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Roots Reaching Deep into Hungarian Soil

By Richard Starets / May 5, 1993

`RE-HARD! Re-hard!"

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I can still hear the voice of my great-grandmother calling me. Eighty years of life in America wasn't enough to free the hold of the Hungarian language on her tongue. Her r's rolled at length in accordance with her mood, and her i's sounded like e's. Actually, she and her daughter had a language all of their own - neither English nor Hungarian, but a mixture of both - and although it was intelligible to me, it still raised my curiosity.

But back then, mid-70s, I was not yet a teenager. I thought and knew very little about Hungary.

Katalin Kovacs Szgeto was her name, and she lived to be 92 years old. She wore a white wig, asked only for the "vings" when we ate chicken, and her hearing aid rang all night when I tried to sleep in the adjacent twin bed. In that "foreign" language, she also talked in her sleep, and it sounded like the prayers she said in the evening at bedside.

This was all some time ago in Poway, Calif., yet despite our difficulties communicating, she sparked the curiosity that burned inside me until I finally made my way to Hungary, after a college degree and a taste of the 9-to-5 American job experience.

Flying into a wintery Budapest airport, the city from my little oval window greeted my nervous anticipation with a cold hand. Patches of old city snow - frozen and thawed over again to a rough black crust - lined the streets.

A young friend of mine picked me up in his Dacia, and we drove to my final destination, the city of Kecskemet. Located south of Budapest in the center of Hungary, between the Danube and Tisza rivers, this farming region is known as the Hungarian Great Plain. It's as flat as Nevada. The tallest hill visible from Kecskemet is a man-made dirt dome - called the Benko Dome after the communist leader who had it constructed. I hear the dome is collapsing from the center due to an unstable foundation.

I soon learned that the teaching job I thought I had secured from America no longer existed. Hungary's financial troubles had found me before I had found a flat. It was not until I had to search for work (and finally found a job at an English-language school) that I regarded my great-grandmother's voyage to the United States with admiration and empathetic pride. She was 16, penniless, and alone when her ship pulled into New York Harbor just before World War I.

The private school where I work consists of two small apartments on the third floor of a long block of flats - a communist speciality. At first, the idea of a school located in two flats rather than in an independent structure seemed odd to me. But I soon found private businesses at other peculiar sites. The ground floors of many such communist-constructed buildings were private garages, but entrepreneurs have converted their garages to "nonstop" (24-hour) variety stores, indoor-outdoor cafes, or little clothing boutiques.

My students, both young and old, for whom English has become a job prerequisite and the only ticket for a stable future, see nothing wrong with our apartment school.

"Why did you come to Hungary?"

So many times I have been asked this question in earnest. And every time I answer it, or attempt to answer it, what comes forth from my mouth is more refined and clear, as if with time decisions made in the past crystallize into transparent reasons. Since my arrival in Hungary, I have learned a lot about myself - my needs, excesses, and desires, as a young product of American society.

It was my contact with my great-grandmother - and now my memories of her - that partially explains why I came to Hungary. I felt the existence of a living connection between family and ancestry - like the unseen roots of a tree that give life to what we admire as reality. So, in part, I came to Hungary to experience my past.