Freedom. It’s a word you’ll hear a lot of this year, bandied about so often it’ll be surprising if no political entrepreneur goes out and gets it trademarked before the election cycle ends. To many of us, freedom is a given, a fact of life, even a slogan. But to Eva Vecsernyes – native of Hungary, single mother of two, eleven-year resident of Astoria, and, as of last month, fully-naturalized citizen – freedom is the operating principle of her life, the thing that informs everything she does.
“I am a very bullheaded person!” Eva smilingly exclaims. “I don’t like being told what to do too much!” Which is not, as you might imagine, the most comfortable attitude for a child growing up in Communist Hungary. “There, I was told how to live my life. I like to live my life on my own terms – I understand there are rules to be followed but this is my life, I only have one. I don’t need my government telling me how I should live, where I should work, what I should read, what I should watch on television. I am entitled to choose my own life, as a human being.”
And choose she did. Just after eighth-grade graduation, fourteen-year-old Eva hopped a plane to Alaska and immediately found emancipation – not to mention extreme culture shock. “Culture shock? You’d better believe it! I come from a country that was technologically – not necessarily behind but kept back. I mean, they’re just finally getting color television! Come on! So you come from that to a place that has washers and dryers … you’re going, ‘what’s a dryer? What’s a microwave? What’s an automatic door?’ I didn’t know what to make of it all!”
If major appliances take some getting used to, imagine being confronted with a whole world of cultural referents undreamt of in a Hungarian teen’s philosophy. “The movie Alien was not allowed in Hungary, for example – the government considered it ‘too violent’ so it was banned. I remember my aunt protesting to have it shown and getting into a lot of trouble for it. Certain movies were kept out of the country, there were certain books you could not read, and all pornography was completely illegal… so when I came here and saw how freely available it was, I was in complete shock! To suddenly have all that in my face as a fourteen-year-old girl – to go from it being illegal to being everywhere…”
Cultural liberties are one thing, but Eva soon discovered that oppression is not just a product forged behind the Iron Curtain. “My ex-husband is a native Alaskan. I remember going to a potluck in his village, and the first thing they said when we got there is ‘no white women allowed’ and I had to leave. Have I come across people who tell me ‘go back to your own country?’ Sure, but that’s just the bigots. Who cares? But to come across such a united front like that – that was very shocking. It’s such a drastic life in Alaska in many ways.” Freedom called again; she divorced and, with children Victoria (now nineteen) and Jonathan (seventeen) in tow, “bummed around” the lower 48 for a while. “I was in Arizona for a little bit, then Texas, and eleven years ago, I came here for two days and haven’t left yet!
“Astoria got to me,” she says. “There’s a lot of neo-classical architecture here, everything’s a little bit older, and there’s a real sense of history, which is one of the things I miss about Hungary. And the weather is almost the same! People are very open-minded around here; I’ve been made to feel very welcome, the local families treat my children like one of their own. We were assimilated into the community very quickly. I do get some people telling me ‘learn to speak English,’ because my accent gets heavy when I get a little upset… well, live with it! It’s beautiful here – I really don’t want to leave!”
And now, she’ll never have to – just three weeks before we spoke, Eva made it official: she is now a full-blown citizen of the USA. “Anybody who’s afraid of it, don’t be! It’s the easiest test I ever took! They give you a study guide for a hundred questions, and they say they’ll ask you up to ten. I got asked four – who is the President, who is the Speaker of the House, if I’m willing to bear arms for the United States, and… there was one more question that honestly I’ve already forgotten! Then they asked me to read one sentence, write one sentence and that was it. It was really simple – I went into study mode like a crazy woman for two months for nothing!” And what’s different now that she’s officially American? “I can bitch in public now!”
But if you think that means she’s settled, think again. “My son’s going off to college in the fall so after that, I’m a free bird! I would like to go back to school and get my Master’s in literature, but at the same time I just want to pack up and go somewhere – I’ve never seen Africa, never seen Asia. Nothing’s really holding me back, so why not? I’ve been a daughter, I’ve been a wife, I’ve been a mother, it’s time to be me. But Astoria feels like home, it does. I can’t say I won’t flutter, but I’ll always fly back.”