Statues and Poppies: Musing on nationality and identity.

His voice shakes with emotion. He stands tall but tense, his stocky body almost rigid, his moist eyes fixed on the back of the hall. The words of the poem well up from deep within him, ‘God Of Hungarians, we swear unto thee, we swear unto thee.‘ He does not have any notes, none are required, the words are imprinted deep within him. They are not spoken so much as expressed. The audience sits perfectly still, in neat little rows afternoon in a cool church hall in south Karori on a sunny Sunday afternoon. They too know the words, the emotions being expressed. Even though they have heard these words many times before, their eyes are moist too. They are half a world away from a place that they once knew of as their only home, but these words were learnt at school and at the hearth and will never leave them. ‘God Of Hungarians, we swear unto thee, we swear unto thee’ – a momentary pause, and then louder, ‘That slaves we shall no longer be!’ As these words ring out, I see the spit spark from his mouth. Even though I do not understand these words spoken in Hungarian, I sense the emotion behind them.

The reader of the poem is a young man, strong and muscular, with dark hair and eyes, his hands hard and strong. He has a toughness, a no-nonsense air about him. and it is no surprise to learn he is currently working as a welder although this is not his trade. At first glance it is hard for me to imagine him ever knowing any poems, let alone reciting one in public like this.

The day is March 15th, one of the national days of Hungary, the day Hungarians celebrate the uprising in 1848 against their hated Austrian rulers. The Wellington Hungarian community has gathered to celebrate this day as Hungarians have done, in one way or another, for 150 years. They are a mixture mostly those who came here after the failed uprising in 1956, their children and their children’s children. And a new generation of arrivals seeking a new life in a New World country.

‘God of Hungarians, we swear unto thee, we swear unto thee’. He is almost shouting now. The refrain echoes around the hall. It is quiet outside, the rest of the world seemingly unaware of the drama and the tragedy spoken of inside. I can feel the vehemence . I fear he will lose control as the words rise, and rise again, the emotion seemingly overwhelming him. I fear that I too will be lost in the heat of the fervour with which he speaks. For the last time the clarion call is heard, the ardent appeal made – ‘That slaves we shall no longer be!‘ If this is poetry, it is unlike anything I have ever heard before.

We clap loudly and long, as much to release our own pent-up emotions as in appreciation for such a powerful rendition of one of Hungary’s greatest poems by its greatest poet.

That was seven years ago. Now we are living in Hungary, a nuclear family of four from New Zealand. We are here because my wife, a first generation Hungarian, and I, a fourth generation Kiwi, want our two children to experience their Hungarian heritage, to strengthen their Magyar roots. To achieve this goal we must travel to the other side of the world, away from the blue sky and green grass of New Zealand, away from home. We must travel to Hungary and spend a year there and live, as much as is possible, an ordinary Hungarian life.

For me it is also an escape. Away from the stress and dreariness of a career in the corporate world, from the computers, the tedium of endless meetings, and the pervasive and omnipresent pagers and cell-phones. Not a bad life really, just, well, it just didn’t seem to fit. A mid-life crisis I suppose you could call it.

But like all good journeys, I find myself at a different destination, some place else from where I first thought we were headed for. And that destination is a lot closer to home that I could ever have imagined.. The question that haunts me is ‘What does it mean to me to be a New Zealander?’. What does this land, this foreign soil, this different culture, tell me about my own land, my own nationality? We experience a new culture, a new life, but for me these unexpectedly raise questions about my home, my country, my identity as a New Zealander. The journey I am undertaking becomes less and less about experiencing a new culture and more and more about the mapping of internal territory, the contours of the collective self.

Different. It is a small, rather bland, seemingly innocuous word. But when people ask me about our life in Hungary and what it is like, it is the first word that comes to mind. Different. It is shorthand for saying that it is not like anything we have ever experienced before, that nearly everything, from buying a loaf of bread, to driving a car or going to a concert, is done differently here, that we must re-learn even minor daily tasks, like posting a letter, or choosing the right washing powder, that we once did almost without even thinking. Not worse or better, just different.

