You see them everywhere, seated at the expensive cafes along the Danube making deals in the lobby of the Atrium Hyatt, handing their Mercedeses and BMWs to tuxedoed parking attendants.
At night they go to places like the Nautilus nightclub and restaurant, which is made entirely out of fish tanks. They have whiskey surrounded by tropical fish that swim under their feet and over their heads, and eat such things as blinis with caviar and octopus Provencal from gold plates. They pay with large-denomination deutschemarks and speak English with the waiters, dipping into Hungarian only when absolutely necessary, in the marble toilet where the attendant speaks only the demotic.
They are the nouveaux riches of Hungary, and they've been sprouting like overnight mushrooms in the frontier feeling that's overtaken Budapest since the Communists fell.
New glass-and-marble buildings are going up, ancient empire restaurants are being restored to their former glory by New York chefs, outdoor stands groan with exotic fruit, taxis are everywhere, and prices are comparable with Paris and Tokyo.
Hungarian women are dressed both fashionably and provocatively, sporting anything from flesh-colored lycra and black brassieres to designer outfits straight from Rome and Paris.
A friend of mine, a historian, once a popular intellectual with a large readership, told me that her entire office has been following with great interest the fortunes of her brother-in-law who started with a vegetable stand in 1990 and now owns two mini-marts, two fruit stands and a laundromat.
In the two short years since the grocer got rich, the once-famous intellectuals who helped bring down the Communist government have gone from esteem and sufficiency to neglect and shabbiness. Their salaries, like those of other professionals, and of workers in state-owned factories, are barely enough to live on. They watch, with increasing ironic wonder, the pathetic sales of their once-influential books and the shrinking of their audiences.
This isn't exactly what they had in mind when they overthrew the regime. They knew that some people would have to be sacrificed. They just didn't know it would be themselves.
Andrei Codrescu is editor of Exquisite Corpse.