Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

Godollo is a place that I have always related with happiness. It is a prosperous small city, west of Budapest. The town is most famously known as being home to the Royal Palace of Godollo, the favorite residence of Hungary’s most beloved Queen, Elisabeth I. Otherwise known as Sissi, the palace is a must see for anyone spending time in and around the Hungarian capital. I always had a positive feeling about Godollo, as though nothing bad could ever happen there. It is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. To my mind, anyone going to visit Godollo, might expect the sun to always be shining when they get there.

My opinion of Godollo was frozen in the fin de siècle, that was up until the point that I went across a deceptively icy bridge on the M31 that slices through there. In a breathtaking few seconds I felt myself losing control of the car. As the wheels begin to slide, I was frozen in fear. What happened next was a minor miracle. We struck dry pavement in time for me to gain control. We had crossed the bridge and the wheels now gripped drier pavement. The loss of control and the regaining of it happened so suddenly, that it was not until after it was over that I realized just how lucky we had been to escape unscathed. One moment we were on the edge of disaster, the next we were cruising across the Great Hungarian Plain.

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

A Happy Place – Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter (Credit: EtelkaCsilla)

Travel As Near Tragedy – The Road To Mortality
The loss of control was a frightening reminder of how little control we really have over our lives. Control is not so much an illusion, as it is a delusion. I have always believed that we are the ultimate deciders of our fate. This is nothing more than an act of self-delusion. A ruse that allows me to make some sense out of the trajectory of my life. It is not until forces beyond my control intervene and push me towards the edge of disaster that I realize the road to mortality is paved with bad decisions, many of which I had made that morning and throughout the trip. A sheet of ice, an anonymous bridge, a twelve kilometer strip of pavement near Godollo, a lethal combination of these three components could have undone a week’s worth of adventure or forty-seven years of life for me and forty-five for my wife. Losing control and regaining it is a humbling feeling. I suddenly realized that I needed to be more careful, that the risk was not worth it and never will be. Moments like these, are the most important in travel. I want to forget them and know I never will.

Friends, family and casual acquaintances often think that my travels are filled with one fascinating discovery after another. The kind found in photo albums, with days spent amid world famous sites, breathtaking scenery and spectacular architecture. There is plenty of that to be sure. I am guilty of advertising this type of travel when I go back home with a phone full of photos. It is all so wonderful, but it never seems quite real for a reason. What my Eastern European travels have really been about are the same exact things that terrified me on that icy bridge, a loss of control, fear of the unknown and the taking of risk. I have crossed the icy bridge near Godollo countless times, sometimes with my wife in tow, sometimes alone. There is always the thrill of dodging death followed by the morose thought of what if. These experiences have taught me quite a bit, not about Hungary or the Czech Republic or Slovakia or wherever, but about myself. What I am capable of and what are my limits, what I can let go of and what I must hold onto for dear life.

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – Journey To The Other Side
The most memorable moment of this trip did not occur in the southern reaches of Bohemia or Moravia, it came while driving down the M31 on a gloomy winter morning. I survived that moment and learned a life lesson in the process about what it means to lose and regain control. The lesson was to always remain vigilant. Death awaits even in a positive place like Godollo. I should never have let my guard down because mortality is but a moment away. In the aftermath, I felt gratitude for having escaped with my life intact. Compared to that moment, the rest of the ride was uneventful. How can Hatvan or Gyongos compare to having your life flash before you? The answer is that they cannot compare.

I can barely remember anything about the rest of the drive eastward on the M3 and then the M35 to Debrecen. It was, as it has always been, a rather dull affair. The churned up, pitch black soil in the empty field was covered by dirty snow. This was some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, but no one would know that by how it looked on this day in the dead of winter. There were no traces of greenery or hints of the bounty which bursts forth in the springtime. This was a landscape waiting out the winter. The deeper into this land we drove, the more time seemed to slow. I was tired and shaken by what had happened earlier. Debrecen could not come soon enough. When it did, I pulled into my mother in laws driveway with a feeling of resignation. The journey home had been exhausting.

