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Balaton blues

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I had a few hours to kill before my intended train from Budapest to my next destination, Keszthely on Lake Balaton in western Hungary. I grabbed another breakfast from the Penny Market supermarket across the road. Hungarian groceries are so cheap; two pieces of fruit, two pastries and a small chunk of cheese comes to less than three Australian dollars. The owner of the guesthouse let me keep my luggage in the apartment while I visited my last Budapest tourist attraction, the House of Terror, two blocks away.

The House of Terror is an ornate Baroque Revival building on a corner of Andrassy Avenue, one of the world's greatest boulevards, a broad, late nineteenth-century thoroughfare lined with trees and chic apartments which leads from the city centre to City Park in the northeastern suburbs. The House of Terror didn't look too terrifying, except for this huge metal bracket placed over the eaves with the words "TERROR", the Arrow Cross symbol and the communist star stencilled out of the metal. The sun shone through the stencils in the metal casting the words "TERROR" and the totalitarian symbols across the building.

The House of Terror was used as a location of torture and repression by two dictatorships: it was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross party which formed a German Nazi puppet government in Hungary for the last few months of the Second World War, and it was also the headquarters of the ÁVH, the dreaded secret police of the post-war communist regime for many years.

You aren't allowed to take photos inside the House of Terror, so please let me summarise: Stalin was a right bastard. That's all you really need to know.

There was a bit more to it than that. You enter the building, become slightly distraught by the creepy, sinister Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense music playing in every room, pay the admission fee, start from the top floor and work your way down to the basement. The top floors are devoted to the history of oppression in Hungary, starting with the Arrow Cross regime then swiftly segueing to brutal Soviet occupation and communist hegemony. I regret not paying a bit extra for an English audio guide because every information display was only in Hungarian. information. Some rooms had A4 printed sheets with English explanations, but not all of them. There were videos of interviews with Hungarians who were victims of oppression - grown men, proud men, reduced to convulsive sobbing as they recalled how the ÁVH tortured them decades ago, how they were cut off from their families who thought they were dead, how they were beaten into submission and had the most unmentionable indignities happen to them.

The creepiest bit of the House of Terror is the basement which used to hold the punishment cells and the secret execution rooms. There was a cell used for extra punishment, a cell big enough only to stand in where people were kept for weeks at a time unable to sleep or go to the toilet properly.

I know that the House of Terror has a propaganda bent, that it is the project of a right-wing Hungarian government that wants to discredit communism and the left in general. But screw communism. Screw dictatorships no matter what they call themselves. Screw terror.

There has to be a better way than both communism and capitalism. Capitalism as it currently stands is literally cooking the planet to death because burning fossil fuels is terribly profitable for energy and mining companies. Capitalism results in unjustifiable inequality that surely must twinge the conscience of every human being of goodwill and empathy. Capitalism reduces human beings from proud citizens of a community into mere atomised consumers in an economy, their mortal souls reduced to their PayPal balances. Capitalism is riding roughshod over worker's rights all across the world, has turned democratic institutions into mere playthings for wealthy, well-connected corporate donors. Capitalism can't continue as it is. We can't keep living like this.

So here's an idea. How about we combine the very best elements of socialism with the very best elements of capitalism? Let us have a strong, adequate welfare state that protects everyone from poverty and the causes of poverty - old age, illness, disability, sheer rotten bad luck. Let us have widespread public ownership or public control of (at the very least) infrastructure, banking and energy to prevent greedy capitalist oligopolies ripping us all off blind. Let us have free or easily affordable education, health care and public transport, and let us build enough housing so that the entire population has access to a place that meets their needs. Let us have progressive taxation that prevents unjust and excessive accumulation of wealth, and redistribute that wealth via the welfare state to ensure nobody gets left behind or has to live on the street. Let us have strong unions that protect workplace rights and guarantee everyone a decent wage that is enough for a life of dignity.

But let us borrow from the very best of capitalism. Let companies, whether publicly owned or privately owned, set the prices of most of their goods and services according to market demand in order to minimise shortages and wasted surpluses. Let people earn more money if they want to work longer hours, take on extra responsibilities, choose a difficult or dangerous profession. If people want to aspire to more than what the welfare state provides - a nice two-storey house by the beach, say, or an expensive German car, or trips every year to Europe (cough, cough) - let them aspire to that, as long as they don't accumulate so much wealth that inequality returns to unconscionable levels. Let people start their own businesses if they have an innovative idea they think people will want. Let us have democracy with parties competing against each other with the best policies to win our votes.

And because this system which I invented while walking back to my guesthouse from the House of Terror combines the best features of socialism with the democratic values that have made Western civilisation so awesome, I reckon we should call it "social democracy". Wow! I am such a genius!

I went back to the guesthouse and said goodbye to Gergely. Gergely is a builder a couple of years older than me who grew up in this apartment. He lived in Canada for fifteen years as an adult and another five years in the United Kingdom. His father died last year and he inherited the apartment. He spent a year converting the large three-bedroom family apartment into a five-room guesthouse with a small private studio apartment for himself with his own hands, and now lets out the five rooms to paying guests and makes his living full-time from that. Good on him for having a go and I wished him every success with his endeavours.

