The Snow Blowing Over The Statues

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
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Trip End Jan 12, 2010


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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

12.16.09               The Snow Blowing Over The Statues

We woke up today to a very snowy Budapest!  Already, there are at least two inches on the ground, and the snow continues to swirl gracefully down from the skies.  Fun!  Murray bought some groceries for the apartment last night, so this morning we made a meal together in our little kitchen.  Also fun! 

After breakfast, we headed out into the winter wonderland to make snow angels in the snowy squares of Budapest!  We also crammed into a teeny tiny phone booth to make a call to Australia and Murray's dad, who now is home from the hospital and slowly recovering from surgery (hooray!).  After all this, we jumped on the Metro to Deak ter, where we then caught a private bus to Memento Park, about a half hour ride from downtown Budapest. 

The park includes the well-known Statue Park, Stalin's Grandstand, an exhibition in the barracks, and a movie theatre showing a special documentary film about the political secret service.

The most famous part of the park, "Statue Park", displays 42 pieces of art from the Communist era between 1945 and 1989 that have ended up on trash heaps in other former socialist countries – including allegorical monuments of “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship” and “Liberation”; statues of famous personalities from the labor movement; soldiers of the Red Army; and other gigantic statues and busts of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Dimitrov, Captain Ostapenko, Béla Kun, and other “heroes” of the communist world. 

Our visit to Statue Park was a mind-blowing experience.  It offered a one-of-a-kind glimpse into communist history, displaying a sometimes amusing, sometimes eerie, but always intriguing collection of Communist-era statues.  The snow falling over the park and collecting on the statues added even another haunting element to the visit. 

“Stalin’s Grandstand”, another part of the park, is a replica of the tribune that served as the pedestal for the eight-meter-tall bronze statue of Soviet party secretary, head of state, and general, Stalin.  The original Grandstand was once located on “Felvonulási tér” in central Budapest, where parades were held on Communist holidays.  Communist leaders would stand on the Grandstand at Stalin's feet, waving at marching crowds that were forced to cheer them and celebrate.  On October 23, 1956, the crowd revolting against communist oppression sawed down the Stalin statue at its knees and pulled it down.  However, Stalin’s boots remained on the pedestal to serve as a sarcastic reminder of the dictator.

The last areas of Memento Park were its “Exhibition in the Barracks” and a showing of the documentary film, “The Life of an Agent”.  The Exhibition contained interesting artifacts and an account of the two turning points in 20th century Hungarian history: the events surrounding the 1956 revolution, and the collapse of the system in 1989-90 – both conveying a deep longing for freedom on behalf of the peoples living under a communist regime.  It was a very interesting exhibition. 

In the same building as the Exhibition there also was a movie theatre showing the documentary film “The Life of an Agent”.  Murray and I watched several minutes of this film, which was about the secret police training methods in Communist Hungary.  Back in the days of communism, the Hungarian Ministry of Interior Affairs had its own film studio, where several hundred short and full-length films were produced between the years 1958 and 1988.  These films provided training and instruction to secret police agents on how to “defend law and order in the regime.”  “The Life of an Agent” used actual excerpts from these period films to demonstrate the operations and mindset of this ruthless organization run by the Kádár-regime.  The film was divided into four parts: (1) The way to hide bugs; (2) Introduction to house-searching; (3) Methods of recruitment; and (4) Effective networking – no joke.  This film, especially, was at times hysterical (the paranoia levels of the secret police and communist officials in general was unbelievable) – but mostly it was haunting (the methods used by the secret police to “collect information” damaged so many lives).

After our visit to Memento Park, we took the bus back to Budapest’s city center, where we walked through yet another (smaller) Christmas market (maybe eating another Langallo while there!) before grabbing some lunch (more delicious soups to start, followed by a salad for me and goulash with potatoes for Murray).  We then visited the Basilica of St. Stephen (Szent Istvan Bazilika), just across the street from the café.

The Basilica of St. Stephen is a neoclassical structure built over the course of half a century and not completed until 1906.  (Much of the building delay had to do with the original dome collapsing in 1868!)  It is Budapest’s largest and most important Catholic church.  Again, the church is named for Saint Stephen I of Hungary, the country’s first king.  Inside, the church has some interesting and beautiful features, but I was surprised at how gloomy and dark the interior is – a bit disappointing.

However, the basilica does have a VERY interesting side chapel.  Remember how I wrote in yesterday’s journal that we were going to visit an actual body part of St. Stephen today?  Well, the Saint’s incorruptible mummified right hand, the Szent Jobb (Holy Right Hand), is housed here!  This hand is an object of great devotion by Hungarians.  The hand was returned to Hungary by Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa in 1771 after it was discovered in a monastery in Bosnia.  Like St. Stephen’s crown, his mummified hand also was snatched by the bad guys after World War II before it was, er, handed back (groan).  The hand itself is in a small glass casket within a gilded reliquary, and you have to put a coin into the little machine in front of it in order to light up the casket and properly view the hand.  And, at about 1,000 years old, the hand is – unsurprisingly – not a particularly pretty sight!    

After St. Stephen’s Basilica, I was (unfortunately) not feeling very well, so we went back to the apartment where I could rest for a while.  (Although I hate to admit it, all of this traveling is getting harder and harder for me.  I thought it would improve during this, my second trimester – but while I’m no longer getting nearly as sick, it is getting tougher to be as active.  So, I’m trying to realize my limitations and do what I can.)  As a result, we had an early night of it – I took a nap, and watched a documentary about Margaret Thatcher on the BBC.  Murray went out for a walk and brought back some groceries, making me soup and hot tea in our little kitchen (dear, dear husband).  I didn’t get back to sleep until very late, but my stomach finally felt better by the early morning hours.  Tomorrow, we’re on our way to Athens, Greece, where we read that the temperatures are hovering around the 60s.  As much as I love snow, the warmer weather sounds divine right about now.  
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