Hungary Magazine

Loss and bewilderment: A journey through Budapest in the age of COVID-19

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Budapest, Hungary – Anger and frustration silently build up behind the masks in Budapest despite restrictions being relatively mild compared to most parts of Europe. Chaos, disorientation, and loss of social contact and bearings characterize the Hungarian capital’s new way of life in the age of COVID-19.

An everyday ride on the Budapest tram

The harsh ringtone of a phone breaks into the silence and violates the usual monotony of the tram journey, singing of a certain Szilvia. Everybody turns in the direction of the intrusion, but the called party, a woman with remarkable hair at the crossroads of red and pink, doesn’t seem to care and, after pulling a face, negligently mutes her phone. I can see her grimace because she is the only one not wearing a mask in the whole carriage, and start to fret at the idea of getting infected by one single mask-less person. By the look of the other passengers, I’m not the only one. A loud official warning blares out, threatening fines for all those who don’t cover their faces on public transport. We all know this is unlikely to happen.

When the pink-haired woman finally picks up her phone blaring Szilvia a second time, she starts to shout so that all the sixty or so people around can hear her saying: ”I’m telling you, you’re a bitch. I won’t give you little Georgie, you whore. Where were you when he was sucking himself every day at the bus stop, you idiot”. She continues with more of the same for several minutes. I cannot decide whether the whole situation is funny or appalling. I cannot help but assume that, while shouting, she’s spitting more saliva and germs into the air than if she had spoken normally. But no one says a word, instead all listening attentively to what little Georgie has or hasn’t done. We’re all scared at the same time, and collective anger starts building up towards this anonymous woman. As for little Georgie, we only care theoretically.

Two old ladies sitting not far from me murmur about manners, nodding repeatedly the whole time at one another. At the other side of the carriage, I hear someone declaring being “fed up with gypsies or migrants”. Yet Hungary is not the place for easily squaring up to public conflict. Still, no one says a word, either intimidated by the lady or just unsure how to approach her. The frustration is kept inside, like boiling water that hasn’t reached the lid of the pot yet but threatens to crack open at the surface.

Loss and frustration

It would have been somewhat the same before COVID: in Budapest, a reasonable demand can easily be understood as a serious, unpolite offense, and people prefer to avoid making them, instead turning to making awful and sometimes unfounded insinuations. What differs, however, is the silence, which has now become unpleasant and uncomfortable, more intimidating, more threatening even.

Sitting this day on the busiest tram line of the Hungarian capital, staring helplessly at this strange, yelping creature, I could sense the collective frustration, hidden behind the masked lives we’re now compelled to lead, the conversations held behind face covering, as if speaking through a silencer; the touches we keep to ourselves and all the time spent in front of our screen all alone, instead of being physically present in the lives of our family, friends and colleagues – I can feel the loss brought about by the pandemic.

We’re on the verge of an eruption, but pretend we are coping.

The self-promises and hopes of spiritual growth are, however, over. Those who believed so in the spring have for the most part stopped thinking of COVID as a happy and unexpected opportunity to finally become a yoga goddess, reach enlightenment and peace of mind through all the lonely hours spent in quarantine or of reading all the books we never had the time to read. Many of us had such thoughts in our minds back in March. But many of us don’t have them anymore, once more caught in the midst of isolation, lack of social and physical contact, not to mention the actual loss of work and income for many. The first wave, in Hungary and most parts of Central and Eastern Europe, was too “easy” on us in terms of actual loss of lives. It gave us the impression that there was nothing to worry about, as if COVID had been just a ghost, a fairy tale, or a very abstract demonic idea.

But this time, Hungary is hit hard, and has among the highest death tolls per capita in Europe. COVID-denial and existential angst appear to coexist in the population’s mind. Despite the government’s false claims that everything is under control, everybody knows at least several persons who has contracted the virus, and at least one of them who’s in a critical condition because of it. Conspiracy theories evidently blossom, as much in the streets in Budapest as on social media.

“We haven’t started shouting, yet”

Following and understanding the government’s communication has never been an easy task in Hungary, and that continues to be the case. More or less everything that was restricted or banned in March when Hungary was one of the least affected countries is, today, still allowed, despite the country registering record-high numbers of cases every day (update: the Hungarian government introduced new restrictions today). Restaurants and shops are still open, thousands of fans keep flocking to football stadiums to support their team, while Halloween parties and wellness hotels were fully booked throughout the autumn holiday. Physical distancing and wearing masks are mandatory, but many, including the young people convinced the virus won’t affect them and mindless of the indirect impact their reckless behaviour could have on their grandparents, don’t respect it. “How am I supposed to make out in this shit”, one of them loudly remarked the other day on the bus. The outrage was genuine.

“A little sauna treat won’t do any harm”; “COVID is not my reality for God’s sake”; “I won’t be intimidated by this”. All such remarks, where denial of the seriousness of the threat mixes with a bizarre sense of machismo, heard in the streets of Budapest. Others, on the other hand, desperately sanitize their hands every five minutes when leaving their apartment. Many Budapest residents are even more disoriented by the lack of knowledge as to the real numbers of infections.

Schools, public transports, supermarkets, cinemas, football games, etc. All are jam-packed, yes, but the feeling of community has vanished, leaving only sheer individual isolation hidden behind the farce that everything is alright, or will be very soon. Regardless of the loss of work, income or social contact, what people are losing right now is the basic understanding of how their lives will develop, and unravel. Sitting on the tram looking at the gesticulating pink-haired lady; buying flour in the store; reading the news; picking up their children at school; or longing for their classmates: they somehow know in the back of their minds that nothing is certain anymore. Still, the silence remains: we haven’t started shouting, yet.

Main photo credit: Dávid Dercsényi

By Vera Bendl

Based in Budapest, Vera is a Hungarian journalist and editor, as well as the writer of a short story collection and some children’s books.

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