Another post in my ongoing series of Cold War Europe:
It’s only about 130 miles from Vienna to Budapest, but during the years I lived in the Austrian capital, during the Cold War, Budapest, part of the Soviet East Bloc, was in many ways located in another time and world. You can take a hydrofoil there now on the Danube, fly, drive, sip a glass of wine on high-speed rail–I suppose you could even navigate a hot air balloon there from Vienna if you wanted.
That is now. Time was, however, when those hundred-plus miles took days of preparation: getting the right visa with the right stamps, making train and hotel reservations, changing money, but not too much. As I recall, you could take a small amount of forints into the country, but the Hungarians wanted Western currency. Ultimately, you needed to change Austrian schillings or American dollars inside Hungary where the rate was much higher. The language is also daunting–a distant relation to Finnish or Estonian with little Latin or Greek to hold onto for the non-speaker. Igen, “yes,” is about all I can muster now.
But the city was and is a jewel of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a second home for that enigmatic, sad, wandering royal, Empress Elisabeth. Budapest and Hungary embroiled her son, the unfortunate Rudolf, in its affairs, as well. The city underwent a vivid cultural flowering at the end of the nineteenth century, just as did its sister city, Vienna. It has given to the world talents such as Kodály, Bartók, Koestler, Szilard, and von Neumann. An outpost of Western Europe, Budapest was one of cradles of that civilization.
Still more importantly for me, it was where I could find the crown of St. Stephen, symbol of authority of the kings of Hungary. That crown and its location served as a major plot point in my initial thriller, In a Neutral Zone. So I had to get to Budapest, not just to see the sites, but get on the ground and check out for myself security for the crown, get the feel of the city–the modern city and not the one I knew so well from history books.
A long story short–I did the research, got the background scene that I needed. Got the book written. But that was the least of it.
Hungary was generally considered one of the easier Bloc countries to travel in. However, I knew from personal experience that it was still most definitely behind Churchill’s Iron Curtain. An avid hiker, I had explored the low-lying, marshy regions around Austrian’s Lake Neusiedl. A bird sanctuary, the region had also been one of the major crossing points for Hungarian refugees ever since the Soviet crackdown of 1956, ending Hungarian attempts at a degree of autonomy. The lake is shallow enough in most places to be crossed by foot; a goopy, mud-sucking promenade to freedom. After the Uprising of 1956, the Hungarian security apparatus and their Soviet enablers built tall wooden watchtowers in the waters of the lake on their side of the border. These were reminiscent of the storks that nest in the surroundings and were not merely symbolic. One time in my explorations of the lake I waded with stupid bravado into the water from the Austrian side, headed toward the Hungarian border. I immediately heard the clicking of numerous machine gun bolts along the lake. A bullhorn command got me back to shore pronto. No translation needed to those barking tones.
Thus, when my train halted at the Hungarian border, I was reminded of those security measures, for suddenly guards seemed to appear from nowhere, each with one hand gripping the lead to a leashed and unmuzzled police dog, the other carrying a long, thin metal pole with a disk attached to the end. I realized that these disks were mirrors. The guards shoved the poles under each train car searching for anyone clinging to the undercarriage.
And this was to get into Hungary; I could only imagine the security when the train left the country.
Budapest at this time, the early 1970s, was not a beautiful city. Not the city of light and colorful buildings and night life that it is now. It was gray and cold and wind-swept. The buildings everywhere still bore the pockmarking of bullets from the tragic events of 1956.
I stayed in a small pension in the old city of Buda, full of the sort of winding baroque lanes that I so love, but it was not a city for romantics at that time. It was a depressing and somewhat mind-numbing several days I spent there. I recall very little, save for the research on the crown and trying to figure out how my fictional character would be able to steal it.
The morning I was scheduled to leave, I took a last stroll along the Danube. There was a chill off the puszta, the smell of snow in the air. The streets seemed, as ever, to be empty. Nothing like the crush of a Viennese street at lunchtime.
Ahead of me, a man stepped out of a bar, saw me, and cast me a smile of recognition. The universal solidarity of booze, I thought, and I avoided his gaze. But there was no way of avoiding him, for he came right up to me like a long lost friend, and stuck out his thick hand toward me.
The handshake is an automatic gesture; I have never been able to resist its offer. I took his hand, ready to pass a moment or two of alcohol-induced camaraderie. Instead, he simply looked into my eyes and said, “Amerikai.”
It wasn’t a question, but I nodded anyway.
He didn’t want to shake hands, it turned out. Instead, he looked quickly up and down the street, held my outstretched hand in his left while with his right forefinger he traced something on my palm. Once, twice, a third time.
It was not until I got to the train station for the trip back to Vienna that I finally figured out what he had traced onto my palm. Two numbers: 5 and 6.
We still were bound together, it seemed, by the events of 1956.