Facebooks before Facebook

It’s the time of year when pupils are graduating from secondary schools all over Europe. You notice it particularly here in Central and Eastern Europe because each graduating class creates a kind of Facebook and places it in the window of their town’s most prestigious café, department store or bookshop.

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It used to charm me in the late 1980s when I lived in Budapest, since we never did this when I was at school, but what’s depressing is that, although 28 years have passed, these pre-Facebook Facebooks haven’t changed at all.

Graphical styles have undergone all sorts of revolutions since 1987, and the whole of Communist Eastern Europe has revolted politically and been liberated from the straitjacket of Marxist orthodoxy, (which has always given a rather serious cast to education) but it might as well never have happened. These displays of (probably) bright young lives and their teachers are still as dull, as dreary, as empty of originality and promise, as they always were. See a particularly dire example, above, from a window (albeit of a religious bookshop) in Debrecen.

Look carefully. The only male teacher without a tie is the drama teacher (you wonder if he will ever be promoted after this sartorial dare) – and only he and his theatrical colleague permit themselves a slightly open-mouthed smile. Of course, a certain license has always been permitted to the more expressive arts. Otherwise it’s all pursed lips, at least for male teachers of mathematics, chemistry, history, and literature. And men, of course, have their greater dignity to consider, whilst women may smile a little more informally.

drama smiles

‘Kati Neni’ (‘Auntie Kate’), plum centre of the picture, and this year’s class teacher, has something rather unsurprising to say.

‘Finally, it’s over!’

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I imagine she says this every year, but whether in sadness or relief we cannot tell from her expression.

Deputy Director Katalin is a dead ringer for a 1970s Miss Moneypenny

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And her colleague, the second deputy director, looks a tiny bit mad – a good candidate for Q.

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As for the pupils, properly relegated to the lower ranks, the only one who looks remotely like fun is Mizi Marietta, who, with a name like that must go on to a starring role in a new operetta by the dead but much-loved Franz Lehar.

mizi marietta

20 girls, 7 boys. What’s happening in Debrecen? Are boys now exposed at birth on the Puszta to be picked at by vultures?

And why do they all wear black and black ties? Is graduation a kind of funeral?

Now, I must also confess that although I have a particular love for Hungary, since, in a certain sense, I grew up there, I couldn’t help thinking, when I saw the Czechoslovak Facebooks in all the shops in Prague in the same late 1980s that they did it rather better there. They were funny, irreverent, imaginative, unconventional. Is there a deep-seated conservatism about Hungary that has resisted change over the last 28 years (and for how many decades before)? Or is it just this eastern part of Hungary that is stuck in the Puszta mud?

Anyway, boys and girls, do try harder!

Oradea – City Under Wraps

Oradea, since 1945 a Romanian city, is a city that’s under wraps, still recovering from the depredations  of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War that followed. It must get back to where it was before it can become something more. Over the last hundred years it’s been Hungarian twice (as Nagyvarad), and Romanian twice, and you can still hear both languages used interchangeably in the street, though sadly you can no longer hear the Yiddish or German that the large Jewish community spoke before the Holocaust.

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The cities of Hungary,to the West, such as Debrecen, and Miskolc, have recovered from history, and gone further. They have renovated and inhabited the shabby, rundown, sometimes bullet-scarred buildings of the Habsburg era. But many of Oradea’s wonderful Jugendstil apartment blocks and institutional buildings are still vacant, shrouded to protect pedestrians from the crumbling, falling stucco. It’s a sorry sight and no doubt a matter of money, not intent or confidence. But underneath the wrappings are architectural wonders waiting to be restored and used again.

There are, of course, some delightful exceptions, such as this restored hotel.

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Another exception is the splendid theatre, designed by the astonishingly productive architectural partnership of Fellner and Helmer, who were to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its theatres what Mimar Sinan was to the Ottoman Empire some centuries earlier, though Sinan generally stuck to mosques, madrasas and the occasional bridge. I don’t believe he ever built a theatre.

