I looked across at my Budapest taxi-driver from whence the bellow had issued.
“CATASTROPH!” he repeated, this time causing a slight tingle on my tympanums. We had been acquainted for less than a minute, but he seemed determined to let me know that even this brief interaction had caused him immense pain.
“Yes,” I ventured weakly without having the faintest idea what he was talking about. Agreeing with this immense bear of a man (his head seemed compressed against the roof of the taxi, his hands dwarved the steering wheel) seemed the best option.
“Back there,” he moaned jerking his oversized thumb over his shoulder, “I SIESTA. Café und then SIESTA. Now zentrum again.”He glared across at me as if to blame me for paying him for a taxi ride. “I COUNTRY man, not zentrum… zentrum BUSY, bridge BUSY. Too much traffic! CATASTROPH.” This time I swear the cab shook with his anger.
I mumbled an apology, not entirely sure whether he wanted me to sympathise or just to listen.
“My wife… money money money… I WORK, I go HOME, she say MONEY, MONEY MONEY!”
Thankfully, while he had been groaning like a forced labourer, we had whizzed across the light traffic on the bridge from Pest to Buda and arrived at the hotel.
With some relief, I shoved a pile of Hungarian florint in his hand and slammed the door on one final “CATASTR…”
When the Curtain falls…
I never got the chance to chat to the taxi-driver about life today in Budapest and the changes he must have seen.
I was still only seventeen when the events leading to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain began so dramatically almost exactly quarter of a century ago.
It all started in Hungary. On 19 August 1989, the young Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth began the process of dismantling its physical border defences with Austria with the deliberate aim of exposing the fallacy of the Berlin Wall. The extraordinary story of that contrived “pan-European picnic” can be read here. The flood of East Germans that ensued led, within a month, to the Hungary-Austria border being thrown opened on September 11th.
Two months later, on November 9th (three days before my eighteenth birthday) the Berlin Wall came down for good.
By Christmas 1989, the Romanians had risen in Timisoara leading to the extraordinary execution of the Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu on Christmas day itself. Maybe you, like me, remember the televised pictures of the dead couple (Ceausescu was dubbed “the Antichrist” by a radio announcer) appearing on our screens, bringing home the immensity of the changes we were witnessing.
A river runs through it
My journey yesterday started in Bucharest. I had last visited in 1992 and could recall the feeling of oppression from the extraordinary monumental architecture that the Ceausescus had built to intimidate the people. The epitome was the gargantuan “People’s Palace”, nearly complete at the time of Ceausescu’s fall. Its 1100 rooms meant it was too big to pull down – today it is used at the Romanian Parliament building, a constant reminder of the totalitarian past.
It took 14 hours yesterday to cross the 800 or so kilometres from Bucharest to Budapest and the Northern banks of the Danube.
The river has been a constant feature on this trip – on Friday morning, I had crossed the river as I headed north from Bulgaria into Romania, a few hundred kilometres from the Black Sea. During yesterday’s journey from Bucharest to Budapest, the train kissed the northern banks of the river less than 100 km from where Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania meet. Then, after sweeping through the Carpathian Mountains and through Timisoara, I reached the Danube once more in Pest, the part of Budapest that lies on the northern shores, connected to Buda by the bridges that my taxi-driver had complained so bitterly about. You can see a map here.
Four days, four currencies
The last four days have been a salutary reminder of the challenges for the Euro-project. Changing from the Euro (Greece – at least for now), to the Lev (Bulgaria), the Leu (Romania) and the Florint (Hungary) has brought back vivid memories of inter-railing in the 1990s.
In 2008, Hungary was on the verge of joining – a decision that would have been a “catastroph” indeed.
As the crisis broke, the date was first pushed back to 2010, then 2015. Now the official Hungarian position is “not before 2020.”
Even that, I suspect, would attract long odds today.
I leave Budapest this afternoon, crossing the Danube once more on the 230kph Railjet that today links the old East and West, from Budapest to Munich via Vienna.
It should be quite an experience. Time to get those Euros out again…