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In the Land of Dreams, a Few Surprises

L.A. is friendly, Hungarians say. Hollywood, however, is a disappointment--until a 'star' is discovered.

July 01, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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