Andrew McCall Smith notes,
“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make of ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life…our personal memories, that make up the private tapestry of our lives.”
In my own map of memory, one particular set of coordinates—the Hungarian train station, Keleti Páyaduvar—cracked and reshaped my understanding of neighborliness.
Keleti Station and its relentless surge of refugees took the front page of the New York Times in the last few weeks. As I flicked through the slideshow of photos, the picture transported me into memory and the next thing I hear is the melodious ding of the train and then the sonorous Hungarian admonitions of the loudspeaker. The mechanical letters flip rapidly to spell the names of destinations and places: Belgrade, Split, Salzburg, Pécs, Bucharest, Lujubjana, Bratislava, Berlin. Tourists mill about with hiking boots dangling from their oversized backpacks; others travel with a guitar and seemingly little else.
As the commuters, holiday-makers, and ticketed wanderers venture beyond the gates, I turn to the front entrance, opening the door with it Art Deco swirls and slipping outside. For me, the real life of Keleti is beyond the station’s steps, with the people who do not have outbound tickets. The indoor rhythm seeps out of the doors, promptly lost amidst the mechanical swoop of halting buses, the hawking of unregulated street vendors, and the chatter of the streets. I take a seat on the steps of the station, observing the unfolding patchwork of city life. Buses lurch along their pathways; the yellow tram pulls away gently. A tangle of streets converges at the station, ushering in people from every corner of the city. As I consider the scene, rooted to the steps, it begins to dissolve and then rewind, shunting me back through memories compounded by months’ worth of twice-daily walks past this particular corner of the world.
Pedestrian traffic is thick—a convergent mess of people in transit. Contrast the long, purposeful strides of the people with somewhere to be with the still points in the scene—the people who stand still amidst the crowd, with nowhere particular to go this morning. Directly on the train station steps, two characters reminisce over vodka long before lunch. They watch the rest of the world march by with equal measures hilarity and jadedness, everything tinged with lament. Nearby, a disfigured man sits with one hand open guarding a carefully rationed bag of McDonald’s fries. He never speaks but his eyes seem to be always open, hard under a dirty blue cap. At the fringes of the square, gypsies set makeshift stalls selling a motley of goods—sometimes belts and undergarments, peppers and tomatoes in spring, even SIM cards. As commuters march straight past, the swinging lilt of a persistent sales pitch follows them.
The man with a mop-like dog stands defiant somehow among the crowd. If the dog has eyes, they can’t be seen through his matted hair. Similarly, the man’s eyes are half hidden by a bush of hair, at least until I look him squarely in the face. Then, one of his eyes focuses on me, and I can see his face clearly for a moment. He mutters perpetually, and sometimes I catch words the way he catches raindrops in his outstretched cup. Most often, I hear “Isten” (God) shuffled in with other undecipherable Hungarian words. As memory and time lapses, the muddy rain creeps gradually up the dog’s fur until his creamy coat is a new shade of brown.
I weave my way in and out of this scene every day for months—a stranger among strangers. Keleti taught me to look the outskirts of town squarely in the face. The beggars and panhandlers, constant islands in swirling traffic, undid my presuppositions about what cosmic accident landed me among the societally mobile. Keleti stands irrevocably in memory as the place that violently cracked my juvenile understanding of justice and drove the real questions deeper—what is it to be a stranger? Who is my neighbor? Where is Christ here among the desperate vendors, the harried commuters, and aimless wanderers?
Hungary recently found its cacophonous answers to those questions on public display. As refugees pour over Hungary’s borders and into their train stations, the response to the stranger becomes a question of international stability. Like McCall Smith’s public map, the headlines show the gamut of responses to the refugee crisis in Hungary—on the one hand the irrationality and callousness of a barbed wire fence and streams of water flowing across blistered feet at the train station on the other.
Keleti taught me that the public map is actually a complex compilation of private unpublished maps. A national response to a crisis is not a one-time occurrence; instead a stance emerges from the dozen intertwined decisions and attitudes we take towards our neighbors every day. At this microcosmic, personal level, I remember a ragtag Baptist church nearby throwing open its doors and ushering in a group of gypsies for regular Sunday feasts. I remember a group of Neo-Nazi teenagers hazing any gypsies unfortunate enough to be caught in their wake. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum of courage, I remember simply passing by my neighbors every day, rarely speaking, only sometimes daring to lift my eyes to meet theirs. My silly fear of being followed half a block by an insistent woman hungry for coins waving a pair of underwear at my turned back kept me from knowing my neighbor, let alone loving my neighbor. With the ruts we trace along the daily commutes of our unpublished maps, we choose our own isolation or daring feasts.