Apr 032021
 

My beautiful wife is getting really good at this.

She just made this kalach (kalács), Hungarian style braided sweetbread/eggbread, on account of Easter.

It is absolutely yummy for breakfast. Might work for lunch and dinner, too, if you ask me.

Yes, it has raisins in it. I love kalach with raisins.

 Posted by at 1:05 pm
Mar 272021
 

Courtesy of Radio Free Europe, here are some images (yes, do click on the link for the full experience) of the city of my birth, Budapest, in ways you may never have seen before, superimposing images from 1945 and the present.

It is incredible, what this beautiful city went through during that war. (Reminder to those who blame Stalin for the destruction: It was Hungary that declared war on the Soviet Union using a bombing that might have been staged, and which in any case was minor, as a pretext.)

The city is beautiful again. I visited just over a year ago, literally days before the world shut down on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever my thoughts about Hungarian politics and attitudes, it was a very pleasant trip with many pleasant encounters.

And looking at these horrific images of past devastation, I was reminded that even though I have not lived there since 1986, it remains the city where I was born and grew up: most places I recognized at a glance, in both the “before” and the “after” photos. Only Ottawa comes close as a place that I know this intimately.

 Posted by at 3:22 pm
Mar 192021
 

I remembered something today. A set of playing cards.

I never had a card deck like this but some of my grade school classmates did. This was the (very) early 1970s in communist Hungary. It was through these cards that I first learned of the existence of luxury sports cars, supercars like Ferrari, racecars like Lotus.

It was cards like these:

These were not some imports from the decadent West. Not subtle imperialist propaganda. These cards were produced by the state-owned Playing Card Factory (yes, that was the name of the company!) and they were much coveted by many 7-year olds. Like me.

But now that I think back, it makes me wonder: Exactly what were they thinking? I mean, this was a bleeping communist dictatorship (of the goulash variety, but still). What on Earth did they think they were doing, these self-appointed masters of agitprop, poisoning our young, impressionable minds with such blatant Western consumerist propaganda?

Ah, the sweet irony.

 Posted by at 9:28 pm
Feb 062021
 

In recent days, especially in light of the sudden drop in vaccine deliveries in Canada, I saw a lot of criticism aimed at the Canadian government and its perceived failure to secure vaccine supplies or vaccine manufacturing in Canada.

Reality is a little bit more nuanced. Manufacturing a 21st century vaccine is not exactly something that can be done anywhere. The fact that Canada doesn’t presently have the expertise or infrastructure is lamentable but that’s the result of a decades-long trend, not the decisions of the past several months.

Meanwhile in Hungary, Orban’s government is criticized for telling people that they will be vaccinated with whichever vaccine is available at the time; if you don’t like the vaccine being offered, you’re sent to the back of the line. A bit harsh, to be sure, but this is a bleeping global health emergency. Orban’s government may be criticized for acting in haste when they approved the Chinese and Russian vaccines (although the Russian vaccine seems effective; the Chinese vaccine is probably also fine, what is questionable is the ethical shortcuts they took with the testing and approval process). But acting in an authoritarian fashion when there is a global health emergency is precisely what even the most liberal, most democratic governments are expected to do. Orban can, and should, be criticized for undermining the country’s democratic institutions, its press freedoms, its judicial independence, its constitutional principles, but not for acting decisively when decisive action is needed during a pandemic.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Oct 312020
 

Would you like me to scare you into offering me some Halloween candy?

Here are some plots from the spreadsheet that I’ve been using to keep track of COVID-19 numbers since the spring.

I am tracking global figures, numbers in the US, Canada, the province of Ontario and my city Ottawa, as well as the country of my birth (and where our elderly parents live), Hungary.

The number of cases needs no explanation. The trends are not good. Hungary, in particular, appears to be a representative case of Europe in general, where the numbers began skyrocketing in recent weeks, per capita figures far exceeding those in Trump’s America. (So perhaps it’s not politics, after all.)

The daily growth rates are also alarming. The only place with a downward trend is Ottawa. Everywhere else, the growth rate is increasing. A constant growth rate in this chart would correspond to an exponential rise in the total number of cases; an increasing growth rate implies super-exponential behavior.

