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A Post-Communist Summer


By Geoffrey C. Upton

A certain smell pervades the cities of Eastern Europe these days. I don't mean anything as elegant or metaphorical as the smell of wilting communism or the smell of greed, with American corporations swarming in and dominating the market. No, this is a smell in the most literal sense, a smell that surges at you from dark courtyards as you walk down the street, that engulfs you as you walk into grand, decaying flats. This smell, it seems, may be combination of sewage, dust, beer, sweat, exhaust and cigarettes; it is smell I have never encountered in the United States, and it is a smell I will never forget.

I came to Budapest to get away from my life as I knew it in the Northeast Corridor, to remind myself that the world was bigger than New York and Boston, that somewhere people were speaking other languages and, maybe, thinking different thoughts. And Eastern Europe is different.

One of the first things you notice here is the smoking. Everyone smokes, male and female, young and old. They smoke on the street, in restaurants, in office, in hotel lobbies. I was relieved when I discovered that my flight on Malev, the Hungarian national airline, would be smoke-free; that plane might have been the last smoke-free public place I see before boarding my return flight to the States.

My lungs will be in worse shape when I cross the Atlantic again, but so will my arteries. On my second night in Budapest, I digested a traditional Hungarian meal of cabbage stuffed with meat accompanied by a small black sausage, a slice of pork and a hunk of fat from an undetermined animal. The entire dish was sitting in deep red oil half-an-inch thick, and the cabbage was topped with sour cream.

Yesterday, I thought I had selected a relatively healthy ham sandwich for lunch. But on the first bite it was clear that this was no American sandwich. Joining the ham were thick slices of creamy cheese, sliced eggs and more butter than you would get on a bagel with butter from Bruegger's.

But the food has one thing going for it: the price. Thanks to constant devaluation of the Hungarian Forint, the dollar goes a long way here along the Danube. A slice of pizza costs 50 cents; a 0.2-liter bottle of Coke is about 25 cents; hefty hero sandwiches are $1; ice cream--available in dozens of flavors in little carts on every street--is about 20 cents a scoop.

On the street, the homeless are both more and less aggressive in Hungary than they are in Cambridge. Homeless men sit in squares and drink, rarely approaching passers-by. Women, meanwhile, accost tourists and others with an aggressiveness that would put Cambridge's "Hello there, young man!" Spare Change dealer to shame. These women, without fail, move about in groups, bear very small children on their arms and dress in gypsy-style wraps and shawls. They come to you begging, pointing to their children, and literally hang on your arm for two blocks waiting for money. They even enter restaurants to beg.

Street performers are everywhere, playing classical and folk tunes. Their audiences are bigger than in America and, seemingly, so is their pecuniary reward. Even the omnipresent Andean flute players of Coop fame are here, playing to a large and appreciative crowd in the subway.

Even Hungarian animals are different. The dogs have more personality and more importance than their American cousins. They look older, more serious and more spoiled, seemingly leading their owners down the street. Dirty gray pigeons of American cities are joined by white and beige varieties on Hungarian streets.

The bathrooms are different, too. To flush the toilet, you pull a cord or lever overhead. When you turn on the hot water, a flame shoots up in a burner placed above the bathtub. There are only handheld showers. And often, the toilet is in a separate room from the rest of the customary bathroom facilities.

Yet for all of Eastern Europe's differences, it is of course not possible to escape American culture and companies. The main shopping street in Budapest, Vaci Utca, is home to McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts and Citibank. In fact, McDonald's has 22 locations in the city, and the world's largest Burger King is here.

Inside stores, Coke and Pepsi slug it out as much as anywhere, and you can't buy a soft drink unaffiliated with one of the two. Kellogg's cereals vie for space with Dannon yogurt products. In drug stores, Old Spice, Gillette and Secret occupy the deodorant shelf. Wrangler and Lee jeans, meanwhile, hang in the windows of clothing sellers.

America is best represented in the entertainment industry. All over the city, the upcoming concert schedule is plastered: Joan Baez, Sheryl Crow, James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire. Music stores sell and play American tunes. On Vorosmarty Ter, the main square downtown, tourists sit and soak in the "authentic" Hungarian atmosphere with Toni Braxton's "Another Sad Love Song" in their ears, piped in by an outdoor cafe. Television is a hodgepodge of local programming, English-language shows on The Cartoon Network and CNN, and a host of American programs, from "Saved by the Bell" to "Married With Children," dubbed in Hungarian.

Despite the Americanization of this part of the world--which, in truth, I expected from the start--by the time I leave here in eight weeks, I think I will have gained what I left in search of. In the U.S., I said I wanted to get away to see things differently, to break out of the mold, to feel refreshed for a return to Harvard in the fall. Now, 5,000 miles away, it is clear to me that what I was really looking for was a way to more fully come home.

When I land in New York in August, I will surely miss the stunning scenery and relaxed atmosphere of Budapest. But as I step out of the airport terminal and draw my first full breath of New World air, I will also appreciate my American life as never before.

Geoffrey C. Upton '99 is working as an intern in the Budapest office of Personnel Select, an international human resource and consulting firm.

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