Hungary – and from interactions with people from former Soviet countries I’d include them as well – in many ways is a four-star hotel: trying too hard to reach five stars but just ever-so-slightly missing the mark. The best place to see this is in the areas where communist apartments prevail (estates for the Brits, projects for everyone else, to quote a Finnish friend). Here everything is functional, the stores are very much present, there’s even a market and a host of cafés and bars. But there’s something missing just the same. Whatever is on offer is local, functional, but just there. No extravagant or even slightly pretty décor the way you see down town and around the hills. Just. What.You.Need. But at least you can say it’s all there. You’re lacking for nothing. Except that it’s merely a Potemkin village that adds nothing to the soul.
I’ve noticed this recently again. How prevalent this attitude is in my mother’s native culture. This functionality which fulfills every need but remains essentially soulless. I noticed, because while it’s not as pronounced in Hungary, they nevertheless claim my mother’s native land as their BFF. That the feeling is reciprocal is nothing short of a miracle. Neither country is known for caring and sharing overly much. Especially not in return. And especially not out of a selfless act when the other one is in need.
Both countries are extremely driven when it comes to education and getting ahead, placing a very high premium on both. Functional education in literature, check. In the sciences, triple check. Languages? Here’s where it gets tricky. Like its Western neighbors and brethren, Hungary too, has discovered the importance of foreign languages. Unlike its brethren, however, obtaining an obscure piece of paper attesting that you indeed speak the language at any variant of A, B, or C, is everything. That this doesn’t mean you’re actually able to speak at this level, is a whole other thing.
Obtaining that piece of paper that proves you’ve passed (think national and international language exams) is more important than your daily bread. That you can barely string two sentences together in said language in real life doesn’t matter. It’s that piece of paper that counts. You could be fluent in the language, a native speaker, but if you don’t produce that particular parchment, your knowledge is worthless.
Learning by heart is still the norm. Or rather, being able to regurgitate facts sets you up for the win, allows you to obtain that grade, leading to that nearly elusive paper, which will then brighten your future. Critical thinking skills? Not so much. Rather, what becomes the norm, what makes you part of the mainstream, is your ability to tow the line, to whip out these facts at a moment’s notice, citing from other sources that represent your highest authority (in my mother’s country that would be the church, here it’s mainly politicians, or – if you’re really left-leaning – Bob Marley).
Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to comply with the party line, tow that proverbial line, be the equivalent of a good little girl or boy. After all, if you’ve been conditioned into that all your life, it’s hard to all of a sudden break rank.