Opinion: Visiting my family’s origins in Hungary helped me understand myself more intimately

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View of Budapest showing the twin towers of St. Anne’s Church at left and, across the Danube river, the domed Hungarian Parliament Building.Rob Csernyik

Rob Csernyik is a 2022 Michener-Deacon fellow and a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

My grandparents fled Hungary in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. After anglicizing their names to Barbara and Mike at Halifax’s Pier 21, they restarted their lives in Sydney, N.S., in 1958. My father was their first-born son on Canadian soil.

Glimpses into the lives of the people I knew as Grandma and Apu were infrequent. In TV shows, grandparents tell tales from their past lives for dramatic effect – to instill family or homeland pride, teach a lesson or to deepen family bonds. We seemed to have no such lofty reason.

My grandparents were always comfortable stretching small truths. Stories from my grandmother’s childhood, or about my grandfather’s quick ascendance into a police-officer role, or about their escape from Hungary all had thinly sketched details and heightened drama. Looking back, it seems like all the television they watched might have crept into their storytelling. Family members trying to help them by finishing their sentences or clarifying their thoughts probably caused some elements to get lost in translation as well. What remained was a spotty oral history that may not pass a fact check, but remains the foundation of my paternal family’s mythology. But though I gained those (limited) insights into my grandparents’ lives, the rest of my heritage was a mystery.

It seemed like I was to remain one of the countless people who self-identify by their bloodlines, but for whom it is more a piece of trivia than a meaningful identity. But last November, I had the opportunity to change this.

Some friends and I had decided to travel to my motherland. Technical issues kept us on the London Gatwick tarmac for hours, and I worried this hiccup might eat up a considerable portion of my already brief time in Budapest. But the pilot finally announced we were clear for takeoff. As we flew into the night toward Central Europe, I was ready as I’d ever be to build on the old family legends with some stories of my own.

At Grandma and Apu’s house, children were seen and heard less than at my Canadian grandparents’ home, so I spent lots of time observing and listening. I can picture my father and two of his brothers playing chess at the dining table. If I walked close, I could smell the Captain Morgan in their glasses of cola. Hockey played on the TV nearby. They spoke little, their concentration broken sparingly by goals and power plays. I wasn’t into hockey or chess, or much that the men in my family were interested in.

Instead, I took in what was put in front of me, plates of chicken paprikas or the complex Hungarian Grandma and Apu spoke. The ceramics and doilies from the old country around the house. I vaguely remember the visit of a Hungarian relative, Mariska, when I was a young kid. She brought us a children’s book in Hungarian that I stared at impenetrably. I laugh at secondhand tales of another family member’s 1980s-era visit, when he scandalized a Cape Breton beach by wearing a tight European Speedo.

Though my mom comes from an interminably large Cape Breton family where seemingly half of Sydney is a “cousin,” our Hungarian side is an island.

My dad has three brothers, but their respective family units operate mostly in isolation. Over the years, members moved and built their own lives. Divorces and deaths reshaped the family tree’s branches. Today, I only know what’s happening in my nuclear family. The others are strangers. Social media has offered evidence that a couple of Csernyik cousins seem more in tune with our shared heritage – notably the one with a large tattoo of Hungary’s coat of arms. I assumed we were all similarly detached from that heritage, though I suppose everyone interprets it differently, like you might a Rorschach blot.

My dad says he had opportunities to travel to Hungary in his youth, but was too busy having fun. He claims he still might go some day, though there are fewer “some days” now. Though not much into genealogy, he has occasionally regaled me with tales about people he knows with family histories he deems more interesting than our own.

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View of Budapest with the dome and towers of St. Stephen’s Basilica in the distance across the Danube river.ROB CSERNYIK

My first evening in Hungary squandered on an English tarmac, I drank one brew at the tiki bar near the hostel before calling it a night. My friends, several in, wanted to carouse, but it had been a long day and I was too deep into my 30s to deal with hangovers. Besides, it was hard to make chit-chat while cogs were turning in my head. Two months earlier, when we booked this trip on a lark, my odds of ever visiting felt slim. To actually be there, one of the few in my extended family ever to make the trek, felt momentous. For my friends it was a pleasure cruise; for me the trip was complicated by the anchor of self-discovery. The burden of making the most of my weekend loomed – coming away with something more than photos and a fresh supply of paprika.

The next morning, alert after an uncharacteristically early wake-up, my friend Joey and I embarked on a walking tour. The forint’s wan conversion rate meant it cost a princely C$4, pretip. Our tour guide, Rita, wore a faux-fur coat and sipped water with sweeping, birdlike gestures from a long glass bottle. She was a bit extra, which reminded me of Grandma, who wore jewel-toned outfits and flashy jewellery, and once insisted we bring her living-room wing chair to her anniversary party at a community hall. (Everyone else sat on stackable plastic seats.)

Rita breezily navigated Pest’s flat streets and well-worn patter, which she presented without notes, and repeated it that afternoon on a second $4 tour through Buda’s hills and castle district. In addition to historical tidbits, she offered tips on local dining and Hungarian words to know. I know a motley crew: good, sock, and a term that can mean dimwit but also carries a more vulgar meaning unfit for print. She mentions szeretlek (I love you), though it’s not part of my vocabulary.