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

The Final Stretch – M35 Motorway in eastern Hungary (Credit: MrSilesian)

Upon Arrival – A Haunting Thought
The journey ended where it all began, in a housing estate on the edge of Debrecen. A light dusting of snow was on the ground, but there was no hint of the icy conditions that had plagued our travels throughout Transdanubia and continued to stalk us until we got clear of Budapest. The near whiteout conditions at Austerlitz that started this snowy odyssey seemed as though they had occurred months ago. My mother in law was sitting in the house awaiting our arrival, reading one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves in her living room.

She asked in broken English how the trip went. I said “wonderful”, then rattled off a few of the more notable places – Cesky Krumlov, Brno and Prachtice – we had visited. I asked, “Have you been?” even though I already knew the answer. A deeply cultured traveler, there are few places in Europe she has not been. Her reply was pleasant and brief, “Very nice places.” Of course, I did know one place she had probably never visited, an icy bridge near Godollo. I did not mention what had happened there just a few hours before. The thought of what might have been was haunting. Sometimes the most memorable travel moments are the ones we would rather keep to ourselves. In this case, I reserved the right to remain silent.

“It Used To Be Way Worse” – Debrecen: The Tales Of Three English Travelers (For The Love of Hungary Part 19)

Debrecen, for me the city’s name provokes two immediate thoughts. The first is of the Great Reformed Church, that soaring neo-classical symbol of a city that has come to be called the “Calvinist Rome”. The other, is Debrecen’s less than compelling reputation as a forlorn city on the frontiers of eastern Hungary. The words “forlorn” and “Debrecen” stir memories of a story I heard about a visitor to the city several years ago. It was told to me by an Englishman who now lived in Budapest and was discussing his low opinion of the city. Debrecen was of mutual interest to us because we had both married women who were from there. Each of us had spent a considerable amount of time in the city. My English acquaintance prefaced his story by stating that he found the city ultra-boring. He said that his father, who lived in a drab suburban village on the far outskirts of London, came to Debrecen for his wedding. The father had hardly ever traveled much outside of Great Britain, thus he had little idea of what to expect. After spending the better part of a week in Debrecen, he told his son that the experience gave him a better appreciation of where he lived in England.

Prior to his visit, he had always thought his home village was rather stale and sleepy, but Debrecen took boredom to a whole other level. There was nothing to do or see after a day in the city. He nearly went stir-crazy with cabin fever while sitting in a hotel room for what seemed like weeks rather than days. Like most people, he likely did not have the will or fortitude to seek out some of Debrecen’s lesser known attractions. And why would he? The language was unintelligible and the city’s history a subject for which he had zero knowledge. The greater truth for this man, like many other visitors, is that once they sample the delights of Debrecen’s main thoroughfare, Piac utca (Market Square) and the surrounding Belvaros (Inner city) there is not much to see, especially if you do not have a native speaker as a guide. For me, the most interesting aspect of this Englishman’s story was that his less than stellar opinion of Debrecen aligned with those of a couple of his fellow countrymen who visited the city hundreds of years before him.

Pre-modern Debrecen - Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Pre-modern Debrecen – Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Far Flung & Forlorn – Obscure Magic On The Hungarian Frontier
Robert Townson grew up in the latter part of the 18th century. He hailed from a town that was part of the greater city of London. Townson was an English natural scientist by trade, as well as something of a polymath who happened to also be a curious traveler. He specialized in medicine and mineralogy. In 1793 Townson traveled to Hungary on an expedition, where among other things, he explored the High Tatra mountains in what was then Upper Hungary (present- day Slovakia). He wrote in detail about his travels, not only in the mountains, but also across much of Hungary. During that trip, Townson passed through Debrecen. To say that he was not impressed with what he found would be an understatement.

