As children in the late ’80s – from the only country in Eastern Europe whose citizens were allowed to travel to Austria – we adored Mariahilfer Straße. We envied the jeans, the chocolate and the futuristic toys we begged our parents to buy us. The adults focused on freezers and televisions and packed the whole extended family into cars so they could exchange more forints (limited per person) for hard currency (then the schillling) to buy Austrian goods.
In 1968, my young aunt took a train with her fiancé from Budapest Keleti train station and escaped to Vienna. After a quick wedding, they continued their way to New York, but for my immediate family, her move had another result: My father could not get a passport for years because his sister had been a dissident. Eventually, as an computer engineer, he was allowed to come to Vienna to learn about new technology and ended up spending months here every year. Joining him was out of the question for me and my mother, but I have sweet memories of the “hard-currency shop” in Budapest, where we could get access to unimaginable goods like peppermint bubble gum – I was the envy of all the kids at school.
Many people in my generation have similar stories. Once we set foot in Vienna, either as a destination or in transit, and admired the fabulous museums and manicured parks, we were amazed at how it resembled Budapest: Like a well-preserved big sister after a face lift.
Vienna is still the closest existential and intellectual harbor for many Hungarians. Recently the Central European University’s staff began the process of establishing their new homes here (see page 34) and they’re not alone. Hungarians in the arts, tourism, health care and other sectors are just as proud to be part of Viennese society.
Our history and culture are intimately linked; the cafés, cuisine, music, melodies, scents and flavors are all familiar. No wonder the gut reaction of many who relocate here is the instinctive feeling of coming home.
We are indeed at home here, including those Hungarians who never chose to live in Austria, but above whose head the border was moved eastward in 1920, creating Burgenland. And those who live in Hungary, commuting to Austria daily or weekly to support their families bring with them the constant reminder of a better everyday life west of Hungary’s border. As for the founders of the first Hungarian bilingual Volksschule in Vienna (see page 18), more and more of us have our hearts here, beating for this metropole we now call home.