Scenes from Budapest, Párizsi Nagy Áruház

Parizsi Nagy Aruhaz, Protests before Párizsi Nagy Áruház, Paris Department Store, ink drawing
«Protests before Párizsi Nagy Áruház, Andrássy út 39», 2012
Signs: “There will be a Hungarian Republic”, “Enough!”, “Solidarity”, “Democracy”, “Orbán, get out!”

Nothing betrayed the commotion outside the Alexandra bookstore of the Párizsi Nagy Áruház to its visitors but the assistants who had halted their rounds and stood motionless by the upper-floor windows. Arms crossed, their faces illuminated by the dancing lights on the trees of Andrássy Avenue, they reflected the shadows of thousands passing beneath their gaze. And as the music and chants grew more distinct, one could not, even in the opulent interiors of Budapest's own “Parisian Department Store”, one simply could not escape the sense that something was in the air.

Monday evening of January 2, wave upon wave of protesters rolled down the elegant thoroughfare towards the State Opera, where the prime minister and his coterie were holding a gala in honor of the country's new constitution, passed by his party’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The numbers of the opposition did not cease to grow into the night, and already by half past seven had congested quite a number of side streets, including the “Broadway” of Pest, Nagymező utca, as well as Liszt Ferenc tér.

The state television channel would later air footage of nearly-empty streets along with isolated skirmishes between young ruffians and the largely peaceful congregation, the former clad in black leather, and who had pushed themselves into the crowds to stir trouble and make Nazi salutes. But as I had seen it from above and later down in the streets, the procession was by and large solemn and grave, distancing themselves from the troublemakers with “Nazis haza!” (Nazis go home!).

What is a constitution that restrains the powers of the constitutional court, the speakers asked, that muzzles the free press, the judicial branch, the independence of the central bank? What is to be done with a prime minister who strips the country of the word “Republic” from its official name, invokes St Stephen and God to bless the Hungarians? Do “Heroes, Kings and Saints,” the exhibit Viktor Orbán opened at the Hungarian National gallery on the same day, impassion him more than the economic fears of Hungarian citizens today?

Parizsi Nagy Aruhaz, Lotz-terem Lotz Hall Bookcafé ink drawing
«Lotz-terem», 2012

In the Lotz-terem, the neo-Renaissance jewel of the Párizsi Nagy Áruház, where I was sitting at the start of the mobilization, a piano tinkled As Time Goes By. The artist of the hall’s vaulted ceiling, Károly Lotz, must have been dreaming of the Sistine Chapel when he painted the gilded frescoes in 1884. Between the arcades, in place of Michelangelo’s prophets and sibyls, he had depicted men and women hammering, measuring, drawing, cutting, building— in a fit of national glorification in crimson lake and cobalt blue. Sipping hot chocolate in such a place, one could feel the effervescence of those years of monarchy and empire.

The neo-Renaissance palace on Andrássy út 39 that was refashioned into a department store of Secessionist expression owed its conception to the wealth gleaned from such an empire, the very same that had erected the State Opera, its ceiling also signed by Lotz. On that evening, the audience of the prime minister’s gala and the visitors of the Lotz-terem Bookcafé were gazing up at the same inherent tension— burgeoning nationalism rendered in the cosmopolitan aesthetic of an imperial multiethnic constellation.

The Párizsi Nagy Áruház and its Lotz-terem did not offer the circumstances to contemplate such paintings after the Second World War, when it was converted for some years to a book storage warehouse, no doubt at the time the finest of its kind in the world.

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