Adventures in Hungary
I have just returned from a trip to Hungary and wanted to share some adventures and experiences now that I’ve recovered from jet lag. But first a few words about Hungary itself.
Hungary is a little country. It’s about the size of Maine, our 39th state in terms of area. Hungary has a population of around 10 million people; it has been said there are more people of Hungarian descent in the United States than in Hungary itself. Consequently events in Hungary just don’t make the world news.
Hungary is particularly fascinating because whenever I go there it reminds me so much of the United States. In many ways Hungary appears to be a miniature reflection of the U.S., kind of like the moon is a miniature reflection of the sun.
First, there is the “melting pot” concept. You see, unlike the Irish, the Greeks, or many other nationalities, Hungarians and Americans aren’t defined by their ethnic roots but by their culture. Americans are defined by their shared history and language (ignoring political correctness); Americans pride themselves on being a melting-pot. Hungarians, too, are a melting pot. They’ve been at the crossroads of many invasions from the East, South, and West from as far back as the Turks in the 1500s. Germans, Russians, Romanians, Slovaks, Serbians, Croatians, have all migrated back and forth across Hungary in response to wars and other calamities. Illegal immigration from the South, in fact, is one of the hot-button issues in both countries today.
Second, the truly unique and defining feature of both cultures is its language. That is the glue that binds the society. In America we have accepted English as the common denominator; the situation is the same for Hungarian in Hungary. There is no other language like Hungarian in the world. Finnish is supposedly a distant cousin, but the two are so distant they may as well be strangers. And the Hungarian language, like English here in America, is quickly losing its character. In America we are quickly becoming bi-lingual: “Press one for English, Marque dos para Espanol”… Hungary is multi-lingual: Signs in Hungarian, German, English, and Russian are commonplace. Many Hungarians actually use unchanged English words as part of their everyday conversation! How can a culture continue to survive if its defining characteristic – its language – is diluted? Hungary and America face similar issues.
There is perhaps no experience that is more telling and illustrative of Hungary’s unique “melting pot” mindset than a visit to a small village, Tótkomlós, deep in southern Hungary near the Romanian border. In this village you’ll find all kinds of public signs in both Hungarian and Slavic. Furthermore, many residents have Slavic names and speak Slavic.
How can that be when Slovakia (the home of the Slavs) is far away to the north of Hungary, and Romania is right next door to its south? Shouldn’t bi-lingual signs be in Hungarian and Romanian? The truth is telling:
In the 2nd World War, the Germans moved an entire village of Hungarians up to Slovakia and an entire village of Slavs down to Hungary. They simply loaded the people into boxcars without belongings and exchanged populations. Such an event by itself was not unusual for that region of the world. But what is most interesting is that the Hungarians have fully accepted the Slavs as native Hungarians in spite of their origins and allowed them to celebrate their Slavic heritage. If these Hungarian “immigrants” want to celebrate their Slavic origins, there are no restrictions – as evidenced by the streets and public buildings (e.g. City Hall) signed in both languages. That’s the Hungarian melting pot. But there is no melting pot in Slovakia, nor is there a melting pot in Romania: In both countries there is strong institutional repression of the Hungarian heritage: Simply speaking Hungarian language in public is a punishable crime. Hungary is unique, just as America is unique.
Third, Hungarians love America like a little brother adores his big brother. And like brothers, the two face similar challenges. Whenever I listened to the Hungarian political news for a short while, I found myself back home in the States addressing similar topics: The poor financial market, the ineffectiveness of the government’s social programs, corruption, fiscal government irresponsibility, and similar issues dominated the discussion. The positions taken – austerity and self-control vs. “more government […fill in the blank…]” also echoed the dialog in the States.
Lastly, there are other similarities between the two societies, but there are also significant differences: Size, wealth, historical and social heritage to name a few. So it will be interesting to watch what solutions each nation embraces and how successfully each navigates through these turbulent times.
All is not as it looks.