A refrigerator and a dinner wagon

Two tales of Hungarians on the move

The refrigerator – Austria, 1988

Grandma is sitting in the backseat, loaded (hardly able to move, effectively locked) into the car. Her currency allowance has been unloaded from the bank and added to the family budget.

The plan is to go to Austria to procure a Gorenje, the long-coveted Yugoslav-made free-standing refrigerator, unavailable in Hungary. Its name might sound Russian (go-ren-ye) but is Slavic only. Free-standing it is and always shall be. All true Magyars are trying these days to get a hold of one of these, riding out en masse, motorised, to hunt down this treasure in the spirit of the invading Hungarian tribes.

That is also the case of István and his family – seemingly at least. In fact, they invest real interest in what awaits them outside the rusting Iron Curtain.

They start out armed with a brand new “world passport” and with an open heart on their way, reckoning they might get as far as Klagenfurt and back in a single day. They hope to see gemütlich Austrian towns, a castle and a waterfall, all on the basis of advice from a moth-eaten socialist guidebook.

They are scared, at first, of even the mildest climb (would their car endure the struggle uphill, they ask, which it does). Once they accomplish the first part of their plan, they are headed back towards the border at Hegyeshalom almost free of care, with Alpine mountain-loads of new memories to relive again and again.

They are driving towards the store holding the magical fridge and are steadily eating the distance, kilometres on end. All the while they are painfully parting from the impossibly green scenery around them, already aching for a return.

Then a BMW materialises out of nowhere, a German license plate. It slowly catches up with them, coming up behind them in the wrong lane.

Why would anyone do that?

István and the family try to act like it’s no reason to be scared, perhaps the driver got too comfortable in his fancy car and forgot to change down a gear to swiftly overtake them. Surely, something like this must be afoot, or awheel. Although, come to think of it, having another driver side by side with you on a road is, as a rule, concerning as to what is (or maybe) adrift.

Moreover, the other driver is now honking at them, forcing them towards the side of the road, so István, acting in good faith, slowly pulls aside and draws to a stop. He may be ill-informed about the local car light rules or it could also be that they’ve got a flat tyre. That’s probably what the stranger wants to tell them, hence his impatience. 

Instead, the other driver breaks and stops right beside their Lada (there is no one to protest this on the calm Carinthian Landstraße). Then, leaning over the passenger seat of his car, he yells at them across the rolled-down window in the beautiful Hungarian language they know from home.

 “Bloody communists! You come over here to sniff a bit of freedom, yeah? Go back to where you came from!”

Thus he speaketh. 

István, his wife, their two children, and last but not least grandma, they can only stare back at him in amazement. History has just ambushed them. It manifested itself in a perspective rooted in its mayhem. Even as they only came for a Gorenje, and to take in some of the famous Austrian gemütlichkeit, their journey ultimately led them to find the Hungarian in a Hungarian.

Now they wonder. How many more puzzling and disturbing phenomena do they stand to face in this changing world and the uncertain times that await?

The Dinner Wagon – Budapest, Hungary, 30 years later

Back in town, visiting relatives, showing them pictures of working and living in Bavaria, speaking in superlatives.

Being shown pictures of life in the motherland in return, discussing politics, speaking in expletives.

Afterwards: going to see the dentist (I also pay a visit to my regular beauty parlour, so much cheaper in Budapest it’s a must for a gal), viewing an exhibition and a concert, eagerly soaking up the impulses of culture.

We are collecting fresh memories of home, filling up for the times ahead, away, again.

By Saturday night we are exhausted. Going to bed is like a crash landing. Still, we get up to pack up the next morning, packing seemingly in haste. It’s a routine, though – no time goes to waste.

We also have a meeting in the morning hours in Újpest; we’re buying a dinner wagon from a family there. We’re excited as hell, as well as worried. Have we found the right one in fact? Is this the one we fell in love with over the internet?

So we take the tram, the metro, and even a bus, to get to the destination (and to check out what’s new in the capital of the nation). We are happy to see that the deal is definitely on. It’s a really good bargain. Checkerboard top and a cute little drawer. As anticipated, it’s just like the one that Mom has!

With my husband, we go over the top to express how grateful we are, even as we pay for it.

We are about to leave, satisfied, when an unexpected encounter awaits us. A small child approaches us on his bike, training wheels out on both sides.

We are waiting at the bus stop, and he is riding real easy, but he draws to a halt when he sees us – us and our recent acquisition.

At the sight of it he puts his feet down hard, as if pulling off to the side of the road in the saddle of a Harley-Davidson, at a minimum, to stare at something, a wonder, that is more important or exciting than the easy ride.

He asks us with wide-open eyes: “What is this?”

His mother immediately offers a reply (“I don’t know, it must be a tea trolley of some kind, come on now, son”) as she catches up.

She instantly wants to pull him along, but I instinctively answer: “It’s a dinner wagon!.”

The boy keeps staring at us, in a contorted pose of continued interest, his head turned back to face us, dragging his feet on the ground – even as he is dragged along only slowed down by the obstruction.

He sharply utters: “Dinner – wagon”, taking his time to pause at the boundary between the two words, where two worlds collide.

It’s a dinner and a wagon combined.

You can feel his mouth running dry, swallowing air like a thirsting traveller hearing of an oasis in the middle of the desert. How awesome is this? Goodies on wheels! People doing all kinds of crazily exciting things, like heaping mountains of fun onto cool things such as wagons and trolleys! A wagon bigger than his bicycle, even.

It’s as if fate is pulling a carrot in front of him on a string. It’s all being taken away from him.

At least that is his impression, even if he is the one moving away from his object of desire on the back of his ride.

We share his pain, our conscience hurts: a sentiment that lasts right up till the moment of farewell in the early afternoon. 

Then the emotions burst.

By then we have everything already in the car, including the tea-trolley-slash-dinner wagon. Now we can’t help but feel remorse because we bought on the cheap and are taking with us, out of the country, a dinner wagon from simply out of this world. The best dinner wagon, really.

With this, something now belongs to the past and is gone forever.