“It was an elderly Serbian who said that, in the Sombor of the Hapsburg era, a Becksi Skolovan person spoke German, Hungarian, and Serbian, the better to communicate with his fellow citizens in their native tongues.”—Alexander Billinis
Roaming East Roman
By Alexander Billinis
CHICAGO Illinois (Weekly Hubris)—August 2017—In 2016, my family and I exchanged a world resembling a peaceable, variegated mosaic for one of hard, harsh, primary colors, each bordered (when possible) by sturdy walls. In looking at our future, all this year and last, I have sought solace, and wisdom, from the past. As a student of history, I am aware, at least intellectually, that progress is rarely linear, and periods of openness and tolerance are often—usually—followed by times of retrenchment and fear. It had been the height of 21st-century arrogance—exacerbated by my American sense of uniqueness—that I had not (in my lifetime) perceived the truly circular nature of “progress.”
Faced with “the recent unpleasantness” we’re weathering in my birth-nation, I’ve been thinking back to a time, several years ago, when we lived in Serbia.
Waiting in line at the Diskont (Discount) Market in Sombor, among two-meter-high towers of beer, juice, wine, and sodas, purchasing our weekly fruit drinks and beer, I overheard a conversation. The elderly lady ahead of me in line asked her daughter a question—in Hungarian.
When I chimed in, also in Hungarian, all eyes were on me. Hungarian is common enough in my wife’s hometown, where about a quarter of the population is Hungarian. And many Serbs (though the number is shrinking) do speak Hungarian, but it is hardly to be expected from a Greek-American!
The check-out lady, bright-eyed and with arms sculpted from lifting many, many beer cases (often enough, for burly male customers!) just laughed and said, “Pa tako je nas grk, Becki Skolovan gospodin,” or, “That’s ‘our’ Greek, a ‘Vienna-Schooled’ gentleman.”
Vienna-Schooled, eh? The ultimate compliment!
I left, beaming. The woman had made my day. My arms still loaded with beer and fruit juice, I rushed into our house to share the story with my wife. Vilma of course knew the phrase from the Austro-Hungarian era, when it was used to describe an individual who was cultivated and cosmopolitan; educated in the capital. This “Vienna” need not have been the analog Vienna or Paris, London, Rome, or New York; rather, the term connoted a state of mind, combined with education, which made the individual open to the world and respectful of the rich mix of cultures and citizens (of many states) around him.
It was the attitude of an old Hungarian doctor in Sombor who told me that a true Somborac (citizen of Sombor), when he hears a church bell, knows what church is celebrating what holiday. (He encompassed, in his axiom, the town’s Orthodox and Catholic residents, as well, and a smattering of its Protestants and Jews.)
And it was an elderly Serbian who said that, in the Sombor of the Hapsburg Era, a Becksi Skolovan person spoke German, Hungarian, and Serbian, the better to communicate with his fellow citizens in their native tongues.
No doubt, similar sentiments were expressed, in a variety of languages, in Alexandria, Smyrna, Istanbul, and elsewhere in the 19th century, where a culture of mutual respect and tolerance so often prevailed. Often enough, it was the Vienna-Schooled of the world who strove to protect the civic culture of acceptance against those from within—as well as from without—who would destroy it.
I believed until quite recently, “in my necessary optimism,” and as the father of young children, that the world would belong, increasingly, to the Vienna-Schooled. After all, I am an American, a citizen of the world’s greatest mosaic, and I had no reason to believe that, in a world so globalized, in a nation so utterly diverse and diversifying, that my world view was somehow on the “wrong” side of history.
I failed, of course, to appreciate fully what the truly Vienna-Schooled have always known.
At the same time as Sombor Serbs studied in Vienna, hobnobbing with Germans, Jews, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Croats, Czechs, and Slovenes, another student from the Empire’s German heartland was learning something rather different: hatred of the most racist, putrid type. A few decades later, after the empires were swept away by World War I, and the Depression stunted weakened polities, this other Vienna-Schooled individual, Hitler, put all Europe to the sword.
It seems, then, that tolerance and bigotry will always exist side by side; as neighbors. The difference between the two boils down to respect for oneself and for the-self-in-the-other. This, combined with education, makes the difference between the Vienna-Schooled who respect the mosaic and those who would shatter it. Send your children to the proper Vienna School. You know its address in your heart.
To buy Alexander Billinis’s latest book, The Eagle Has Two Faces: Journeys Through Byzantine Europe, or Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, click on the book covers below: