Oppenheim: Trailside Insights

Jan 9, 2019

It was the first day of winter and the sun was out. My wife Susan and I took our dog Noel for a hike up Mt. Philo. Noel, ever the social animal, kept going up to one couple, and that opened up a conversation. When I heard their accent, I asked if they were from Montreal. No, they said, they were Hungarians visiting from New York.

I should point out – we couldn’t really see their faces. We were all bundled up with parkas and sunglasses. Still, within moments, we felt a connection – and learned their story as we strolled down the mountain road together.

His name is Robert. He came to New York from Hungary in 1996. His fiancé, Nori, came in 2010. They live in Queens – and have a bunch of different jobs. For Robert, that means occasionally driving a yellow cab, which he doesn’t much like.

We didn’t get all the details, but the picture that emerged was two people who strive to make ends meet - and save up their money to travel. In fact, Robert has travelled a lot, more than your average American.

Robert consumes news intensely, and talked politics. I expected him to be more condemning of Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, but rather, Robert said he wasn’t surprised that a strongman would emerge in uncertain economic times. Robert also said he doesn’t much like New York, and yearns to live in a place more like Vermont.

Nori was more wistful. She misses her country, and wishes they could return, but Robert, not so much. The U.S. is where he’s spent his entire adult life – and despite the Hungarian sound of his voice, he is in many ways American.

It wasn’t lost on me that, as we were having this conversation, our government had shut down centered on a dispute about building a wall to keep immigrants out – an argument, I would say, based on fear and xenophobia.

Those thoughts were in the back of my mind as we said good-bye, because Robert and Nori, in their striving and uncertain lives, reminded me of something basic.

We are a country of immigrants, made only stronger when newcomers join the American experiment.