Internet Kalauz, 12/1999

From Budapest to Hollywood

[eMail conversation between Anikó J. Bartos and Andrea Wesselenyi]

Translation of 12/1999 interview published in Hungary's leading cyber-issues magazine:


While surfing at GeoCities two years ago, I discovered the web site of Aniko J. Bartos. In those days, it was very rare to find an interactive personal web page, and Aniko's site far surpassed the ones I had seen up to that time. On this "magically" good site, a "cyber-soothsayer" offered a variety of online services in English: I Ching, Tarot cards, Astrology, Zodiac numbers, PLUSLotto, Palmistry, and even a personal Biorhythm reading. It seemed likely that an impossibly-clever webmistress was behind all this, and of course I was curious about the owner of such an interesting, entertaining and professionally designed web site. I sent her an enthusiastic eMail, and to my surprise the answer arrived not from an American guru, but from a Budapest address, in Hungarian:

I appreciate your praising words, but I must truly confess that creating this project was a joint effort, to such an extent that I just "loaned" my name to the web site, and to the information and work which went into it. This accomplishment should be credited to my distant friend, because the site was his gift to me! Alan is an American who lives near Los Angeles, in Glendale. We "met" through the Internet nearly a year ago, and we've been in daily contact via eMail. I've come to know him as a fantastic person, with extraordinary sensitivity, who writes screenplays. I can thank my tiny English knowledge for our correspondence, and for the wonderful feelings which have blossomed inside me.

From Aniko's words, it appeared likely that another tale of Internet love might surface. And after two years' silence, her next eMail - this time from America - confirmed this suspicion:

Hi Andrea! There's a double reason for this latest message, and I wanted you to know about these two happy events. First, my personal meeting with Alan has finally taken place. I am now at his house in Los Angeles and we are happy together!

9tzThe second is this: our book has been published and it's now available at Amazon.com, among other places. It describes the first three months of our connection, and the process of writing a screenplay called "The Fall In Budapest" through the Internet, from which a Hollywood film will hopefully be made. More detailed information can be found at our 9TimeZones.com web site - this is also the book's title.


Many online and real-world publications have featured information about this American-Hungarian eMail coproduction - among them, Wired magazine. Alan has already written several articles which relate his experiences and thoughts about their shared work on the Internet. Now we'll show the Hungarian side of this story, through the following interview with Aniko, conducted via eMail, of course:

Aniko, if we can go back to these events, you met Alan on the Internet exactly three years ago. What were you looking for, and more specifically, how did you meet him in cyberspace?

In 1996, I worked at a company which had direct Intranet and Internet connections with branch offices all over the world. While learning how to use the web, I looked at many different pages, eventually discovering a site which contained personal ads. The top line, which included the following English-language description, caught my eye:

"182 cm tall, athletic, blond hair, blue eyes, 45 years old, non-smoker, divorced American man searches for correspondents worldwide."

I had to smile about this announcement, because I felt that I was exactly the opposite (with the exception of my smoking and marital status) to him: short, unathletic, brown hair, etc. On a whim, I composed a reverse portrait, writing about myself as if I were a caricature of his ad. Although I sent this eMail, I didn't really expect any reply.


Do you know why Alan chose to answer you, among all the responses?

Alan said that he received many messages, but most of these people were not accustomed to the demands of an active correspondence, and that was critical to him. He couldn't really know whether or not I enjoyed writing, but because he had warm memories of a two-day visit to Budapest some years earlier, he thought it might be interesting to make friends with a Hungarian lady.

So his answer arrived, and in a short time you were both exchanging eMails every day, resulting in a several-hundred-page book. What prompted you to write so many messages?

At first, I was quite surprised to receive a reply. When I immediately sent a response back to him, his answer again arrived within 24 hours. In this way, days came and went with the rhythm of our eMails. At the beginning, our curiosity moved us to know more and more about each other. With small steps, as message followed upon message, we could become closer and closer to the other person. After awhile, our writing was spiced with jokes and wordplay, even though we also exchanged opinions on very serious topics.

So we might say that each eMail gave birth to the next. And during this process, it could be seen that we were both touched not only by the enjoyment provided by the writing, but also by the consistent arrival of each response, at the same time every day. It gave both of us a kind of secure feeling. If one person promised something to the other (for example, expanding the discussion of a topic in the next eMail), it was crucial to do this exactly. After awhile, we built the trust which is truly important not only in cyberspace, but in all areas of life.


After knowing each other for just a little while, matters took a significant turn when Alan proposed a writing partnership, to put some events from '56 into a screenplay. Please describe the origins of this idea.

It amazed me when Alan asked about '56, because I never thought that an American, 10,280 km away, would know anything about what happened at that time in Hungary, let alone have an interest in discussing it. He had just sent me one of his short stories, The Last Lesson, which is a touching remembrance of his father, and his writing impressed me a great deal. So I also tried to pick the freshest flowers from my garden of childhood memories, to place in our growing bouquet. While I was wrapped up in writing about the events which I could still see with the eyes of a 5-year-old girl, I never thought, even for a moment, that my recollections would have such a powerful effect on Alan. His reply was full of enthusiasm, partly because of my "talent," and partly because he thought my memories would be valuable to share with other people, especially Americans. So we decided to try writing a screenplay together.

