Around the two and half hour mark, the bus swerves up into the hills along a road locals call the “Serpentine.” It’s paved well enough – I’ve suffered terrible mountain roads in Georgia, Armenia, and Bosnia – but in a Hungarian bus packed full of people, some even standing, heading home for All
Soul’s Day, it’s enough for me to reach for the Xanax.
After a road like that, you hope to land in some hilly Shangri-La packed with picturesque villages, but at the end of the Yellow Brick Road you won’t find the Emerald City, but Ózd: a forgotten factory town.
You won’t find Ózd in any guidebook. There is no reason to visit this declining, forgotten industrial town Hungary’s poorest northeastern region, but I have to take this terrible three-hour bus journey numerous times this year.
My mother’s side of the family is Hungarian. Non-Hungarians have no idea where to find Ózd on the map (it’s just next to the Slovakian border, a little to the southwest from Kosice); Hungarians tell me they’re sorry for me when I tell them my family comes from Ózd. It’s one of the most impoverished towns in the country (Hungary is not a rich country to start with) living in the shadow of the crumbling factory once the lifeblood of the town. It also has the largest Romani population in Hungary and segregation in the town still feels like a real thing.
“Ózd used to be a nice place,” my mother assures me whenever I groan about being there, “Everyone had work at the factory, we had restaurants, cafes, concerts, there even was a casino.”
Anyone perplexed about those holding nostalgia for communist times needs to visit these former industrial towns. Ózd is vast and spreads out like spider tentacles with patches of industrial wasteland, 1960s concrete high-rises painted with 50 year old ads, and small garden houses the spread up into the hills. The houses were mostly built by the people themselves from money allocated by the government (my grandmother loved to tell me about how she built the house with her own hands while my grandfather was at the factory). Ózd didn’t grow without reason: There used to be work here. Now it has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Those with talent or education leave for Budapest or abroad, the rest stay here with little to no hope of work.
People came from across Hungary to work at the steel factory and the community thrived. Today the funeral business is perhaps the only lucrative business in the town, where graves have expanded in the town’s cemeteries populated by people who died in their 50s.
“A lot of people committed suicide when the factory closed,” my mother told me when we visited my grandmother’s grave this November, “Many people didn’t have the money or the choice to move away.”
Older people also spill out of understaffed hospital weeks after going in; this is what happened to my grandmother this summer who went in after a fall. She deteriorated within one week and was dead the next. It was August; the one doctor in her department was on holiday.
“If anything happens to me, make sure I don’t ever end up in Ózd Hospital,” my mother begged as we collapsed from exhaustion after we cleared my grandmother’s hoardings packed into 40 black sacks into the yard at the beginning of September.
However, Ózd is a city of memories and stories. I used to dread spending the summers there, where the temperatures swelled above 40C and the excitement of the day was a shopping trip to the new Tesco or the Saturday market spread out over stalls and tarpaulin sheets selling t-shirts with misspelled English slogans. But as I listened closely I discovered stories worthy of a Garcia Marquez novel. In a town like Ózd, gossip was king. “Did you know the man down the road died of a heart attack during sex with his wife? He’s not the only one in town.”
Even my own grandmother’s life came pack with tales.
Stories from the Hungarian revolution of 1956 when young people fled from Budapest and tried to cross the Slovak border only a mile away, who knocked on the window at night begging for food and shelter. Or that time a member of the secret police shot after my grandmother being convinced she was spying on the factory (she was, but on my grandfather). The more I dug, the more I uncovered. One day I plan to write about Ózd, blending fiction with fact, but most will struggle to separate the two. Ózd was built for magical realism.
When my father visited in the 70s, he thought he arrived in Hell. In the middle of the night, the main road cut through the steelworks. Molten metal flowed close to the roadside, turning the valley and the town a glowing hue of deep red.
When I leave in Ózd at the bus station, I feel like I’m stuck purgatory as I overlook the remains of the half demolished factory. There are 30 bus stands, each with a digital sign flashing the time and nothing else. Just thirty times 15:03. Sometimes there is a bus to Miskolc or Eger; once every two hours there is a bus to Budapest. It’s only when I get on the bus and wind up the Serpentine, I feel I finally escaped, but Ózd will always linger with me, be a part of me; be a part of my family’s story.