Last weekend my wanderings in search of Christmas presents led me from the plenty of Vörösmarty tér to the less salubrious underpass at Blaha Lujza tér. The former’s festive atmosphere, however, was somewhat undermined by the perfectly audible and highly un-Christmas-like playing of pan pipes to electronic backing, by a south-American dressed in a feather head-dress, just a few metres away from the square. The strains of something resembling Flight of the Condor mixed uneasily with the aroma of mulled wine and the nativity scene. My meanderings finally led me to Blaha Lujza tér. I think this square has now superseded Moszkva tér as the seediest among those in the centre of the city, full of the homeless, alcoholics, and a disturbing number of people who could be mentally unstable or drug addicts – or both.Yet here, surrounded by men huddled in blankets sitting under graffiti-scrawled walls, and cutting through the stench of urine and pálinka, came the wonderful strains of carols being played by the Salvation Army brass band! Every other allusion to the Season was absent, but here its spirit was alive and well!
The truly English Christmas, as most people know, is heavily based on that of Victorian England and a dash of Hollywood: a mixture of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Irving Berlin’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It is characterised by sparkling decorations, piles of attractively-wrapped presents, carol singers collecting money for charity, mulled wine, brass bands playing in frosty squares, the hustle and bustle of excited preparations, and most of all, an atmosphere of jollity, laughter, light-heartedness, warmth and giving. The troubles of everyday life are left behind for the duration of the festivities – no room here for long faces or misery, whatever one’s individual circumstances.
I have had to conclude, based on three decades of experience, that Hungarians don’t ‘do’ jolly….Above, is the advertisement to be seen all around Budapest for three classic films, now available on DVD – presumably being advertised at the present time as potential Christmas presents. (The titles are: Shadows on the Snow; Long Twilight; The Next Day). Were such films to exist, it is inconceivable that anyone would deem the Festive Season appropriate to sell them. No-one would dream of bestowing such a gift for Christmas, even on their worst enemy! I can only reiterate: A MerryChristmas to one and all!
In September, the beginning of term for students everywhere (including the Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia), I wrote about this venerable institution. The Liszt Academy will be closed for an estimated two years, while it is totally renovated.
I promised to update readers as to where the present occupants of the building would be moving to: everyone from piano technicians and symphony orchestras who play and rehearse there, to the student instrumentalists and their teachers, as well as the Academy’s important library.
The Dean of the Academy informed those students who ventured to ask at the Opening Ceremony in September, just where they would be having their lessons from January, that they would be informed “at the appropriate time.”
The Liszt Ferenc Zenemüvészeti Egyetem will close its doors in three days, on 18th December. There is still no news…..but rumour still has it that they will be occupying the Post Office on Petöfi Sándor utca (pictured above).
In spite of the many obvious differences between Hungary and England, there are of course, many similarities. Both being nominally Christian countries, we share the main festivals of Easter and Christmas.
Christmas is marked in both countries by the excesses of present- buying and an over-indulgence of both food and drink; also the coming-together of family members, which results in varying amounts of tension and stress alongside the joy and warmth. Yet here the similarities seem to end.
In the run-up to Christmas, Hungarians – along with a number of other European nations – celebrate the coming of St. Nicholas on December 6th. Children put polished shoes in window sills, hoping for chocolate, and not the birch twigs which denote a naughty child! In England, however, having long ago abandoned the celebration of saints’ days, St. Nick has been shunted on to Christmas Eve, and December 6th has no significance at all. Similarly, as in much of Europe, presents in Hungary are given and received in the darkness and candlelight on the evening of the 24th December, as opposed to the morning of the 25th as in England.
English shops are already selling crackers and Christmas cards from September, while in Hungary there is barely a sign of the coming festivities until the beginning of December; London’s lights are switched on in Oxford Street at the beginning of November, but the Hungarians are then still visiting the graveyards (November 2nd, All Souls) where their relatives lie, covering their tombs with white chrysanthemums and lighting candles.
