Serendipity and Baader-Meinhof | Budapest, Hungary

I’ve mentioned my friend Agnes here before. I’ve also mentioned the fact that, with the two of us, seemingly unconnected events or experiences always manage to somehow come together and become intertwined and coherent.

And so it was this time, when I visited her in Budapest.

The previous time I saw her, at the beginning of the summer, I stayed at her house in Budapest, like I did now. My trip then continued to Berlin, where I first stumbled upon the so-called Stolpersteine (literally – ‘stumbling stones’) – small bronze plates installed in the ground in front of buildings, which documented individual victims of National socialism who lived in those buildings before they were deported to concentration camps. Later, after doing some research, I found out that there were hundreds of these plates all over Germany and Europe, each engraved with the name of the person who had lived in the specific building, their date and place of birth, followed by the year and the place they were deported to and the year of their death.

During my last visit to Agnes, I must have come in and out of her house at least a dozen times, yet I simply did not notice the plate installed into the pavement right in front of her building’s entrance.

Or, rather, I noticed it, but didn’t think much of it. Perhaps because it was in Hungarian, or maybe because it was a single one, making it less conspicuous than the series I later saw in Berlin, I must have thought that it simply indicated when the building was built, or something to that extent.

This, it seems, is a classic case of the so-called Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. There is a rather detailed explanation of it here, but basically it describes the experience of happening upon some obscure piece of information and then encountering the same subject repeatedly, again and again. I’ve experienced this a few times – the strange feeling of becoming aware of something that then appears over and over in different settings, and wondering if it is a coincidence, or if it always there and I simply didn’t notice it because I wasn’t aware it existed. Funny that there is a name for this feeling too.

In the explanation, it says the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is somewhat related to synchronicity, which is the experience of having a highly meaningful coincidence, which in turn has something to do with serendipity – the propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, which I am also quite prone to do.

And speaking of serendipity, remember the yellow cobblestones in the center of Sofia? Considered to be a symbol of Bulgaria’s capital, they were actually cast in Budapest and gifted to Tsar Ferdinand I from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the occasion of his wedding. I only discovered this after Agnes and I took a picture of our feet standing on them in the spring, when she visited me in Sofia.

So, you can imagine my surprise when, as we drove through Buda, we came upon a small street covered in the exact same yellow cobblestones as the ones gracing Sofia’s center. Agnes indulged my freak-out and stopped so I could take a picture (which turned out to be a pretty horrible idea, as it then took a good part of 20-minutes and the help of a random dude to un-park the car). So, here they are again, the symbol of Sofia: there – polished and shiny, here – a little neglected and worn, covering an obscure street in Budapest.

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House of Terror | Budapest, Hungary

Maybe because Bulgaria hasn’t done much of anything to mark or remember its communist past, I am always interested to see how that past is remembered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. (This discrepancy probably has something to do with the fact that the Bulgarians’ relationship with the regime was much less turbulent than those of other nations.)

Having been born and spent (almost entirely) the first decade of my life in communist Bulgaria, I have a particular kind of fascination with the history of communist regimes. Although I never truly experienced any of the real terrors of totalitarianism, I seem to internalize historical testaments of them more than someone who has lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain for whom they may be more abstract.

And so, I enter the House of Terror in Budapest with a kind of trepidation and the knowledge that I have to see it though it isn’t going to be pleasant. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary. Located on Andrássy út 60, the building that houses it first served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and then of the State Protection Authority – Hungary’s secret police between 1945 and 1956.

In the museum’s middle is a kind of atrium where a Soviet tank now stands, surrounded by walls lined with the large, black-and-white portraits of the people who were held captive, tortured and killed in the building.

The museum’s two upper floors, not unlike Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum, offer a slightly campy mixture of communist and Nazi paraphernalia arranged in situ with reconstructions, archive video footage, mannequins dressed in uniforms and walls plastered with pop-culture and propaganda posters. Some of the rooms are set up thematically, with a focus on different aspects of the regimes, and others – historically, dedicated to certain periods.

A good illustration of the absurd ways in which the Soviet Union demonstrated its supremacy and grandeur is in the ‘Gulag’ room. The entire floor of the room, probably measuring at least 12 meters in length and 4 meters in width, is covered wall to wall by a massive carpet-map* of the Soviet Union’s network of gulags. The labor camps where many Hungarians died are marked by cone-shaped cases containing artifacts from the deceased.

Things, however, stop being so abstract and become much more real on the elevator descent into the basement. During the excruciatingly slow ride, which takes about 3 minutes to go down only two floors, a video plays of a former guard recounting the process of the executions that took place in the basement. After his account, filled with minute details and told in a matter-of-fact way, I step into the basement wearily.

The underground level of the building is seemingly left mostly as it was, and though it has obviously been thoroughly aired out and cleaned, at this point I have seen enough to make me imagine detecting the smell of death mixed into the basement’s dampness or to think the dark spots on the execution room’s floor aren’t just dirt. In some of the cells, photographs hang over the cots – presumably of the people who were incarcerated there. There is also a room with padded floor and walls, and a solitary confinement space big enough for a person to only be able to stand up in – inducing such claustrophobia that when I try to enter one of the regular cells, I can only go as far as crossing its threshold with one foot, let alone closing the door behind me.

As I step out of the dark museum into the sunny street, I realize the museum was pretty much what I expected. Not pleasant but important to see. And though I’m sure it faces all kinds of criticism, both for the narrative it has chosen to present and the way it presents it, I feel like it is surely better than nothing. Which, incidentally, pretty much sums what has been done in Bulgaria to face and remember the communist past since the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago.

*Taking pictures inside the museum is not allowed. But, what can I say, I’m a risk-taker for the sake of my art.

Saint Stephen’s Square | Budapest, Hungary

Sometimes I am just the worst tourist. I know that not many people like going to a new place and only running from tourist site to tourist site, without pausing to at least try to experience “real life” in that place (the busloads of Japanese tourists excepted). But sometimes I take that dislike to the extreme and become completely negligent. There have been trips, after which I’ve realized I haven’t properly visited or learned about a single tourist site and, instead, spent my entire time going to coffee shops and bars with friends.

Earlier this year, I went to Barcelona for the first time and my mother felt the need to call me and remind me to take a break from all the shopping and bar-hopping and see Park Güell. (My mother being the one who – when I was four and lived with her in Paris, would quiz me about the names of landmarks as we rode around the city on a public transport bus that happened to go past all of them.) So, see Barcelona’s sites I did, but as a more incidental aside rather than a focal activity.

It was the same with Budapest. My friend Aaron and I stumbled onto the spacious square stretching before the Saint Stephen’s Basilica by accident and sat down in a café to wait for our host Agnes (same one from the Yellow Brick Road) to come off work. It’s not that I didn’t notice the building on the other side of the square, it was too enormous to ignore and the whole space seemed designed to highlight it. It’s just that I was more preoccupied with deciding what to drink.

An espresso and a strawberry Bellini later, Agnes came along. We walked around the square, took a picture of our feet and peeked inside. She told us the church houses the mummified fist of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, which is taken out and marched in a procession around the basilica every year on August 20 – Hungary’s national holiday and Saint Stephen’s Day.

Now, I find out that the Basilica is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, along with the Hungarian Parliament Building, which was meant to symbolize “the equality of worldly and spiritual thinking.” No structure in the city can be built taller than their 96 meters.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. What I knew was that Saint Stephen’s Basilica was indeed huge. Very Catholic, imposing and impressive with its Neo-Renaissance style.

So, you can imagine the sight of me, standing with my back to it and my camera pointing to the ground, while hordes of Japanese tourists were going nuts taking pictures of themselves in front of the basilica. One of them, apparently quite stunned by what I was doing and not wanting to miss any photo-op, ran up to me and started peeking over my shoulder to see what I was taking a picture of. I could try to describe his expression upon realizing that it was a sewage cover, but no words at my disposal could do it justice.

Earlier, as I sat in the café drinking that Bellini, a scruffy guy with a crazed look in his eyes  walked up to a nearby railing, tied a rubber chicken to it as if it was dead by hanging, lied down on the ground and started taking pictures of it with the basilica in the background. It is comforting to know there are always people who are crazier and even more dismissive of tourist sites than me.