From Leningrad to Budapest
I fear I've become a bit of a crotchety, contemptuous, old expatriate here as Eastern Europe gets progressively diluted by more starchy Americans come to see "all the changes." I already catch myself beginning too many sentences with "I remember when...." When every sign still read People's Republic, and my school sat on Red Army Street. When only Germans drove Western cars, and Hungarians still bought Trabants new. When an establishment distinguished itself by advertising its private ownership. Most of all, I can remember when Soviet soldiers in Hungary actually wore all the pins and hats and helmets that tourists buy on Buda's Castle Hill. I remember when the Soviet Union was still a monolith on our Eastern border, and I traveled through it only months before it slipped away into history.
A month after I arrived at my site, the English department at my school was invited to visit our sister school in Tallin, Estonia. The Estonians were planning to hold Finno-Ugric Days with us and their sister Finnish school. (A fact only linguists seem to know is that Hungarian is related to only two other modern languages, Finnish and Estonian. While those two languages are quite similar to each other -- Estonian children are reared on Finnish TV -- contemporary Hungarian has little in common with them since the tribes split up a few thousand years ago.) The Estonians had planned a big get-together, and we would use the opportunity to practice English, Eastern Europe's new lingua franca.
We organized fourteen of our exemplary English students, and the three English teachers, Eva, Janos, and me, plus one of our Russian teachers, Magdi. Magdi and Eva, who'd also taught Russian, would prove that they knew best how to approach each slide the trip took toward catastrophe. They laughed deliriously.
Once on our way, I settled into my short bunk and prepared to wait out the two-and-a-half-day, not-altogether uncomfortable trip to Leningrad. The train had curtains that were decorated with "1917," "October Revolution," and pictures of battleships. I shamelessly stole a set.
At the border, the guards rapidly stamped the Hungarian passports, and then stared at mine. They looked at me, then the passport picture, then the visa, then did the circle again. Even at this late date in the Cold War, they couldn't accept that Americans were crossing this remote border post so conveniently, but after looking long enough, they acknowledged that everything was indeed in order. The train then sat for another ten hours waiting for a crane to lift our car and set it on new axles-Soviet rails are wider than those in the rest of Europe.
The Estonians seemed genuinely thrilled that an American had come along -- none of them had ever met a native speaker. Yet their British lilts were perfect, and they knew precisely how to use many idioms, like "make yourself at home" and "no room to swing a cat." (I'd never heard that one before.)
The return trip provided more interest because we rode with a group of students from the Leningrad Rail School. One young man, who aspired to be a disco DJ, optimistically anticipated selling in Hungary an electric iron, a car clock, and twenty packs of Russian cigarettes in order to buy a Japanese radio.
At one stop, the group took me to visit the Ukrainian town of L'vov, a decaying Hapsburg city with yellow trams, gaudy baroque churches, and an opera house square. A cafe closed as we approached because the Rail School students were speaking Russian. They didn't dare speak at all in the opera square because a gathering of Ukrainians was loudly proclaiming the abuses of Russian rule. Back in the train station, a ten-foot-tall statue of Lenin had been hidden by an equally tall palm tree. As had the Estonians, the Ukrainians sensed that independence would be only a few nudges farther.
As we traveled through Russia, I noticed many things about the countryside. Every body of water -- even roadside puddles -- was brown and usually bubbled at its edges with some sick foam. Towns seemed literally broken. Cement walkways rotted and led off to abrupt ends. People walked on dirt paths that crossed yards, fields, and rails at obtuse angles to get to those rare enterprises that were still performing some useful service. And although this claim seems excessive, I honestly did not see the sun once while in the Soviet Union. Not for ten days. Immediately, though, on crossing into democratic Hungary, the sun rebelled, burst through the stodgy clouds, and illuminated the small gardens hanging lush with fall fruits. I had to concede that the John Birchers were actually right -- the sun never shines in communist countries.
Returning to Hungary, though, had seemed like an unlikely prospect for much of our visit. Before departing Hungary, we'd bought our round trip tickets for the ridiculous price of approximately $12. We hadn't known that tickets were idle scraps of paper without reservations. We had secured reservations into Russia, but the return reservations could be made only in Leningrad.
Before creating hell, God created the Leningrad train station as practice. When we arrived there, we spent six hours waiting for the Estonians to pick us up. The station had features that were as pointless as those in the disintegrating towns along the rails -- big doors led nowhere, but the minor one, in a corner under some wooden stairs, opened into the cavernous waiting room; of some thirty ticket windows, two were operating, and they weren't selling reservations to Budapest. The hall was nevertheless filled. Travelers squeezed onto the benches or stood. Yet I can't remember anyone speaking or reading. They looked blankly at their bags or straight ahead. One corner had a buffet selling slices of bread and sardines, and a few queued for them. Surrounding the train station was a market of semi-legitimate black-market stalls. They sold eggs at two rubles and packets of Camels (from R. J. Reynolds famous tobacco airlift) for sixteen rubles, all at a time when a monthly salary was 250 rubles.
When Ingvar, the Estonian school's headmaster, arrived to pick us up, even he thought our lack of return reservations was a hopeless situation. He informed us that all the trains to Budapest were completely reserved until January.
Our sister school's village, Loo, was actually a few kilometers from Tallin, and "village" might be a misnomer. Loo had a chicken cooperative where everyone worked, and which accounted for the village's relative prosperity. Even Soviet industry couldn't ruin a chicken -- in any economy, it had absolute value. The town had about fifty uniform apartment blocks and a store that sold very little. Envious city dwellers, however, would travel to Loo to try to bribe someone to allow them to shop for the canned fish and dubious sausages available there.
Every evening we laughed ourselves to sleep, thinking we weren't getting back to Hungary until January. We stayed one day past our planned return date, and it looked like we were there for many more, when we received a message from Ingvar in Leningrad that we could leave -- he had gotten us reservations.
As the train began rolling, Eva and Magdi were shedding tears from the force of their laughter, and each kept prodding the other on to more by howling about chickens and eggs. My Hungarian wasn't so good at this point, and I thought they might be speaking in some sort of folk dialect, but then Eva translated for me. Ingvar had gone to the director of the Railroads, demanded reservations, and set two chickens and twenty-four eggs on his desk.
I remember when a couple of chickens and two dozen eggs could get eighteen people from Leningrad to Budapest.
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