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Neighbour in Need

Murders of Romas, militant groups, an unparalleled shift to the right: What on earth is happening in Hungary?

JOSEPH GEPP

It is Thursday, Apr. 8, 2010. Tomorrow is the beginning of the campaign suspension before the election, required by law. Today they are really opening up all the throttles on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.

“Who supplies our government the water tankers that spray you down from the street when you are demonstrating?” shouts the speaker into the crowd. “Israel!” he answers himself. “Who is buying up our Hungarian land? Israel!”

The Jobbik Party, which means both “the one that is better” and “the one that is more right,” had called together a final election rally under the statue of Sándor Petöfi, the Heinrich Heine of Hungary. When it was founded in 2003, Jobbik was still considered an obscure political sect whose nationalistic posturing, including its predilection for quaint historical uniforms, drew ridicule. Now Hungary’s extreme right, next to whom today’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria seems like a bunch of insurance agents after a NLP beginners’ course, have even caught up with the governing Socialist Party, and are pulling ahead as the second strongest power in parliament behind the right conservatives.

According to Jobbik dogma, gays, communists, Jews and Roma are all thorns in the side of the body politic – and accomplices to the left-liberal Hungarian government: “After the election you’ll stop laughing in prison,” is what they call from the podium. Jobbik is propagating a world view à la 1933: Factionists versed in the occult claiming that Jesus was Hungarian; the crooked cross on the Holy Crown of Hungary is actually an antenna for receiving divine messages for the chosen Magyar people.

About 300 people have come to the event; the crowd feels like the mixture of a water-witching seminar, a skinhead convention, and one of those depressing documentaries on public television about life in the ghetto. T-shirts with old Magyar runes are stretched over beer bellies; amulets with the pagan-national Turul bird dangle around fat sunburned necks.

Nazi Flags and Mythical Birds

The medieval red and white Árpád flag, symbol of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazis, is waving over the podium. Next to it is standing the “Hungarian Guard,” founded in 2007, the paramilitary wannabees dressed in black who like to march through Roma villages if they aren’t in the process of organizing a rally. A man is passing out bumper stickers. Next to Israel’s President Shimon Peres, they flaunt the words: “Govern your own country, bastard, instead of occupying ours!”

If Israel were to soon lose their country to the Arabs, explains the young Jobbik party leader Gábor Vona on the Party’s homepage, it’s planning to use Hungary as an alternative. His fans don’t hesitate to accept such scenarios. Two powers had run not only Hungary into the dust, also all of Europe, asserts an older man at the edge of the rally: “Jews and communists!” And “I’m also still waiting for Austria to apologize for stealing Burgenland.” The man says good-bye with the Jobbik salutation: “God give us a better future.”

In Hungary it doesn’t really look like the future will be any better.

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The Hungarian Guard (Photo: Anna Hazod)

On Sunday, Apr. 11, three days after the Jobbik rally, is the first and decisive round of voting to elect parliament. It gave the country a shift to the right, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in an East European country since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The ranks of the powers of that “Wende,” the still-governing Socialists and Liberals, were cut in half and crashed into insignificance. Meanwhile, the “Fidesz,” has taken over the new power; a conservative people’s party with rabble-rousing undertones, its charismatic chairperson Viktor Orbán is more like Silvio Berlusconi than Josef Pröll. In the second round of voting on Apr. 26, Fidesz, winning 262 of 386 parliamentary seats, gained a majority of more than two-thirds, thus enabling them to change the constitution. And although Jobbik couldn’t overtake the Socialists, it was only two points behind, with 17% of the vote, which placed the political-sect right in the middle of Hungarian politics.

Something is going very wrong in the former land of “Goulash Communism,” the place of “the happiest shacks on the block,” as described by German novelist Hans Magnus Enzensberger. According to the Budapest Political Capital Institute, 21% of the population sympathizes with the extreme right – the highest percentage in Europe. But in things like debt, unemployment and growth, Hungary is falling behind, even behind former stragglers like Poland and Slovakia. In 2008, the EU and the Monetary Fund had to grant the country an emergency loan of 20 billion dollars in order to save the state from bankruptcy. Since then there have been vice-like savings measures, which on one hand has increased poverty and on the other, extremism: according to experts, it is widening its circles in the provinces outside of “Judapest,” as the capital is called by the circles in question.

Arson and Shotguns

Tatárszentgyörgy is about 40 minutes from Budapest. Both Fidesz and Jobbik won above average voter support here. On the county road leading to the village, prostitutes stand under flowering fruit trees; farmers plow their fields with horses as was done 150 years ago.

There’s a church in Tatárszentgyörgy, two horse-drawn carts, a bar called the Royal Jack Pub. The Roma of the village live in rundown houses on an unpaved path. And the Csorba family lives where the little settlement ends at the edge of the woods. Their suffering became a warning sign that something is wrong in Hungary. On Feb. 23, 2009, at 12:15 a.m., Molotov cocktails were thrown onto their roof by unidentified assailants. Róbert Csorba ran out through the door with his four-year-old son and both were murdered with a shotgun. The mother jumped with two other children out of a window on the back-side of the house; they survived but were seriously injured.

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Robert Czsorbas house in Tatárszentgyörgy (Photo: Joseph Gepp)

These so-called Roma murders convulsed Hungary for two years. They always follow the same pattern: the perpetrators choose the last house on the edge of a village, where a getaway is easy. They throw incendiary material and fire shotguns. Six persons have died in nine attacks all over the country. Four suspects, one a right-wing extremist known to authorities, were arrested in August 2009 in Debrecen and have been held since then in detention awaiting trial.

The Suffering of the Roma

When Csabáné Csorba, 46, steps out of her door in Tatárszentgyörgy, she is standing across the street from the burned-out ruins in which her son and grandson died. The rest of the extended family members, ten in all and all out of work, live next door. Róbert had moved with his own family into the neighboring house. She doesn’t believe that Jobbik will take over the power in Hungary, says the grieving mother, who sits in her living room under a giant copy of The Last Supper.

“But if they do, then it is over for the Roma in this country.” She has noticed how the mood has changed between Roma and the “whites.”

“I can’t exactly say how. But I notice it, like when I go shopping in the village. There is a special mood in Tatárszentgyörgy because the attack happened here. But there is also a special mood in all of Hungary.”

“The seeds have sprouted,” write Gregor Mayer and Bernhard Odehnal in their book Aufmarsch (that can be translated “Mobilization,” or “Show of Force”) about the right-wing in Eastern Europe. The writers, who are Austrian journalists, believe Jobbik’s rabble rousing is a part of the radicalization that has led to the Roma murders.

Like Mrs. Csorba in Tatárszentgyörgy, the two authors have noticed a change across the country: Rabble rousing has become socially acceptable, inhibitions have fallen, conflicts have left official democratic channels and are on the street. One example is the online news portal kuruc.info, the opinion leader of the Hungarian right-wing.

“Holo-Scam”

According to critics involved with Jobbik, the “Kuruc,” the Hungarian rebels, are laying into Jews, Socialists and the Roma. Its rubrics have names like “Gypsy Crime” and “Holo-Scam.” In print, the authors hide behind names like “Janos Work-Makes-Free” and “Kenneth Kl. Klan.”

Just the existence of Nazi websites like this doesn’t make Hungary any different from other countries. But in contrast to other places, kuruc.info, with 130,000 readers a day, ranks among the most visited websites in the country. Recently the portal reported about a case of data abuse: The regular media reported on it and named, as usual, their source. Kuruc slowly seems also to be a normal critical communications medium – even when a name like “Adolf H. Schicklgruber” is in the credits.

In Hungary, something like that “would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” said journalist Paul Lendvai of the Viennese weekly Falter. Adam Schönberger, a young Jewish activist from Budapest agrees: “The public dialogue in this country is absolutely poisoned.”

Schönberger, 30, wearing a hooded pullover and a red three-day beard, runs a locale called “The Seagull” in the old part of town, a pub, bookstore and a meeting place in one. He hosts debates on Jewish issues and supports reform initiatives in Budapest’s post-communist, non-transparent community of faith. While much has survived of Jewish life from the Eastern Europe of earlier times, he says, there are also frequent anti-Semitic incidents. Just last week, he recounted, stones were thrown at a group of Budapest Jews celebrating Passover. And last year, a particularly ugly incident took place on the shores of the Danube. Bronze shoes on the Promenade stand as a reminder that here once Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party members threw Jews into the river and killed them. One day, pig’s knuckles were found stuck in the shoes.

