György Dragomán: My mother, Europe
My mother is standing in front of the remains of the Berlin Wall on Potsdamer Platz, holding my four-year-old son with both hands and crying, crying, crying like I’ve never seen her cry before. There are tourists all around us. We’re tourists, too, but my mother is the only one who is crying, her tears flowing like mad.
She is crying from joy and anger and despair — joy, because she didn’t think she’d live to see the day when she would be here and the Wall would not; anger, because such a cheap piece of concrete like the one before us was enough to ruin her youth and her life; and despair, because she weeps for her past, for her lost and irretrievable freedom, for all the frisking and house searches, for passports never issued, for books confiscated – for my father, for herself, for us. She is crying, and meanwhile she reaches out a hand to the Wall, as if she needs to touch it to believe it, to touch it, let it go, and touch it again.
How can I describe it, this crying of hers, so it will be understandable and not come across like a sob story? So it won’t seem like whining but instead like piercing bliss of the sort that came over my mother then and there, in September 2006, when she first saw with her own eyes those traces of the Wall?
Mother looks at me and doesn’t say a word. Neither do I, for I think I understand everything, everything I can understand, at any rate. There we stand, the two of us, already free for nearly twenty years, free citizens of Europe, and yet a cheap piece of concrete is enough to conjure up both the bitterness of captivity, every last bit of it, but so too, the all-encompassing bliss of freedom.
My mother is crying from pain, from bitter memories, and from the realisation that it’s all over now, that we survived. I hug her. We have survived and yet we haven’t, somewhere it lives within us still and will do so forever. Never will we forget it, with or without crumbling, graffiti-splotched concrete blocks to remind us. Yes, even without them we’ll know it every moment of our lives.
Crying is a must, for it isn’t at all clear that we should in fact be here, no, it doesn’t seem inevitable that everything happened as it did. Crying is a must, for we are alive; for we can now be free, and because this realization is virtually incomprehensible to us and incommunicable to others.
This, to me, is Europe .- this immeasurably heavy high of freedom that overwhelms me again and again, that I experience anew each day in things large and small, whether when squeezing striped toothpaste onto my brush; when, without thinking about it, I find myself saying what I happen to be thinking; or when I sit down at a table in a café and order a coffee, and it’s served with two sugar cubes, a ladyfinger, and a glass of water.
Hell, even I might have a good laugh over how absurd all this is, but I’m still capable for example of standing agape in front of the tropical fruit section in a supermarket. Yes, that’s how I collect my moments of freedom, like a prisoner gathering up half-smoked cigarette butts – never do I let a single one stay on the ground. Standing in the middle of a library, I breathe in the scent of all those books knowing that practically everything there could possibly be is to be found on the shelves all around me, knowing that what I read is up to me, knowing that no one wants to decide for me, knowing that there’s no government office charged with telling me what to think, knowing that no one wants to force me to translate reality into the language of the single ideology they regard as beneficial.
The memory of dictatorship is like some singular Alzheimer’s disease of the emotions: I know full well that I’m free, but it’s as if I constantly forget it all the same, since the wounds overwhelm me again and again.
Europe, to me, means freedom. It means my mother’s tears; it means that she can cry freely, in her bliss; it means that she is at the mercy solely of her own emotions but not of history – at most, of the memory of history.
Europe means bliss, bliss of a sort that may seem schmaltzy, imperceptible, or boring to others, a bliss in which even what’s on offer at a worn suburban newsstand seems to glisten out of the darkness as I approach at 4 a.m.; for, I know, it embodies practically the whole of the world’s media in unlimited, uncensored form. This bliss also means that I can buy a single lemon from the adjacent 24-hour produce stand to complement the fresh newspapers, and that all at once I can ask for a single fig to go along with the lemon, and that I get one, too.
Europe, to me, means that I am clutching those two pieces of fruit in my coat pocket as I cross the still dark parking lot in the wee hours, and that I can’t wait any longer, I can’t and I don’t want to, that instead of going home first I bite into both of them, because right then and there I want to taste the succulent sourness beyond the lemon’s bitter rind and the sweetness that bursts forth from inside the honeyed seeds of the fig.There’s no describing this. And yet I’m still at a loss to speak of anything else whenever I prepare to speak about Europe. I’ve always got to set out from here, and those people who understand this also understand what Europe means. If we want to speak about saving Europe, it seems to me that we must start from somewhere around here; for Europe, to me, will never be only a geographic or economic concept, but will instead always mean dismantled borders without and within – the fact that, in spite of everything, these virtually metaphysical proofs of freedom, proofs of its possibility, have managed to come to pass.
Indeed, with the experience of dictatorships behind us, it seems obvious that Europe can mean nothing other than experiencing this sense of freedom again and again, that this is what it’s all about, so that every citizen of Europe can experience it for him or herself, and that we mustn’t forget even for a moment that this isn’t to be taken for granted, after all; that the possibility to be free and to prosper isn’t a given – and that the aim of it all must be that as long as this possibility did come to pass in spite of everything, why then, it should somehow stay that way, too.
When I speak of Europe, it’s freedom I speak of. But it’s my mother I think of.
Translation by Paul Olchváry
The text above was written for the Berlin Literature Festival a few years ago, when I have been trying to be an optimist with all my might. Now with Brexit having doomed upon us, rereading it is a painful experience.