This is also reflected in the doubling rate. In this chart, the higher the number, the better; a high number of days means that the spread is slow. Again, with the exception of Ottawa, the numbers are trending downward (which is bad), or at best, are perhaps stagnating (in Canada and Ontario). And look at Hungary again! According to the latest data, the number of cases there doubles every 16-17 days or so, which is frightening.

These charts show seven-day averages. Again, the usual disclaimers apply. Country-to-country comparisons need to be made with care, due to differences in testing and reporting regimes. But the trends are another matter.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm
Oct 302020
 

The latest figures from the United States are scarier than ever. It appears Dr. Fauci was right when he predicted that the daily number of new cases will reach 100,000; according to the World-o-meter data that I’ve been following, there have been 101,461 new cases in the US today.

Does this mean that the United States officially qualifies as a “shithole country” with regards to how it manages the pandemic?

Not so fast.

Per capita, these figures mean 306 new cases per million people in the past 24 hours.

But look. Here’s my country of birth, Hungary. They were doing well until they weren’t. In the past 24 hours, they produced 3,286 infections. For a country with only 9.65 million people, that’s a lot. So much, in fact, that at 340 cases per million people, they are actually ahead of the United States. (What a relief: America is not number one.)

And wait! Before you jump to the conclusion that Mr. Orban’s illiberal populism is to blame, look at France. In the past 24 hours, they produced a staggering 49,215 new infections. Granted, that’s less than half the number of new cases in the US. But they only have less than one fifth the population! So per capita, their figures translate into a truly whopping 754 new cases per million people.

So perhaps it’s not politics, after all.

None of that excuses Mr. Trump as he mocks experts and holds “super spreader” campaign events. Perhaps 306 is less than 340 or 754, but it is still a lot of people. And as a result, around a thousand Americans die every day who could otherwise have lived. Clearly, the country could do a better job.

Canada, too. Perhaps our statistics look better than American statistics, but there is no room for complacency. This second wave is hitting us hard, much harder than the spring outbreak, and there is no sign of it ending anytime soon. On the national level, the rate of new infections is below 100 per million people, but it’s much higher in hotspots. Today’s breaking news: The province of Manitoba registered 350 cases per million, exceeding the US average.

A vaccine may or may not be coming soon. Even if it does, it will likely be imperfect, offering limited immunity. And it will take months for a mass vaccination program to reach the requisite level for vaccine-induced “herd immunity”. Long story short, the end is not yet in sight. This is likely going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.

But it’s not politics, people. Wear those damn masks. Wash your hands. Keep away from other people. Resist the temptation to visit grandma on her birthday or hold a large Christmas family dinner. For crying out loud, this is not some backdoor to communism. You are not a lesser human, a less manly man if you wear a mask and keep your “social distance”. This is centuries-old science, which is how human society was able to cope with past epidemics. Ignore it and you may be directly responsible for infecting, perhaps crippling, even killing your loved ones.

 Posted by at 9:55 pm
Jul 052020
 

A few hours ago, my phone rang and my friend David told me the sad news: His father, Peter Ada-Winter passed away*.

I’ve known Peter since the late 1970s. He was an educator who played a pioneering role in the introduction of computer programming and computer science into the Hungarian school curriculum.

Peter was a true scholar. His home, a cramped apartment in Budapest’s historic Castle District, was full of books. The walls were lined with tall bookshelves. His large desk was also covered with teetering piles of textbooks, newspapers, and computer printouts.

Peter was the son of Ernő Winter, engineer, physicist and inventor, a towering figure in the early development of vacuum tube technology in the 1920s.

Born in 1923, Peter survived the Holocaust that wiped much of his extended family off the face of the Earth.

He was in his mid-40s when, in 1968, he was asked to organize a regular computer programming course for high school students in the same high school where I studied a decade later.

I met Peter when I became friends with his son David in high school. I always looked up to him. I learned quite a few things from him. Not just technical matters, basic human values as well.

