Belgrade, December 2nd 2012.
Our train pulls into Novi Sad station just over an hour after leaving Belgrade. We have been travelling across the vast wide open Pannonian Plan which makes up most of Serbia north of the capital. This enormous flat region is the meeting point of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a fertile growing region for millennia, its fields are split between many countries. Our journey to Budapest will cover around 250km, all of them across this calm earthen sea.
At Novi Sad an older man with a close cropped white speckled beard, glasses and a receding, but smartly trimmed, hairline enters our carriage. He points at Ste’s window seat and mumbles in English that he would like to sit there. Ste moves over and the man makes himself comfortable; placing a sandwich and two cans of Jelen larger on the small table in front of himself. He adjusts his cord jacket, pulls two textbooks from his bag and places them carefully on his knee. As we pull out of the station he opens one of the cans and takes a short sip.
Realising we speak English our new travelling companion introduces himself with a kindly smile as a philosophy professor from Budapest who’s been in Novi Sad giving a guest lecture. His English is excellent, with a wide vocabulary that I sometimes fail to keep up with, and spoken with almost no accent. I compliment him on this, realising too late that this probably comes across as horribly patronising.
He asks about our travels and what we’ve seen so far. For his part he reveals that he is from Transylvania, a member of the large Hungarian speaking minority that live in the regions of Romania that were previously within Hungary, before the Treaty of Trianon. Another example of how shifting borders in this region move around the people that live within them.
The Professor comments on my e-reader, which I’m currently using to read Howard’s End, and we start to talk about books. Apparently there is a great difference in the genres of books read in the UK and here. He has a relative in Scotland and visits London regularly, so gets to see the differences often. Biography and travel literature are unusual in Hungary. There is less of a fascination in an individual’s impact here, people believe more that you are mostly influenced by the events around you, so reading a book focused on only an individual is not very interesting.
Regarding travel literature; Hungarians prefer to travel themselves, less to read about it while sitting still. Perhaps as a result of the long periods of travel restrictions that existed until the 1990s. He himself didn’t travel outside Hungary or Romania until he was thirty, but has been busy catching up since.
We cross the boarder and the guards inspect our passports. Shortly after a conductor comes by and checks our tickets. As he leaves the Professor remarks of the conductor’s pony tail “How things have changed, that would never have been allowed before”. We pass through a tunnel and the lights in the compartment don’t come on, leaving us rattling along for a short while in darkness. He apologises and says normally the lights work. He recounts an experience he had when he was young and first travelling between Hungary and Romania. Then the trains barely had electricity and in the pitch black of a sleeper compartment his fellow travellers started talking. With the anonymity of the night they felt free to discuss politics and all the problems that you were not allowed to talk about in public, only possible in a safe confessional on wheels where no-one could be identified later.
As the flat horizon trundles by the conversation turns to politics, a subject our companion has clearly been involved in for a long time. He doesn’t give any history of his political involvement, but the passion and well meaning concern he expresses demonstrates that it has occupied his mind for a long time.
He speaks of his students, and that most leave for Western Europe, with the UK being an especially popular destination. They see little future back home, where corrupt politicians blatantly carve up state assets and pass legislation that is only in their own interest. The power vacuum left by the collapse of communism has not be filled well. He quotes: “Leaving is a form of resistance” from a source neither Ste nor I are quick enough to remember. If those who can are leaving, especially the young, then the future is also leaving.
I mention the occasional language faux pas I’d made in Belgrade, accidentally using Croatian expressions from my phrase book, instead of the Serbian ones. I’d been led to believe that they were effectively the same language shared by the two countries, but did get a few funny looks when saying “Bog” instead of “Zdravo” for “Hello”.
The Professor says this is becoming more common, that languages in the region are being changed for political reasons to try and reinforce national identities by having a unique language. Previously the Balkan and Central European countries were very multi-lingual; most people spoke many languages. While not always to a high standard, they could communicate with their neighbours or the different ethnic groups within their boundaries without problems. This is now changing; the split of Serbo-Croatian and its dialects into separate languages is only one recent example.
Budapest, he complains, used to be a bilingual city, all the street names were both in German and Hungarian. Even into the late 1960s you could speak in German and expect to be understood. Now you can’t even order a glass of water in German. After the first World War a big effort was made to remove signs of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also many words of Latin origin were replaced with ‘more Hungarian’ words. A theatre used to be called a “teatra”, but is now a “színház” - which is a combination of the words meaning drama/play and house - apparently superior because it doesn’t sound like a word shared with other languages.
Now most people only speak one language, which means their horizons are much smaller. It also means that they find it much harder to understand how language itself shapes your understanding and interpretation of information. He describes a lecture he was asked to give in Budapest on the Vienna Circle , an influential group of philosophers that gathered in Austria in the early twentieth century. All their texts were written in German, so he prepared his lecture in German, to be able to use the source material directly. Five minutes after he started one of the organisers stopped him and quietly asked him to continue in English or Hungarian; which he duly did. “Incredible!” he says, that these students weren’t able to read these important texts, part of their own recent philosphohical tradition, in its native language, a language that plays a huge role in their cultural history.
He claims that there is a rise in fascism in Central Europe as countries believe more and more in their own exceptionalism; the artificial fracturing of languages is just one sign of this. The sudden collapse of communism meant that many external organisations, such as the European Union, foreign companies and the International Monetary Fund quickly started to gain influence and direct what was happening. While they often had good intentions it has resulted in resentment against these nebulous, outside influences. They weren’t given power by voters, but have a big effect on how the country is run and what happens. This has made these international organisations into easy scapegoats for economic and social problems, used by self-serving politicians for their own gain and fuelling a fascist reaction against these ‘alien’ influences. He is scared by much of the recent political rhetoric that is reminiscent of language used in the 1930s; with its talk of corrupting external influences, enemies within under foreign control and identifying elements of the population that apparently aren’t patriotic. This has partly manifested itself in the extreme right wing Jobbik party gaining twelve percent of the seats in the Hungarian parliament in the 2010 election.
Outside the light is beginning to fade and the outskirts of Budapest begin to grow. The illuminated sign of a Tesco supermarket surprises Ste and me; probably not the best example of a foreign company to bring to Hungry. “They’ve been accused of union breaking and sharp practice” comments our Professor as we remark on Tesco’s unexpected appearance. “But if you pay the right people, the government can make that problem go away” he finishes darkly.
We pull into Budapest Keleti station and say our goodbyes. While the eight hours to travel 250km seems very slow, it was eight hours well spent. Through the good fortune of a chance encounter Ste and I were able to learn much that we had not thought about before.
Much of the time I was struggling to keep up with the Professor’s wide and deep deliberations, often on areas I know little about. But he is obviously and experienced teacher and could see when we were having difficulty with some of his references and re-phrased the ideas or concepts.
Politics, philosophy and history are all subjects where I know little, but since leaving university have become more interested in learning about. Probably this is because I used to only be able to see the practical applications of technical subjects, like engineering. These skills can be used obviously to produce useful things like clean water, light, heat, clothes, food and aircraft etc.
But as I grow up I see more of the value of these liberal subjects, subjects that are more universal to understanding the human condition, even if the conclusions are often as confusing and unclear as the problems they are trying to address, unlike the neater answers of physics and engineering. This train journey was a fantastic master class in how history, politics, language and philosophy all link together to help explain the current human world we inhabit. While we may each be prejudiced to over-estimate the importance of those subjects we understand well, this experience was a great reminder of how little we know and how rewarding being exposed to something new can be.