IT HAS been a difficult start to September – not at all what I had anticipated, when I longed for autumn’s fresh breezes, back in the dog days of August. Hungary – a place I love, and regard almost as a second home, or at least a place of the heart, full of rich friendships, experiences and potent memories – has been in the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Orban’s hardline government continues to reject the stream of refugees now pouring into Europe from the war zones of the world – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq – with razor wire fencing along the border with Serbia, and a terrible stand-off at Keleti Station in Budapest, where refugees were shut out of the station and refused entry to trains, before setting off in desperation, on foot, on a long route march to Austria, braving concrete motorways in the fierce heat of the day and the plummeting temperatures of night. And there is no sign that this crisis will let up in the near future. It is showing the division between longer-standing members of the European Union and the newer members like Hungary – from the former Soviet bloc. Hungary is not a rich country, and has had more than its share of conflict and deprivation, with centuries of being overrun by one aggressive regime after another – the Turks, the Austrians, the German fascists and the Russian communists. As one Hungarian friend said to me recently, shaking her head at the politicians who have been in power since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “We don’t know how to do democracy – nobody ever taught us.” One thing is clear though: building new walls to keep people out is never going to work, long term or short. Meanwhile, all the warm hearted Hungarians I know are doing what they can in the name of humanity: supplying water, food, clothing, temporary shelters, to people passing through their borders, who are in desperate need. Let’s hope we, in the UK, will step up and do more of the same.
Hungary – despite the recent woeful headlines – is a place of hidden depths and great beauty. I recently wrote a short story about my very first visit there, back in January 1988. The country was under thick layers of snow – icicles hanging from the trees, city statues wrapped up in cloth, to stop them cracking from the cold – and was still under the wintry grip of Soviet-style state socialism. I fell in love with the place immediately. Here’s a tiny extract from the story – about a stay in a little country cottage (much like the one in the photo above), in the depths of winter, by the snowy shores of Lake Balaton…
But first: there is Fonyód. Although living conditions are cramped and communal, throughout the Soviet Bloc, many Hungarians have engineered a perfect get-away: the nyaraló – country cottage. Nearly every family boasts one of these tiny, yellow, single-floor self-builds, dotted all around the countryside, and clustered along the rich and fertile shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s massive and much-loved “inland sea”. These houses are welcome retreats during the hot summer months, when the towns and cities become stifling and airless. People grow fruit, peppers and vegetables in the little gardens. There are cherry trees, sweet and bitter. And inside – the thick stone walls offer sanctuary and shade. During the winter, when temperatures plummet, the cottages are locked up and left empty until the following season. Visits in the dead of winter are rare, for obvious reasons. But Kate is setting off in the snow, anyway. The prospect excites her.
The night before she leaves, she sits in Eszter’s flat and watches as Eszter’s friend György painstakingly prepares nokedli – working a home-made dumpling mix through a cheese grater to create a pleasing, nobbly, bumpy pasta that floats, rich and creamy, on top of their chicken stew. It surprises her that this big brawn of a man – one of the theatre technicians, known for his strength and stamina – has such a delicacy of touch, exhibits such delight in making mountains of fresh food. (Eszter hardly cooks at all. She lets other people do it for her.) But György is proud of his efforts.
“Lots of men cook here,” he explains, looking at Eszter to interpret his rapid-fire Hungarian. “We love our Magyar dishes.” With good cause. The food is delicious, belly-warming, full of dark, lovely flavours.
“ Anyway, you need feeding up,” György adds, circling Kate’s thin wrist with his big stubby hand, “You’re too thin. And in Fonyód you’ll need all the blubber you can muster, to keep out the cold!”
The next morning, György drives Kate and Eszter out to the cottage, on the edges of the small town of Fonyód, close to the shores of the Balaton. Flakes of snow fall softly as they drive, melting and sliding down the windscreen, playful, insistent. As they get closer to the lake, the fog closes in. Soon they can barely see a few yards ahead of them. When they get to the cottage, György and Eszter stop just long enough to open up the house, unload some food, and set the small stove burning in the kitchen. They are keen to set off back, before the weather gets worse.
“Don’t let the fire go out, whatever you do,” warns Eszter, “It’s your only source of heat. There’s a village shop just at the end of the lane if you need anything. We’ll come back to get you the day after tomorrow. Sit tight. Wrap up warm!” And with that, they are gone, in a cloud of exhaust fumes and with a complaining roar from the ancient, clapped-out car engine. Suddenly Kate – after living in people’s pockets for the past ten days and nights – finds herself completely alone.
She sits and stares at the fire for a long time. Then, turns to look out of the window at the winter scenery – most of it obscured by fog, by the shadows of the falling snow. The fact of her solitude slowly sinks in. She gets up and walks into the tiny bedroom, where there are two narrow single beds, one of them piled with a lumpy duvet – brought from Kaposvár in the car this morning. There is nothing much else in the room, except for an old wooden chair and a small table. At the bedroom window are faded floral curtains and some wooden shutters. She pushes the shutters back and looks out at the back garden: the skeleton of a fruit tree, weighed down by the fresh snow, stares back at her. And underneath everything: the deep frozen earth. Central Europe seems like Snow White – fast asleep in her cold bed, for a hundred lonely years.
She decides to venture outside before the snow falls too deep, and pulls on an extra jumper under her thick coat, before setting off, muffled and wary, towards the lake. Eszter was insistent that the water was close by – “Out the front door, straight across the road, and follow the path” – but Kate has no way of knowing, in the obscuring snow, what is near, and what is far. She stumbles blindly down the path – trees on either side of her, reaching out their white bony arms to brush at her face. She is startled to find herself, suddenly, there. At the edge of the water. Its surface, here in the shallows, is thickly crusted with ice, the sky above, grey and woolly and full of foreboding. The snow has stopped falling now. Everything is ghostly quiet. She stands still – and feels the whole world holding its breath.
The lake yields none of its secrets today – its enormous expanse of joyous water, which draws so many to it, yachtsmen, swimmers, surfers and sunbathers, in the summer months, is sealed shut by the January freeze, the lid of its treasures is locked tight. But Kate doesn’t mind. It is a peaceful place, and her mind is a clean, blank page. After a few minutes of standing perfectly still, staring at nothing, she deliberately breaks the silence, by stamping on a thick chunk of ice that has broken free at the water’s edge, seeing it creak and crack, with silent satisfaction. She sighs deeply, and watches the warm vapour of her breath catch in the cold air in front of her face – hanging there, like a whisper, before it dissolves in the enveloping mist.
She turns to go back. To her surprise, two people approach, walking towards her on the narrow path. For a while, by the water, she has believed she is the only person alive.
“Jó napot” – “Hello” – she stammers, using one of her carefully-learned Hungarian greetings, as instructed by Eszter. (“If you say nothing when you meet people, you’ll look rude”.) But they do not reply, just stare at her and carry on walking. Kate drops her head, embarrassed, and picks up speed as she passes them, sliding on the slippery surfaces of the dirt path and the narrow tarmacked road. She shuts the front door behind her with relief. Then she unpeels her damp clothes, sits by the little fire, with some tea, a chunk of bread, salami and cheese, before climbing under the fat duvet on the little wooden bed, letting the sweet amnesia of sleep carry her away.