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An oasis of learning in the heart of the community

Living in Budapest, it’s easy sometimes to forget that there’s a whole other world out there, one that lies beyond the city limits. A world of smaller cities, towns, villages, and settlements. A world where people know their neighbours and recognise each other in passing on the street. A world where the words ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘neighbourliness’ are still active descriptors.

I was in Ráckeve last weekend visiting my mate Csilla. I’d heard about the town a few years ago from an Irish couple who had moored their barge there for the winter. I knew about the watermill and the market. I’d heard vague stories of a stately home and a Serbian Orthodox church. And while I didn’t realise it was on Csepel Island, I knew it was outside the city limits. But I’d never been to visit. Finding myself with nothing to do on Saturday, I made the call, bought the ticket, and hopped on the No. 6 hév.

Picture perfect

The town itself has everything that could endear itself to a weekend tourist – a riverside market, a plethora of old churches, a picturesque setting. And smack in the middle of it is the Repperio Coffee House. I’ll excuse your ignorance if you excuse mine. I, too, had to ask what repperio meant and now know that it’s Latin for ‘to learn’ or ‘to discover’. This coffee house bills itself as Ráckeve’s University of Life and is a wonderful example of co-production. The owner is a native-English speaker on a mission to learn Hungarian. His clientele for the most part would like to learn English. They come together over all sorts of decent coffee and co-produce a mutually beneficial learning environment.

A book-swap shelf has many dictionaries and text books, magazines and novels. Posters on the walls depict typical coffee-centred conversations in both Hungarian and English. They also attempt to humorously expand both sets of vocabularies. I know now that the Hungarian for mouse is egér and if the need arises I will be able to explain to a Hungarian that: Angolul az egér többesszáma ‘mice’ és nem ‘mouses’. I was highly amused (and indeed very impressed with my coffee milkshake).

A bilingual hub

While I was there, a local tiler came in for help with his CV. Another couple who have relatives in the UK called by to practice their English. Steve, the owner, switched seamlessly from English to Hungarian and back again. He admits that his Hungarian needs work and where better to learn it than in a social environment. Way back when, coffee shops in the UK were known as penny universities. Places where people held forth on current affairs, literature, and scandal. Places at the heart of the community where people gathered and conversed. Places that became a hub for trade referrals and commerce.

Reservations not needed

Ráckeve is a town of two halves. Eons ago, it boasted a tri-ethnic population of Serbs, Germans, and Hungarians. Nowadays you can count the Orthodox Serbs in single-digit figures and the Germans are pretty thin on the ground, too. Real estate agents will warn you against purchasing property within the shadow of Pokolhegy which is home to a well-established Roma community. Yet one of the joys of being a foreigner is that you are not bound by local prejudices, your opinion is not coloured by traditional behaviour, and you have the freedom to make up your own mind about what you believe and how you act.

Repperio Coffee House has a mixed clientele. Many young Roma drop by on Thursdays to chat with Steve about working abroad. They role-play social situations in English, like going to the post office, or eating at a restaurant, or asking directions. On market days, the traders mix freely while starting off the day with a non-traditional Ír kave. While some might choose to avoid the place on these days, others are following Steve’s non-partisan example and leaving their reservations outside.

Spending power

Like many other towns around the world, the population of Ráckeve is feeling the pinch. Couple that with the Hungarian notion that going out for a coffee is a treat and not a necessity (as it is for so many addicts I know) and I have to wonder how long this little oasis of learning will survive. It’s all well and good during the summer months when tourist dollars complement the regular spend but what about the winter months when survival depends on local forints?

There should be grants of some sort available to help forward-thinking enterprises like the Repperio Coffee House – enterprises who contribute to the community, provide a service, and do their bit to build bridges. If you’re reading this, and know of some way to keep this enterprise afloat, let know. Or better still, pop down to Ráckeve and talk to the man himself.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 June 2012

Shaken not stirred

‘Wear a good bra’, she said seriously. ‘It’s the hév’, I thought, ‘how bad can it be?’ One hour and fifteen minutes later, I was glad that I’d taken her advice. What a workout – there wasn’t a bone or a muscle in my body that hadn’t be shaken, rattled, or rolled on the journey from Budapest to Ráckeve. The passenger list at 8.35 am on a Saturday morning was an interesting one – many were on their way back out of the city after an early morning visit to one of Budapest’s main markets. Others were drinking beer – on their way home from a Friday night on the town. Once again I marvelled at the Hungarian resilience.  I was barely awake and looking forward to getting out of the city for the day.

Ráckeve sits on the lower end of Csepel Island (one three islands that fall within the city limits: the other two being Margaret Island and Obuda Island). It was once a major commuter town. The first mention of the settlement dates to 1212 but it wasn’t until the fifteenth century when many Serbs fleeing from the Ottoman invasion moved in that its name took root. The refugees had come from Keve (Kovin) – and so the town was named in Hungarian as Kiskeve (or little Keve). The Serbs called it Mali Kovin or lesser Kovin. The current name, Ráckeve, comes from the Hungarian term for Serb – Rác. Mind you, there are those who say that keve means ‘cemetery’ or ‘pebble on a grave’ but that would then give it the rather sombre ‘Serbian Cemetery’.

Calvinism came to call in the sixteenth century and one of the towns three old churches is a very impressive Calivinist building. Hot on their heels came the Ottomans, driving the Serbs on to Győr and Komárom.

In the late seventeenth century, once the Turks were seen to,  Prince Eugene of Savoy set up shop. His stately home is now a three-star hotel complete with wine cellar and wedding garden.  In the 18th century, German settlers arrived and the three ethnicites lived together in relatively harmony.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the original wooden bridge was replaced. Today, in June each year, Ráckeve takes part in the Summerfest along with the towns of Százhalombatta and Tököl. The festival’s motto is a lovely tale of bridges.

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder.
‘It might be difficult to build bridges, if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges are more difficult…’
‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child.
‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’
The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’