How do I know there are so many Hungarians in Transylvania? I read the statistics on Wikipedia of course. However I once had occasion to personally witness the strength and depth of the ties between Hungarians and Transylvanians, back in my college days in 1986. Then I was passing a pleasant year at university in Devon, England. British school breaks being what they were, I spent my six-week spring vacation traveling solo through Eastern Europe. Looking back it was a stupid thing to do. The wall had not yet fallen and most Eastern European governments were extremely suspicious of Westerners. All I can say is that curiosity and the over-confidence of youth got the best of me. Beer was also a factor. It was a lot cheaper in Czechoslovakia than in Austria.
One unusually warm April night I was taking a train from Debrecen in eastern Hungary to Cluj, the historic capital of Transylvania. I was nervous about it, but the Hungarians in my compartment we a jolly bunch who brought not only food, but a supply of homemade plum brandy that could easily have fueled a Titan II rocket. I learned that night that you don’t need a common language to tell most dirty jokes.
We bounced merrily along until about midnight when the train approached the border crossing. The compartment became subdued, then silent, then morgue-like as Romanian troops boarded the train and began collecting papers. I was too full of Hungarian hooch to care much by that point, but as I pulled down my bags for a routine inspection I noticed that the faces of my travel pals had gone ashen. They didn’t move, they stared straight ahead, they barely dared to breathe.
What’s their deal? I drunkenly thought to myself, and I packed up my few jostled belongings. Satisfied they’d shaken down the lone capitalist running-dog in the car, the troops shortly withdrew and the train started moving again. The liveliness shortly returned and the atmosphere became party-like. The Hungarians started singing songs and we all stood up laughing and hugging each other.
It was at that point that two of the men stooped over, grabbed the seat cushions we’d been sitting on, and yanked. Bags upon bags of what I quickly recognized as drugs fell to the floor of the compartment. I was stunned. We’d been sitting on enough contraband to send us all to some dank Romanian hole for the rest of our stupid lives. Noticing the ashen look that was now on my face, one of the men managed to explain that they were smuggling medicines, prescription drugs that their relatives could never get in Ceau?escu-era Romania.
Of course that fact wouldn’t have mattered a whit to the Romanian military. To them all those arthritis tablets and heart pills might as well have been heroin. An image of myself dangling by my ankles from chains à la Midnight Express flashed into my mind. I ran out of the compartment, down the hall, threw open the door of the moving train and vomited.