Peter’s interest in information technology never diminished. In the mid-1980s, together with his son David they published a book on the 8-bit ZX Spectrum microcomputer. In the 1990s and early 2000s, despite his advancing age, Peter became well acquainted with the Internet; surfing the Web for news became part of his daily life.

Even after he passed 90, Peter remained in good health and mentally active. Only in the last few years did his health begin to gradually decline. Nonetheless, David remained hopeful that they would be able to celebrate Peter’s 100th birthday in 2023 with a ginormous birthday cake. These hopes were squashed by the news David received today.

Though I share David’s sense of grief, I reminded him that instead of grieving, we should remember the long, productive life of a very good man. Someone that I feel privileged to have known.


*No, not a COVID-19 statistic. Simply old age.

 Posted by at 10:04 pm
Jun 162020
 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parliament of Hungary granted Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers to rule by decree. Opponents likened this to the infamous “enabling act” that marked the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

In response, Mr. Orban and his supporters argued that the government has no intention of abusing these powers, and that Mr. Orban should be judged by how he relinquishes these extraordinary powers once the crisis is over.

So here it is: Parliament just voted to end the state of emergency and requested the government to take the necessary steps to return to normalcy. So far so good. The corresponding act of Parliament is short and sweet, and to the point. The legal part of the text is only four terse clauses. In my translation:

1. The Legislature requests the government to end, in accordance with section 54, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, the state of emergency that was declared in government decree 40/2020 (March 11) (henceforth: the state of emergency).

2. The act of Parliament concerning measures against the coronavirus, Bill 12 (2020), is no longer in force.

3. (1) The present act – with the exceptions defined in paragraph (2) – shall be considered in force the day after it is proclaimed.

(2) Clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force when the state of emergency ends.

(3) The calendar day when clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force will be decided by the Prime Minister as soon as the date is known, by immediately proclaiming the date in the Hungarian Gazette.

4. Clause 2 of this bill, in accordance with section 29, paragraph 3; section 2, paragraph 1; section 24, paragraph 9, section 31, paragraphy 3; section 35, paragrapha 1; and section 54, paragraph 4, is considered fundamental.

All looks kosher, right?

But just in case you are still paying attention… there was also a second bill on the table. It has an unassuming title: “About the rules of transition concerning the end of the state of emergency and health preparedness”. Seems eminently reasonable, since under the state of emergency, the government has taken many steps, all of which must be reconciled with the system of laws and regulations.

And there is a lot. This supplementary bill is not four pages. It is 247 (two hundred forty seven) pages in PDF form. Yikes!

And on page 135, we read clause 97:

97. Changes to Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws

§339 Section 5 of Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws will be amended by the following subclause 24/A:

“24/A Emergency acts of government in case of a state of emergency concerning a human epidemic causing mass rates of infection”

§51/A. (1) The Government, in order to prevent, or mitigate the consequences of, a human epidemic that causes mass rates of infection, threatening lives and property, in order to protect the health and life of citizens of Hungary in a declared state of emergency – in addition to the emergency measures and rules described in subclauses 21-24 – in order to guarantee the lives, health, personal security, security of property, and legal protection of citizens and the stability of the national economy, may, by decree, suspend certain laws, deviate from existing laws and make other extraordinary decisions.

(2) The Government may practice the authority prescribed in paragraph (1) – to the necessary extent, in proportion with the desired outcome – in order to prevent, deal with, and eliminate an epidemic, and furthermore, to prevent or avoid such an outbreak.

There you have it. There are many other clauses concerning other laws, and most seem quite reasonable and appropriate considering the circumstances. But this one?

I highlighted the problem text in red. The law gives the government extraordinary powers. But, though the words seem reassuring on the surface, it offers no checks and balances concerning any justification of invoking these powers and the extent to which they are practiced. In the right hands, these are powers that can be used wisely in case of another pandemic or a resurgence of COVID-19, and I am sure Mr. Orban’s supporters believe that this is precisely how the government will use these powers (if at all). But opponents of Mr. Orban are concerned, not without grounds, about the lack of checks and balances and the very real possibility that these powers can go unchecked in the wrong hands.

