In September 2018, my wife and I vacationed in Transylvania, a part of Romania that has a large Hungarian population inhabiting many of the most scenic parts of the country. My (American-born) spouse was apprehensive of assorted discomforts and misadventures in a part of the world most Americans associate only with Count Dracula. Her apprehensions were vindicated on one occasion only, when the atm at the Bucharest airport swallowed my credit card.

This visit was preceded by three others under varied historical and political circumstances. Born and growing up in Hungary, I was aware of the territories and populations Hungary lost after World War I as determined by the Treaty of Trianon. In 1940, when I was eight years old, my father took me on a trip to an area of Transylvania that had become part of Romania but was returned to Hungary as a reward for joining Nazi Germany’s Axis. After World War II, these territories were returned to Romania. The second visit, in 1996—to what by then was post-communist Romania—was occasioned by a series of talks to Hungarian groups. On the third visit, in 2010, I gave a lecture at the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Bucharest.

I spoke Hungarian throughout the recent (fourth) visit, and the natives were friendly and surprised at meeting an American traveler fluent in unaccented Hungarian. When I explained that I left Hungary in 1956 after the Revolution, the usual response was “You did the right thing.” They too were familiar with life under communist systems. Among them, Romania was the only Soviet Bloc country where the collapse of the regime was accompanied by violence and the execution of its leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his wife. It was also the only communist country where typewriters had to be registered with the authorities.

As is often the case when I go abroad, this trip prompted reflections about the nature of travel in our times, its apparent and less obvious purposes. I have for some time been baffled by the vast number of people of Western (or Westernized) countries (such as Japan) who can be seen taking pictures at the major tourist attractions of Europe. They have been undeterred by the growing discomforts of air travel and the delays and restrictions imposed by concerns over security. Except in business or first class, air travel has become physically uncomfortable as passengers are squeezed into small and diminishing spaces.

At least two obvious reasons account for the spectacular increase of travel even under these adverse conditions: the growth of discretionary income, and technology that has made distant parts of the globe accessible by air. But that is not the whole story. The urge to travel is an essential component of modernity, and its power to raise expectations. Contemporary Western travelers visiting foreign countries expect a variety of benefits, their expectations heightened by the travel industry and its advertising. They are in search of relaxation, stimulating new experiences, and sometimes an improvement in their social status by going to “in” destinations. Many of them are also looking for settings where they can encounter remnants or reminders of traditional ways of life. The travel industry seeks to entice susceptible travelers with images of “unspoiled” places, supposedly pristine idyllic villages or small towns in apparently remote but nonetheless easily accessible places. In such locations we are assured of escaping, at least temporarily, the burdens and pressures of modernity. Travelers seek further immersion in the past by visiting famous ruins, well-preserved old towns, churches, castles, and fortifications found in Europe. It is hard to know what exactly they get out of these visits, unfamiliar as most of them are with the history of these places, the language spoken by their inhabitants, and the natives themselves.

The key to the appeal of whatever is old and well preserved is not its aesthetic attraction but its presumed authenticity. Many tourists probably believe that in some important ways traditional societies were more authentic and superior to modern ones, including their own. For most, the appeal of traditional societies is rooted in their perceived simplicity and social-communal aspects: smaller numbers of people living in stable and durable communities, knowing and trusting one another, sharing an understanding of the world and robust, guilt-free notions of right and wrong. These appeals are enhanced by attractive physical settings unadorned by billboards and spared the heavy traffic.

The impact of modernity on attitudes toward travel is not limited to the nostalgic conjuring up or contemplation of the virtues (imagined or real) of the traditional ways of life and their settings. Modernity entails and stimulates individualism, and many Westerners find ways to combine a preoccupation with themselves with the broader, hoped-for benefits of travel. When travel is supposed to be, or becomes, a “journey of self-discovery,” a new opportunity for self-transcendence, or an adventure of and experiment with new ways of life, another aspect of modernity comes into focus. These hopes and aspirations highlight some of the deeper discontents of modernity. They include the fear of many well-educated, accomplished, and ambitious Western individuals of becoming anonymous, submerged in modern mass society, their distinctive individuality undermined by the processes of homogenization and subtle regimentation modernity supposedly entails. (The “Personals” in the New York Review of Books are among the illustrations of such concerns.) Thus the attempt to convert the travel experience into a quest for rediscovering one’s “true self” becomes another important point of contact between modernity and modern tourism. None of this is entirely new; when Goethe went to Italy in the late-eighteenth century, he hoped to be inspired and uplifted by its beauty and the visible remnants of great cultural and aesthetic accomplishments. But such aspirations and pursuits of the past were limited to a small number of people, usually artists and members of the aristocracy, whereas in our times such aspirations have become a somewhat-debased mass pursuit stimulated by advertising and popular culture. Notwithstanding its consumerist and standardized aspects, travel, many people believe, is a path to self-improvement, enlightened tolerance, and a deeper understanding of the world and other human beings.

