Return to TauZero.comReturn to Brenda LaurelReturn to Brenda's rantsXMAS in Budapest, New Year's in Prague
XMAS in Budapest, New Year's in Prague
19 December 2002

In 1971, Christmas in Budapest was pretty weird. I was with a group of political science students, researching my undergrad honors thesis on the topic of political theatre. We had spent three months in Vienna tuning up and a month and a half in Budapest, with a Halloween sojourn to the Moscow in the heart of the Soviet Union (I will save that tale for next year), then back to Budapest to study some more at Karl Marx University (go, go, KMU!) and finally to Prague and Warsaw.

In Budapest we stayed at the Palace Hotel on Racoszi Ut, the site of what some say was the worst street battle during the 1956 invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union. I remember a raggedy old man who used to walk up and down the block on the sidewalk outside the hotel saying, nem, nem, NEM, meaning no, and shaking his fist. It seemed likely that he was one of the living tragedies of that war.

In Budapest in 1971 Christmas was illegal. One of the hotel staff tipped us off to a black-market Christmas -tree source in a back alley several blocks from the hotel, where we were able to obtain a little tree about 3 feet tall. By the time we had smuggled it back to our hotel wrapped in somebodys jacket most of the needles were gone. We improvised ornaments out of soft drink cans and aluminum foil.

On Christmas eve all 30 of us crowded into the room where the pathetic tree stood. We were homesick. There was a three-day waiting list to make transatlantic calls from the hotel office so very few of us spoke with our families. Somebody brought in several bottles of sweet tokaji, and we got morosely drunk and sang carols. About an hour before midnight somebody had the bright idea of going to church.

In the Communist world in those days churches were pretty much empty all the time. You could lose your job and your Party membership if you were seen at church. We didnt expect much, but bundled up and trudged toward a ghostly cathedral through the wet, foggy streets. As we approached we noticed more and more people on the sidewalk, all silent, all going in the same direction. At the front doors of the cathedral we were amazed to encounter a crowd. Inside people stood shoulder to shoulder, many holding candles, for a midnight mass. That night I learned some important lessons - about the futility of legislating (non-) belief, and about the fundamental need for hope.

Three days after Christmas we were off to Prague, where we would spend New Years Eve in a hostel with students from many other countries, including Poland and China. We sat at long tables in a refectory-style dining room. At one point during the evening there was a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass. Several Czech students stood around an up-ended table doing their best to look innocent. I wandered over to check it out. A student leaned down and whispered in my ear, this is our Zabriski Point.

Just before midnight a white-clad fellow emerged from the kitchen carrying a squirming baby pig. By that time we had all been indoctrinated in the good-luck pig cult of the region. Figures and cut-outs of pigs grinned from every shop window. Candy stores sported marzipan pigs. The pig carrier assured us that we would have good luck all year if we petted the pig. For that privilege we need only pay a few forints. I coughed up the coins and scratched the little fellows head.

About 2 hours later the little piggie reappeared, roasted and surrounded with limp parsley. Several of my American buddies went outside to be sick. Little piggie got petted so much he probably thought he was in heaven before they stuck him in the oven. The pig may have been lucky for New Years, at least for the fellow collecting the money, but New Years was definitely not lucky for the pig. In my beer-soaked brain a parable about Communism struggled to coalesce. I do know that the Soviet empire showed up roasted on a platter not too many years later, garnished with chunks of the Berlin wall.

Now from the distance of 30+ years, I can stretch this memory to form a little parable for Americans. Its about the little piggies whose good luck enables them to buy a shiny new SUV for the New Year. You give the dealership some bucks and they scratch you between the ears with an object of desire. But your purchase will be lucky only for the auto and petroleum industries, and only temporarily even for them. Eventually it will get you U-V-roasted and served up on a platter, garnished with little fuzzy dice.

And the moral is: greed and entitlement are just bad ideas, no matter whether they serve a person, a government or a gigacorp. We would all do well to avoid them.