Imagine you’re about to graduate college and receive the holy diploma that is your ticket to a better life. Now imagine that your native tongue and “political background” make you an enemy to the state, therefore your university won’t recognize your degree.
You declare yourself a political refugee in another country, live in squalor conditions and work menial jobs to finally afford to return to school and make a life for yourself.
Thankfully this isn’t your story, but it is for Márta S. Toth, who at 20 years old, made the biggest decision of her life. It was 1988, and the Communist regime that ruled over her home in Transylvania was about to fall.
Below the ritzy cafe where we sat, modern trams, trolleys, trains and buses carried natives and tourists to the Buda side of Hungary’s capital. The 800-year-old castle stared across the Danube River at the 100-year-old parliament building while bicyclists whizzed across bridges on their designated bike lanes.
The smell of pogácsa and lángos wafted above the crowded boulevards while shoppers bought spicy paprika and meats in the marketplace.
Today, Toth is the proud CEO and general manager of her own business consulting firm. Before that, she worked as an international news journalist, a country manager of an international sales and marketing firm, and as a university professor.
She had to work very hard, Toth said, especially when her country’s economy was struggling through the shock of post-Communism.
Her son, Peter Lajos, spent a year studying in the United States and currently studies international relations and economics at the Corvinus University of Budapest. Lajos said Hungary isn’t the poor country many outsiders think it is.
“People think Eastern Europe is all poor. But you’ll see just as many Hungarians lined up outside the Apple store for the iPhone 6 as in America,” Lajos said.
According to the European Commission website, member countries to the EU, such as Hungary who joined in 2004, must pass certain “convergence criteria” before being allowed to adopt the euro currency.
Though Hungary’s economy was on an upswing following the adoption of capitalism in the 1990s, a report by the BBC said the economy fell after the 2008 economic crisis and Hungary was forced to appeal for “massive” funds from the IMF and European Central Bank.
There is no scheduled date for Hungary to adopt the euro, and until then it is stuck with the low-value forint currency. This means that a giant slice of delicious pizza in the heart of Budapest will still only cost about $1.20.
All the same, Toth said the Hungary she knows today is not the country she met so long ago.
Gazing at its expensive shopping districts and booming tourist areas, I almost forgot about the unbending Communist system that ruled only 20 years before.
Only the Soviet-model Trabant automobiles, a dated Soviet subway line and prison-like concrete housing blocks looming over the corners of the city would remind me of the troubled times.
“The Russian system was cheap, fast and efficient,” Lajos said. “Concrete was cheap to make, and (the concrete blocks could) house a lot of people.”
“The people just weren’t happy or comfortable,” Lajos said. “But that was part of the Russian ideology. “You get used to it.”
As much as the chilling evidence of the Soviet regime still lingered, it was glaringly obvious that the Communist era was only a speck on the timeline of Budapest’s history.
I walked the stone steps of the castle that was home to the king of an empire when Hungary’s borders stretched across Europe. The magnificence and significance of the Basilica reflected the prestige of the church and the splendor of the opera testified to the tradition of artistic culture.
I have found that traveling to Europe makes you realize the depth of the history that exists there. The 20th century may seem like the most relevant period to study, but it’s remarkable and humbling to appreciate the age and depth of a city like Budapest.