‘Hungary is for Hungarians’; ‘Romania is for Romanians’; ‘Serbia is for Serbians’. One could spend a long time listing all the similar nationalistic slogans which are often articulated by populist, far-right politicians suggesting that nation states are to be entirely homogeneous. In European borderlands, however, where different ethnic groups and nationalities live together, these slogans are radically questioned and prove to be irrelevant.
Only passing through Budapest, we spend two hours waiting at the Népliget Bus Station. We decide to eat a cheap, modest – and, as it later turned out, quite tasty – lunch in a local underground bar. We look doubtfully at the menu with a meagre variety of vegetarian options. Everything has to be translated – first between us and then for the bartender. While ordering, we feel the prying eyes of other clients.
We got to know each other only a week before. Now, as a part of the In Between? educational project, we are travelling to the Hungarian-Romanian borderland, where we will spend a week collecting life stories of local inhabitants. There are seven of us. Anna, half-Russian, half-Hungarian, studies sociology in Budapest. Dia, member of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, is a photography enthusiast and thus documents the reality around us via the lens of her camera. Ana-Maria, an anthropologist from Romania whose ironic comments usually end with her winning smile. Laura Boglárka, a very empathetic and sensitive student who would help us tune in to local intricacies as she herself comes from the borderland we are about to visit. And then there are also the other group members coming from other parts of Europe: Šarūnas, fluent in many languages, who arrived from Vilnius and brought with him the solitude and distance of the Baltic people; Gabriel, the light-hearted and always cheerful actor from Madrid and Gábor, the group’s coordinator, who is Hungarian and has lived in Warsaw for two years.
While we are eating, we have time to take a careful look around the old-style interior of the bar. As the once glorious Ferencváros stadium is nearby, we are surrounded by football scarves and photos of the team’s players from the ‘good old days’ when Hungary’s football clubs and the national team belonged to the world elite. Between them hangs a poster featuring plenty of beer bottles with a line: ‘Life is full of difficult decisions’.
Some decisions, however, seem to be simple enough. As far as club affinities and nationality are concerned, the bar’s interior gives only one option. One who enters finds a Hungarian flag hanging from the ceiling and a map representing Greater Hungary with the country’s old borders, from before the Treaty of Trianon was signed. The glorious past summoned on the walls seems to be quite out of place, contrasted with the bar’s underground location, neglected interior or breaded cutlet, tripe stew and gulash served for lunch. Beyond the scarves, maps and flags on the wall one can also spot faded, yet still colourful posters which feature a cheery composition of a hammock, sea and palm trees. In spite of the original intention of the bar’s owner, for us the scene mostly underlines how far away we are from the sea – and Hungary’s glorious past.
Only a three-hour long drowsy journey from Budapest through the Great Hungarian Plain and we find ourselves in the South of Hungary, near the Hungarian-Romanian-Serbian tri-border. Characterised by a mixed population and diverse cultural heritage, this borderland offers a pretty different experience. It is enough to take a look at the multilingual town signs in Turnu in Romania, where Hungarians, Romanians and Serbs live together, or in Deszk, one of the Serbian villages around the centre of the region of Szeged in Hungary, where many minorities including Bulgarians, Poles, Greeks, Germans, Armenians, Slovaks, Ukrainians live together.
Here lies the heritage of powerful empires that once incorporated many different ethnicities. The Hungarian Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire are long vanished, but what they left behind is the melting pot of different languages, religions and ethnicities. The Pannonian Basin is now crossed by borders between nation states born after WWI. Throughout the 20th century these borders changed several times what in turn resulted in resettling, ethnic cleansing and other tragic events. All of this significantly affected the relation between local people of different ethnicities. Nevertheless, this borderland still seems to have a far-reaching tradition of various ethnic groups coexisting peacefully – as it was portrayed by most of our interviewees.
‘I consider myself as a Serb’ – says in perfect Hungarian, Szpomenka Brczán, one of the 170 members of the Serbian community living in Deszk, a village of a population of less than 3.000 people. She was born into a mixed family, from a Hungarian mother and a Serbian father. Active in protecting and cultivating Serbian traditions, she is overcome by emotion while she talks to us about assimilation processes affecting the Serbian minority.
In the evening Szpomenka’s brother, Krisztifor Brczán is preparing brza gibanica, a kind of salty strudel with sheep cottage cheese and punjena paprika, paprika filled with minced meat and rice, elderly people gather in one of the local kindergarten’s rooms in order to sing traditional Serbian melodies accompanied by the accordion. Krisztifor – who also plays an important role in the practice of Serbian culture in Deszk – mentions a traditional folk dance called ‘podvoje’. The dance — as its name ‘twosome’ suggests — is performed in a couple. It incorporates motives of three cultures: Romanian, Hungarian and Serbian.