All over Britain, artificial trees can already be glimpsed in the sitting rooms of houses from any time late in November, gathering dust, their novelty waning as the weeks pass. In Hungary, several varieties of pine tree can be found in open-air markets around the city, at busy squares and traffic intersections, from the second week of December, and artificial trees are only now being bought by a minority of people. The truly magical atmosphere of Andrássy út, with its hundreds of thousands of tiny white lights in the branches of every tree lining the entire length of the avenue, illuminated from the beginning of December, also contrasts sharply with that of London and its more gaudy decorations.
In Communist times an attempt was made to rid the country of such an obviously Christian festival, and in the 50s the government declared the days to be The Celebration of the Pine Tree - proponents of today’s political correctness might take some inspiration here…. But like all such contrived nonsense, people celebrated as they always had: churchgoers attending midnight mass, others lighting candles and preparing for the family meal on the 24th. The 25th and 26th are, likewise, bank holidays – no rushing to Boxing Day sales, only family visits and more feasting.
One of the year’s busiest shopping days in Britain is the the 24th, Christmas Eve, while in Hungary the morning sees the final, frantic preparations towards the meal and present-giving that takes place after dark, in the afternoon. The tree – which has been kept cold on the balcony or propped up somewhere outside – is brought in and decorated (young children are taken to the cinema by grandparents so that the sight of the decorated tree – traditionally brought by the baby Jesus – is as exciting for children as the presents themselves). By four o’clock public transport has stopped and the city is quiet and peaceful as on no other day of the year. Homes sparkle and shine, the food is almost ready, relatives have arrived dressed in their finest, and after a candle-lit dinner of fish (or more recently, turkey) the gifts are opened. MerryChristmasto all the readers of this blog – however you celebrate it!
Twenty years is a long time – particularly if viewed as half the number of years that Communism dominated the lives of people in this part of the world. Many of the ills bemoaned by those living here - from pollution and poor customer service, to reliance on the state to solve one’s problems, and a poor work ethic - are all ascribed to the evils of the system that cast its shadow on every aspect of people’s lives for four decades. I may not live to see the close of four decades of freedom, but at this halfway stage I can stand and look back at what has been achieved and what is still left to be done: I try to gauge what has been gained and what has been lost.
Leaving Britain in 1982 and heading for a new life in a totalitarian state was greeted with disbelief by family and friends. At the height of the Cold War, they could neither imagine nor believe that anything on the ‘wrong side’ of the iron curtain could be better than what we were voluntarily leaving behind us. Similar perplexity was expressed by Hungarians we came to know in Budapest – surely everything must be better in our home country; was there some ulterior motive for our decision to abandon the Motherland? Try as we might, our explanations on both fronts proved largely fruitless. Our letters from home were opened, Paul’s presence and activities in the Music Academy were monitored, and we overheard British Embassy staff voicing doubts as to our real purpose for coming to the country. It seemed that neither Hungarians nor the British accepted that we might have anything other than suspicious reasons for staying. Quite simply, neither side saw anything but hardship and deprivation in communist Hungary.
It would be foolish to assert there was nothing amiss; great swathes of writing attest to the ills of the system as it was. Many foreigners are at a loss to understand why anyone should feel an ounce of nostalgia for those years of communist dictatorship, and comparatively scant sources exist to counterbalance a decidedly lopsided picture. We found in Hungary a cohesive society where everyone was ‘poor’ (by today’s reckoning) but no-one was destitute. We could all pay our bills without the slightest worry (including the phone bill, if we had one!) Food was plentiful and cheap – if variety was lacking, we nevertheless ate well and without a thought for the cost. Everyone had employment – yes, of course maintained artificially, but it guaranteed an income, an absence of homelessness and a feeling of belonging to the society in which we all lived. The three basics of existence (a roof over one’s head, warmth and food) were supplied at little or no cost. The education system extolled excellence in the form of both grammar schools and vocational training, alongside specialist tuition for anyone with talent in any field from sport to music. The health service had no waiting lists of any sort, and medicines were available at nominal cost. Family life – in the absence of more colourful distractions – remained strong, and friendships thrived in a world where no email or text messaging existed, and where with a dearth of telephones, personal meetings were the usual form of communication. Nursery education from 6 months of age was free, and 3 years’ maternity leave with your job back, was also guaranteed. There was virtually no crime: life was peaceful, and in a society where work was not taken over-seriously, we had a great deal of leisure – the word stress (stressz) then being blissfully non-existent in the language!
