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Fighting for an oppressed ethnic group

Pest building
Reflection of a building near Pest's old Jewish quarter. (Mike Burstein photos)
The Cheetos perm, settling into Pest, and the underground bar scene

BUDAPEST - A few days ago I was on the train heading over to meet up with Gabor and friends to celebrate his graduation yet again. Some lady, about 40-something, sat down next to me, and I smelled Cheetos. And it wasn't the subtle smell of Cheetos, such as could be radiating from her fingertips, nor the horror of Cheeto Breath. It was much stronger, like a Sahara of cheese powder.

Fun signs abound in Budapest.

Of course I had to stare at her, wondering why this woman was reeking of Cheetos. Then I noticed that she had a fresh perm. I became convinced that her perm was the source of the smell. She was short and her perm was right at my nose level, so I could just turn my head and deeply inhale. It was too tempting. I casually leaned over and took a sharp whiff. She didn't notice - success. Well, sort of. She (and everyone else) did notice me gagging and flailing backward into some people. The smell was so cheesy and chemically evil that I had a coughing and sneezing fit, which happened to coincide with the stopping of the train.

I am now officially a perm-sniffer. I have no pride.

Back to Budapest. I found a place to live. This is a large improvement in my life. The place is in the dead center of the Pest side and right next to the Jewish quarters. One would naturally expect the Jewish quarters to be full of Jews. However, this would be forgetting the quirks of Central European history: there ceased to be any Jews in the Jewish district by around 1940. This left some very prime real estate empty in the heart of Pest, perfectly good buildings that were just a bit abused because the Nazis had treated them with their trademark gentleness.

When the Stalinists rolled in, they decided not to rebuild the neighborhood because that would be very expensive. As we all know, the Soviets weren't enthusiastic about doing things for the sake of aesthetics alone. So as the buildings got older, every once in a while some Soviet premier got uppity and decided to knock down one of the more decrepit ones for a shiny new factory so the workers could be close to their work, and thus their lives. But, as the Evil Empire began to crumble, so did many of the buildings and factories. When the Wall fell and people got more freedom of movement, they quickly left for buildings that might be a bit further away from the city center but had the added advantage of being livable, with neat stuff like working pipes and wiring that didn't automatically start an electrical fire.

Old building
A dilapidated gem near Pest's city center.

Now that Hungary and its citizens have semi-adjusted to the shocks of capitalism, people have been wondering what to do with such a big ol' expanse of prime real estate. The problem is that most of the buildings are so beaten up that they have to be torn down and then rebuilt. The ones that can be restored aren't worth it, because why would you restore a building located next to four total dumps?

What the area is begging for is some European Donald Trump to buy up whole blocks at a time and restore them. The problem is that most European Donald Trumps have the style of New York Donald Trump and want to build some flashy neon piece of crap. The Budapestians, bless them, are totally against that. If you want to buy big chunks of development land like that in the heart of the city, you have to get a bloody ton of permits, and most of them require some sort of aesthetic approval. The whole city of Budapest is on a giant cleaning kick, and if something is not already repainted and stunning beautiful, it is being restored, and if not that, then it's next in line. So what's happening in the Jewish Quarters is that Hungarian businessmen (unfortunately, there aren't many Hungarian businesswomen yet) are buying up buildings on the outskirts of the Jewish quarters and restoring them, working their way inward. Walk a few blocks in, and you go from the stunningly beautifully renovated to the dumps that are virtually collapsing to the old factories that are just sketchy.

(Note: I am typing this while eating Hungarian sour cherries. This the best thing in life. One kilogram is a buck-fifty, which is basically 65 cents a pound. Heaven.)

So why would I want to live next to the dumps and the factories? Good question. While the city negotiates with the big businessmen and foreign investors, life and capitalism go on. The Hungarian style of architecture that dominates the Jewish quarter is five-story buildings with once nice, now crumbling facades with a big gate for a door that leads to an atrium. From the atrium, you can access the rest of the building.

A bunch of Hungarians imbued with entrepreneurial spirit realized that one of these atriums would be an utterly perfect place to sit and have a beer. So, they and their friends set up a bar, get some chairs and tables, invite a few speakers, and enlist their friends to come over and graffiti the walls for decorations, and voila! You now have the underground bar scene in Budapest. Apparently, such a bar will last one or two years in a location before it either dissolves or moves to a new spot. Some of them are totally illegal, little more than economically productive squatters. Others are joint ventures with the owner of the building, since this way he is getting at least some form of rent. The logistical problems of doing something like this in the United States are obvious and immense. But because the Hungarian cops have other things to do than mess with kids over some ridiculous permits, and the land would just be going to waste otherwise, the bars are tolerated.

All in all, they are some of the best bars that I have been to. The people are very diverse, not just the Euro scenesters or the wannabe Russians, "I-am-Hungarian-Mafioso" types. They're just low-key folks, generally students or the not-rich people ranging from 15 to 50 years old. Very cool. The music in these underground bars is normally really good as well, which is an utter shock in comparison to my previous experiences in Europe.

So that's what I'm doing at night. Next time I'll tell you about work.

- Mike