As I was leaving, I met my first Australian of this trip, a delightfully dotty English teacher from the Sunshine Coast named Geraldine, who had arrived in Budapest the day before. Geraldine is now based in Indonesia where she teaches English privately, but she spends several months a year travelling the world. She takes her own pillow everywhere with her because she doesn't trust European pillows, and is a loveable eccentric. Remember what I have written on previous trips how travellers can either be good-eccentric or bad-eccentric? Geraldine is definitely the former. It is such a shame that I needed to go and catch my train to Keszthely because I would have loved to talk to her more abour our travels and swap even more tips.

I took the tram along Erszébet körút to Széll Kálmán tér and then another tram one stop to Déli (Southern) Station, one of Budapest's three main railway terminals and the main station for destinations in western Hungary. Unlike the other two stations (Keleti and Nyugati), Déli is an architectural disaster, a crumbling communist edifice of stained concrete and dim corridors and barren, windswept platforms.

I bought my ticket to Keszthely and as Déli has a dedicated international booking office I also decided to book my next ticket for two days' time to my next country. I boarded my train, five old carriages with a 431 class electric locomotive at each end. The train was going to Nagykanizsa but the two rear cars were going to Keszthely, they were to be detached at the junction station at Balatonszentgyörgy.

I boarded the two rear cars. There were fifteen minutes before departure but they were packed. Both carriages smelled like the train had just carried a full load of passengers to the 52nd Annual International Incontinence Convention. Both carriages were also full of young children. I accept that for the human race to survive, some people will need to procreate and generate new children. That does not mean that I am under any obligation to enjoy travelling with them. Judging by this train, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's plan to increase the population by bribing mothers to have children rather than accept immigrants into Hungary seems to be working.

The train left Budapest on time at 13:35, slowly at first then after Kelenföld at quite a speed, topping out at 120 kilometres an hour on the flat, boring plains around Székesfehérvár. The train journey was not becoming any more enjoyable. The stench of urine was only getting worse and the kids were only getting louder. One four-year-old girl was watching a children's programme on her iPad at full volume without headphones. I know that Hungary isn't as rich as Australia, but surely if you can afford an iPad you can afford the headphones to go with it?

Even without the stink and the annoying brats, it would have been an unpleasant journey. There was a large cigarette burn in my seat cushion. Every seat also had a weird bulge under the cushion that pushed right into my tailbone. Readers with good memories may recall that only two days before, I had slipped on autumn leaves at Kékestető and my tailbone landed straight onto a jagged rock hidden in the leaves. It wasn't a hot day but it was very sunny, the windows only opened a small way far above the passengers' heads way up near the luggage racks, so there was no ventilation at all and the carriage became as hot and stuffy as a greenhouse. Making things even worse is that every window seat had a small garbage bin affixed to the wall exactly at thigh height. I needed to sit at a window seat so i could take photos and videos of the passing scenery. I will now have the outline of a Hungarian garbage bin imprinted onto my thigh for the rest of my life.

I had to go to the toilet. I opened the toilet door and I found the problem - the toilet was blocked, the bowl was full to overflowing and every time the train banked around a curve, the bowl would spill, the contents seeping out under the door into the carriage vestibule. Ewwww.

Not too long after Székésfehérvár the train reached Siófok, the first town along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The train then followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton for its entire length. Lake Balaton is one of the largest lakes in Europe, the Eastern Bloc's Mediterranean. Cut off from the flesh pots of the Meditteranean coastal resorts by a wide band of NATO members and non-aligned countries, the unfortunate citizens of the Warsaw Pact were forced to spend their summer holidays at Lake Balaton instead. Indeed, Lake Balaton played a pivotal part in the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Hungary relaxed its border controls with Austria in the late summer of 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans just happened to be holidaying at Lake Balaton at the time. They all instantly got into their Trabants and drove to the Austrian border at Sopron; the long lines of Trabis emitting blue smoke from their exhaust pipes while waiting to cross the border is one of the defining images of the 1989 revolutions.

Lake Balaton is impressive. It is very long but not very wide. The southern shore is relatively flat but the northern side is an extinct volcanic province. There are oodles of impressive mountains on the north shore, the most impreseive of which is Badacsony, a flat-topped cone that wouldn't look out of place in Iceland.

I comtinued along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The southern shore was an uninterrupted string of holiday towns, marinas, camping grounds and expensive summer homes owned by rich Hungarians. The train divided at Balatonszentgyörgy and I disembarked at Keszthely, literally breathing a huge sigh of relief - the first breath in three hours that didn't make me want to vomit. I walked about a kilometre to the Tarr Apartments where I checked in, sticking to Hungarian the whole time. The hosts congratulated me on how well I spoke Hungarian. This is the first time this has happened.

I have studied, either seriously or desultorily, many languages and without a doubt Hungarian is the most difficult language I have encountered. Even Chinese and Korean are easier. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language; it is a Finno-Ugric language with obscure origins somewhere in Siberia. Its grammar is complex and difficult; I find that my thoughts have to perform Nadia Comaneci-like contortions to be able to fit into the bizarre structures of Hungarian grammar.