In his book Travels in Hungary Townson stated: “To what circumstance Debretzin (sic) owes its existence I don’t know; nor can I divine what can have induced thirty thousand people to select a country destitute of springs, rivers, building materials, fuel and the heart cheering vine, for their residence. Debretzin, though it has the title and privileges of a town, must be considered as a village; and then it is perhaps the greatest village in Europe. But should it be considered as a town, it is one of the worst, though its inhabitants are not the poorest.”

Townson’s description focuses on the frontier aspects of the city, making it sound like what it was, an oversized urban island mysteriously situated in a rural hinterland. Reading Townson’s description, one gets the feeling that Debrecen somehow appeared on the Great Hungarian Plain. Not so much out of nowhere, as in the middle of nowhere. As if by some obscure magic it had arisen out of the dusty and alkali ridden soil with nothing to recommend it. A sort of baffling miracle, just as featureless as the landscape it was set within. Townson was not the only Englishman to feel that Debrecen was far flung and forlorn.

Robert Townson - Author of Travels in Hungary

Robert Townson – Author of Travels in Hungary (Credit: Augustus Earle)

The Largest Village In Europe – A Liquid Mass Of Mud
John Paget was an English agriculturist who married into Transylvanian aristocracy. He then lived on an estate owned by his ethnic Hungarian wife in Transylvania. This was where he perfected several notable agricultural innovations. Paget also found the time to travel extensively across Hungary. In the process, he became a travel writer in the truest sense of the word, collecting information on people and places, customs and culture from observations made during his travels. Paget’s travels coincided with the first great wave of modernization in Hungary. Thus, he was witness to a country on the cusp of what would eventually become a wholesale transformation. These travels led him to author Hungary and Transylvania: With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political and Economical, Volumes 1 and 2. This work, published in the mid-19th century, offers a comprehensive look at every region in Hungary through the eyes of Paget who was a keen observer.

The volumes include his observations of Debrecen. “It well deserves the name of ‘the largest village in Europe,’ given it by some traveler; for its wide unpaved streets, its one-storied houses, and the absence of all roads in its neighborhood, render it very unlike what an European associates with the name of town. In rainy weather the whole street becomes one liquid mass of mud, so that officers quartered on one side the street are obliged to mount their horses and ride across to dinner on the other. Instead of a causeway, they have adopted the expedient of a single wooden plank; and it is a great amusement of the people, whenever they meet the soldiers on this narrow path, to push them off into the sea of mire below.” Mud ridden streets at best, lack of roads at worst. In Paget’s account the dusty frontier outpost Townson described becomes an oversized, pre-modern village lined with thoroughfares of sludge. Paget does go on to offer an analysis of the Magyar (Hungarian) character, based on the people he observed in Debrecen. He felt the city offered a purer version of both the Hungarian language and the Hungarian people. Nonetheless, Paget makes it clear that he does not find Debrecen an ideal town.

John Paget - Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

John Paget – Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

First Impressions – An Unsightly Mess
The three opinions of Debrecen given above were honest assessments of what each of these Englishman thought of it. Admittedly, I also found Debrecen less than impressive on my first visit. The area in and around Piac Utca (Market Square) was worth seeing, but not much else. My wife who spent the first two decades of her life in the city told me, “It used to be way worse.” She said that the city center had been in disrepair during the communist period. It had improved markedly since that time. National government and European Union structural funds had gone into redeveloping the city center. I shuttered to think what it must have looked like in the late 1980’s. Debrecen’s historical reputation, at least among a handful of English travelers, as an unsightly mess with few attractions worth seeing has remained somewhat true up to the present. Yet as I would discover over many visits to the city in the coming years, there was much more to see and do in Debrecen than first time visitors could possibly imagine.

