on being old…

Posted on Friday 20 July 2007

When you wake up one day and realized that you’re old, it’s not all creaky joints and thinning hair. There’s something of a freedom to think about whatever you want to think about – at least there has been for me. I just got back from a jaunt to Eastern Europe, and I’m about to go on a couple of American adventures – Northwestern Arkansas in pursuit of Indian Trail Trees and then a couple of weeks with friends in Colorado. So, I think I’ll just write about what I’m thinking about instead of sticking to the political watch on the Bush Administration that usually fills these pages.

Our first stop in Eastern Europe was Hungary, Budapest mostly. I really knew nothing of Hungary’s story. Hungary was founded in 896 AD by tribes wandering from the Ural Mountains in Russia – the Magyars. The firt King, Stephen, Christianized Hungary and was later declared a Saint. The Hungarian language is unique and unintelligible to other Europeans. Throughout the second Millenium, Hungary was an almost constantly occupied country. The Holy Roman Empire, the Mongol Hordes of Khan, the Ottoman Turks, and finally the Austrian Empire that defeated the Turks, but stayed. After their defeat in World War I as part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, Hungary lost two thirds of its domain. Transylvania went to Romania and the northern and western parts of Hungary became parts of Czechoslovakia and Russia. Hungary sided with Germany during World War II and was dominated by the Arrowcross Party [Hungarian Nazi Party] essentially ending up a satellite to Germany. 400,000 Jewish Hungarians were exterminated in the Holocaust. At the end of the War, Hungary became a Russian satellite with a Stalinist, Communist government. The country faltered leading to the uprising of 1956. They were free for 12 days with an open border [250,000 left the country], but the Russians intervened massively and ruled until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.

What a story. For the whole first Millenium of their existence, they’ve either been under seige or consumed by the West or the East, and have yet managed to maintain an ethnic identity and culture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, although they were still part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, they had some sense of autonomy. They had a celebration of their first Millenium in 1896. Many of the famous landmarks in Budapest were built for that celebration – the Parliment, Hero’s Square, etc.

I’ve mentioned already the thing that had to biggest impact on me in Budapest – the House of Terror – a museum remembering the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Communists, the 1956 Revolt. It will always haunt me – those 50 years in which life in Hungary must’ve been a nightmare. Apparently, the last half – after the Revolt – wasn’t so terrible as before – but certainly by our standards, no picnic. The only remnants of those years outside of the museums are old buildings not yet renovated from the  wars and neglect.


But there’s a modern Metro system, upscale stores, streets filled with bustling, well coiffed, happy people, and the energy of a happening place. It feels like they skipped a whole century. They celebrated in 1896, then picked up again around 1996 and moved forward. There’s almost not evidence of the twentieth century except for the awful  Russian apartment buildings made from concrete panels on the outskirts of the City.

On a trip up the Danube from Budapest, we had an unexpected treat. The power poles in Hungary are short, and made from reinforced concrete or rusted metal – not so attractive. In a small village, we saw this:

Storks who breed along the Danube, then head off for Africa. Who’d have thought?

So what’s this got to do with being old and thinking what I want to think. The Hungarians lost a generation or two. Their modern troubles came with the outbreak of World War I and the fall of the Hapsburg Monarchy around the time my parents were born. What followed was a near century of hardship and ideological domination. They were brutalized from the Right [Monarchy and Fascism] and from the Left [Communism] – in either case, cut off from the world of culture and intellect. For what? Nothing that I can see. The political powers completely dominated their lives and all they got from it all was hunger and stagnation. It was the beginning of a particular coloring of my thoughts that continued throughout the trip. I just kept thinking about the absurd assault on our Constitutional Democracy by the current Administration. I thought about how the extremist assasination of an Austrian Archduke was used by the European Monarchs to set off an absolutely pointless War that ultimately destroyed their governments and twisted the destiny of a continent. It made the distortion of intelligence by the Bush Administration to justify the Iraq War even more monsterous to me. Like the Nobility of Europe, our leaders are playing with our lives and our future as if it’s theirs to play with. While I was heartened to see Hungary flourishing after all she’s been through – something of a triumph of the human spirit – the years of suffering, the death, the lost generations were all totally meaningless. All of the rhetoric of the Monarchs, the Fascists, and the Communists was little more than a front for power politics of those in charge. How can we play with our fate and our future so casually? Hungary stands as a testimony to what such foolishness can bring. As an old man, I can say that it was just silliness, little more…

Want to see photos of Budapest? My wife’s photos are beginning to show up here on flickr

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