Chapter Forty-one

My memories of Budapest in 1988 were pleasant enough to trigger thoughts of returning to the city. I did – in 2007 – and the changes were spectacular.
I can’t believe how adventurous I was during the week I spent in Budapest that first time: riding its subway, roaming its streets, poking into places I clearly didn’t belong. Part of the fascination I found in the Budapest of Cold War days was the sneering indifference to Communism displayed by its citizens. It was evident everywhere.
My first Sunday in Budapest I asked the hotel doorman where I could find a Catholic church. He directed me to a modest brick building just down the street. I found it to be crowded literally to the doors: it was all I could do to squeeze into the foyer. Peering over heads into the interior, I could see that Mass was well underway. There was a directory on one wall that listed the Mass times; I elbowed my way through the crowd until I could read it. It told me I would have to wait another hour before the next service began. I fought my way back to the door and left.
I remembered another church I had encountered while sightseeing the day before. I hadn’t ventured far: just to the top of the hill across the street from the Buda Penta Hotel. I was told it was ‘old Buda,’ one of the two cities that became Budapest. Most of what I saw up there looked newly restored, including Mathias Church. Maybe I could attend Mass there; it was worth a try. But when I climbed the hill again to ‘Old Buda’ I was met by a large crowd pouring out of Mathias Church. I’d missed its last Mass of the day.
Well, there was always the Basilica of St.Stephen, Budapest’s main Catholic cathedral. There, Sunday masses came in a steady stream, only minutes apart, well into the afternoon. I had planned to go downtown again anyway.
When I entered the cathedral, I found a scene that expanded on what I’d seen in that first church, the one near the hotel: there were several hundred people waiting just inside St. Stephen’s massive front doors.
I could hear the final benediction being pronounced from the altar; it had the crowd surging forward, carrying me with it through another set of doors until I could see the strange spectacle taking place inside: as soon as a pew began emptying, it was steadily refilled from our ranks. I let myself be swept along into one of them.
It was a Catholic mass unlike any I had ever seen. Every hymn came roaring from the congregation and responses came as shouts. It was clear that these people weren’t simply fulfilling an obligation of their faith; they were affirming it for everyone to hear. What a contrast to the reluctant droning I had accepted as normal back home! When these Hungarians shouted “Amen!” they meant it. Here, where the state dismissed it as ‘the opiate of the people,’ I was getting my first glance at a living religion.

On one of my last nights in Budapest, I set out from the hotel intent on finding some Jazz. Selecting the least dilapidated of Trabants and Ladas idling in front of the hotel, I squeezed into the front seat and asked the driver where I was likely to find a nightclub.
You could almost hear his thought processes meshing over the noise he was making trying to get his taxi into first gear.

Why is this big Yankee alone? What sort of action is he after?

“Sure I find you,” he said at last.
Twenty minutes later we went rattling down a deserted street until the taxi stopped at a dimly lit door.
“Here is night club,” the driver announced, pointing to the only doorway with an exterior light. The sign it illuminated didn’t tell me much: a single Hungarian word and a scattering of musical notes.

