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A taste of plums in Hungary

THE plums, in particular, were delicious -- dark, juicy, dead-ripe. She put them into a crinkled paper bag extracted from a corner of an old baby carriage, which also held tomatoes, apricots, green peppers, grapes, and a dark green fruit we didn't recognize. Her apron was stained a half-dozen colors; her feet were bare and faintly plum-colored. Having no idea how much we owed her, we handed her some forints; they must have sufficed, for she smiled and bobbed her head with enthusiasm. To be fair, we bought tomatoes from her friend and rival sitting three feet away. Observing this, she berated us good-naturedly with an unintelligible stream of words to the effect: ``So my tomatoes aren't good enough for you, eh?''

We hesitated a moment, wishing we could ask questions, wishing we had an excuse for lingering, then walked away. Twenty yards later I elbowed my friend: ``Why don't you ask them if we could take a picture of them?''

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He walked back with a grin and raised eyebrows, pointing to the camera and then to them. They sat still, unprotesting. After taking the picture we fled, flushed with the self-consciousness of tourists who have given themselves away.

We wandered the streets like amateur detectives, avidly noticing evidence of normality, examining the faces of the people we passed by for a moment longer than necessary as if searching for a question to ask. Every detail of life in this small Hungarian town seemed charged with significance, every person a clue. A clue to what? We would have found it difficult to say had we been asked. But it had brought us here, to the other side.

It was a Sunday morning, and soon people began to emerge from the town's two large churches. Bells echoed through quiet streets lined with flower boxes. Age appeared to dictate dress: those less than about 50 years old, many of them workers in the local electronics, wine, and textile industries, wore bright-colored, Western-style clothing. Those older than 50 dressed more traditionally: flared pants and pointed dark, blue caps for the men, head shawls and black skirts for the women. Past and present mingled on the now-busy streets.

In the town park, parents pushed strollers around a pond, talking softly. A young woman sunbathed and read a book on a bench. Two teen-age girls, still dressed for church, giggled as they passed us on the path. Children swung on play sets while men gathered at a nearby outdoor caf'e and talked animatedly.

Our feelings seesawed. At one moment we felt vague disappointment at the lack of discernible difference between these people and ourselves -- after all, hadn't we come to satisfy our curiosity about the other side, to see for ourselves an essential difference behind the Iron Curtain? The next moment the same realization buoyed us.

A boy ran his bicycle through a puddle again and again, legs extended, mouth open in delight. Strange were the stereotyped images we realized we had imported: dim notions that children did not play, that church bells did not ring, that Sunday would be a day like any other day.

The two old ladies, barefoot, sun-dried, stare enigmatically from the photograph. I cannot look at them without wanting to keep venturing across borders -- the mundane ones that can be crossed by train, and the more confining, more powerful, more insidious ones in our heads. The taste of plums returns, tantalizingly, like the whisper of a riddle.

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