Wrappings put me in mind of Christo (and Jeanne-Claude), the Bulgarian wrapper-up of the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf in Paris.

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pont neuf

Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t claim to mean anything by their art beyond the immediate impression they elicit, but it’s hard to explain the strong emotional reaction we feel on seeing these powerful symbols tamed by drapes. It’s certainly not the melancholy induced by Oradea’s buildings. Wikipedia quotes art critic David Bourdon, who says it’s all about “revelation through concealment.” But I think it’s simpler than that (art critics so rarely write sentences that means anything).

Wrapping up means presents, generosity and pleasure (think of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music – ‘brown paper packages wrapped up in string’). Wrapping up implies manageability and control. Wrapping reminds us that we can encompass the mechanical, the monstrous, the powerful, the irrational. We can defuse these things if we care to. It’s telling that the Reichstag was wrapped (and thereby disarmed) just five years after the reunification of Germany. Indeed I’d like to see Christo go further. He could wrap up a nuclear bomb, a tank, a Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin, or even this revolting dish (Women’s Fancy) that I foolishly ordered in Oradea for my dinner (looks like vomit on a plate).

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On My Bike

I’m on holiday, bicycling from Miskolc in North-East Hungary to Timisoara in South-West Romania, largely in order to demonstrate (mainly to myself) that I am still young and vigorous. The first day couldn’t decide the issue, though. After a wrong turning on the outskirts of Miskolc, but stubbornly refusing to retrace my steps, I made a 70 km ride into a 95 km ride and arrived in Nyiregyhaza exhausted, as anyone, young or old, might have been.

The starting point of the trip, at least, is in no doubt, but time will tell if I manage the 362 kilometres (as the crow flies, not as the bicycle rolls) from start to finish. Boredom, weather, fatigue, mechanical failure, puncture, and (let’s hope not) accident may curtail the journey.

I’d planned, in fact, to bicycle through Sub Carpathian Ruthenia, but when I explained to anyone interested (and some who were not) that this is just the inner edge of South-Western Ukraine, and therefore a rather welcoming place, I was told not to, on the grounds that kidnapping, accusations of spying, and other mishaps were almost certain. Never mind that this is the Europhile part of Ukraine and was once Czechoslovakia and Hungary (before the Second World War), and Austro Hungary (before the First), and even, for one day, an independent Ruthenia (see Economist).

I thought it unlikely that I could pedal into a warzone from there (I would have to cross the Carpathians for a start and then go on at least another 1,000 km) but I am heeding their warnings and will stay on one or other side of the Hungarian-Romanian border.

bike route

What is there to see?

Large fields of wheat, and maize, large fields of spindly green things that could be fennel (is that unlikely?). Road workers resting by the road, farm workers resting by the fields. Low bungalows in small villages apparently empty of people. Birds. A hare. Above all the tarmac unrolling in front of me, which is all that really matters, getting me from A to B.

But I do notice that the region looks more prosperous than when I was last here, twelve years ago. Agricultural machinery is modern, even monstrous, no longer on the old slow human scale. Village houses look less shabby, and Debrecen, capital of Eastern Hungary, has undergone a radical makeover. The great Calvinist Church has been painted, the streets are tidy and lined with elegant cafes, and an impressively modern and quiet tram slithers through the central square. Sleepiness persists, of course, though more tidily. This part of Hungary hasn’t been in a hurry since the revolution of 1848.

One thing hasn’t changed. Stopping for water about 20 km from Debrecen I engaged a kindly middle-aged lady in conversation (to the extent that my declining Hungarian allows). When I told her what I was doing she said ‘Watch out for the cigany’, and in case I didn’t understand this she said it another way, ‘You know, the brown people. They will rob you if you give them a chance.’ Casual racism persists here, as all over Central  and Eastern Europe.

At Keleti Station in Budapest – in the film noir style.

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