Entering Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Railway Station) in Budapest I like to walk about 20 meters into the main hall and look up at the Arrivals/Departures board. Here is where the list of trains and their routes are displayed. I habitually avoid the arrivals side of the board which I find deeply depressing for some strange reason. Conversely, the departures always fill me with hope, of a new adventure, a new place, a way to both dream and at the same time quell the restlessness that is forever threatening to propel me once again into the middle of nowhere. I am only interested in those departures that go to places I have never been.
Reading the destinations of the soon to be departing trains, Cegled and Szeged, Brasov and Bucharest, Miskolc and Monor, these names capture my imagination. Cegled brings to mind its stately red brick station, Szeged the colorful eclecticism of its sparkling Belvaros, Brasov is code for Saxons, Bucharest for Ceaucescu, while the name Miskolc seems steely, an anachronistic synonym for heavy industry and Monor either means “I don’t know” or “I’ve never been.” My favorite route on the board is the Airport-Debrecen-Zahony train. This is one I’ve been on many times, but never managed to make it to the last stop. Zahony is the final stop, both literally and figuratively, not just for that route, but for trains in Hungary. Zahony is tucked into Hungary’s northeastern corner, just south of the Tisza River and the Ukraine. The name Zahony is one that many travelers have come to know, but only for a couple of hours. It is memorable only as a jumping off point to the wilder east. It is here in Zahony where the EU ends and a whole other world begins. Here is the last gasp of the Latin script, cross the Tisza and the words are scrawled in Cyrillic. Zahony has become a point of abrupt transition created by the hand of geo-politics. An invisible line drawn by “experts” in smoky Parisian conference rooms nearly a century ago following the First World War, demarcated the border and destined Zahony as a point of transit. It is said that geography is destiny, but with the rise of the nation state geo-politics became destiny. A place where everything changes because the powers that be decided so. Zahony is where several rail lines cross and where travelers also cross the border. No one comes to Zahony to stay, it is a place where many go and almost everyone leaves.
I find myself sitting around aimlessly in the evenings thinking of Zahony. I really have no idea why? I know that if I did visit, it would just be to cross the border and then it would fade for good into that endless litany of places that I can never quite remember. I imagine Zahony dark and downtrodden, filled with a surfeit of smugglers, moneylenders and petty criminals. A city pockmarked with social-realist architecture, a few blocks of high rise flats and a populace either waiting on deliverance, death or a way out. I hope to someday make it to Zahony, hop off the train, take a long glance at the place, but not chance a walk around town, then transit on into the Ukraine. It is said that in the 1820’s the famous Austrian diplomat Prince Klemens Von Metternich once stated that “Asia begins at the Landstrasse” the royal highway leading east out of Vienna towards Hungary. Maybe two hundred years ago that was true, but today perhaps Asia begins at the crossing of the Tisza in Zahony where the traveler then enters the Ukraine. A different language, a different alphabet, different politics and different people all await, a new world revealing itself in all its dissimilarity. This is Europe, but not quite. Here is Asia, but not yet. It is nowhere and everywhere. Maybe that is why I want to go to Zahony and beyond it.