How Europe’s Other Half Lives

Shoes donated by Hungarians for refugee children in Budapest on Monday. Credit Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Shoes donated by Hungarians for refugee children in Budapest on Monday. Credit Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It was mortifying to see refugees hurling themselves on the tracks at a Hungarian railway station — as they did last week when a train they thought was carrying them to Austria was stopped by the police in Hungary to take them to a detention camp. The migrants’ despair was because they didn’t want to be stuck here — in the country where we Hungarians are destined to live our shabby little lives.

I have often felt like throwing myself on the tracks at a country railway station — just thinking about being Hungarian. And many of my compatriots have, out of sheer melancholy, successfully executed this act as a train arrived.

These people walking all the way from Syria, however, are definitely not suicidal. They are hungry for life. Only, they don’t believe they can find that life here.

Eastern Europe is not the all-inclusive luxury hotel that many in the other half of the Continent enjoy; we’re more at the low-budget, self-catering end of the market. But it’s not that bad, either. It provides some aspects of a European lifestyle; sometimes it seems deeply provincial, sometimes quite refined.

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Hungary is not explicitly a poor country. But it is a frustrated, and frustrating, place — with its “seen better days” culture, antiquated manias and obsessions, barely functioning bureaucracy, tepid economy and corrupt politicians.

“I play a new game these days,” a friend of mine said. “I watch the news with my back turned to the TV, and just by listening I can tell which party a politician belongs to. If he blames the government for the refugee crisis, he’s from the opposition. If he blames the European Union and its legislation, he must be with the government.”

An easy game to play, no question. My friend is a sensitive woman who has dedicated many years to organizing the lives of senior officials in international charity organizations with offices in Budapest — in the course of which she has witnessed many flaws in the way they operate. And because she’s smart, she also saw that while, economically and culturally, Europe hardly knows what to do with the refugees, some are glad to have them as tools to shape domestic politics.

If you want to find out whether Hungarian people possess any measure of good will toward these poor creatures, go to the Keleti train station and take a look at the mounds of donated goods, distributed by a growing army of volunteers. But if you enjoy studying the various forms of hypocrisy, then browse the Facebook posts of Hungarian intellectuals who parade their own narcissistic love of humanity and their disgust with the government.

Posing as a fully fledged humanitarian is not that difficult. Much harder, these days, is for a politician — especially one who claims to be conservative, patriotic and Christian — to show a compassionate human face and at the same time soothe his worried voters. Compassion is a minimal requirement: Even if you don’t have it by birth, you must learn to fake it.

Admittedly, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban doesn’t even bother faking it. These leaders’ cruel charm has now attracted secret admirers.

You’ll find them in the ruin bars of Budapest. These are an institution that could exist only in this country: pubs set up in abandoned buildings and vacant lots of the city’s old Jewish quarter that trade on a faded Austro-Hungarian glory. After a few drinks, when people drop the mask of political correctness they wear for the rest of the week, they quietly team up to express “how tired” they are of the “dirty mob” around the railway stations and loitering downtown.

“Can’t tell you how fed up I am with Orban,” said one after a fourth beer. “But may God help him build that blasted fence!”

It makes no difference whether one is a border fence enthusiast, or a liberal intellectual nauseated by our prime minister, or a middle-class Budapest resident longing for self-respect and aggrieved at the international news coverage. At heart, we all share a desire to belong to a nation of freedom fighters.

Fighting for freedom and earning moral victory: This is the religion in which we are raised in Hungary, and we have built our whole national identity around it.

Unlike the last two times we thought ourselves world-famous freedom fighters — in 1956, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian refugees fled the Communist regime to Austria, and in 1989, when thousands of East Germans climbed to Austria via Hungary through those same fences — this time, there is no chance for us to be the good guys again.

The extreme situation has made the European Union’s rules on how to handle immigrants impossible for Hungary to comply with. But combined with our government’s mixture of aggressive self-defense and hidden self-hatred, this has meant that we cannot help but be the bad guys. All we have left is the fun of exchanging roles: hero for villain.

“Terrible, this situation with the migrants,” said my mother over the phone. “What do you think, darling?”

By which she means: “What should I, a retired small-town elementary school teacher, think of all this? You tell me, my big girl living in the capital.”

My mother knows what a refugee is. Twenty years ago, during the Balkan conflict, my family lived near Hungary’s southern border, close to recently abandoned Soviet barracks that were set up as a refugee camp for ethnic Hungarians fleeing the war. Eventually, all the residents either moved to the West or resettled in Hungary, and the camp shut down.

These days, like others in Hungary and Eastern Europe, my mother needs to revise her notions of migration, Europe and Europeans. And she could use my advice.

I won’t frighten her by telling her that I don’t always know what to think.

Noemi Szecsi, a writer and translator, is the author of the novel The Finno-Ugrian Vampire.

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