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.
My roots extend to the far northeast reaches of present-day Hungary, to a sleepy little village called Gonc. I hastily made my way to this significant place. From a Berlitz survival Hungarian book I read on the train ride out, I had managed to retain only a few words. No one from the Szgeto family, except perhaps the next generation, will ever know English. But what followed was a union that needed no words.
My Uncle Sandor and I attended a service on a bright Sunday in the beautiful Catholic church in the center of town. Then I joined him afterwards for the rest of his Sunday ritual: a walk up the hill to the cemetery where the Szgeto family grave lies. Motionless, he stood over the tombstone, and I shared his closeness to the entire family, including the deceased.
As we descended the hill from the graveyard, I had to squint against the bright April sun. Concentrating on keeping my footing on the dirt road, I lowered my gaze from the tapestry of small peach and apricot orchards and rectangular vineyards down to my feet. My head and shoulders assumed the same position as they had in the cemetery. In the village of my great-grandmother's youth, and at the side of my Uncle Sandor, I felt like a pioneer of the past. I could only guess at the wisdom of his words, but I think they meant: You see, time is not so important after all.
I returned to Kecskemet with a confident feeling of belonging.
Every young Hungarian man is obligated to fulfill a one-year term in the Army. I have never served in the armed forces, but all of my Hungarian friends hate it. I regularly find myself pondering obligation when I see small groups of comrades uniformly dressed in Army green - a common sight here because Kecskemet, with its military airport base, is a strategic military headquarters.
I've more than once thought myself selfish for leaving my own country and coming to Hungary. But temporary selfishness and self-discovery, at times, seem indistinguishable: an American pioneer, or my great-grandmother, for example. She undoubtedly left Hungary in search of a better, safer life. I think we all must focus on ourselves sometimes to discover - or try to discover - who we are.
On the other hand, I remember the feeling I had back in the United States while still pondering coming to Hungary. I felt almost obligated to come. Not an obligation in the sense of childhood chores - taking out the trash and doing the dishes. Rather, a responsibility to understand where I've been, so that I know where I need to go in life. I also felt a duty to give back to society somehow. As much as I loved being a student, I needed to turn the tables and take a seat behind the teacher's desk.
After a demanding and tiring seven months on the job, my summer holiday finally arrived. I needed a break from the routine of teaching. I headed towards the famous Lake Balaton.
Hungarians don't have a sea or an ocean to visit, and perhaps this accounts for the very special relationship that Hungarians have with their water.
I watched young and old alike wade in the shallow southern waters, splashing their uppers in a meditative, aquatic Tai Chi, finishing with a climactic neck-high dip. Why did they receive the water so slowly? I naturally dove right in. Not more than a week had passed, however, before one of my friends noticed that I was also "receiving" the water.
"If the communists did one good thing for Hungarians," my friend Laszlo said, and not softly, as we sat outside at a cafe, "they inadvertently brought families and friends close together." Laszlo, a young rock musician who just returned from Holland, was describing life under communist rule, and his sometimes rebellious antics of protest. Clearly, the most pressing need then - during the 35 years of communism - was to know whom you could trust. This, he said, "kept families and friends close together."
For 35 years, Kecskemet was home for an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Russian soldiers, commanders, and their families. They never bothered to learn Hungarian, which, in addition to their contrasting facial features and Russian attire, was a daily reminder of their unsolicited presence. It was in June, 1991, that the Russians finally left, but the heartaches, economic troubles, and memories remain.
One set of old Russian barracks, a huge, formerly majestic town building, lies just outside the center of town. It was seized in 1946, and its ownership papers were destroyed. Dilapidated and melancholic, it today sits abandoned, a symbol of former stateliness and communist wrong-doing. "They just used the buildings, they didn't care about them," my friend Zoli explained.
It's hard to imagine that people actually lived there two years ago. It's a far cry from the well-tended flower gardens and yards outside one-story homes, and the plethora of flower boxes and plants that flood the balconies and windows of square, cement blocks of flats where Hungarians live. It's a contrast that will never blend.
I know the exterior of the building very well, because I have taught English classes at a neighboring factory. There I uncovered the remnant of Hungary's past to which Laszlo referred. I asked my class, a mix of young and old, married and single, what their lifelong dreams were.
"Big families," the young men responded, their answer echoed by the others, "Lots of grandchildren." Smiling under a full moustache that restlessly searched for words, another man submitted his hopes for a long life for all Hungarians, in his mind the imminence of surrounding conflicts in Eastern Europe.
I met a man the other day who just returned to Hungary. He's Hungarian, and he's back for good, leaving a life in Toronto that he started back in 1969. A typical success story: Years of hard work in the restaurant business paid off. He bought the nice apartment, a new Honda. However, he never found anyone with whom he thought he could start a family.
I think it's his family in Kecskemet that in part brought him back home. As we chatted with his relatives, I noticed in him a typical Western serenity, a respect for high ethics, a patient tolerance, and a politically correct mentality, all confidently wrapped up in a still very Hungarian man.
As we sat around a Victorian dining table sipping tea and nibbling cakes, I bombarded him with questions, monopolizing his time. Between the china cups and silver spoons, I hastily sought answers to the questions of my soul.
It's now springtime, and I've been busy in the garden learning how to grow paprika, corn, potatoes, and grapes. Hungary is a country of farmers and moonlighting gardeners. It's one of the ways of making ends meet. I have noticed that student attendance and attention drops every spring. And gardening has had humbling effects on me.
I feel smaller here than I ever felt in America. Perhaps this is the result of living in a country the size of an average American state, multiplied by monetary constraints that strap me and other Hungarians to a relatively immobile existence. Yet I feel more connected here to the rest of the world, especially when I'm in the garden. Among the rows of apricot and cherry trees, the dimension of time disappears, just as it does for my Uncle Sandor when he gazes down at the Szgeto family grave. I feel withi n reach of everything, including myself.
Sometimes when my back is bent toward the earth, Hungarian soil trapped under my fingernails, I get to wondering about my great-grandmother. Looking at my dirty American hands, smooth but wide and thick like a Hungarian's, a family story my father once told me comes to mind. The reason my great-grandmother left Gonc and braved the perilous land-and-sea journey to America was that she was sick of the mud.