Chapter 6: All Change

No matter how kindly you are prepared to look at the place, Pomáz isn’t pretty. Or even a village. It’s a commuter place, a dusty stop on the way to the village of Szentendre, the picturesque tourist trap at the end of the HÉV line. Where other villages have a church, a village shop and perhaps some sort of a green, Pomáz has a flat-roofed single-storage station building for a centre, outside of which a man named Istvan sells his artery-clogging fare: Langos, deep-fried savoury flat breads the size of dinner plates, topped with soured cream. Langos Pisti is as much landmark as he is a Pomáz institution, so bereft is the place of other distinguishing features.

Nandi and Caro live in a small 1950s bungalow halfway up Kossut Utca, a street filled with identical-looking properties in varying states of disrepair. The rusty gate, one side of which is limply hanging from the only remaining hinge, seems to pre-date the featureless property by several decades. The bungalow sits in the centre of a reasonably-sized green patch that would have made a decent garden had either of the couple been in any way green-fingered. As it is, the grass is mostly knee-high and full of weeds, and muddy tyre tracks mark the ‘drive’ in front of the entrance. There are four cars: some are more, others less complete, and none of them looks in a fit state to drive.

“Nandi’s car cemetry”, Martin points out. “It drives Caro crazy.” Amazingly one of them, an ancient, rusty Jeep-type thing, is being driven by Nandi, he explains.

“Is that safe?”, asks Kerstin, ogling the pile of metal in disbelief.

Martin grins: “This is Hungary!”, he says by way of explanation.

Inside the house is mostly open-plan: The main room serves as both dining and sitting room with a kitchenette and breakfast bar and a futon sofa that turns into a double guest bed. It isn’t exactly a huge place but comfortable and cosy. At the back of the room two adjacent doors lead to Nandi and Caro’s bedroom, a tight fit for a double bed and small wardrobe, and a surprisingly decent-sized bathroom which doubles as Nandi’s darkroom. And that’s where they find him, perched on the edge of the bathtub, with trays full of developer covering every available surface, including the floor, so they are tiptoeing carefully between them. From the trays awkwardly-grinning schoolchildren in different stages of colour development stare at Kerstin.

“Jó napot kivánok, welcome!” An enthusiastic bear hug from Nandi nearly causes her to lose her balance. “Steady!”, she laughs, hugging him back.

“Sorry about the mess”, he apologises, gesturing around him. “I photographed a whole school yesterday, 800 kids, awful job. It will take me two more days to develop, but it will pay the bills for a month. Let me take this lot out of the bath before they turn completely green, and then we’ll have some coffee, ok?”

In the kitchenette Martin puts the metal mocha pot on the stove. No Hungarian household is complete without these, although they are an Italian invention. The coffee is one of the best things about Hungary.

Kerstin spots a poster on the wall next to the breakfast bar. It shows a young woman in national Hungarian costume and blonde plaits. She is standing on the edge of an enormous excavator shovel, the ground around her piles of dug-up earth, a tear running down her beautiful face. The contrast between the angelic creature in the colourful dress and the rubble is stark.

“What’s this about then?”, asks Kerstin, intrigued.

“Haven’t you heard about the two hundred villages Ceaucescu wants to raze to the ground in Transylvania?, replies Nandi.

“Two hundred? That’s a lot. Where would I hear about that? It’s not the sort of thing they cover on the news in East Germany, you know.”

“They’re all Hungarian villages of course. Ceaucescu plans to resettle the villagers in the big cities, except none of them were ever even asked if they want to. It’s ethnic cleansing of sorts. We’ve printed a thousand of these, Tibor will have them smuggled into Romania next week, to kick up a little fuss.”

“It’s very beautiful”, says Kerstin, “very haunting.” Nandi has always been campaigning for human rights issues concerning the Hungarian minorities in Rumania. That’s how he got to know Dr. Tibor Kovács, the lawyer who, so they hoped, would be able to help Martin and Kerstin too.

The three of them sit down for some strong mocha to update Kerstin on recent events. This takes place in flaky English, the only language they are halfway fluent in, Martin far more so than the others. What they tell her makes Kerstin sit up: There will be an official rehabilitation in Budapest in early June of none other than Imre Nagy, the revered head of the interim committee during the 1956 uprising, Hungary’s short-lived attempt at shaking off the Soviet Union’s iron grip. This is remarkable news since Nagy, who was later arrested by the Russian army and transported to a Siberian Gulag where he was said to have been tortured to death, had remained the symbol of Hungary’s proudest moment, as many saw it. The authorities’ countless attempts to erase his name from history only served to increase the people’s adulation for Nagy.

Even more astonishing is another piece of news: That Hungary is in negotiations to end its membership of the Warsaw Pact.

“Hang on”, says Kerstin, “what do you mean: negotiate? Nobody can negotiate with the Russians!”

“It appears they do”, says Nandi, “it’s not on the news, but Dr Kovács told us about it. According to him, our government has also signed an agreement with the West German government stating that they would no longer shoot at anyone trying to cross the green border to Austria or Yugoslavia.”

“How do you know this is true? He could tell you anything”, says Kerstin, indignation and disappointment rising again. This is too much. To her, this Dr. Kovács guy sounds increasingly like a fantasist. She turns her eyes on Martin, rational, analytical Martin, almost pleading to assure her this is all crazy stuff.

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly want to test the no-shooting agreement myself yet,”, Martin says cautiously, limbs in a characteristic tangle, “but I’ve been here long enough to know that there’s much happening here that is not in the news. That’s why the Western media don’t pick up on it either. It’s a very delicate situation, that’s for sure, and it could turn any minute, but I think something’s changed in Moscow. Something big. Either that, or we’ll be here to witness another 1956 uprising being squashed by Russian troops this summer.”

“What exactly happened in 1956?”, asks Kerstin carefully. Her instinct tells her that here in Hungary this is a rather sheepish question. But it’s also one of those topics, like Stalinism, the details of which East German history lessons liked to draw a veil over.

“What happened? Are you kidding?”, asks Nandi. “Everyone was dead at the end, that’s what happened. Dead or in exile. Budapest was full of Russian tanks and soaked in blood.  That’s why there are four million Hungarians living here, while the other four million,  or just about that many, live somewhere in the West.”

“Blimey”, says Kerstin. She really had no idea. This is becoming a history lesson on acid.

Nandi and Martin have made an appointment with Dr. Kovacs at his office tomorrow to talk about their options. If Kerstin wants to join Martin, that is. They both look at her now. It’s time to make up her mind, again.

“I’m not sure”, she says, “I could just go back on Sunday, couldn’t I? With my ticket?”

“For heaven’s sake!”, says Nandi, a twinkle in his eye, as if he’s surpressing a laugh, “What do you want back there? Haven’t you been listening? Can’t you see? It’s all happening here now!”

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