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Continental Crossroads

East greets West as Hungary's history-rich capital embraces the future

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Hernadi, the oil company chairman, admires Koka’s brashness. "When I was as young as Koka, I also thought I could accomplish any task," he tells me. "But now I am 45, and trying to change the way government operates would be too much of a shock for me." Hernadi grew up 30 miles northwest of the capital, on the outskirts of Esztergom, a cathedral town where his father was a veterinarian. Recently, Hernadi bought a choice residential site on a hill facing Esztergom Cathedral. He then informed his wife, who is a Budapest native, that he wanted to retire to his hometown. "She told me, 'No way,'" Hernadi says. "That is how I realized that I had become a Budapester."

On my last day in the city, I attend a traditional Hungarian dinner, prepared by my youngest friend in Budapest, Judit Mako, 28, a press aide in the office of the prime minister. The meal, she told me, would not consist of the beef goulash with heavy, tomato-based sauce that most foreigners associate with Hungarian cooking. We meet to shop early on a Saturday morning at Central Market Hall, overlooking the Danube. The exquisite wrought-iron-and-glass structure, built in 1895, is almost as big as Budapest's main train station.

Mako suggests we first have breakfast at a small bar on the mezzanine. We order langos—flat, puffy bread with either garlic or a cheese-and-cream topping. Over strong coffee, we peer down at crowds of shoppers, and I am reminded of a touching vignette in Kertesz's most recent novel, Liquidation (2003), which also takes place at Central Market Hall. The main character, known only as B., waits his turn to buy vegetables. His former lover, Sarah, shopping nearby, sees him with his hands clasped behind his back. "She sneaked up behind him and suddenly slipped her hand into B.'s open palm," writes Kertesz. "Instead of turning around (as Sarah had intended), B. had folded the woman's hand tenderly, like an unexpected secret gift, in his warm, bare hand, and Sarah had felt a sudden thrill of passion from that grip...." The love affair resumes.

I follow Mako through the crowded aisles as she selects produce for her wicker shopping basket. At one stand she buys cauliflower, onions, garlic and potatoes; at another, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes; at a third, kohlrabi, parsnips, turnips and cabbage. Last, but not least, she selects paprikas, the Hungarian peppers that are the essential seasonings of Hungarian cuisine. Mako buys fiery green paprikas and also a sweet, red, powdered variety.

Her three-room apartment, on the eastern outskirts of the city, has a view of the Buda Mountains beyond a green plain and thick forest. When I arrive toward sunset, I encounter a boisterous procession of neighbors—women dressed in traditional, brightly colored skirts and men wearing black suits and hats, singing and dancing as a violinist plays gypsy music. An elderly woman tells me they are celebrating the local grape harvest and offers me sweet, freshly made wine.

Mako takes two hours to prepare dinner. Most of the vegetables and a capon go into a soup. A young-hen stew, colored delicately red by the powdered paprika, is served with homemade noodles. The slivers of green paprika are so pungent that my eyes swell with tears. For dessert, Mako sets out a poppy-seed pudding with vanilla cream and raisins. Lingering over Hungarian cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, the guests talk politics—the tightly contested recent elections in Germany and the expanding European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004.

One dinner guest, a young German lawyer married to a Budapester, says he has no intention of returning to Germany. Another, a French marketing executive who has spent two months as Mako's houseguest, has become so taken with the city she has decided to learn Hungarian and look for a job here. Mako counts herself lucky to have been born in an era of great opportunity—and to be in Budapest. "I wouldn't want to live anyplace else," she says.

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