And if we could not (easily) buy the latest hi-fi or car, books cost pennies, a ticket to the opera or the cinema was a mere 10 forints, and a restaurant meal with a taxi home was within everyone’s means. The feeling of ‘us’ (ordinary people) and ‘them’ (the Communist Party / Russians) bound even strangers together: all of us living in a system which - through helping one another - could be circumvented or overcome. Those one helped today, could help in turn tomorrow. The result was akin to the camaraderie one reads of in the war.
The abolition of the border opened the proverbial Pandora’s box. The ills we had sought to describe in a vain attempt to rationalise leaving England, such as unemployment, vandalism, a society where the only value put on anything is monetary, homelessness, job insecurity, a fragmenting society where each looked out only for himself (these were the Thatcher years), were suddenly made real. Unfortunately, the dreams Hungarians had cherished: that the country would become the financial equivalent of Austria, have not come to pass. They have acquired the dark side of western living, without the compensations.
I remember in about 1990 – when political jokes were still a part of everyday life – being asked this one: How is Hungary both a communist and a capitalist country? The answer: we have communist wages - and capitalist prices….
I had seen the huge celebrations in Germany: Angela Merkel standing alongside French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: foam dominoes falling, fireworks showering the cheering crowds, and concerts marked the occasion. Gordon Brown commented on “the unbreakable spirit” of those Germans who had dreamt so long of freedom, and said, “Two Germanys were one, and now two Europes are one.” In the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the twentieth anniversary of The Baltic Way was celebrated – when in 1989, more than a million people joined hands across the three countries forming an unbroken chain, and which led to the restoration of independence of these countries. As I watched the giant screen in Prague, counting down the years to that of the momentous happenings of 1989 on the news , I wondered if I had missed something here in Budapest.
Commemoration there was – but celebration…? The opening of the Hungarian border with Austria which took place on August 19th, 1989, and which heralded subsequent events in other Soviet bloc countries, was marked by a visit from Angela Merkel to the spot where it took place. Having grown up in East Germany she must have felt particularly that, ‘What Hungarians did here was very brave.’ October 23rd, the anniversary of the 1956 revolution against the Soviets which was brutally crushed, was also used to commemorate the declaration of the Republic of Hungary declared on that same day, twenty years ago. But there were no street parties, no laser shows and fireworks, no joyous celebration of the long-won freedom Hungarians had craved, and which marked the anniversary in neighbouring countries.
Hungarians are not famous for their upbeat optimism, and it has certainly been in short supply in the last years. Paradoxically, when I first visited the country in 1978, and when we subsequently came to live here in 1982, it was precisely their jovial good humour and ability to laugh in the face of some of the absurdities associated with living in a planned economy, that struck me about Hungarians. They would not, probably, have described themselves as happy; they felt only too keenly the ‘punishment’ of being on the wrong side of the curtain, and longed for the freedom to travel and to have access to the perceived streets of gold they envisaged on the other side of the border. Yet for the most part they accepted the status quo and learnt how to make the best of the situation in which they found themselves, even taking pride in the imaginative ways they found of circumventing rules and regulations to get what they wanted. This in sharp contrast to the oppressive atmosphere we experienced at the same time in the GDR and Czechoslovakia.
I doubt many newcomers to this country would come to the same conclusion now in 2009, some twenty years on. Illusions of dramatically improved living standards and well-being have quickly been replaced by envy of the minority who have – by fair means or foul – achieved monetary success. Disappointment and sourness, feelings of betrayal and having been cheated, can be observed on many a face around the capital. The right to vote in a democratic election offers little solace to those unable to pay their utility bills, far less a foreign holiday. It is hardly any surprise then, that this twentieth anniversary should have been so muted. While it is unarguable that many improvements have been made to buildings and roads, and that life is easier on many levels from dealing with bureaucracy to shopping, the mood is gloomy. Polls show that the majority of Hungarians feel they have not benefitted from the new system, and that the changes have been bad for the country as a whole.