Capital Of The Great Hungarian Plain – Discovering Debrecen: Arrested Development (For The Love of Hungary Part 16)

The remarkable thing about my first visit to Debrecen was that I remembered anything about it at all. For many people, Debrecen can be an entirely forgettable experience. It is not a love at first sight city, more like a one-night stand with a harlot who offers the fleeting promise of passion. My problem with visiting Debrecen had to do with great expectations gone wrong. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary. As such, those who come for a visit may be forgiven for expecting something more than a Belvaros (Inner city) largely lacking in memorable architecture or atmospherics, especially when compared to the elegant old towns of such Hungarian cities as Gyor, Pecs, Sopron, Szeged and Szekesfehervar. Since most foreign visitors to Debrecen have already been in the western part of Hungary, they probably visited one of those more attractive cities. This leaves an indelible impression upon the senses. Debrecen cannot help but pale in comparison.

The way it was meant to be - Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

The way it was meant to be – Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

Along A Fluid Frontier– At The Mercy Of Others
As a first-time visitor, I wrongly assumed that Debrecen would be much the same as all those other Hungarian cities that had left me starry eyed. I soon discovered that Debrecen is fundamentally different from other Hungarian cities, in many ways reflecting the difference between eastern and western Hungary. It has been my experience that cities tend to develop based on the topography that surrounds them. For instance, the confluence of the Raba, Rabca and Danube Rivers around the city of Gyor defined much of its early development.  Debrecen is not much different in this regard. The city is set out on the fertile featureless flatland of the Great Hungarian Plain. As such Debrecen has plenty of room to sprawl. On my first forays into the city, it seemed to go on in a multitude of directions without any discernible boundary. I felt as though the buildings had been scattered about with little regard for architectural symmetry. Much of this had to do, through no fault of Debrecen’s city administrators across the ages, with topography and history. The former influencing the latter. With no physical barriers anywhere near the city it could develop equally in any direction. Furthermore, the lack of obstacles meant it was also at the mercy of invaders, most prominently during the Ottoman era in Hungarian history from 1526 to 1686.

During those times, Debrecen was situated along a fluid frontier riven by an alarming amount of violence. Such venal activities as plundering, pillaging and slave raiding were commonplace. Low intensity warfare occurred for decades without end. This forced Debrecen into multifaceted deals to retain some degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. At one point, the city was forced to pay simultaneous financial tributes to the Ottoman Sultan, Habsburg Emperor and Prince of Transylvania. It was an unenviable position to be in. Consequently, this situation also affected the city’s spiritual and cultural development. During this period, Protestantism in the form of Calvinism sunk deep roots in the dark and dusty soil.  Roots that would eventually resist the counter-reformation. A visitor will search Debrecen largely in vain for those Baroque Catholic churches that can be found in other Hungarian cities further to the west. This is because for a 160-year period the building of Catholic churches was not permitted anywhere in the city.

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

Stock market – Horse market near Debrecen (Credit: Alexander von Bensa)

A Hungarian Frontier Town – In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
Besides Calvinism, the greatest influence on the city’s historical development was the cattle trade which enriched many of its most prominent merchants. These men held vast tracts of land out on the surrounding plain which they would lease to herdsmen and shepherds. Grazing spread across the plain, tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses were fattened up on the grasslands, then driven to market. Debrecen became the center for this trade, which boosted the city’s growth beyond what might have been expected for a city that lacked a river or any other defining topographic feature. In short, Debrecen grew into a large city because economic trade demanded and subsequently enriched it. By its very nature, the grazing industry is a largely nomadic and dispersed activity, thus it not surprising that Debrecen took on many of the qualities associated with a pastoral frontier. Imagine a Cowtown on the Great Plains of the United States such as Abilene or Dodge City, its streets beset with whirlwinds of dust in the summer and quagmires of mud in the spring and autumn. Reports from 19th century travelers, such as the Englishman John Paget, describe Debrecen in such a manner.

Debrecen has been as unlucky in its modern history, as it was in the early modern period. The reason that it lacks in historical architecture is due to warfare. Parts of the city were obliterated or badly damaged by both aerial bombardment and ground fighting during World War II. American bombers leveled its railroad marshalling yards and targeted other industrial infrastructure. A large tank battle on the city’s outskirts between German and Soviet forces occurred in the latter part of 1944. Structures that were rebuilt in its aftermath, the main train station being the most notable example, have no architectural qualities to recommend them other than stolidity, function over form and the use of a kazillion tons of concrete. Debrecen is pockmarked with such communist era monstrosities. Fortunately, it does have a few architectural calling cards that manage to draw tourists to the city, foremost among these is the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom).

Symbol of the city - The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground

Symbol of the city – The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground (Credit: gelledina)

An Architectural Illusion – A Portal Of Protestantism
To say the Great Reformed Church is the main draw for tourism in Debrecen does it a disservice. It is also the city’s most recognizable symbol. Anyone who has visited Debrecen is bound to have seen its classically inspired yellow façade, glowing brightly at the end of Piac Utca (Market Street). Due to its role as a hub of Protestantism in Hungary, Debrecen has been called the Calvinist Rome. This oxymoronic appendage weds together two disparate ideals. The stern rigidity of Calvinist doctrine with the grandeur of Rome. The same could be said for the Great Reformed Church, its splendid twin towered exterior could not possibly be a greater contrast to its austere interior. Upon entering, I questioned whether I had been transported through a portal of architectural illusion. To understand Debrecen, I would first have to understand the Great Reformed Church.

Click here for: Moments Of Creation – Debrecen’s Saint Andras Church: From Ruin To Reconstruction (For The Love of Hungary Part 17)

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen: When The Sun Shone The Brightest

In the mid-1970’s a little girl and her father went out one day to pick flowers for her mother in Debrecen, Hungary. It was the beginning of springtime. The trees were just beginning to blossom, but there was still a nip of cold in the air. The little girl, no more than four years old at time, was bundled up tight against the late afternoon chill. Her head and neck were wrapped in a scarf. Her father was dressed in trench coat and slacks. There was something extraordinary and memorable about the ordinariness of that moment which was captured in a photo forever. The photo shows the little girl clutching flowers she has gathered in her right hand, while looking toward the camera. Her father is holding her around the hips and is looking at her with a gaze of serenity and love. This scene must have been repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the coming years. Then one day many years later the father died, at least in a physical sense. He did not die spiritually. That is because his daughter carried the love he gave to her and his family forward into the world. Loved ones never really die, because they live on through the love they gave to others.

A Little Girl & Her Father - Debrecen

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen

Broken Homes – The Curse Of Total War
The father never knew his father. He was more than likely dead before his son was born. Even if he was still alive it was in a concentration camp far away from eastern Hungary. On the day he died, the son would not have known what a father was and the father would not have ever seen his son. Europe in the 1940’s was filled with these types of tragedies, the curse of total war. Fathers went off to fronts, battle or genocidal ones and never returned. There was a void left in every nation and an emptiness occupying a multitude of hearts. Thus, sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Their mothers were single parents not by choice, but by fate. The mother of the son in Debrecen, raised the boy the best she could under the circumstances. She had to be tough. Debrecen was badly damaged by the war, both physically and mentally. The economy was in tatters, the nation was trying to rebuild while the Soviets were exacting reparations a thousand thefts at a time.

The mother had been damaged even worse. She had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust. Her husband was Jewish and she was ethnically Hungarian. Such was the difference between life and death in those days of darkness. In the spring of 1944 her husband was walled off from her in the ghetto. Then a month or two later taken to the brickyard at Serly, before being deported beyond Hungary’s borders to hell on earth. And speaking of hell on earth, the Soviets and Germans fought a massive tank battle on the edge of Debrecen while the Americans bombed it from above. Hell from the ground up and the sky below. Soviet soldiers did unspeakable things that would only be recalled in recurring nightmares for the rest of women’s lives.

