All I Remember Is Saying Goodbye – Debrecen To Budapest: A Crisis Of Consciousness

One of the great laments in my life is that I have only been able to spend a limited amount of time in Eastern Europe. The trips I have taken to the region now number in the double digits, but cumulatively they add up to only half a year of my life. Of course, I have been much more fortunate than most. At least I have been able to indulge my passion for the region over twenty-six sometimes spectacular, always revealing weeks of travel. As memorable as each trip has been, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the blank spots in my memory. Though I try to remember everything I can by taking notes and snapping hundreds of photographs there are still so many moments I fail to remember.

Several things are becoming increasingly clear to me. First, I have taken so many trips that they are now all beginning to run together. I can distinctly recall almost everything about my first two trips to Eastern Europe. I can distinctly remember what I did on each day of those journeys, the arrival in Sofia, the bus trip to Bucharest, a flight to Sarajevo, a train across three countries on the way to Pecs and so forth. My last trip is always completely clear as well, that is until I do another trip. The last trip always overtakes the one before it. The next to last one then exists in a netherworld of confused memory. Secondly, that I am getting older. This has resulted in either very detailed memories – such as a fog engulfed visit to Tata in western Hungary many years ago, where I can still mentally trace my footsteps past waterwheels, along the shores of Old Lake Tata, a dessert lunch at a Cukraszda (patisserie) and standing outside the Parish Church trying to take a photo as a tour group milled around the entrance – or the opposite effect where I remember nothing. This includes a very faint recollection of a walk I once took around central Vienna. I remember wandering around and that is about it.

The Parish Church - Tata Hungary

As I remember – The Parish Church in Tata Hungary

Memory Gap- The Trip I Cannot Remember
Searching my travel memories, I realize that several days in a row can pass where I have no idea what occurred. Without the aid of notes and photos these days would now amount to nothing. This came to mind when I received a call the other day from a friend who accompanied me on my last trip to Eastern Europe. He asked me if I could “remember that train ride we took back from Debrecen to Budapest?”  I was suddenly at a loss. He tried to refresh my memory. “All I remember is saying goodbye to Ibolya when she dropped us off at the train station? I can’t remember anything else.” At that moment neither could I. He is seventy and I am forty-six, this was worrisome. As he kept talking I lost track of what he was saying as I tried to recall a memory, any memory. I finally said, “I can remember walking to the platform through that ghastly underground corridor.”

The only reason I recalled the corridor was because passing through it triggered a memory of a post I had written awhile back about how menacing that place felt, with its communist era chipped paint job, cold concrete and the smell of decades old mildew. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My friend continued to search his memory for any detail that might help him recall that train trip. I finally said, “I think there was some woman sitting behind us who kept talking the whole time.” She had been incredibly irritating, loudly conversing with her son. She would pause for 30 seconds of silence and then predictable go off again on minutes long binges of verbiage. My friend did recall this, “Yes I got up and moved to get away from her.” That ended up being the only memory we could excavate from a two and half hour train ride across the Great Hungarian Plain. Such a pity that of all the things I could have remembered it was of a woman who would not shut up.

Filling in the memory gap - Puspokladany Train Station

Filling in the memory gap – Puspokladany Train Station

From Puspokladany To Torokszentmiklos – Running Out Of Memories
After our conversation I began to try and remember all the things I have forgotten. In other words, I attempted the impossible. There are all those train and bus trips I have never written about because everything went according to plan. Contentment might be what I am searching for in life, but it is the enemy of fascinating journeys. No great truths are to be unearthed in comfort and refinement. There are those Hungarian cities, towns and villages I have passed through more times than I will ever remember. They now inhabit an unconscious oblivion. Places such as Puspokladany in eastern Hungary which I have been through, but not actually to, at least twenty times. What do I remember about it? The outlines of a two story, rather elegant station, a vacant platform other than the station keeper – a sort of goodbye greeter – stepping out to signal whether to stay or go. Is this what I have spent so much time, energy and money chasing? At a certain point, travel infused with familiarity becomes a little too much like the life I left behind. This amnesia creeps over and manages to consume me one trip at a time. The easier things get, the less they mean to me, thus the more I proceed to forget.

And then there is the Torokszentmiklos syndrome. This can best be described as a self-induced psychosis of indifferent procrastination, that one day I will travel there to finally see what I promised myself umpteen times in the past, a mid-sized town out along the Great Hungarian Plain. All I can remember is a massive church in the near distance which has managed to impress itself upon my imagination. I have to see that church up close, stand in its shadow and admire the handy work of people whose names I will never pronounce correctly. I do not remember when was the first or the last time that I saw it. For many years I have wanted to visit that church. I always promise myself that I will go there the next time. I am running out of next times, the way I am running out of memories. I am running along the same rails again and again, failing to even remember what I have forgotten. Stuck in that vicious netherworld of travel pervaded by a stultifying sameness. The will to change direction now escapes me.

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) - in Torokszentmiklos

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) – in Torokszentmiklos (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

The Fascination Grows Faint – A Lost Experience
I wonder when I will finally forget all about Torokszentmiklos or Puspokladany. I am trying so hard to remember everything, that I must not have noticed anything. I certainly do not remember passing by those towns on that last trip with my friend. I was there, but I wasn’t there. At least I can remember that I have forgotten all about them. This exercise in frustration and futility reminds me of only one thing, that woman’s banal chattering. I went halfway around the world and that is what I left myself with, memories lost the way they are in everyday life. This is not a crisis of confidence, more a crisis of consciousness. The fascination of traveling to these places has grown faint, the same as my memory. Somewhere way out in eastern Hungary I lost an entire experience, but I was still awake and alive when it occurred. That is the most frightening memory of all.

 

 

 

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 that 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 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 would unfathomable. 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 mind 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 mild 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 later teenage years. The boy looked at the photos attentively, studying 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 most profound 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.