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Memorable Train Rides to Romania

Updated: Aug 7, 2018

by Emery Lazar


Sometime in late summer of 1990, Ralph Stutzman, minister of my Unitarian congregation in Fairfax, phoned me to ask whether I would be interested in taking on the lead role in establishing a partner-church relationship with a Unitarian congregation in Transylvania. Soon after the fall of the brutal Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston established a partner-church program between North American and Transylvanian congregations, and Fairfax Unitarian Church (since then renamed as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax) became matched with the Unitarian Church of Szentgerice. The reason Ralph contacted me in particular was that he knew I spoke Hungarian, which is the language of the Transylvanian Unitarians.


Needless to say, I was delighted to accept this challenge, which carried a particular personal meaning for me ― not only because of my Hungarian birth but also because of Rita's Transylvanian family roots. I immediately established contact with the minister of the Szentgerice Unitarians, Rev. Attila Csongvay, and by October I was ready to be my congregation's first visitor ― or rather "pioneer" ― to a quaint, remote little village in Transylvania. I had been traveling back to my native Hungary several times in the 1980s, which was a relatively routine undertaking because the political leaders of that Soviet-occupied country had already established an easy-going reputation with their so-called goulash-communism. But venturing into Romania was not at all comparable, even some ten months after the fall of Ceauşescu.


The nearest city to Szentgerice is Tirgu-Mureş (Marosvásárhely in Hungarian), but the only direct train connection from Budapest at the time of my visit was to Oradea (Nagyvárad), a city situated about six miles from the international border. It would arrive at the border in the early evening after dark, and I would have to take a local train to Marosvásárhely on the following day (each of the two segments of my journey consisted of roughly 175 miles). By the time of my trip, the floodgates allowing Romanian citizens to travel to Hungary had already opened, so the train was crowded with ethnic Hungarians from Romania returning home, loaded up with life's necessities that they couldn't find in Romania. I was sharing my train compartment with such ethnic Hungarians who were pouring out their souls to me about all the humiliation and the many hardships they had to endure during the Ceauşescu dictatorship. I remember how exuberant they were for being able to travel across the international border, which just less than a year before had been an iron curtain with mine fields, just like the one that had separated Hungary from Austria.


My fellow passengers told me that they would leave the train before the arrival of the border guards and customs inspectors and urged me to do the same. I told them that I couldn't do such a thing traveling with an American passport, because for sure there must be some formality that I would need to undergo. They told me that I would be a fool to stay behind, because it would take the border officials a couple of hours to check out all the passengers, and as frequent travelers they had acquired a lot of practical experience in how to beat the system. They reassured me that it was perfectly safe to join them in taking a bus to nearby Nagyvárad rather than remaining on the train and arriving in the city a couple hours later. I am quite embarrassed to admit now that I was an inexperienced traveler and a complete fool to fall for their well-intended assurances.


The train arrived at the tiny Romanian border station of Episcopia Bihor (the Hungarian name is Biharpüspöki) early in the evening, after the onset of darkness. But what came as a shock to me was the total darkness that enveloped the railroad station. During the Ceausescu regime, people were allowed to use only a 25-watt bulb in their homes, but this railroad station didn't even seem to have that. After the train stopped, it took several minutes for the doors to open. The darkness outside the train was only illuminated by the flashlights of soldiers, toting their submachine guns and blocking the train's exits. In this intimidating atmosphere, the soldiers were shouting something in Romanian, and though I don't speak Romanian, I understood the word "vamă," because it sounded like the Hungarian "vám," meaning "customs." For several minutes, nobody dared to step off the overcrowded corridor of our wagon, but then all of a sudden, as if some imaginary dam had burst, the hordes of passengers jumped off into the darkness, as if there had been no soldiers and no submachine guns. Since I didn't hear any shots fired, I made the brave but unwise decision to follow the crowd.


I followed my fellow travelers from the train compartment to a jam-packed bus that took us to the nearby city of Nagyvárad, and they helped me find a hotel in the center of the city. I had no problem obtaining a room because I had what was precisely needed to be accommodated: precious American hard currency. As a matter of fact, as soon as I entered the hotel lobby, I had to resist the black-marketers who wanted to exchange my dollars for Romanian lei. The following morning I was on my way to the railroad station to catch the train to Marosvásárhely. It was packed with people to an extent that I had never experienced before. This evoked images in me depicting trains in India where passengers traveled on wagons' rooftops. The situation I found myself in was almost but not quite as bad. Fortunately I was able to squeeze into a single standing space at one end of a wagon, the inside of which was packed like a can of sardines.