At the beginning we stay in a rented apartment in a large housing estate on the outskirts of Budapest. In this part of the city there must be at least sixty ten-storied apartment blocks like the one we lived in. Some of them must be over 400 metres long and many have graffiti on the ground floor walls and in the dark passage ways that hem every building. At the back and sides are the parking lots full of Ladas, Skodas and Trabants. These have a tendency to begin their day with a good rev-up at 5 o’clock in the morning a few stories below our open window. If I peer outside, the exhaust fumes make it appear there is a small fire somewhere.

On the warm summer nights the sound, and pulse, of techno-pop fills the air. Groups of teenagers sit in groups while old ladies walk their wiener dogs along the pathways, stopping to gossip and complain about the price of fruit and vegetables. Other residents lean out of their windows gazing upon life below. Our neighbours argue loudly about their money, her relatives and his drinking. The delicious smell of onion and sweet paprika cooking in lard, the starting point of many Hungarian dishes, fills the air.

On other parts of the estate there is a different feel, a different class of dog. There Dobemans and Rottweilers, every one of which seems to be male, with their ‘maleness’ gloriously evident for all to see are paraded by the young and the tough. It is best not to walk on the numerous grass areas though as they are full of dog droppings. The slowly increasing middle-class are leaving these estates,  fearing a Mad Max future. We too realise that these monuments to socialist planning are not for us, are not our place. We escape to a small town by the banks of the Danube.

Where was our place? A three bedroom house in a hilly and sunny Wellington suburb. Which ever way we looked we saw bush, trees and green hills, the landscape ever dominating. When we think about this home, the kids talk about how much they miss the back lawn, the green grass and the old swing hanging from the oak tree. I miss fish and chips and a Dim Simm from the local Chinese takeaway on a Friday night. Te papa, our place.

Among the wide, tree lined paths of the housing estate, there is a statue, a simple bust of a man on top a marble plinth. The statue is untouched by the surrounding graffiti, even the rubbish and dog droppings seem absent from its surroundings. It is a statue of Hungary’s greatest poet, Sándor Petőfi, the author of the poem I first heard on that March afternoon seven years ago. Just one word is carved in the marble, ‘Petőfi’. That’s all, it is all that is needed. Everyone knows who he is and no-one would dare deface this statue. Not here anyway.

Who was this man? By 1848, just 25 years old, he was already the greatest poet of his age, writing exquisite love poetry, popular folk tales and rousing, patriotic verse all with equal ease. The reciting of his poem, National Song, with its immortal opening line ‘Rise up, Magyar, the country calls’, on the steps of the National Museum sparked a national revolt against the ruling Hapsburgs that was eventually put down a year later, with the help of the Russian army. Petőfi died in one of the last battles, mortally wounded by a Cossack lance, his body never found. His life, and all it stands for was a potent mixture of prodigious literary talent, heroism and a rebellious but immaculate patriotism, coupled with his good fortune to die young, is now forever welded into the Hungarian national character.

Over a hundred years later, in 1956, students would gather by the banks of the Danube in front of his statue. They too would swear his same oath to the God of Hungarians and another national revolution would begin. This too would be crushed by a Russian army…

When I think of the differences between New Zealand and Hungary, I think of Petőfi’s statue nestled among the trees in this sprawling housing estate. There is such certainty here about his greatness, about his place in Hungarian history that there is no argument, bitterness or divide. Such is the importance to Hungarians of this man that there are more streets and roads named after him than anyone else. And this in a country with a propensity to honour all its heroes in such a manner. I ask myself, who in New Zealand’s history merits such a place? Who attracts such near universal agreement that a statue could be placed where ordinary people live without controversy, without fear of retribution or damage?

I begin to feel envious of Hungary and the unifying, cohesive nature of its past. I too want to feel the same way about my country, my history. Why don’t we have our own ‘Petőfi’?

His poetry, life and history, like all Hungarian poetry and history, are taught to Hungarian children from the very beginning of their school life. And now, our children are being taught this history. They attend a standard Hungarian primary school in a white, non-descript two-storied building in the middle of the housing estate. An architect would describe it, correctly, as ‘institutional’. It is surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings, like a walls of a medieval city, safe and limiting.

