Chapter 10: Hungarian Rules

It’s early June. In Beijing the Chinese government has just slaughtered hundreds of peaceful protesters on Tiananmen Square, and Egon Krenz, Crown Prince to East Germany’s Politburo Boss Erich Honecker, is on his way to congratulate the Chinese comrades on successfully frustrating these “disruptive actions carried out by elements infiltrated by the West”.

Meanwhile in Hungary the summer of ’89 is shaping up to be a great one: Imre Nagy‘s public rehabilitation is about to take place in Budapest, and the sky has been a persistent blue for the past two weeks.  Kerstin is having the time and the tan of her life: when not swanning around the archaeological dig in a bikini top and shorts to draw the graves, she sits at the parasol-covered camping table, an ancient iron stirrup or brass buckle in front of her, carefully drawing every last detail, crevice and rust-eaten surface first in pencil, then in black ink. This is her kind of work: meticulous, requiring focus, a steady hand and great attention to detail.

She is fascinated by the archaeologists’ ability to deduce from the material and style of the finds where these people lived before arriving here, where the iron was sourced or the style of the decoration on the clay beads and vases originated. Occasionally a Roman object is retrieved – mostly coins of all sizes, usually later ones, but sometimes it’s shards from coloured, rough glass vessels, a material the Avars wouldn’t have known how to produce yet. When these things come out of the ground it’s impossible for an amateur to tell what they are, so caked are they in earth. Adrienne and Zoltan know though – they can also tell exactly what’s missing from the stirrup, the pieces of mysterious decoration, the buckles. They somehow know how the beads fitted together as a neckless or bracelet, even the order of the pearls, or what tool that rusty broken-off bit once was a part of, and what it was used for.

Kerstin needs that information to draw the outlines of the missing bits, but she is also more and more taken in by this world of ancient warriors who buried their wives and horses with the men. She imagines the pain of some fiery, fearsome moustachioed man as, some 1200 years ago, he gingerly lowered his tragic little daughter into her grave, covered in jewellery and the finest clothes his stash of Roman gold coins could buy. And she wonders why, with all the other options she considered, it had never crossed her mind to study archaeology. She loves it when stories come to life through images and objects. And what, after all, is archaeology other than the accumulated stories of our lives past and present, told through objects and locations such as these?

At lunch they sit together by the lake, eating their brought sandwiches, talking. Martin has left the dig to work at the Lab in Szeged for a few days, and none of the other helpers speak German, which means Kerstin has to get by in English and, increasingly, rudimentary Hungarian which she has started to study in the evenings. Learning languages has always come naturally to her, so much so that she never really saw the point in choosing them as a university course. Hungarian though is different: It’s not related to anything she knows and generally regarded as the hardest European language to learn. It helps that Kerstin knows how to pronounce the words, something she was taught as a child learing Hungarian songs in the school choir. Up until now though she had no idea what the words meant, and the grammar, compared to German, is back to front: Pronouns are stuck to the ends of nouns, and prepositions become ‘postpositions’. The plural of a noun can have two endings stuck to it, depending on the case and context. Yet after only four weeks she spent immersed in the language she is able to hold a very basic conversation in Hungarian, a feat she just about mastered in Russian and English after years of studying.

Among the diggers is a young Hungarian archaeology student from Transylvania, one of the most cheerful and entertaining people here. He often seeks Kerstin’s company. In a mix of Hungarian and bad English he tells her how he once worked on an ancient Avar burial site in a small town near Sibiu. The site, just like in Budakalász, was adjacent to the modern cemetery. Both the ancient and the new cemetery were located in the town, and drinkers staggering home from the pub used the cemetery as a shortcut on their way home. One night a drunk did just that, no doubt crossing himself while he swayed between the graves (this was Dracula country, the home of superstition), when he reached the Avar site. It was the middle of the night and he was barely able to stand, so he most likely didn’t notice the canvas covers of the excavated plots, and stepped right into the first. Had he been sober and able to stand up he would have realised that the ‘grave’ was only waist-deep, but in his current state he just let out a panicked howl and tried to pull himself up grabbing the edge of the grave and, hopefully, anything beyond it. Just then another drunk staggered by, scared witless by the sound he had just heard, when a hand seemed to appear from one of the graves, grabbing him by the ankle. The second drunk fell over and into the grave, howling in unison with the one already in there. There must have been a cartoonish moment of two crazed men bawling at each other, resembling a scene from a slapstick comedy, before they recognised one another as drinking companions.

“You’re making this up!”, laughs Kerstin, wiping tears from her eyes, “How come you know this? Were you one of them?”

“We found them in the morning”, he replies, “they were too legless to get out of the grave, so they spent the night in there.”

Occasionally she takes the train into Budapest after work. She has neither enough time nor money to visit any sights, but just finding her way around and breathing in the atmosphere of this city makes her happy. Also it delays her return to the bungalow in Pomáz where it’s a little crowded now that Nandi and Caro are back. They returned two weeks ago and, though the three are getting on well, their house share has the air of a temporary arrangement that has been going on a little too long. She is glad that she can at least contribute some money for food now.

One night Kerstin writes a letter to her parents to at least let them know where she is, something she has been putting off for the last two weeks. She explains that they are in Hungary, and that she has decided to stay here, with Martin. She has to be careful how she phrases the letter; it will most likely be intercepted by the Stasi. While she writes she thinks of her mother, and tears run down her face, uncontrollably. Mum’s not dead, for heaven’s sake, she tells herself. But they may not be able to meet again for years, the way things are going politically. It now looks as if Kerstin had caught one of the last planes out of East Germany: the authorities have stopped issuing new visas for travel into the other Warsaw Pact member states: Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union. Travel was always heavily restricted, but never like this before. They are pulling up the drawbridges. They must see something coming.

But what?

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