Motoko and I have made it to Hungary. Hungary is my father’s home country and I still have a lot of family here. I first visited when I was 5 years old and have returned many times. It really is astonishing how rapidly the country has developed in my lifetime.
Hungary in the Good Old Days
Some thirty plus years ago, Hungary was still in control of the communist U.S.S.R. This meant severe restrictions on everything we take for granted. It was impossible to travel to western countries because passports were only valid for communist block countries.
My father escaped in the 1956 revolution. Even though his escape wasn’t politically motivated, deserters were still viewed as traitors for a long time. It was 18 years before he was able to return to visit his family.
In order to buy a car, you had to pay a sizeable downpayment and apply for a number which indicated your order in the queue. The list of numbers was published in the Sunday newspaper so that everyone could track how long it would take to get a car. My uncle had to wait for six years in order to get his first vehicle. Needless to say, the Sunday newspaper was met with great anticipation. The only available cars were Soviet Ladas and East German Trabants. Until recently, you could see these old vehicles commonly broke down on the side of roads.
There was one small store in my father’s village. Everyday at around 3:00 P.M., the bread truck would arrive from the closest city. There were two choices; brown or white bread. Families would often send a child to wait at the store until the bread truck arrived. Not getting there early enough meant waiting another day for bread.
The only soda pops were Coke and Fanta Orange. When I was a child, the deposit on the bottle was equal to the price of the drink, 3 forints or about 5 cents. It was about 1/12th the Canadian price at the time.
In order to take a hot bath, they had to put hot coals under a water tank to heat it up. It took so much time and work that our entire family used the same bath water.
Most houses had pigs and chickens in the backyard. I still remember the frequent squeal of pigs as they were slaughtered in the mornings at various houses around the village.
Twice daily, cows were walked on the main road through the town to and from their grazing grounds. I loved watching 20 or 30 cows slowly walk through town everyday.
It is Not My Father’s Hungary Anymore.
The last decade in particular has brought huge changes to Hungary. There are the gigantic western supermarkets like Tesco, Auchan and Cora. If you were transported to one of the numerous modern shopping malls, you would probably have difficulty telling which country you were in. Now the coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa are popping up everywhere.
You can really see the affluence everywhere. Five years ago, expensive western cars started really becoming common. Now you won’t have much difficulty spotting a BMW, Volvo or even Porche.
The last three years have seen a massive explosion in high end sporting equipment. It seems like everyone has expensive bicycles and high end sports clothes.
The number of bus and boat tours for out of country visitors also have sky-rocketed. Backpackers can often be seen on every street in downtown Budapest now.
What does Rapid Westernization Really Bring?
I think there are two important lessons to learn from all of this ‘advancement.’ First, we really should appreciate just how comfortable and good life has become. Perhaps you have never seen empty store shelves or had to endure much hardship in your life, but your grandparents or great-grandparents certainly did. I don’t think we really understand how good our lives are now. We live in amazing times.
The second is sad and troubling; authentic traditional cultures around the world are disappearing. The influx of western ideas and goods are crowding out local cultures. Across Europe the most common foods are pizza, hamburgers, french fries and donairs. Over-sized shopping malls all over the world sell the same brands as your own country. Tourists are more likely to visit McDonald’s than try traditional local food.
It is great that the world is advancing at an increasing pace, but I don’t feel that the ‘advancement’ is always a positive step forward. We are becoming more globalized and interconnected but that also means homogenized and commercial. It is amazing that we can fly across the world for only a week or two of salary, but do we really want to arrive only to eat a Big Mac and buy tourist kitsch? The time to travel is now, because in a decade or so foreign countries won’t be much different than your home town.