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Visitors who refer to Hungary as a Balkan country risk getting a lecture on how this small, landlocked nation of just over ten million people differs from "all those Slavs". Hungary was likened by the poet Ady to a "river ferry, continually travelling between East and West, with always the sensation of not going anywhere but of being on the way back from the other bank"; and its people identify strongly with the West while at the same time displaying a fierce pride in themselves as Magyars - a race that transplanted itself from Central Asia into the heart of Europe.
Any contradiction between nationalism and cosmopolitanism is resolved by what the Scottish expatriate Charlie Coutts called the Hungarian "genius for not taking things to their logical conclusion". Having embarked on reforming state socialism long before Gorbachev, Hungary made the transition to multi-party democracy without a shot being fired, while the removal of the iron curtain along its border set in motion the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of Communism has hastened the spread of glossy western capitalism, and on arrival in Budapest your first impressions will be of a fast-developing and prosperous nation. However, there is another side to post-Communist Hungary, and beyond the capital and Lake Balaton living standards have fallen sharply amongst many people, for whom the transition to democracy has brought very mixed blessings indeed
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