The Iron Curtain – Then and Now

How things have changed, and yet not at all.

I took the train from Budapest to Vienna on Friday for the first time in about twenty years. When I first lived in Budapest in 1987, the city was still behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a journey I made regularly, especially in the winter, to get away from the greyness of Budapest to the colour, culture and sophistication of Vienna, not to mention the nightlife. Passengers were few and the journey took more than four hours. Eastern Europeans, as they were then called, couldn’t travel without an approved purpose and a visa, and foreigners living in Budapest were very few.

It took nearly half an hour (and the stamping of half a dozen documents) to buy a ticket at the railway station in Budapest, and when the train stopped at the border it might take up to half an hour for the border guards to make their sweep of the train. Suspicion abounded, and I was often the focus of it.

iron curtain

On Friday last week, it took me just one minute to buy a ticket (though, admittedly I waited 30 minutes in the queue with dozens of other eager travellers) and the journey was scheduled to take only three hours. The train left on time, was full, and stopped for just a few minutes at the border. After all, we were all travelling from one Schengen state to another, and in theory passports aren’t required.

But suspicion still abounds, albeit of another kind. As the train left Budapest Keleti Station hordes of a new generation of police (no more polite than the Communist-era variety, but nowadays multi-lingual) swept through the train, demanding (often very aggressively) that anyone ‘suspicious’ (which in their book meant anyone of any colour other than white) should show his or her passport. I sat in the restaurant car with a middle-class Singaporean family (probably ‘ethnically’ Indian). I didn’t have to show my passport, but they had to show theirs. About ten passengers were then removed from the train before we reached the border.

I suppose that what I saw was the EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION PROBLEM at first hand. Hungary has recently and unilaterally adopted an aggressive attitude, though why this means preventing them from leaving the country rather than letting them go, I do not know.

We are back where we were. Borders still matter. If the government of Hungary can get away with it, there will be a new physical Iron Curtain soon on the country’s border with Serbia.

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