Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Budapest Diary 30 August
At the Keleti Railway Station with Jeremy Cameron

From Magyar Narancs magazine

Jeremy Cameron is a writer of both crime fiction and travel books as well as about how to be president of a tennis club but I suspect he could write about anything. Clarissa and I first met him  over a year ago as we were leaving a meeting we had both attended to hurry over to Carrow Road to see Norwich City play. We walked the half hour together and made friends and later enjoyed a meal together after another match. Nevertheless we hadn't talked about each other at great length so when we discovered he was going to be passing through Budapest on his way to Tbilisi on a crazy pilgrimage to watch Russell Martin, a Norwich City footballer  (a friend of his), play for Scotland against Georgia, and that he had several hours to kill before arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening, we said we would meet him at Keleti pályaudvar (The Eastern Terminal) where his train arrived and would depart from, where also the refugees from Syria and other places had been holed up for a long time, sleeping on the floor, supported by kind-hearted Hungarians who distributed food to them.

The Keleti was exactly as you might have seen in the newsreels. Emerging from the metro you immediately see them, mostly young families with very young children about three to five years olds some of whom are sleeping in their arms or playing close to them. There are individuals too, mostly men but some women too, the women in headscarves. They have nothing to sleep on except whatever they have brought with them, they have paid great sums to get here, and have made long dangerous journeys to get so far. Several will not have arrived at all,  having been drowned in frail boats or dinghies, poisoned or suffocated in the holds of ships. Others might have been here but are now dead, seventy-one, including many children, having died in a refrigerator truck just inside the Austrian border.

Most of them are trying to get through to Germany because they have heard that Germany might accept them or, failing that, Sweden. They have high hopes of Sweden and Germany. They must have or they wouldn't have struggled so far at such cost and risk. Many of them are professional. They sit there quietly and passively both in the tunnel and outside in the shade, since it is close to 40C in the sun.

But they are not all quiet. Just as we arrive there is a gathering at the front of the station, a loud meeting addressed by a voice that is hard to hear because he has no microphone or loud hailer. It is just a man. The crowd are chanting Germany! Germany! It's not a great crowd but they are chanting because though they have tickets they are not being allowed into the station to catch their trains. The trouble is they have no visas. How and where they were supposed to get such visas on such a journey is not clear but here they are faced by a crowd of police barricading every entrance to the station.

They don't look at us as we pass and enter the station at a side door manned by more police. We discover Jeremy inside the station bistro, his packs beside him.

Jeremy is tall and greying. He is a lean handsome man who was a keen, highly competitive sportsman as well as a probation officer. He is retired now. He has had heart problems and has Parkinson's, so he moves slowly and speaks quietly. One of his travel books is about repeating Patrick Leigh Fermor's epic journey on foot through Europe. His own is a fine, funny, quietly spoken book but a heroic journey. He likes travelling and menacing his own way. He has in fact something of Leigh Fermor about him.

We find a left luggage locker then, having some six hours on our hands, decide to take him to a couple of the smarter cafés, the nearest being the Astoria, just a couple of stops down the Metro. Like us, Jeremy has a UK passport and is over sixty so he can travel for free.

The Astoria is all but empty. It feels somewhat desolate. A waiter takes our order for coffee, returns with it, then disappears. A woman behind the bar mopes around. There are perhaps ten other people in the elegant cafe part, no one, as far as we can see in the restaurant.

But we talk. Jeremy is an excellent and generous talker. He is as interested in us as we are in him so the conversation flows on without effort. I give him Hungarian history and fill in as much as I know about the refugees at the station. Then we walk on past my favourite courtyard, which is closed, and finish up by the university law faculty where there is a hummus bar. It is very hot but they have outside tables in the shade so we sit there. The hummus dishes are rather fantastical concoctions, the only common denominator in them being hummus. We talk some more. Then, on the walk back towards Astoria metro station, I note that my courtyard is open now, so we walk through. Each time I enter it it seems a little smaller, more fragile, more true. I have never grown bored or indifferent to it. We stop and look, walk through into Múzeum körüt (Museum ring road) and catch the Metro to Blaha Luiza tér. From there it's a very short walk to the New York.  He will be going back into the Keleti terminal as will we so we might as well go the full contrast.

We are served in the most polite manner with the most expensively packaged tea and coffee under chandeliers, ceiling paintings, gilded decorations, between twisting barley-sugar columns. And we talk some more. Jeremy thinks I should write a biography of my mother. Immediately. He says what I have told him would easily make a 200 page book. He is intrigued by her and insistent I get writing. And soon. Maybe this is the trigger I need. Maybe I should do it. Within six months, he insists.

We return to the Keleti. Nothing has changed in the human maul. One man says to me in Hungarian as he passes: Ez magyarország (This is Hungary). The waiter at the buffet comments that it is just as a thousand years ago, Hungary is the bastion against the invading East. He is wrong on that. A thousand years ago it was the Hungarians clamouring at the gates and settling the territory. But what is five hundred years more or less in historical terms?

An eternity to those waiting here.

*I will write more about the situation later with some of my photo material. The situation at the station is erratic and volatile. I'll return after our next two days in Kecskemét.


Gwil W said...

Austrian Bundeskanzler invites Hungarian Ambassador to explain what's going on over there. Latest: a train from Budapest unexpectedly stopped en route to west by Hungarian police and 300 -500 refugees with train tickets disembarked and taken to a refugee camp apparently against their will. An internet report from Berlin claims "Muslim refugees are converting (to Christianity) in droves".

George S said...

Thanks Gwilym, I had heard about this but news is so unreliable at the moment it's good to have confirmation.

Gwil W said...

An estimated 1,000 are already walking from Budapest to Austria, a BBC reporter is with them. Live pictures. A child asleep on his dad's shoulders. It's almost like history is repeating itself. It was live on BBC World News.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Two points: (1)I think that America should take most of these migrants as it was Bush's moronic foreign policy that caused this crisis in the first place and (2) Why do people living in the midst of war zones feel the need to have so many children?

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Gwil W said...

Good points. My opinion for what it's worth:
(1) Remember he did it with support and assistance of Tony Blair
(2) survival instinct

Gwil W said...

Between 6,500-10,000 more appear to have reached Austria today according to reports on radio here.