The Ever Shrinking World

Posted: May 28, 2012 12:01 AM
The Ever Shrinking World

On this day when we remember the people who sacrificed for our freedom take some time to read about the people in other countries that benefited so greatly from that sacrifice.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting countries formerly in the Soviet Bloc. The contrast between how people live there today – compared to just twenty years ago – inevitably provides a fascinating lesson in the difference between a free economy and a government-controlled system. We observed that lesson in previous excursions to Prague, Berlin, and Poland, and this year we traveled to Budapest to see how the people there have adapted to the changes.

Hungarians suffered less than a decade of Nazi rule, but with the Soviet iron boot on their necks, they were not able to rebuild what the Nazis destroyed. The garbage constructed by the Communists – soulless mausoleums that drained the character and creativity from a forward-looking people – is readily discernible not only from the new construction in modern Budapest, but also those structures from hundreds of years ago that have been carefully restored.

Budapest, split down the middle by the Danube (Buda is on one side and Pest on the other) is truly one of the beautiful cities of the world; and Hungary, once a nucleus of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is now a landlocked country of ten million people. One can see the struggles of a country trying to return to prosperity and an equal place amongst Western nations. There are some questions about the rightward slant of its current government (along with the charge of resurgence of anti-Semitism), but the people we spoke to provided us no sense of foreboding. Having lived under communism, they want their government as far removed from it as possible.

You can see signs of a cultured society beginning to thrive. Fine restaurants are sprouting up and gaining recognition (and customers). Their wine industry, whose products during communist rule were acknowledged to be poor at best, now is comprised of 1,500 wineries whose quality is reaching levels competitive with other world producers. Hungarians are buying nicer cars, working diligently to improve their lot, and seem to be enjoying the fruits of economic freedom.

One endearing moment for me took place in Pest, which overlooks the Danube and the Buda flatlands. On a beautiful sunny day, I strolled past an older gentleman – perhaps seventy or so – who was enjoying an ice cream cone. I wanted to stop and say “Bet you never had that under those Communists.” It felt good to be an American, and to have helped to give this man the freedom to enjoy strawberry ice cream. We just have to be vigilant to ensure that his grandchildren might do the same fifty years from now.

Floating up the Danube to the next capital and world famous city we arrived in Vienna. We have always joked about going to Vienna because Jackie Mason does this routine about Jews going to Vienna to eat cake – and boy, can you eat a lot of cake here! There are pastry shops everywhere, and it’s easy to assume that most of Vienna’s residents are forever sitting outside at a café, enjoying coffee along with some kind of yummy dessert. This made me think about what our food police would do here. Certainly they would insist that every shop provide a gluten-free option, and force them to list calorie counts on the menu. Personally, I can’t even imagine the calories in a Sacher Torte. And who would want to know? It definitely would be amusing to see some rail-thin woman from Beverly Hills asking for gluten-free chocolate crème cake.

When you arrive in Vienna, you immediately notice the difference in wealth from Budapest. Austrians should be very thankful that American soldiers got here before the Soviets at the end of World War II.

Vienna has a lot of culture, including a beautiful opera house and several venues for concerts of all types. You could spend days at their great museums, and there’s even a first class jazz club, Jazzland. The Schonbrunn Palace, which was the summer residence of the Hapsburg royalty, puts Versailles to shame.

A few personal observations:

· The cars are not only nicer in Vienna than in Budapest, but larger as well. When people have money, they prefer not to own the midget cars that the Left and our President would like to stuff down our throats. There are plenty of SUVs in Vienna.

· Austrians are doing quite well. We were told that their standard of living is higher than that of the Germans. They just try to stay out of the way of France, Germany, and the rest of the EU, and enjoy their lives. And enjoying it appears to be what they’re doing – it must be all that cake.

· I couldn’t help myself, but I had to ask our guide if there were any Austrian comedians. The German culture doesn’t conjure up the thought of people sitting around a comedy club laughing uproariously at side-splitting German comics. He said no.

We then journeyed to beautiful Salzburg. Talk about a city based on tourism. It is quite a lovely town, and they aren’t shy about promoting the legacies of their most famous native products – Mozart and The Sound of Music. They even pride themselves on wearing the dirndl dresses. The people of Salzburg have music-lovers from all over the world, including two Jews from America named Richard and Oscar, to thank for their livelihoods. Quite a turn of events. After all, the hills are alive with the sound of music. And, of course, there is the cake.