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Stoppard, rice pudding and refugees: past a decade in the Netherlands

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

10 years ago today, I moved to the Netherlands.

10 years ago today, I moved to the Netherlands.

I’m resting that sentence on my tongue for a bit. It tastes of confession, as much as celebration. Of guilt, as much as pride. A hint of regret, and pain. Pain. But into that pain mix the happier tones of achievement, of gratitude. Of learning and enrichment.

Recently, a minister asked me if I had fled Hungary. It took all my sense of humour to muster a polite reply. Have I fled Hungary?? The Hungary I left behind, just after my university years, was that of a fulfilling and happy youth. Of the click of my grandma’s front door handle, as I’d press it down, jokingly calling out “Betörõ!” (Robbers!). Of Sunday lunches in the family living room, where our big family would hardly fit around the table. Of posters hung on Gellért-hegy (Gellért hill) and Erzsébet híd (Elizabeth bridge), wishing me happy 18th birthday. Of acting, and falling in love. Of breakups. Of endless coffees with university friends. Of jumping from Yiddish films class to Shakespeare to Wilde to Feminist literature. Of leading Göncz Árpád, the already 80+ former president and translator, down the crowded stairs of Dürer café, onto the stage of the translators’ seminar, my sister and I had organized. Of Professor Géher’s soft voice, announcing that the seminars had by then become a tradition. I could feel Budapest tingling under my skin. The world was mine.

Or well, most of it was. Once back from my studies in Israel, my husband-to-be and I were living on separate continents for a while. He then found a study programme in Amsterdam, and moved there, to be closer. By the time I wrapped up my thesis research project, he only had half a year left from his programme. Neither of us knew what next. What we knew was that we wanted to be together. I was mobile. He wasn’t. It didn’t feel like I was leaving - LEAVING - Hungary. Had I thought I was, I might never have left.

Anyone who has ever moved will know how it feels. When you first step out of your apartment building, and don’t know what’s around the corner. When the walls of your apartment tell no stories. When the people the streets are named after, form no picture in your mind. When you realize that túrórudi, Radnóti and József Attila are empty words to the people passing you by. When there is no popping in to your grandma, and calling out ‘Betörõ!’. Your bike wheels getting stuck in tram tracks don’t help, either. It took me some good two years to utter a positive sentence about the Netherlands. The Netherlands, clearly, wasn’t at fault. My having left so much behind, was.

Change seemed slow. But change did come. Some 3-4 years into my stay in the Netherlands, I no longer had to fight back tears when boarding a flight from Budapest to Amsterdam. I was by then involved in setting up an innovative international primary school, and was in the process of publishing a book. I had formed solid friendship with a group of internationals, had married my Israeli husband, and seized every opportunity to travel abroad. International life quickly became my reality, and diversity my norm. The world seemed to be mine again. But this time around, it came at a price.

Namely, it started dawning on me that I wasn’t likely to move back to Hungary any time soon. Perhaps never. And so, as a coping mechanism, I joined my ancestors in the denial game. But while they were denying their Jewish origin, I set out to convince myself that life in Hungary wasn’t worth longing for. I started finding fault with everything in Hungary. By comparing it to the Netherlands, I seemed to have an easy task at hand, and let’s face it, Mr Orbán proved a very useful ally. And so in due time I could pat myself on the back: I had succeeded in distancing myself from Hungary, and to some extent from friends and family living there. I was safe.

But denial won’t do. As I stand at the Danube bank on a sunny February day, the yellow of the trams against the green of Szabadság híd, I finally allow the truth to slap me in the face. The fact that Budapest will always feel home in a way that Amsterdam never will. That Budapest talks to me, while Amsterdam remains on mute. That you can only have one place where the light, the shades, the sounds, the shapes, the tastes all resonate with your core.

That’s simple then, right? Why not just move back? But I’m afraid that that minister was actually right on some level. While I didn’t leave Hungary as a refugee, in a way I have become one. I have spent 10 years tasting real freedom in the Netherlands. I have also spent 10 years watching freedom erode to not much more than a memory under Mr Orbán in Hungary. I have changed, and so has my country. We have grown in the opposite directions, and I wonder if there’s a way back. Or can this change never be unstirred, just like Thomasina’s rice pudding?

“When you stir rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” /Arcadia by Tom Stoppard/

Perhaps time will tell. In the meantime I consider myself lucky that I live in a safe and free country. That the society I’m part of promotes the values I stand and work for. That I don’t need to fight the system. That I can make my voice heard, however critical. That I get opportunities. That coming from Hungary helps me put things in perspective. That those I left behind are in no way in danger. And that I have faced myself.

And perhaps, one day, the word ‘home’ will make sense again.


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