Chapter 6 - Christmas Comes Early – and with a Plastic Tree
My father may have been trapped in a miserable position at the university in terms of ideologies and personalities, but he was nothing if not resourceful in his efforts to sort it out. Together with a Swedish colleague, he entered a competition sponsored by the United Nations to design a conference hall in Ethiopia.
As a result, in 1965, Christmas came early for the Rimner family - their design won. I don't know exactly which prize it was, first, second or whatever, but the reward was a four-year contract as a visiting lecturer to a university in Turkey or Sudan, all paid for by Unesco.
My father chose the University of Khartoum, because, as he put it: “It's further from Hungary than Turkey, and I want to get as far from here as I can.”
Only, in the world according to Comrades Marx and Lenin, things were never quite that simple.
Even though the United Nations had nominated him personally for the job, the Hungarian authorities didn't want to let him go. The result was a frustrating merry-go-round of letter upon letter, form after form, and shuffles from office to office.
Finally, oh the irony! Guess who helped him get the final stamp of approval?
None other than the new head of department, his former student, who no doubt feeling very difficult in the situation, wrote in glowing terms of his one-time teacher in support of his request.
And that's how my father got to leave for Africa, in the summer of 1965. A few months later, on Christmas eve, we followed, my mother, sister and myself.
It's hard to imagine the way we felt back then. For a professional not connected to the Party to get a four-year contract abroad, outside the communist bloc and all with family was like winning the lottery. Both in the financial sense and every other way. I mean, people risked their lives to defect, leaving everything behind them if they made it. We didn't have to. We got a passport from the authorities, and were told: Go!
Dad met us at the airport, and I remember we celebrated Christmas for the first time in our lives with a little, metre-high plastic Christmas tree. Coming from Hungary, I was astonished: you could make a Christmas trees from plastic. Oh, the wonders of the free world!