Red, white and green
I already got to meet some Hungarians in Romania, but since my arrival in Debrecen yesterday ? it`s now Hungary for real. A country of 10 million people that, just like its neighbours, has been overrun by foreign invaders several times during its history. Celts, Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Austrians and most recently, Soviets. Here`s a brief description of current day Hungary, starting off by briefly comparing it to Romania.
Getting out of Romania seemed to be a risky procedure, one day before the start of the NATO summit in Bucharest. As it had been announced, the security level at the borders would be very high. In my case, that implied unpacking my bags on the platform of Valea lui Mihai train station. The border guards were particularly interested in my old note books, and I suddenly remembered pasting a Free Bask Country sticker at the last page of one of them. Fortunately, they only saw the one other sticker on the first page of the book, which celebrated that Malta had joined the Schengen-zone. That was apparently not enough to keep me from leaving Romania, and off I went, on the train to Debrecen.
`Hungarian pride resides in history, not in the present`
Colours and languages
The East of Hungary makes a less colourful impression than most of Romania. No more bright yellow fences, no more bright red seats in the railway stations and no more bright blue train carriages. Those national colours seem to be everywhere in Romania, giving the country a happy accent even in city landscapes that would otherwise look quite depressing. Hungary, on the other hand, seems to prefer the more modest pastel-type colours for big surface while small details tend to have colours that are strictly functional. Apart from that, there are much fewer such details in the street: fewer advertisements and certainly not as many electricity, telephone, trolleybus and tram cables as Romania has just about everywhere.
Modesty also seems to reign in other visual elements. Most cars in Hungary can be classified as middle-class, while public transportation is more modern and the people tend to be more obedient to the system. At least: as far as traffic lights are concerned. Cars coming or no cars coming, the local pedestrians of Debrecen patiently wait for the light to change to green before attempting to reach the other side. I feel as if I`m in Finland, a country which by the way seems to have some more similarities with Hungary than just the way people deal with traffic lights.
Hungarian seems to be related to the same language group that produced Finnish and Estonian, even though the exact link between them is disputed. What is sure for me is that Hungarian sounds similar to Finnish. That`s not a problem in itself, because I could deal with that in Finland. With one major difference: almost everybody in Finland spoke English and very few Hungarians are equipped with that very same skill. I have arrived in another `dubbing` country, and continue to believe that the subtitling-versus-dubbing issue is to a large extent decisive in the average level of foreign languages people from a certain country speak.
Dora (24, photo) says that she feels a bit ambivalent about being Hungarian. `On one hand, our country is proud of the many geniuses we had in the past. Hungarians contributed to many inventions, such as matches, the atomic bomb and vital elements in the automotive industry. Hungarians are great thinkers, but putting words into action is not always the first priority. On average, we are more theoretical than practical in our way of thinking. Hungary could be a great country if it could turn all its potential into action; if there weren`t so many people who leaned back on the past and if people developed their talents instead of taking them for granted. Then the Hubgarian Nobel-prize winners would not only have Hungarian nationality, but would also be living in Hungary without needing to get to Austria or Germany to get recognition for their work.`
Dora tells me that Hungarians can usually count on positive welcomes in other countries. `Most people will tell me that they have been to Budapest and they will try to pronounce a few words in Hungarian, or tell about somebody Hungarian they met. I personally have good relations with Polish people and I believe this is a national friendship between our countries. We had one shared king in the past, and there is still a tradition of drinking together, fighting together and wining together: sharing the good times and the bad times.`
`Relations with Slovakia and Romania can be a bit more troublesome. When I went there for the first time, I was advised not to speak Hungarian in public in order not to offend the local population. When the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was split up after the First World War, huge parts of land were handed to Romania and Slovakia. Many Hungarians ended up living in a foreign country and not always on the best possible terms with the inhabitants of their new homeland. Still today, there are extreme rightish political groups who call for the unification of the `old`, pre-1918 Hungary. They distribute stickers and posters displaying the shape and size of that territory.`
Martin (21) is well aware of the history of their country, as he sums up the decisive events from the last two centuries: `1848 ? Failed revolt against the Habsburgs, leading to passive resistance against the regime, 1956 - Revolution against the Stalinist rule, beaten down by Moscow troops, 1989 - Hungary speeding up the dismantlement of communist Eastern Europe by opening the border to Austria, 2004 - Hungary joining the European Union.`
European Union membership is generally seen as a positive achievement, even though many Hungarians think that the country has not yet been able to access the support it qualifies for. Also, many Hungarians seem to think of Hungary as a lonely little island in the middle of Europe, with no neighbouring countries to support them. No county like Finland that is supporting growth in Estonia, no French support as Romania can count on.
M?t? (18) complains that Hungary has officially converted into a democracy in 1989, but in his opinion, reality is quite different: `We have learnt about democracy, but we are not able to apply it. The political opposition in Hungary is very weak. Our government has messed up plenty of major projects, but they are still in charge. Information is still kept within small rooms, except for one quote that leaked to the media some 18 months ago. It was the president addressing his ministers saying: `We have lied, we have cheated and we have fucked up. Not just a little bit, but big time.` That phrase caused massive protests in Budapest and citizens obviously felt offended by the leader of their country admitting what everybody already knew. But hearing it spelled out loud was still a big blow in the face.`
Norah (24) tells that Hungarians do not have an innate sense of belonging. Unlike their Latin neighbours in Romania, Hungarians tends to be more individualistic, part of which is explained by a stubborn lack of trust in the other person. `There is some kind of national pessimism and negativity that is hard to pinpoint. Even the national anthem dwells in pity. People seem to take more pride out of accepting misery than out of breaking through it`, Nora says.
Whatever the circumstances may be, most Hungarians still seem to be proud to be Hungarian. I will use the coming two weeks to find out what the positive side that must be hiding behind the layer of pessimism. Until then, let me share this small Hungarian rhyme with you, if it doesn`t help, it doesn`t harm: Piros, feh?r, z?ld ? Ez a Magyar f?ld. `Red, white, green ? Such is the Hungarian land.`
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