Life, liberty, and the pursuit of shopping

Europe's biggest mall opens today in Budapest, a city that hasundergone a shopping revolution since communism collapsed.

It is not what one would expect from the land of tasteful Liszt. Four months ahead of schedule (but just in time for Christmas), Europe's biggest shopping mall opens here today in a blaze of hype so fierce that shoppers would be well advised to wear protective clothing.

Sorry, did I say "shopping mall"?

"This will be more than a shopping center; it will be a whole new city center," says Otto Laszlo, spokesman for the property developer who has built this leviathan. With 400 shops, 14 cinemas, a Hilton hotel, 2,000 trees, 200,000 flowering plants, and a 60-foot-high replica of Niagara Falls, you can see what he means.

The Westend City Center is the latest eruption of mall mania in a city that has undergone a shopping revolution in the 10 years since communism collapsed. A dozen or so glitzy new multilevel shopping centers have opened already, and developers have filed applications to build 50 more.

Consumerism is nothing new in Hungary, says political analyst Laszlo Lengyel. "It wasn't freedom of thought that loosened the [Communist] regime here; it was McDonald's and Coca-Cola," he says with a wry smile. "People needed democracy in order to be able to complain that there wasn't enough Coke in the shops."

Nor has it taken long for Budapest consumers to adopt the jaded attitudes of their American and West European counterparts. The Westend center is putting on African drummers, Indian dancers, Irish folk fiddlers, Greek pipers, and a home-grown rock 'n' roll band to try to attract shoppers to its grand opening. Another mall opened recently to the sight of a man dressed as a French Foreign Legionnaire being lowered from a helicopter on the back of a giant fluffy giraffe.

Just two weeks before it was due to open, the 10-level Westend mall was still a building site. Admiring its elegantly sculpted curves that stretched into the distance, Mr. Laszlo was reminded, he said, of "something out of 'Star Wars.' " The scream of circular saws, the banging of hammers, and the blaze of arc lights through clouds of dust certainly recalled the construction of the Death Star.

But the 10,000 construction workers toiling night and day would ensure that all was finished on time, Laszlo was confident - another sign of the changing times behind the old Iron Curtain.

And when the mall opens, it will be a maze of marble and mirrors, one shiny chic boutique after another lining up in an international roll call of fashion: Nike, Next, Esprit, Yves Rocher, Mango, Swatch....

Laszlo's company, jointly owned by a Hungarian entrepreneur and American property magnate Peter Munk, is planning to build a half dozen more such emporia in Central and Eastern Europe, in cities whose names have not, hitherto, been synonymous with mammon: Kiev, Warsaw, Bratislava, and Bucharest are on the drawing board.

These ambitious plans testify to the growing number of consumers across the region who have disposable zlotys, forints, or crowns to spend.

Like Belint Turcsanyi, a young heating engineer, who was hanging out at the Mammut Mall (which is Hungarian for Mammoth Mall) the other day after a college class, window-shopping for shoes. He goes to the mall, he says, partly "because I can find everything I want in one place." But like young people elsewhere in the world, he enjoys it as "a good place to come with your friends."

If he wanted to, Mr. Turcsanyi could easily spend the equivalent of a public-sector worker's monthly salary on a pair of shoes - a point not lost on a dignified old lady resting on one of the wooden garden benches set along Mammut's walkways.

A pensioner who would identify herself only by her first name, Magdolna buys "what I can afford, not what I need," and she was in the mall only because it is a shortcut home from the discount stores where she does her shopping.

She is not impressed by the new shops or by the cornucopia of goods their windows display. "Small shops are much more intimate," she says. "These places are faceless, but because the malls are so aggressive, the little shops are dying out."

She even sees them as a social threat. "Young people today have become irresponsible," she argues. "We were all young once, but now they don't want to grow up and start families, which is their obligation to the nation. Hanging about these malls makes them forget what they should be doing."

That argument wouldn't wash with Yvette Stam, a fashionably dressed young woman who says she goes to one mall or another most days, mostly just to window-shop. She knows exactly what malls are all about. "Maybe you aren't especially looking for anything," she explains. "But when you are here, things jump out at you."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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