Three Meetings with Hungary

Polish-Hungarian memories spanning more than four decades

There were, of course, more than three meetings. More than 33 in fact, but these three, which I will briefly present, seem the most important from today's perspective. They are deeply rooted in memory and heart.

July 1975. My first trip to Hungary. Together with my fiancée Márta Gedeon. We speak Polish. In addition to Hungarian and English studies, she is enrolled in Polish studies in Budapest. She comes to the University of Warsaw as a scholarship holder. I met her at the beginning of my studies, now she is writing her master's thesis on Zbigniew Herbert's ‘Barbarian in the Garden’. We ride the famous night train, Báthory, also known as the ‘Smuggler’. Monstrous hug. Fellow countrymen travel for leisure but also for business. We are at the half time of Gierkowska's decade in Poland. Stores will only start emptying in the following years, but the difference in supply between Poland and Hungary is already visible. I will find out soon enough. At dawn, we cross the Hungarian border. A charming sound signal at the stations – the first melody heard in Hungary. It still evokes feelings. The sun has already risen. I look out the window at the fields. How different from ours, painted with a variety of grain / gilded with wheat, silvered with rye – to use the words of Adam Mickiewicz. Here, as far as the eye can see, sunflowers and corn. Hungarian speech reaches my ears. I don't understand anything, although I know a few words and phrases. This language is so hermetically closed that the foreigner is intimidated. I'm losing faith that I'll ever learn it. I hardly notice how beautiful Budapest is. We're going straight to Hatvan. I know that the name of Márta's hometown means ‘sixty’ and that is the distance – 60 kms – that separates it from the capital. At home, we find almost the entire large family. Four of five siblings, brother-in-law, father. Mom has been dead for several months. The next day, we set off for Transylvania. The two of us and Márta's sister with her husband. We're going to see his family in Kolozsvár and Marosvásárhely. We visit these beautiful, once Hungarian cities. We stay in a hotel because even members of the family are not allowed to stay at relatives’ homes. One of the relatives drives us around this wonderful land in an old Skoda Octavia. Poor villages surrounded by fabulously beautiful landscapes. Most of the inhabitants are Hungarian but generally speak Romanian. They mention mixed marriages favored by the authorities. Márta introduces me to the history of the Land of the Seklers, Csángós, and Transylvania. I learn the secret of Hungarian nostalgia associated with them. Now I understand the endless conversations at the table after each meal. Listening for hours to the buzz of an unknown language, I began to sense where the next words begin and end. This is significant progress. After returning to Hatvan, I make a reckless purchase: I buy several Hungarian books, including the biography of Attila József and a volume of poems by János Pilinszky. I bring them to Poland with determination and hope, parting with Hungary and Márta at the end of August. As we stand in that fragrant evening, I am suddenly concerned about our future. My next short visit to Hungary is at the end of September. As I get off the train in Hatvan, the autumn wind blows the sweet smell of sugar beet and molasses from the local sugar factory. Ever since, this fragrance has always sent me back to those times and to my wife's hometown. She became my wife the following year. We spent the honeymoon in Eger. Then we had to part. When I arrived in Hungary in December, the first view greeting me was our little daughter in the cradle. Today, as I write these words in the middle of November, she turns 43.

The years I worked at Loránd Eötvös University in Budapest. We lived together in Warsaw from 1977. I worked at the Polish Academy of Sciences and my wife at the University of Warsaw and the Hungarian Institute of Culture. In the summer months, we spent several weeks in Hungary, mostly in Hatvan and Balatonboglár. During the period called the ‘Solidarity Carnival’, some Hungarians felt lost under the influence of communist propaganda. Anti-Polish remarks appeared in television and radio programs, in the press and on the stage. Also, Polish jokes in Hungarian. The emptiness of Polish stores was ridiculed, people were convinced that Hungarians worked hard while the Poles were striking. This venom oozed for a long time – until the end of the eighties. In the history of the centuries-old Polish-Hungarian friendship, this was an isolated phenomenon. But it must be noted that the knowledgeable part of society did not give in to manipulation. People from this part of society were interested in the Polish revolt, solidarized with the aspirations of Poles and supported them in various ways. In the second half of the 1980s, the political climate and the social mood in Hungary began to change. Cultural events for trusted people were organized in private homes. I participated in many such events. Churches were filling up like never before. More and more Hungarians went to Poland for pilgrimages and meetings with the Pope. In 1987, three young Hungarians went to Poland to meet John Paul II: János Áder, László Kövér and Viktor Orbán. Soon, they became the main engines of democratic change. I remembered today's Prime Minister of Hungary from those years. I saw him for the first time at Bibó Kollégium (college for advanced studies). Then I saw him at Professor Felczak's lecture. The legendary professor was our friend and we hosted him several times in our apartment. The fake image of the October 1956 events has been gradually verified, brought out of oblivion by those opposed to the system, by political activists, intellectuals and artists who had been banned until then. In 1986, my superiors at the university banned the organization of an evening of Polish poetry devoted to the Hungarian October but soon afterward we started to see winds bringing fresh air to the East. It was commonly associated with two words: Gorbachev and perestroika, bearing hope for a system change, liberation, a more dignified and better life. In 1989, this hope became a reality. My Hungarian friends were preparing political changes, and soon many of them exchanged university chairs for political offices. These were exciting times. Sometimes, I regret experiencing them outside of Poland.

We returned to Poland on September 1, 1990. There were already five of us. On March 2, 1987, Anna was born, and Júlia on May 29, 1990. Adam, born on February 6, 1992, joined our family in Poland. Thanks to their mother, all four speak both languages equally well. During the quarter century spent in Poland after 1990, my dreams for political activity faded, but my interest in politics increased even more. Just like my passion for Hungarian. My intensive contacts continued throughout this period. Not only through my periodic stays in Hungary, but also through deeper contact with Hungarian history and culture. At the same time, I watched with interest the development of both countries, which accelerated especially after their accession to the European Union and stormy worldview changes in our societies. At the beginning of 2016, I received a job offer as the Polish ambassador in Hungary. After some reflection, I decided it was time to undertake such a mission. For three years now, I have been trying to best serve the interests of my homeland, which in many cases coincide with those of my second country – Hungary. This period has been rich in inspirational experiences and impressions. Maybe, I will describe them one day…

Polish Ambassador Jerzy Snopek

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