October 20, 2016
Even though I have flown many times, I cannot be but awed and scared each time by this most unhuman act. Birds do it, bees do it, mosquitoes do it, even microbes do it; it’s in their nature. But it’s not in ours. We do it because of our consciousness, curiosity, imagination, desire, will to go where we have never gone before.
We defy our limitations and we overcome what seems impossible. Four hundred and sixteen of us, not counting captain and crew and tons of luggage are stuffed into a metal bird that flies at 500 to 600 miles per hour at 39000 thousand feet among and above the clouds, over land and water for hours.
I hardly let go of the armrests and grip them more tightly as we take off, as the plane rises and dips and turns, as unnatural mechanical sounds and vibrations fill my blocked ears. I hardly dare peek out that little oval window to look at the tons of fluff and the brilliant blue. How can we not be awed by and/or scared of of this? But most people are now blasé about this human made miracle. Not me. My fellow passengers, my fellow humans, casually make themselves at home in the cramped seats, next to strangers, take out their electronic devices, ignore the cabin crew’s mime show of what to do calmly in “the unlikely” case of an emergency.
But I pay attention every time I fly, or more correctly, am flown, in the belly of a metal bird and wonder and am awed by all this and why I do not become a devout follower of one of the great deities of our imagination.
October 21, 2016
I am flying to the land of the mighty Magyars sixty years after my family and I fled the chaos, the shooting and the killing that was the people’s uprising, their desire for freedom, justice and revenge.
I am a sixty-eight-year-old child, author, exile going back to visit, read, lecture and witness the celebration of those intense moments, days and weeks when change seemed possible and I lost my innocence.
I’ve been back before, and each time I’ve gone through emotional turbulence. I’ve experienced anxiety, excitement, joy, anger, hatred and sadness but this time it feels different. Again.
Maybe it’s more significant because of the publication of my book (Never, Again) which is about those times, maybe because we give certain numbers, like those with zeroes after them more meaning, and maybe because they have a stronger memento mori impact. Maybe because it’s the sixtieth anniversary of Hungary’s and my defining moment. Obviously, my defining moment is not what the country is about to celebrate. But of course, it’s mine.
Being a writer I can’t help but see a symbolic significance in everything. It’s the blessing and the curse. It’s cloudy, grey and raining as I step out of the Franz Liszt airport. The airport name has been changed only recently. It used to be called Ferihegy but now is named after one of Hungary’s greatest composers who could make music soar. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.
Ferihegy was named after Ferenc Xavér Mayerffy (1776–1845), the former owner of an estate who established vineyards and contributed to the development of viticulture in Pest-Buda. "Feri" is a diminutive form of Ferenc while "hegy" means hill. However, the fact is that the area is almost totally flat but originally there was a 147 m high sandy hillock which was levelled in the 1940s during the constructions work on the airport. (Google) Only in Hungary do you have a mountain that’s really only a hillock. Eh, Montreal?
Z is waiting for me. We do a bit of catching up as we drive into town but soon Z turns to the political scene in Hungary. Z likes to joke but basically he is a person who likes to talk about things that mean something and now in Hungary everything has significance. We talk of politics, culture, family and food.
The sky clears and somehow our conversation turns - I don’t remember how or why - to physical culture and the YMCA. He is both surprised and pleased to learn that the Village People’s song has homosexual undertones.
A, his partner, who is a a Phd candidate working on Alice Munroe, comes home later. I tell you these Hungarians know more about us than we do about ourselves. Listen to me saying “us.” I guess I am not Hungarian anymore. And yet.
She teaches English to students at the McGill of Hungary. She also teaches English privately. Many other university teachers do the same to make ends meet. In cowboy capitalist times education and health services are the first to feel the pinch. Quelle surprise.
Later that night, we watch a talk show on which I first see and hear the “Nurse in Black.” This articulate and insightful nurse has started to wear black to bring attention to the deplorable conditions in Hungarian hospitals: the cutbacks of staff and funding, the lack of new equipment, dilapidated infrastructure. This, in contrast, to the billions spent by the government on building soccer stadiums, on statues to rehabilitate fascists and helicoptering ministers’ friends to avoid traffic. ‘Helicoptering’, I learn, has now become a term to highlight government ministers’ sense of entitlement and corruption. There is no admission of wrongdoings and no sense of shame about it by the governing Fidesz Party or accused ministers.
There is opposition and protesting. Hungarians are great at symbolic and theatrical gestures. The '56 flag with a hole in it, the whistle symphony protests, and the two-tailed dog posters to name a few. We could learn from them.
Although the opposition is very creative, it can’t seem to topple the government in elections because like the Left everywhere it is so fragmented that the Right can divide and rule. It reminds me of the scene in the film The Life of Brian in the coliseum. The fragmented Left is brilliantly satirized as we learn that the Judean’s People’s Front hates the People’s Front of Judea. The People’s Front of Judea hates the Judean Popular People’s Front and the Judean Popular People’s Front hates the Judean’s People Front. And thrice versa. As we watch, we sup on kolbasz, hot green peppers, cheese, bread, and toast each other with palinka and beer.