As we walked between stops, I peppered Rita with questions an eager first-timer in the homeland can’t bore a tour group with. No, for instance, I am unlikely to find krumplis teszta, the cheap, comforting potato pasta dish, in a restaurant. I had more luck when mentioning the phrase I always associated with Grandma Csernyik, o jo istenem (oh my good God), one I still mutter to myself when frustrated.

“Was your grandmother Catholic?” Rita asked.

“Yes,” I replied, though she was born Jewish and left that part of her life across the Atlantic when she left.

“That’s a very common thing for an old Catholic grandmother to say,” Rita said, brightly.

I’m fascinated that what I assumed was Grandma’s quirk alone was part of me living a mundane, common Hungarian experience. I tested this out like a comedy bit on other random Hungarians I met. They were more reserved than I expected, yet laughed when I mentioned that o jo istenem was one of the few phrases I know, and why I know it.

As I soaked in the city, I marvelled at the beauty and the ingenuity of my ancestors, awestruck that this was part of me. Citizenship passes down through blood, so if I get the paperwork in order and learn enough Hungarian to pass an interview, I could one day formalize this bond. Rita pointed out the Liberty Statue, high on Gellert Hill, noting it was re-baptized after Soviet occupation, in order to celebrate Hungarians instead of their oppressors. My grandparents and I, in different ways, needed to be resilient in our lives. They did to start anew in Canada, me to rebuild my life after the failure of my career as a retail-store owner. Maybe my predisposition to a more unconventional life was inherited, or at least the resilience to weather it.

Saturday morning, while the others slept off hangovers, I was in a burnt-orange BMW heading out of Budapest, down highways with the texture of Swiss cheese. Craggy brown vines, barren in the November chill, marked our arrival in Gyongyostarjan, the village where Csernyik Pince winery is located. Years earlier, I found it while Googling my last name and became fascinated. Its existence became a piece of trivia I liked to share with people. I’m not sure I ever expected to visit, but I decided it was necessary for me to do so, though hiring a fixer required both explaining why this random pursuit was important to me and committing the equivalent of nearly two months’ rent for transport and translation.

One pronounces Csernyik, as I am asked frequently, Churn-ick. Not Srez-nick, Chur-knee-ack, Turnip, or spelled, as a computer program once unhelpfully suggested, Cervix. The guy who owns the fixer company tells me it is “not uncommon though not quite frequent either” as far as names go. I’ve mostly been fine with having a last name that few can spell or pronounce, but I’m surprised how meaningful it feels to be somewhere where it’s part of the dominant culture, where it’s on all the signs and wine bottles as though it’s perfectly normal.

After being let out at Csernyik Pince, I tried making small talk about the weather with Istvan Csernyik, the owner. He replied his English wasn’t very good and we stood in awkward silence until Kitti, my translator, parked the car. I’m not the only Csernyik ever to visit, it turns out. Another unrelated Csernyik – a Slovakian – once made the same pilgrimage.

Pince means cellars, and my tour of the small building started in a chilly stone basement where the wine ages in barrels. I noticed little chalk drawings of flowers and smiley faces on them. The Csernyik children believe the pictures keep the wine happy, so Mr. Csernyik indulges them. I try again to connect with him, describing my grandfather’s attempts at being a vintner. He used to make his basement wine in the big white buckets institutional-grade food comes in. Scum floated on top and it made the room smell the stale way a frat house does after a party. I never tried it, though an older cousin claimed it tasted like sweat.

This story, translated, results in a wan acknowledgment. Although we are simply two men with the same name, I’d hoped there might be some rapport as fellow countrymen.

We retreated into a showroom to taste the wine and I was relieved that I liked this product that has my name on its label. As we chatted, through Kitti’s nimble interpretation, I learn Mr. Csernyik’s rosé has won awards and he’s organized events to bring different local winemakers together – from fellow professionals to amateurs. He said some of them make wine similar to the quality of my grandfather’s. I am so happy he has made that joke that I laugh far harder than necessary.

As we parted, I asked to buy four bottles, about as much as my luggage will fit. Because I’ve travelled so far and we share the same name, Mr. Csernyik said he wanted to gift them to me. The gesture, the feeling of connection across the language barrier and the generosity with which he’s offered his time touch me immensely.

I requested one last indulgence as we parted ways: a photo together next to his sign. In it we stand stoic, the way men always seem to look in Hungarian family photos.

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Rob Csernyik stands with István Csernyik owner of the Csernyik Pince winery in Gyöngyöstarján.KITTI KESZÖCZE COURTESY OF ROB CSERNYIK

Upon arriving back in Budapest, I spotted my cousin David on the sidewalk across from the hostel waiting for me. He is my grandfather’s sister’s grandson – somehow a less convoluted relation than my maternal cousins. I’d met him 17 years earlier when he was in Canada to learn English.

