Proud to be European!?

One of my goals for this year was to get to know the region that I am in as much as possible (and with the region, I mean the countries that during my childhood used to be closed off behind the Iron Curtain). To learn about their history and culture and to see what life is like there today. So when Jonas (my childhood friend for those of you who do not know him) and I decided to meet up somewhere half way between Stockholm and Chisinau, Budapest seemed perfect. My only connection with the city was that my roommate in the U.S.,12 years ago (Lina), was second generation Hungarian and had been there a lot, visiting her mom’s family as a child, and she would sometime tell me stories about life in communist Hungary. But here in Chisinau, I have met quite a lot of people who have been there and everyone has told it is beautiful and well worth visiting.

And it was! I must confess that Jonas and I were real tourists there. We did not know a single inhabitant, nor had we gotten any tips about what to do or see there from anyone who had lived there. We only followed our guidebooks but since we did not encounter any larger tourist crowds, it was ok and we did see a lot. Our impression was that Budapest is a city filled with young people who like to enjoy life and who are getting the means to do it. We saw very few old persons; both during the days and at night time, we met mostly young people out.  And in general, people were extremely nice and seemed laid back – like life should not be taken too seriously. (We also did not see any politically engaged students, alternative bars or sub-groups, but perhaps we did not go to the right places.)

Apart from strolling around in Buda and Pest, and seeing all the major sites, we also managed to visit a few museums (I couldn’t miss Liszt’s house for example!) and we spent half a day in one of Budapest’s many famous baths. 

The first days, we tried to find traditional Hungarian places to eat at but after a while, we gave up the idea of eating only traditional Hungarian food and resigned to the more modern restaurants, cafes and bars that are spreading over across the city, where a more innovative cross-cultural kitchen is served. (The food was great by the way!) Most of the places looked very trendy and some of them had fantastic interior design. Overall, the city has (in my opinion) really nice architecture for Central Europe and several places that we went to were located in old jugend style (art nouveau/art deco) buildings with really cool interiors.

So overall, it was a fantastic trip. There were only two things that overshadowed the otherwise completely bright weekend, and that were two reminders of true evil. The first one was an exhibition that we found in the Citadel up on the Gellérthegy hill. When we entered it, we had the impression that it would be an exhibition of historical photos from Hungary, but it turned out to photos of children in conflicts. It started with photos of Hungarian Jewish kids during the holocaust, and continued with the evacuation in Northern Norway during WWII, the Korea war, Vietnam, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, today’s Iraq and other – all showing kids deliberately targeted (sometimes participating as child soldiers) or unintentionally trapped in between. It is impossible to explain these pictures in words, but it was difficult to breath only after having seen a few of them. How can we let this take place?

After Jonas had left for Sweden a day before me, I went to the House of Terror on Andrássy Út. ( This building was once used as the HQ for the Hungarian ultra-right party, the Arrow Cross Party (then being called the House of Loyalty) and when the Nazi occupants came in 1944, the basement was used as a prison. After the Soviet invasion, the communist-led Political Police started using the building for their activities and after the war, the State Security Police used it for about a decade.

The house was mostly filled with pictures and TV-screens showing film clips from Hitler’s speeches, the insane spectacle of pre-WWII army parades, and the Jewish population and other prisoners being transported off to camps. It continued with pictures from the Gulag labor camps, the post WWII communist propaganda, the 1956 revolution and of the things that happened after that in Hungary. The tour around the house ended with a lift slowly taking small groups down to the basement while a man explained in detail on video how prisons used to be tortured and executed one after the other according to a certain method. In the basement where the lift stopped were all the prison cells and the neck breaking machine that the man in the video had described. Despite the place being cleaned up and despite all the other visitors around me, I shivered and felt a bit panicked while being there. It was like an echo of all the evil things that had happened there still remained in the walls. (I feel a bit sick just by writing about it.)

A few weeks ago, I saw the Eurovision Song Contest (both the semi-final and the final) for the first time in almost 10 year. This year 42 countries competed (when I was a kid, there used to be around 20), from Portugal, France and the UK in the west and Sweden and Island in the north, to Russia, Armenia and Georgia in the east and Turkey in the south. Small countries like Moldova, Montenegro and Cyprus competing against large countries like Germany, Spain and Ukraine. And Serbia won (which perhaps says more about the spread of the diaspora than indicates the hit-parameter of the song, as the contest is now decided by sms voting). My general opinion about this contest has been that it is a bit ridiculous and that the quality of the music is so bad that it is better to spend your time knitting than watching this. But though the music was still really bad, I could not help feeling a bit proud to be from this so widely diversified continent with all its countries, cultures and religions. 42 countries with all their inhabitants under the common name of Europeans!

But then I saw these exhibitions and the horrors that have taken place here only during the past century – that we Europeans let happen – and the thought that repeatedly came to my mind was that we most be the cruelest people on the planet. How all this could happen; so many people dead – executed or just as a consequence of wars and dictatorships is completely incomprehensible! Seeing all of it made me very ashamed of being European.

It will take a very long time and many, many good-doings from our parts to up-weight all we have done in the past (and not only here on our own continent). However, seeing the exhibitions also reminded me of what a miracle the EU actually is. That France and Germany only seven years after all these horrors had taken place and after centuries of wars, actually decided to cooperate and to create mutual dependence. That we today are 27 countries in our Union and that countries in which some the worst crimes against humanity were committed only 20 years ago, now have stable democratic systems with above all a state governed by law and the separation of powers. And that this was finally achieved without weapons or wars. We should not relax just yet, but at least we know that it is possible.

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