The train trip from Gyor to Sarvar brought an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Along a stretch of railway with woods on either side of the tracks the train began to slow. Soon the woods gave way on one side of the tracks to a small grassy clearing. The train was going to stop, but the reason for stopping was not immediately apparent. The surrounding landscape was consumed by nature. As for the nearest village, it was several kilometers back. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a tiny station appeared on the right side of the train. This was the stopping point. The station was a small one-story affair with whitewashed walls, a fringe of yellow paint around each of its brown framed windows and the entire edifice was covered by a rather large roof. Entry points consisted of a couple of doors at different places.
The station did not look busy or even occupied. It looked more like a single-family dwelling that had been retrofitted for usage by the railway authorities. I half expected a couple of children to come running out the door followed by their mother. The improbable nature of the station’s appearance and location lent itself as much to dreams as it did reality. This station captured my imagination to the point that I then captured it in an image. An image that soon became one of my favorites, mainly because it was a canvas on which I could create distant dreams that I had yet to have the courage or means to pursue. While gazing at this photo, I began to wonder about the strange name affixed to the front of it, Ostffyasszonyfa.
Lost In Translation – Ostffy Virgin Tree
Ostffyasszonyfa happens to be one of those bizarre place names that only the Hungarian language could have given to the world. Pronouncing it correctly is next to impossible, unless you are a native speaker or enjoy maddening linguistic exercises. The only way I could try to understand this fifteen-letter word was by breaking it into parts. Hungarian place names often consist of several different words stuck together. Through research I learned that the first third of it – Ostffy – was a family name. The Ostffy’s came into possession of the surrounding land and villages in the late Middle Ages. The latter half of the word – asszonfya – is either an homage to the Virgin Mary or to the property rights of some forgotten queen. There is also reference to a tree. Thus, a literal translation means Ostffy Virgin Tree. All of this I found hard to comprehend. Then again, I find almost everything about the Hungarian language unintelligible. Trying to translate Hungarian word for word leads to bizarre and incomprehensible meanings that only a Magyar (what Hungarians call themselves) has the intellect to properly decode.
I did later notice in my photo that there was a single leafless tree beside the station. Its barren branches cast a shadow on the white washed walls. I doubt this tree ever had anything to do with the village’s name, of which I have become increasingly fond. My photo made clear that there was an Ostffyasszonfya station, less clear was the village’s location. If the name was not confusing enough, the village’s location was yet another confusing matter. Ostffyasszonfya was on the edge of Lanka puszta, a settlement named for a nearby creek. There was also Nagysimonyi, which was the last village the train traveled through before it alighted at Ostffyasszonfya station. As for the mysterious whereabouts of Ostffyasszonfya, it was a bit off the beaten tracks. I later discovered that the railway line did not even go through the village, missing it by a couple of kilometers. Nonetheless, the name, the station, the train’s momentary pause, was call captured in my photo. A stimulus for dreams of unsatisfied desires.
A Repository Of Memory – Never Noticed Necessities
Ostffyasszonfya turned into more than a way station. For me, it became a starting point for grand projects stimulated by an overactive mind. Later I began to wonder what would have happened if I had gotten off the train to spend more time photographing and exploring the station. Suddenly I wanted to take photos of every similar sized or smaller train station in Hungary. This could have taken the form of a photographic album in book form, acting as a repository of memory to commemorate what might soon be lost. Or perhaps I would have written an encyclopedic volume full of trivial information about these tiny wonders of transport. They were symbols of a bygone era, never noticed necessities of village life and outlets to a larger world for the local villagers.
To strangers such as myself, these stations were windows into a Hungary that scarcely existed to insiders or outsiders. This station could not be found in the most comprehensive guidebooks or for that matter, located by many Hungarians. They were a fading yet integral part of daily life that was one day destined to die without anyone much noticing or caring, except those who had come to rely on them. The train station at Ostffyasszonfya reminded me of those old rural post offices – some active, some abandoned – that I had come across while traveling through the Great Plains of the United States. Every so often the postal service will do a round of closings. Suddenly community support rallies with public meetings and vehement protests taking place. These towns know that if they lose their post office, their continued existence is in question. I would bet the same thing happens in Hungary. For a century and a half Hungary’s rural areas have been losing population. Losing rail or bus service is tantamount to a slow death penalty. A railroad station is a lifeline, a tangible link to the rest of Hungary.
Irreplaceable Lifelines – Along Remote & Forgotten Sidings
The true value of Ostffyasszonfya’s station is that it helps keep the village and surrounding settlements alive. I have seen similar sized stations abandoned at many remote sidings in Hungary. The communities they serviced lost an irreplaceable lifeline. These shuttered stations are often quite photogenic, undergrowth has become overgrowth as vines and weeds slowly consume them. The walls are cracked, the roofs caving in as they grow ever closer to total collapse. Up to this point, Ostffyasszonfya’s station has avoided such a fate. The future of rural stations in Hungary looks uncertain, but I fervently hope they remain. Villagers need stations like Ostffyasszonfya’s as an outlet to the wider world, just as much I need it to dream.