Reader’s Digest, January 2010
Should you stay or should you go?
When emigrants leave home for a new life, some of the biggest tensions they face are not with their new neighbours, but with the families they leave behind.
Refugees and immigrants. Today’s turbulent world is full of them and we often hear of the conflicts between these newcomers and the native inhabitants of the countries in which they settle. But there’s another type of conflict integral to the immigrant scenario, equally regrettable but much less apparent. We don’t notice it because it is played out in private, away from the public gaze. I’m referring to the frictions within an extended family between those members who have fled their strife-torn homeland, and those who have opted to stay behind. It can get ugly, believe me. I’ve had personal experience in this area of family relations…
More than half a century ago my parents, my brother and I joined the exodus of refugees fleeing Hungary after the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the 1956 Uprising. I was four, and my abiding memory is of sitting in the dark in the back of a crowded truck as we lurched our way across no-man’s-land, in the dead of night, to the Austrian border and freedom.
We left everything behind. A home, worldly goods, friends and family, a culture. And my parents (father a writer, mother a singer) had to jettison well-established careers to begin life anew in an alien land, America. But there’s an innate resilience and resourcefulness in those who choose the émigré path. Maybe the ‘sink or swim’ mentality brings out the strengths in people. Anyway, while we were never in clover, we did eventually forge a secure existence – complete with the suburban house, two-car garage and water sprinkler on the lawn.
By the late 1960s it was possible for former ’56-ers, as they were dubbed, to travel to Hungary on a tourist visa and my mother, who always felt the pull of the old country, began her near-annual visits. And she would come back to New York with stories about the everyday lives of our relatives ‘back home’.
I should explain that back in the dark days of communism the biggest problem was finding accommodation. It was routine for three generations to have to squeeze in together due to the chronic shortage of flats, which were in any case mostly dilapidated, state-owned affairs. Such hardships forced people to concoct all manner of devious strategies in order to secure a place to live, and I suppose you couldn’t blame them.
My mother owned a lovely villa in Budapest – built during her showbiz heyday in the 1930s – which she could only hold on to after our emigration by installing family members in it. So in addition to my grandparents, it became home to my mother’s cousin Mari, her husband Dodi, and their daughter Little Mari. But this was seen as favouritism by my mother’s cousin Laci and his wife Klari, who would have liked to live there themselves with their daughter Little Klari. And so the seeds of lifelong rivalry and resentment were sown between the two camps, to be passed on down the generations. And my mother was caught in the middle, yanked in opposite directions, trying to be even-handed and getting stressed out in the process.
As an added strain, her old home was a long-term drain on our new finances. There was usually a leaky roof or boiler to repair or some other expense which my hardworking father – the sole breadwinner and already mortgaged up to the eyeballs with our suburban abode – would be asked to pay. My parents had heated arguments about this. But in the end Dad would grudgingly cough up. No doubt partly due to these frequent disbursements, and partly because of my generous mother’s visits to Hungary laden with gifts, our relations acquired the misguided view that we must be rolling in it. After all, isn’t everyone rich in America, the land of plenty?
In 1970 my family moved to London. Living in Europe again, my mother’s gaze seemed even more fixed on her homeland than before. In letters, phone calls and of course during her visits, she heard woeful tales from our relatives about their tough lives – the meagre incomes and struggles to afford a washing machine or TV, the eight-year waiting list to buy a crummy East European car, being denied visas to visit the West, and so on. She’d relay these accounts to my father until he’d had enough.
‘Well, they should have done what we did in ’56,’ he once exploded in a fit of impatience. ‘They, too, could have uprooted themselves and taken their chances in the West. But they compromised with the regime, they made a choice to stay. So now they should shut up and live with it!’
While I was growing up, these relatives on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain struck me as a divisive factor in my parents’ marriage. Later, after I’d been back to Hungary a few times myself and knew them better, I began to understand why. Although they had their petty squabbles and internecine feuds, they shared one thing, at least: an implicit belief that it behoved us as the ‘fortunate Western branch’ of the family to help them. My mother clearly agreed. And while I didn’t disagree, my sense that this help was often taken for granted annoyed and upset me.
One particular episode in Budapest, in the late 1980s, sticks in my memory. Little Klari, by then married and with a small child, was showing me around her well-furnished new apartment downtown. ‘This is the antique wardrobe your mother gave me,’ she said. ‘It used to be in the villa. ‘Inside it I keep the set of embroidered linen I got from her. Those chairs came from her, as well as this side-table and the painting over there…’ At the end of the tour she turned to me plaintively and asked, without any irony: ‘Why does your mother prefer Little Mari to me? I’m just as close a relative as she is.’ That old resentment was still festering away and I got the impression she wanted me to intercede on her behalf.