I suspect that those who could have organised more extravagant events to mark the 1989 anniversary, thought better of it.
Budapest’s public transport company (BKV) certainly attracts its fair share of criticism. I would venture to say that the majority of this comes from the indigenous population rather than from visitors or foreigners living in the city, though tourists who have run foul of ticket inspectors for whatever reason, have their own stories to tell.
Having shared my life almost exactly between England and Budapest, I feel able and justified to express my own opinion: It is certainly true that public transport is no longer cheap – I compare it with my first years here when a tram or metro ticket was 1 forint, a bus ticket 1.50 forints (that is, one forint 50 fillér – there were 100 fillér to the forint - the extra to cover the cost of petrol) and a monthly pass 110 forints – this at a time when the state wage was 3,000 HUF. The current price of a monthly pass at 9,400 forints is therefore proportionately higher when taken as a percentage of the current average wage of approximately 130,000 forints. This may account for a strongly held grudge among many people, that somehow public transport should be free – I have been witness to a number of incidents where strong resentment was voiced at the cost of the pass, and where the traveller stated he had no intention whatsoever of purchasing a ticket, far less of paying the fine he had incurred. Clearly, this is nonsense. I have yet to hear of such a place where public transport is provided free. The possibilities for avoiding paying for a ticket obviously vary from one place to another. In London there is no easy way of avoiding paying (considerably more) for your tube or bus through the city. The tubes are, for the most part, shabby, claustrophobic and overcrowded, and frequently the seats are covered with empty drink cans and newspapers. At weekends engineering work can add substantially to one’s journey time entailing long waits and diversions.
Public transport in Budapest is presently free for pensioners, including those from other E.U. countries. Having bought a weekly pass for two visitors from England this summer, I was stopped by an inspector – not (as I expected) to check the validity of our tickets, but to ask the age of my companions, explaining that if they were 65 years old we should return to the ticket office and ask for a refund! Last weekend, by contrast, we were with a friend who lost her ticket, and we had a fairly unpleasant – and totally fruitless – altercation with the inspectors. My annoyance at their refusal to give her the benefit of the doubt, is occasioned by the fact that I see on a daily basis, people who are regular fare-dodgers escaping the 6,000 Forint fine she was forced to pay. Trams and buses are crowded with people who do not buy tickets, but if they are fast enough to run off, big enough to be intimidating, or unwilling to be drawn into any sort of discussion with the inspectors, they are simply permitted to alight at the next stop – where quite obviously they wait for the next tram to continue their journeys. Those – like our friend – who come into none of the aforementioned categories is thus coerced into paying the fine and thereby subsidising those who refuse to pay – along with those of us who buy the ever more expensive monthly pass.
Away from cost, I have to admit to still enjoying the sheer variety of ways I can reach any destination in the city. And I have yet to hear anything but admiration and envy from English visitors who marvel at the frequency at which trams and buses arrive. I also continue to enjoy my travels on the lesser-used trams – as the number 17 – where we are frequently greeted by the driver with, “A very good morning to you!” as he climbs into his cab at the front. Or the occasional eccentrics – often trolley-bus drivers – who regale their passengers with a running commentary on the weather or the state of the roads. The strangest journey I had on a trolley-bus was one evening when, after stopping to allow me on, I not only found I was the only passenger, but that the driver drove past every successive stop ignoring the waiting passengers there! I pressed the button to get off just before the terminus – I wondered if he would stop; he did, but the ride remains a mystery.
Maybe the most unusual journey I did was from the Farkasréti cemetery down to Moszkva tér. The tram was covered in garlands of flowers, festooned over the front window and along both sides of the entire length of the vehicle. When we reached Moszkva tér, people were waiting with more flowers in their arms to bestow on the driver. The reason: he was retiring after some thirty years of completing that same run, and both flower sellers outside the cemetery at one end, and his regular passengers at the other, wanted to show their appreciation.