“I would even go so far as to emigrate if Jobbik came to power,” says Schönberger. But that seems like science fiction to me. “Fidesz makes me very nervous.” Like many observers, this intellectual believes that Fidesz has done a lot to make right-wing extremism socially acceptable. In the years after 2006, the Socialist government got caught up in ever more lies and blunders. Nonetheless, the Fidesz Party Leader Viktor Orbán – winner of the recent election – didn’t react through legitimate democratic channels. Instead he supported street protests that were violent and extremist.

A “Poisoned Discourse” in the Country

For years, Fidesz blocked all official governmental decisions. Even now, Orbán warns of left- and right-wing radicals – as if Socialist and Jobbik were two sides of the same phenomenon.

It is Sunday, Apr. 11, 2010. The results of the crucial first election are in: The victory party Fidesz is celebrating on the central Vörösmarty Square. While the winners of “Hungary is looking for a superstar” are singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” for Fidesz friends, Jobbik is meeting ten kilometers away, at an outlying sports center on the banks of the Danube in Buda.

Hundreds of members of the Hungarian Guard have come to celebrate their 17% victory. They are cheering because every sixth person at the poles voted for Jobbik. They are wearing chicken feathers in their caps as Arrow Cross Party members did once. They yell out commands and march in step through the hall.

Now that the parliamentary election is over, the scene seems much more like a skinhead rally than a depressing documentary about the lower classes on a public-service channel. It looks like the 1930s. It feels dangerous. And it certainly doesn’t point to a better future.

Trans: Cynthia Peck. This article originally appeared in German in the Viennese weekly Falter in April 2010. It was updated for the May 2010 issue of the Vienna Review by the author.

In German: Nachbar in Not

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Coming Home To Mantakia

IN A VILLAGE IN EASTERN SLOVAKIA LIVE 500 ETHNIC GERMANS – THE LAST STRONGHOLD OF A DYING CULTURE. AMONG THE LAST OF ITS KIND IS A FORMER PRESIDENT, WHO NEVER MANAGED TO LEAVE HIS HOMELAND BEHIND.

Words by Joseph Gepp

Just so the tires don’t squeak, the Chauffeur of a black Audi limousine brakes hard from 120 to zero – a tad too fast within a local area. In every other town old women would peep through the flower stick samples of their curtains on to the road and would ask themselves, who the important guest might be, as the Chauffeur opens the car-door in such an official manner. Not here in Metzenseifen, where one knows Rudolf Schuster well: He is a former president.
He visits now and then, lately more often. He originates from here – from this last road, of Medzev, which was called: Metzenseifen. Rudolf Schuster is the most famous person in this place. He managed to get out, what the old Ladies would call – the far world. He was mayor of the district town Kosice, then Slovakian ambassador in Canada and finally the state president to Bratislava. Today he returns to his village to visit his old parental home. After they died he furnished it into a small private museum. It is a reminiscence to everything he experienced during his 73 years of life. A photo encountering George W. Bush in the Oval Office during his time as Slovakian president. A Red Army Second World War movie camera presented from the Ex-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. A rich Metzenseifner’s carriage, which he once and strictly forbidden rode along with at the back as a child. For doing so he collected a damn heavy slap in his face. Now this carriage is safe in his hutch. Agitated in the midst of all these memories and realising, that his career only became possible by a set of lucky coincidences. Coincidences, what led to the fact that he was not driven away into the West at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Not like nearly all other ethnic Germans. He was one of 600 people of Metzenseifen, who managed stay.
Today approximately five hundred and twenty ethnic Germans live in Metzenseifen. The elderly speak „Mantakien“, an old German dialect. Metzenseifen has the highest ethnic German population in Slovakia, although still only a minority within the 3,500 inhabitants of this parish.
Once the place was entirely of German descent. In 1945 Metzenseifen became Medzev, and the ethnic Germans culture to an extent history. In 1880 13 percent of the inhabitants of today’s Slovakia had been Carpathian Germans, in 1947 there were about half percent left. During the last census in the year 2001, only 0.1 per cent admitted themselves to their origin – 5,500 people in entire Slovakia. The largest ethnic German town Metzenseifen lies completely in the southeast of the country, close to the Ukrainian and Hungarian border and about thirty kilometres away from the second largest Slovakian city, Kosice. The city Rudolf Schuster had been the mayor of, until his election to the Slovakian president in 1999.
Rudolf Schuster was one person, who remained, due to three lucky coincidences. „The soldiers tried three times to drag me and my family away”, he says. Three times they narrowly escaped their dreadful doom. The first time during 1944, when the Nazis came to call home the ethnic German Metzenseifner’s into the Third Reich. „With seventy trucks the German’s closed in our village“, Schuster explains, „Then the soldiers went from house to house forcing each inhabitant onto the loading area“. Schuster escaped because his mother fled in-time with him to their Hungarian aunt. Meanwhile his father hid himself in the shovel of a mill-wheel. After the Nazis moved-off, the Soviets came in. „They had a list of those for deportation to Siberia. So these selected people where gathered together at the main square of the village. The Soviets pretended they were destined for work service”. Most of them never returned. The second time Rudolf Schuster was in luck again. His name was not on the list. „My brother supported the communist partisans during the war and enjoyed thereby the protection of the Red Army”, he comments.
Finally, the Czechoslovakian army arrived to execute the Benes decrees. After all the atrocities committed by the national socialists in the occupied Czechoslovakia, president Edvard Benes decided to completely expel all German minorities from the new Czechoslovakia after the end of the war in 1945. So all houses in Metzenseifen were sealed and their inhabitants had to appear for evacuation in the school building. Each person could only take along 25 Kilos of their belongings! The Schuster’s needed not leave. Schuster’s mother spoke perfect Hungarian and consequently she obtained a certificate from a Hungarian physician, declaring her cardiac defect and thus certifying the inability of her transportation.
Some time later the Czechoslovakian army withdrew again and the family Schuster remained. The family had collided three times with world-history and they resisted the all driving-out attempts. Now they became Czechoslovakian – tolerated by the communist regime on the condition they would not display their German roots. Best, if they completely forgot their origin, but they did not forget: They arranged themselves with new Czechoslovakia and became communists and patriots.

Whenever Schuster goes through his parents‘ house today, in melancholic and proudly thoughts of his childhood and youth, he notices, how important to him his origin is: A farmhouse of the 19. Century, one of many, which stands threaded-up like many others along the main street, renovated only somewhat more beautifully than the others. Metzenseifen looks alike nearly each small, rural municipality between the eastern edge of the Alps and the Urals. It lies elongate and narrow between two ridges. Low farmhouses in line, each with an entrance gate and tiny windows, seeming to get simpler and smaller, the further one departs from the centre. It also seams to be the second important road of the whole village as the route is branching off from the main street.
A small stream seamed by herbage backyards and flowerbeds divides the main road into two parallel carriage lanes, thus, as often seen in eastern Austrian villages. Passing the main square and the catholic church the roads lead to the shabby outskirts of town and only here one notices that one is in the former Eastern Bloc and not in Austrian regions like Burgenland or Marchfeld. On the side of concrete slabs constructed buildings and a few shut down factories, the Roma of Metzenseifen live in ramshackle houses and corrugated sheet huts. Now and then they come into town on their horse-drawn carriages, which are loaded with scrap metal. That’s when two worlds meet one another, and all vibrations of the Eastern European societies in the year 18 after the fall of the iron curtain become obvious, when the scruffy full blood horses canter past the western cars and the pretty farmhouses. On the main square in front of the church a plague column stands tall – only the head of one baroque statues is missing.

Roma in Metzenseifen
Roma in Metzenseifen

The ethnic German community in Metzenseifen is a vanishing group, dedicating much time in memory care. The old, still talk Mantakien, but the young speak and think only in Slovak. Perhaps the powerful consciousness of their own culture is delaying their approaching fall, but at least conserve the memory. The isolation of the remaining, entails an exaggerated interest in the own identity – thus, that each German inhabitant of Metzenseifen becomes a homeland researcher nearly perforce. Just like Rudolf Schuster or the seventy seven year old Walter Bistika. He presides over the „Karpathian Germans place for encounters” – the club premises of the ethnic Germans, also a farmhouse, directly next to Schuster’s house. There the ethnic Germans meet each Sunday noon after celebrating mass. Today five gentlemen, all far beyond the age of sixty, are playing billiard and drinking Slivovica out of plastic jiggers, followed by plenty of laughter, since they have a lot to tell each other. You can see Bistika standing aside, a tall guy and a trace more civically distinguished than the others. Before retiring, he worked as an accountant, but always kept true to his native soil: Metzenseifen.
Bistika reveals some history: In the late Middle Age two waves of German settlements took place – here in so-called Spis region of Slovakia. The immigrants came from the over-populated regions of West Germany and with them the dialect Mantakien – a mixture of West German linguistic idioms, with Slovakian and Hungarian influences.
Mantakien language is from the high German language so far away, that one hardly understands it. The language sounds, as if a Swiss German would try to speak Flemish – trying not to hide his strong Swiss accent. „The name of the language resulted actually from a misunderstanding“, tells Bistika. „The people of Metzenseifen sold their products on Hungarian markets and many could not speak Hungarian. During the discussion with their Hungarian customers, they always asked each other: ‚Was moant A?‘ (What does he mean?) The Hungarian heard this phrase so often, until they omitted the ‚Was‘ and they called their suppliers in a modification of this sentence ‚Mantakians‘. Later the Mantakians took over this foreign term“.

Others speak Potokien, and that only eight kilometers further away in the next village called “Stoß”, another place with a strong German minority. Far northern in Spis region they speak Unsrien, Bistika explains, as if it is the most normal thing in the world, that each community of some hundred humans speak their own language. „Here in Metzenseifen we say for example: ‚Wart a bissl!‘ (Wait a bit!). In Stoß they say: ‚ Hart a bissl!‘ Due to the long time isolation of the remaining German linguistics, each area has kept its local characteristics“, Rudolf Schuster approves, during a walk in the back of his garden aiming towards the yard. There is also a small wooden pavilion and a biotope with gold fish. In this pavilion, Schuster invited foreign state guests during his time as a president, where he offered local meals, and drinks – today this seems so far away: He spies his neighbour on the other side of the garden fence and starts off a friendly chat in Mantakien. You can see two old men who know each other for a long time. If the fence between them would not exist, they probably would pat themselves on their shoulders. The change from the public official to the owner of this house, who holds affable conversations with his neighbour, occurs by Rudolf Schuster nearly too fast to comprehend. In this garden the appearance of the political leader, melts to a common human being. The Audi has disappeared for a long time. Rudolf Schuster indulges in his surrounding, evolving completely to an inhabitant of Metzenseifen.

Rudolf Schuster
Rudolf Schuster

But then again: his expensive suit, his long black coat, his carefully bound tie, finally the bodyguard, who stands ten meters far away measuring the scene with distrust, folding his hands at his back, reminds at Schusters’ background beyond Metzenseifen.

The longer Rudolf Schuster stays in his garden, the more locals join in. Word has spread, that the Audi is standing at the front door. Schuster still chats with all in a normal and polite manner. He points to the biotope mentioning, that the gold fish have hatchlings. „People of Metzenseifen had their homeland here“, he says about those who had to leave 1945, „and even though they came from Germany centuries ago, does not mean that they wanted to go away again“. For him it would have been hard to leave this place at that time. Rudolf Schuster adores Metzenseifen. He explains the rhythmic sound of the forging hammers, when striking on the anvils. Up to the beginning of the communist period, the steel production was the most important industry of Metzenseifen; this tune was the sound of Metzenseifen, when the ex-president was youngster.

„We lost two generations“, says Walter Bistika and one realises this fact makes him feel quite sad, „the first generation through expulsion, the second by communist suppression of the Germans.” There are hardly any young people in Metzenseifen, who speak Mantakien anymore. Bistika estimates one- or two hundred. Even though German is a subject at school again, it is a recognized minority by the Slovak state and the Karpathian Germans, both groups provide financial support. Many youngsters leave or are simply not interested in their Mantakian idendity. “Some learn German simply because they might use it“, Bistika says – but hardly anybody is interested in Mantakien anymore. „It could well be that the Mantakien language and identity will cease by 2050“, he remarks and puts the blame on the globalization. „It forms all of us to become equal and robs our cultural characteristics“. Perhaps Bistika really hits the point with his diagnosis.

Garten

It is nearly impossible to find Mantakians, who are younger than sixty years or some, who are young and would call themselves Mantakians. Close to the main square, in a small inn, a couple of men sit together, some ethnical Slovaks and some ethnic Germans, drinking Czech beer and borrowing some money from the barkeeper to play on the slot machine. Some talk Slovakien, some broken German, but nobody talks Mantakien. What the treasure for the old Metzenseifners is – is for these men only a foreign language. Nobody is particularly interested in a Mantikian identity. The barman, Gedeon Silorad, a blond older man, who still speaks Mantakien, points towards the table, excuses himself by twitching his shoulders, as if to say: „That’s how the lads round here are like nowadays.”
The gap between the generations is deep in this small community. It seems, as if the last sixty years have cut every cultural connection between the old and the young, more compared to Austria or Western Europe. Nobody embodies that better than Rudolf Schuster, who completely has absorbed his memories of his youth. His museum could be a monument, dedicated for him and the old people of Metzenseifen. Nevertheless, now his holiday has ended: He again sits in the rear of the limousine, which takes him back to Kosice. The friendly and easily sentimental host becomes the statesman again. Contemplative he looks out of the window, jumping from topic to topic and commentating whatever the Audi passes. Here in this former Slovakian steel factory, he worked a long time on the management floor, he points on an enormous factory area on the right hand side and on which today the nameplate „U.S. Steel“ hangs. After privatisation a third of the staff was rationalized, Schuster explains with bitterness and jumps to the next topic, whereby he interprets this time the left: on Lunik IX, one the largest Sinti and Romanies estates of Slovakia. When he was the mayor of Kosice, he had to put up with much criticism, because he forced the emigration of Romanies from the Kosic town centre to the Lunik IX during communistic times. „However that had to be done“, he confirms. „The Romanies left everything to forfeit. The building structure would have otherwise been completely damaged“. Thank God he decided this during the communist time, when such decisions were comparatively easy, he quickly adds. Slovakia operates under other rules.

Thirty kilometres lie between Metzenseifen and Kosice. They reveal – that modern life, 16 years after the turn, has not entirely reached east Slovakia. You notice a people-mixture, which in former times was the rule in Central Eastern Europe, but today only in certain regions present. The ethnic Germans are only one part of this mixture: After Medzev, Jasov – a place with a minority of Hungarians follows. Further south down the Hungarian border, live Rusyns, an east Slavic ethnic group. The Ethnologists still cannot say clearly whether one can rank them among the Ukrainian or not. In-between are purely Slovakian villages and the Romanises estates – which are clearly more run-down than the rest. Concrete slabs estates, in which the Romanies during communistic times were forced to emigrate. The doors and even the door frames of these buildings are missing, instead you find holes in the brick walls, gapes which still remain due to their demolition. A Romanies girl stretches her fist upwards and sticks her tongue out, as the Audi passes.
The Karpathian Germans are the smallest of all ethnic groups. The only one, which is threatened to extinct. The ex-president had meanwhile arrived for a long time in Kosice one begins preparations for the Palm Sunday in Metzenseifen, where in the catholic church a Mass will take place in German and Slovakian language. The next day Walter Bistika, who also manages the Metzenseifen singing association, will stand on the gallery and sing together with others the church song. „My God, my God, why have you left me?“ He will sing in German. The intercession will follow in Slovakian. After the Mass Bistika comments on the singing association, that it suffers obsolescence and the average age is meanwhile 66 years.

Silorad Gedeon did not attend the Mass. He is waiting for his customers behind the bar. They will visit his inn after the Mass. He is drinking Slivovica and tells an anecdote during his time in Vienna, working as a painter. He sat at the Gürtel close to the Westbahnhof in a cab and with him a colleague. They were chatting in Mantakien, when all of a sudden the cab driver asks: „Are you from Holland?“ The Mantakians answered they were not from Holland. „From Belgium?“ Again: no. „From where are you then?“ Gedeon explaines, they are from eastern Slovakia. The cab driver did not believe them and says: „From Slovakia? But only Russians live there!“ Gedeon smiles about his anecdote, drinks the last sip Slivovica and summarises: „The Viennese. What rotten folk“.

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