Sunday, 6 September 2015

Budapest Diary 31 August - 6 September (1)
Refugees, the dinners, the circles of kindness

There are holes in the diary because of the refugee crisis. I have been following it, reading about it and posting about it on Facebook and Twitter, not writing the blog. As the UK press has reported, prominently, the Hungarian government has swung one way then another while continuing to snarl. What a repulsive bunch they are! But the rest of Eastern Europe are equally unwilling to help. Germany and Austria have leapt into the breach and shown a human face. The UK continues to point to its financial assistance while wanting to back away from the whole thing, with some minor adjustments here and there. The UK, of course, is not immune from blame for the situation in the first place.

Here in Budapest many people we know have been offering practical help, bringing food packages, toys and other gifts. There is much kindness in those we meet. We do not tend to meet those who are hostile. Our experience is limited by our history and contacts.

The refugees have crowded onto trains, have been taken off trains, been detained, have set out en masse to march along the main motorway to Austria, have been picked up by buses taking them to the Austrian border and have been cheered to the rafters on their arrival into Austria and then Germany. I do, of course, understand that those doing the cheering are not those who are not doing the cheering. It is hard to generalise from the actions of those in sympathy with us, or hostile to us. We cannot say simply: Germans, Austrians good; Hungarians bad.

But I do keep wondering about the balance of such things in Hungary. Our circles of kindness may not extend very far. And I am not even sure that kindness is the right word but I can't think of anything better at the moment, since everything else has an air of grandiosity or piety. I am equally aware that my own feeling, that the best way to approach opposition is by reasoned, respectful, courteous argument, without any sense of superiority or outrage may be more than is humanly possible - but, again, it is just that I don't see a reasonable alternative.

We have dined with old friends, new friends and people we bumped into that we haven't seen for years since they were students at school or university. One is a theoretical mathematician at Cambridge. He has three children. His wife takes food to the refugees. Another is a school teacher who also has three children now. We meet him for a drink at a cafe. He is a handsome boy who studied literature and history. He is clearly concerned by how his country is perceived and how the government is handling the situation. Another is a scholar of Dutch whom I met only a few weeks ago at a translation summer school. Her husband is Dutch, her two boys are helping them deliver supplies to the refugees and have been doing so for weeks.

I see my dear old friend - my father in Hungary - the editor and writer. He writes beautifully. We have known him for over thirty years. He is very ill now and can hardly move.  Four of his toes have had to be amputated. He uses a frame but moves at snail's pace. His new pacemaker keeps him alive though he would prefer to be dead. We sit down in his small flat and talk books and friends (some dead now) and politics. His face relaxes, becomes absorbed, animated, healthy. His mind is as brilliant as ever. He is as humane as ever. He is from an old 19C aristocratic liberal family. He reads everything even now. He despairs of the country. He despairs of the divided, corrupt, left wing opposition. He cannot see any focus or immediate future in it. He is waiting to be allocated a place in a care home. His books and papers are gathered around him. 'We may not meet again,' he tells me. 'I know,' I reply. What else to say? Stupid consoling things neither of us believe? He  has been one of the great lights to me since my first return.

A dinner with poets, novelists, dramaturges. Marvellous novelist and poet. Transylvanians, like my mother.  We talk of writing, who's in who's out. How stories are constructed. How books may be made in the near future. All these people are in the circle of known kindness.

This too is real - and there is much more of it than we might think. But is there enough?

Today to meet another old friend who has been feeding Roma families in the impoverished 8th district.

Next post about the visit to Kecskemét.

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