Baja Revisited

It is now thirty summers since I first went from England to the southern Hungarian town of Baja to teach English, and this weekend I returned to meet my erstwhile students. Baja is little-known by visitors, lacking the more obvious sights or notable events which would make the journey to Hungary’s southern border unmissable. Yet its tranquil atmosphere, its imposing main square and its beautiful setting on the Sugovica river guarantee that I can easily be persuaded to re-visit it.

Back in 1980, a four-hour train journey in sweltering temperatures, ending with the expansive bridge over the Danube at its widest, was my usual way of reaching Baja. Then, just an old pedestrian bridge linked the sleepy town with the small island (Petöfi sziget) where I was both to hold the course, and to live for the weeks of my stay. The English lessons were arranged for employees of a furniture factory by its manager, a self-confessed Anglo maniac, in the factory’s modest holiday home at the far end of the island. In the breaks we sat out in the garden and waited for the manager’s young son, Gordi, to cycle along the sandy path, past the KISZ (Young Communists’ Association) building, and back to the bridge to fetch us lángos (deep fried flat bread). Little could we have foretold that thirty years later he (Gordon Bajnai!) would be running the country!

Afternoons were frequently spent swimming in the Sugovica which wends its way to the mighty Danube nearby. Apart from the enormous main square (Béke tér) the town’s main meeting places were the market, and the fish market which was located on the stone steps leading down to the water. Evenings saw us take our (wooden) seats at the small local cinema, or sit chatting around the fire, watching Baja’s speciality of fish soup bubbling golden orange in a cauldron in the garden; mosquitoes were an inescapable part of life there. With no motor traffic on the island its silence was interrupted only by the cooing of the wood pigeons or the splash of the water. More islands lay further downstream, and a ferryman sat by the shore in his old rowing boat, well beyond the crimson sunset and into dusk, waiting for passengers.

Life after 1989 saw some unexpected changes: a second building where we had held an English course was temporarily transformed into a brothel, while the Yugoslav war yielded undreamt-of opportunities for those seeking to make their fortunes from cross-border gun-running and other forms of smuggling, and the town’s cafés filled with dubious clientele from both sides of the border. Baja today is a hotchpotch of the old and the new. Inevitably, there have been many changes – for my part, the least welcome being the demolition of the old bridge to Petöfi sziget and the construction of one able to take motor vehicles; much building has also taken place on the island. The market continues to thrive, though the fish market has relinquished its small cove to the mooring of small motor boats; the cinema is closed, though none has been built to replace it. The buildings on the main square have been restored to their original splendour - churches and parks likewise. Meanwhile, the spectacularly ugly concrete department store stands still in all its communist glory – a true reminder of the horrors we all accepted stoically as a part of life at that time!

But wandering the quiet paths alongside the sandy shores of the Sugovica with its motionless fishermen, the sun’s setting reflected in the river’s small waves, the smell of soup wafting from the Halászcsárda (fish restaurant) and the willows hanging in the deep green water, I realise that even these changes have not spoilt this town. I will be back.


End of the Saga?

Anyone who has followed this blog from its start, almost one year ago, will have noted the occasional entries connected with the fate of the Music Academy. It has, unwittingly, become a symbol of the ‘planning’ which characterises many aspects of life in the country.

The completed renovation of the nineteenth-century building in Liszt Ferenc tér, was originally planned to coincide with its centenary in 2007 – this did not come to pass, and the new deadline became 2011 – the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth. Work was set to commence in 2009, then this too was postponed. Finally, amid closing ceremonies and marathon concerts, a grand Farewell was taken last autumn….only for teaching to continue for the following academic year as though nothing had happened.

Now, apart from the ghostly strains of a piano being played in a far-flung practice room, and the odd thud of heavy boxes being moved along in its empty corridors, the Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia is deserted. The renovation work should soon begin, though as everyone is well aware, this senseless timing means that there is not even an outside chance that the building will be open for the important anniversary next year. That renovation is both necessary and long-overdue, is not in question. But having missed so many planned dates to start the work, would it not have been logical to delay this by a mere twelve months more in order to allow access to the building when, inevitably, musicians will flock to Hungary’s capital to celebrate Liszt’s birthday next year? It may be a little shabby, but the Zeneakadémia is hardly in danger of imminent collapse. Meanwhile, the unsolved problem of where the institution might move to during the renovation period seems to have been solved. An office block at 25, Űllöi út, between the Museum of Applied Arts and Kálvin tér, and which once housed the country’s Standards Office, will become the temporary home of the Academy.

The vexed question for those working and studying there – for there is no point here in enumerating the countless shortcomings of an office block for the teaching of music – is quite how temporary this sojourn is likely to be. The reason cited for every problem in Hungary is a lack of money – and there is no question that the renovation of the Academy will be a costly affair. However, as with many other large-scale projects in the country, the EU has provided funding. Yet only this week, the Wall Street Journal commented on the stance of Hungary’s present government towards the outside world, stating that: Mr. Orban, who took office in late May after a landslide election victory, has made it clear that he believes Hungary can survive without more IMF and EU aid. There remain, then, two critical questions: Is the Zeneakadémia already in possession of the money earmarked for its renovation? And, if they are, what will be the situation if – as seems to happen as a matter of course with such things – the designated sum is insufficient, and more money must be found?

Hungary is strewn with half-finished building and renovation projects which bear the stars of the EU flag, promising a secure source of capital that will see the job finished - the fourth metro line and Margit híd to mention just the two most obvious. If additional finance is required for these or other works (which will now need to be raised nationally), one need not speculate long on the relative priority that will be given to a music academy against a bridge or an underground line.
The 150th anniversary of the founding of the Zeneakadémia as a teaching institution, is in 2025….