412 Esperanto in my life (4)

1966 and all that

I started university in the autumn of 1965. I’ll save my detailed reminiscences (probably not very detailed after 40 years) for page 378; two points are of interest in the Esperanto context.
The first is that vacations were quite long in those days. The academic year consisted of 3 terms each lasting 10 weeks. The quick-witted among you will notice that this left 22½ weeks for other things; and in 1966 I put seven of those to good use.
The second will take a little longer. I was studying French (with subs. Spanish) at Bristol University. They had an exchange arrangement with Bordeaux University; under this Bristol’s first year French students spent the Summer Term (possibly the Spring Term as well; I don’t remember) in Bordeaux while Bordeaux’s first year English students spent the same period in Bristol. This did wonders for my French and presumably helped the Bordeaux English students quite a bit as well.
Somewhere around this time I decided that it was time I spread my Esperanto wings a little further. The 1966 World Esperanto Congress was to be held in Budapest and, in those days, venturing behind the Iron Curtain seemed an adventurous thing to do. Also the Congress was to be heavily subsidised, Eastern Europe was still absurdly cheap anyway, and we could expect to be treated very nicely. So I signed up.

There was one practical matter to settle. The University term in Bordeaux ended about 6 weeks before the beginning of  the congress in Budapest. The question was, should I go home, hang around for a month or so and then come back again, or should I use the time more interestingly?
I was beginning to get an idea which might be silly; so I consulted a friend. His name was Martin Taylor, and he will probably appear on page 920. He came from Weston-super-Mare and we had done a few cycle jaunts in the Bristol area, going out to such places as Clevedon and Portishead (famous for the band of that name), though sadly we never got to Nempnett Thrubwell (a real place, immortalised in song by The Wurzels).
I suggested to him that, given that there was plenty of time to do it, I might cycle to Budapest. He thought this was perfectly possible, and my father, when asked, said he thought it was a crazy idea, so I decided to do it. I knew that if I ran out of time I could always get on a train, and if I got tired I could rest for a few days in a youth hostel somewhere.

The Great Cycle Trip deserves a page of its own (if it ever gets one, it will be 796) so I’ll fast-forward to my arrival, tired, bearded and many pounds lighter, in Budapest.
Going in at the deep end can be a fine thing, but maybe no-one should choose quite so deep an end for their first major Esperanto gathering. 3975 people signed up for the Congress and a couple of thousand more turned up unannounced, mostly from various other East European countries, especially Poland. It was officially the second-largest gathering of its kind (nearly 5000 had been at Nurnberg in 1923, and, later on, 5946 signed up for Warsaw in the centenary year 1987) and in reality was probably the largest. So at least 5000 people were actually there, and that kind of crowd just becomes a sea of faces; it isn’t really possible to get to know individual people as the whole week could go by without you managing to find the same person again.

At the time Budapest was in pretty poor shape; a lot of the war damage had not  been repaired yet, and people’s life seemed pretty drab. I was there again in 1983, by which time there had been huge transformations; but that’s another story. On this occasion they certainly did their best to make us welcome; there were flags, posters and banners advertising the Congress everywhere; everyone got an Official Visa (usually reserved for diplomats, businessmen and suchlike); and we got a pretty good exchange rate for our money. Also free travel on the trams and buses. I stayed with a local family (not Esperantists – we had to communicate in very bad German)

In any event, the Congress programme was so intense (usually three or four events happening simultaneously from early in the morning till late at night) that I didn’t see much of the city. It was a thoroughly exhausting  week, as Esperanto congresses always are, with so much to see and do. Having learned more French in a term or so in France than I had done in 7 years of secondary school, I now learned more Esperanto in a week than I had in the eight years preceding. I don’t remember much of the details of events, but a few things stand out. For example in the opening ceremony the welcoming speech representing the home country was given by the hugely popular writer Gyula Baghy. I’ve since heard a recording of his address; hearing it now it sounds silly and over-emotional, and he shouted too much. But Baghy had been an actor in days when you had to fill an auditorium without much help from microphones. And he was a very old man and knew he had not long to live, and in any case had always been a very emotional character. He began by saying: Geamikoj, verŝajne la lastan fojon mi staras antaŭ vi… (My friends, this is probably the last time you will see me…) and indeed he died the next year. In those days I didn’t really know who he was, but now I am very glad that I saw this extraordinary man at the very last opportunity.
I also remember the excursion (though this may have been in 1983) to Lake Balaton. This was quite a distance for a day trip as it’s a long way from Budapest. There was a good deal of grumbling (apparently without fear of being overheard) at the number of luxury villas, doubtless granted to the Party faithful, which lined the banks of the lake and made it difficult for the likes of us to get near it. I expect the villas are still there, though with different owners…
Incidentally, it was certainly part of the appeal of Esperanto in Eastern Europe in those days that you could use it to grumble about the régime, or perhaps say even more subversive things, without too much risk of being apprehended.

I got home [cliché alert no. 1] tired but happy, and resolved to do it all again – perhaps without the bike ride – as soon as possible. I’ve always had an idea that I attended the Madrid Congress in 1968, but it turns out that I didn’t. The next Congress I attended was inescapable; it was held in London in 1971. I spent a large part of the week helping on the bookstall. Most events were held at University College, doubtless thanks to the good offices of John Wells, who worked there; but the opening was held in grand style in the Royal Festival Hall. Over 2000 people attended the Congress, so the opening and closing sessions needed a big venue. Oddly, I’ve been in the RFH two or three times, but never for a concert.

It seemed as if things were going to continue fairly predictably from then on, working in Westminster City Libraries, going to the occasional film or concert, and travelling off to various Esperanto events. I had no idea that some [cliché alert no. 2] life-changing experiences were awaiting me.                               (to be continued)


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