There are Hungarians living in at least four countries outside of the borders of the country: Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. There are also smaller diaspora groups living in Slovenia and Croatia. The biggest community is the Transylvanian one in Romania which, after more than twenty years of massive emigration, still consists of almost 2 million people. The whole population of Hungary is around 10 million.
In my flat in Budapest, I meet with A.V. – a colleague and friend. We both come from Transylvania, both graduated in Theatre Studies in Cluj, Romania, and then left our homeland for our ‘fatherland’, Hungary. I later moved to Denmark while A.V. stayed in Hungary where she is undertaking doctoral studies and working as a theatre critic. A.V. brings two objects to our interview: one of them, she tells me, reminds her of Romania, the other one is a metaphor for Hungary.
When I asked you on the phone, you immediately said that you already knew what would be the object from Romania.
Yes, it was very easy to think of the cranberry compote that represents Romania for me. I think it has an emotional root exactly the way we feel about language.
For us language feels the same…
By language I do not mean only words, I mean a cultural approach, or the way it brings up memories and our relationship to it, a homey feeling that makes us share the same thoughts or sensations.
If there is a canned food a Hungarian from Romania would bring on this occasion, I would say that it is the zakuska . Do you prepare that, too?
Yes, everybody knows that, but this is my favourite. In Romania we live in a mountain region, so cranberries are very popular there. Towards the end of the summer we buy at the market a huge amount of them and it is almost a ritual the way I prepare them for days at my parents’ house for the whole family. And there are more stages in the way we prepare preserves – not only this, we also prepare a bunch of compotes and jams. From summer till autumn I often travel home to prepare all these foods.
Do you buy any canned food in the store?
Not at all. I trust my things much better. And, by the way, you cannot buy cranberries or cranberry compote here. So this is also a special treat for me.
Do you have your guests taste it as a gesture of invitation into your culture, into your home?
This is served with meat usually, so when I prepare meat, I always give it to my guests but I do not especially think of it as a special cultural-culinary treat.
And which is the object that means Hungary for you?
Finally I brought the key for my first apartment here in Budapest. Actually, this did not come so naturally, I really had to give it thought, and a couple of objects came into my mind. Then I thought that the key means to me that I have a home here, anyway. Another home.
Yes, as I have a home back in Romania as well, the home of my family.
What is the difference between your two homes?
There are several differences. This one, in Budapest is filled with my objects, my way of life. This one here feels like being afloat much more – there are fewer burdens of past stories in it and I tend to think that it is like it would be put between quotation marks. It is much more torn apart from everyday life. What I mean is that here in my home I have a bunch of objects that refer back to my home in Romania – books and utensils brought from there that mark the difference between my home and an average home in Hungary.
Why did you want a flat in Budapest? You were born in Baia Mare (Romania), graduated from university in Cluj, now you’re enrolled in a PhD programme in Pécs (Hungary), and you bought a flat in Budapest. It seems a bit scattered to me.
I never hesitated about that. Actually I came to live in the capital of Hungary ten years ago.
Was it a definite plan of yours to come here as soon as you finished university in Cluj?
In the last year of my master’s degree in Cluj I received a scholarship here in Budapest and I felt a wider perspective here, besides, my boyfriend also attended universities here (the Buddhist University and then he graduated as a visual artist). He had to get back to Cluj for a year. Actually, he was expelled from Hungary for a while: as a student he worked illegally and got caught.
Does he come from Cluj?
Yes, he is from Cluj, but all his other three siblings live and work here in Budapest, so for him it was obvious to come back as soon as he could. Only their mother lives in Cluj at the moment.
You work as a theatre critic and essayist, and we usually say that theatre is much more successful and appreciated in Romania than in Hungary. We Hungarians from Romania are often told that we should orientate towards the Romanian capital, Bucharest, if we want to become successful in theatre. You never wanted to go there for study or work?
Culturally Bucharest is much more distant to me and, of course, the language is also an issue. Romanian is not my mother tongue, so when I culturally seek a place, a centre, if you will – that is definitely Budapest. Though the concept of centre also raises questions in me: it depends a lot on point of view as to what we consider edge or diaspora and what we consider centre.
Why didn’t you stay in Cluj then?
It seemed to me a very monolithic culture – a very homogenous one. I wished to see what was outside of it. I wanted a much broader horizon.
What did you find here in Budapest compared to your expectations?
The culture in Hungary is very heterogeneous, and the way you perceive culture and society depends on your situation, on your approach as well. It also depends on your reference point as to what and how we perceive things here. For me the first period was a very happy one. Budapest is a cosmopolitan city, so I felt that I was totally free here, I could do, wear, think or say whatever I wanted. I got lost in the crowd and no-one judged me. That is such a relief after experiencing a smaller town, a smaller community.
What was your reception here? As you know, after the first ‘big hug’ of Hungarians outside the borders who started to migrate towards Hungary in the beginning of the nineties, it seems to me that there was a period of saturation when we were regarded as strangers, as outsiders who came to take the best jobs, who were positively –and not rightly – discriminated against and who were aggressive as a means to survive as a minority in their home countries. Have you ever felt this anger after you came here in 2005?
Well, the legal procedure was very humiliating. Even the building of the immigration office seems to be designed to distract and intimidate. The huge queues we had to stand in for months to get the residence papers, yes, that was very frightening and frustrating. No oxygen, lots of people, I suffocated. I would never know what was the logic or reasoning in getting your papers or being turned down.
Did you have that painful experience that Hungarians from Hungary treat us as strangers? That we Hungarians outside the borders are not regarded or treated as that general ‘us’?
There is no such a thing as ‘us’: I started to feel this from my childhood. In my opinion we are treated and understood through metaphors and slogans that have nothing to do with the reality of our everyday life and culture as minority Hungarians and as migrants arriving to their ‘fatherland’.
Do you think that we should give up some part of our identity in order to be take part in Hungarian society?
Definitely yes. This society cannot treat properly any kind of otherness. The slogan on Trianon-trauma, for example: we cry over a historical fact 100 years back that Great Hungary was torn apart and Hungarian communities are now outside the border. These communities are influenced and influence the majority societies in different countries. But we also do not have a set of concepts to describe or approach ourselves as a minority. We still tend to get stuck in time and like being part of a bigger community i.e. the Hungarian nation. This, for me, is a meaningless and abolished notion – not a concept that could help us in understand ourselves or made us better understood. The moment we admit that we are different, the question of being integrated or giving up our identity is not posed anymore. We can accept ourselves and be accepted the way we are.
How would you describe your way of being here: do you want to act as a bridge, as a translator between the two cultures or rather get integrated: learn the ‘language’ and the culture and become a Hungarian from Hungary?
There is a theatre festival for Hungarians outside the borders in Kisvárda, a small town in Hungary. I was invited to write about it several years ago and I suddenly got caught in this dazzle of coming and going between my two countries, translating cultures, writing about Romanian festivals for Hungary, for example. Now I spend almost three months a year in Romania. I constantly come and go and talk and write about the two cultures and I think I found my way. Being a relentless traveller and translator between cultures takes up a lifetime.