A Place They Once Called Home – The Cure For Loneliness: Pecs To Budapest By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #25)

A lonely feeling descended upon me during departure at the Pecs Train station. I boarded the train for Budapest, found a seat and stored my belongings. I then looked out the compartment window at those still waiting to board the train. There was a middle aged woman being seen off by her parents.  Hugs, tears and last goodbyes were exchanged. She got on board and took a seat across from me. As the train began to pull away she looked out the window with tears cascading down her face. She tried to smile, but this led to more tears. This scene made me realize just how far from home I actually was at the moment. No one was going to say goodbye to me or be waiting for my arrival on the other end of the line. Traveling solo is great until it’s not. If you ever want to really know how much home and family means to you, go off to a distant land where you cannot speak the language and do not know a single soul in the country. Then watch a last goodbye or a first hello between family members and friends. An unforgettable sensation of loneliness will overcome you. At least that is what I felt as the train pulled out of Pecs.

Point of Departure - Pecs Train Station

Point of Departure – Pecs Train Station (Credit: Váradi Zsolt)

Home Is Where The Hurt Is– A Life Abroad
For me, travel is as much about the people you meet, as the sights you see. Some of my most vivid recollections of trips concern the strangers I have met. They have sometimes confirmed, sometimes denied what I have spent years learning about the region. This happened on the train trip from Pecs to Budapest. The woman who had been crying earlier struck up a conversation with me. She spoke decent English, but had trouble understanding some of the things I said. We were soon joined by an older man who sat beside her. His English was excellent, so much so that he could act as a translator. The woman told me she was traveling back to Germany where her husband was from. They lived in Munich, but she was originally from Pecs and her parents still lived in the city. Germany was a fine place, salaries were high, but it would never be home. Her experience was not rare.

Ever since Hungary and several other Eastern European nations joined the European Union in 2004, their citizens have been heading west where jobs are more plentiful and opportunity abundant. Romantic ties have also lured many Hungarians, the majority of which are women, to the west. By one estimate there are a couple of hundred thousand Hungarians living in France and Germany, while over 50,000 now call Great Britain home. The money may be good and the living standards higher, but nothing can replace home. The tears in this woman’s eyes expressed that. She could always go back home, but only for a while.

A Transylvanian Tale – From Stranger To Confidant
I was thousands of miles from home on a train in southern Hungary. None of my family or friends had any idea exactly where I was at that moment. I was surrounded by strangers, but suddenly did not feel so alone. The company of this woman, in addition to the man who was translating for us, made me feel as though I belonged. We were no longer strangers, more like confidants for a handful of hours. Life means so much more in moments like these. My attention soon turned to the impromptu translator whose English was impeccable. He looked to be in his late 50’s, thoughtful and well-spoken. He began to tell me a little bit about himself. He was not from Hungary, but Transylvania, a region still home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians. The mythical land of Dracula was much more than its popular image allowed. It was filled with people who made the best out of their situation.

This man was the first Transylvanian I had ever laid eyes on in real life. He did not have fangs, wear a cape or inspire terror. He was not a vampire, but a professor. I never did learn exactly why he was traveling through southern Hungary or onto Budapest. That was because we spent most of the trip discussing what it had been like to live as an ethnic Hungarian in Transylvania before the Iron Curtain collapsed. He said the situation had been extremely difficult. The regime of Nicolae Ceausescu persecuted Hungarians as well as Romanians. He said that Ceausescu wanted “to kill all of us.” Whether this was true or not, who was I to argue with a man who had lived through that period. The historical evidence shows that Ceausescu used ethnic Hungarians as a convenient scapegoat. The man did not tell me anything that I had not already read, but it was still fascinating to meet a Hungarian who had lived through the Ceausescu years. I wanted to reach out and touch him just to see if he was real. When he talked about persecution it was done in a matter of fact manner, as though this was something to be expected during that time. He was living proof that stoic vigilance is one of the best antidotes to repression.

Convergence on the way into Budapest

Convergence on the way into Budapest (Credit: Joliet Jake)

A Handful Of Hours, A Lifetime of Memories  – The Memory Makers
It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for.  The train slowly rolled into Budapest-Deli Station (Budapest South Station). The two people I had shared the journey and a bit of their life’s stories with would soon become little more than a memory, albeit a vivid one. The fleetingness of travel can be jarring. People appear and disappear for no discernible reason. In this instance, there was only a quick good-bye, what more could there be. I would never see either of them again, but the short time we spent together stayed with me. Why is that? Scientists who study memory say that we remember what was most relevant to us. Those who appear in our memories years later, for no apparent reason, must have somehow seemed relevant to us at the time. The woman from Pecs and the man from Transylvania were relevant to my loneliness. The few hours I spent with them had cured it.


Beyond All Recognition – Huedin Now & Banffyhunyad Then (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Three)

The train to Transylvania began to climb slowly out of the Crisana plains and makes its way along the northern edge of the Apuseni Mountains. With passport control done, I was now headed toward Cluj without anything else to detain me. The view from the train window was a mesmerizing distraction. The forest was an explosion of color, as fall foliage covered the hillsides. Dotting the landscape were pear shaped stacks of hay. From time to time the train would halt at a larger town where a few passengers would disembark. The landscape gripped me to such an extent that I began to imagine disembarking at one of these towns, disappearing into the woods forever and leaving the world behind. The serenity and peace I felt while looking at the scenery had a primeval allure, allowing me to entertain a dangerous idea that almost made sense.

Gypsy palace in Huedin

Gypsy palace in Huedin (Credit: Lutz Fischer-Lamprecht)

Banffyhunyad – A Vanishing Breed
At Huedin I saw the spires of unfinished Gypsy palaces glittering in the early afternoon sunlight. At times it felt like I was traveling through a world of fantasy and fiction. The fiction of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy felt close at hand. Most places looked as though nothing had changed since 1905, the year that the trilogy begins. This was deceptive, because Transylvania had changed irreparably since that time, especially for Hungarians. Take as an example Huedin, bigger than a village or town, but smaller than a city, with a population of 9,300. Up until the end of the First World War it was officially known as Banffyhunyad, signifying the fact that for five hundred years the Banffy family owned the entire town, as well as the surrounding area. Huedin may have once been part of such diverse polities as the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania, the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but for centuries the real power lay with the Banffy’s, who were the crème de la crème of the region’s aristocratic nobility.

The 20th century changed this situation radically. In 1920 Transylvania became part of Romania and has stayed that way ever since with the exception of a short interlude of Hungarian rule during World War II. The change in national borders led to a slow, but dramatic transformation in Huedin’s ethnic makeup. Demographic statistics bear this out. In 1910, during the waning days of Historic Hungary, over 90% of the town’s population was Hungarian speaking. By 1930 it was down to 70%. Then during World War II Huedin’s Hungarian Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust. The most precipitate decline took place in the half-century following the war, with the anti-Hungarian policies of the Ceaucescu regime and then the fall of Communism, thousands of Hungarians fled westward. According to the latest Romanian census taken in 2011, Hungarians makeup only 28% of Huedin’s populace.

Huedin is a reflection of what has happened to Hungarians all over Transylvania. To put the demographic figures in perspective, imagine walking down the street in Huedin a century ago. The only language you were likely to hear was Hungarian. Walk down the same street today and you would be lucky to find a Hungarian speaker. Most of the storefronts now have words written in Romanian rather than Hungarian. The name of the town and train station has changed. A whole way of life, administrative, economic and cultural has largely disappeared. To get an idea of just how unique this vanishing has been, try to imagine the Romanians who make up the overriding majority of Huedin’s inhabitants today disappearing in the 21st-century. It is an inconceivable thought. How could such a thing happen? There is no possibility, but the same thing would have been said at the beginning of the 20th century.

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Agents Of Change – The War At Home
Despite the cries of Hungarian nationalists who say the land was stolen from them or Romanian nationalists who say the land was always theirs, the truth of the matter is that two World Wars and the radical ideologies of communism and fascism acted as the ultimate agents of change in Transylvania.  In turn these historical events and trends were to transform society and the idea of nation-states. Miklos Banffy lived through much of this turbulence. Like other Hungarian aristocrats in the region Banffy went from exalted status to anachronism during his lifetime. He was a deeply humanistic man who believed Hungarians and Romanians could live together, share power and create a more equal society that better represented the interests of all ethnic groups. In a sense Banffy’s dream came true when Romanian joined the European Union in 2009. This boosted minority rights. The Hungarians in Transylvania today have more rights than any minority has ever had in the region. The same goes for the Roma. The Romanians are firmly in control of the country, but xenophobic nationalism has been moderated by a modicum of prosperity and a fitful, flawed democracy.

Is there still discrimination? Of course, but the situation is much better today for all groups than it ever has been historically. A critique of this opinion would likely mention that the Hungarian aristocracy has vanished. How could it be better for Hungarians? Well the majority of Hungarians in Transylvania a century ago were not aristocrats. The lowliest Hungarian in Transylvania today has exponentially more economic and political opportunity than the same Hungarian would have had 150 years ago. That fact does little to heal the psychological wounds of Hungarians who still feel the loss of Transylvania. On the other hand, no matter what extremist political parties try to stir up or the media says about inter-ethnic relations, the citizens of Transylvania are not at war. From everything I would witness while visiting the region people are getting on with their lives. This region has had enough of war, for now.

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Obscured By Beauty – A Truth About Transylvania
From the train window Huedin looked docile if not dramatic. Mountains in the distance formed a compelling backdrop to the sleepy settlement. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, it all depended upon your degree of knowledge and personal perspective. Transylvania was a timeless landscape inhabited by a diverse and dynamic society. The beauty and tranquility that I witnessed from the train window were enchanting, but it also obscured the massive upheaval that had transformed this region beyond all recognition.

Coming soon: Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)