting in lines than in the destination country.

Of course I had it easy. As I'd soon see, Poles were waiting in line for toilet paper, Romanians for pigs' feet.

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