The more times I traveled to Eastern Europe, the more my focus and interests began to narrow. I found myself wanting to go deeper into one country. To try and understand Eastern Europe’s history, politics and culture through the prism of a single nation. That nation would be Hungary. I surprised myself with this decision. Why Hungary? The answer was twofold. First, the woman who would become the love of my life and who I would eventually marry lived there. This meant I traveled to Budapest and outward to the Hungarian countryside on numerous occasions. Secondly, from the moment I first entered the country at the border post of Magyarboly in southern Hungary, I felt comfortable there. That feeling was hard to explain because it felt so natural, as though it was meant to be. This was quite odd since I could not speak a word of Hungarian and really did not have the time or inclination to learn it. And for good reason, the difficulty of learning the Magyar language has been rated on the same level as trying to learn Chinese. Nevertheless, linguistic impossibilities did not put me off.
Exotic Normalcy – A Country Full of Contradictions
Perhaps the reason I made Hungary my focus was because of its exotic normalcy. A nation of paradox, a country of contradiction and a fascinating oxymoron, Hungary straddled a major cultural and political divide with a little bit of the Orient and a whole lot of Europe. Hungary is the ultimate European bridge between East and West. It has been pulled in both directions throughout its long and conflict ridden history. The east is where Hungary’s exoticism comes from. The west its normalcy and for me, familiarity. The Magyars (what Hungarians call themselves) originally came from the east, the far, far east by European standards. Their slow, many centuries long migration took them across the Russian steppe and into the Carpathian Basin. They reached the area during the late 9th century, quickly conquered the existing peoples and have been a mainstay in the region ever since.
One of the most pivotal events in Hungarian history happened not long thereafter. In the year 1000 AD, Hungary’s King Stephen (Istvan) I accepted the Holy Crown from a papal legate and turned Hungary into a Christian Kingdom. This could have easily gone the other way, if Stephen had preferred the Byzantine Empire instead. It is strangely fascinating how an historical event that occurred a millennium earlier could have influenced my affinity for Hungary. Visiting a western oriented Christian nation such as Hungary, as opposed to an Eastern Orthodox one, always feels more familiar to me. When I see onion domes, smell incense burning and try to read signs written in Cyrillic, I feel like a complete foreigner. Ukraine and Serbia come to mind. There is something unsettling for me about most Eastern European nations, attracting and repelling in unequal measure. I have no means to understand these countries other than through guidebooks. That is usually where my visits to these lands start and end. In between, my time is spent on the ground trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.
True Happiness – Strangers On A Train
Right from the start, Hungary came across as opposite of the eastern world. It was a nation approaching the normal, at least in my mind. The people kept to themselves, but were willing to help when asked (that is if they understood a word I said). The land – especially in the eastern part of Hungary – reminded me of America’s Great Plains region where I lived at the time. The small towns were like those in the United States, battered and past their prime, but full of kind people. Conversely, Budapest was like nothing else in the United States or for that matter the world. It had a uniqueness that separated it from other cities. At the same time, it bore resemblance in its shops and restaurants to other places I had visited. Budapest felt like it was made to be special and made me as a visitor feel the same.
And the Hungarian people were wonderful for a reason many tourists end up taking the wrong way. By their nature they are not overtly friendly and tend to be suspicious of foreigners, preferring to leave them alone. I loved being left alone, it was my idea of true happiness to be a stranger on a train headed towards the unknown. The fact that Hungarians could take one look at me and know that I was not Hungarian (it must have been my red hair), meant I was kept at arm’s length. At least that is what I believed. This meant I was given room to breathe. Deference equaled distance, both physically and mentally. I was free to move about the country with minimal interference. One example of this occurred when a ticket checker on a train into Budapest tried to tell me I had the wrong ticket, but finally gave up while under assault from my perpetually puzzled expression. To her, I was a foreigner who was best left alone so she finally decided to ignore the issue.
The Contrarian Impulse – Local Knowledge
There was something else about Hungarians I loved that many others have come to loath. They are known to be notoriously selfish, some might say individualistic in the extreme. It is little wonder that their history has been marked by multiple rebellions. Name any century in the last five hundred years and there will be a Hungarian revolt against authority. There is a reason why Hungary was where the Iron Curtain first fell apart. Trying to control Hungarians was a thankless task. My mother would likely say the same about me. I felt there was a contrarian impulse in Hungarians, a skepticism that looked at the world through less than rose colored lens. This was a trait that I shared with them. History had not been kind to them, but they were kind to me. That probably mattered more than anything else. It was one of the many reasons that I kept coming back to Hungary. Love and distance, reserve and passion, a country of complex contradictions. Here was a nation and a people worth getting to know.