There’s a story that goes around Central Europe about a man called Pavel, or Pal, or Paul, who was born in Austro-Hungary, grew up in Romania, lived briefly in Ruthenia, and Hungary, worked in the Soviet Union and died in Ukraine. All without ever leaving his tiny village in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Given the monstrous behaviour of those who trample across remote corners of the world, he must have been a master of tact to have survived at all. He probably spoke at least a dozen languages fluently.
It’s an unfamiliar concept for a British Citizen, that our nationality and allegiances might change around us, but we may soon, if Scotland achieves independence, have to accept a change of citizenship (United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland).
I thought of Pavel, Pal or Paul yesterday whilst in the Serbian city of Subotica, just across the border from Szeged. It’s a town that’s been stamped a dozen or more times into my passport, since it lies on the rail and road routes from Budapest to Belgrade. It’s actually a charming small city, replete with the usual fin-de-siècle art nouveau town hall, banks, shops, churches and synagogues (no mosques, as far as I know).
It’s a town that has endured many ‘affiliations’, to use a term that Wikipedia uses, most of them probably not affiliated by choice.
Terrible atrocities have been committed in the city, by one ethnic group against another, whilst enforcing one affiliation or another, not least by the Nazis and their henchmen against the city’s 3,000 Jews, transported and murdered in Auschwitz.
I stopped to eat two slices of pizza, four cups of tea and a plate of tiramisu (all quite permissible when one is cycling nearly 100 km a day), and since I like to practice my imperfect Hungarian I asked the waiter if he spoke the language. He did, he said, since one of his parents is ‘Hungarian’ and the other ‘Serbian’. I made a half-hearted attempt to order ‘hot black tea with cold milk on the side’ in Hungarian, but he greatly preferred to practice his excellent English, which, in any case, put my poor Hungarian to shame. But since it’s a fashionable concept I asked him how he ‘identified’.
‘I am a Vojvodinian,’ he said.
If you’re not aware that Vojvodina is a place, you might think this as absurd as identifying as a Vulcan (which certain people do (and who are we to judge?)).
But in fact it’s a clever ruse, and the best possible answer if you come from a place that everyone else has trampled over. Vojvodina is an identifiable region but, sadly (or wisely?) never one that was affiliated only to itself.