In short, this is precisely what many feared: That though the state of emergency is lifted, a backdoor remains, a means for Mr. Orban’s government to have its cake and eat it, too, relinquish its extraordinary powers yet keeping them at the same time.

In the end, it of course all depends on how the law is put into practice. But for now, my conclusion is that the concerns of Mr. Orban’s opposition are not unfounded.

 Posted by at 6:19 pm
Mar 102020
 

And then, my Mom almost spat out her tea.

That happened when I told her about the pitiful attempt of mid-level management to deal with the persistent smell of sewage at the Parliament station of Ottawa’s defect-plagued new LRT system: the installation of bathroom air fresheners at dozens of locations around the station.

You see, I was visiting my Mom in Budapest. The city has an old underground line that was constructed back in 1896, but it also has a modern subway network, the first of which (line 2 in the current numbering scheme) was opened to the public in 1970, when I was seven years old.

That line used Soviet technology, Soviet trains, a Soviet signaling system. And it… just worked, from day one, each and every day, each and every hour of the day.

I spent one afternoon riding public transportation in Budapest. I traveled on this old line 2, which is presently using 90s era equipment and trains. I traveled on line 3, which uses recently rebuilt trains of the original Soviet variety. And I traveled on line 4, which is a modern, 21st century line with completely automated, driverless trains.

All three lines just… work. They work reliably. The rare instances when the system is interrupted are usually caused by events beyond the operators’ control, such as someone jumping in front of a train. And that 19th century relic, line 1, rebuilt and renovated in 1973, works reliably, too.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, and least the air fresheners have since been removed. But the stink remains, if you are fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to be able to visit Parliament station when the service operates, at least at a reduced capacity.

 Posted by at 2:50 pm
Nov 302019
 

Not a day goes by in Ottawa this autumn without news of yet another service interruption with our brand new light rail transport system.

You’d think that reliably operating an urban rail network is not exactly high science in 2019; especially considering that 60 years earlier, this town had an extensive network of streetcars, which operated reliably for 68 years.

Sadly, that network fell victim to the myopic urban planning trends of the postwar years, which also saw streetcar networks destroyed, or at the very least, severely diminished, as in the case of my city of birth, Budapest, where, for instance, a once popular streetcar line was replaced by an overpass carrying vehicular traffic to an already congested downtown core.

And now we have an LRT that is made unreliable, in part, by a risk-averse culture in which an entire urban transportation system is shut down because of a single door’s failure to close properly.

 Posted by at 10:46 am
May 022019
 

I meant to post this yesterday, but I didn’t have the time. Besides, it is not something you post without permission from the other party involved. The other party being my beloved wife Ildiko, that is.

You see, yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of us meeting, on a cloudy, rainy May 1 in the town of Győr, Hungary, where we were both attending a national high school chemistry competition.

And it so happened that a short while (maybe just a few weeks?) later, our high school class had a day trip to the fine town of Pécs, Ildiko’s hometown, so she and I had a chance to meet again. And one of my friends had a Polaroid camera:

Darn, I was so much thinner than today.

Ildiko, on the other hand, looks just as beautiful now as she did on that late spring day in 1979.

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Jan 162019
 

In the political campaign leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections in Hungary, an unlikely villain emerged on the election posters of the governing party: the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” screamed the posters, featuring an unflattering black-and-white photograph of the aging philanthropist.

While there was little doubt that this was all part of a cynically engineered election campaign, now we know exactly how it came to be, thanks to a piece of investigative journalism published in Das Magazin, a weekly supplement to several Swiss newspapers. A review of their article was also featured on 24.hu, a leading Hungarian news portal.

The anti-Soros campaign was the brainchild of George Birnbaum and his mentor, the late Arthur Finkelstein, experts on the technique of negative campaigning. They started working for Viktor Orban in 2008, contributing to his success in the 2010 election campaign. They had an easy task: the then ruling Socialist Party was wildly unpopular and thus easy to target. But after Orban’s second election victory in 2014, the Socialist Party was no longer a useful scapegoat. A new enemy was needed.