What awaited me beyond the door came straight from an Eric Ambler novel. The only lighting could be traced to a small red bulb imbedded in the ceiling far above. Its feeble output was just enough to get me all the way up a steep flight of stairs to – are you ready for this? – a beaded curtain!
The woman standing at a lectern just inside took a few of my banknotes and led me through another beaded curtain to a room enveloped in near darkness. I could just make out a stage at the far end that was just big enough to hold an upright piano and some shrouded instruments. I was led to a table where the greeter bent to light the stub of a candle before she turned to me with a question I couldn’t understand.
“Just a beer, please,” I replied hopefully. She grumbled something and left.
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, it became plain that I was alone in the room. From the bulges in their covers, I could discern the makings of a trio on the little stage: a set of drums and a bass to go with the piano.
Time passed. The greeter returned with my beer. I paid for it and drank it all in sips, but there was still no sign of either the band or another customer. I checked my watch: ten-thirty. At last I heard footfall on that staircase beyond the beaded curtains and, moments later, two young couples entered the room and sat together at one of the larger tables farthest from mine.
Their appearance seemed to be a signal for the musicians to make their appearance. They approached the stage from the back of the room, snaking their way through the empty tables. One of them carried an armload of sheet music to the piano where he separated it into two piles: one went to the ledge above the piano keyboard and the other to the bench beside him. A few sheets fell to the floor. As he made room for himself on the bench, the other musicians busied themselves uncovering and testing their instruments.
Too late it occurred to me that what these strangers called ‘jazz’ could turn out to be almost anything they could adapt to the instrumentation: mazurkas, polkas, communist anthems . . . As it was, what they finally played was identifiably jazz, but it wasn’t very exciting: ‘workmanlike’ might describe it better.
The bass player was the most comfortable with the idiom, and I sought him out after their first set with a few questions: Where had he learned to play jazz? Was it popular in Hungary?
He surprised me by saying he had worked on cruise ships that had taken him to the United States. It was difficult but not impossible to work outside of the East Bloc, he told me, if you knew how to go about it. The piano player and drummer, standing nearby in silence, didn’t have the bassist’s grasp of English; he had to translate most of our conversation, and he laughed at what they then contributed in Hungarian.
“They want you to know what a shithouse this is,” the bassist told me with a grin.
I looked around. “The nightclub?” I asked.
“The whole goddam country,” he replied.

My most frightening moments in Hungary came the morning I left. I should have realized that a city the size of Budapest would have more than one airport. My taxi had taken me several miles from the hotel and out on to the open highway when the possibility dawned on me. I leaned towards the driver with my airline ticket in my hand and read from it in question form:

It brought an immediate reaction. The driver shouted a curse and pulled over to the side of the road, a maneuver that had me tossing about in the back seat. Before I could recover, he went into a screeching U-turn and headed back the way we had come. Ferihegy Airport, the one I wanted, was on the other side of town. Fortunately, I had left the hotel in more than enough time: when we reached Ferihegy a half hour later, I was still able to check in for my Malov flight to East Berlin with time to spare.

The Soviet-built aircraft didn’t lack anything I had found in Canada or the United States and, to the delight of my sweet tooth, the attendant gave us each a chocolate bar just before it landed.
Then the fun began.
Where my Malov flight set down is today one of Europe’s newest airports. But in 1988 it was still the East Berlin counterpart to an airfield in West Berlin made famous during the jittery days of the Berlin Airlift. Who can forget Tempelhof?

Schoenefeld looked welcoming enough at first glance. The terminus was airy, spacious, and obviously brand new. I collected my luggage and headed for customs. It was a surprisingly long walk and the scenery seemed to get rattier the farther I got from where I had started. I arrived at the proper kiosk exhausted and glad to surrender my bags for inspection. Following instructions, I then took my place in line to present my passport at a glassed-in wicket. The guy on the other side of the glass soon had me thoroughly unnerved.
His cold eyes went from my passport photo to me, and then to a computer screen I couldn’t see from my side of the counter. His dispassionate gaze then slid in sequence back to the passport, then to me, and again to the screen – all in agonizingly slow motion. He repeated the procedure again and again until he finally shrugged, grunted, and reached for a stencil. I’m sure I flinched when he slammed it down on a page in my passport, and my hand must have trembled when I reached out to retrieve my document. Then came the tense bus ride from Schoenefeld to Checkpoint Charlie. It didn’t help that most of my fellow passengers were as apprehensive as I was. We all had to produce our passports again when the bus stopped just short of West Berlin, but once our inquisitors had left the bus and the storied east-west barrier came into view, the relaxation of tension brought a round of sighs and several cheers.
After more than a month among strangers – not all of them welcoming – I was in sore need of a familiar face, and Bill Peterson’s was smiling at me from out of the small crowd that met the bus from Schoenefeld to West Berlin. Bill is a self-described “service brat” who spent some of his childhood in France and Germany, where his father had been posted to a unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the post-war years. About the time I retired from the CBC, Bill returned to Europe, married a mutual friend and continued his career in communications in Berlin.
A second welcome was waiting for me in the back seat of Bill’s aging Volvo: the biggest cocker spaniel I had ever seen! The breed became popular enough in North America during the 1940s to fall victim to over-breeding. I remembered the cocker as a high-strung, yappy, irritating lap dog. It took Bill’s Sandy a matter of minutes to shatter every bad impression those wartime cockers had left with me. He was quiet and well behaved, traits he seemed anxious to demonstrate. After thumping his tail rhythmically in greeting for a few seconds there in the back seat, he settled down out of sight on the floor. On the many sightseeing tours Bill had planned for me, we never hesitated to include Sandy because we knew he wouldn’t bother us.

