had been invited to go to Budapest
earlier this month to address the annual meeting of the American
Tourism Society (ATS), and was asked to choose a topic of interest
to ground and tour operators serving eastern and central European
There is, frankly, nothing I can tell the likes of Alex Harris,
chairman of General Tours, or ATS president Michael Stolowitzky
about tour operations in this region that they don't already
So I shared a story with the group about something that had
happened to me 15 years earlier, in the weeks leading up to the
1988 ASTA World Travel Congress in Budapest. Prior to the congress,
I had been reading how Romania's communist dictator at that time,
Nicolae Ceausescu, had made plans to raze the villages of ethnic
Hungarians and relocate the residents to large cities, with the
stated intention of diluting their cultural ties to Hungary. I was
speaking at ASTA that year, and felt it was important to note that
this was happening in the region and, perhaps, to document what
would be lost to travel and tourism (to say nothing of the world at
And so I had rented a car in Budapest and headed east to the
city of Cluj-Napoca in the heart of Hungarian Romania. When I
arrived, I parked and asked a man walking down the street for
directions to my hotel. He walked me there and inquired whether I
had plans for the evening -- if not, would I come to his apartment
to meet his family?
I accepted. An hour later, Wrabel Zoltan and his wife, Judit,
shared a bottle of wine with me and confided that they were ethnic
Hungarian dissidents. There were consequences from their
activities, they said: The secret police had come to their home and
confiscated some books, and Judit lost her teaching job and
couldn't get another. They applied to emigrate to Budapest, but had
yet to receive passports.
We arranged to meet again the next morning, and when we got
together they asked if I wanted to visit Vista, one of the villages
that was scheduled to be destroyed. I said that I did.
When I had read about Ceausescu's scheme, I had not imagined a
village as lovely as Vista. The town's profile was dominated by a
700-year-old church with beautiful, hand-painted ceiling tiles. The
Wrabels took me to visit several people in their homes, which were
decorated in traditional Hungarian motifs.
On the way back, something dramatic and unexpected occurred. We
saw a policeman standing in the road with his arm extended for us
to stop; another man in a suit and tie stood on the shoulder. As
the policeman knocked on Zoltan's car window, the man in the tie
knocked on mine.
"Step out of the car and hand me your passport," he said to
We stood on the side of the road. "How long have you known
Wrabel Zoltan?" he asked me.
"I met him last night."
"By chance, I suppose." His English was colloquial, right down
to his use of sarcasm. He studied my passport. "What is your true
purpose in Romania?" he asked.
"Tourism," I said.
"You have 24 hours to leave the country," he said, handing me my
passport. I asked him who he was, and he said he was speaking with
the highest authority of the Romanian government. "If you ask any
more questions, it will go badly for you," he said.
He ushered Zoltan and Judit into his car. The couple gave me
tentative smiles and waved as they were driven off.
I can't tell you how many times I have thought about them in the
past 15 years, wondering what awaited them at police headquarters.
I didn't write to them while Ceausescu was in power, for fear that
I would get them in more trouble. And when I wrote after the
revolution, my letters were returned unopened.
I remembered that they had wanted to move to Budapest, so when I
arrived for the ATS meeting two weeks ago, I looked in the phone
book and was delighted to see a listing for the name "WRABEL
ZOLTAN." I phoned every hour, but no one picked up. At 9 p.m.,
Judit answered, and when I told her who was calling, she knew
immediately who I was.
She filled me in on what had happened. She said that, by
coincidence, earlier on the day of their arrest, a couple from
Vista had defected at the German embassy in Bucharest. She and
Zoltan were questioned to see if our visit to the village was
connected to the incident. Before releasing them, the police
noticed the request to emigrate in their file. "Why haven't you
left for Budapest yet?" the police asked.
They replied that they had never received passports. Soon after,
passports arrived in the mail, and they began making arrangements
to leave. Ironically, just three months after their departure,
there was a revolution in Romania, and Ceausescu was executed.
Judit reassured me that the village of Vista, church and all, still
As I said, there's not much I can tell ATS members that they
don't already know. At the conclusion of this story, I told the
group that my experiences only underscore the importance of their
motto -- "Bringing the World Together" -- and that their motto is
fulfilled whenever they provide opportunities for travelers to meet
one-to-one with local people.
I forgot, however, to mention to the group that I had made
arrangements to meet the Wrabels the following evening in a
restaurant in Budapest.
The intensity of our first and only encounter more than 15 years
ago had created a real bond between us -- we recognized one another
instantly, greeted each other with hugs and kisses and for the next
three hours celebrated the miracles of a world that evolves through
dramatic political change and unchanging human values. We shared
what was happening with our families, our countries, our jobs.
We toasted, "To health."
We toasted, "To life."