I was repelled by this competition for my mother’s ‘largess’. Undoubtedly, the women were worse than the men. Cousin Laci was a harmless eccentric who made redcurrant wine in a strange contraption in his bathroom. It was his wife Klari who always seemed to ooze wily little schemes as she studied you with guarded, rheumy eyes. (‘Never trust a woman with red-rimmed eyes,’ my mother once remarked about her, with a characteristic finality.) And in the opposite corner was Cousin Mari, who struck me as a shrewd apparatchik not to be trifled with, while her moustachioed husband Dodi was warm, good-natured and quick with the one-liners.
I got to know them, my various ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ (terms used loosely by Hungarians) and my cousins once or twice removed, on my first visit to Hungary in 1971. That summer holiday was to provide an important early lesson in my relationship with the extended family.
I spent a carefree month regaling my new-found tribe with anecdotes of life in the tantalizing West, while they gushed over me as though I were some exotic creature, half-child, half-princess. On my last day they trooped over to say good-bye. A number of them had modest requests. Uncle Miklos, who had a little vineyard at his weekend bungalow in the country, explained that the ‘criminal crows’ were devouring his grapes. He’d spotted in some magazine just the device he needed: an inflatable falcon designed to hover over vineyards and flap about in the breeze, sending the crows off in a panic. Apparently, it was a great success in the West.
Teenaged Little Klari asked me to send her a poster of her favourite pop star, Donovan. She observed that as he was English, it would be easy to find. London would be full of them.
Uncle Tamas informed me that he was studying English, regularly poring over his language books late into the night. But there was a hitch: he had no one to speak English with, so he didn’t know how to pronounce the words. He’d heard that you could buy an LP with English pronunciation exercises accompanied by a booklet with matching text. ‘One such record is all I need,’ he insisted.
Finally my cocky cousin Zoli, a tall and skinny 18-year-old, put a scrap of paper in my hand. ‘I’m not doing well in history,’ he began, ‘so I’d like to butter up my teacher. He’s mentioned a book he wants to order from London but says he never has time. So I said you’d send it to him. Would you? I’d be forever in your debt!’ He added that the book’s title and the name of the shop selling it were on the paper and that his teacher would send me the money.
My tribespeople were so endearing, with their little idiosyncrasies. I had become fond of them and promised to oblige. So on my return home I set about searching for the items they wanted.
I looked for the inflatable falcon in Harrods, where they sell absolutely everything, and in several sporting goods shops. No one had ever heard of it. Then I called the Winegrowers’ Association, who just laughed down the phone. I scoured the capital for a poster of Donovan but there wasn’t one anywhere, perhaps because he had fallen from favour. Or because he was Scottish, not English. The English pronunciation record was unavailable in HMV on Oxford Street, ‘the world’s biggest record store’. I was directed to Linguaphone, which did indeed stock them, but not singly. They came in an exorbitant 10-record set so heavy I couldn’t afford to post it, never mind buy it. And so to the history teacher’s book: the Judaeo-Spanish Bible, written in the arcane tongue spoken by Spanish Jews in Turkey. Weird. But at least I’d been told where to get it: the British and Foreign Bible Society, in Victoria. By now I was worn out, but I dragged myself over there and handed Zoli’s paper to a woman behind a desk. She looked through catalogues and checked with colleagues, but to no avail. ‘Sorry, we haven’t a clue.’
After I stopped fuming about my relatives’ ludicrous, time-wasting requests, I wrote to tell them that, sadly, the objects of their desire were unobtainable in London. They were terribly disappointed. And they clearly felt I had let them down. I just hadn’t tried hard enough. In their eyes London was an Aladdin’s cave, it had everything. (Did I unwittingly foster this illusion during my stay in Budapest?) Anyway, the honeymoon was over…
It’s all very different these days. The world has moved on. Hungary is a democracy, it’s in the EU, there is no longer an East-West divide in Europe and our lifestyles have largely converged. In any case, my mother died 12 years ago, so there is no more ‘Lady Bountiful’ as a focal point for the family. Many of my relations in the old country have also passed away and I don’t have much contact now with the rest of them. The tensions and misunderstandings that once existed between us are so much ancient history.
But what of the people from other parts of the world who continue to have lives churned up by wars and calamities, the refugees fleeing abroad, the immigrants in search of a better existence, leaving their homes and relatives behind? Many work hard and carve out new, more promising lives. I wonder about the feuding Klaris and Maris, in their many varied guises, that are ‘back home’ vying for their favours. And about the dreamy-eyed cousins with their requests for that ‘special item’ from the gilded West on which they have set their hearts.
After all, the world may change – but families generally don’t.
The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest by Monica Porter is published by Quartet Books, price £12. Click here to buy this book