NORTH ADAMS — When the attacks in Brussels happened, I received some emails of concern for our safety. People knew we were in some European city beginning with a "B."
It was Budapest, actually, nowhere near Brussels, but that didn't mean the train station the day of and after wasn't swarming with stormtrooper-looking guys with compact semi-automatic weapons and very grim faces. It was. But a tough place like Budapest doesn't wither. There were still plenty of early morning beer drinkers waiting for their trains.
After what Budapest has been through, I have no doubt that were even the worst to happen now, it would get through it with dignity. Hungary was taken and occupied in World War II, then liberated by the Russians, who never left. Hungarians tried to kick them out in 1956. It was an amazing effort, but a failed one, and it wasn't until communism fell everywhere else in 1989 that it was truly free.
To look around the city, I marveled simultaneously at how far away that grim world seemed, and how closely it still loomed in the background. It's a beautiful city, but with nooks and crannies revealing wear and tear from its tumultuous history.
And there are many attractions in Budapest that help the dark decades unfold. One of my favorites, the House of Terror Museum, specifically documents that era, housed within a building that gives you the chance to walk the space that was once occupied daily by Nazis, the Hungarian-equivalent Arrow Cross Party and the communist secret police. It was the scene of much torture over the decades.
There are walls of photos of the victims who found their ends in that building, as well as video interviews of those who came out alive. And there are scores of photos of people who collaborated and worked in that building. Some are still alive.
Every time I saw an elderly old lady, it occurred to me that she had probably lived as a child under the Nazis, then grew up and lived as an adult under the communists. All the lovely restaurants and bars, and the lively young people, can't change what those old ladies came through. They watched the revolution unfold as a teenager, knew people who disappeared into the building that now houses the museum.
These old ladies are tougher than me. They're tougher than anyone I know. Tougher than any of the posturing dudes with their open-carry nonsense. Tougher than anyone bashing protesters at Trump rallies. There they are, despite the march of fascism and authoritarianism, going about their business — buying groceries, taking their dogs for a walk, chatting with their neighbors, stopping for a cup of tea at a cafe.
As the United States struggles with fear fascism, terror, government overreach, campaigns of misinformation, hostility between citizens and authorities, this was poignant. We are currently looking down our own abyss.
I was reminded of another aspect of the world we careen toward when I visited Memento Park, a sculpture park on the city's outskirts. Unlike most former Iron Curtain countries, Hungary saved some of the overwhelming and absurd statues that furthered the Soviet agenda within daily life, pushing a manipulated populist view that living under Big Brother is something to celebrate.
These are the mundane icons of totalitarianism, but we mustn't confuse them for the evil faces of the future. The past is not a surefire guide for the future faces of totalitarianism. Ours will — and do — look much different from Nazis and Soviets.
We won't recognize them until it is too late because we are too busy whining and scoffing and turning on each other. Hungary was taken by forces beyond its borders. What's going to be our excuse?
Contact John Seven at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven.