|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
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.