My Heart – Healing With Happiness
We can never know what the mother went through. The will to endure must have been strong, because there was no other option. The instinct of a mother to provide for her child gave her the will to overcome desperate circumstances. The son turned out to be highly intelligent. He had a gift for learning, which morphed into a love for medicine. The son without a father and a mother working a commoners job just to make ends meet, odd couples like these were the rule not the exception at that time in Hungary. Fortunately, there was a system in Hungary that could help the working class and those who excelled in school. Communism was a human tragedy for Hungary during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, but the system had its uses as well as its abuses. Free education was there for the taking, a brilliant mind could get you a degree and lead to a medical practice. It also led the son to meet the love of his life. Not far from the college at a restaurant that is still there today, the son met a woman of supreme intellect. One of the few who could match wits with him. They would come to refer to each other as my heart. For them there was the kind of love that sprinkles the world with a mysterious magic. Conjuring a romance out of every moment they spent together.

The inevitable outcome was marriage, then a son and a daughter. Trips to the Black Sea by way of a Trabant, family vacations along the Adriatic. In photos the son, who has now become a proud father, beams with happiness. Everyone who knew him said that this was a man who loved life. And he gave life, to the sick and the weak and the suffering. His profession was to heal others, not just with his mind, but also his happiness. Perhaps such enjoyment of life reflected an awareness that his own father had happiness and contentment stolen away from him by the Holocaust. Or maybe he realized how lucky he, the son, had been. If born only a year or two earlier, the likelihood is that he would have perished at a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Some people would say that it is better to be lucky than it is good. Well he was both lucky and good, some would even say great.

Greater Than Any River Of Tears – Memories Of A Father
There were so many days like the one captured in the photo. Taking his daughter for walks to gather flowers, holding her hand as she tottered along beside him, giving her hugs and kisses when he arrived home from the clinic. And as she grew older his love grew with her. It was a magnificent life up until the day that tragedy struck. The sickness came unannounced, creeping up on him when he was in the prime of life. In a cruel irony he diagnosed himself with a terminal illness. The man who had cured so many, could not cure himself. His family watched helplessly as he lost his hair and then they lost him. The memory of the father haunted a house on the edge of Debrecen. There was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep. There were muffled tears behind closed doors. Days of darkness even when the sun shone at its brightest.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the grief dissipated and the wellspring of enchanting memories returned to life. Never more so than the day his widow began looking at old family photos tucked away in a drawer.  There among the images, was one she set aside and would share with her daughter. It brought back a flood of memories much greater than any river of tears. Memories of the love, romance and beauty of life. Memories of a father who melted the hearts of everyone he met. None more so than the daughter he adored and the wife he loved with all his heart. In that one photo, there was a little girl and her father picking flowers for the mother. The mother who watched from behind the lens of a camera, capturing the love of their lives.

In memory of Erno Berenyi 1944 – 1990

Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.

Sofia

Sofia

Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

The Things That Cannot Be Explained – Love & Humanity In The Debrecen Train Station

I have been asked many times what was the most impressive thing I have seen while traveling in Eastern Europe? Depending on the person questioning me I almost always give one of two answers. If I feel like the person has little knowledge of the region, I usually answer that the section of Budapest astride the Danube is a stunning sight. If I know the person has traveled in the region I will usually say the Old Town of Lviv. If I answer the former, my inquisitor usually says something to the effect that they will be sure to visit Budapest in the near future. If I answer the latter, it usually elicits a look of befuddlement. The conversation will then turn to more familiar subjects. My answers have always avoided what I really wanted to say. I keep the truth to myself for reasons of intimacy and vulnerability.

The most impressive sight I ever witnessed in Eastern Europe did not come in Budapest or Lviv. It did not come at any of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites or famous places. It cannot be found by using a guidebook or any other piece of tourist literature. No one has written a word about it, until now. I actually saw it in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. And it had nothing do with that city’s Great Church, the Deri Museum’s famous collections or any of the sights along its most famous of streets, Piac Utca. The most impressive thing I ever saw in Eastern Europe took place on a random weekday in late October, inside the waiting area of the Debrecen Train Station, that old cavernous, concrete pile. If you go there, I seriously doubt you will get to see what I did. That is because the actual location can only be discovered in one place, the heart.