One obvious target presented itself: International capital, represented by the IMF and the EU, who dictated the conditions accompanying foreign loans that helped Hungary recover from the financial crisis. But an abstract target is not good enough. As Finkelstein once remarked, Americans fought not National Socialism but Hitler in WW2; not Al-Qaeda but Osama bin Laden in the War on Terror.

The narrative was given. One of the leading ideologues of Orban’s party, Maria Schmidt, director of the “House of Terror”, a museum dedicated to the victims of hardline communist terror in the early 1950s, readily provided it: a Hungary that was always the innocent victim, surrounded by enemies, yet protecting its identity and defending Christianity from adversaries ranging from the Ottoman Empire centuries ago to the investment bankers of the present day. All that was needed was a person who embodies this threat.

According to Das Magazin, Finkelstein and Birnbaum used a telephone survey to determine if Soros was known sufficiently well among would-be voters to serve as the target of a negative campaign. He proved to be the perfect enemy. He qualifies as a liberal, and he represents something hated by conservatives: a successful investor who wants to weaken capitalism. On the other hand, as he is not a politician and doesn’t even live in Hungary, he has no means to fight back.

The 2015 migration crisis was the icing on the cake. An essay Soros once wrote predicting a large number of refugees was relabeled the “Soros-plan”, demonstrating that Soros wanted to flood Hungary, and Europe in general, with Muslim “migrants”. By extension, any NGOs supported by Soros became targeted, as well as the Soros-founded Central European University, which was ultimately driven out of the country altogether, moving its main campus to Vienna.

The Soros-project was so successful, it was exported to other “markets”: anti-Soros voices were heard from Columbia to Kenya, from Israel to Australia. Even Donald Trump once asserted that the “caravan” heading towards America’s borders is funded by Soros.

The antisemitic overtone of the campaign is unmistakeable. Ironically, Finkelstein and Birnbaum are both Jewish. Birnbaum denied that the campaign had anything to do with antisemitism. He even claimed, rather improbably, that he did now know that Soros himself was Jewish. But Das Magazin reminds us that Finkelstein has not refrained in the past from supporting a candidate with known antisemitic views and that despite being gay, he also supported anti-gay politicians in the US.

 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Oct 252018
 

I just came across this picture of a newly built bicycle path in Hungary, complete with signs marking its beginning and end, as well as a stop sign instructing bicyclists coming off the path to yield to oncoming traffic:

I don’t think I can add any meaningful comments, other than perhaps that this bicycle path may yet find its way into the Guinness book of world records, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Apr 042018
 

A headline on Euronews caught my attention earlier today: Syria: A bigger role for the EU?

Good, thought I. The Russians might not like it though, thought I. But that’s okay, as a matter of fact, it might help bring rogue EU countries like Hungary in line, thought I. It might help presenting a united front against an increasingly ill-behaved Russia.

And then I caught myself, as I realized that I just rediscovered a truth that is as old as civilization itself: how conflict, the threat of war, or war itself can unite a people.

You know what? Much as I like the great European experiment, much as I cherish the fact that my once worthless Hungarian passport grants me European citizenship, if the price of keeping it together is more involvement in conflicts like Syria, it might not be worth it.

 Posted by at 12:18 pm
Nov 302017
 

Here is a short segment from a piece of music that I am trying to identify:

For the life of me, I cannot. It is especially annoying because I heard this piece of music on SiriusXM Symphony Hall earlier this morning, but I didn’t get the title and cannot find a playlist.

This music was played during the end credits of the main evening newscast in the 1960s, perhaps the early 1970s, on Hungary’s state owned television network.

Update (Dec 3, 2017): Mystery solved. It is the Scherzo from Schumann’s 2nd symphony:

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Nov 262017
 

OK, so today was a Sunday, I have recently finished some projects, so I had a bit of time to work on long overdue things around the house. Actually, it had to do with an attempt to repair an old TV, which needed to be vacuumed first, as it contained more than two decades’ worth of accumulated dust. But quickly, my attention turned to our vacuum cleaner instead.

