Saturday, August 15, 2009

Austria-Hungary Revisited

I've been in western Hungary and Austria's Burgenland, preparing stories connected with the 20th anniversary of the events of 1989 and on life along the (now-borderless) frontiers that once separated the Warsaw Pact nations and western Europe.

When I first visited the region almost exactly 20 years ago, crossing Austria's frontiers with Hungary and Czechoslovakia was still a big deal. Guards with automatic weapons surrounded the train. Border guards stomped about, stamping visas and asking questions. (My favorite broken English demand -- from a very stern and humorless Czechoslovak border guard -- was "Passport, baby!")

Now you just drive on through at 40 miles an hour, whizzing by the abandoned highway border stations or on your choice of newly-reconnected backroads. Travelling from, say, the Czech Republic to Hungary via Vienna is now as easy as going from Maine to Vermont via New Hampshire, only with better public transportation options.

Two years ago, Europe's borderless "Schengen zone" expanded to include much of East-Central Europe and the region around Sopron, Hungary and Eisenstadt, Austria -- a single economic and cultural entity under the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- is healing back together. But it's not a universally welcomed process -- particularly in Austria -- as I'll be reporting on in "the mainstream media" shortly.

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