Homes and homelands

This is a story about our journey out of illiberal Hungary. A story of two, actually of four people: a family. What we have really learned during the past challenging and uplifting years is the fact that the only way to make it is to make it together. We are social scientists and political activists, researchers and our own subjects of inquiry. Our conclusion: It’s tough to be a turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Photo: CreativeCommons/-lucky cat-

Just yesterday my (Robert) eighty two year old mother sent me a text message in broken Hungarian. Actually, the text was fine, just the grammar and spelling was broken. She was born in Bucharest, Romania to Jewish Hungarian parents, went to Romanian schools in Timisoara (Temesvár), graduated from university in Bucharest and then moved to Hungary in 1963. She has perfect Hungarian, but not the spelling. The same day our nine year old smaller daughter scribbled a small note for me in Hungarian over dinner. Perfect text, bad grammar. She has not graduated yet. She is in her second grade now. Her German will be pitch perfect. Her Hungarian….not so much.

We live in Vienna now.

Both of us were born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. My (Robert) parents’ families, Hungarian Jews, moved around quite a bit and later left Hungary in the twenties, partly because of the numerus clausus that did not allow Jews to enter university. They went, by chance, to Lugos and Temesvár in Romania and survived the Holocaust there. Apparently, the numerus clausus was not the worst thing that could happen to Jews in Hungary. The rest of the family stayed back in Győr and was murdered in Auschwitz. For some odd reason my parents and grandfather came back to Hungary in 1963. This was home and homeland for them, a somewhat freer and better place than Romania at the time.

We (Kriszta) were actually a very small family. I’m the single beloved child of my wonderful parents and my only Grandmother gave me the adventurous childhood a girl can only begin to imagine. As my parents were working hard to make ends meet in the seventies and the eighties we spent most of the holidays, school-breaks together. And what school-breaks we had. She was turning Budapest each and every day into a wild forest to explore. We made friends in the cemetery of Rákospalota (suburban area of Budapest) where we were visiting the grave of Grandpa, discovered new ‘business’ opportunities in Nagytétény (dealing with a butcher) or friends deals on reduced price tickets in our closest movie theater. For me, homeland is the adventures in the back and behind places of the city I was born and raised. It was hard to leave all this behind.

I (Robert) was quite active politically, founded human rights NGOs in the eighties, joined the then left-liberal Fidesz early on – actually I was the translator on the first ever press conference when it was still illegal. Besides my academic and business career I had my fair share of politics after the transition. Managed campaigns, worked for the liberals, have been close associate to two Prime Ministers, worked high up in the National Bank. Politics was my element. In the whirlwind of transition we did some good and important things but overall I have failed miserably. Fidesz, the party I helped early on, is the leader of the illiberal revolution. The Alliance of Free Democrats, the liberals where I was chief of staff, is long gone. Index, the biggest online content provider I founded and managed with friends is sold to an oligarch. The independent news agency I bought to offer unbiased news went belly up because of the lack of interest from media outlets that were happy to buy government biased, free, reporting. The National Bank, the independence of which I defended with the Governor, is in the hands of the architect of illiberal unorthodoxy in economics with a mission both private and public. Corporate responsibility I helped mainstream is a function of corruption. And these are the success stories. One only needs to imagine the failures.

I (Kriszta) was never really interested in party politics. I only wanted to ‘make the world a better place’. Politics and politicians were just a matter of life to cope with, and not being afraid of. After graduating from law school in the mid 90’s I also started to study media and communication at the Department of Media Studies of ELTE University, one of the most vibrant, intellectually and politically inspiring places of the times in higher education. And, also, the place giving birth to my social activism. This was the beginning of a new era of liberalized media regulation – the adoption of the new media law and the rise of a true media market around us brought the hope of a bright future rooted in freedom of expression and of the media. However, the corrupt frequency tendering process conducted by the Media Authority (ORTT) woke me up to face the realities of post-transition Hungary: freedom of expression and of media was not a given brought about by the falling of the Berlin Wall. All of my endeavours since then – several years in copyright and media law; being senior regulator in Hungary; international media development while working in Serbia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan or in Rwanda and, recently, a new start in academia – were leading me to the same direction: more freedom, more equality and more justice in access to information and more rights to speak out for those, who are in a weaker position.

In Hungary we failed making others believe in these values and why that mattered for them. This has led in 2010 Hungary becoming the symbol of illiberal and undemocratic political control over the media within the European Union. The ‘worst case’ in international media readers and an example for the “Copenhagen dilemma” (as in Article 49 of the EU: any country seeking membership of the European Union must conform to the conditions set out by the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ of the Treaty on European Union prior to the accession, however after it there are literally no legal means to reinforce the implementation of and alignment with the Copenhagen criteria except of some cases of economic nature). Anytime I’m invited to speak about Hungary and the new legal and regulatory system I also talk about the ‘researchers’ dilemma’: how can one stay scientifically detached and emotionally involved. Thanks to Prof. Sarikakis, my high achiever boss at the Vienna University Department, I am always reminded of this.

After 25 years not much is left of the high hopes we had when we embarked on this journey of building a liberal and equitable Western type democracy in Hungary. I (Robert) did my graduate studies in the US in the early nineties and, after careful consideration, made the conscious decision to return to Hungary. Instead of an US academic career, I wanted to be where the action was. Looking at the results of the World Value Survey maybe change was not possible at all. Or, maybe, we screwed up big time. Or both. After its illiberal turn there was not much for us in Hungary. I (Robert) became ostracised and harassed by the Government, from fear or revenge I don’t know and, honestly, I do not care. At fifty I am not there to fight wars that are not worth fighting. And neither am I (Kriszta). At a little past forty I don’t want to grow bitter, disenchanted, and demotivated. There is so much ahead.

So that’s that. We moved on.

Moving from our natural habitat, however, comes at a price. The decision was made easy, the move managed swiftly. Technicalities were dealt with, and the pace of the process kept us busy. But there is a morning, after all is set and done, when it dawns on you. We did not have jobs or many friends in Vienna at the time, just went, as seekers of a better life for ourselves and a more promising future for our kids. Refugees of sorts. Yes, we had our PhDs and MBAs, status claims and vague promises, language skills and an acceptable tan on our face. But still. Did we wake up during the night in sweat asking ourselves what will happen to us? Of course we did. How are we to cope with the challenges of our family, of our children, of aging parents, and of faraway friends? How many bridges to burn and what to do until new bridges are built? Yes, we did stay awake in our bed on star lit nights and not so star lit ones, too. Sweat, fear, anxiety was all over the place. But one of us was always asleep while the other was awake, somehow. And one of us was there for the other in the morning with enthusiasm, hope, and radiating power when the other thought we made the biggest mistake of our life. It’s a fantastic family experience. You kind of know that your family is a great source of inspiration, an engine of teamwork, and resource of power, but in such situations you experience it in full gear. And when the chips were down it was our children who gave us strength. We are amazed at our girls’ ability to cope with the challenges this new environment brings onto them. Segregation, loneliness, boredom, challenges of school, language and the street, no friends, no grandparents to help or just to charm. But they still love it. They are happy kids.

We also set out for an ethnographic safari. We are the ethnographers as well as the subjects to be watched in our new habitat. What happens to our identities and that of our children? What happens to the things we care for?  Here in Vienna we live the life we want to live. With our decision to move we opted for a lower standard of living but a much higher level of wellbeing. That’s actually a wonderful deal. We are global citizens who share more with friends the world over of the post-liberal, post nationalist global endeavour than with most of our fellow citizens in Hungary. So moving from one place to another, taking the risks and opportunities of our intellectual as well as networked freedom is as liberating as it is challenging. We do enjoy it.

For me (Robert) leaving Hungary emotionally was relatively easy. I had my fair share of successes and failures, I have no regrets or frustration. There was not much in it intellectually for the time being. For me (Kriszta) it was not that easy. My mind knew we had to move, but it still broke my heart. Leaving behind the familiarity of the city, the culture and the love of my parents had been devastating. Pulling the rug from under my feet, literarily.

The move, however, was not only physical. We are not refugees fleeing our own place because of dire tragedies, nor expats who at the end of the assignment would go back home or take another challenge elsewhere. We left because our life there became no fun any more. We came to live the life we want to live. To not theorize about the past but focus on the future. We are ’future’ people. We left our old habitat to challenge and be challenged, to not be frustrated by the ’it will not works and ’you can’t do its. To do away with the overpoliticized and underachieved networks we lived in. We came to Austria to have our home here as opposed to only stay and live here. Although we were born Hungarians we dissociate ourselves from current Hungary. We do want to leave behind our old anxieties and levels of Eastern European stress. The quick to judge, fast to hit culture. To blame others for why it does not work. We want to prove to ourselves that we get by because of our skills and performance and not because of our networks. We were not rentier and corrupt in a rentier and corrupt society. But that’s not a good enough reason to stay.

For me (Robert) the transition is interesting: my Hungarian identity fading away and a new identity emerging. I am not out there in the identity wilderness, in the emigré culture of expats or immigrants. I am an inhabitant of a newly discovered part of my global self: my Jewishness. I am Jewish. Not more or less, not with a hyphen or a ‘which comes first’ question. What does that offer? I don’t know yet. For the moment it offers a cultural home, intellectual vista, and emotional safety. There is no loss involved. I don’t have to give up my ’original’ self, just move somewhat South. However, I also see that this move will come at a price. Being Jewish means that I will have to reflect on my own past self. What have Hungarians learned from murdering my family and so many others? How can I cope with the fascism, the antisemitism, the revisionist rewriting of the Hungarian past? How can I cope with the cultural and intellectual unlearning of Hungarian society? How will I be able to help my children maintain their Hungarian identity, something I do want them to maintain for reasons of cultural depth and a wider vantage point onto life, when answering the above questions about the past in the negative? And what about Austria? It also has its fare share of antisemitism, both past and present.

As my own ethnographer I do see the difference already. While still in politics I was visiting a small town mayor in Hungary. I was holding my hand out to shake his, but it did not move. Seeing my questioning look he said as a matter of course: „I don’t shake hands with murderers and Jews.” It was unemotional and non-aggressive. A statement rather than an exclamation. Something self evident put into words. It hurt because it tore apart the political bond that our shared Hungarian identity created. It broke the comradeship of our ’imagined community’ – the essence of being ready to fight and ‘die’ (if only socially) for a common, national political cause. Being in Austria as a non Austrian Jew offers distance and less emotional attachment. Austria, as Germany, has gone a long way to cope with its past and fight against antisemitism in the present. But even if I met antisemitism or, as I do sometimes here also, meet anti-refugee sentiments: it’s not my problem. There is no bond to tear, no comradeship to do away with. As long as it does not affect our everyday life or wellbeing, as it does not, why do I care?

Austria is our home not our homeland. Home is where our family is. Home is where we are part of the systems of exchange. Homeland is where we understand poetry, share memories and our version of remembrance of the past. Home is things happening in real time, homeland is a story with a beginning and an end. Both are where we are. Home is inhabited by people, homeland by memories, narratives and emotions. Our identity is informed by our homeland and activated in our home. It is probably not by accident that I (Robert) found my proud Jewish identity when homeland becomes a place in the imagination and home a place in going ’across’ and living ’dispersed’: in diaspora. It is a new beginning on many fronts. Intellectually, socially, and politically. It is great to leave a loaded past, for the better or the worse, behind. To be judged for who you are and not who you were or what you have done in the past. But again, it is a challenging process of acculturation to be your own self and not the image you built. To start anew in a (western) world that does not like and does not understand ‘transition bios’. Academic and political professional? Entrepreneur and social activist? Out of the crooked timber of a political transition life not a straight thing was ever made – to paraphrase Kant. We have to cope with the mixed identities, multifold and curved careers we have.

And it is not by accident that, without the luxury of a more global identity to have, I (Kriszta) struggle leaving my past behind. My family stories are Central-Eastern European, my places are Hungarian. I have no crisis of identity, Vienna is quintessential Central Europe. For me it is all about leaving my family, my people, my places in Budapest, my routines, my survival techniques behind while never regret where I come from. Intellectually it is all swell and dandy, emotionally not so much. But the challenge is all mine. While my mind knows Vienna is a melting pot of people with diverging and converging identities and an ideal home for someone like me (Kriszta), my heart is still in limbo. My beloved German I had studied in high school is slowly coming back. I enjoy the Viennese dialect of the old ladies in the sauna of my favourite swimming pools, the peacefulness of the city, the amazing system of public transportation and the fact that our 14-year old daughter can go out on her own anytime she wants. The school of our smaller daughter, the daycare where I pick her up every afternoon is a place I am always happy to enter – she is brought up among more than ten different nations in her class, among them refugees who are welcomed in the school as much as our daughter was, an environment which speaks for itself. My professional life is today about a new start while trying to bring with me what I valued the most in the previous one. At the age of 43 I’m a totally junior new-beginner again, this time in academia. The most wonderful, inspiring though sometimes challenging experience one can imagine – professionally and personally. Something for which I have to thank each and every day to those people around me who were not afraid of investing in me. My professor and supervisor, a woman my age, invited me to her team being aware of the threats I may bring along – political disposure, regulatory seniority did not threaten her to judge me only based on merits of my performance. Her deeply rooted belief that women should help each other became a reality for me. Another wonder to experience.

Our journey is fun. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, with the ups and downs, adrenalin and fear, laughter and screams. We have a new vista, something that we had almost lost in Hungary. We live the life we want to live. We are in the driving seat. It hands all of us that our life will not only be measured by its length (something that we do not control), but its width and depth as well. With its good days as well as the not so good ones. We wake up every day, despite letting go the hard earned social status even fame we have achieved in Hungary, as happier people. Our minds are focused on the future and so are our children’s. Home is where you can grow and build, homeland where your past is buried and remembered. Between home and homeland: that’s where life’s journey is.

Robert Braun

Robert Braun

is Professor of Business Ethics at the Lauder Business School in Vienna. His research focuses on future economy and business: the democratic corporate institutional processes of stakeholder representation and engagement as well as the socio-economic impacts of intelligent, autonomous mobility systems. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to PM Medgyessy, Strategy Adviser to PM Gyurcsány and Communication Adviser to Governor Simor at the National Bank of Hungary. His most recent book on political CSR has been published in 2015 by Akadémiai.

Krisztina Rozgonyi

Krisztina Rozgonyi

is Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Research Assistant with the Media Governance and Media Industries Research Lab, at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna. Her research interests are focusing on specific aspects of media governance, and on the representation of public interest. Krisztina served as a senior regulator and policy/legal adviser for national governments, regulators, and companies. In the period 2004-2010 she served as the Deputy Chair and later the Chairperson of the Telecoms Authority in Hungary.