Posts Tagged With: Hungary

So you want to volunteer

If you’re interested in volunteering, like Jordan and I, there are lots of options in many countries.

In my research to choose an area to volunteer in, I picked up a lot of information that might help anyone looking into the same work. This list is by no means exhaustive, and needs change quickly and often. But here’s a list of resources to get you started:

General

Balkans

  • Project Hope is a worldwide organization but has its focus in the Balkan states. They accept volunteers
  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group delivering hot food to the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Refugee Aid Miksaliste works mostly with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia by providing charging centers, activity corners, and language workshops run by volunteers
  • Refugee Aid Serbia facilitates information, distributes clothing, and works closely with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia.
  • Info Park is a hub of information for the refugees on the street and in the asylum centers. They pay for hostels for families, provide language classes, and more.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and more.

Greece

  • Boat Rescue Foundation is a Dutch organization that not only helps pull life rafts to shore in the Greek islands but also helps work in the camps
  • Hot Food Idomeni also gives out hot food in northern Greece near the Macedonian border (hence the name “Idomeni”)
  • Northern Greece Volunteers is as exactly how the name descries – a coalition of volunteers in northern Greece. They are funded in part by Help Refugees.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in northern Greece.
  • Forgotten in Idomeni helps distribute food and more in Greece.
  • A site for coordinating volunteers and broadcasting needs in Greece.
  • EuroRelief works in camps and on the beach in Lesbos, Greece
  • Intervolve has international volunteers in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Greece.
  • Lighthouse Relief has volunteers in Lesbos and on mainland Greece.
  • Helping Hands works with families and unaccompanied minors in Athens, Greece.

Middle East

  • Relief and Reconciliation for Syria is a group in a village in Lebanon. They prefer volunteers that come in teams to create workshops or volunteers that can stay 3-6 months at a time.
  • Basmeh and Zeitooneh is a grassroots Lebanese organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Iraq.
  • Information for volunteers to Turkey is excellent, though information hasn’t been updated in a few months.
  • Information Point for Turkey Volunteers often has calls for volunteers as well as good information to educate you before the trip.
  • Tarlabasi works with vulnerable ethnic minorities in Istanbul, Turkey. They take volunteers for longer period of time, but volunteer applications are on hold until Feb. 1, 2017.
  • A short list of small NGOs in Jordan that may accept volunteers

Central/Western Europe

  • A great list for those interested in helping in Calais, France (though recent changes in November 2016 may make some information here obsolete)
  • YWAM is taking volunteers in teams throughout Europe and requests that people commit to stay for at least three weeks.
  • Operation Mobalisation is a faith-based organization always taking teams of volunteers throughout Europe.
  • Care4Calais is a British/French organization working with refugees previously living in “the Jungle,” an unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France.
  • Secours Catholique, a branch of Caritas, works to distribute clothing to the refugees in Calais and Paris.
  • CalAid helps distribute clothing, give aid, and more to the refugees in France, UK, and Greece.
  • FranceAndBeyond has some good tips and suggestions if interested in volunteering at camps in France.

Other information

Interested in donating money instead? Go here for a great list. 

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Categories: Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volunteering with refugees

Our first day we walked into the aid house, sidling past people smoking on the steps. Inside five or six families and about another thirty teenage boys milled around. Signs, labeled in English, designated “Youth Corner” and “Women’s Corner” and “Charging Center.” Other directions were pasted on the walls in Arabic and/or Serbian. A few staffers with either name tags or vests weaved between the crowd.

After a moment of looking around, I snagged an official-looking nurse and asked where volunteers were supposed to go.

“Upstairs, maybe,” she said in a French accent, pointing out the back door. She turned back to a refugee woman setting her backpack down in the middle of the hallway. “You can’t do that here,” she said, but the woman smiled an I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-saying-smile (I’ve used that smile on numerous occasions) and continued unpacking her bag.

So Jordan and I went out the back door, up some more stairs, and into a small warehouse. Boxes of clothing were piled high behind a counter. A crib covered in dust sat in a corner beside a car seat. We saw a small office with a woman inside. We knocked and entered.

