One of the most atmospheric places in Budapest is the central market. Sited right beside one of the Danube bridges, it is testimony to Austro-Hungarian organisation: clean, orderly and stuffed to bursting with everything a market should have. Hundreds of salamis, whole and sliced; raw meat and poultry, neatly butchered; all manner of baked goods, with strudels in dozens of varieties, colourful fruit and vegetables jostling for space, and escalators to an upper storey with a prolific choice of bars, cafes and souvenirs.
But Budapest central market is also known to erstwhile cold warriors for something else: when Margaret Thatcher visited Hungary – then the East bloc's flagship reformer – in 1984 she did the rounds of the stalls in her capacity as Iron Lady and patron saint of the market economy.
The visit is immortalised in photographs which are proudly displayed at one of the stalls she visited. Or so it is said. I spent a couple of hours going from stall to stall asking where I could find the photographs of Thatcher. Oh dear, it turns out that memories are wearing thin. No one I asked who looked under 30 seemed to have a clue. An older man told me it was near the front entrance, to the left, beside a baked goods stall. There, the women assistants, after a hectic conflab, told me that it was off the main aisle, by a vegetable stall. Someone else directed me to a photography stand; another to a postcard kiosk.
Those I consulted, I should stress, were all stall-holders, not tourists, and some of them displayed promotional photos of producers and shoppers, many of whom bore an eerie resemblence to Mrs Thatcher in "sensible housewife" mode. In my two hours, I bought some paprika, both sweet and hot varieties, with a little wooden spoon, some poppy seed strudel, an English-language paper, postcards, cherries and raspberries. And I would have bought a couple of Christmas tree decorations if my supply of Hungarian forints had not by then run out. But I still hadn't found the photos of Mrs Thatcher. Her visit may not be as locked in the memory of the market as it was, but the free trading she championed there is still going strong.
Left helpless in Hungary
My passage through the market was not helped by not knowing Hungarian, and when people tell you not to worry, because most Hungarians speak English or German, that's only true so long as you are asking standard tourist questions. If your enquiry is different, you can be met with total incomprehension.
I haven't felt so helpless since I first went to Helsinki more than 30 years ago. Helsinki, as more recent visits have confirmed, is now admirably tourist-friendly. In Budapest I was pathetically grateful for global brands – at least you know from the labels on the door what a particular establishment is selling – and for such internationalisms as "kamera kontrol" on the road approach from the airport. But maybe that's just intended for speed-merchant foreigners.