I will again have to dig deep into my childhood memories to be able to write about these two countries. I am not sure how reliable my memories will be.
My visit to these places with my parents was before 1989 when they were still under communism but they were already slowly opening up.
We stayed in Hungary for about a week, mostly in Budapest but also in Pec, Zigetvar and Estergon. Being a young child at the time, I had grasped basic knowledge of the Hungarian language in six days and was already assisting my parents with haggling. Of course, nothing of this knowledge is left to this day.
I remember visiting graveyards and castles in Zigetvar and Estergon, which have historical significance to the Ottomans. As a child, I was explained there that Suleiman the Magnificent fell seriously ill in Hungary.
One night in Pec, a group of musicians in the restaurant we were dining had started playing “Uskudar’a Gideriken” on their violins as soon as they found out that we were from Turkey. I was very surprised that they knew this song.
It was in Pec, for the very first time in my life, that I had realised that some cities can be just like postcards or fairylands.
Budapest was also beautiful, grand and impressive. I was enjoying crossing the Danube River from Buda to Peste sides of the city almost everyday, just like in Istanbul where you cross the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe.
The Danube is particularly important for my family, not just for Turkish history; as the name of the river (“Tuna” in Turkish) is a family name on my mother’s side due to some of our ancestors having fought in the area.
I remember fondly the Gypsy musicians on the streets, the fine-looking traditional Hungarian costumes and a shop where I had seen the most beautiful dolls on the window display.
One night in Budapest, we had also been to a Gypsy concert in an open-air concert hall.
I also saw the most beautiful McDonald’s building in my life to this day in Hungary. It was a spotless historical building with ravishing ornaments and colourful glasswork.
At the time, we were told about a historical rumour about the city. When Suleiman the Magnificent arrived in town, he was asked what the name of the place is and he said “Pest.” Then, he was asked, “What is the name of the land across the river?” He replied “Bu da Pest” meaning “this is also Pest” in Turkish. I don’t know how true it is.
During our week in Hungary, we were offered the opportunity to make a brief trip via train either to Vienna or to Prague. My parents decided that we go to Prague.
So we took an overnight train to Czechoslovakia of the time. The train had a very 1920s or Orient Express style to it with separate compartments with scarlet red cushiony seats.
The ticket officer was a very dark man with a massively thick moustache who didn’t speak any English or French. He kept on visiting our compartment even after checking our tickets, asking for dollars. I believe he tried to claim that we were not allowed to carry any dollars with us.
My father claimed that we didn’t have any dollars with us; in fact we did. He hid the money between the linings of the cushiony seats. I had sensed that my parents were on the edge and a bit nervous on that train because of the stress that the ticket officer was causing.
As soon as we arrived in Prague, I noticed the major differences between Hungary and Czechoslovakia of the time. There were people sleeping all over the train station, the city seemed very empty, dull, sad and old in early morning. It lacked the openness and livelihood of Hungary.
We were told that Czechs are famous for their crystals, so my parents wanted to purchase some souvenirs. The crystal shop would take only five customers in at a time. The queue outside the shop was meters long and we had to queue for maybe two hours.
Lunch had to be eaten only at certain hours and you did not have a menu option. You had to eat what they served. So we had to do with rotten potatoes.
At some point, my father ran out of film for his camera so when he finally found a shop, which would sell him film, he had to do with only black and white film.
Czechs seemed scared of us, the foreigners. They would not speak to us or even look into our eyes.
One non-Czech looking happened to talk to my mother because she needed light for her cigarette. We found out that she was half-Czech, half-Spanish. When my mom asked her why people were so distant, her immediate response was “Communism, communism! I shouldn’t speak to you either.” And then she walked off.
My mom went back to Prague and other places in the Czech Republic years later, after the fall of communism. It was then that she realised how beautiful the city is actually. She had a completely different experience to what we had when I was a little child.