December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.
I’d seen the sights, I’d drank the beer, I’d crawled around in a cave, I’d been disappointed by a number of ruin bars and I had a newly acquired half-gallon of cholesterol blocking out all the major highways and byways of my shriveled, black heart. I’d also gotten my hands on a rather fetching 5 Euro scarf.
It was a gorgeous city, especially at night. The Danube was brutally cold, but so long as you weren’t walking along the bank, even the winter winds weren’t that bad. I made a point of hiking out every night and locating a traditional restaurant then eating whatever had the word “Hungarian” next to it in the menu. My final night I got one of the house specialties, Hungarian Crispy Duck.
I really don’t know what I expected, but it was just a duck fried like chicken. It tasted like fried chicken, only there was less of it. It was a strategic misstep on my part and I admit this openly. In penance, I drank nothing but Red Juice until 6 PM the following day.
i… suppose that argument can be made, yes
My final excursion was a nocturnal one. Budapest is an exceptional city for sneakin’ around. It seems somehow inappropriate to let your feet slap blithely on the ground. Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge of the subterranean cave systems and how easy it is to break through into them. Legend has it new branches of the caves were discovered when a single grazing goat fell through a sinkhole and dropped the 40 to 60 feet down into them. I could imagine how startled it felt, and maybe, deep down, I wasn’t trying to follow suit.
On the Pest side of the Danube is a Holocaust monument called Shoes on the Danube Bank. It’s a bunch of iron sculptures of shoes lined up facing the river.
It’s the kind of thing to be visited at night. More honest that way. The monument was constructed to honor the people murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in December 1944-January 1945. Hungary had been allied with Germany against the Soviets since 1941, remember, and when ’44 rolled around and the Hungarian government tried to bail out of their alliance, the Nazis blitzed in and occupied them. The militia was local Budapesti who tried on the fashy coats and liked the fit.
They herded 3,500 people out of their homes in the dead of night, 800 of them Jews, and had them take off their shoes and line up along the bank of the Danube, where they were executed. The bodies dropped in and got carried downriver, leaving their shoes behind.
The Swedish Red Cross was set up in Budapest and 400 of them were working round the clock trying to sneak out as much of the Jewish population as they could. They’d rented out the Swedish Embassy building extraterritoriality, along with 32 other buildings throughout the city, declaring them property of Sweden and using them as a shelter for anyone the Nazis had in their sights — which is to say, most.
Now, being as it was an occupied territory, this sounds to me a lot like hanging a ‘NO NAZIS ALLOWED’ sign on the doors, and it turns out it sort of was. On January 8, 1945, the Arrow Cross militiamen busted into one of the sovereign Swedish buildings on Vadasz street and ushered them out along the Danube, as was their idiom. The Swedes, though, weren’t having it. Joining with the less morally bankrupt of the Budapest police force, they rushed the Arrow Cross house at midnight. For militiamen, they sure weren’t accustomed to getting hit back. They were slaughtered like pigs. The Swedes rescued pretty much everyone the fascists had abducted that night. A month later, the Soviets busted in and liberated Budapest.
I hovered around there until I got cold, then got moving. It was about time to set sail anyway.
The issue was with the setting of the sail. My experience in Austria demonstrated that I had some piddling capacity for German, and while I was in this neck of the woods I figured, why not try my hand in earnest? What could possibly go wrong?
I can understand how Russian winter got Napoleon, he was just a little dude, and French to boot. Hitler had no excuse. German winter is unspeakable. German winter is where bad people go when they die.
But that’s another country, for another post.