I was morose enough at being plucked from my university-student independence back to my hometown for the summer, precious enough about my free time in the way teenagers are and distant enough from my other cousins that it’s no surprise I shared little time with him. We added each other to Facebook, and I heard from him once – in 2011, when he apologized for accidentally sending a computer virus. I didn’t break the silence when I learned I was coming to Budapest, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. Meeting up with distant relatives is like meeting strangers and being so detached from closer blood family had me waffling about whether I should. It might’ve been a downer to face how disconnected I was from family life if I was asked heaps of questions about relatives I barely knew.

But when I posted “greetings from the motherland” on Facebook and tagged myself in Budapest, it was as if he had radar. David messaged, asking if I was serious. Yes, I told him, and proposed a visit. He and his wife Judit had a built-in out, evening dinner plans. I could make something up if needed.

We start our afternoon in a café. He still has the same youthful mien, but it takes time to get used to his comfortable, fluent English. Judit is still learning the language, so he intermittently takes breaks to translate for her. Though Hungarian has always eluded me, I catch the rhythm by how she expresses surprise or laughs. David says he wishes my father, who has heard few people outside his family speak Hungarian, would make the trip. This alone would be a meaningful experience for him.

To my delight, our discussions were not trapped in the past. Instead of only having family to talk about, we had our lives and our travels, our goals and current events. Given the visible erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary and the surge of far-right views under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, I had wondered if I might arrive and feel out of place. Yet in conversations where politics came up with everyday Hungarians I met, nobody celebrated this. Upon their discovery that we’d heard a lot about their domestic politics across the pond, I noticed a mix of surprise and sheepishness.

David and Judit mentioned the view was beautiful by the Freedom Statue, which I had only seen from afar on Rita’s tour. In the late-afternoon darkness, it was lit up like a bauble under glass at a jewellery store. David drove us up to the Citadella, then we trudged a worn, dark path lit only by cellphone flashlight. Construction prevented us from getting to the statue, but the sight of Pest and all the bridges twinkling in the dark was awe-inspiring.

My mother has waxed poetic about this trip letting me walk the same streets my grandparents did, though I think this is maudlin. In my 20s, as Grandma and Apu neared the end of living independently, their behaviour became increasingly mean and reckless toward family. As a self-preservation measure, I stopped contacting them. What I thought would be a pause in our relationship turned permanent. Apu died in 2015; Grandma followed in 2017. Nonetheless, for a moment, I wondered what they would think seeing this trio looking out over the city they once called home.

A passerby with a cigarette dangling from his lips snapped a quick photo of us as we parted ways. My big day is evident. In the photo, I look exhausted but content.

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Rob Csernyik reunited with Hungarian relatives, David and Judit while visiting Budapest.Courtesy of Rob Csernyik

Before a last night of drinks with my friends, I took time alone to reflect and wander the Christmas market in the church square near our hostel. I ate a deer and berry sausage while taking in the spectacle. The huts selling food and gifts, the giant animation playing on the church façade and the bustling crowd made it feel like a movie scene. I bought a cup of mulled wine, which, unlike the perfectly spiced one I tried in Ireland, had extra booze in it and tasted like rocket fuel. I careered through the streets with my drink, stocking up on souvenirs.

At a gourmet paprika stall I picked up a regular bag for my mother and a spicy one for myself. I mentioned to the lady helming it that I’m Hungarian-Canadian and it was my first time in the country. She said sometimes the land calls you home. She mentioned friends of hers who moved back from Australia, sacrificing the weather and a new life they loved, because they felt the pull. In her estimation, I have returned for reasons bigger than a weekend trip and I find her prescience eerie.

Hungary is no longer an abstract on a map. It’s a place I’ve experienced and can visualize. There are questions I have answered here. Streets I have walked. People I have met. I’ll never have a complete accounting of how we fit together, but I’ve learned enough that I feel different when I leave. As though I understand my family, and myself, more intimately than before. I decided that, some day, I’d like to visit again to further explore this side of myself. To see what my life and my family history look like viewed through other lenses in the motherland.

Last Christmas Eve I sat with my parents and showed them vacation photos. My brother, tired from work, avoided us in his bedroom.

I told my father that by the end of chatting about Hungary he’d be interested in going. His expression was skeptical. Yet as I walked him through my trip, I noticed his interest piquing. He seemed to appreciate what David said about him experiencing the language in a way he never had before.

Ultimately, Dad says he would consider going – some day. I suggested we could make a trip out of it and bring my brother along. Even my mother, scared of flying and ocean travel, insisted she would go. I could imagine my father hearing other people speaking Hungarian and testing his skills out, all of us dining together with David and Judit – maybe even meeting other relatives for the first time. We could all take in the sweeping view of the city together after nightfall. We could discover something bigger about our family and our history than would be possible otherwise.

But even as the plan is taking shape, I know how impractical it is. It’s like a piece of family lore from an alternate universe, a perfectly plausible some day that is unlikely to ever come true. But it was a lovely moment, when it felt like that some day was possible.

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During his visit to Hungary, Rob Csernyik visited a winery in Gyöngyöstarján owned by a family who shares his last name.Courtesy of Rob Csernyik


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