Until this summer I had successfully resisted the idea of visiting any Communist country. Why should I visit a land that is dull and grey, people grim and shabby, with the specter of a police state all around me? (No, I never got to the point of thinking that I'd be hustled off to some Lubianka for being a "notorious bourgeois economist.") I still haven't seen Russia or China and don't intend to. But knowing that I'd be spending a glorious four or five weeks this June traveling around Germany and Austria, I was finally persuaded to spend some time in Hungary. "You must see Budapest," I was admonished by several friends of impeccable anticommunist credentials. So I figured I'd grit my teeth and go there—after all, Hungary had loosened up a bit in three decades—and then go to Yugoslavia for contrast. I had read that Yugoslavia was a happy land, free relative to its Communist neighbors; shrewdly, I decided to go to its most Western and most free-market-oriented areas—Croatia and Slovenia—and give backward and despotic Serbia a wide berth.
My first brush with the New Hungary came in Vienna, where I went to IBUSZ, the Hungarian state monopoly travel bureau, to get a visa. I had decided that, however much I might live off the land in Western Europe, in Communist countries I would insulate myself as much as possible by living in deluxe Hiltons or Sheratons. After surrendering my passport for 24 hours into the hands of IBUSZ—a creepy feeling already—I got my visa and then made my first big mistake. I asked the suave, slimy character at IBUSZ to reserve a spot for me at the Inter-Continental (safely Pan Am-owned) in Budapest. "Fully booked, sir," he replied. My instinct was to insist on the Hilton. In a moment of weakness, however, I allowed this creep to talk me into going to the Grand Hotel Margitsziget, which he assured me was fully air-conditioned and the second finest hotel in all of Hungary. Here he was unwittingly(?) aided and abetted by whichever jackass wrote the passage in Fodor's Eastern Europe that this hotel has "recently been completely reconstructed and modernized."
Maybe someday. The Grand Hotel Margitsziget was undoubtedly the toast of Central Europe…in 1910. Some decade hence it will be reconstructed. Meantime, it is a crumbling old ruin, with wires coming out of the walls, rooms collapsing, etc. In the dingy lobby, elderly ladies sit and gloomily watch whatever remains of the passing parade.
The key is breakfast. In Europe, breakfast is a noble meal, free with the room, usually consisting of orange juice, ham, cheese, rolls, coffee, and, in opulent hotels (such as the Holiday Inn at Augsburg, West Germany, bless it), bacon and eggs. In almost every hotel in Europe, breakfast was fit for a king. But not in the Grand Hotel Margitsziget. A few limp pieces of lettuce, a soggy roll, a few globs of pure fat, terrible coffee. "Welcome to Budapest!" I said to myself in my best Bela Lugosi accent.
Stereotypes are right. What a depressing place Hungary is! Buses are jammed with grim-looking people in shabby, drab clothes. The store windows have almost nothing in them. Even the tourist shops catering to Americans and Westerners are mostly bare. In contrast to happy, lovable, spanking clean, and well-kept Bavaria, the buildings in Budapest and the rest of Hungary are falling apart, and decay and misery seem to be everywhere. In our sightseeing tour of Budapest, the tour guide, in an unpleasant whiny voice in almost incomprehensible English, warned us not to have anything to do with various shady characters in the Square of Heroes trying to buy dollars with Hungarian forints.
When I finally got to the border of this decaying land, the customs guards (unique in all my travels in Europe) started their despotic examination. It turns out that no one is allowed to leave with more than 100 forints (a forint is approximately a nickel), and here I had about 1,000. I, of course, was happy to get rid of these forints and tried to find a way to exchange them for dollars, Yugoslav dinars, or whatever. But the Hungarian guards were adamant: I was way over the forint limit, and they would not exchange forints for anything. In short, once you were indiscreet enough to exchange your dollars for forints, no one wanted to take them off your hands.
"Papier! Papier!" the Hungarian guard exclaimed as he searched my wallet and effects for exchange-receipts for the damned forints. It turns out that he would only take back the forints if I had receipts, but who keeps the receipts when he exchanges his travelers' checks? The poor loon was at an impasse. He couldn't violate his Commie bureaucratic regulations and just let me through, but he didn't want to confiscate my 1,000 forints and create some sort of international incident. Finally, his little pig eyes found the solution: "Go. Buy souvenirs."
So the Hungarian guard prodded me to the kiosk where the Hungarians were selling a collection of ratty little souvenirs. All I wanted to do was to get the hell out of there, so I had to find a way, as fast as possible, to spend my $50 or $60 worth of forints on an armful of junk. Twenty minutes later I was released, and my wife was bemused to see me emerge from this Hungarian pesthole laden with heavy copper plate, red and white material, table cloths too small for tables and pillow cases too big for pillows, bottles of some Hungarian rum, and who knows what else. But at least I was out of Hungary.
Yugoslavia, in contrast, was delightful. Nobody cared how few or many dinars I had, nobody looked at my suitcases, nothing. The people were smiling and happy, the shops were filled, the roads were fine, and generally I felt liberated after a couple of days in Hungary. And while the Hungarian hotels grab your passport and only relinquish it when you check out, the Yugoslavian hotels don't at all; as a matter of fact, I almost lost my passport because I automatically left it at the hotel desk, to the great puzzlement of the staff.
There is not much to do in Ljubljana (capital of Slovenia), but I loved it anyway, especially after Hungary, and you can always get a hotel room at the Holiday Inn there (even though it is owned by a second-rate Yugoslavian hotel and sort of tucked under it, so it is hard to find). I made contact with some university students, who knew a wee bit of English (I, of course, knew absolutely no Serbo-Croat or Slovenian). I tried to convey to them how much I preferred their country to Hungary, but all they wanted to tell me was their boredom with life in Ljubljana, their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and their dislike of old folk customs (the big thing to do on a Saturday night in Ljubljana is to watch a folk wedding.) They were also of the opinion that Yugoslavs are all lazy and incompetent whereas Americans are great because they work very hard. "How is it to work hard?" they asked me. It was all very sweet, but the language barrier prevented any more sophisticated communication.
So, once again, stereotypes turned out to be true. Pass up Hungary for at least a few more decades.
Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.