Just another ordinary day - the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just another ordinary day – the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just Another Ordinary Day – Watching People Watch The Clock
When a person feels vulnerable they become receptive to emotions they keep hidden away inside themselves. Suddenly something they see, hear or sense can trigger a wave of emotion unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some psychologists call this a significant emotional moment. This is not what I was expecting when I walked into the Debrecen train station on a mid-autumn day. The sun was out, the leaves were turning and the station was slumbering. The morning traffic had left long ago. Voices were barely raised above a murmur. I was half an hour early for the train to Lviv. I had arrived much too early as has so often been my habit. My logic was that only one train was headed for western Ukraine and I did not want to miss it. This left me time to hang out, perhaps grab something to eat and watch people watching the clock.

The atmosphere in the station was emotionless. One of those places where it seems like time has stopped. I began to wander around, first going from the ticket purchase counter to the magazine shop with countless Hungarian language titles for sale that I found unintelligible. Then it was on to look at the food, which from the meager selection on offer looked as though communism had never left the building.  I did not find the idea of a soggy sandwich, lukewarm cup of coffee or day old pastry appetizing. By this time, I had made my way over to the waiting hall, a large high ceilinged room that smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The most notable feature of this area was a large communist era mural. It showed workers, both agrarian and industrial in a unity that never existed, except in the minds of state propagandists.

The Moment That Comes To Mean Everything – Life & Love
It was also in the waiting hall where I noticed the usual selection of popular novels and hard backed picture books for sale, cheap and easy reads that usually garner the mildest of interest. One of those picture books caught my eye, but it was not located on the for sale table. Instead, it was in the hands of a father sitting with what I assumed to be his son. The two sat side by side on a hard backed bench while the father read aloud, the boy looked to be in his late teenage years. The boy studied the photos attentively, looking at each one closely as the father read to him slowly and carefully.

The boy was fascinated by each photo, staring at them with the curiosity of a small child. I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome. How much he understood was open to question. From time to time, he would rear his head from one side to the other, than his father’s soft voice would call his curiosity back to the page. I wondered what he might have been thinking as he looked at all those majestic photos of Erdelyi Varak (Transylvania Castles), the book his father read to him with such loving care.  To see a father patiently and quietly taking the time to sit with his son and explain these photos made me want to explode into tears. There was magnificent beauty on those pages, but no castle could compare to what I witnessed in that moment. This was a reminder to me of what it means to be human.

On The Inside – A Sense Of Humanity
Amid that musty waiting hall, in an ugly old train station that looked to be several decades past its prime, I felt an incredible sense of love and humanity. It materialized before my very eyes. I suddenly realized how unexpectedly beautiful life can be. I understood what it really meant to love a child, to do everything you can for them no matter the situation. It took everything I had to hold back tears. Finally, after many minutes I pulled myself away from this scene. On the inside I was shaking, what I had seen disturbed and enlightened me in the profoundest way possible. Since then it has never left my mind. It was the most impressive thing I have seen in Eastern Europe. Why was that? I really have no idea. There are certain things in life that cannot be explained, love is one of them.

“At Least It’s Not Szolnok” – Excitement In The Worst Way Possible: A Tragedy On The Great Hungarian Plain

Not that long ago I was having a conversation with an in-law about the dullness of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city. I am always astonished at how static and boring the city seems. Though it has a population of over 200,000 and includes one of the largest universities in Hungary, there is little nightlife and a palpable sense of malaise. Outside of the city’s main thoroughfare, Piac Utca, there is little to see and even less to do. The energy level in the city is extremely low. Street life and café culture are benign. The largest crowd I have witnessed during multiple trips to the city was at the mall, a nice, but hardly memorable shopping complex. Debrecen reminds me of suburbia in the United States, fairly prosperous, with cleanly swept streets and people going about their business in a dutiful manner. It could be called the most American of European cities. My in-law, who grew up in Debrecen, agreed with me about the city’s subdued demeanor and stultifying dullness. He then added, “It could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok.” I replied with nervous laughter. Our conversation soon moved on to other subjects, but his remark about Szolnok stuck with me.

Szolnok Railway Station

The Szolnok Railway Station – the 1970’s all over again (Credit: NordestOnTour )

Pass Through Place – Szolnok From A Window
I am always proud to tell people, for no reason in particular, that I have been to every one of Hungary’s 19 counties. It is a sort of trivial badge of travel honor. Who else can say that? Then again, who else would want to say that? The remark usually elicits puzzled looks. Yet for all my travels in Hungary I have never really been to Szolnok. I say “never really” because stopping at the train station countless times does not count to me as a visit. In the same way that the Midwest is flyover country in America, Szolnok is a pass through place in Hungary. It is the kind of city that one goes through very briefly on the way to somewhere else. When I have asked Hungarians what they think of Szolnok the reply can be summed up as a blank stare, followed by “I have never been there” or “went through there on a train many times.” Ask if there is anything to see in Szolnok and the stock answer is always the same, “well the Tisza goes through there.”

The city’s setting at the confluence of the Tisza with the Zagyva River made it a point of transit as well as contention for centuries. Szolnok must hold some sort of record for sieges in a Hungarian city, as it has been the setting for no less than 68 of them. With these came the usual pillage, destruction and rebuilding. The Tisza River is certainly Szolnok’s most memorable landmark that can be seen from a train window. Almost invariably there will be a few fishermen standing on its banks, staring stoically at their lines. Everything else is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain decades, concrete apartment blocks and a large, functionalist style train station that looks as though it came straight out of a 1960’s era Central Party Planning unit.

Former Szolnok Train Station

Former Szolnok Train Station (fortepan.hu)

Trains, Planes & Tragedy – A Crossroads In The Crossfire
Trains have played an outsized role in the history of modern Szolnok, for both good and ill. Just over a year after the first railroad was built in Hungary a one hundred kilometer stretch of track was constructed between Szolnok and Cegled to the west. The city soon became a major railway junction for trains headed in every direction across the Great Hungarian Plain. Transport links brought economic development and prosperity as well as tragedy to Szolnok. During the 20th century the city suffered grave damage in the aftermath of World War I and during the latter part of the Second World War. As a key transit point it was targeted by invaders from below and above.  The Hungarian Red Army battled Romanian forces along the Tisza at Szolnok for two and a half months in 1919. During this fighting, the railroad bridge over the Tisza was destroyed. Twenty-five years later, Allied bombers rained destruction down on the city, specifically targeting the rail yard and station. By the end of the war, Szolnok had lost close to 90% of its population. The city was rebuilt, but most of its aesthetically pleasing architecture was gone forever.

The railroad helped Szolnok prosper in the post-war period, but it also led to several terrible train crashes. One of the few things Hungarians mentioned to me when I asked about Szolnok concerned these disasters. This is shocking, but not surprising since the city is home to one of the largest rail switchyards in Hungary. On Christmas Eve 1963, 45 people were killed and dozens more injured when a passenger train slammed into a standing freight train. The crash was caused by an engineer failing to notice a red warning signal light. Then in 1994 a train at Szajol (on the eastern outskirts of Szolnok) blew past a false switch while traveling at 110 kilometers per hour, hurtling into a station building, killing 29 people and injuring 52. There have been a couple of other rail accidents at Szolnok that have led to deaths since then. It seems that Szolnok has had its fair share of excitement, but not the kind that would make anyone want to visit.

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

It Could Be Worse – The Appeal of Dullness
Is there anything interesting besides train crashes and the Tisza when it comes to Szolnok? I cannot say from personal experience since I have never actually set foot in the city proper. Furthermore, I have yet to meet any Hungarians who have traveled to the city for a reason other than to visit family. Because of its tragic past, I am sure normality to the point of anonymity suits the inhabitants of Szolnok. This is a place where history is a dark and dirty word. The future, like the present might be dull, but that is a vast improvement over much worse times. After learning about the city’s history, the phrase “it could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok” has taken on a whole new meaning.