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.

Tradition Never Goes Out Of Style – The Road Through Bontida (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Five)

On my next to last day in Cluj I made the pilgrimage to Bontida, home to the ruins of Banffy Castle, the place that looms largest in Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy of books. It felt odd purchasing a ticket at the train station in Cluj for a trip to what I believed was a small village. Usually I am buying train tickets to major cities or famous destinations in Eastern Europe, not to sleepy Transylvanian backwaters. I imagined that Bontida would only be served by a local bus at the end of some bone jarring road. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I learned that Bontida had a train station. While reading Banffy’s trilogy I had formulated an idea in my mind that the castle – which in the books is known as Denestornya – was in a remote, heavily forested area. I was mistaken. Bontida was a sizable village on the main rail and road route between Cluj and Dej. Bontida had a population of almost 5,000, much more than the usual village. I am sure the area was much less populated 125 years ago when Banffy called it home. The village and castle were intimately connected, both then and now. The trip to the Bontida rail station took only about 45 minutes by train. I would soon learn that the train ride was less than half my journey to the castle.

Bontida Train Station

Bontida Train Station

Disappearing Into The Distance – Carted Off
The Bontida station was not situated in a classic Transylvanian landscape. The only mountains were far off in the distance, a low dark rise off on the horizon. Instead of forest, I saw rows of corn with stalks withered yellow by the first frosts of autumn. I had expected to get off the train and gain sight of a ruined castle in the near distance. Instead I found myself walking out to a long, straight and narrow paved road which I hoped would lead to Banffy Castle. Bontida began here and stretched along both sides of this road for several miles. Modest homes of different shapes and sizes with chipped paint or no paint at all bordered the road. Several other passengers had disembarked from the train with me, including a couple of young gypsy men, one of whom managed to procure a bike. He rode circles in the middle of the road before pedaling past me and disappearing into the distance.

It was an unseasonably warm day considering the season. Before long I was sweating profusely despite the dry air. The road appeared to be unending. The faster I walked, the longer it seemed to get. Every once in a while a car would speed by scattering dust. My imagination began to wander, reaching back into the early 20th century. I could see an immaculate horse drawn carriage meeting Miklos Banffy at the railway station and quickly spiriting him home to his beloved castle. If only I could have been so lucky. There were still horse drawn vehicles, but instead of carriages they were carts.

The horse drawn cart is a staple of rural Romania. In many places they outnumber cars. While walking along, I thought about hitching a ride on one of them. What made these carts unique was the fact that they had license plates attached to them. Each cart that trundled past was officially registered with the authorities. These carts were more a part of Romanian road transport than a brand new Dacia automobile. They were also a reminder of the perceived “backwardness” of rural Romania. But were they really a symbol of “backwardness” or a way of life lost to central and western Europeans.

Banffy Castle - the final approach

Banffy Castle – the final approach

A Lost Way Of Life – Of Romance & Ruin
In the near distance I spotted a large mechanized harvester slicing through the brown stalks of corn. The old and the new, industrial and pre-industrial, existed side by side here. I noticed that the villagers who were out in their yards all looked to be over seventy years old, part of an aging rural society where tradition never goes out of style. Most of the elderly were tending gardens, while many also had chickens running around their grounds. The soundtrack to Bontida was medley of horse’s hoofs pounding on pavement and rooster calls echoing forth, even during the light of day. Here was a quasi-subsistence way of life. It was an approximation of how my grandparents once lived. There was something heartening about the whole scene. I came to Bontida looking for history and I had found it, just not the type of history I had expected. This place was full of living history for me, but to the villagers of Bontida it was nothing more than everyday life.

I walked along the same road for almost four kilometers, after half an hour it became tedious. What I would later learn made me see this same road in a different light. In 1944 the Nazis looted Banffy Castle, which at the time held one of the most magnificent collections of paintings, furnishings and books in Transylvania. This was punishment for Miklos Banffy’s role in helping negotiate the peace that took Romania out of the war. In their usual, thorough Teutonic manner the Nazis cleaned out the castle’s valuables. They were packed into seventeen trucks, which were driven away from the castle probably down this very road I was walking along. The valuables did not make it back to Germany. They were blown to oblivion by allied bombing raids. The Nazis also left Banffy castle a smoldering ruin, setting fire to it before they left Bontida.

These flames of destruction were the castle’s final illumination before Transylvania was engulfed by the encroaching darkness of war, then communism and finally the venal machinations of the Ceaucescu regime. When all this turmoil and turbulence came to end with the execution the Ceaucescus on Christmas Day, 1989, Banffy Castle was nothing more than a hollowed out shell of its former self. Since that time there had been incredible attempts to resurrect it. What had been achieved over the past twenty-five years now stood before me as I made a final approach to the castle towards an arched entrance way, the portal to a past of romance and ruin.

Coming soon: An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)