Bill was one of the few people to have taken an interest in a stage play I developed with the Montreal Playwrights Workshop that had never made it past the ‘reading’ stage. Since my play dealt with the plot to kill Hitler, he knew I would be anxious to see where some of the scenes actually took place. He took me first to the Berlin military installation that figured most in the critical last hours of the plot, and then to where most of the plotters had been executed. Reverence to the plotters was evident everywhere along the route: what had been the Bendlerblock on July 20, 1944 is now the German Resistance Memorial Center on Stauffenbergstrasse. Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the officer who planted the bomb, is not the only plotter commemorated by a renamed Berlin street: not too distant from Stauffenbergstrasse is a Ludwig-Beck-strasse and I saw another street that bore Karl Goerdeler’s name. But the most effective reminder of the July 1944, attempt took place daily some distance from the Bendlerstrasse in a grim, all-but-windowless brick building where most of the plotters met the worst death Hitler’s supporters could devise for them.
The inspiration for the grisly method must have come from an abattoir, where newly slaughtered animal carcasses are hung on meat hooks along a railing. Each condemned plotter was bound and attached to such a hook by a noose made of piano wire. If he was lucky, death came in fifteen to twenty minutes.
Professional cameramen using the best available equipment filmed the executions. One story surrounding the finished product is that it was shown as propaganda to a group of SS cadets who fled the theatre vomiting. What we know for certain is that Adolf Hitler relished every ghastly scene, shown to him night after night as he sat drinking tea in his bunker.
On the day Bill and I visited Ploetzensee Memorial Centre, there were several tour buses parked outside, each with a West German license plate. The teenagers they had brought to the Centre milled about outside, uncharacteristically subdued. It was explained to us that the bomb plot is part of modern history studies in West Germany, and that a visit to the museum was an obligatory adjunct to them.
Along with the grim trappings of the plotters’ executions – and a guillotine also used during the Hitler years – there were a number of photos and documents ranged behind glass along one wall. I found one of these exhibits particularly touching once Bill had translated the German for me. It was a letter sent to the mother of a young prisoner put to death for some unstated offense. She had asked for her son’s personal belongings, and the letter provided a detailed list:
Two pair woolen stockings
One sweater
Three handkerchiefs

