Translation of Albert Ákos’ bittersweet article “Egy ordító szamár töri csak meg a csendet a kihaló Debrétén” (“In dying Debréte the silence is only broken by the braying of a donkey”) published in abcug.hu on 16 June 2015.
The silence, the tranquility, the peace! After Budapest, this is an oasis!” – Tibor Csigó, Mayor of Debréte
Did you know that one of the smallest villages in Hungary is also one of the most picturesque, yet tourists never venture there? Debréta is one of the places in Hungary where depopulation is the fastest, meaning that its population has decreased by half every decade. Despite only having ten inhabitants, this place is still full with exciting events. An amorous male donkey terrorizes the inhabitants and a huge local quarrel has surrounded mayoral elections for the past five years. Meet the villagers of Debréte.
250 kilometres and five and a half hours of traveling. This is what separates Budapest from one of the smallest villages in Hungary–Debréte in Borsod county, northeast Hungary. Situated in the mountains of the Hungarian-Slovak borderlands, the village is not only the smallest but the fastest shrinking village in the country. Losing nine-tenths of its population over a period of forty years, half the residents either moved away or expired following the 2012 census.
Today just ten people are left in the settlement. This article about them as well as about recurrent outsiders:
- The current mayor
- The former mayor
- The village custodian
- The IT guy from Debrecen
- Aunt Mary from the end of the village
- Gergő and Berci, the two public workers
- János and his donkey, Dezső
- The bus driver from the next village
There are some who do not even talk to each other as a result of a huge fallout following the previous elections. The hunter-turned-mayor has grand visions, so he moved to the village. The IT guy opened a guesthouse that has no guests while János is keeping up his house for his son, László, who left Debréte for the Netherlands not long ago.
One traveler every fortnight
Debréte is not only marginalized by geography. On a regular Monday there is basically one single way to get there, with the 10.55 Miskolc bus line. Other buses do not stop there, and this one takes you there following a two-hour bus ride from Budapest.
Starting off from Budapest, it is impossible to catch the only bus to Debréte from Miskolc, making the small village impossible to reach by bus in under a day. The only possible solution is the InterCity express train. The Monday morning express was so full that the ticket vending machine sold all seats twice, and second class compartments were packed to the maximum capacity.
The stark contrast between the air-conditioned comfort of the Miskolc train and the rundown bus to Debréte cannot be overstated. The latter circled all of Borsod county before dropping us off at Debréte. During this time, the passengers on the bus turned over several times. But there always a group loudly listening to hard-boiled country disco music sometimes from three smart phones at the same time.
Other than us, the bus became deserted by the last three stops. “Here, commuters only appear every two weeks or so” the bus driver told us. He even made a short stop at his own house in Viszló to take pick something up. Nobody travels to Debréte, other than some relatives of the locals from time to time. A few weeks ago, two old ladies from the next village ended up there somehow. The driver is not disturbed by this. At least he has plenty of time to finish reading the day’s newspaper before starting off on his way back.
Coca Cola is a luxury
What makes Debréte special is its gravest difficulty as well: it is completely isolated. No shop, no pub, and it has been a while since the mobile retailer gave up coming here. Only a private entrepreneur turns up on every second day, mostly selling sugar and vegetables from a car trunk. He only brings over one type of soda, “Soma” a cheap cola counterfeit. “This is the cheapest” he said laughing when we ask him why does not he sell Coca Cola instead. Although there is a church, it has been ages since a priest came to hold mass there. Three of the villagers would gladly attend them, A fourth one would not be able to on account of being disabled and unable to move.
József Kelemen first arrived to Debréte 12 years ago, but he was intending to come since the 1950’s. He was studying to be a carpenter in Miskolc and one of his classmates was constantly talking about this little village. “It was always lingering in my mind: Debréte, Debréte… I forgot everything else.” he said. Eventually József sold his internet café in Debrecen, packed up his home together with hsi wife and not only travelled to the village, but even bought a house there.
