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The least we can do

Hungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future.

The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse. And then they asked why Hungary (and by implication, Hungarians) wasn’t doing more. People in Germany were offering up their homes on AirBnb. Austrians were driving to the border and beyond to pick up families and take them home. Angela Merkel was offering to take in hundreds of thousands. Ireland might only be taking 4000 (to our shame, some say) but Hungary doesn’t appear to want any at all.

I had neither the political nor the sociology background to answer their questions with anything even approaching authority. But when I started to talk about my experiences and what I’ve seen and heard and read, I was a little surprised at what came out.

None of the current Hungarian government is on my Christmas card list. Neither is the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. I believe they both could have done more. And yet I found myself taking quite a defensive position.

I reminded my petitioners that here in Hungary, people don’t have much. Monthly take-home salaries are figured in hundreds of euro rather than thousands. Flats are small. There are no spare rooms to offer.

Some 40% of the population hasn’t enough to make it to the end of the month. Farmers watch as the crops they need to get their family through the winter are picked clean by those passing through. Many in the east of the country live hand to mouth. Many in the cities, too.

And while the international press might scathingly report on the quality of food provided at the camps, they forget that patients in Hungarian hospitals fare no better. And while they castigate the police for their heavy-handedness, they forget that Hungary, as a Schengen border country, has been charged with keeping that border safe.

And yes, it could all have been done differently. Ideologically it’s a shared border that should be manned by all Schengen countries. The responsibility should not fall on Hungary alone. But then does Hungary want help? Yet another question I cannot answer.

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The government here is making a hames of it all (and it’s not alone).  But the people, individual Hungarians, are showing a generosity of spirit that should not be forgotten. It has to be difficult to see Keleti awash with young people scrambling not for food but for places to plug in their smartphones. To see queues at Western Union as money is wired for train tickets out. To see placards thanking Germany and shaming Hungary.

It’s an impossible situation. Everyone has an opinion. Many are simply afraid.

Afraid that ISIS might be using this exodus to Europe as a cover. Afraid that we might wake up one morning to find our churches replaced by mosques. Afraid that our poor and our homeless will lose out to those who are looking not for a safe place to live but for a better standard of living.

Fear makes us say stupid things. It makes us batten down the hatches and indiscriminately protect what we have. It makes us add exclusivity clauses to which neighbour we should love.

And while letters of accusation fly back and forth between governments and EU leaders scramble to get their act together, more and more refugees arrive at the Schengen border in the hope that they will be granted access to a safer world. The very least that we can do is to show some compassion.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 September 2015

2013 Grateful 11

When I arrived in Budapest all those years ago, with two suitcases, two framed pictures, and an assortment of mental and emotional baggage, Keleti Station left me speechless.

Keleti stationIt was as if I’d stepped off the train and into a whole other world, a world that still belonged on a movie set. The glass frontage, the statues set on high, and the wrought iron and steel that encases the places all lent themselves to a John le Carré novel. I was enchanted. Today, the view that greets the new arrivals is less than stellar. They descend the steps to a construction site, their view marred by cranes and scaffolding, but like all things in life, these too will pass. [A note from 2017 – it’s all looking rather lovely, now.]

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Trains arrive from Prague, from Munich, from Vienna, each one disgorging a sea of passengers of all creeds, breeds, and generations. Those waiting for their trains are no less colourful than the myriad people who seem to live in the place. Hawkers, cabbies, currency touts all ply their trade and occasionally, you might even be lucky enough to catch a chess cowboy on the make.

There’s the juxtaposition of old and new –  the old-fashioned frontage at street level and the more modern metro station underneath –  both of which talk to the Budapest I’ve come to know and love. That curious mix of progress and posterity that I find so fascinating.

IMG_7547 (800x600)It’s been a long week. An interesting week. A week full of people. Four days in a row with full-on public interaction is never good for me. I need time to recharge, to regroup, to hole up. Those who don’t really know me might well mistake me for an extrovert – and I certainly have my Leoine moments – but it takes its toll. I’m more the shy retiring type… deep down.

The highlight of my week wasn’t the successful two-day workshop  or the jammed-packed GOTG session in the Cotton Club on Wednesday or the Dorothy Parker evening at the Budapest Secret Salon on Thursday. They were great – but I’d have swapped them all, in spades, just to be at Keleti this afternoon to meet some old friends who have just arrived to spend two months in my city.

I met Monica back in 1990 in Los Angeles. I met her husband Dave in Dublin Airport some twelve years later, after she’d married him. Both have been to Budapest to visit me, but never together. Both felt what I felt when I first arrived at Keleti and now they’ve come back to stay for a while and explore.

This week, I’m grateful for friendships that stand the test of time. For those with whom I’ve connected at what I like to call a maintenance-free level. It might not matter that we haven’t spoken in months or years – the connection is there. It’s just a matter of picking up where we left off. And to those of you living in Budapest, keep an eye out for them and if you meet them, say hello. Breathe some life into the Budapest-style welcome that I’ve been bragging about.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52IMG_7553 (600x800)

 

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