The Lada of My Life

One car sent me on a me­an­der­ing route to adult­hood

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Pe­ter Klein

One car sent me on a me­an­der­ing route to adult­hood

I 1993, I bought a bea­tup old car that changed my life. I had just moved from New York to Bu­dapest, the city of my par­ents’ birth. While Hun­gar­ian was my mother tongue, I still spoke it like a ten year old, and I wanted to learn to speak it like a grown-up. I also wanted to get to know my few re­main­ing rel­a­tives be­yond the once-a-decade vis­its we had made dur­ing my child­hood.

Across the bor­der, war was un­der­way in the dis­in­te­grat­ing Yu­goslavia, and with the Ber­lin Wall down in Ger­many, is­sues such as na­tional iden­tity and eco­nomic in­equity were aris­ing. For­mer Soviet satel­lites were be­gin­ning ex­per­i­ments with democ­racy and cap­i­tal­ism. As a young jour­nal­ist, I had a healthy ego, and I also thought I could make some con­tri­bu­tions to cov­er­ing this com­plex re­gion.

A friend from grad school had moved to Bu­dapest at the same time, so we de­cided to split the cost of a car. We found a 1986 Lada, the sturdy but sim­ple Rus­sian ve­hi­cle of choice for good pro­le­tar­i­ans. At rst glance, an out­sider might mis­take it for a vin­tage Volvo, with its boxy look. But open the door, and it was all Soviet sim­plic­ity. It had o -white vinyl seats, which, in our car, didn’t lock prop­erly, so the pas­sen­ger would whirl for­ward with each pump of the brake. There was no ra­dio or any other frills. And quite of­ten, we had to start the ve­hi­cle by rolling it down a hill and pop­ping the clutch into sec­ond gear.

One day, I drove out to the Jewish ceme­tery to visit the grave of my grand­fa­ther, and I no­ticed that all along the road there was cannabis grow­ing wild. I de­cided to cull as many plants as would t in the trunk and, later that week, en­ticed my friend to help me gather more. We brought the plants back to his apart­ment and dried them in the oven. The place looked like a scene from a Cheech and Chong ick. Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts to smoke the stu , though, we came to the con­clu­sion that the weed was noth­ing more than wild hemp.

I mostly used the car for work. With my Hun­gar­ian pass­port and li­cence plate, I could travel un­fet­tered across bor­ders — a big ad­van­tage over other for­eign cor­re­spon­dents, which I used to get plum as­sign­ments in Croa­tia, Slo­vakia, Ro­ma­nia, and through­out Hun­gary.

One day, I drove to a con­fer­ence of Hun­gar­ian-speak­ing re­porters from the re­gion. They saw me pull in with my lit­tle Lada and took me for one of them — un­til I opened my mouth. I still strug­gled with the for­mal­ity of busi­ness speech, and my very sub­tle ac­cent con­fused peo­ple. On more than one oc­ca­sion, I was asked if I was értelmi fog atékos — “men­tally re­tarded.” An older re­porter wanted to test my met­tle, so he brought me out to his own Lada, opened the trunk, and pre­sented me with two iden­ti­cal-look­ing plas­tic jugs. One was lled with sev­eral litres of spare fuel. The other had home­made pálinka. He opened the con­tainer on the left, poured a liq­uid into the cap, and forced it into my hand, urg­ing me to drink. To this day, I’m not sure if I drank car fuel or moon­shine brandy.

The next spring, a jour­nal­ist I knew in town had a friend vis­it­ing from Van­cou­ver — a beau­ti­ful young woman named Melody. I was so taken with her, but she was clearly out of my league. To my de­light, though, she and her friend asked if I would go with them on a road trip to Tran­syl­va­nia. I knew I was in­vited for no other rea­son than trans­porta­tion. We hit the road.

Driv­ing across the Hun­gar­ian-ro­ma­nian bor­der back then was like trav­el­ling through time. Hun­gary had mod­ern gas sta­tions and nicely paved high­ways. Ro­ma­nia had nei­ther, and the rocky roads were of­ten blocked by sheep or cat­tle. About an hour into our trip, the axle of my car cracked from the rough ter­rain. It was Easter week­end, but for­tu­nately, we found an EasternOrtho­dox me­chanic and I talked him into weld­ing the axle back to­gether — for the equiv­a­lent of about $2.50.

Maybe it was my skill at dodg­ing shep­herds on the wind­ing roads that im­pressed Melody, or maybe it was my abil­ity to talk a me­chanic into get­ting us back on the road on a hol­i­day week­end. But six months af­ter that night, we eloped, and close to a quar­ter-cen­tury later, we are still to­gether. My re­port­ing in the re­gion jump-started a jour­nal­ism ca­reer that is still go­ing strong. Only the lit­tle Lada, un­for­tu­nately, didn’t make it.

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