This was a local train that stopped at every village railroad station. At one of these, I almost got myself into hot water. Being a passionate photographer, of course I had my camera with me, to document every significant moment of my exotic adventure. As the train stopped at one of the rural stations, I couldn't help recognize a perfect photo opportunity. Milling around the train was a sea of humanity, not at all resembling folks I had been accustomed to seeing in America. These people reminded me of old paintings and photographs depicting poor farming folks in peasant attire, with the women wearing long, wide skirts and babushkas. Particularly exotic was the sight of Gypsy women in their bright, colorful costumes. I also noticed that at the far end of the crowd lining the railroad station were two uniformed policemen, standing idly next to one another while observing the train. I said to myself, "Good, at least I can show my family and friends back home what Romanian policemen look like!" Well, that was a big mistake. As soon

as I clicked the shutter of my camera, the two policemen looked at each other, deliberated briefly and then started to work themselves through the crowd towards me. I realized immediately that I had done something very stupid and downright reckless. I remembered that when I had visited my relatives in Hungary several years before, they admonished me to never ever take pictures of railroad stations, let alone police officers. As I was frozen with fear and awaiting my imminent arrest, lo and behold, the train started moving. The moment of relief that I experienced, if it had occurred decades earlier, would have reaffirmed my belief in God.


My train ride from Nagyvárad to Marosvásárhely, a distance of roughly 175 miles, took all day, requiring one transfer at the rural railroad station of Războieni-Cetate (Székelyföldvár). This station will be forever etched in my memory as having the dirtiest and most disgusting public restroom that I had ever encountered. But in spite of all the hardships of my first visit to Szentgerice, I arrived there safely and was received by Attila Csongvay and his family with love that has endured over 18 years by now (as I write this chapter of my memoir).


My travel back to Budapest was less noteworthy, except when the train arrived at the Romanian border station. As the border guard looked at my passport, he appeared puzzled and began to ask me some questions in Romanian. Luckily, the young woman sitting next to me was an ethnic Hungarian who was able to help in the conversation. The official asked me why I didn't have a Romanian entry stamp on my passport and wanted to have a slip of paper that allegedly had been given to me when I entered the country and now was supposed to surrender. Suddenly a cold sweat traveled down my spine, but a tiny inner voice told me to remain calm. I have always considered myself an honest person, but in this situation a bold lie was clearly in order, as a matter of survival. I told the border guard that when I had entered Romania, the train was terribly crowded (that actually was the holy truth), and the Romanian border officials never made it to me before the train proceeded further (this, too, was technically true, but in essence it was a Jesuit lie). The official kept my passport and told me that he needed to discuss this situation with his superiors. As tens of minutes went by, my hands became progressively sweatier. But eventually the official came back with my passport and told me that I was free to leave Romania. After this worrisome episode, I often wondered what would have happened to me if God had not intervened in time to make the train move before my impending arrest after having taken a picture of the railroad station and the two policemen. For sure I would have been held as an American spy.


After my first visit to Szentgerice in the fall of 1990, I traveled to Romania from Budapest by train many times, usually with a small group of friends from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax. One of these trips, taken sometime in the summer during the mid 1990s, stands out particularly in my memory. Rita and I were joined by about eight friends to visit our Transylvanian partner congregation to bring them ― aside from our friendship ― much-needed medicines and other material assistance. The only express train from Hungary to Romania was the Claudiopolis, which left Budapest at noon and arrived in Marosvásárhely at around 11 pm (a 10-hour ride, considering the crossing into the Eastern European time zone at the border). All the cars on this train were vintage Romanian manufacture. They were worn out by age, besides being dirty and neglected ― particularly visiting the lavatory was a most disgusting experience. We traveled first class, as always, which helped cut down on the population density in the car's corridor outside of our compartment. This was an important consideration, because almost everyone is a smoker in that part of the world, and even though we traveled in a compartment restricted to non-smokers, smoking was allowed everywhere in the corridors. And heavy smoke engulfing the corridor would unavoidably penetrate into the passenger compartment, through the insufficiently sealed sliding door.


Rita and I used the leisurely time we had on the train to write picture postcards to family and friends back home in the States, and some of our traveling companions did the same. We only had Hungarian postage stamps, and so it was important to mail the cards while we were still in Hungary. Therefore, I asked the conductor if there was a mailbox within easy reach before we reached the border. He said that there was no problem, because the train would be standing and waiting for ten minutes at the railroad station of Püspökladány, and there was a mailbox right adjacent to the station building. As we were in the first car behind the locomotive, we traveled quite a distance past the station building on our left before the train came to a complete halt. But I was in good physical shape and was wearing my running shoes and comfortable clothes; therefore, I could not imagine any problem with jogging to the building and making it back to our car within about five minutes ― let alone ten minutes. But just as I was about to reach the mailbox at the far end of the building, I almost froze in my track by the characteristic chime announcing our train's imminent departure. The announcement through the loudspeaker confirmed that this was the last chance to board the train, and it was unmistakenly my train, because there was only one train standing on the tracks. As I was frantically sprinting now towards the mailbox to drop the postcards, I tripped over some bump in the pavement and bruised my elbows and knees quite badly. Not only my blood, but my adrenaline, too, was flowing. At this point, I was near the tail end of the train and watched with consternation as the conductor was boarding the train and beginning to close the door. I was out of breath and just made it in time to jump up on the first step, as the conductor gave me an assist with his outstretched hand. I uttered a sigh of relief as I was inside the train when the door closed.

