Wrapped in a Flag
(CSOMAGOLVA EGY ZáSZLo)
(Budapest, Christmas 2016)
In any city it often feels like the present isn't always as visible as the past. The marks of a country's history and past politics are worn clearly on the fabric of place through its monuments, street names and buildings. But if you don't understand the language, and therefore can't read the newspaper headlines, the current politics of a country can be much harder to see.
We had arrived in Budapest for Christmas and due to a closed line on the underground we travelled from the airport by series of local bus routes. Each bus became more and more crowded as we got closer to the city centre. Slowly the unfamiliar post-industrial outskirts became the streets of the city we had first visited earlier in the year.
In the summer we had travelled across Europe by train, leaving Britain the day of the EU referendum. We visited Budapest while still stunned at the thought of Brexit. Now, five months later, we arrived in Budapest stunned by the election of Donald Trump. The world felt a darker place, and when you spoke to people you couldn't help but look for some sign of their political leaning.
For our stay over Christmas we rented an apartment on Brody Sandor Utca, a street in a central part of the capital, behind the Hungarian National Museum.
When I booked the apartment I was unaware that it was on the same street as the old Magyar Radio building, and that in 1956 a group of students, part of a wider demonstration, entered to request their demands be read out on air. The students were detained inside the radio building. A large crowd of demonstrators gathered outside demanding their release. Shots were fired from inside the building by the State Security Police and a student in the crowd was killed and (as some reports have it) his body was gathered up, wrapped in a flag and lifted up by demonstrators. News of the shooting ignited citywide violence and the historic anti-soviet uprising of '56.
In 2017 it feels as if whole countries are now wrapped in flags: populist politics and xenophobia are dressed as patriotism. Hungary's Victor Orbán, lauded by Trump and Putin, has forced the country's media under state control and brought in hard, right-wing policies to 'defend' the nation from 'liberals and immigrants'.
But a leader or a government isn't the people. As songwriter Joe Henry says about America under Trump "its where we are, not who we are".
While having a late night coffee in one of the city's old cafes I flicked through a menu. In it was a brief history of the business and a Christmas message to the customer written by the owner. The cafe had been owned by the same family for decades and the owner proudly stated that "over the many years our coffee house has welcomed all people, from all countries and of all beliefs". This single sentence felt like a small statement of resistance, and of hope. So while we explored Budapest I began to look for traces of the country underneath the dark stories of its current politics. I looked for the marks of the past, its present, and I looked for signs of resistance.