The three of us conference leaders traveled separately, and I was the first to arrive in Budapest a day before the others. I was a little anxious because the communication regarding our travel and accommodations had not been explicit. Then I saw a young man holding a sign with my name on it. I felt somewhat assured, maybe, by his bearded, blasé, 60s look. Surely, we shared the same worldview. He politely introduced himself as an Ars Longa associate and in excellent English outlined the schedule for the next few days, assuring me that I wouldn’t have to make my own arrangements. Then he hoisted my very large, very stuffed suitcase and set off at a fast clip for his small Peugeot. I hurried to follow. It would not be the last time to be surprised and wonder about the direction my life was taking.
By the time we made it into Budapest proper, the sky was fading but patches of light still glittered on the Danube’s dark surface. I caught a glimpse of the Gothic-Revival parliament building and the grand cathedral and was suitably impressed. I was dropped at a school dormitory with instructions to take the subway downtown to meet another Ars Longa associate. The next morning, on the way to the designated hotel in the heart of Budapest, I found the subway entrance and rode a steep, two-story escalator. Like a roller coaster, this one hurtled its passengers down to the train level. Unlike a roller coaster ride, there was dead silence. No one even looked at each other. It was one of the first signs that life here had gone sideways.
Relieved to have survived the ride, my next challenge was to find the hotel and my contact. I found the hotel without difficulty, and feeling moderately confident, I settled myself in a high-traffic area and noticed a sign that explained, in English, the crime and punishment for traveling on the train without a ticket. This information would prove most helpful later that week. Without too much ado, my contact found me and I joined a small tour group he was herding. On our way through the underground train catacombs, we passed flower vendors, and I impulsively stopped to buy a bunch, thinking it would be a quick transaction. It wasn’t, and my group had disappeared by the time I had finished my flower negotiations. Regretting my foolishness, I figured I was on my own but then spotted my contact running down the steps, looking for me. Not wanting to cause any more problems, I figured that since I had made my way downtown on my own, I would find my way back. But my gracious guide deposited me back at the dorm.
The next day, the two others from team America arrived. We had a day to get acclimated before leaving Budapest, so two of us set out one afternoon to explore the city. We visited the market, walked along the river, and checked out the wares in the tourist traps. After grabbing a coffee, we decided to head back before the fading light totally disappeared. We descended to our train line by rapid transit, the dread escalator. Too late we learned that wiser people avoided the subway in the evening. We were making our way toward our train when a burly young man wearing an official looking arm band blocked our way and demanded our passports. Then he accused us of traveling without a ticket and demanded 10,000 forints. I remembered the hotel sign warning of a 1,000 forint penalty for riding illegally and said, “Nem” to the thug and hissed, “Let’s run.” We escaped with our wallets and passports intact. I wondered what other adventures were in store.
In the morning we piled into the Peugeot and set off for the border. As we neared Hungary’s eastern border, we came on a quaint and charming sight, a wagon pulled by horses. The driver was making his rounds, distributing bottles of carbonated water in the village. It was a sign of things to come – sights less picturesque. Nothing I had read prepared me for the trip across the border into Ukraine. Surly guards first stared at and then ignored us, leisurely finishing their cigarettes. Finally, after a couple of hours, they searched our little car, inspected our passports, and waved us through.
During the next few days we traveled through this westernmost area of Ukraine, an area once part of Hungary and once populated mostly by Hungarians. It was a time to look and to wonder what we were really seeing. When I learned that the villagers in this region had once been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and recently been citizens of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and now Ukraine, I became painfully aware that I was not a historian.
One time our guide stopped in front of a small store. He handed us a few hrivna, the local currency, and instructed us to go buy something. Though we spoke not a word of Hungarian or Ukrainian, we didn’t want to appear afraid, so we entered the store. It was soon apparent that the purpose of this stop had nothing to do with using Ukrainian money. He wanted us to see the shelves, mostly empty except for rows and rows of vodka bottles. Roma children often greeted us with expectant faces, and outstretched hands. I noted how the Ars Longa people responded, with gentleness and humor, always ready with a gift, usually of food, seldom money. I was impressed.
We saw ornate bourgeois public buildings, purposely encouraged to decay, standing side by side with more recent public buildings whose grim form reflected their function. We shared the road with aging Trabants, fat-wheeled bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. Acres of crippled and rusted farm machinery occupied once verdant fields. I saw a derelict stadium built with public funds at the behest of a faithful local comrade, a gift to the 200 or so souls living in the village. Unneeded, unwanted, and unused, it too had fallen into decay. Clearly something had gone awry in this socialist paradise. By the time the conference began, I wondered whether I should ditch my lectures and instead be the student.