If you were born in East Europe, yet failed to become susceptible to compensational nationalism, then you ended up feeling like the scum of the earth by default
It’s cold,” I tell him, trying to break the ice before we begin our ten-floor journey downwards.
“Yes, we have frost during the day already,” he replies, noticeably proud of the accomplishments of the Canadian winter. I pull the polar coat even tighter around myself and inspect his summery outfit.
“Won’t you be cold, wearing only that?”
“Oh, I’m just going dancing at the bar around the corner,” he explains with a delightfulness that goes well with his grey hair.
It’s either the pull of the elevator, or my East European subconscious hiding under the cosmopolite superego that starts to twitch in alarm: is he allowed to do that? But the twitching lasts only a few seconds, just like all those other times when I had seen carefree and cheerful people doing the things that made them happy. I regain self-control and we reach the ground floor. We both put on a polite smile and walk silently towards the exit. Every time I go out to buy milk after six o’clock and glance at the shop-window to the left of our high-rise I see the backs of beefy men wearing silver spangles, with their muscular calves flexed over their high heels as they stand in front of a crowd.
After my fellow-traveler from the elevator disappears into a transvestite bar, I continue walking down the main street of the local gay community, past the many bars and sex shops and rainbow flags and sexy police men or buff girls painted on the walls, stepping into the hangar-sized supermarket where I can pick from hundreds of products that are either lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, flour-, or energy-free, that are either vegan or vegetarian, organic or whole grain, brought from every possible corner of the globe to be used for all those dishes which seem exotic to me. I mingle with the shopping crowd, the gay couple with their adopted baby, the trans-men still wearing traces of make-up, the old Asian women, the students with Indian and African backgrounds, and at the end I pay the ethnically mixed, reliably polite, and cheerful cashiers.
No doubt about it: there’s an end-of-the-world feeling in the air.
Because here, in downtown Toronto, the dominance and superiority of the white, heterosexual middle class of European origins and of the traditional family has definitely ended. I am not nearly as shaken by the discovery as I should be.
Because I am a “stupid bitch” — as the internet trolls would immediately point out in such cases — who has “lost even the will to live.” However, that’s not the main reason. If you were born in East Europe, yet failed to become susceptible to compensational nationalism, then you ended up feeling like the scum of the earth by default — it was something you internalized as you were sipping that disgusting Socialist chocolate drink. To top it all off, I am also a woman, and have gotten used to not belonging to the club that rules the world.
Nonetheless, I dared to ride a bicycle. Since women, as it happens, reached emancipation on bicycles. I came to understand this thanks to the satirical cartoons attacking feminists in the nineteenth century. Here’s a stereotype — that is, a pair of near identical images printed in a way as to appear three-dimensional when seen through a special lens — from the year 1895, bought at the Toronto flee market: kids are playing on the dirty floor, plaster is falling off the walls, but the woman goes cycling instead of tidying the place up. What’s more, before she runs off into the world, she still has the nerve to ask the husband — the poor soul is just about to do the laundry — to clean her shoes… Here’s another one: the man is doing housework while the woman rides her bicycle to work… And a third one: the man is washing the dishes while the woman is reading a book, with the bicycle unfailingly parked behind her…
Of course, it is especially bizarre to read that back home conservative politicians have ordered women off the symbolic bicycles while I am living in the gay neighborhood of a North American city, next to a transvestite bar. A friend of mine is telling me that one of the TV channels — those who have eyes shall see, and those who have ears shall hear — is airing a commercial about the importance of siblings. Being a woman in her late thirties and, through no fault of hers, single and childless, she finds this somehow disturbing — which is most probably what that particular public announcement was designed for.
