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Monica Porter

Rebuilding the Bridge

Saga Magazine, October 2009

Monica Porter recalls returning to Hungary – the country she fled with her parents as a four-year-old – with her young son

I was four years old when my family escaped from Hungary, just after the 1956 Revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. We left everything behind for the beckoning freedom of the West. My father was a writer, my mother a singer and actress – both were forced to jettison successful careers and start anew in an alien land.

For much of my life I’ve reflected on my ‘roots’. Growing up in America – inside the uncomfortable émigré bubble of my nuclear family – those stubborn roots set me apart from my peers and I would have liked to sever them completely. But as I grew older I developed an interest in my ‘revolutionary’ origins, which, apart from anything else, made for some colourful dinner party conversation.

Then in 1980, by now a mother myself, I visited Hungary to find out at last what my cultural heritage meant to me. How vital was it to my sense of identity to understand where I came from, and to be connected to my past? My quest was personal, but also universal, and was to be the subject of my first book. I took my small son Adam with me, who was almost the age I was when my family fled, which gave the journey a kind of ‘full circle’ feel.

I spent a hectic, frequently bizarre and ever absorbing month in my mother country, getting to know relatives, family friends, acquaintances. I visited their homes and heard their stories, I learned about their lives. And what remarkable lives they had – from the impoverished elderly aristocrats who’d survived every adversity, to the demoralised young, struggling to forge a future in a crumbling communist state. I met students, artists, shopkeepers, musicians, mechanics, doctors, secretaries, pensioners, professors….Then I came home to London and wrote my book.

I called it The Paper Bridge, because it seemed to me that I had built a chain bridge between my homeland and my adopted country, Britain; between my past and my present. Every encounter I’d had, each revealing little episode, was a link in that delicate ‘paper chain’. I was pleased with my construction…but would it last?

As the years passed, the journey of discovery I had made with Adam grew ever more remote from my life and its daily concerns. Inevitably, perhaps, I ‘moved on’. When I re-read the book, almost three decades after writing it, I was saddened to realise that most of the people in it have since died. And of course my ageing bridge was in a sorry state, because it had always been about the people, the individuals. On their own, the nebulous concepts of homeland, culture and roots mean nothing.

But just as I was mourning the loss of the enriching bond with Hungary which I’d once worked hard to create, something unexpected happened. By some miraculous process, a brand new link formed itself between me and the Old Country.

It began with an email out of the blue from a young man living in the little village where my mother grew up. Roland was a great fan of my mother’s and was writing about her for a local paper. A computer graphics wiz, before long he had also designed a website dedicated to her career. Then he found DVDs of her old films online and sent them to me.

Bright, enthusiastic and interested, he tracked down some of my father’s work and acquainted himself with his writing. It was refreshing to befriend this 23-year-old who could be thoroughly in tune with today’s international youth scene and yet so ‘into’ the life and times of people from his grandparents’ generation.

Roland has become my closest contact in Hungary, almost single-handedly re-establishing my bond with it. What’s more, he gives me hope for the future of my long-beleaguered homeland.

We’ll be meeting for the first time soon, when he comes to London for the launch of the new edition of The Paper Bridge. Well, he’s got to be there. After all, he designed the book’s cover.

The updated paperback edition of The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest is published by Quartet Books, price £12