I drop the children off each morning and am sometimes greeted respectfully by other children. Echoes of a different time, of society where formality and class prevailed in all relationships, can be heard when children greet me with the respectful phrase that literally means ‘I kiss you’. I reply in the appropriate manner, with the informal equivalent of ‘Hello’. I catch myself being flattered by such displays of politeness, and quickly take its absence as a sign of rudeness. Sometimes though I want to depart from this script and just say, ‘Gidday‘.

Within two months our children can already recite from memory three or four Hungarian poems, which is a lot less than their contemporaries. Zsofi, the eldest, aged 10, will have to learn and memorise all nine verses of the Hungarian national anthem. I don’t even know how many verses there are in the New Zealand national anthem and nor did Zsofi when asked by her classmates.

And yet the strength of Hungarian national identity carries its own special problems. The past is not easily forgotten. It is literally all around you, especially in Budapest, in the names of the streets, in the very buildings that people see every day. Statues and memorial plaques commemorating people and events can be seen everywhere. Even when these were destroyed in the various wars and revolutions, they were immediately rebuilt and restored to their former glory. Some buildings though still show the scars of 1945 and 1956 and they can be seen in dark, narrow streets just off the main thoroughfares of Budapest. They give the city its irregularity, its inconsistency from the well-preserved tourist places. But some people never forget or forgive the past.

Walk into any bookshop, or indeed some churches, and you will find maps for sale that portray the old Hungary, the Hungary of pre-1921 before it was dismembered by the Treaty of Trianon following its siding with Germany in WWI. This ‘historic’ Hungary was three times bigger that it is today and encompassed territory that is now part of Romania, Slovakia, Ukrania, Slovenia, Croatia, Yugoslavia and even Italy. Present day Hungary sits like an island in the middle of its former glory, surrounded by countries whose foreign policy is, as one wit put it, spent working out which neighbour it hates the most. While modern Hungary outwardly looks westward, towards Brussels and Washington, there are many Hungarians who still eye their immediate neighbours and dream of former times.

These maps speak of a past, a nostalgic time when Hungary was the greatest power in this region. In my New World way I want to say, let it go, move on, forget the past, its over, look to the future. Such a past seems more like a hindrance than a benefit. But this is Europe, the land of history, and the past is not so easily forgotten. Like a rower in a boat, people here seem to look backwards to help guide them forward, turning around every so often to make sure they are on course, but all the time the past dominates their perspective.

The young are those who seem to be most eager to embrace the future or, to some, it is a case of them rejecting their past. We see them most clearly when we visit a large shopping mall, befittingly built on the site of a former Soviet army base. There is a massive Tescos supermarket selling everything from meat to Marmite. And dozens of smaller stores selling the necessities of the youth culture – CDs, designer jeans and the latest cell-phone covers. And to prove that capitalism and enterprise are truly here, there are stalls with confident, fast talking hawkers, some selling the latest TV Shop products, some selling knives that can apparently cut both steel nails and tomatoes just as easily.

Parading along the wide passage ways, just as hundred years ago their contempories paraded arm-in-arm along the wide boulevards by the Danube, are the new wealthy: solarium-tanned, dark-haired young ladies, in tight black outfits with massive platform shoes walking beside smart young men with short cropped hair, cell-phones and car keys – the bare essentials – dwarfed in their large hands and of course gold chains around their necks.

Among these throngs occasionally shuffles a pensioner or two, their large, plastic shopping bags full of fresh vegetables for tomorrow’s soup, wondering what the world is coming to. Only the ice-rink in the food court with its McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Chinese take away restaurants tell me that we are not in New Zealand any more.

If you come back on a Saturday morning the crowd changes. Then the families are out in force doing the weekly shop. Just like in New Zealand. The same crush, the same Saturday morning elation that the weekend has finally arrived mixed with the knowledge of the work still undone.

