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The Hungarian Miracle: A 21st Century Tale

[From the Budapest Week Archive Classics]

By Dork Zygotian

Budapest, January 6, 2024.

One can hardly pick up a newspaper in the early 21st century without once again being hit with some lead article about "The Hungarian Miracle." Every second-rate nation, it seems, from South Guyana to the Cornish Republic, seems to want to emulate the astounding boom years that made Hungary Europe's economic and cultural leader in the late twentieth century.

The world's wealth sits in fabled "Hungarian bank" accounts, safe and sound in one of the world's most stable economic climates. "Hungarian efficiency" is the byword in today's economic world. Europolitical trends show an increasing tendancy to emulate Hungary's calm and cool headed political life. "The Magyar Miracle" they call it.

Even the man on the street has gone Magyar-crazy, dressing in the latest Budapest styles, frequenting pricey Hungarian style presszo bars, going out to expensive Hungarian sausage bistros. In any European capital fashionable women simply won't step out unless accoutered in the latest Hungarian waitress boot, and ever since the aging Sting rejuvenated his failing career by releasing a CD of lakodalmi rock with Lagzi Lajcsi, one simply doesn't dream of going to a London or Berlin disco dressed in anything else but an authentic pastel pink jogging suit, swinging the de riguer mercedes keys on a fox tail key chain.

How did it all start? One minute Hungary was just one of many minor players on the periphery of EC action at the end of the 20th century, and the next minute one couldn't pick up a magazine or newspaper without reading about some astounding Hungarian success. Overnight, it seemed, everybody from Lisbon to Oslo was taking private lessons in Hungarian language, queuing up at the bar to quaff astronomically priced Kôbanyai beer and Unicum, and placing down payments on expensive new Hungarian cars like the sleek Ganz Vizsla 4000, or it's shaggier, trendier cousin, the Puli, a favorite among the young. Vacationers flocked to the Balaton from Tokyo, Sydney, and Paris, while the less well heeled emulated Europe's trend setters at less prestigious Hungarian vacation spots such as Lake Velenc or the Bánki Tó. American computer companies vied for space with Germans and Danes to locate their companies' headquarters in the Silicon Plains around Debrecen and Nyiregyháza.

But there is little chance that these second liners could ever really emulate Hungary's brilliant rise to power and affluence in the first years of the 21st century. It was done with a peculiarly Hungarian combination of expertise, organisational ability, plain old luck, and a command of that most Magyar of institutionbs, the kis kapu. The Little Gate Explosion, they called it.

It began inauspiciously enough. Hungary's 1996 World expo was a dissapointing affair, a dusty cement fairgrounds crowded with sausage trucks and polyester sweater stands. Little interest was paid until one sleepy afternoon when an unannounced Japanese trade delegation, dissapointed and bored with their obligatory tour of the Early Hungarian Literature Pavillion, decided to break for lunch. Huddled in the restaurant of the Tolna County exhibit, they decided to try the fish for which Paks is, nowadays, so justly famous.

Unfortunately the cook was well into his third bottle of wine for the day, it being already almost noon, and the fillets of Danube catfish arrived at the table without having been cooked. The ravenous execs from Osaka brushed off the apologies of their shocked Hungarian hosts, and proceeded to devour their catfish raw, sahimi style.

Hungary has never been the same since.

Japan has always been one of the world's largest importers of fish. As the first tantalizing tingle of the Danube catfish' toxicity numbed the lips of the Japanese trade delegation, normally staid execs began to converse excitedly. Figures were hastily jotted on notepads. Wireless telephones buzzed with the chatter of business Japanese as the delegation’s Hungarian hosts looked on, bewildered.

The Japanese are inordinately fond of fugu, a small, and toxic, puffer fish served in tiny portions at the most exclusive of sushi bars. Here was harcsa, a fish just as poisonously exciting as fugu, yet it grew to the size of a Ford maxi-van at the bottom of the Danube. By the meal's end contracts had been signed which set the international market for fish on its head. Billions of dollars worth of pricey harcsa and carp were being exported to Asia within months, providing the Hungarian economy with the cash jolt it needed to jump start the economy. Soon Hungary was the world's largest exporter of fish, and the world stood amazed as the little landlocked nation elbowed Norway, Canada, Peru, and other competitors aside in a brief and successful trade war.

No sooner had Hungary cornered the world's fish market than the wily business cabals on Vaci utca turned their attentions to other markets. By 1998 the world had had enough of vegetarianism, non-smoking, and anti-alchohol campaigns. Even the manufacture of such products had been banned in the EC nations. Hungary began to export larger and larger quantities of Sopianae cigarettes, Cabinet brandy, and Zalái cold cuts to a hungry Western European market, tired of being told what it could or could not eat. Soon the demand for a fresh pack of Kossuth cigarettes pushed the price up to luxury levels, and a single debreceni kolbász in one of Paris' moderate restaurants could set one back a week's wages, after the disastrous pork pestis that virtually ended West European pork exports in 2003.

With Hungary being the source of so much of the world's consumer luxury, businesses began to relocate their European operations to the Pannonian plain. Top execs of the largest multinationals vied for the chance at a Székesfehérvár posting, with its promise of unlimited salami and Unicum.

Tourism followed in its wake, especially after the discovery that Hungary's thermal spas and sulfuric medicinal waters actually did cure every known disease! For years no one had listened to the Hungarian medical establishment. "Quacks" they had been called. Now no one was laughing, least of all the growing Hungarian economy or the Hungarian consumer. Parisian shopgirls in the most exclusive shops reffered to their Hungarian customers in hushed tones as the "donnez me deuxes" referring to the habit of the average Hungarian shopper to habitually buy at least two of the most expensive perfumes or designer creations. At Hegyeshalom the Audis and Mercedes lined up for miles during the summer months, waiting to enter Hungary, eager for the pricey good life that beckoned just behind the customs station with it's bright sign "Welcoming in Hungary: Thank you for Smoking!"

Hungary's position is now quite well cemented, and although other nations were surprised by the phenomenal success story that characterized those heady days at the turn of the century, no one today would have it any other way. Improved relationships with its neighbors meant that, after Hungary, Romania and Slovakia enjoyed the second and third highest living standards in Europe, and the successor states that followed in the wake of the Yugoslav and Russian civil wars quickly sent for Hungarian advice on rebuilding their economies. The entire region became known as "The Peaceful East" an island of tolerance and prosperity which was the envy of the developing western world.

It was but a small step from private taxis to becoming the economic giant of today, but Hungary's model has brought us a 21st century of peace, prosperity, and pork, a world we hardly could have imagined a few decades ago. Truly this is the best of all worlds. As the grand old man of Hungarian writers, Gabor Vajda, wrote in his magnificent opus Hungary and me: a personal view, "That Hungary is great was no secret to those of my generation. It was merely a step, yea, a private taxi ride to prosperity that proved our worth to the world. The sweet dream of Hungary's success rivaled any acid trip I had ever taken. Eljen a Magyar!"

Rick E. Bruner | Budapest Nostalgia | Apr 2, 2004 | Comments (1)

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