Romanian TV commercials are also similar to those shown on American television, populated by happy, good-natured, always smiling or laughing people who are fulfilled and improved by their choice of a shampoo or brand of instant coffee.

The cross-cultural manifestations of modernity become apparent for the traveler when he or she comes across the conspicuous uses of technology even in relatively underdeveloped countries such as Romania. I did not expect the proliferation of smartphones and similar devices people stare at, scrutinize, and converse with in public spaces of every kind. In this regard the crowds at Bucharest airport were no different from those at American air terminals, parks, streets, or restaurants. People using these devices seemed to be serious and self-important, as if engaged in some life-enhancing transaction. While they facilitate communications by diminishing social isolation, simultaneously they become substitutes for more substantial, and yes, more authentic, face-to-face, personal communications. Romanian TV commercials are also similar to those shown on American television, populated by happy, good-natured, always smiling or laughing people who are fulfilled and improved by their choice of a shampoo or brand of instant coffee. A dozen Danielle Steel novels in recent Hungarian translation belonging to the owner of an apartment we rented further illustrated the penetration of American popular culture into Romanian life.

My trip had not been a political fact-finding tour, and I learned little about post-communist political arrangements in Romania. I learned more of the condition of the large Hungarian minority (about 1.2 million) and its relationship to Hungary under Viktor Orbán, a steadfast promoter of a Hungarian nationalism that also targets Hungarians living outside Hungary. Under Orbán, Hungary grants citizenship to Hungarians living in neighboring countries, such as Romania, enabling them to vote, preferably in his support.

Although I knew that the areas to be visited (Tusnádfürdő or Băile Tuşnad in Romanian and Torockó or Rimetea) had large Hungarian populations, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the widespread and unselfconscious use of Hungarian. Street and road signs were in both languages, as were the signs of hotels, guest houses, restaurants and their menus, and warnings about bears. In these areas children up to the age of fourteen can attend schools where instruction is in Hungarian. At the railway station of the city of Kolozsvár (Cluj in Romanian), I found three Hungarian-language publications: two dailies and one weekly. If Romanian authorities intended to curtail Hungarian cultural autonomy, they seem to have made little progress.

My numerous conversations with the natives (mostly total strangers) elicited different views of the cultural and political conditions of the Hungarian minority. Some felt that they were discriminated against and had a lower standard of living than ethnic Romanians, but others took for granted what seemed to be a considerable degree of cultural autonomy. There were also complaints that Romanians never learn Hungarian, whereas Hungarians learn Romanian, especially if they aspire to better jobs. A recent grievance, according to the Hungarian weekly I read, was that a new regulation (in Cluj) denied school children teachers competent in Hungarian, replacing them with Romanian teachers who knew no Hungarian: “How could it happen that our well-educated teachers, including authors of special textbooks for children whose native language is Hungarian, are abruptly deprived of doing what they were trained for?”

On this trip, as on some others in Europe, I was reminded that Europe remains in many ways different from North America, notwithstanding the apparent uniformities that modernity imposes. The trip also confirmed that it is difficult to resist the idealization of traditional societies especially when they are encountered in heartwarming pastoral settings. The rural and mountainous parts of Romania I visited retain visual aspects of a traditional community: small, simple but durable houses with gardens; little commerce; no billboards; sheep and cows grazing on hillsides (rather than confined to feedlots); horse-drawn carriages; unpaved streets; old people on porches engaged in seemingly leisurely conversations; and nobody in a hurry or trying to sell anything. Such social settings are free of impersonality, and this is their obvious attraction.

Beyond such random visual observations, a topographic map (published in Hungary in Hungarian) of one of the rural areas where we stayed supported these notions. Most physical features on this map had names—meadows, fields, peaks of mountains, caves, rock formations, springs, wells, hollows, bits of land and woodlands. Sometimes they were given the names of people associated with them (“the land of so and so . . . ”), or their physical features (color, shape, size) were used to designate and distinguish geographic or geological entities. Naming all these parts of the land humanized the landscape, personalized the physical environment, and suggested a personal relationship to it. Visiting villages in Transylvania suggests that conceptions of a traditional society have roots in reality.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 28
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