Crossing borders in 1989

In the late summer of 1989, my parents, my sister and I were making our way in our trusty red Škoda from Budapest to Southampton. We were to spend a year there, thanks to my father’s appointment as a visiting academic at the University. We had already lived in West Germany for a year due to his work, and he had also been to Japan. Prior to that, he had successfully applied to a series of fellowships on the other side of the Iron Curtain, only to be refused permission to leave the country by the Hungarian government. Hence, in 1989, we were a family with international experience, but the possibility to travel to the UK or anywhere else was still precious and far from self-evident.

Having embarked from the ferry in Dover, our car was surrounded by border guards and customs officials. We were held up for long hours, as my mother and father were required to fill in various forms, one after the other with no end in sight. They watched another car, also from a Communist country, being almost taken apart as the guards searched for whatever they were searching for, ultimately with no result. My parents had an appointment to sign the rental agreement for our house in Southampton, and they grew more and more anxious that they would miss it. They felt isolated, humiliated, and immensely stressed.

In the end, we did make it to Southampton, and the year we spent there turned out to be one of the best years of my childhood, leaving me with an enduring desire to return to the UK one day. Around Christmas, we flew home to spend a couple of weeks with our family. It was the Christmas of the Revolution in Romania, and the constant repetition of a news clip of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu being executed overshadowed the festive offerings of the Hungarian state television. We flew back to the UK in January and finally returned to Hungary in the summer of 1990. When we were leaving, our car was held up again, but this time the officers at least apologised for the inconvenience.

I remember the Ceauşescus, their bodies tumbling down like sacks of sand, again and again, as if on a loop. I remember going back to school in Hungary and being perplexed by how things had changed. Pictures of Communist heroes had been taken down. We still had to participate in strictly organised, solemn celebrations on certain holidays, but we celebrated new days and new people and recited new political slogans. I remember all this; nevertheless, I have to admit, I have no memories of being held up at the UK border. I was a child. I may have slept through it. As the Iron Curtain became a distant memory, the searches ceased. Before 2004, the year Hungary joined the EU, we had to fill in a landing card; from then on, we only needed to show our passports or IDs. I always felt an unease when filling in the landing card, and there is still a lump in my stomach whenever the chip reader at the airport malfunctions and does not let me pass on the first try. I will gladly acknowledge this is irrational. But I do believe it is a vestige of the stress my parents once felt, transferred to me, even though I had, at the time, no understanding of what was going on.

When freedom of movement comes up in today’s UK political discourse, most of the time it is talked about as if it only went one way, as if it was only about immigration (more specifically, us pesky immigrants coming here and taking your jobs, while living the high life on unemployment benefits). But being able to travel is a fundamental freedom that can enrich everyone’s life. It is a great privilege not everyone has, it does not come automatically. It is something that has to be treasured, because everyone can lose it; everyone, not just us. I think this is something Central and Eastern Europeans in the UK can bear witness to – if anyone cares to listen.

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Created: 9 Mar 2019, 8:58 a.m.

Nationality: Hungarian