Dragging myself out of bed at 6 a.m. is no easy task. I assume for most people who aren’t marathon runners or neonatal nurses, waking up early is equivalent to listening to crying babies on eight-hour flights or getting food-poisoning.
On this particular morning in Budapest, I was feeling a little guilty for having second thoughts about catching a 7 o'clock train to Hungary’s northern border. Earlier in the semester, a friend of mine had lent me the book “The Bridge at Andau” by journalist and author James A. Michener. I had never heard of the place, yet the small town, Andau, is located right at the border between Austria and Hungary.
The book, published in 1957, explained in great story-like detail the magnitude of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which aimed to end the Soviet-communist regime's rise in the country.
Michener wrote the composite biographical novel while standing on the side of the bridge that linked the iron-curtained Hungary with the free world that Austria was offering. After the revolution failed due to Soviet Russia’s violent take-down of the freedom fighters in Budapest, thousands of Hungarians fled to this bridge to seek a better life because returning to Hungary meant immediate death.
Michener interviewed hundreds of these refugees as they arrived across the border and created a concisely detailed account of what exactly happened within Hungary’s closed lands. Because of this novel, which highlighted the efforts of 12-year-olds blowing up Russian tanks with gas bombs and the West’s inability to aid the revolutionaries in their time of great need, I found myself with a rented city bike and fellow Andau-fan – and my book lender – Bridget Cross, on a train to Austria.
We hauled the orange Donkey Republic bikes onto three separate trains that eventually dropped us off in a small Hungarian town called Jánossomorja. Cycling the three miles to Andau, Bridget and I kept up an endless hum of pop-hits that floated away into the vast green fields that surrounded us.
We didn’t have much of a plan once we got to the bridge. It was, after all, just a bridge. I picked up several red poppy flowers from the side of the road and took those with me to disperse in commemoration.
As we cycled on, we met many strange and eclectic art installations sitting on the side of the road like eerie sentinels. Some statues we recognized, like a curtain made out of iron, but others, like a plastic pyramid filled with rotting sunflowers, we did not. The odd assortment of rotting art kept us entertained as we biked through the sunny day and the flat countryside.
In all honesty, I can’t say arriving at the bridge incited any sort of sadness in me. Instead, I felt like it was my duty to say hello to a place that I had only been able to imagine through a book. The bridge was a small wooden structure that stretched out over a shallow canal. It wasn’t grand or extravagant, and the area was peacefully deserted, besides a few other cyclists and bird-watchers.
Bridget and I walked around on both sides for awhile, and I tried to imagine what it had been like at that spot 62 years earlier, when families had been running for their lives. Learning about the terrors of communism in a country where my own family heritage is rooted has been one of the most important but heart-breaking pieces of knowledge I have gained while studying abroad.
If a double-amputee refugee could drag himself the 112 miles from Budapest to the bridge at Andau in the middle of winter and tell Michener his story, I sure as hell could get out of bed to pay my respects.
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