Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Kálmán Katona

“Before leaving for England, I had to make many arrangements. The administrative procedures were very lengthy. I had to stand in long queues. It was natural to only be given a date for an appointment after a month or more. But we were so happy that we were going to travel that we didn’t complain at all.  “

Hungarian politician and Member of the Parliament (from 1990 to 1994 and in 2006). He was the Minister of Transport, Communication and Water Management from 1998 to 2000. From 2000 to 2002 the Chairman and the Chief Executive Officer of the Hungarian Power Companies LTD. He is also a Councillor of the City of Budapest.

Kálmán Katona. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

Kálmán Katona. Source: Europe Divided. Then and Now, publication of the Stefan Batory Foundation

Can you tell me a bit about your first trip to the West?

My passport was revoked for political reasons in 1971. After writing many applications and exchanging many letters I got, for the first time, a passport allowing me to travel to the other Soviet Block countries. Next, I was granted a passport valid for the whole world. My sister was living in London at that time but I applied to travel only as a tourist. I remember that I had to pay 70 US dollars for the passport. Once I had it, I went to Switzerland. One of my wife’s colleagues from an orchestra she used to play in – Vili was his name – emigrated to Switzerland and invited us to spend some time with him in Zurich. Before my first trip to the West, I visited Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania, travelling there on my “socialist” passport.

What were you experiences of crossing the border to the West the first time?

As far as I can remember now, we were crossing successive borders in the West without being stopped for checks at all. The guards simply signalled us to pass through. We – my wife, children and I – went to Switzerland in my old, beat up car. Since we had valid passports and visas everything ran smoothly. We had to pay for using the motorway in every country though. We were only nervous when exiting the motorway, at Hegyeshalom, at the Hungarian-Austrian border crossing, because we were smuggling US dollars we had got from our relatives. We hid these dollars in my shaving foam. We did not get subjected to any thorough checks throughout this journey except once, on entry into England, where we were ordered to open the boot of our car. I remember that on entry into Belgium we were not checked at all but there was another car, driven by a man with a huge moustache who was travelling with a child, probably his grandchild. The guards subjected him to a thorough check. When they opened the boot of his car they discovered that he had been trying to smuggle many bottles of whisky. We did not know whether they were checking him because other travellers had ratted on him or else, because the guards had a very keen and experienced eye. We didn’t have any problems crossing the borders although our car was an old, beat up Trabant.

You mentioned a trip to England. Did you have to apply for a visa to go there?

Yes, of course we had to do so. My sister was living there but we were only intending to visit her and therefore we applied only for a tourist visa. Before leaving for England, I had to make many arrangements. The administrative procedures were very lengthy. I had to stand in long queues. It was natural to only be given a date for an appointment after a month or more. But we were so happy that we were going to travel that we didn’t complain at all.

What were your first impressions of the West?

I always say that Brezhnev was right when he said that ordinary citizens should not be allowed to travel abroad because if they do come back, they won’t feel good anymore in their own country. To top it all, the first time we went abroad it was to Switzerland. Of course, getting there by car, we had to travel through Austria, but we didn’t stop anywhere. We simply slept in our car. As soon as we went through the border at Hegyeshalom, we saw that all the houses in Austria were freshly painted. The roads were well maintained… Everything looked well kept. Then, when we were in Switzerland, I was cycling a lot. I remember that the roads were so clean and the edge of the asphalt was so clearly delimited by a line of paint and the neatly mown grass. When we went to Ticino, a place near the Italian border, I finally discovered some litter on the streets of Switzerland. At last something familiar, just like at home, I thought. Switzerland was too clean, too orderly for me – everywhere, even in the smallest towns. Austria was like that too, whereas in Hungary the old paint was peeling off the building walls, the streets were littered and full of potholes. The Western world was like a fairyland to us back then.

Did your experiences match your expectations?

I’m from Keszthely. We used to watch Austrian TV programmes from Graz, because the reception from Hungarian TV was poor or nonexistent in our region. So we did have expectations, of course… Everything in the West was perfect in our minds – better and more colourful than in reality. Yet we were still quite amazed when, for example, we went to a Mc- Donalds for the first time. One of my colleagues – a Hungarian dissident – took us there, in Frankfurt. He wanted to impress us with how well he was doing so he invited us to this restaurant, as though it would be such a special place. We played our part in his fantasy, so to speak. The streets were so clean in the West. I suppose though that we were exploring only neighbourhoods frequented by tourists. Later on in my life, I acquired the habit of looking into strange nooks and crannies such as the last station on an underground line, etc. I know a good story about that. Once József Antall had a conversation with Chancellor Helmud Kohl. Kohl said to Antall that he went to Budapest and discovered that everything had changed a lot since the communist days: the attire, the attitude of the people and the like. Antall asked Kohl where precisely he had been. “We visited Váci Street, Danube Promenade, and Buda Castle” – said Kohl. To that Antall replied: “So you only saw your own countrymen”.

I had a similar experience when I was abroad. I explored the cathedral in Milan and found myself surrounded by tourists – just like me: a map in hand, camera hanging around the neck. It’s true. I had anticipated so much before I went to the West for the first time, most of all because I had to wait to be granted a passport for such a long time. My sister used to send us from England books, photos of the Beatles, nice jackets, packed in Harrods bags with the logo on them…

What impact did your trips to the West have on your life, if any?

I started to travel as a tourist well before 1990. During my first visit to Switzerland I learned, for example, that a child of a wealthy Swiss family was allowed to eat ice cream only once a day, even though there was a big jar of it in his or her family’s fridge. On the other hand, my kids wanted to eat ice cream there – while we were staying at Vili’s house – all day long. I guess that this was because they knew that they would not be able to get such good ice cream back home.

Our host, Frau Baumann, kept asking whether we had visited the Zoo or a museum. We were ashamed to admit to her that we could not afford to go. We were quite happy just to be able to walk around Lake Zurich and do some window-shopping. Two days later we discovered an envelope on the nightstand. When we opened it we found a lot of money and a note with the instruction: “For little pleasures only”. These days, I continue this tradition by giving money to my children to spend on little pleasures like a dinner in a restaurant. It’s good to do things like this.

This is how Frau Baumann from Switzerland enriched my life. On the other hand, I think that I am a lucky man. I have a wife who is charming, who speaks many foreign languages. Thus, wherever we went we had a good time together. Later on, I started to travel in an official capacity – as an MP or as a Minister. People I met then were more formal and thus superficial in their attitude towards me. One was respected, got the best seats in theatres. And people wrote poems for my name day, just because I was an important politician. As soon as the negotiations about some privatisation deal ended though the same gentleman would not even be bothered to greet me as was he passing me on a street. First, they all line up before you pretending to be polite, and then they don’t even return your calls.