As Hungary moves rapidly into the Euro-Atlantic axis of NATO and the Europe Union, some of the old ways are pushed aside and replaced by new ways. New regulations and frameworks, the market economy become evermore embedded in everyday life. And all conforming to the ways and requirements of Hungary’s new friends. Harmonisation is the buzz word of the moment. Even new bank notes conforming to European standards, of course, are being phased in. Giant hypermarkets and shopping malls are beginning to appear on the wastelands of outer Budapest. The Stock Exchange roars along and ATMs proliferate like mushrooms – in any small town in Hungary we can instantly access our New Zealand bank account and get local currency without the flick of a bureaucrat’s eye. How times have changed!

As the song goes though, “Something’s lost and something’s gained/in living everyday“. And when Hungary gains, some fear it also losses. Many Hungarians fear the loss of national identity that its ‘transition’ or ’emergence’, to use the appropriate jargon, to a market economy brings. Suddenly the past doesn’t seem quite so bad, there was full employment and prosperity and the price of bread was cheap. All this is has now changed and a sense of loss and regret pervades the thinking of many Hungarians. For example there was a campaign organised recently against the sale of land to foreigners, a prerequisite of Hungary joining the EU, that had as its slogan “Hungarian land is not for sale!” A vain hope I’m afraid. It reminded me of when New Zealanders were worried about foreigners buying our land. Some things are the same everywhere it seems.

Hungarian Railway Timetable, 1997 Edition

Hungarian Railway Timetable, 1997 Edition

Just as New Zealand woke up in the mid-1980s to realise that we had been living in a fool’s paradise, so too did Hungary in the early 1990s. Change was inevitable, a requirement of survival and it was executed with speed and determination. Now privatisation is nearly complete, subsidies are reduced, and the market economy firmly in place. But not completely. Hungary has not yet known its Richard Prebble. Every small town and village still has its post office and there is such a network of railways that the national timetable runs to nearly 700 pages. The ‘Railways Department’ is still the nation’s largest employer. It saddens me to know that one day this too must change.

On New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day, spent far away from the warmth of a February afternoon, we do nothing special. We do not seek out the other New Zealanders in Budapest, nor do we get out our New Zealand flag carried with us all this way, nor do we play our anthem. The day passes almost without mention. Until I read of the events at Waitangi, the refusal to allow Helen Clark to speak on the marae. I feel the divide, the tears, the bitterness strongly, even being so far removed. I shrink away from them. The image of Petőfi and his untouched statue rises before me and I am sad that I can never feel the way Hungarians do about him. Home feels very far away indeed.

It didn’t feel like that when we attended an ANZAC commemoration service shortly after we arrived in Hungary. There were less than a dozen of us gathered in the small chapel in the crypt of one of Budapest’s newest churches. The New Zealand flag stood limply in the corner while we sang the hymns and the familiar words of the Anglican liturgy reverberated among the clean brick walls. We sung the National Anthem with gusto and stood around afterward drinking tea with biscuits. It felt wonderful.

But it would be some months later before the real meaning of ANZAC struck me. It was a stifling hot July afternoon in a small holiday town south of Budapest. The town is mainly made of the local version of the bach: old ramshackled, tumbling properties full of happy summer memories for all the family. The property developers have not yet moved in – Taupo it is not. As we strolled down to the lake side we walked along a dusty road beside the local railway line. There on the grass banks were hundreds of bright red poppies. I picked one and held it in my hand. It looked exactly like the ones I had bought from the old men and sturdy service personnel who stand in Lambton Quay every year. The memories flooded back, but the overwhelming sensation was that this poppy wasn’t made of paper. How strange, I thought. This was a real poppy. As I gazed at the many poppies, I realised why this flower had been chosen to represent the ANZAC tradition – it must have been a common sight in those summer months of carnage and killing.  Their vivid redness was so blood-like.

It is the colour of sacrifice.

As I stood there in silent reverie, the images of New Zealand soldiers marching and dying on this continent filled by mind. I recalled all those war memorials I had seen in every small town in New Zealand, adorned with the words ‘Lest We Forget’. Suddenly I knew why these are so important to our past, to my past. I felt such a sense of connection with the past, with the sacrifice of those New Zealanders. History came alive. At that moment, on a dusty road in the middle of Central Europe, gazing at the red poppy in my hand, I was never so proud to be a New Zealander.

(c) 1998

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