This started some intensive eMail exchanges which are quite entertaining, but they also appeared to be hard work for both of you. How did all of this happen?

The three scriptwriting months were extraordinarily satisfying. In spite of the distance, it seemed like we were always together. After finishing a new scene or part of one, Alan would send the text to me immediately, and sometimes many eMails were exchanged during one day. We frequently 'disagreed' about the development of new scenes, and Alan's argument was sometimes the winner, but at other moments my ideas looked stronger, and he modified the script accordingly. It was always so touching when my words could again "say hello" to me, in his next eMail. These messages bring back very sweet memories, as do our telephone conversations. When we passed certain milestones in the script, Alan called me unexpectedly, so that we could personally share each other's joy.

How did the two of you divide the work - did you write any scenes alone, or were you just a technical advisor?

My separate "work" was only in one area - the cemetery scene. Alan carefully modified only my English grammar, so the scene wouldn't lose my poetry, as he calls it. I was very active in helping to choose our locations, because all the action takes place in Hungary. Our arguments became quite significant when we tried to reconcile the characters with their dialogue. We wanted both Hungarian and American audiences to feel comfortable in identifying with them. Each of us became a staunch advocate for the tastes of our respective culture. And Alan tried to represent the wishes of a future producer, by frequently reminding me that our story needed a happy ending, Hollywood's basic requirement. :-)

So, what lies ahead for "The Fall In Budapest"? Do you really think a film will be made from it?

It was registered and copyrighted, as is customary in America. After that, like worried parents trying to smooth the path for their tiny child, we entered the little one in several screenplay contests. It received two honors, first becoming a quarterfinalist in one competition (1997 Writers Network), then being named as one of the five finalists in another (SCRNWRiT First Draft Script Writing Contest - you can read the story at MovieBytes.com). Several producers have expressed serious interest in the script, but in Hollywood it is vital to wait for the right moment before making a final decision.

How did you live during the months of actual script writing - what happened in your lives at that time?

I was completely preoccupied with thoughts of the script and of Alan. After work, I became impatient to arrive at home, where I would immediately start to write. During this period, other things ceased to exist for me, so I missed the Certified Public Accountant exams, which took place at the same time. I had to choose - Alan didn't know anything about this - the exams or the script. And I chose the script. Some people might view this as an irresponsible decision, but after nearly 30 years of obligations (child rearing and buying a home, while earning my living as a single mother), I felt that perhaps one decision could be made which wasn't contrary to my heart's desire. Alan found out about this choice only after several months, and he was very proud that I had chosen the script and him.

What importance did you ascribe to this project? And was it a chore, a diversion, or a test for you?

It was a totally new experience, not only because of the unique opportunities presented by the Internet, but also because I could experiment in a completely new area, which had always felt paradoxically familiar - the world of writing. Between the lines of our creative work, of course, we were both aware that we received a lot of information about the other person, and because of this, we were able to feel quite close to each other. As we spoke about the characters in our script, and formed their personalities, each of us began to feel comfortable with our new friend. At the same time, we revealed a lot about our own personalities.

I've read the book, and its first section contains the diary-like letters which Alan wrote to you, while the second part consists of the completed script, so your relationship can be seen only from his perspective. Why aren't your eMails included in this book?

I learned English some years ago (mainly by myself), but it was used only on rare occasions, so my knowledge was very passive. At the beginning of our correspondence, many hours were necessary to draft an answer which contained only 8-10 sentences. I was hidden inside my dictionary, spending hours looking for the correct words and phrases. And despite all this effort, my English usage certainly wasn't Oxford-level. So that's why it is difficult to find direct evidence of me in this book; my eMails would need a total rewrite, to allow an English-speaking audience to enjoy them. Even my current language level isn't the best, and Alan feared that if he changed my words into standard English, my personality would have disappeared from them. We believe that Alan's narrative allows the other person's feelings and thoughts to be seen and felt. Even though this concept originated with him, I like the style very much.

Did any expectations grow in you, after seeing how much time and attention Alan was paying to you from such a great distance?

It seemed like I had a rendezvous every day, waiting for his eMails, and it was a very pleasant feeling. However, a small part of my mind considered the possibility that our connection might suddenly stop, at any time, so one thought remained strong: to protect myself against a possible disappointment. Although I received his complete attention, I suspected that this script was the reason. To tell the truth, I wasn't completely sure about what would happen when we finished writing. In spite of our trust for each other, I believe that any partners in these kinds of situations must remain cautious, to avoid torturing themselves later.

Alan surely felt a lot of attention coming from you, because the language difficulties required such a large amount of energy for each of your communications.

