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Budapest: Then and Now

A craving for poppy seeds seems to be encoded in my genes.

As far back as I can remember, I've begun my day with a poppy-seed bagel (sesame simply won't do), and I am congenitally unable to pass up any rendering of poppy-seed cake or pastry. So on my first morning in Budapest, I was elated to discover a dozen tempting variations on the theme of the seed in the window of an unassuming café across from my hotel. Izes Sarok ("Tasty Corner"), in a former insurance company headquarters with a fabulously embellished façade, quickly became "my" café, and by the end of my week's stay in Budapest, the counterwoman would start my cappuccino—no sugar, no chocolate—as I entered. Standing at the window, I'd polish off a plate stacked with poppy-seed confections while I watched young couples in leather jackets hurrying to work, ignoring the rain as they stopped mid-intersection to kiss (there are an inordinate number of kissing couples in the city—surely the mark of a healthy economy). Stout, gray-haired women smoked and gossiped in front of the flower shop across the way.

A predilection for poppy seeds is an indisputable sign of Hungarian blood, one of my new Budapest friends informed me later that week. In fact, my ancestors on both sides came from Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), beginning in the 1880's with my maternal great-grandmother. As a teenage girl she made her way to Manhattan's Lower East Side and, eventually, to our Pennsylvania town, where there was already a burgeoning community of Hungarian Jews. My father's parents left in the 1890's, my mother's father soon after. They came to America as children, prospered, and, in my memory at least, never looked back. Of the few who remained behind, they and their children and children's children largely perished during the Holocaust.

Growing up after World War II, I was told no tales of "the Old Country." My Pennsylvania-born grandmother served veal chops and lemon meringue pie at Friday night Shabbat dinners. My mother cooked roasts and spaghetti and meatballs, my father grilled steaks on the patio. We all strove to be a Jewish version of the families in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. Other than an instilled pride in being an Ashkenazic Jew and my fondness for poppy seeds, my only link to Hungary was a chain-smoking, solitaire-playing cousin by marriage, who'd survived the war by posing as a Christian. With her dyed blond hair, volatile temper, bright lipstick, and exotic accent, she seemed impossibly glamorous.

Then, at a party a few years ago, my good friend Diana introduced me to her fiancé, a worldly Hungarian who shuttled between an apartment in Budapest and a town house in London's Notting Hill. When I told Peter Magyar (could there be a more Hungarian name?) of my ancestral connection to his country, he insisted that I visit Budapest. It was my first encounter with the startlingly strong pride that all Hungarians seem to share, and it made me more than a bit ashamed of my own lack of interest and knowledge.

While my ancestors mostly came from the countryside, from the Jewish shtetls, I am a lover of big cities. So, with a pocketful of phone numbers and introductions from Peter, I set out last spring to discover, through its capital city (described by one Hungarian as a combination of "the Wild West and fin de siècle Paris"), my own Hungary—and the Hungarians.

"WE ARE NOT EASTERN OR SOUTHERN, BUT NOT REALLY western or northern. We are at the real heart of Mitteleuropa," declared Sandor Orban, the managing director of Budapest's Center for Independent Journalism. A fast-talking journalist, Sandor took charge on my first evening, taking me for drinks at Stage, a dark and spacious bar near the Danube that is, he said, "popular with Hungarians, Italians, and fashionable Russian whores."

Budapest's citizens have an edge that I as a New Yorker recognized instantly: they're smart, sophisticated, ironically self-aware, and proud of their culture—and their history, which nobody lets you forget (they still grumble about the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which reduced Hungary to about a quarter of its former size). After a glass of good Hungarian red wine, we moved on to Lou Lou, one of the city's trendiest restaurants, where conversations swirled around the vaulted 19th-century room in as many languages as there were tables (about 10). Nibbling on chopped greens and chicken liver topped with a poached egg (forget watching calories and cholesterol in Budapest), I heard talk of both Bill Gates and "new-generation Netscape."

"Unlike our neighbors, we are neither Slavs, Latins, nor Germans," Sandor went on. "And our language, which is not an Indo-European language, is very complicated and difficult for foreigners to learn." Despite the genial surroundings, he was determined to convince me of what he called "the strange and melancholic Hungarian mentality."

But just then his friend Szilvia Gyorkos, a news editor at one of Hungary's new commercial television stations, swept into the restaurant in an oversize candy-green sweater, her blond hair tousled, full of apologies for her lateness. "I tried to call," she insisted (a suspect excuse in this city where cell phones are as plentiful as goulash). "I am so ill. My blood pressure has dropped." She swooned dramatically, she smiled at me charmingly, she scanned the menu. "I am much too ill to eat, but I must have dessert."

Minutes later, amazingly recovered from her mysterious malady, Szilvia ordered a hearty vegetarian strudel to precede her dessert. While we waited for our food she announced that she might be moving to Monte Carlo, then rolled up her sleeve to point to her veins. "Yes," she said, laughing. "Melancholy is in our blood."

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