Most people who visit Hungary are bound for the bars and bridges of Budapest. I however began my trip from Liszt Ferenc airport not towards the capital city, but south towards Szeged where I would be reunited with a girl I met on a bus from Porto to Lisbon in July 2015. I left behind the Brits on their stag-dos and girly weekends for the quieter side of Hungary, encountering views of a modest country life that exists away from busy beaming tourism, and views that exist behind closed doors and closed borders.
I decided to purchase First Class tickets for my journey from Ferihegy to Szeged, simply because they translated into £14 and I’ve never experienced a train journey in this class before. I boarded a quiet carriage occupied by only a few people, businessmen and smartly dressed ladies. The two men sitting near my seat reservation looked up at me in surprise, as in unused to seeing people of my age and casual dress in this carriage. I quickly realised that First Class in Hungary offers the equivalent to standard class in England i.e. no complimentary drinks and meals. Dang. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of my two hour journey to Szeged as country life began to unfold outside the window after we pulled out of the rusty train station where a white cat wandered warily along a wall covered in graffiti.
It looked like winter had been harsh on the land. In the distance a tractor stood abandoned in a bland field, waiting for summer to awake it from its slumber. An old man ambled among his dreary crops as around him crows pecked around like looters looking for the last valuables from a battleground. A pile of logs and mouldy hay bales lay forgotten near a muddy marsh. Dilapidated shacks were dotted randomly in areas of wasteland covered in blankets of felled trees. In their small pastures, families shovelled manure from a wheel barrow onto the hungry ground. Thick-fleeced sheep huddled together whilst a shaggy coated horse sniffed for signs of grass and chickens scratched at the sandy earth. A scarecrow stood lonely in a deserted orchard that was too bare for even the most desperate of crows. But as the train approached Szeged, the views seemed to get brighter. Three deer cantered elegantly through a field where the grass was greener. The Hungarian flag blew gently in the breeze as it hung off a canary-yellow house with a pool in the back garden. A local white bus cruised along a road in the distance until the traffic increased on a large road heading into the city. Szeged is known as the “city of sunshine” and sure enough, the sun came out from behind its cover as my train pulled in.
My friend and her boyfriend met me at the station and we walked on towards Dóm Square. For a small entrance fee, visitors can walk up to the top of the twin-spired Votive Church for 360-degree views of the city. It was pleasing to see a lack of skyscrapers for a change. Home to a very distinguished university, Szeged is a nice area for students. The trees on the other side of the river Tisza lacked colour at this time of year, but it is easy to imagine pretty postcard views in the summer. In warmer seasons, crowds will lap up the sun by sitting on the banks of the river, and there is an Open Air festival held every summer.
Following the great flood of 1879, the Emperor promised to make Szeged “more beautiful than it used to be.” Within this there was a pledge to build a Church as a thank you to God if he would help the city recover from its immense damage. Inside, it was possibly the most beautiful Church I’ve ever seen. Even someone who is not religious, like myself, couldn’t help but be silenced in awe and respect by its grandeur. The intricate detail of the interior decor was incredible, with regal furnishings catching my eyes and rich colours catching the afternoon light that shone through the glass painted windows.
We moved on to drink mulled wine and eat cake in a cafe called A Cappella. Ordered desserts were delivered upstairs via an elevator. I sampled Hungary’s “cake of 2015” which contained peach pálinka (brandy) syrup, and dobos cake which is layered with buttercream and topped with hard caramel. We talked about our lives in England and Hungary. My friend’s boyfriend is training to become a doctor and remarked how he’d hoped to study in England because of its reputation for having good medical schools. His high view of the British medical scene seemed ironic when taking into account the strained resources of the NHS and the current strikes by junior doctors.
I then asked my companions about Hungarian views of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. They were aware of their country’s reputation for taking a hard-line stance on immigration, although they were not aware of the infamous video which surfaced in 2015 showing a Hungarian journalist pushing and kicking arriving migrants. I asked why they thought their government had decided to close the border. I was told that the government had chosen this approach itself, but it followed consultation with some members of the public through a survey. Questions they were asked included what they thought the cause of the refugee crisis was, and what they thought the results of taking in migrants would be. It quickly emerged that a fear of terrorism was the key cause of public reluctance to accept them, along with an assumption that those from Arab nations would not assimilate into Hungarian and European culture.
To me this was an interesting view. Hungary was briefly involved in the coalition force that invaded Iraq in 2003. Around 360 Hungarian troops were also sent to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. However, Hungary is not a country one would associate with attracting terrorists. Its involvement in foreign military conflicts is minimal compared to the likes of Britain, France and the United States, i.e. countries who are key targets of terrorist activity.
“I have heard that there are areas of London controlled by Muslim communities,” the boyfriend said. It wasn’t his fault for having this exaggerated view; clearly the right-wing journalists in Hungarian media have been fabricating reports and creating scapegoats. I tried to explain that there is a large presence of Muslims in London, and indeed extremism is probably being secretly bred in some of these areas, but a distinction must be made between moderate followers of the Koran who are proud British citizens, and jihadists who aim to destroy western society from within it.
Later we went to a cool bar and restaurant called Maláta for burgers and home-brewed beer. A silent black-and-white film played on a big screen next to a book shelf and umbrellas hung off the ceiling. At one point I was distracted by the arrival of four boys asking the waiter in English for a table. They had British accents and I assumed they were exchange students doing a semester abroad at the University of Szeged. They were of either Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, possibly Muslims themselves. I thought back to the Muslim boys of their age fleeing Iraq and Syria, perhaps jumping onto jam-packed boats at that very moment to begin a treacherous journey across the ocean. Is the evident fear of migrant-led terrorism present in Hungary based on the migrant’s religion or their citizenship? Would these young male migrants be viewed differently if they hadn’t come from the Middle East and instead had British accents and birth certificates? Or were the British boys enjoying a meal in the bar also being viewed with concern because of their potential association with Islam? The vast majority of Muslim men are fleeing areas controlled by Islamic State due to fear that they will be forced to fight for a group they do not support, and not because they want to spread its violent ideology westwards.
Lying in bed that night and going over the events of my first afternoon in Hungary, I recalled the splendour of the Votive Church. The power of religion is both fascinating and frightening. Some people believe so strongly in the existence and goodness of an unseen higher power that they will invest all their time, effort and money in building a magnificent Church with their two hands to demonstrate their respect and create a place of community for their fellow worshippers. But some of these people cannot respect the peaceful presence of another faith and recognise the clearly visible desperation of its civilian followers fleeing war, oppression and persecution. They refuse to open their arms to at least sympathise with these vulnerable people if they are unable to help them practically. They are so open to the existence of a God, yet so closed to the reality of human events.
This afternoon in Szeged had revealed many views, some pretty, some unpleasant. I should clarify that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently argued, being reluctant to take in thousands of refugees doesn’t make a nation and its citizens racist. By increasing the population, mass immigration poses a problem for a country’s resources in terms of finance, infrastructure, jobs and welfare. But some of the expressed rationale behind such decisions can reveal the presence of unjust, bigoted views within society. They are views that seem to contradict the instruction in the Bible given to Christians to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.
Around the time I was in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants, and deals have now been agreed for Turkey to accommodate arrivals form Greece in return for economic support. I hope that those innocent refugees turned away from Europe can understand that there are many people on this continent who pity their situation, and do not view them with fear and suspicion.