No, at first he was unaware that I expended so much time and energy on my replies. But after a month, when I started sending eMails from my new home Internet connection (before that, I composed responses on a disk at night, then posted them from my workplace the next morning), he finally saw that I was staying up very late, from the header times on my responses. He was always grateful that we could have discussions in his language, but when he found out that it was not a simple task for me, our friendship became much more valuable to him.

How much did your English improve, with Alan's help?

At the beginning, I worked hard to understand him - but luckily, he tried to express himself with simple words - and when he used complicated expressions, he always "enclosed" an explanation in parentheses (this might seem like a small courtesy, but it tells a lot about him). And while the reading was heavy work for me, the writing was even more difficult. But in the end, all of this was entertaining and gave me great joy. After some weeks had passed, my transactions with the dictionary became much less busy. A few months later, when we spent several hours on IRC every Saturday evening, I didn't need the dictionary at all. So perhaps the answer is now obvious: I have Alan to thank for my present English knowledge.

After a time, your connection became very intense. Didn't you miss the personal contact?

It seems natural that after one gets to know the "spirit-character" of another, a desire for face-to-face communication will soon grow. At the beginning, we tried to address this "question" by sending pictures, but perhaps we only increased the desire for a personal encounter. To tell the truth, Alan was somewhat afraid of a meeting. His divorce left him with painful wounds, and he dreaded risking another disappointment, so I respected his unexpressed feelings and fears. I didn't want to push too hard for a meeting, because the life experiences which we gain by force can never provide lasting happiness.

When was it finally decided that you would travel to see him?

Close to the end of last year, during one of our IRC sessions, the topic of a meeting again arose, and to my happy surprise, Alan thought that the time had arrived at last! So we planned that I would visit Los Angeles for two or three weeks, during my summer vacation.

What memories do you have of the meeting day?

After an 18-hour flight, I arrived from Ferihegy Airport to LAX, where Alan and I nearly missed each other. I remember standing alone on the street, with my luggage cart, thinking that the time had come to "panic," when I saw a bearded person running toward me from afar. It was him: my American had a gift package in his hand and a happy smile on his face. After giving me a hand-kiss, he couldn't seem to stop, so he also hugged me and placed a sweet, easy kiss on the top of my head. When we later arrived at his home, a wonderful bouquet of red roses was waiting patiently in life-giving water, and their presence told me the words which had been left unsaid: "I love you, Aniko!"

During the car ride home, we discussed the "problem" surrounding my arrival, but it was not so easy to understand, because my attention was distracted by all the hustle-bustle and strange buildings and unusual houses and enormous number of cars and myriad freeway levels. I finally learned that there had been a misunderstanding, and Alan was forced to run several kilometers just to reach the place where I had arrived. Later, he told me that the mad dash was very worthwhile, because he could see from a distance that his Hungarian partner was even more wonderful in person than she had appeared in the photos. :-)


How did you prepare yourselves for this personal meeting?

Alan made a simple plan, with champagne, roses and chocolate cigars. And after 18 hours of exhausting travel, I gamely tried to look attractive by presenting a reasonably pleasant expression. But seriously, we didn't expect anything special from each other - we knew that our meeting might result in a deep connection, or just a simple friendship. In either case, our lives would still be enriched.

How do you feel there, and how do you spend your days?

Alan has a lovely condo in Glendale, about 10 km from Hollywood. After I had been here for a week, he offered - asked - that if we both felt the same way, I should probably stay here with him. And for the last three months, we've enjoyed the many wonders of life which this sunny, smiley, and for me, still a bit exotic, Los Angeles can give. We often go hiking, and visit many interesting places in the area (Hsi Lai Buddhist temple, the desert near Twenty-Nine Palms, etc.). We eat great food (even at the Drive-Thru Donut) and our personalities have slowly become smoothed to each other. During all this, we've also been working to set up our future.

Los Angeles is a very interesting town. Strictly speaking, one must imagine not just one town, but a chain of towns. And Hollywood is merely another part of this huge urban sprawl - it's a strange feeling to see all the big film studio names in one area. I'm very lucky, because some of Alan's friends work in show business, so I've been able to observe how various entertainment programs are produced. We were given VIP seats at Jay Leno's show, and that was a fascinating experience. Many people arrive from all parts of the country, only to wait in a line for several hours, perhaps all day, just for the chance to attend this free studio taping.


Do the two of you plan to visit Hungary together?

We are full with plans and dreams, and we hope very much to make some of them come true. Alan would like to meet my family during this next year, so we plan to travel after the winter is over, when our script's locations can display their amazing summer appearance. Until that time, we are making every effort so that more and more readers will know about this book, and the pleasant pastime which it could hopefully bring. We also have faith that the script will eventually arrive in the hands of the right producer, so that this movie might appear on a screen, showing all the wonders in Budapest which we have envisioned.

Links related to the article:
Aniko and Alan's book home page: 9TimeZones.com
Alan and Aniko's book at Amazon.com

[Anikó and Alan celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary in June, 2011.]
Here: http://a.9TimeZones.com/kalauz.htm
Back to Anikó's home page: http://a.9TimeZones.com