The Strong Hand of the Law and the Church

It’s another beautiful day today, so different than the everyday, winter-gloom that I experienced in Germany. But, just as I visited the head of government in Germany, the Reichstag (Parliament building), today I’ll visit the Parliament building here in Hungary.

I head over to the Astoria Metro (subway) station and hand my ticket to the guards. It’s one of the ten I bought for Ft3,000. The guard tells me I need a new one as this has already been used. I agree that it has, but tell him I have four more trips available on it as, when I bought the ten rides, the machine dispensed two tickets so I assumed I got five trips per ticket. He tells me that I should have received ten tickets. I explain that I only received two and he simply says, “You need a new one; that’s Budapest.”

I argue and he points me to the lady at the ticket booth who, as is normally the case, doesn’t speak English. I get nowhere. I buy a new ticket, hand it to the security guy while telling him that I will use my already used ticket on a bus or tram where there’s little security as I paid for the service. So now, I’ve had my first argument with the mass transit people. I feel like a local!

ParliamentI climb the stairs of the metro station exit and, spread out like a palace before me, is the Hungarian Parliament building. As I walk through the square in front of it, I stop and speak to some people gathered in front of Protestorsmakeshift white tents with signs which are obviously in protest of the current prime minister, Viktor Orbán. I speak to the three-people sitting in front of the tents. One speaks limited English and, when I ask how long they’ve been here protesting, she says tells me six-months. I ask when they’ll leave and, though they suspect they’ll be removed when Alexander Putin comes to visit in a few days, she simply puts her wrists together and says, “When Orbán is arrested.”

“What should he be arrested for?” I ask.

“He is a dictator!” she responds, with passion.

There’s much passion when it comes to views on the government here, much of it due to Hungary’s difficult past.

I head downstairs to the visitors center to purchase my ticket. I’m lucky, as it’s 12:15pm and they happen to have one spot open for the English tour at 1:00pm (note, you can purchase tickets online in advance). As the Parliament building overlooks the Danube River, I decide to enjoy the beautiful day and take a quick walk while waiting for my tour to begin.

I walk about three-hundred yards down the river where I come across the memorial Shoes on the Danube. This memorial honors the victims who, in 1944-45, were lined up along the Danube, made to strip their clothing, and shot at close-range by the Arrow Cross militiamen, the government which the Nazi’s installed to head Hungary. This location was chosen by the Arrow Cross as it made things easy, as victims simply fell into the Danube and disappeared.

The memorial itself is made up of 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles – women’s, businessmen’s’, children’s, and workmen’s – reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia. The memorial is striking in its simplicity and I’m touched by the candles, flowers, letters and other mementos place in and near the shoes. These people are, by no means, forgotten.

MemorialI head back over to the Parliament Building to join my tour. After lining up to pass through a metal detector, we begin our tour.

Gold CeilingsStaircaseThe Hungarian Parliament Building was built between 1885-1910, and is the first permanent home of Hungary’s Parliament. Forty kilograms (over eighty-eight pounds) of gold decorate the halls and chambers of the beautiful building. The tour is designed to impress as, once through security we immediately climb an impressive staircase with ornately decorated golden ceilings. We’re led to the main staircase which provides a view of a bust of the architect, as well as a beautiful lobby area with closed doors which, we’re told are opened when a new Prime Minister is sworn in.

We’re then led to gather around a glass-case which holds the Crown Jewels. The crown, scepter and a dagger are watched over twenty-four hours a day by two military guards who ceremoniously circle them every fifteen minutes.

Finally, we’re told that today is a special day because it’s one of only a couple of days per month that tours are allowed in the south wing of the Hungary - St. Stephens Parliament Voting roombuilding. This is the location of the Assembly Hall, where Parliament meets and, as they’re on vacation or something, we get to see the place. The room is set up as one would expect, with green seats and wooden desks in a horseshoe shape around one row of red seats, which accommodate the current one hundred ninety-nine representatives. All face a raised desk area (like a where a courtroom judge sits, or a head-table at a wedding) which holds three more seats for the president, prime minister and, um, mother of the bride? Even with all of the political hot-air, modern air-conditioning wasn’t installed until 1994. Prior to that, the iron grates in the floor led to chambers which held massive amounts of ice which cooled the hall.

The tour only lasts about forty-five minutes, so I decide to walk over to St. Stephens Basilica. Built in, well, that’s not a straight-forward answer; construction began in 1851 and, for the most part, was completed in 1889. There was bad design, shoddy construction, collapses and other issues you’d recognize if you’ve ever done any major home renovation. As HGTV wasn’t available back then, they finally finished it after over thirty-years of challenges and dedicated it to St. Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian State. St. Stephen died on August 15, 1038 and was canonized on August 15, 1083 (dyslexics are now reading that sentence again).

St StephensBoth the inside and outside are as beautiful as so many of the other cathedrals in Europe. While there’s a donation box when I enter, as I reach into my bag for some coin, the guard indicates that I need not bother. It turns out there are candles and statues with cushioned kneeling stations (I’m sure they have a name but, as a Jew, I have no idea what that is) with boxes to drop your money in throughout. I walk through the aisles in silence. In fact, while people normally lower their voices when walking through cathedrals, this place is absolutely silent.

After about fifteen-minutes inside, a man walks up to myself and others and simply says, “closed,” and points the way out. It’s 3:00 and all of the signs indicate that various parts of the cathedral are open until 4:00 or 5:00. He has no explanation. It feels much like the metro – this is Hungary.

Still, I’m not quite finished here as I’ve been told that the actual hand of St. Stephen is somewhere in here, and who doesn’t want to see nearly 1,000 St Stephens Handyear-old hand. I approach a lady working outside who, after some initial confusion as she didn’t know they’d closed the cathedral, tells me to go up the stairs and through the door on the side. I peek through the door and quietly step inside as if I’m sneaking into a closed museum. Immediately on my left I see the Chapel of Szent Jobb, which means “Holy Right, Batman (okay, I might have added the Batman part, but “Holy Right: is true). It’s a small room with a tiny raised alter with a rope in front.

HandI step up to the alter where, apparently, the holy right hand is housed in the decorative glass case. I can’t see it very well but, if I deposit Fn200 in the small box to my right, it will apparently light-up the hand (or maybe pay for a manicure). While it’s only equal to about $0.75, that’s $0.75 I can put towards a glass of hot-spiced wine and I’m a bit tired of all the collection boxes..

I wave goodbye to the hand and, I’m pretty sure it waves back.

Tomorrow – A day at the Terror House and a night at the cabaret!

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