Monthly Archives: January 2012

Hungary Remembered

On a visit to Hungary in 1979 I snapped this photo from a tour bus window and it managed to survive my many moves since then. The photo was taken in the countryside, where storks traditionally spend March through October before heading south to Africa. In recent years the storks have built their nests atop telephone poles, making for dramatic views like the one I captured.

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Hungary was sandwiched between Austria and Yugoslavia on my tour so we only had two nights in Budapest. They were two nights of history and luxury at the Budapest Hilton, which incorporated the remains of the old Ministry of Finance building and the 13th century Dominican Church of St.Nicholas. From every vantage point there were panoramic views of Pest on the other side of the Danube.

Hungary is famous for food but my stomach did flip-flops at sight of their specialties. Quoting from the article I wrote for TravelAge West, a trade journal for travel agents:

“I ate a lot of club sandwiches and dobos cake. The Hilton’s club sandwich is interesting: three slices of bread filled with shredded vegetables, layers of bacon and chicken on top. If you can’t eat cucumbers, good luck. They are sliced, diced and shredded into everything.”

One evening our group went to the Citadella, an old fortress overlooking the Danube, for dinner and live music. Here’s another excerpt that sums up my impressions and memories of Budapest:

(Quote)   After dinner we walked across the road to stand at the retaining wall and gaze at the lights of Pest. “It looks like Oakland,” someone said. Well, maybe. If you can forget that the river is the Danube and lights are all you see, maybe it does look like Oakland.

But turning to look again at the Citadella, one sees that the walls are pocked with shell holes and atop the roof is a towering Russian statue. Budapest looks like Budapest. (End Quote)

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That was more than 30 years ago. The Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was rolled up. That Russian statue is surely long gone. But the Danube flows on, and from all I read, the storks still build their nests in small villages outside of Budapest.

Book Review – MURDER ON THE DANUBE

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The Danube River separates Buda from Pest. (Photo from the World Wide Web)

MURDER ON THE DANUBE BY William S. Shepard

Until you adjust to the book’s structure and Hungarian names it seems as convoluted as the history of Hungary itself, but it’s fascinating to anyone who has ever been caught up in that milieu, even as a tourist. You go in thinking of the Gabor sisters and apple strudel. You find yourself enmeshed in history, culture and religion dating back a thousand years, and a language known as Magyar.

Author William S. Shepard is a former career diplomat who served as Consul and Political Officer at the American Embassy in Budapest. According to his biography at Amazon, he was made an Honorary Hungarian Freedom Fighter at the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

The story alternates between scenes from the 1956 revolution and present day diplomatic events, or, as Shepard writes: “The time is the indeterminate past, or if you prefer, the nearly present. This is a work of historical fiction.”

The protagonist is “Robbie” Cutler, Political Officer for the American Embassy in Budapest. He’s the second generation in his family to be stationed there. His father, “Trip” Cutler, was the American ambassador during the 1956 uprising and still has troublesome memories of that time.

In Hungary, bitterness remains: A tour guide remarks: “Yes, it was brave, all the more so because so many of us believed that the Americans would come. Our people heard their broadcasts which encouraged the uprising. We fought in the streets against an army. Then nobody came to help. We were left alone, as usual. That has happened often in our history.”

The Prologue is set in 1956. The main story opens with Robbie preparing to host a diplomatic dinner in the “nearly present.” Old wounds lie just beneath the surface and everyone has an agenda. The Australian ambassador was Sandor Kovacs, a Hungarian who slipped out of Hungary as the revolution wound down and emigrated to Australia. Now known as Alexander Kovatch, he plans to interview survivors of the uprising, hoping someone knows what happened to his brother, Csaba Kovacs.

Like Sandor Kovacs/Alexander Kovatch, surviving Freedom Fighters became politicians, bankers and bureaucrats, still uneasy about their pasts. The author alternates past and present, picking up stories of known survivors as they prepare to meet again at a Parliament reception organized by Imre Mohacsi, now a parliamentary leader of the Smallholders Party.

A reader’s curiosity is focused on the question: What happened to Csaba Kovacs and his pretty friend Eva Molnar?

The pace quickens when Janos Magassy, who emigrated to New Jersey, arrives in Budapest to see about building a memorial to the 1956 Revolution. He wants a statuary group of Freedom Fighters similar to the Korean Memorial in Washington D.C. Before he can meet with Robbie to discuss his plans, Janos is murdered.

The American ambassador asks Robbie to look into the murder.Robbie’s investigation takes on aspects of a traditional police procedural – ferreting out friends and relatives who might know something about the victim’s movements and his murder.Everyone remembers the Revolution and Robbie surmises that “nostalgia would be a leading Hungarian product.”

One puzzle is the murder weapon – a sabre. At this point the reader may learn more about fencing than he or she really wants to know, but the Hungarian cavalry sabre is an integral part of Hungary’s history and culture. Robbie correctly believes that a sabre is not a weapon an assassin carries around but is more likely a weapon of opportunity. If so, why did Janos have it with him when he agreed to meet someone late at night? The trail leads to surprising places.

The diplomatic world as painted here is a small, gossipy one, almost a closed society, with most of the action taking place at social functions or in cafes, over coffee. The story is ratcheted up several notches when Robbie is targeted by a professional assassin. The ending would fit an Agatha Christie “Poirot” novel, with interested parties gathered in the private dining room of a secluded restaurant for a review of the investigation and unmasking of the murderer.

Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I read the others in the series? Absolutely

A little time-travelin’ music, please

———Photo copyright 2003 Pat Browning ———————

Thanks to the magic of photography I’m taking a quick trip back in time to Moonstone Beach, on the Central California Coast. I can almost smell the salt air. I can almost hear the waves sloshing in and out. 

Nope, not going to spend this New Year’s Eve moaning over the past. It’s gone. It’s already 2012 in lots of places. So lift a glass to the good times yet to come, with a quick “thank you” for  good times past.

Frankly, 2011 was a mess, but there were some ups to go with the downs, so why waste time worrying about a year that’s on its way out? It was what it was.

Come on, 2012 — show us what you’ve got!