“We bought it with rural tourism in mind” he recalled. They have refurbished it by creating two little apartmements in a rural cottage and advertising them on the internet as “Debréte Guesthouses”. According to József the surroundings are full of landmarks: Aggtelek cave, the Rakaca lake, the Slovak border. Yet no guests are coming. Sometimes a company winds up here but the guesthouse mostly stands empty. This year, he did not yet have a single guest so far.
“I find that they prefer lakesides” says József, reflecting on the limited success of his business venture. Or maybe they do not come because he is unable to take state travel vouchers and does not speak languages. He received a phone call from England just last week, but he was unable to answer in English.
Eventually only animal husbandry is left as a means of sustenance. Besides feeding chicken he has not much to do here. Shopping is usually a once-a-month activity for him, when he buys ten kilograms of sugar and five loaves of bread, which he freezes. The internet connection is so slow, that it takes an hour every morning to download his emails.
How could an old bone like me bear children?
The locals already got used to the infrastructure leaving their villages. When the postman, the merchant or the gas bottle man passes down the only street every second day, honking his car horn, they are already all in the street, only to retire to the privacy of their gardens immediately afterwards. It is not customary here to visit a neighbor or walk through the street. “Everyone keeps to themselves here.” József said.
Aunt Mary goes further. According to her villagers only go out to meet each other when there is a funeral reception. This is a sadly frequent occurence in the past decade. “Uncle Jozsi died six years ago, Aunt Anna two years ago, the mother of the custodian a year ago, and the older uncle Berci a year and a half ago” József recounts. Nobody came to take their place.
“There was not a single child born here for the past thirty years. How can an old bone like me bear a child?” aunt Mary laughed. Her children grew up here, but moved away long ago. According to aunt Mari, this place is not for educated children as there are no jobs. “Even birds turn around from here” she said. According to her, there is a definite reason why tourists will avoid the village. “They cannot even buy a bread roll here, how could they stack up on anything? There is nothing here for kilometres.”
The one who does not share this pessimism is the village’s new mayor, Tibor Csigó, who moved here from Budapest last year. He arrived to Debréte as a tourist himself 12 years ago. “I fell in love with it since then. After Budapest? The silence, the tranquility, the peace! After Budapest, this is an oasis!” he illustrated his enthusiasm. He is not alone with his sentiments. Most of the houses in the villages today serve as weekend resorts or hunting houses. Owners come here every month from Szeged, Jászberény or even Kosice in Slovakia.
They are not a very frequent sight. When we were there, the village was almost deserted. The only thing louder than the chirping of birds was the braying of a donkey.
The horny terror-donkey
“We have only one sorrow, there is a male donkey here, braying day and night” aunt Mary complained pointing to the neighboring house. This is where Dezső, the above mentioned donkey lives, who keeps uttering loud characteristic sounds morning, noon and night, and all walls in the village echo it.
This is one thing, but according to the mayor, one day, he somehow got out of the barn, chased him into his garden, ate all the vegetables and terrorized the residents. Eventually, they needed to call the police, the officer chased him through the village. Only his owner could eventually catch him. According to the owner, János, Dezső is calm, and even children are able to pet him unharmed.
“He cannot talk so he heehaws” he said, adding that the neighbor’s dogs on the other hand bark all the time, but he does not speak down to her for it. On the other hand, he was even reported because of his donkey. He will not sell him, however, as the manure he produces is needed in the garden.
“We have appealed to every single authority there is with the case of this doneky” mayor Csigó shared the official point of view. He said even the chief vet was here but as he established that Dezső is well fed, there was nothing to do. This means that Dezső will remain a permanent resident in Debréte indefinitely.
Other than this, life in Debréte is really monotonous. There are usually only two people on the street, Gergő and Berci, the two public workers. They live in the neighboring village, Rakaca, and routinely come here to work for seven years. It is a calm activity, they like it, even though residents often treat them bad. One winter there was someone who wanted to send them into the forest to collect firewood for them for free, but the initiative failed as the mayor stepped up and said that he will only send the guys out to the freezing cold with sixty centimetres of snow if the villages is willing to cover the cost of their working clothes. They were not ready to do that.