At the borderlands, categories usually used by nation states to legitimise themselves are not taken for granted. It’s there that the patterns of identity, language and religion turn out to be more complex and dynamic. The meaning of such slogans as ‘Hungary is for Hungarians’ is contested and proved to be irrelevant.
Sometimes regional patterns of identity seem to be more important than the ethnic or national categories. Maria Gavra, a professor in Romanian literature, who was born in Turnu, in Hungarian Tornya, mentions her Serbian friend who says: ‘We aren’t Hungarians, neither Romanians, nor Serbs. We are Tornyans’, which means ‘from Turnu’ or ‘from Tornya’ in Hungarian. ’So we are Tornyans’ – she concludes.
The next town we visit is situated on the other side of the border and called Battonya. It also has a mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians and Serbs. Once a regional centre, now it is just a little town at the periphery which faces serious problems such as unemployment and emigration. In communist times the town was well-known due to it being the first one “liberated” by the Red Army in the territory of Hungary in 1944. One of the buildings on the main street, which used to function as the Communist Party headquarters in the 1950’s, is now ruled by a group of history enthusiasts. The Fodor Manó Local History Association makes enormous effort to create a comprehensive collection of photos, postcards and other documents from the past – for the not so bright future.
Only 10 kilometres from the Hungarian-Romanian and the Romanian-Serbian border we meet with Jan Vasilcin, a Bulgarian Catholic priest, in one of the rooms of the cultural centre in the town of Dudeștii Vechi, in Hungarian Óbesenyő. Dudeștii Vechi lies in the Banat region and stands out with its mixed population of Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian people. First Bulgars settled down in the area in the mid-18th century, when they fled from the Ottoman Empire. Their language evolved far away from the mother country, and so it came to include a lot of Hungarian and German linguistic elements. This means that even if you speak Bulgarian, you will probably not understand the language of the Banatian Bulgars. Their religion is also unique among Bulgars as they are not Orthodox, but Catholic. Jan Vasilcin, who we speak to in the centre, has translated the New Testament into the Banatian Bulgars’ language. In twenty years or so probably nobody will be longer able to read these texts.
In one of the rooms of the cultural centre, glasses stand on a table. It seems like nobody touched them for a long time. On the wall there is a painting representing the view beyond the wall. Why make a window if you can paint the street view instead? Outside it is raining, but the street view on the wall remains unfazed and serene. Time passes, but not in this little town.
When we go out, however, we are back to reality. We see stray dogs, crumbling houses. A 6 or 7 year old Roma child struggles with an adult bike. He enters the cemetery. According to an old tradition, if somebody visits the cemetery, they should give something to poor people who happen to be there. The boy’s turquoise pullover is in sharp contrast with the place, but in harmony with the hope that he will be offered food or money. It’s still raining and his shoes have holes. What will he do in five years, ten years, twenty years? And where will he be? His hopes and perspectives slip away through the holes in the shoes.
Borderlands as peripheries could be represented on maps by holes. If borders are drawn on maps with too heavy markers, the paper may be torn up together with the space it represents.
In Turnu, an elderly couple, Piroska Tóth and András Suttyák run a folk museum which they started ten years ago. The gate is always open and anyone who enters must taste their homemade alcohol ‘pálinka’, while the detailed history of the museum and its collection is presented to the guest. The first room is packed with furniture and small objects: spinning frames in the corner, pots, glasses, paraffin lamps along the walls, and – all credit to the owners – cups, awards and certificates on a white tablecloth. Near the window seats a wheat wreath decorated with ribbons in Romanian and Hungarian national colours.
Suddenly everything turns dark for a few seconds. Power failure. The man starts to shout: ‘Ceaușescu! Ceaușescu!’. Apparently, the ghost of the Romanian communist dictator associated with the shortage of commodities still haunts local communities.
The garden of the folk museum in Turnu has natural borders marked by a small stream. From its bank it is possible to see the top of the buildings from the Hungarian side. The land in-between lays derelict, belonging to nobody in particular.
Leaving Turnu we stop to take photos of the tri-lingual board. The car of the border-guards immediately appears, two men walk towards our car. They order to stop taking pictures and go away. We obey. At the checkpoint our passports are analysed carefully. The bus driver is deeply convinced that the pretty guard woman just wants to flirt with him. It doesn’t take so long. Only a half hour and we can eventually cross the border, leaving the borderland’s ‘spaceless space’ behind.
Photographs by Diana Takácsová