By our third month in Hungary, we were desperate. We subsisted on problem sets, cold gray sludgy days, and restaurants that served only the unvarying, unappetizing Hungarian cuisine–far too little to satisfy our Western cravings for newness and change. We had long ago mined out the local tourist sites; visited neighboring Czechoslovakia and found it sorely wanting; and checked out the local bars, which offered nothing more convivial than a place to sit by ourselves and drink watery Soviet beer. “There must be something to do in Budapest,” we muttered, but nothing appeared. Nothing but gray, dingy buildings, a collection of people who wanted our U.S. dollars, nowhere to go and nothing to see. In desperation, we began scouring the city daily in search of the eight-page International Herald-Tribune, which, though slim in profile and horrendously overpriced, at least offered a faint lifeline to the outside world.
I remember that day–October 23, 1989–vividly. We had just made our first pilgrimage to the U.S. Embassy, chasing a rumor of The New York Times–full edition!–and information on the Loma Prieta quake that had recently tumbled San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and threatened our Californian friends. After wending our way through triple security screens and surrendering our Swiss Army knives to an unamused guard at the front desk, we found ourselves in the tiny reading room, full of books in English! and spotty back copies of The New York Times. Reveling in “real news”–an Etruscan art exhibit at MOMA, rising housing prices in the Tri-state area, Crips and Bloods proclaiming truce in Los Angeles–we stayed longer than planned, awakened from our reverie only by the dimmed-lights warning of the embassy’s closing.
Retrieving our belongings, we descended into the street by the embassy and clattered bemusedly towards the nearest subawy, but soon lost our way in the growing dusk. Pausing for a moment to huddle around our map, we struck out in a random direction to get our bearings. A block later, we turned a corner and stopped short. Thousands and thousands of Hungarians stood, sat, squatted silently in the square before their Parliament, under an enormous flag with the familiar red, yellow, and green stripes framing a gaping black hole where the Hungarian emblem had inexplicably been ripped away. Hundreds of them carried smaller Hungarian flags with black-printed or cut-away centers, long lit tapers, framed photos–in complete silence. A large banner read simply, Október 23. As we watched, more Hungarians trickled in, and more, and more, all with the same attitude of silent waiting.
We pulled back in amazement, feeling as if we had suddenly intruded on a public wake. What was happening? Why were the flags black in the center? What were the little shrines burning with candles? Why the torches? We knew isntantly that we were in the making of history, a Great Event–but what? We looked at each other, shrugged, and waited.
And waited. Nothing happened but the murmur of the crowd, the steady trickling of people, the vendors here and there selling black-centered flags or black-centered amrbands. The crowd grew denser, and the candles multiplied. Families brought picnic blankets to sit on, staring at the Parliament, waiting.
Suddenly the lights came on. The Parliament lit up with a warm halo that suffused the dingy, smog-burned limestone and transformed it into a triumphantly-domed, regal edifice shining on the Danube. The ornately carved gargoyles and curlicues transmogrified instantly in the white glare: formerly baroque, tired-looking, and mincingly overdone, they drew themselves up as proud symbols of the Hungarian republic, and of the Communist legislature within. The people drew in a breath; someone shouted in Hungarian. We waited.
And waited. The vigil continued; the square was packed by now, filled with a rising murmur, as crammed subways and buses continued to arrive. The excitement was building, but we found ourselves strangely excluded: intruders at the wake, pressed steadily towards the edges by the muttering crowd whose language we did not speak, whose signs and protests–so important!–we could not read. Darkness descended swiftly: we had no flashlights, no candles. Could we find our way home in the dark? Did we want to stay, unknowing?
In the end, we left, still wondering. We knew nothing of the events that propelled a hundred thousand people into Kossuth Lajos Square, nothing of that day when the Soviet tanks had rolled in to crush a budding young rebellion. Our ignorance and our own insularity had excluded us. And yet–when I think of the falling of the Iron Curtain, that is the moment I always think of: a hundred thousand Hungarians, packed side by side in the square, silently holding vigil before their oppressors, waiting for freedom–and the free world looking on, uncomprehending.