My sigh of relief dissipated instantly when the train started to move in the opposite direction. My new Hungarian fellow passengers explained what had happened. As soon as the daily train to Romania arrives at the railroad station of Püspökladány, it is split into two sections. The front section proceeds within ten minutes to the Hungarian border station of Biharkeresztes and then to Romania. The tail section in which I now found myself takes off immediately and heads in a northerly direction to the city of Debrecen. Fortunately it was I who stepped off the train to mail the postcards and not one of my non-Hungarian-speaking traveling companions, because I was able to size up the situation right away and take action. In the eastern part of Hungary the distances between towns are large, and therefore the train traveled quite a bit before I could get off at Hajdúszoboszló. There, I was lucky to find a taxi that would take me for the approximately 45-minute ride to the border station of Biharkeresztes, where the customs officials would hopefully still be preoccupied with checking out the passengers before letting the train proceed to Romania. I was also lucky to have worn my money belt, because without a demonstration of fiscal solvency I might have had problems to talk the driver into taking me on such a long taxi ride. As we were speeding through the seemingly unending beautiful wheat fields of eastern Hungary, my heart was pounding and I had sweaty palms, because not catching up with the train would result in an extremely problematic situation. Since my passport remained with Rita on the train, I would not be able to follow her and our friends into Romania, and staying behind would also create extraordinary challenges because the only things I had with me were the clothes that I was wearing.


As it turned out, the taxi reached the train in the nick of time. Several of my American friends were looking out from the window of their passenger compartment and when they noticed me running toward them, they erupted in cheers. Rita was not at the window, as she was still sulking as a result of my alleged stupidity for having stepped off the train in the first place. Moments before the train left Püspökladány without me, she tried to explain to the conductor in her panic that her husband had stepped off the train and was still not on board, but the conductor was not a very nice fellow (or maybe he just did his job). He responded with something like this, in colorful Hungarian colloquial language: "I don't care where your husband is, the train must proceed." Based on what I heard subsequently from our traveling companions, Rita then sat down on the compartment's bench and as the train started moving, she uttered some not very nice things about me.


But now I was back on the train and, while I was nursing my wounds, we were moving toward the Romanian border station of Episcipia Bihor (Biharpüspöki). Unlike on my first trip to Romania several years earlier, the border crossing occurred during daylight, and this time around the situation was not as intimidating. But from the window we still observed soldiers with rifles and police dogs as they were patrolling the platform. The customs official who entered our compartment was a corpulent woman with a stern and rather unfriendly demeanor. She scrutinized our passports, comparing them carefully with our faces. Then she motioned to our suitcases and asked us to open them. She meticulously examined the contents of each piece of luggage, and then sternly remarked in broken English: "Too much baggage." It was a sigh of relief to see her disappear from our compartment. Interestingly, Rita and I encountered the same customs inspector several years later on one of our trips. Now she had a friendly smile on her face. Almost like the transformation of Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. By this time Romania was well on its way towards democracy and European integration.


But it is a long and tortuous road to get there, especially in the area of interethnic relations. Only a few years ago (around 2001 or 2002), Rita and I were traveling to Transylvania by ourselves, and on the train from Kolozsvár to Budapest we had quite an unpleasant experience. Although we normally converse in English with each other, we sometimes do so in Hungarian. On this particular trip, we had already spent a week or so with Hungarian-speakers, and so we were in that speaking mode on the train. Sitting across from us in the compartment was a couple conversing in Romanian, and we couldn't help notice an unmistakedly hostile expression on their faces. There were two other persons in the compartment who sat silently, seemingly absorbed in their thoughts. To while away my time and to invigorate my brain cells, I was playing chess against the tiny handheld computer that I like to take with me on long trips. Each time I made my move or whenever the computer responded, it made a barely noticeable beeping sound. After a few minutes, the Romanian passenger sitting across from me demanded, in broken English, that I should stop playing chess, because the noise was bothering him. I didn't know how to respond. At first I wanted to tell him that I will turn off my chess computer as soon as he turned off his cell phone (he was talking on it every few minutes). But Rita advised me to be prudent and not to provoke this individual, especially because we were traveling on his home turf, and he could get us into trouble with the conductor or some other official since we didn't understand or speak their language. So I pulled in my tail and turned off the chess machine.


It was a relief when the hostile couple got off the train at Nagyvárad (Oradea). At that point, the elderly gentleman in our compartment who had been sitting quietly all that time explained to us the reason for the unpleasant and tense atmosphere. This gentleman was a Transylvanian Hungarian who understood quite well what was going on. As soon as Rita and I opened our mouths in Hungarian, the husband told his wife how much he hated to share his space with people who spoke that language. May the Transylvanian Hungarians take comfort in the recent fulfillment of Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Maybe, just maybe, many decades from now, Romanians might elect an ethnic Hungarian for president!


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