City Life: Budapest: The new opiate of the masses

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The Independent Online
WITH ITS imposing chrome and marble entrance, spacious plazas filled with greenery and ranks of spouting fountains, Budapest's West End city centre shopping complex has the appearance of a temple, built in homage to eastern Europe's newest belief system: consumerism.

Nowhere have Marx and Engels been more firmly replaced by Marks and Spencer than in downtown Budapest, where the shopping complex, which opened on November 12, is the biggest mall between Munich and Moscow.

About half the foreign investment that has flowed into post-Communist eastern Europe has come to Hungary, and half of that has arrived in Budapest. The Hungarian capital is racing ahead of Prague and Warsaw in the competition to become the region's hub.

Budapest already has several shopping malls, as well as giant supermarkets run by British and French chains. But such is the demand for more places to spend and acquire that the West End centre has risen from its foundations in little more than a year. The six-hectare site has 400 shops, a 14- screen cinema and a Hilton hotel. The developer, TriGranit, says it has chosen Budapest as the site for the next century's generation of shopping centres.

Many locals feel that the architecture is designed to overawe shoppers into believing they have entered a world of plenty. Viktoria Kiss, a teacher, says: "It's the same principle as the way the Catholic church built very ornate massive baroque churches in the 16th century, that were built to astonish people with the power of the church. When you go into these shopping malls that are so giant, they have the same effect, to amaze you, but with the power of capitalism instead of Catholicism."

Western shops have at least introduced a service economy ethos into the region. Employees had no incentive under Communism to serve customers who, with their demands for often non-existent goods, disrupted the day's routine of gossiping, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Or as the joke went about the housewife who goes shopping in a Communist- era department store: "I would like to buy some fish." "Can't help you." "But this is the food department - why can't you serve me?" "Because this is the counter where we don't have any meat. Over there is where they don't have any fish."

Looking at the awesome size of the West End centre, it's hard to imagine that little more than a decade ago people would queue round the block for bananas. Now, if you have the money, there is no need to queue for anything.

Many do not have the money - a third of the population lives on or below the poverty line. Some older people fear that the malls could threaten the old-style markets and small local shops, which are more personal as well as considerably cheaper. Stallholders come in from the countryside, selling organic meat and vegetablesstill smeared with soil.

Margit Roczey, 78 says: "These giant places are so impersonal, with too much light and music, and there is no time to chat with people there. At the market you know the peasants who bring in their produce from the countryside. You can talk to them and bargain. It's lively and there is a good social atmosphere."

But as Hungarians and their neighbours are learning, the capitalist behemoth is unstoppable. Massive new shopping centres are on the drawing board for Bucharest, Bratislava and Zagreb.