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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

A pen friend in another world

Three disparate things recently conspired to trigger a memory of a particular Interrail journey in summer 1988 that had at the time led to a pen friend relationship of some duration and quite some enrichment to me and a major influence on my outlook. (I assume readers would generally still know what a pen friend is, at least conceptually. If not, LIU.)

The first was my son’s planning for a summer Interrail trip this year, sadly kyboshed by koronavirus, which inevitably got me thinking about my own several Interrail odysseys back in the day.

The second, which in fact pre-dated the other two triggers, was a brief time in 2018 working with a really brilliant Romanian colleague who hailed from Cluj-Napoca in that country.

And the third came back because during 2020 I’ve fallen into periodic three-way expansive correspondence with two of my closest ex-colleagues, taking the form of roughly quarterly accounts of whatever comes to mind on the part of one that in turn elicit responses from the other two and which one of my correspondents has recently chosen to characterise as akin to an old style pen friend arrangement (albeit three-way and necessarily electronically unless we want to get messy with carbon paper or something).

The memory is this. An Interrail travelling companion and I were on the Budapest to Vienna train. The Warsaw Pact was still in operation, seamless Schengen-style travel was inconceivable and in fact on the equivalent journey the previous year I had seen people forcibly detrained at the Hegyeshalom international border point rather than being allowed into travel to “the West”.

Within our compartment were two older women conversing in German. My friend, who spoke a smattering of German, engaged a little with them and, to cut a long story short, it turned out that they were cousins in a Hungarian family sundered by the post-World-War-I Trianon Treaty’s border changes that curtailed Hungary’s territory by some two-thirds. They themselves lived in Hungary and Austria and could occasionally meet but, alas, one of them had a niece who lived in Transylvania whom she had never met because of highly restrictive visa arrangements limiting the possibility of familial contact between Hungary and Romania.

But – and it is then I was inducted into the conversation, and I should explain that I had no German and at the time my Hungarian was poorer even than it is now, hence my reticence until then – why shouldn’t I write to her? She was at university in Cluj-Napoca, was studying English and could do with a pen friend to help with her language skills, and perhaps it might help me with my own Hungarian. Here’s her address, but just one thing: much post from Hungary to Romania goes missing so you will need to introduce yourself from scratch if we ourselves don’t have the chance and do tell her how the contact came about else she might be suspicious it is a spy trap.

And so armed with name (which I am reasonably sure was Timea) and address, I wrote a carefully worded letter on return to London and posted it. And waited. And then had a response from her.

Over three decades later I retain only an impressionistic set of memories of what Timea wrote, but it opened my eyes to a different world. Despite a number of trips to a Hungary you might call “democratically but exclusively governed” by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (some referred to it a “Goulash Communism”), I had somehow been shielded from the real effects of political and indeed cultural losses of liberty that the Soviet form of socialism inevitably entailed.

Timea wrote well in English and described her life and that of her family. She wrote of the active suppression of Hungarian culture and acts of forced assimilation of the two-million-plus Hungarian population of Transylvania that had previously lived there for hundreds of years in peace alongside Romanians, Schwabs and other ethnic groups. She talked of severe restrictions on the freedom of intergenerational transmission of language and literature, of the risk of arrest and summary imprisonment for being overheard speaking Hungarian in the street, of the closely controlled and limited educational opportunities for Hungarian expression (she had one of the tiny number of permitted places at a licenced school), of institutional discrimination in terms of employment opportunities and social standing. She described the systematic deHungarianisation of villages and districts across whole swathes of the country since the late 1960s. She talked of the dissolving of Hungarian associations and the banning of non-Romanian first names, the near zero chances of ever being able to venture outside the country.

Our correspondence was for a time quite intensive, clearly an opportunity she gratefully seized to communicate to the world outside her own heavily circumscribed one. And it made me aware of the freedoms in the United Kingdom I was able to enjoy, in total contrast to the personal and family risk she was taking even in writing to me, let alone the circumscribed life described inside the letters.

I was tentative in responding, feeling almost guilty in describing my student lifestyle and the broader life chances available in London than anything she could, but Timea was hungry to hear about everything I could find the time to write about, the swirl of a crowd made up of people of so many ethnic origins from around the world, Chinatown, the Notting Hill Carnival and so many examples that make London the cosmopolitan centre it is.

Our letter writing continued for some three or so years and during that time the communist dictatorship of Ceausescu fell and Romania started opening up. The tenor of Timea’s letters evolved in reaction to this, tacitly expressing the hope that the change in regime would bring an opening up and the shining of a light on these social and cultural injustices.

But two things from that experience were seared into my psyche.

The first was the absolute need for all curious people positively to seek out as many independent sources of information about the world around them as possible and not to assume official sources, dominant voices and received wisdom carry the whole truth. At the time of my pen friend interactions with Timea I had the slight thrill of a samizdat source and the knowledge that telling the real story could land her in prison. That was an immense privilege and quite a responsibility.

A second influence came from a greater realisation of the inherent complexities in historical accounts and the ready possibility for two quite different views to be held about, say, a particular territory. And this is a far from being solely a matter for dry academic disputation, it is about birth rights and, in the extreme, the very survival of a people.

It all eventually came to a natural end sometime in 1990 (I can’t remember who wrote last) as other channels and glimmers or freedom were starting to open up, and in pre-social media days there wasn’t an obvious way of keeping in contact. I’m not going to say that Timea has been constantly in my mind ever since, but the effect of that chance train journey with an aunt of a university student formed a bridge for me to another world which latterly has come back to me.

“Connection” is becoming the running theme of my blog and I shall no doubt write on it more, and train journeys have always been for me a brilliant means of connective encounter. That single journey in fact also gave rise to different sort of connection that I write about elsewhere (

As a post-script, encouragingly the picture has changed enormously in the years since. Whilst deep sores and sadness inevitably remain and both “sides” of the Hungarians and Romanians will give accounts of fairness at least somewhat variance with each other, by and large peaceful co-existence and even positive appreciation has resumed. But I make this sweeping observation still from afar, if no longer from a totally different world, and would imagine Timea might have a more nuanced take from her own personal experience.

Multi-polarity of perspectives forms another theme I definitely want to explore more in the future.

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