The routines of village life are further confirmed by the daily work schedule of Béla the village custodian. If the grass is tall, then in mornings he helps public workers cut it. At noons he takes the prepared lunch from the next village and pops into the local general store to fulfill shopping requests from the villagers. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, he brings bread, on Wednesdays and Fridays medicine.
Béla was born here, in Debréte, only to leave for the nearby city of Miskolc to become a mechanic, but ended up back here at his parents’ house. Since then, he made one attempt to get away. He took a job as a public worker in the next village but did not like it. He is a custodian since the retirement of the previous one, and with this he is officially the second man after the mayor.
Elections bring out the worst in the residents
The last two mayoral elections created quite a turmoil here in Debréte. The first conflict erupted when the long-time leader of the village was finally challenged during the 2010 elections. László Jakab, who had been running the village for twenty years was born-and-bred there, living in the village since 1944. He started out as the Socialist council president and held on to his seat even after the 1989 change of regimes. Except from that time on he was called “mayor”. According to his own words, his utmost pride is that he fixed all the roads, renovated the funeral home, and during his time in office, there were flowers everywhere in the village, most of them being taken care of by his wife.
“Twenty years passed and then the outsiders came in and put me out of the job just like that!” Jakab said. He is visibly destroyed by the end of his political career with a single competitor showing up, and snatching victory from him. It was no other than József the guesthouse owner. It was a close call with József securing 13 votes against László’s 11. During the elections, László sued József as, according to him, his victory was only secured by bringing in his friends, who registered as residents for the time of the elections (hence the rapid increase of village residents). The new mayor was fined after the allegations were proved. József defended himself by saying that László did the same, yet he did not want to report him.
“I am sick all the time since I am no longer mayor” Jakab says. We are only able to speak with him in his sickbed where he is still confined even four years after his defeat. “This village is finished.” he said, elaborating that since then, nobody takes care of things properly. Even flowers disappeared from the road.
József of course sees things differently. His takeaway lesson from his mayoral period was that, before he was elected, everyone encouraged him to run. But after he was elected, they started to scold him. He told us how a local requested him to cut down all the bushes from the side of the road so that they will be able to observe the road from their house. József was not willing to do this. He said doing away with the plants only for this reason would be a great waste. He was not surprised however, that this cost him his seat, as last year. Tibor Csigó defeated him, too. On the day of the election László Jakab requested a special leave from his hospital bed just to vote against József.
The new mayor dreams of a paradise
Csigó started his time in office with grand designs. “I want to create a real village community here” he said. He had enough of people living completely isolated in their gardens. So now he is building a community space for residents that includes a traditional open air oven and benches. He said that the original dwellers received his initiative with suspicion, but weekend house owners were very receptive.
But he now wants to take matters one step further by turning the old school building presently housing the mayor’s office as well into a guesthouse. He said he would be able to organize school groups and hunters to rent it, as the village presently has no income at all, which makes it impossible to do any development.
Depopulation worries mayor Csigó. According to him, this is why a functioning community of the residents would be necessary, as younger people will only be willing to set foot in Debréte if they feel at home. “The bottom line is that these people should feel really warmly about the place” he said.
He is not the only who is counting on a younger generation. János also says that he is keeping his house for his son: when he and his wife die, the son could move here. “He would be better off living here, instead of Tornaszentjakab, the next village over” János said. The son of former mayor László, however, paints a bleak picture of these prospects. He was the last child to be born here in 1984. He started off as a public worker in Debréte, then took up a job as trolley driver in Miskolc, yet he spent the past years here unemployed. In the end, he moved to the Netherlands to work, and his wage there is enough to sustain his beloved car. Even his parents do not know if he will ever return to Hungary, let alone to this small village.