She looked up and smiled.

“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “We’re volunteers. This is our first day.”

“Okay, then sign this volunteer contract and write down your contact information here.” She handed up as couple of pieces of paper. “There are about a thousand refugees in Belgrade, and most of them come here during the day. You can leave your bags here—the door is always locked or someone is here. It’s very safe, the refugees are good, but everyone once and a while someone will steal something. They’re interested in our bags—they don’t have backpacks to hold their things, so one of them might try to steal your bag.” She rattled off more information. “They don’t normally like their pictures taken. If you do, just ask first. It’s polite. But they love taking selfies with volunteers, so they might ask you to do that. The refugees live in the barracks down that way—“ she waved vaguely somewhere “—in very inhumane conditions. No showers, so we provide them here. A lot of the refugees have body lice and scabies. I’m not trying to scare you—you won’t get it. Just don’t hug them for very long or wear their clothes and you’ll be fine.”

“Is this the distribution center?” Jordan pointed to the counter with the boxes.

“Yes, but volunteers can’t distribute clothing anymore. A few weeks ago the government said we couldn’t do that anymore.” She led us back down into the first building, filled with people. “So we have fifteen different organizations all working here. The medical clinic’s in the back, we have a children’s room and a women’s corner hosted by UN Women.” She looked at us. “We have crafts and projects and workshops every day to keep people busy, and you can work there.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

“We have French lessons, German lessons, English lessons, sometimes Spanish lessons—really whatever the volunteers want to do a workshop on.” She gestured around the main room, filled with people. “Adrianne, you can go to the women’s corner and come up with a craft activity. Jordan, you can go to the activity corner and just talk to the refugees.”

So I entered the corner, walled off by cardboard partitions. A blond Serbian girl, about my age, with multi-colored fingernails greeted me. “I think we’ll do collages today, cutting out pictures from magazines.” She showed me around the room. “We have a mirror, fingernail polish, hairbrush, lotions, just whatever for the women to rest with each other. Over there on that shelf are pads and tampons that they can ask for at any time, since they can’t get them anywhere else.”

There was a rather long, awkward silence until two girls entered. Both greeted the staffer then sat on a futon and pulled out their smartphones. One turned on some music, the other texted friends back in her home country.

Their English level was pretty low, but they communicated interest in knitting.

“Wow, you knit?” I asked, breaking the silence.

They smiled and nodded.

“I can’t. I tried when I was little. It ended up like a huge knot.” I gestured broadly, and they laughed.

Eventually the knitting needles and yarn came out, and after about thirty minutes of me not knowing what to do, I grabbed the needles and sat next to the older girl. “Teach me to knit.”

She laughed, like, oh, I’m over my head here, but proceeded to demonstrated how to hook one needle through the thread and bring it through. Eventually she handed it over to me and picked up the second pair of needles. We knitted together while I asked a few questions. The younger girl, who was 15, was content to play music off youtube and watch me fight with my yarn.

The staffer sat next to me as she organized the craft box, and I peppered her with questions.

“So how long do they stay here?”

She shrugged. “Months.”

“And they’re waiting on…papers?”

She nodded.

“And after they get their papers, where do they go?”

“They used to go to Hungary, but they closed their borders, so some go to Bulgaria or back down to Macedonia.”

I thought on that. “Do any settle here in Serbia?”

“A couple. Three or four work here now as interpreters, but that’s it.”

“So these papers aren’t work visas.”

“No.”

“Where do they want to go? Germany?”

“Germany, Sweden, Norway, those places.”

“Where do they get food?”

“We used to serve lunch here every day. We had everything. Well, not everything, but enough. But we had to shut it down because of the government. Now there’s lunch set up in the park near the barracks that they go to.”

“And that’s all the food they get?”

“Pretty much.”

I frowned. “There are a lot of boys here—more than I thought.”

She shrugged. “Not too many. The people come and go. This morning there’s boys. Most travel in families. I met a woman traveling alone once.”

My stomach rumbled, and I inquired about lunch protocol. She told me as a volunteer I could come and go as I pleased, so I stepped out to find Jordan. He sat nearby, in the middle of a chess game with one of the young men, and we agreed to go to lunch when he finished his game.

After lunch, when we returned, the place was even more crowded. Toddlers ran between peoples’ legs, chasing one another and hiding from their parents. Women joined their husbands at the center, seeking respite from the barracks.

I slipped back to the women’s corner and found it filled to the brim with teenage girls in the middle of an English lesson.

“A, B, C, D,” an Australian woman intoned, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She pointed to a makeshift poster she’d scribbled on probably a few minutes ago.

Girls from the ages of eight to thirty-three repeated after her, giggling and bright-eyed. The teenagers hung on the teacher’s every word, eager to challenge themselves with something.

I slipped in the back to sit next to the staffer. A girl, probably seven, picked at beads in a tin box, and I offered to help her make a bracelet. She grinned and nodded, pulling the sparkly beads out of the box.

“Shall we go on to jobs?” the Australian asked.

“Yes!”

“I want to be an engineer!” one girl blurted.

We laughed at her enthusiasm.

“And I want to be a dentist!” a teenager declared.

“You have beautiful teeth,” the Australian said. “What does everyone else want to be?”

Most picked doctor, while one girl said she wanted to be a swimmer, another a photographer.

“I have to finish the lesson now,” the Australian said. “I have to go.”

“Oh, no! Don’t stop!” the girls begged. “More English.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Tomorrow?” they asked, looking between the Australian volunteer and the Serbian staffer.

“Not tomorrow. The women’s center will be closed for cleaning.” She shook her head.

“And I’m going to Bosnia for a week.” The Australian looked as disappointed as her eager students. She glanced at me. “Can you teach?”

“I’d love to.” I grinned. So she introduced me as I supplied my name and when we could gather again (Tuesday).

The girls gasped in delight. “Tuesday! More English.” The center was closing for the day, so they waved goodbye and slipped out into the main room.

The Australian and I properly met, and she explained that she was a social worker and had never taught English before two days ago.

“Any materials or curriculum I should follow?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m making it up as I go. You saw me draw that stick figure for body parts vocabulary in the middle of my lesson.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll just come up with something.”

“Yeah, I learned you just have to go for it. Come up with an idea and make it happen. The refugees are always willing to learn or be entertained or just listened to, and the staff is busy keeping the place running. We volunteers just have to do something and run with it, really.”

“Thank you, I’ll definitely do that then.”

By that time, it was 3 pm, when the volunteer shifts end. Most of the activity corners were being shut down, though people still crowded the center of the room. Staffers wiped down tables.

Jordan and I found one another and glanced uncertainly around the room. We weren’t exactly sure if we should go, if we should offer to clean, or what was expected of us. Staffers told us we didn’t have to clean and suggested we come back in the morning and ask what needed to be done.

So we went back upstairs, grabbed our bags and coats and walked back to our apartment. First day accomplished!

 

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Budapest, pt. 3

For our last day in Budapest we went to a couple of museums and ended with the cheery House of Terror.

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The old palace now houses the National Gallery and the old Castle Museum.

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In 1247 King Bela built a fortress on Castle Hill, and though most of that is buried under the building in place today, parts of the castle over the centuries were restored to show us visitors what it looked like. Buda wasn’t the historical capital of Hungary, and it only came into political power during some inheritance arguments during the early 14th century. Over the years Buda’s historical significance grew, and it became the capital in the early 15th century.

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In 1541, however, Buda (and the rest of medieval Hungary) fell under Ottoman Turk control. They didn’t gain independence for 150 years, and soon after fell under the Austrian Hapsburg control.

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A statue of the Magyar/Hungarian ancestors that conquered the region around 900.

Empress Maria Theresa wanted the castle renovated and modernized in the mid 1700s (she’s the mother of Marie Antoinette), which is why the castle is more of a palace with distinct Austrian influence.

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One of the Hapsburg princes loved to hunt, so a statue was built in his honor with his dogs. One of the dogs exploded in a WWII bomb, and was rebuilt after the war ended.

We moved on to the Hungarian National Museum, on the Pest side of the river, to learn a bit about Hungary threw the medieval period. It’s star exhibit is the coronation robe of King St. Stephen, circe 1000.

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I particularly enjoyed the stroll through Ottoman and post-Turk Hungary, as they reclaimed their national identity only to be engulfed by the Hapsburg dynasty (until that fell because of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and WWI).

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We also got to see the crown of King Bela IV, who barely kept Hungary out of the hands of the Mongols and Tatars in 1241-43. Frankly, the Magyars/Hungarians only won because Chenggis Khan died back in Mongolia and the Mongols retreated to go tend to their own country. The Tatars, presumably, decided they couldn’t handle all of Eastern Europe without their ally’s support, and withdrew as well.

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But my personal favorite?

The piano of Ferenc Lizt.

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While I never played Liszt (that I can remember) in high school, I did enjoy listening to his colorful, exciting pieces. I even met a music teacher who had been taught by one of Liszt’s former pupils.

The museum had a corner where we could sit and listen to recordings of Liszt’s more famous pieces and admire the piano. Liszt himself viewed the piano as something of an antique, because it originally belonged to Beethoven. After Beethoven died and his belongings were put up at auction, a music and art dealer bought it and presented it to Liszt as a gift. I can only imagine how overjoyed the Hungarian composer must’ve felt to receive such a present!

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Our last stop of the day (before getting on an overnight train to Serbia) was to the House of Terror.

During WWII the house was the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, known as the “House of Loyalty.” Then, during the Soviet Occupation, it was uses by the AVO and its successor, the AVH, both communist organizations that helped prop up the communist government in Hungary from 1945 to 1956.

In the cellar of this house were dozen of small cells where the Arrow Cross interrogated and tortured anyone suspected of being disloyal to the Arrow Cross regime or their Nazi allies. Teenage boys were drafted to serve at the frontlines as the axis powers gave a last, desperate attempt to fight off the allies. Jews were shot and dumped into the Duna river, and any opposition without international protection could be taken in for “questioning.”

After the Soviets took over Hungary, people began to return home. A few survivors of concentration camps walked back across the border to find any fellow survivors and rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, the Soviets weren’t interested in preserving the lives of the Jews or other ethnic minorities in Hungary (beyond the initial get-them-out-f-the ghettos and bury-the-dead-bodies reaction), and cracked down hard, spreading communism across the country.

The House of Terror became the headquarters for the State Security Office, and later the State Security Authority. Gabor Peter was the head of these organizations. He was barely educated at all and had trained to be a tailor’s apprentice, but instead became the most feared man in the country.

The Soviets instituted gulags across Hungary, interning thousands of Hungarians they perceived as dangerous to communism, even deporting some to Russian gulags in Siberia. Many Hungarians had just gotten out of Nazi camps, and a considerable amount, faced with the horror of going through it all over again, killed themselves.

The House of Terror wasn’t an execution site, though prisoners were measured for hanging and sometimes died from beatings. Throughout the museum was witness accounts, often old women who never found out when or how their husbands died after being taken away by the Soviets. Others survived the interrogations in the House of Terror and spoke of the inhumane conditions, the brutal labor they were forced to do in winter without food or heavy clothing.

There was even a video of a “confrontation” roughly 40 years later. In a room full of metal bunk beds ten grandmothers sat, rigid and angry, their voices tight as they demanded another grandmother apologize. The ten were former prisoners, accused of being disloyal to the state, and the last woman was their prison warden. She kept trying to laugh off what she did, saying, “surely, we had a good time. I always made sure I looked you in the eye.”

“We were terrified of you!” One grandmother shouted back, clasping her purse tight. “How many times did you get us up in the middle of the night to go stand in the courtyard for hours? How many times?”

“Are you serious? I don’t know, once twice?”

“More than that!” another scoffed.

“Girls, girls,” the former guard cajoled. “It wasn’t me doing it. I had orders. I didn’t want to.”

The women laughed bitterly, glancing at one another in solidarity. “Collaborator,” once hissed.

At the end of the museum, as we walked back up from the cellar to the ground floor, we passed by a wall of photos. “These were collaborators, Hungarians who turned on their fellow countrymen,” a sign announced. Some photos were old, taken in the ’40s, others looked more recent. Names and birth/death dates appeared below the photos.

“No wonder the 1956 Uprising happened,” Jordan muttered as we left the building. “Please tell me we’re done with the human rights stuff.”

“There is a Holocaust Memorial museum we haven’t visited,” I mused. “But honestly? After the synagogue and this? I don’t think I can handle it. I’ve studied WWII a lot and I kind of already know what happened. I don’t think we need to do any more today.”

And so that was that for us. We looked around Budapest, at the half-renovated 19th century buildings in Pest, the bustling political center of Buda, and the young people who never knew communism or the Iron Curtain outside their parents’ and grandparents’ stories, and departed. Budapest was pretty much everything we thought it would be–full of culture, history, and a flagship for Central/Eastern Europe.

 

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Budapest, pt 2

So we strolled down to the banks of the Duna river to see the iron shoe memorial.

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In 1944, members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross political party (basically Hungarian Nazis) and militia rounded up 60 Jews, brought them here, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them. The river carried away their bodies.

In 1941 Hungary had a population of roughly 825,000 Jews, though 100,000 were Christian. Because Hungary saw Judaism as a race as well as a religion, those Christians were still umped in with the rest. A far-right wing government after WWI restricted the freedoms of many Jews, even Hungarian Jews (Jews with Hungarian citizenship), but resisted deporting them until the middle of the war. To keep Nazi Germany happy, Hungary joined the axis powers and restricted Jewish freedoms even more. They forced young Jewish men to work in horrible conditions for war-related construction work. Many died. The government deported over 20,000 Jews north, where Nazis killed them. The government picked off their Jewish population little by little, usually going for those without Hungarian citizenship. (A good case can be made that this was intentionally slow-footed by the government leader Hrothy, who defied Hitler several times by slowing the deportation trains to Auschwitz). They also killed over 28,000 Hungarian Romani, something that decimated the European Romani but often gets lost in the bigger numbers and broad brushstrokes of WWII.

In 1944, however, Nazi Germany invaded, with help from the fascist, far-right-wing Arrow Cross political party. Under Nazi supervision, the new Hungarian government deported around 440,000 Jews to death camps. By 1945, the only Jewish population left relatively untouched was the 150,000-200,000 in Budapest. Of course, they had suffered losses along the way, as the iron shoes memorialize. The Arrow Cross killed over 3,000 people in Budapest, 800 of those were Jews.

Inside the iron shoes today are candles, dried flowers, and pebbles. In Jewish tradition when someone dies, loved ones leave a pebble on the gravestone to mark their love. The pebbles in the shoes are the nearest these people got to funerals.

We backtracked across Pest, heading for the Dohany Street Synagogue.

The second largest synagogue in the world (after the synagogue in NYC), Dohany is nestled in the Jewish quarter of the city. I was a bit surprised to round the corner and see a massive Moorish design, shaped like a church.

We paid to enter and arrived just in time for the English tour. It was quite short, and we stayed sitting in the pews because it was far too cold to be wandering around the gardens listening to a guide. The worship center of the synagogue wasn’t heated, but at least it was still warmer than being outside in the wind.

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Built in 1854-59, the architects had never designed a synagogue before. Because of that, the alcoves and balconies and even the lecterns on the side are designed for a catholic cathedral. Well, the Jews just took it in stride. Today they use the lecterns for camera crews if they’re doing a big event.

Of the 825,000 Jews in Hungary prior to WWII and the Holocaust, and by the end only a quarter remained, mostly in Budapest.

By 1945 Budapest had walled off the Jewish quarter, making it into a ghetto. Precious little got in or out, including food or dead bodies. The synagogue had a small courtyard built, and in the ’30s, they had talked about making it into a garden with a fountain and flowers and benches, but the Holocaust destroyed those plans.

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Almost 3,000 bodies are buried in mass graves in the courtyard today. Those that could be identified were later given headstones.

Around the corner is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swede who, with the help of the Red Cross and a few other volunteers (like Carl Lutz), saved over 35,000 Hungarian Jews, sometimes even pulling them off trains headed for the concentration camps. Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat and saved over 5,000 in just 45 days. Gennaro Verolino, a catholic bishop, saved over 30,000 by issuing false Vatican passports. Angelo Rotta was outspoken against Nazism and anti-Semeticism from the beginning and saved many Jews in Bulgaria, also. He saved around 15,000 Budapest Jews by issuing false papers of baptism and Vatican passports as well as sheltered Jews in safe houses. According to a Holocaust scholar, “of the hundred and fifty thousand Jews who had been in Budapest when the Germans arrived in March 1944, almost 120,000 survived to liberation – 69,000 from the Big Ghetto, 25,000 in the International Ghetto and a further 25,000 hiding out in Christian homes and religious institutes across the city.”

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Behind the metal tree are four red marble pillars with the names of the “Righteous Among Nations” inscribed on them. Further back are more memorials to Jews that died. All the pebbles moved me to tears.

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And I thought, “if I had lived then, would I have hidden Jews in my home?” It’s a little game I play with myself, imagining my reactions to historical events.

Obviously, the correct answer is “yes, gladly.” But then I imagined hiding them in closets, lying to soldiers, living every day with a death sentence over my head, and fear shot through me.

So I leaned in. The best way to play this game, I’ve learned, is to set it in a modern context. I’ve faced a lot of my hidden prejudices and biases this way. And I thought, what group in the United States is hard working, relatively integrated, but blamed for economic problems and ostracized as “the other” despite having a similar religious outlook? And the answer, at least for the first part of the 21st century, is Muslims, and perhaps Latinx.

And I asked myself, in the case that the government (or an occupying force) systematically rounds up Muslims or Latinx from my city and promises they’re just being sent to labor camps to keep us safe until the trouble is over, would I open my closet, my basement, my money to them?

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Budapest

On our first full day in Budapest we went on a free walking tour to get a feel for everything.

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We enjoyed the architecture and we walked from Pest across the chain bridge to Buda.

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The Hungarians call the river Duna in their language, Magyar.

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Overlooking the famous chain bridge and the river is hilly Buda. Atop Buda Castle Hill is the castle, St. Matthias church, and more. Perching at the forefront is the turul, a mythical Magyar/Hungarian bird of pray.

_mg_3405Modern-day Hungary was populated by Germanic and/or Celtic peoples. The Romans conquered and invaded, leaving behind ruins of bath houses. Attila the Hun swept through, all the way from Mongolia. Various Germanic and Slavic tribes conquered and intermingled afterward, and it wasn’t until the Magyars showed up from the Ural mountains around 830 that the land had is present-day dwellers. The Hungarians (called Magyar in their own language) are possibly Finno-Ugric, possibly Kazakh, possibly Turkic in origin. Whatever they are, it wasn’t Slav, Germanic, or Bulgar. That much we know.

Anyway, the Magyar traditional story is that the turul once swooped down and picked up their tribal leader’s sword and flew away with it. The Hungarians gave chase, all the way from Asia into Europe. The turul dropped the sword on the Hungarian plains, and that is why the Magyars decided to stay there.

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This church, named after St. Matthias, was originally founded by St. King Stephen sometime around 1030. Destroyed by the Mongol/Tatar invasion of 1241, it was rebuilt several times over the next few hundred years. It was only named after King Matthias in the 19th century. Matthias was one of the last great Hungarian kings, ruling in the 14th century.

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Near the church is a famous statue of King Stephen. Just behind the statue and the church is the Fishermen’s Bastion, so named because the fisherman guild probably defended this part of the city wall.

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Almost directly opposite the Duna (or Danube) is the Hungarian parliament building. It is exactly the same height as St. Stephen’s Basilica, to show that neither church nor state controls the other, but that they live in harmony together. During the Soviet occupation they built a 4-meter star and put it atop the parliament spire, just to prove a point. It’s gone now, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, it was taken off their building forever.

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Our last stop of the day was Hospital in the Rock. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but we enjoyed the museum. Cave systems abound underneath the hills of Buda, and there’s an extensive system beneath Castle Hill. Although caves had been used in prehistoric and even medieval times, by modern times no one knew much about it. The caves were mapped in the 1930s, and an emergency hospital was prepared in the caves for WWII. Designed for civilians with a 60-person occupancy, by the Siege of Budapest  in December 1944 the hospital was grossly over-taxed with Hungarian and Nazi soldiers as well as civilians. The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s fascist, Nazi-collaborating government, continued to support the hospital until the Soviets took the city. The Soviets kept the hospital running, more or less, classifying it as Top Secret and adding a nuclear bunker (which probably wouldn’t have worked–they only stored enough supplies for 3 weeks of a nuclear fallout). On October 31, 1956, when student protests erupted into a full-blown Uprising. The hospital reopened, taking wounded revolutionaries and civilians alike. The USSR brought a hammer down on the revolution, killing as many as 30,000 people, even dragging dead bodies behind tanks in the streets to make a point.

It was a really interesting way to learn about Hungary’s modern history, and even though I hate mannequins (and the place was full of them), I had a good time tromping through the tunnels and looking at WWII medical equipment and Cold War-era machinery and communications. By then, the sun had set (Even though it was just 4 pm) so we bundled up in our coats and hats and decided to see the rest of Budapest the following day.

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Pearl of the Danube

We arrived in Budapest, Hungary in the afternoon and made it to our hostel on the Pest side of the city with little trouble. Although people have lived here for probably two thousand years, the modern city of Budapest has only been around since Obuda, Pest, and Buda were joined together to make one city in 1873 as the capital of Hungary.

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Later that evening we strolled down to St. Stephen’s Basilica to see the Christmas Market. Wooden stalls and cabin clustered around the square, a small ice skating rink in the middle for children. Vendors sold everything from Hungarian sausage to scarves to trinkets for tourists. Everyone wore hats and scarves, sipping on glugg or apple cider. Christmas music played in the background, and we admired a nativity set on display on the steps of the church.

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St. Stephen’s is named after the first king who united Hungary into one country. Although King Stephen (975ish-1038) was a good king, the first to embrace Christianity and spur Hungarians/Magyars toward a European culture (rather than Asian or Middle Eastern), he didn’t do anything miraculous. After his death, however, his right arm naturally mummified. Well, that was enough for the Catholic leadership, so they declared it a miracle and canonized him. Today the church has his hand. The rest of the arm was cut up and gifted/forcibly taken to other parts of the world.

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After enjoying the Christmas spirit and a delicious cup of cider, we went on to Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Someone had told us that there’s nothing more Hungarian than sitting outside in a hot thermal both watching snow fall around you. Well, there wasn’t any snow, but we decided to check it out anyway. Szechenyi is one of the grandest, most beautiful baths in the city. Because of that, tourists flock, and therefore locals don’t visit. But all the locals recommend tourists visit, saying it’s worth the experience.

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In the past, traditional baths had women and men segregated and people would bathe naked, like in most other bathing places. However, mixed is becoming more popular, especially for tourists, so swimsuits are required. The Lonely Planet guide calls it “like bathing in a wedding cake.”

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It was dark and below freezing when I visited, and the steam from the hot water misted around everyone, making it difficult to see the person next to you at times. After a few days of hard travel (we walked 40 miles in 4 days in Russia–I kid you not), I just relaxed in the thermal waters.

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Budapest sits on several thermal springs, and even the ancient Romans enjoyed the spot for the rejuvenating mineral waters. Finally, when I had enough, I showered and joined Jordan to return back to our hostel for the night.

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