“I was so overwhelmed when I went to the West for the first time that I couldn’t even process all the information I was bombarded with during those three weeks. I had such a strong desire to experience all these things and when I finally had the opportunity to do so it was too much to take in all at once.”
Hungarian Editor (from 1982 to 1989) of the underground AB Publishing House that specialised in publishing works of literature, sociology, political science, and philosophy banned by the communist censorship. Between 1989 and 1990 she was involved in organising the election campaign for the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). She was a Member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 to 1998. Since 1999 she has been working for the Hungarian Institute for Social Policy and Labour.
I would like to ask you about your first trip to Western Europe. Can you tell me when, how, and where did you go?
I left Hungary for the first time in December 1987. This was my first trip abroad because I hadn’t been able to afford to do it earlier. I had been deprived of having a passport until then. I got my first passport, allowing me to visit the West in 1987, when Hungary introduced a passport valid for the whole world. My then husband and I set off to Paris for three weeks. We went there through Austria and Germany by car.
What were your first impressions of the West?
My impressions etched themselves into my memory so well that I remember everything, even today. We went by car and the whole trip was amazing: the motorways with their modern conveniences and their lights that came on automatically. When I went to a public convenience for the first time I was looking for a switch to turn the light on for ages. It was a technical shock for me. And at the flat we were staying in, there was an answering machine. It used to turn on automatically, and I didn’t know how to handle that. All I could do was shout: “Hello! Here I am!” We had a great time though. I had wanted to visit Paris ever since my childhood. This was the reason I was studying French. So by then I spoke this language quite well yet I could feel that the French didn’t really like foreigners. This dislike was probably not directed only towards Eastern Europeans though. On the other hand, we were associated there with a group of intellectuals that followed Hungarian political events attentively, and thus their attitude towards us was rather friendly. All in all, France was quite receptive and tolerant.
It was not easy for me to express my feelings then. I was 33, living in a Communist country, shut off from the rest of the world. And suddenly I found myself in Western Europe. I used to read a lot about the West before, so everything was rather familiar to me. I could not say, for sure, how much this enriched my personality though. I was so overwhelmed when I went to the West for the first time that I couldn’t even process all the information I was bombarded with during those three weeks. I had such a strong desire to experience all these things and when I finally had the opportunity to do so it was too much to take in all at once.
Did your experiences match your expectations?
Yes, they did, absolutely. They even surpassed them. It’s not easy to talk about that. I was most impressed with the cultural values and astonished by the level of technical development which was hard to comprehend for me. I was surprised, for example, that the French used computers to search through their phonebooks. I saw a lot of things I had never seen before. As for cultural values – as I said – they made a lasting impression on me. However, I had some minor disappointments, such as my inability to see the Mona Lisa so well due to the extensive crowds. But being able to walk along the streets of Paris and explore everything I wanted to see more than compensated for this inconvenience. In reality, everything was more beautiful than in my earlier imagination. Everyone had his or her own individual point of view. Thanks to my profession, as a sociologist, I was able to understand that everything I saw was not as fantastic as it appeared, that there were problems in the West too. But since these were not my personal problems they didn’t concern me.
Did you learn anything new about Western democracy or the free market economy abroad?
In Eastern Europe we had to fight to have the very rights Westerners took almost for granted. You could see the newspaper headlines day after day. The various newspapers commented on the same event in various ways. Parliament was operating freely and France was open and tolerant towards political refugees. As for the free market economy and capitalism, one could experience them as soon as one arrived. There was fresh food in the markets – even at weekends – and I didn’t have to stand in a long queue to buy a loaf of bread.
What impact did your travels have on your career?
My situation was a bit different. As a member of the democratic opposition I used to travel to the West to inform émigrés about Hungary and its political situation. That was the reason for travelling there. The émigrés appreciated the fact that we were publishing underground periodicals and magazines in Hungary. I made a few friends in the US. My English was not that good then because the only language course I was able to afford and to attend was not really that helpful, so later I started to learn English by myself. In the end, my English was okay, but not good enough to help me to advance my professional career. My travels did not change my personality all that much.
I used to read a lot and had some journalist friends in the West that used to impress me in some ways. My trip to the US had more significance though. I realised that I was responsible for my life, and that I could control my destiny. I knew that before – intellectually – but it was in the US that this became an important element in my outlook on life. I tend to forget about that from time to time but nevertheless this realisation has underpinned my life since then.