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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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Budapest - where the rain, to paraphrase Woody Allen, washes memories off the sidewalks.
By Martin Kelner on Oct 1, 2006 - 9:31:00 PM

Standing in the middle of a record shop, humming a tune in the hope that the assistant might recognise it, is embarrassing behaviour by any standards, but when you are lapsing from time to time into a sort of cod Hungarian it borders on the excruciating; so I fully understood when my wife decided, after my fourth recital of the morning in downtown Budapest, that she might go off on her own and get coffee for two or three hours.

It was just that the record was so damned haunting I did not want to leave Hungary without it.

It was a version of Dean Martin’s hit Memories Are Made of This, but that does not tell half the story. While Dino’s record is a jaunty fifties pop song, the version I was trying to locate was a lament, performed at about a third of the pace of the original by a husky sad-voiced Hungarian lady, sounding not unlike Marlene Dietrich. In fact, if you have ever heard the original German version of Lili Marlene by Dietrich, you will get the idea. Mournful, full of yearning.

What made asking for the record particularly awkward was the fact that I had heard it the previous evening at one of Budapest’s top tourist attractions, the House of Terror, a museum detailing the unspeakable horrors committed by both Nazis and Communists in the Hungarian capital.

Treating such tragic history as a kind of spectator sport always raises questions of taste, so the last thing you want to admit is that you came away humming the tunes.

The museum is at 60 Andrassy Street, Budapest, the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis from 1944, later requisitioned by the Communist secret police, and once the most feared address in the city.

Now it stands as a stark memorial to the Hungarians who suffered at the hands of the two evil empires, distinguishable from the other lavish villas and stately apartment buildings on one of Budapest’s most beautiful belle époque boulevards by its melodramatic cornice from which the word “TERROR” screams out in man-size letters.

Inside is an impressive multi-media display; including filmed testimony of survivors, perfectly preserved interrogation rooms containing instruments of torture, and one of the actual Russian tanks that rolled into the Hungarian capital to crush the uprising of 1956.

The soundtrack, as you move from room to terrifying room, has been exquisitely chosen to create a sense of foreboding and, well, terror. The Hungarian Memories Are Made of This plays in a room full of artefacts of everyday life under the Communists. One assumes, given its English title, it is intended ironically.

For visitors from the West the contrast between the two readings of the same tune from either side of the Iron Curtain is instructive. Dean Martin’s version, a product of an America standing on the verge of unprecedented prosperity, trills merrily of a “stolen night of bliss,” while the Hungarian lady may very well be singing about the same experiences, but with the knowledge that stolen nights of bliss could be a hazardous business on her side of the fence.

This much we were able to deduce from another temporary exhibition nearby; Sex and Communism, in the Galeria Centralis, a breezy and mildly subversive overview of what went on between the sheets during the repressive era of state socialism. The state’s view, judging from propaganda posters and the clips from movies that form part of the display, was that sex was a poor substitute for either farming or gymnastics.

One propaganda film, being screened at the gallery to the huge amusement of a group of young Hungarians, shows a tightly corseted and immaculately coiffured blonde woman supposedly standing on the back of a tractor, singing, while gazing adoringly at some chap with a fur hat and a moustache who looks old enough to be her dad. “Couples in socialist emulation” was apparently the aim of films like this, but it was rarely achieved in a country whose people, even during the era of Soviet domination, prided themselves on a certain contrariness.

As one journalist, quoted in the exhibition literature, says: “In the socialist era, there were only two things you could do against boredom; reading and f***ing. What the two activities had in common was that the Socialist state tried to interfere in both.”

Ironically, it was neither Budapest’s Socialist past nor its murky Second World War history – the House of Terror has been roundly criticised for concentrating on Stalinist terror while glossing over the Nazi era, when many Hungarians were far from being blameless victims – that had attracted me to Andrassy Street.

It was something as light and frothy as Ernst Lubitsch’s gossamer thin 1940 romantic comedy, The Shop Around The Corner. Watching it on TV at Christmas time, and being enchanted for the thirtieth time by James Stewart and the delightfully throaty Margaret Sullavan, I noted in the opening caption that the corner on which Matuschek and Company’s store stood was the corner of Andrassy Street.

As it happened I had been mulling over locations for a romantic break with Mrs Kelner, what with our wedding anniversary arriving, as it always does, five days after St. Valentine’s day. Paris seemed a bit too obvious, New York had served in previous Februaries, and in popular venues like Prague and Dublin there was the clear and present danger of bumping into knots of unpleasantly drunk young Englishmen celebrating stag nights.

And then it hit me. “Let’s go and find the Shop Around the Corner,” I said. Neither of us had been to Budapest, and as an added bonus there was the possibility of snow, something our corner of Yorkshire strangely missed out on this winter.

Certainly, there is snow in Lubitsch’s film, enabling Margaret Sullavan to appear sexier than ever in a fur jacket and hat. There was snow in the real Budapest too. We were ridiculously lucky, arriving just in time for that delightful calm that follows a heavy snow storm. Parked cars had been left to hibernate in side streets in two-foot high drifts. It could not have been better; three days of sunshine and clear blue skies under which to enjoy the snow, and as refreshingly cold as winters are supposed to be.

We hit the jackpot with our choice of hotel, too. Considering our trip had been arranged through two casual clicks on the internet, and our research into the geography of Budapest had been confined to a 1940 film directed by a German, and shot entirely in Los Angeles, we had no right to find a hotel so perfectly positioned, straddling the twin districts of Buda and Pest.

You would not describe the Mercure Korona as dripping with character exactly – it’s the kind of place you would expect your firm to book you into on a business trip to Frankfurt – but it was friendly enough, and had a small swimming pool. It also had the distinct advantage of being in the heart of downtown Pest, while just down the road from the Szabadsag (Liberty) Bridge over the Danube, into Buda, where the Royal Palaces and museum buildings have all been lovingly reconstructed out of the rubble of 1945.

Our trudge through the snow on our first morning up Castle Hill, with the Danube below and the Liberty Monument just above, and with youngsters tobogganing and exchanging snowballs on the hillside, was exhilarating. One hesitates to use words like “magical” and “fairy-tale,” but I fear they were never far from our lips during our week-end in Budapest.

Our hotel was also well placed for some fine restaurants and cafes, although I expect that would be true wherever you stay in Budapest. It seems to be a city where it is pretty well impossible to eat badly. I have always, for instance, been deeply suspicious of eating places that describe themselves as legendary or famous (“We’ll be the judge of that,” is the stance I tend to take), yet when we wandered into the “legendary” Café Central just round the corner from our hotel on our first evening, in search of a ballast of comfort food to keep out the cold, we were not disappointed.

It is a brasserie style place, with huge windows and high ceilings, cavernous like a station café in a thirties or forties period movie, with newspapers on those wooden sticks strewn everywhere, and flyers for arts events.

It really did not take a giant leap of imagination to picture the “writers, artists, journalists, and scientists,” who, according to the menu, gathered there regularly throughout the first half of the twentieth Century to drink coffee and argue.

The food was not half bad either; chicken soup with noodles, puree of pea soup with flat mushrooms, fried leg of goose with red cabbage, a paprika veal stew, cabbage and dill salad, roast potatoes, some pasta, and good solid red wine. How those intellectuals found the energy to argue with that sort of stuff at the bottom of their stomach beats me.

Our search for the Shop Around the Corner, meanwhile, took us not unnaturally to the Hungarian Museum of Commerce and Catering close to the Royal Palace, a review of trade in Hungary in the first half of the twentieth Century.

It is not a large nor particularly ambitious exhibition, but the imaginative logos and marketing devices on display – one shop attracted customers by having a model dog noisily pawing at the window from the inside – from an era when capitalism was unfettered in Hungary, give you some idea why these imaginative people found it hard to knuckle down to Communism.

One undoubted bonus of Budapest’s turbulent past is that ideas, arguments, intellectual activity of all sorts seem to be cherished. There are some fascinating second hand book shops, for instance, while finding a half-decent English language film to go and see is not much more difficult than it is in Leeds.

We went to a cinema called the Puskin to see an Australian film called Lantana, about loyalty and betrayal. In common with many cinemas in Budapest the Puskin doubles as an arts centre, and our visit coincided with the opening of an exhibition of photographs. They gave us free wine and cherry cake, and the waiter brought over the Weekend section of the Financial Times for us to read, service I am not expecting to experience in our local Cineplex.

Our final afternoon was spent walking along Andrassy Street, which after all was what we had come to see. Lubitsch’s Little Shop was nowhere to be found, but the avenue itself is extraordinary. Emerging from the Museum of Terror, chastened by the knowledge of the depths to which we can sink, you are immediately cheered by the dramatic beauty of this wide tree-lined boulevard, now a World Heritage site, which culminates in floodlit Heroes Square.

In City Park, just beyond the square, hundreds of locals were enjoying themselves in the vast open-air ice rink, a sight to drive away any lingering vestiges of pessimism. Skating round in circles is such an essentially pointless activity, but undertaken so joyously, that it lifts the heart just to watch. It seemed to sum up our week-end in Budapest.

I never did find my record, although a compensation was to join my wife for a final snack, in another legendary, historic, etc. coffee house. Gerbeaud is, according to its literature, “one of the oldest and largest cafes in Europe.” It is another high-ceilinged delight, beautifully restored to its turn-of-the-century glory, serving astonishingly fine coffee and cakes.

As we sat at a marble-surfaced table, sharing a cappuccino layer cake, which was little short of sensational, looking out on a snowbound and very pretty Vorosmarty Square, we had to agree that, musical reminder or not, this was the stuff of which memories are made.

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