I wasn’t surprised that the authorities failed to include even a hint of regret or condolence – that seemed to go with the general tone of his letter. But its last paragraph came with the force of a slap in the face:
It set a figure for the cost of the execution and demanded repayment by return post.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And then came Spain, by far the most active part of my European adventure. The weather had been rainy and raw everywhere I had been until then in Europe, but Diego was able to greet me at Madrid Airport decked out for a day at the beach in shorts and a sports shirt. I responded by stripping off the lined trench coat I had worn since I left Montreal.
Diego still worked for the same organization, but his function had changed – to my advantage. When he had stayed with me in Montreal, he was supervising a group of Spanish teenagers enrolled in a language exchange program. His new job had him working on the other end of the arrangement: making travel arrangements for incoming groups of American teens and their adult chaperones. He found hotel accommodation for them and loaded them on tour buses bound for popular tourist destinations: Toledo, Valencia, Grenada, etc.
Some groups turned out to be several people short of a busload. Because I had played host to Diego in Montreal, his organization let me fill one of the empty seats on any of these buses, provided I pay for any of the other expenses involved: my meals and hotel charges. Each bus came with a fully qualified guide and an interesting fellow who didn’t appear to have any specific function. Back in London, England, he was an actor – or so he told me. On the tours, he may have helped keep the teenagers out of trouble but that’s only a guess. We never discussed his duties; most of the time we talked about our work back home.
On one particularly long stretch between tourist attractions, I asked him if he had ever found work on British television. He told me he had recently played a disgruntled farmer on the popular series “All Creatures Great And Small.” I must confess I didn’t believe him even when he described the role in detail. But some time after I had returned to Montreal, the nearest PBS station ran the episode in question and there he was, accusing the James Herriot character of malpractice on his bull.
The fortress city of Toledo is perched on a mountain in southern Spain. Before tackling the climb involved in reaching it, our tour bus labored up the mountain’s twin to give us a panoramic view of our ultimate destination.
As soon as we had all left the bus and assembled outside, the tour guide went into a lengthy exposition of Toledo’s history while the actor and I listened from the fringes of her audience. About halfway through the guide’s spiel, the actor began to grumble, not quite loud enough to attract the guide’s attention.
“When is she going to tell the story?” he wanted to know.
I tried to ignore him and give my full attention to the guide, but he asked again, somewhat louder:
“When is she going to tell the story?”
This time the guide looked our way for a moment before continuing. I was relieved when her lecture ended and we were able to return to the bus. As soon as we were underway, bound again for Toledo, I turned to the actor and asked:
“What story were you talking about?”
“You know the one,” he snapped back, “the one from the Civil War.”
And when I confessed I was still puzzled, he related one of the more poignant episodes from the conflict that tore Spain apart from three blood-soaked years:
The Civil War had only just begun. General Francisco Franco had crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco and deposited his rebel forces unopposed on Spain’s south coast where they began the long march to Madrid. A Republican government still controlled most of the country then but its hold on the armed forces was shaky; some key army commanders had declared for the Franco faction, including Colonel José Moscardó, the commandant of Toledo’s fortress of Alcazar. A Republican unit was rushed to the area to dislodge Moscardó and his defenders. A preliminary artillery barrage caused considerably damageto the city, but left Moscardó defiant.
It was then that the Republican commander played his trump card; his men had captured Moscardó’s teenage son. Using the only telephone line to Toledo left intact after the bombardment, the Republican commander contacted Moscardó and threatened to kill his son if the fortress wasn’t surrendered.
“Put my son on the line, ” Moscardó demanded. The Republican commander obliged.
“Son,” Moscardó is said to have told the teenager, “you are about to die. Put your faith in God, shout Viva Espaňa, and die like a man!”
Or so the story goes.
And the actor thought the guide should have included it in her lecture on Toledo. Fat chance.
Like so many people of my generation, I have always been fascinated by accounts of the Spanish Civil War: George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and the film it spawned – Ingrid Bergman, fetching in fatigues, helping Gary Cooper face down a sneering, arrogant foe.
But the young Spaniards I encountered in 1988 reinforced the maxim “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.” Our guide didn’t mention the conflict until someone on the tour drew her attention to a plaque in Toledo’s echoing cathedral commemorating some of its victims. With every reference to it, the guide used the adjective “stupid” – “that stupid war.”
When I told Diego I wanted to visit The Valley Of The Fallen, he was disappointed. “Why do you want to see that Fascist shrine?” he demanded. I went anyway, and came away sharing his view. The place ought to make any practicing Catholic distinctly uneasy. Described as a memorial to the half million killed in the Spanish Civil War, The Valley Of The Fallen is actually a basilica with altars dedicated to the patron saints of various Fascist regiments that took part. Though he is said to have resisted the honor, Franco is buried there along with José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falangists, Spain’s fascist party.
Located 35 miles northeast of Madrid, The Valley Of The Fallen is dominated by a cross 500 feet high and 150 feet across rising from the peak of a mountain. Below the cross, a crypt of cathedral proportions has been tunneled out of solid granite.
Though Franco owed the construction of the Valley of the Fallen to the forced labor by Loyalist prisoners of war, I couldn’t find anything on the site that drew attention to Civil War combatants who died opposing him, except for the notice next to an ossuary identifying the contents as the remains of tens of thousand who fell “on both sides.” But Diego told me angrily that ‘tens of thousands’ would better describe the number of forced laborers who perished trying to hew a basilica out of a granite mountain.
If The Valley Of The Fallen was the low point of my first visit to Spain, Grenada was its zenith: it’s no exaggeration to say the place intoxicated me – the Alhambra, of course, but the very setting of the city was breathtaking with the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains as its backdrop and the Mediterranean just beyond.
It was Holy Week and I saw one of the city’s religious processions in progress. By day’s end, I was reeling from Grenada’s wonders – and frustrated that I couldn’t share my impressions with anyone. The tour I had attached myself to had moved on, leaving me on my own.
What happened to me then has stayed with me ever since. I was writing a weekly humor column a year later and made this attempt to describe it:

I am a lucky traveler, having returned from one complicated trip after another without as much as losing a handkerchief. This despite any number of horrendous gaffes.
The worst of these occurred in the fabled Spanish city of Granada – a city I had waited a lifetime to see. Again and again, I’ve all but drooled over somebody’s color photos of the Alhambra, full of doubt that such wonders really existed.
Granada didn’t disappoint me. I loved everything about the place. I wandered its streets in a euphoric daze – a “high,” if you will. I really didn’t need what most people seek in a bar, but that’s where I found spainmyself – in a Granada bar – one fateful afternoon during Holy Week.
On the tour bus from Madrid, we had been talking about another Spanish city, Malaga. Someone remarked that one of my favorite songs, “La Malaguena,” was obviously dedicated to a young woman from Malaga, since that’s what such a young woman is called. It had never occurred to me.
Standing at the crowded bar in Granada, the sweeping melodic line of “La Malaguena” was still running through my head, blotting out the rock’n’roll blaring from the radio.
A pleasant young man asked me where I was from. When I told him, the word “Canadiense” went around the room followed by appreciate nods, raised glasses, and the occasional mention of the winter Olympics.
This only served to elevate my spirits to another, higher plateau. I should have realized, from past experience, that such dizzy heights are fraught with danger for me. But, no! The warning voice within had been drowned out by “La Malaguena” and I launched into my pitiful Spanish to ask the young man: “If a young woman from Malaga is called a ‘Malaguena,’ what does one call a young woman from Granada?”
An innocent enough question, wouldn’t you say? Properly posed in Spanish, it comes out: “Si llama una chica de Malaga una malaguena, como llamar una chica de Granada?” But that’s not what I said. God knows what I said.
I suspect that my downfall stemmed from the Spanish verb “llamar.” Like its equivalent in English, it can mean “to call” in a variety of ways: with hands cupped at mouth (“Yoo-hoo!”), to put an appellation to, or to reach by telephone.
It’s this last meaning that my new Spanish friend seized upon and, before I knew what was happening, he was flying around the room recruiting help for the poor Canadiense who wanted to telephone a young woman in Malaga. My protestations – in equally rotten Spanish – were waived aside.
Several directories were unearthed and consulted; the owner was on the telephone to the operator, cursing and juggling the receiver. Heated arguments as to my intentions with the young woman from Malaga raged in every corner. I had thrown the bar into such a fever of activity; I could safely begin edging towards the door, unnoticed.
Turning the corner a block away, I could still hear the commotion.

By the way, I’m told a young woman from Granada is called “una Granadina.” And someone who ignores his linguistic limitations and asks complicated question in Spanish bars is called “idiota,” or worse.


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