Villages Peopled By The Imagination – A Train Ride Between Gyor & Sarvar

I have always had a fondness for the obscure. The first time I became aware of this was while reading a twenty-four hundred page history (do not ask why) of the American Civil War. I enjoyed learning about each of the major campaigns, but I became fixated on the battles and skirmishes of the New Mexico campaign, an obscure theater of the war that I had never known about before. Perhaps this fondness for the obscure is what led to my interest in Eastern Europe. I am bored to death by Paris, London or Tuscany, but the idea of Budapest, Krakow and Kiev thrills me to no end. Now that I have been able to make many trips to the region, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the obscure. Mention Hungary to me and I am dreaming of the Nyirseg in the nation’s eastern extremity. Transylvania stimulates thoughts of Szekelyland. For some mysterious reason the next time I visit Ukraine, Volyhnia is at the top of my list, not for any compelling reason other than the fact that few go into this forested northwestern corner of the country. And so it goes on, give me Szekszard instead of Szeged, Kaunas over Vilnius and Novi Sad over Nis.

Rolling into obscurity

Rolling into obscurity

An Unknown Force – A Passion For Obscurity
One of the best ways I have found to fulfill my fetish for the obscure is to take a regional train through the countryside. These trains tend to stop at smaller sidings, offering a window into crumbling towns and tiny villages that dot the landscape. Places that the upwardly mobile escaped from long ago, but are still somehow hanging on despite the effects of urbanization causing long term demographic decline. In Eastern Europe such places are sometimes foreshadowed by an abandoned collective farm that looks like it lost its raison d’etre long before the Iron Curtain fell. It is in Hungary where I have been able to experience these rural settings most evocatively. These are the kind of places that no one other than their inhabitants will ever remember, but for some strange reason I am the only foreigner unlikely to ever forget them either. These proverbial wide spots in the road drift into the consciousness, hide there and then resurface, triggered by an unknown force.

On an uneventful train trip in Hungary during the early spring I was able to spy several of these small villages from a window seat. I was traveling on a rattle trap of a local train from the city of Gyor in western Hungary to Sarvar. The excursion was for one reason only, to visit Sarvar Castle. The castle had been one of the main homes for the dreaded “Blood Countess”, Elizabeth Bathory. The horror which had occurred in the castle during the late 16th and early 17th centuries had kept me reading wide-eyed for many evenings prior to my trip. It occupied my imagination to the point that on the morning I boarded the train in Gyor, I had an ominous sense of dread, a nervous anticipation of what I might discover later that day in Sarvar. This was the product of an overactive imagination searching for drama.

Mihalyhaza Train Station

Mihalyhaza Train Station

The Land Of Just Getting By – A World That Lies Fallow
As the train rolled out of Gyor and into the countryside, the morning fog was slowly burning off. The train was nowhere near even half full. Being an American, I immediately thought of how nice it would be to have trains such as this rolling through obscure regions in the Midwest or Great Plains. The United States once had such trains, seventy years ago. Hungary was not seventy years behind the United States, but this train felt like a throwback to the days of communism. It was a purely mediocre mode of transport replete with cracked leather seats, a bare bones bathroom with a hand soap dispenser parceling out a grainy substance that looked like half bleached sand. Running water was little more than a leaky faucet. The windows on the train looked like they had ossified themselves shut. Other than that, it was a pleasant ride through a Europe few tourists would ever see. The trees were not quite in bloom, the fields still lay fallow, but greenery was starting to show. This was a land on the verge of rebirth, unlike the towns which inhabited it.

The train slowed and made intermittent stops. The first few towns were relatively prosperous due to their proximity to Gyor. The further out from Gyor, the more a village could best be defined as a place “where people live.” There was Szerecseny, Gecse-Gyormat, Vasvar, Mezolak and Mihalyhaza. There were places with unusual, typically incomprehensible Hungarian names such as Kemenesmihalyfa and Ostffyasszonyfa. Here was a world few would ever see except for the local inhabitants. There was no breathtaking beauty, only pleasant pastoralism. Small sized, frayed houses in many of the villages were a reminder that the economy had long since moved elsewhere. A question which I had no way to answer kept coming to mind, “What do people do here?” From the looks of it, they either had the career choice of staying inside or farming, but there were no farmers in the fields. There was land everywhere, but where were the people who worked it. Hidden behind walls, windows and curtains was the answer to that mystery. This was the land of just getting by. There was no dire poverty, only a slow steady decline into obsolescence.

Rural Hungary - a window into rural decline

Rural Hungary – a window into rural decline (Credit: Marcel Bauer)

Western Hungary In My Heart – A Place For Imagination
These villages for me were the height of obscurity. Places no one really cared about or was even conscious of. Because of that I wanted to know everything about them. I could only imagine what history was hidden inside all those houses, personal rather than national, love affairs and loneliness, homemade feasts of food and alcohol, a slow life and an even slower death. These were places with too much past and hardly any future. At least that is what I wanted to imagine. To know the truth would have been illuminating and enthralling, but then these villages, this train line and that forgotten land would have no longer been obscure to me. I would then almost certainly lose interest, move on to another place down the line. It was best just to know them for a few fleeting minutes. That way they could stay forever obscure and I could keep a small slice of Western Hungary in my heart.

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