Several years after the 1989 fall of communist regimes, Zagreb native Slavenka Drakulic observed that in Central and Eastern European cities the more things were supposedly changing the more they remained visibly the same. Here she describes her impressions having alighted a train in Budapest:
“I arrived at midnight. From the railway station, I walked down Rákóczi U’tza , then József Körút Boulevard toward Nemzeti Hotel. The boulevard, the shopping centre of the city, was not only empty but almost dark. Or so it seemed to me because I experienced the ‘light shock’ that usually happens when one enters any Eastern European city from the West. The contrast in such that for a moment it has to cross your mind that either the city has had a power failure or there is danger of an attack from the air. The street lamps in Budapest were casting a yellowish light, and besides, every second one didn’t work at all. The shop windows were not lit, most of the neon signs were off, no streetcars passed by at that time, only a car or two – a ghost city.
“Living in a country where life functions in pretty much the same way as in Prague (or Budapest), all I could see was the saving of expensive electric energy, bad bulbs that burn out too quickly, broken lamps that take years to replace. I admit this might give a romantic impression of the city…but it is surely unintentional – has anyone ever heard of a romantic communist regime?”
Drakulic argues that Central and Eastern European time “runs differently”.
“As layers and layers of illusions are peeled away – the illusion of beauty, the illusion of power, the illusion of importance, even the illusion of meaning – time profoundly changes our view of life itself. The Austro-Hungarian Empire built up its signs of wealth and power for four hundred years. They slowly decayed, fading away. Then for almost half a century the communists tried to destroy the past and replace it with their own symbols – they faded even more quickly. Now the new governments are again changing the names of streets and squares, destroying old monuments and replacing them quickly with new ones, taking history and memory as their own little playground. The nostalgia and hopelessness of the Central European soul, its sadness and cynicism – the inner sepia, if you wish – all stems from this. So, I guess, we are something else, after all, something visibly different. In our cities, ‘renewal’ does not renew, it only points out the passing of time, the fact that there is no progress, that history repeats itself endlessly.”
– Slavenka Drakulic, ‘On the Quality of Wall Pain in Eastern Europe’, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed
See also Thomas Dolby’s Budapest by Blimp: