In the Land of Dreams, a Few Surprises


Laszlo Szentivanyi saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time last week. Gazing out at its chilly swells, he felt the same wonder he felt nine years ago when he first set foot in New York City. And again he wept. "I still cannot believe it," he says, "for so many years it was an impossibility, to see America. And now I have seen New York City and the Pacific Ocean."

For Szentivanyi, 57, and his wife, Zsuzsanna Ulrich, 42, a five-day tour of Los Angeles is more than just another trip, it's a reminder of how much their lives have changed in the last 10 years. Hungarians, they both remember vividly the bleak years under Communism, when travel was limited to one monthlong trip to Western Europe every three years. "And then we were only allowed to take $70 out of the country," Szentivanyi says. The United States? "Impossible," he says. "We were not allowed to go. And anyway, no one had any money. You didn't even think about it, you didn't even let yourself dream."

Although it became the Republic of Hungary in 1989, it was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later that Hungarians were allowed to travel to the U.S. In 1992, Szentivanyi and Ulrich were on a plane to New York. This trip, which also includes stops in Sacramento and Las Vegas, is their fourth visit to this country.

"We love it here," says Szentivanyi, whose blue eyes are made all the brighter by his summer tan. He is speaking German to his American host, who then translates his words to English. "In my country, in the small villages, people will say hello, but in the big cities, everyone is very cold, very distant. Here, the people are," he points to his smiling face, waves his hand. "It is very different."

He and his wife, both watchmakers, live in Pecs, Hungary's fifth-largest city, which is south of Budapest near the Croatian border. "For us, it is a big city," says Szentivanyi, laughing, "Two hundred thousand people. Here, that is nothing."

The couple arrived in Los Angeles on June 23 with 18 other Pecs natives as part of a Friendship Force exchange. The program, headed by Chip Carter, son of former President Carter, coordinates group trips throughout the world. Participants, dubbed "ambassadors," spend part of their time with host families--Szentivanyi and Ulrich are staying in Santa Monica with Eva and Herb Hain. (Herb is a part-time copy editor for the Los Angeles Times.) There are many group excursions--on their first full day, they all attended a summer solstice festival in Malibu, and the next day toured Universal Studios--but today is a free day, and the Hains have begun it by taking their guests, who are both Catholic, to San Gabriel Mission.

The morning is summer white but still cool as they wander through the dusty gardens, admiring the succulents and cactuses. Szentivanyi points to a sprawling, flowering cactus and mimes a smaller version. They have the same kind in their garden at home, he says; it was just beginning to bloom when they left. The church, with its Spanish polychrome wooden statues of the Blessed Mother and various saints, is admired, as are the venerable grapevines that rise like trees along the paths beside the church, covering the latticed arbor in thick leaves from which bunches of pearl-size green grapes hang.

In German, Hain explains the various highlights: the aqueduct; the tallow vats, which Szentivanyi then translates into Hungarian for Ulrich, a pretty blond who speaks a little English but no German. Stroking the walls of river rock, the couple nod and smile and stop for a snapshot or two. When told that this mission is considered very old by Los Angeles standards, Szentivanyi laughs, then translates for his wife, who laughs as well.

The cathedral in Pecs, he says, is 600 years old; his parents live in a house that has stood for a century. "Two hundred years," he says, holding up his hand, his finger and thumb measuring off a not very great space, "is not so much."

Their next stop is Griffith Observatory, where the day is gathering heat, the sun shining silver against the smog. The couple is thrilled by the sight of the Hollywood sign--the pair are very much looking forward to visiting Hollywood, which is next on the agenda. In Hungary, Szentivanyi says several times during the morning, it is considered the land of dreams. The Hains shake their heads. "We've warned them," Eva says. "I think they are prepared," Herb says.

Eating sandwiches and potato chips at the snack bar, Szentivanyi and Ulrich share photos of their home in the suburbs of Pecs, of their splendid black German shepherd, Nero, of their adorable grandchildren, of their extended families, of Szentivanyi's father and mother. In this last photo, she is stirring an enormous pot of something. What is it? "Goulash," he says, adding in English, "of course."

Then he asks whether he may talk about politics for a moment. He points out that Hungary has been a member of NATO for two years, of the European Union for two years, but still he and his wife had to get a visa to visit the United States, whereas Americans visiting Hungary need no visa. "It is not fair," he says, ending the discussion of politics.

All tourist roads lead to Mann's Chinese Theatre, which is the next destination. So many visitors have unrealistic expectations of Hollywood--they don't know that it is more an attitude that infuses this city rather than a specific place.

And leading them down the bumpy corridor of Hollywood Boulevard, a soft-hearted Angeleno invariably looks around in despair, willing magic and glamour from the T-shirt stores and fast-food stands, hoping that certain buildings--the El Capitan, the Roosevelt--stand out more than they seem to, that the new entertainment center is not as hideous as first thought. There is no denying that it looks better than it has, but Szentivanyi and Ulrich share that disappointment-strained smile that marks so many first-time visitors to the boulevard.

Still, there is something unflaggingly exciting about seeing all those famous hand and footprints, all those breathless thank-yous captured in concrete.

The Chinese is an American chakra--a center of power and insight, where hearing the words "John Wayne" repeated admiringly in 17 accents in five minutes says more about the universality of human experience than any political exhortation.

In an effort, perhaps, to sweeten the bitter reality of Hollywood, Hain goes on a search for Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Hungarian actress has no concrete square, he learns, although he does find director Adolph Zukor, who is also Hungarian. "But it's not the same," he says, sighing.

Szentivanyi and Ulrich suddenly call out what is clearly a greeting--they have spotted a man and a woman from their group, who, by their faces, are also a bit puzzled by this place.

"It is nice," Szentivanyi explains politely after their friends leave, "and perhaps we haven't seen enough yet. But I thought it would be something different. That there would be big buildings, many theaters and the studios. I didn't know people lived here, that there would be stores. It is nice," he says again, "just not what we thought."

Suddenly, one of their friends, the woman, hurries toward them, touches Ulrich's arm, says something quickly in Hungarian, and the two begin moving away. Szentivanyi follows, saying something in German to Hain, who also follows.

"They've found Zsa Zsa," he says. "She has a star."

Standing dutifully for the picture, Szentivanyi and Ulrich smile brightly. While perhaps not in the emotional category of New York or the Pacific Ocean, it is something. After all those years, a fellow Hungarian right here in the land of dreams.

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