Take something as simple as "I have something". There is no verb for "have" in Hungarian. Instead of saying "the boy has the ball", you have to say something that translates word for word to "to the boy his ball there is". Then there are all the cases. Instead of saying "in my houses", you have to add case suffixes to the end of the word and connect them all together like Lego blocks so you end up with something like "house-s-my-in".

Then there is the word order. In English word order is fairly fixed and constant except for adverbs which can move around a bit. It is always "the boy kicks the ball", never "kicks the ball the boy" or "the boy the ball kicks". In contrast, Hungarian word order is flexible, but there are still rules, and those rules are arbitrary and opaque. Every day for four months before leaving Australia I studied Hungarian via Duolingo on my mobile phome while travelling on the bus to and from work. I would do a lesson. It would ask me to translate a sentence. I would use a particular word order. I would receive a correct mark. A few questions later I would get a similar question. I would use the same word order. I would be marked incorrect. I would repeat that question, use a different word order, and get the green tick. The next question, the same style of sentence. I would use the same word order as the one that got me the green tick on the previous question, only to get the dreaded red cross.

"For crying out loud! I am using the same bloody word order as the previous question! What the hell am I doing wrong! What are the bloody rules I'm supposed to follow! Tell me, Duolingo!" I would shout out loud, to the disturbance of all the other passengers on the bus. Then I would do what any sane person would do. I would switch to the Italian course which is a piece of cake. It's such a relief.

Hungarian is so difficult and so few tourists bother to learn it before coming to Hungary that I sort of expected to be showered with rose petals by grateful Hungarians who were so amazed that I had taken the effort of learning their diabolical mother tongue. But no. Until I came to Keszthely and checked into my apartment, nothing. I would struggle through sentences, obvioisly flailing around to remember the right case or possessive ending, and I would get no assistance or encouragement. "But I am using an obscure noun case that exists in no other language! I am using complex verb conjugations that a PhD in linguistics would struggle to comprehend! Please give me credit for that!" But Hungarians aren't the kind of people to give credit even when credit is more than due. That is, until I checked into my apartment in Keszthely.

I was given the keys to my apartment and I settled in. The sun soon set and I decided to go for a stroll. Keszthely (pronounced like kest-hay) is a town of about nineteen thousand people located at the far northwestern corner of Lake Balaton. It is a holiday town, and being the autumn shoulder season, Keszthely had that despondent, closed-up feel you find in waterfront resort towns all over the world in the off season. I have family who live on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales and the towns they live in feel exactly the same in late autumn as Keszthely did. There were the same ice cream parlours and seafood restaurants closed for the season, the same sports bars that were nearly empty, the same bored unemployed teenagers loitering on the waterfront gossiping and horsing around, the same feeling that the life of the place has been sealed in a vacuum bag with mothballs until next summer begins.

I strolled around the waterfront. There was a nice pier, a large park which acted as a buffer between the town and the waterfront, a large bathing enclosure. There was a row of open-air restaurants and pubs in the park near the shoreline, most were closed but a few were still open. I went to a restaurant in which the only other patrons were a group of older men watching a soccer match on a large screen television, amd ordered pork neck and bean stew with nokedli (like gnocchi but made with dough instead of potatoes). It was very nice. Hungarian food is amazing and considering how many Hungarians moved to Australia after the 1956 revolution, it's surprising that I know of only two Hungarian restaurants in Sydney. Hungarian cuisine deserves to be better known, and not just for goulash.

I ambled out onto the pier. The lights of the towns along the southern shore twinkled on the horizon. I looked up and saw the stars. It struck me that this was my third time in Europe but that I had never bothered to look at the stars. It was disorienting, I could not recognise a single constellation. My familiar celestial companions - the Southern Cross, the Pointers, the Keel - were nowhere to be seen. Of course this is because I am in a different hemisphere. I looked along where I thought the celestial equator would be but still couldn't recognise any constellation because they were all upside down. I looked north. I tried to recognise some of the constellations I've only read about in books - the Big Dipper, the Bear, the Pole Star - but couldn't pick them out. I wonder if my British ancestors were just as confused when they migrated to Australia and couldn't recognise a single star.

I then continued east along the lake, there is a wide and well-lit promenade all along the shore. There were plenty of amateur fishermen with their rods, lines and reels. I noticed that many of them had placed their rods on these stands, the fishermen would sit well away from their rods and do other things like play with their phones or cook meat on a barbecue, and attached to the rods were sensors that would alert them to a bite. It seems like a lazy way to fish.

After about fifteen minutes, I started to feel violently ill. The pork neck and bean stew did not agree with me. I walked back to my apartment as quickly as I could, hoping to high heaven that I could hold on. I got back to my room in time and then spent the rest of the evening in bed recuperating. I was hoping to catch up on my travel blogging in a nice quiet lakeside town but there was no chance of that tonight. Best to stay in bed and hope that it was just a temporary bug that was now out of my system.

House of Terror

House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

Déli Station

Déli Station

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Swans on Lake Balaton

Swans on Lake Balaton

Posted by urbanreverie 13:53 Archived in Hungary

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