I also find it disturbing. I failed to fulfill my patriotic duty and gave birth to only one child. And what’s worse: it happened quite haphazardly, without any previous social or national deliberation. In Hungary, the shrinking numbers of middle-class children can be complemented with the help of sizable Roma families, and in Western Europe this is possible with the help of immigrant communities. Because these societies cannot count on the likes of me any longer: I hopped on my bicycle, rode to the edge of the abyss, and now I am staring into the gaping void. Yet, in spite of the old-fashioned remorse drilled into me, I simply cannot ride backwards anymore.
Although, it must be a truly uplifting feeling to do something for the benefit of humankind. A few days ago I saw one of those Joker-faced American women on TV: the excess of botox and plastic surgery had brought her into an almost non-human state, since there’s no way a sixty-year-old woman would look like that. She, however, attributed her ageless look to the benefits of vegetarianism and — as if giving herself a self-congratulatory pat on the back — declared that by refusing to eat meat she is actually saving the planet.
It is hard for me to imagine that the lifestyle of such a luxurious lady campaigning for the bright future is in any way economical, or that the vegetarian foods that are produced in enormous American quantities are only a light burden for the Planet. Although, back in the day, when vegetarianism — this odd hobbyhorse of Tolstoyan adepts with bushy beards and Muzhik shirts – was still a public laughing stock, the only argument that could silence the ridiculers was based on the low cost of the diet. That is why Marxist social reformers at the turn of the century were preaching to workers about the need for a puritan and meat-free regimen. And that is why not eating meat became the sign of a quiet rebellion, since the middle class meal was simply inconceivable without the meat ingredient — seen as the source of “strength.”
Let’s face it: there are no social habits which can be independent of politics! In the early 1930s one could read about how the supporters of the German far-right were searching for potential wives among the long-haired, fair-skinned, and vegetarian followers of Wotan. And that their Führer, Adolf Hitler, owed his exceptional energy to his alcohol, nicotine, and meat-free lifestyle. Later, however, in 1938, the German association of vegetarians was dissolved and incorporated into the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Lebensreform, created in order to harmonize the national activities of the Party and the State… Why the dissolution? Because they maintained strong connections with the international Esperanto movement! We might be tempted to laugh at this fervor, but we know how the story ended… We also know that socialism brought an end to the vegetarian movement: although they could not organize themselves freely anymore, as a consequence of the serious food shortages of the 1950s in Europe, being a clandestine vegetarian was the easiest thing in the world.
To take a case in point, being a clandestine smoker today is much more difficult. The Santa Claus from the elevator is now shivering in his summery shirt outside the bar, keeping the necessary distance specified by the law and remorsefully blowing his smoke into the liberal air. I am walking home from the store. I ended up buying almond milk because it was cheaper than regular milk — to which, as an overly civilized person, I developed a lactose intolerance.
I step into the tenement house that houses immigrants, gays, seniors, disabled people, and foreigners like myself because it is a non-profit building and the owner can deduct his expenses from his taxes. No one here is a multigenerational “Canadian” — they are Brazilian, Chinese, Hungarian, Lebanese, Portuguese, and so on. Here I am also a small detail in the clichéd liberal postcard in spite of the fact that I do not feel at home within this utopia.
How can such a place — where I regularly receive gay newsmagazines in the mail, where I encounter same-sex couples pushing baby carriages, where a trip to the store takes me walking down streets decorated with rainbow flags, and where I see men wearing silver spangles dance in the shop-windows — be part of reality and not a utopia? But, more importantly, what connection to reality does my own time-travelling East Europe still retain in its fervor to protect Christian values from Arab terrorists and vegetarian cyclists? What did it turn into? A ridiculous antifeminist burlesque? The sound of the alarm bells warning of the West’s decline makes it difficult to hear: are they really trying to persuade the middle class white population to procreate?
One thing is certain: our world has ended. And it’s too early to tell what the new one will be like.
Translated by László Szabolcs
Noémi Szécsi is a Hungarian writer and translator, recipient of the EU Prize for Literature 2009 for a novel Communist Monte Cristo, and contributor to The New York Times, among others.
The article was originally published in Visegrad Insight vol. 1 (9) 2016.