It is a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, one of the house brands of soon-to-be-defunct Sears Canada. It is reasonably decent. But…

Well, it has a HEPA filter. It is supposed to filter the exhaust of the vacuum, to ensure that it contains no microscopic particles. The HEPA filter is a small rectangular piece made of cardboard and other materials that fits behind a cover on the back of the vacuum. The vacuum was barely a few weeks old when this cover first fell off. Putting it back on didn’t help; it fell off increasingly often. Taping it on didn’t do the trick either. Eventually, I affixed it with two screws, and it seemed to hold afterwards. Even then though, I had a nagging suspicion that there is something odd about this vacuum cleaner…

But first, let me digress. Let me mention a building, a six-story apartment building in the Hungarian city of Pécs, which is the building where my wife grew up. This building is odd, as its stairwell and elevator shaft are housed in an entirely separate building, connected to the main building on each level by a hanging corridor. Rumor has it that the original architect simply forgot to include a stairwell and elevator shaft in the design. Kind of hard to believe but…

Anyhow, back to my vacuum cleaner. My nagging suspicion was this: after the air goes through the HEPA filter, where does it go? It is surely not going to exhaust through the solid plastic filter cover (the one that kept falling off.)

Lately, our vacuum cleaner was making weird noises. When I looked at it more closely today, I noticed that one of the screws that I used to affix the HEPA filter cover was gone, and that the filter cover was slightly off. The weird noise was the air whistling through the resulting gap. Well… this did it. Hard as it is to believe, I was forced to conclude that whoever designed this vacuum cleaner forgot to include an exhaust in the design.

Out came my trusty drill (bought at a Sears store eons ago when Sears was still the best source for quality tools) and a few minutes later, the filter cover had a bunch of holes in it:

I put the cover back on, affixed it with screws again, and tested the vacuum cleaner. It was working just fine, running more smoothly than ever, and significantly cooler to the touch than ever before. And when you put your hands over the holes that I made, you could feel the tremendous outrush of air… air that previously had no place to go other than exhausting through cracks between plastic bits. No wonder the pressure was high enough to push off the HEPA filter cover even when screws were holding it in place.

Before writing this blog entry, just to be sure, I double checked. I don’t want to make a fool of myself after all. But no… there truly is no exhaust, none whatsoever, on this vacuum cleaner.

What engineer in his right mind designs a vacuum cleaner with no exhaust?

Hmmm. Maybe an engineer from the same school that trained the architect who designs buildings without stairwells.

 Posted by at 11:03 pm
Jun 212017
 

I just finished watching a 2016 Hungarian documentary film about the early days of the computer game industry in Hungary.

I was also interviewed via Skype for this film, albeit not much of my conversation with the filmmaker remained in the final cut. But that’s okay… it is, in a sense, fitting, because after the first few “heroic” years, I was no longer taking part in games development, whereas others continued and produced some amazing software.

Anyhow, I enjoyed this film. I met familiar faces (though I admit I would not have recognized all of them on the street after 30-odd years) but I also found out details about those days that I just didn’t know. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that was said in the film, but by and large, I think it paints an interesting, reasonably complete, accurate and balanced picture of what computer game development was like, what it meant to us in the early 1980s behind the Iron Curtain.

For what it’s worth, I bought my downloadable copy. (No DRM.) I think films like these deserve our support.

 Posted by at 5:35 pm
Mar 212017
 

Retired counterintelligence officers rarely give interviews. It is even more unusual for them to do so without anonymity.

Yet this is exactly what Ferenc Katrein, a former Hungarian counterintelligence officer did, when he was interviewed by the independent Hungarian news portal index.hu.

The full interview is available in English.

Katrein tells us of a secret service offensive that is waged by Russia against the European Union. He speaks of a corrupt Hungarian leadership that offered an opportunity for many Russian citizens to enter and even settle in the country in return for a modest investment with little or no effective background checks. He speaks of the role of Russia in far right movements in Europe, and their campaigns of disinformation.

All in all, it is a rare glimpse into how a counterintelligence service works on the eastern fringes of the European Union, and the extraordinary challenges that Europe faces in light of an aggressive (and in many ways, unrestrained) Russian foreign policy agenda.

 Posted by at 11:54 pm
Jun 122016
 

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm