Chapter 23 – Fighting Fear - When your Stomach Feels in the Middle of your Throat
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
I tried to ignore it among the fun and banter with Nicolai, but gnawing away at the back of my mind throughout my stay in Bulgaria was the thought of my flight to Budapest - or rather, facing the immigration and customs checks awaiting me there.
Sure enough, all too soon, I was saying goodbye to Nicolai, Bulgaria's greyness and Sofia's ditch masquerading as a river. I was on a Balkan Airlines' flight to Budapest.
I landed in the early afternoon, on a Saturday, and I confess I had to fight my fear.
This was my first big hurdle. If any communist agents in Washington had seen my files, I felt I faced the very real prospect of meeting a smiling immigration officer saying: “Hello Mr Rimner. We've been expecting you. Let's go to jail.”
Trying to keep calm, I kept telling myself: Ok, you knew the risk that you were taking, so here it is, take it!
But as I left the plane I had the feeling my stomach was in the middle of my throat. I could hardly breathe from anxiety. But there was no going back now, and I forced myself into the baggage hall and on to immigration.
My first concern was my passport: it was a suspicious, bulging mess.
Because of all my travels with my father, I'd had it extended by the Hungarian consulate in Khartoum. So it stood out, stuffed with extra white pages, each with a consular stamp.
It was all perfectly legal, but it begged the question: what was this young Hungarian kid doing with a passport like this, bristling with visas? I certainly half expected the immigration officer to take it to his superior – and initiate a spate of questions.
I need not have worried. The guy had a look at it, raised his eyebrow, said hello and I went through. At customs, they had a look at my stuff, but it was very superficial – lift two shirts, and OK you can go!
In fact, nobody gave a shit about me. I was just another Hungarian coming home from Sofia. Next thing, I was outside, in the summer sun, looking for a taxi. It was the land of red stars, blue BKV Ikarusz buses, pálinka, Zsigulis, Dacias, fume-belching Wartburgs and Trabants. I was back in Hungary for the first time in eight years.
It wasn't long before I learned there had been changes though. I told the taxi driver we were going to Nyest utca 2.
The taxi driver looked puzzled, and asked where that was.
“Come on! Well, it's in District XII, you have to go up on Kékgolyó utca, and it's there,” I said, now sweating in the heat and a bit exasperated.
He said he didn't know anything about Nyest utca – I think it means Weasel Street - but let's go, we'll find it.
In fact, the name of the street had changed - that's why the taxi driver hadn't heard of it!
I now lived in Zeke utca. Zeke is a small blazer, in Hungarian folkwear.
The house had also changed. And it had been renovated, it had a new colour, the fence was different there were bushes on the border of the lot previously.
So I could hardly recognise my old home: it had changed so much in eight and a half years.
The last time anybody had been inside the flat was in 1970, when my mother had been at home for the best part of year or so.
I found that all the clothes were in napthalene, anti-moth stuff. Everything stank of this, it was really terrible.
I found my room, where I'd spent the first ten years of my life. I found some of my clothes from when I was 10 – I was 19 then. So I gathered them up and threw them out.
The next day I bought myself a map of Budapest, put it in my hip pocket, and I started going around the city just to see what it was like, because I remembered almost nothing. And even what I remembered had changed, radically.
It was fun, because it was as if they'd dropped me in Rio, where I'd never been, and I was discovering the place. In fact, I found a lot of people surprised that I had a map sticking out of my hip pocket, but I spoke Hungarian like a native.
First I went to see was my former school, on Mártonhegyi út. I found that the school had changed too, the courtyard and everything, and Tivadar Nemes, the headmaster who had almost kicked me out from elementary school, had disappeared. So much had changed.
I wrote a postcard to my grandmother in Cegléd, a town in central Hungary, to tell her I'd arrived, because she didn't have a phone. (Telephones were hard to get in communist days, unless, of course, you had connections.) I said I'd visit her the next weekend.
I also visited my cousin. She was the daughter of my father's younger brother, one of them. She was the only relative I knew of in Budapest.
I found their address in some notebook at home, and I went to visit them.
So, these were the first contacts I tried to make. I think I was trying to find points that gave me some feeling of continuity.
I was 19, a rookie American agent, with no job, a high school leaving certificate from Africa and a vast, unknown world in front of me.
But the first job on the Monday morning was to get down to some time-consuming bureaucratic procedures which – while astonishing and baffling to many today - were just part and parcel of everyday life in eastern Europe under communism.
With my officially sanctioned stay abroad ending, I had to hand in my passport – it was illegal for me to keep it.
Unbeknown to me - who thought he'd had an important (victory) day on Saturday - Monday was to involve an even greater life-changing meeting.