THE tide which has flooded Budapest's beautiful city centre with rip-off restaurants, casinos, prostitution and strip-shows is apparently irresistible, but it has not by any means flooded the whole of the Great Hungarian Plain nor the whole of Hungary's inner life. Such capitulation to market forces in all their squalor is hopefully a phase intermediate between communism and some less degrading form of capitalism. If we are looking for a more detailed sense of what Hungary now is, we must, albeit reluctantly, tear ourselves away from the Pizza Huts and `Irish Pubs' of Budapest and look elsewhere.
You might look to Polgar, for example, or any one of the thousands of such villages and towns scattered across the Great Plain. This one, situated at its north-east corner, is roughly equidistant from the borders with Slovakia, the Ukraine and Romania. There is a school, a Protestant church, a small market, shops, dingy little bars. Nobody I met there spoke more than four or five words of English or German.
The main streets are lined with lamp/telegraph-posts adapted so that storks can build their nests' platforms on top of them. Few modern chimneys are broad enough to take such a bulky structure but the birds have eagerly taken to these new nesting opportunities. In late summer up to four fully fledged chicks stand waiting to be fed at the top of one lamp-post after another. If you stop to watch them they grow slightly uneasy, glancing sharply at you as if suggesting everybody knows it's rude to stare. They may try staring back a bit, but seeing that doesn't deter you all they can do is stand there throwing reproachful looks in your direction every now and again.
Walk into one of those shops or bars and ask if anyone speaks English or German and the uneasiness you provoke might remind you a bit of those storks, that same embarrassment with a hint of defiance. `This is a Hungarian village and there are no casinos or strip-shows here, so why should we speak English or German?' they seem to say.
Luckily for me, though, `archaeology' is a respectable word and one that varies little from language to language. I was directed to a large house at the edge of the village. Students were washing crates full of sherds in the yard. This was the headquarters of Polgar-Csoszhalom-dulo, the biggest Neolithic excavations ever undertaken in Hungary and the third largest Neolithic site in Europe. The name of Polgar will soon be well known, to motorists at least, because the new M3 Highway, which will run from Budapest to the Ukrainian border, will pass close by. Four years of rescue excavation have already been carried out in advance of the road-building.
The new highway will approach the village from the west, swerve round it to the south and continue east towards the Ukraine. The reason that the road has been routed south round Polgar rather than north has not made the news in Hungary or anywhere else, but its details will interest anyone seeking to gauge the current atmosphere.
The history of road-building here since 1989 is symptomatic of much else that has gone on. Still in its first flush of enthusiasm for the free market, the government signed contracts with Hungarian and foreign firms to build a new highway from Budapest to the Austrian border. Work was also started on a new road to Belgrade, still then capital of the old Yugoslavia. The contractors took advantage of their strong position to insist on a toll system, hoping to recover their capital as fast as possible.
Work on the Belgrade highway ground to a halt during the Bosnian war and the new road to Austria, now completed, has become a national joke, albeit a rather bitter one. No one can afford the toll -- it has been suggested for example that the road be closed to the public altogether to preserve this untouched habitat for the enjoyment of future generations.
Such barbed humour flourishes in an environment like that of present-day Hungary. …