Back in Hungary

In January 2001 we returned to Hungary, this time to settle there. A month later I wrote this letter to friends and family back home. However, things didn’t work out as we planned and six months later we were back in New Zealand.

We return. Two and half years ago we left Hungary and returned to our home in New Zealand. Time passes, life is lived, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. But the call from a distance shore remains and insists upon an answer. In our quietest moments, it calls the most loudly. We can not ignore it and so we return.

We return to the town of Vác, a town some 30-odd kilometres north of Budapest, by the Danube. Our apartment is a stone’s throw from the one we lived in. during our last stay. The instinct for the familiar is strong indeed.

So, people ask, “What is like now?” “What is different from the last time you were here, what is the same”? Let me try to answer these questions although after a month or so, perhaps the real answers to these questions will take longer to reveal themselves.

We arrive at Ferihegy airport recently upgraded and capacity increased. Klara and the children stand in the line for those with Hungarian passports, while I in the line for those with visas. The lines move, naturally, at different speeds. Soon it is Klara’s turn and she reaches the front of the line. I see that she explaining that her husband is a different queue and asks could the family go through Immigration together. “Of course”, the official says and Klara motions me to come over. In a thrice we are through and only have Customs to face before our arrival is complete. I can not but help think back to last time we arrived in 1997 and the young, unfriendly immigration official who seemed to take ages to process our official entry in Hungary. Some things have changed for the better.

The town square, the center of Vác remains unchanged. The baroque architecture of the buildings is as it has been for over 200 years. It is perfectly possible to look at paintings and drawings of Vác from the late 17th century and easily recognise places and buildings that exist today. The only hint of modernity is a few television aerials on a some rooftops. There are no glaring neon signs, no overhead power cables, no telephone poles to blot the town square. This is as it was, and as it should be.

As I walk around the streets of this inner part of the town, I see signs of change, signs of growth. Here and there old houses are being renovated, their ancient bricks and roof slates carted away, revealing rough-hewn rafters and joists. These are replaced with new brick and plaster, wood fresh from the timber mills, clean and straight, new, solid doors, freshly painted and securely locked. There is a sense of momentum here I think, of things getting better. Some things are changing.

One of our first trips is to one of the many new hypermarkets that continue to sprout up all over Hungary. These massive places are a combination of a large supermarket, a large department store, hardware store, music shop and, well, just about anything else. The checkouts number sixty or more and the helpers scoot around on roller-blades so large is the distance they must travel. If people get lost and separated in these huge places, they call each on their mobile phones and are soon reunited. Being a weekend, it is packed and busy and bustling. There is a sense of momentum here too. We compare prices. Yes, there is momentum there too! By and large the prices are similar to those in New Zealand but people, like people everywhere, like to buy things and there is no shortage of people buying. For some people, things are getting better.

But imagine if you will that you have wings and you can soar above the earth and into the sky. Let us leave the town square of Vác and fly south along the Danube, over the new subdivisions that are opening up north of Budapest, until we come to the edge of the city, and the housing estates of Újpest. We peer into a 10th story window where an old lady, sits at the small table in her small kitchen warming herself by the stove alone and sad, and worrying about how she will survive until the next pension day. She cannot call her daughter because it is the middle of the day, the most expensive time to call, and besides her daughter only has a mobile phone and that its even more expensive to call. Flying further south we reach the center of the city, a few blocks from the Váci utca we will see an old man sleeping in the subway, his body warmed only by the cheap brandy he managed to scrounge. Soaring above the city, we reach the IX and XIX districts, more housing estates and this time we see a young man lying on his bed, in the middle of the day, stoned out of his mind, listening to dance music, loudly, unconcerned about disturbing the neighbours or that he has no job. Leave the city limits if you will and travel to a small village and you will still find the sad, the lonely and the poor. Some things never change, the shadows are always here.

We walk the few minutes through the town square, down cobbled-stone streets until we reach the Danube, the mighty Duna. The river, massive and calm, powerful and wide, flows inexorably, relentlessly, southwards. The trees on either side of the river are winter bare and motionless, the Visegrád hills to the west are lightly covered in snow. We walk slowly, arm in arm, under sweeping grey skies beside this “turbulent, wise and great” river, as József Attila wrote in his epic poem. There is a magic here that draws us to return, and live, once again, by the Danube.

Vác, Hungary
February 2001

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