The next morning Gabe tells us that last night was Józsi’s birthday, though he hadn’t known until he had arrived at the bar, and Józsi celebrated by getting piss-drunk and trying to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Had I known it was his birthday, I would have joined them. However there is a bright side – dreading trying to fit our inexpensive tent into our luggage, we decide to gift it to Józsi, as it was he who originally suggested we buy one in the U.S. as they tend to be much more expensive in Hungary.
We spend our final day packing, cleaning and searching for a way to safely transport our horse-bows, settling finally on thick cardboard tubing, plastic pipe caps and zip ties – all purchased at the large Home Depot-clone hardware store – which Gabe and Józsi jury-rig into containers that I fear too closely resemble bazookas. We keep our fingers crossed that they will get through airport security.
The downtime, though, allows me to reflect on the last two weeks. Kristen and I have shared memorable experiences and met humbling hospitality. We have grown to know, in our own limited fashion, a little understood or appreciated European people. Indeed, this is clearly a nation in transition, both physically and psychologically. Men work to widen neglected roads which only a few years ago had automobile-eating pot holes; once dangerously deteriorated train stations now look sleek and modern thanks to E.U. money. Food varieties have emerged for the Hungarian palate – Chinese takeout, pizza, etc. Where once people made due with used parts, ingenuity, and good deal of luck, now the box-stores which have so spoiled the U.S. and Western Europe are a short drive away (if, of course, you can afford them).
Hungary, also, is a nation that after the Cold War isolationism is still rediscovering and redefining itself. From what we have seen, a certain degree of a classic inferiority complex permeates the culture – in some, it is even defeatist and fatalistic; in others still, suicidal. Hungary had for so long been under the thumb of one foreign power after another. Not many English language volumes exist that deal with Hungarian history, but perhaps the most popular one has a title which sums up the sentiment (and to which Gabe and I could not help but to laugh at, given the unintentional comically bleak optimism): The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Even the term “Hungarian” has been imposed from the outside, associating the people with the sixth century Empire of the Onogurs and then with the infamous, nomadic Huns, a connection which despite medieval tradition has been the source of much scholarly debate and controversy. Hungarians themselves, in their own language, prefer the more linguistically and historically accurate term “Magyar.”
The memories of oppression are still potent and fresh. But Hungarians are looking to the past for pathways into the future, readopting cultural artifacts and ancestral traditions while also trying to modernize into a more modern, sophisticated, Western-style European country. And though some obstacles remain, it is working. Hungary slept and forgot while the rest of the world moved on, but slowly, steadily, stubbornly, they are waking up.
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