The World of Yesterday

by Holly A. Case

KeplapSzeged is a Hungarian university town near the border with Serbia where I spent my third year of college abroad in 1995-1996. When I arrived for the first time with a year's worth of luggage, the traffic in and out of the train station included a rail-bus that carried people in and smuggled goods out. A college friend from Belgrade knew Szeged as a grocery stop for cheese, catsup, juice, and gasoline, and wondered why on earth I wanted to spend a year abroad there. The wondrous strangeness of provincial towns near troubled borders is impossible to explain to people from the fast-talking capitals, yet these are the weighty time-space benders that have always attracted me: Klagenfurt, Szeged, Mardin…

There was money to be made selling gas to the embargoed Serbs in 1995, but since it entered illicitly inside the tanks of private cars to be siphoned out just across the border, none of it passed through the train station. I saw its effects later, where I rented a room in an apartment just down the street from the station for seventy dollars a month. The house, with greenhouse and rabbit farm (off-site), was connected to another whose owners had their fingers in countless post-communist pies, of which smuggling gas into Serbia was only one. My rent was deliberately lower than it might have been so long as I gave English lessons to the son of the family, who in his mid-teens was already doing so well that he didn't feel English was necessary.

Outside of Hungary, Szeged is primarily known for two things—paprika and salami. In the autumn of 1995, the trams and busses carried olfactory traces of salami, cigarette smoke, garlic, sweat, cheap plum brandy, and urine. The medly communicated that times were not so great for everyone. There were old ladies selling beautifully bound and inscribed memory books and nineteenth-century underwear at the flea market near where I lived for the equivalent of pennies to pay their heating bills. One elderly woman I met near the phone booth, where I had often waited in line in to make or receive calls from home, picked weeds to feed her chickens. She brought me to her "house" that stood in the courtyard of someone else's. It was more of a shed: miniscule and low-slung, no bathroom, only a sink and a wood stove for both heating and cooking, a calendar for decoration; no comfort. Her son was in America, she said. The tram I took to the university some days, the number four, had a driver who was Roma. One day he showed up in a crisp, white shirt, black pants and with his face bashed in.

Yet to many young Hungarians, everything seemed within reach if you were willing stretch a little. My friends had little money, but they could travel and study, and they did: in the US, Germany, France… My best friend's boyfriend at the time played classical guitar and spoke five languages. They were all reading Imre Kertész and László Krasznahorkai, in addition to the European and American literary classics. I first read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery for a course I took in theEnglish department. At the new Grand Café cinema, we watched the films of Wenders, Greenaway, Tarkovsky, and Jarmusch dubbed in Hungarian. There were house concerts by classical guitarists, outdoor jazz concerts with talented student singers and instrumentalists, costume and fancy-dress parties with dancing, everything ad hoc and on the cheap, and for that reason doubly wondrous.

Yesterday Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, won reelection and is likely to use his new mandate to further dismantle Hungary's democracy. I once asked a friend of mine, another historian of Eastern Europe, what she thought made the region unique. She said Eastern Europeans have long been acutely aware that anything is possible; that the whole world can change in an instant. A wall can fall, a war can start, a whole country can sink into catastrophe and despair, or rise with new hope. An editor listening to our exchange said he thought "Everything is possible" was perhaps not the right phrase, because at the root of "possible" is the Latin for power (potent, to be able), which Eastern Europeans have often lacked. He proposed an alternative: Anything can happen. Orbán once insisted that Hungary should be a "country where not anything can happen."

In 1995 it was possible to imagine a thousand futures for Hungary. Now the phrase "Everything is possible" increasingly applies to the future of just one man.