1100 Years: No Kidding
This is the Year of the Millecentenary Commemoration: Magyar tribes arrived roughly eleven centuries ago in the present "homeland". It was in 1882 that the Academy of Sciences delegated a committee to decide when the tribes originally arrived. The year 895 was then pinpointed by the committee. Later, when the year 1895 was imminent, and the ambitious commemoration program was somewhat behind schedule, the government decided to postpone the whole event a year: instead of 1895: 1896. So what we celebrate this year is that Hungary is about 11 centuries old.
Memories of 1896 in Stone:
In fin-de-siécle Hungary the Millennium was celebrated in great style. That golden age is still here with us, especially in Budapest, with Liberty Bridge, the Museum of Applied Arts, Mûcsarnok (Palace of Exhibitions) Vígszínház (Comedy Theatre), and no less then five indoor market halls. The Supreme Court, (now the Museum of Ethnography), and the underground railway from Vörösmarty tér to City Park are probably the best mementoes. All this was built in a hectic competition with Vienna, the Imperial capital. By 1896, Austria was beginning to feel a sort of inferiority complex: The Dual Monarchy - some observers wryly commented - was becoming more and more "The Kingdom of Hungary and the Rest".
The grandiose building program of 1896 was meant to prove the confidence and maturity of the Hungarian nation. Indeed it did, and above all in Budapest, creating its present-day, spacious urban fabric.
Liberty Bridge, built in 1896
The third permanent bridge over the Danube (originally Franz Joseph Bridge) was opened on the occasion of the Millennium celebrations. It was Emperor Franz Joseph I himself who hammered in the last silver rivet. Not by hand, naturally: he pushed a button in a tent on the Buda side, which operated the 45 ton hammer. There are very few things around which give a better example of how much pleasure people took in ornamentation. It would be difficult to imagine what the bridge would look like if the designer (Virgil Nagy) had not exercised restraint: "When designing the bridge, I had to obey the requirements of beauty, simplicity and economy". The bridge has a modular structure - if its middle were removed, it would still remain standing firmly. On top of each pillar, perched on a golden ball, is a "Turul bird", the mythical bird of the Magyars, stretching its wings, preparing to take off. Some would-be suicides still climb up here - fortunately, most of them are rescued by the fire brigade.
The famous silver rivet with the F. J. initials was stolen during World War I. So was its replacement. Today the rivet can be seen under a glass sheet. (At the Pest end, on the southern side.) Incidentally, this one is not silver.
Memory in the Minds: A Book
What on earth does make someone Hungarian? School and school textbooks certainly do. Now, with the the old, rigid system of Hungarian education dying out (there are more and more kinds of school, with diverging curricula), there are fewer and fewer 10-year-olds forced to read the same books. For our generation the sole exception to the compulsury bores at that age was The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár. That funny, emotional juvenile classic about basic moral values, about the birth of a metropolis, about the meaning of life.
Last year Corvina Publishers brushed up a translation from 1927 and re-issued the book in English. Now you too, friends of Budapest, can have the luck of reading and recommending it to your kids. ( The Paul Street Boys . Translated by Louis Rittenberg, Revised by George Szirtes. Corvina Books, 1994. ISBN 963 13 3801 0)