The launch of my two books Now You See It, Now You Don’t (Hungary 1982-1989) and House of Cards (1989-1996) took place at Treehugger Dan’s Bookshop in Lázár utca on Friday evening, 20th November. Following the usual doubts one might have when planning such an event – that no-one will turn up on a cold, foggy November night at the end of a week’s work - the new worry became whether there would be enough room for everyone! In the event more than one hundred people came, the last was almost stranded in the street unable to force her way in, and the wine was sold out by the end of the evening! The guests were introduced by Miklós Molnár, the publisher of the book, who kept up a humorous dialogue with the audience throughout the evening. A wonderfully erudite talk was given by Péter Pásztor – a former colleague of mine from the days when we both taught in the English department at Pázmány Péter University, and who works as a translator of literature, art history and other books. He also translated my first book into Hungarian. Following this, Caroline Bodóczky talked of her own arrival in Hungary 1966, and related other anecdotes similar to those she had found interesting or amusing in the book. Caroline was the first British person I met in 1983, almost 18 months after we had arrived in Budapest – communications at that time being limited to telegrams and personal meetings, which slowed everything down! It was a great evening, and particularly heartening to see so many old, and not-so-old, friends who had come to support the event, as well as others whom I did not know.
Thanks also to Dan for helping make the evening a success. Books are available in both of his shops – the one in Lázár utca, and that in Csengery utca. Thank you to everyone who came!
The title of my blog is taken from that of my first book about Hungary, published in 1998. When we arrived to live in Budapest in 1982, there were fewer than a dozen British people then resident in the country – all of them married to Hungarians. We knew none of them, and in fact met the first (who herself had arrived in the 1960s!) about eighteen months after we had arrived. As we approached the end of the Communist period, I felt that someone should describe a life that was unimaginable and incomprehensible to all those who had not shared the experience. I turned to the dozen compatriots whose arrival in the country had preceded our own, but none, it seemed, was planning such a venture. Interestingly, there are a number of books about the war years and about 1956, and indeed, learned and scholarly books detailing the history and politics of the era, yet none answered the question we were so often asked: But what’s it like – living in a Communist country?
Now You See It, Now You Don’t was my attempt to rectify this: to describe a way of life which outlawed the use of photocopiers, where no English language newspaper could be had except in an embassy (or occasionally a dollar shop), where only around 10% of people had a telephone, and where there was virtually no contact with the outside world, except via letters that took weeks to get to their destination – if they did at all. There were, of course no computers, no internet, no satellite television – in fact, no television broadcasts at all on Mondays! No tabloid press, no pulp fiction, and the most modern western-made film (which was literally shown for years), was Hair! A country where everyone earned 3,000 forints a month, where a tram ride was 1 forint, a bread roll 30 fillér (100 to the forint), and where a ticket to the opera was 20 forints! No income-tax, road tax or insurance existed; there were no bank accounts, and even buying a flat was done in cash!
There is hardly an item in a present-day supermarket that was available in the 1980s. Occasionally I look around me as I stand in Kaiser’s or Tesco’s and realise that this is indeed the case. Such ordinary items as bananas or oranges were available only at Christmas, and if you were prepared to queue for a good long time. Broccoli, leeks and zucchini were unknown; disposable nappies were unheard of, and such everyday necessities as toilet paper or washing powder were sometimes absent from shops for days or weeks. In fact, there was never any guarantee of finding anything that had not been grown, in season, in this country.
Such information is not the stuff of history books, but (hopefully) gives a much more vivid insight into what it meant to wake up every morning and go to work in a world which has now almost completely disappeared. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that no-one (other than English teachers) could speak two words of the language, meaning we were forced to learn theirs! There was absolutely no way round this!
House of Cards is the sequel which I wrote about five years later. I had not intended to write another volume, but felt compelled to do so as I observed the reality of the dual effects of democracy and capitalism both on Hungary, and its people. For the seven years of living here before the change, we witnessed the almost obsessive desire of Hungarians to travel out of the country, (in extreme instances, to defect) and ideally, to belong to The West. They would accept no criticism of the system we had left behind, whether its unemployment (non-existent in a Communist state), homelessness or poverty. Now we watched as these same phenomena arrived over the border. Confident predictions that Hungary would soon enjoy a standard of living akin to that in Austria, began to fade. Marriages crumbled as loans were secured for houses which lay half-finished for years, their owners’ extravagant plans exceding their means. Subways filled with the homeless, and the threat of unemployment undermined people’s previous security; utility bills and public transport costs increased by leaps and bounds, and some began to question if this was really the Promised Land they had so long awaited.....
These two books are now published in one volume. I look forward to seeing everyone who might be interested in reading them -
Friday, November 20th, at 7.30 p.m. Treehugger Dan’s Bookstore, 16 Lázár utca, Budapest (behind the Opera House) www.treehugger.hu
The postman in Hungary occupies the equivalent position in the social fabric, to the milkman in Britain. And maybe like the milkman, whose role and importance have faded with the dawn of Tetrapak and Tesco’s, he has been superseded by email and a banking system.
In humorous exchanges, the postman has been credited with a motley band of children who somehow do not seem to have inherited the genes of their parents: those who have red hair (when all their family are dark), or who are any kind of family misfit!
This aside, the Hungarian postman of yore adopted a number of roles: the first was as deliverer not only of letters, but bringer of monies. With no banking system before 1989, it fell to him to deliver pension money on the 2nd of each month. The elderly would loiter on the walkways above courtyards, leaning on railings awaiting his arrival; we also waited for sundry payments for translations completed or recordings done. When the cash was handed over, it was customary to share a small amount of one’s earnings with the postie – always a good investment, in view of the fact that the postman had powers far in excess of those the job would normally incorporate.
As the only person guaranteed to make a daily visit to every building, he was uniquely placed to observe any irregularities in the lives of its occupants. For example, when flats were still state-owned and rented by their tenants, conditions for their ‘inheritance’ when the occupier died, were complex. Grandparents made sure their grandchildren were registered as living with them, because in the event that they had failed to do this, the grandchild had no hope of inheriting the right to rent the flat when he would later need to do so. The ‘flat problem’ in communist Hungary, ecplised every other social problem. Those without this possibility could be condemned to fifteen years on a waiting list before being granted their first state flat. Most children – naturally enough – lived with their parents. Visits to grandparents were made with varying degrees of regularity to reinforce the pretence, but the truth could not be hidden from the postman. He would know perfectly well the reality, that no child was living with them, since he chatted to all those to whom he took their pensions. It was probably unlikely he would betray anyone to the authorities, but it did no harm to give him the odd ‘tip’ for money or a parcel brought upstairs to your flat door, just in case….
Our own case was similar when we moved to a flat with a telephone. Applications for telephones also incurred waiting lists of twelve to fifteen years. Moreover, they ‘belonged’ to the tenants of the flat, and could be taken with their owners to any new flat they moved to.
Luckily, the previous owners of our flat did not need to take their phone with them, since their new home already had one – a very rare circumstance. Yet the only way we could prevent this most precious of commodities being confiscated from us and given to the lucky person at the head of the waiting list, was to maintain the pretence that the old owners were still resident in the flat. To this end, we had nothing more to do than take the monthly pay-in slips to the Post Office, and pay the bills. Of course, the postman knew very well the true situation. The old owners had lived there some thirty years, and the postman had obviously had this same round for a similar length of time. Thus, when we moved in, he came up the sixty-odd stairs to introduce himself to us. Having satisfied himself as to what manner of residents we were, he dropped in a casual question regarding the phone. We explained that the old owners were not taking it with them; we would continue to pay the bills. A knowing look passed between us: an unspoken conspiracy.
He arrived some weeks later with a parcel of books for Paul. There was nothing to be paid for this service if the books were posted from within Hungary, and yet I felt I would enquire. ‘No. Nothing to pay,‘ he said, ‘but they are very heavy.’ His meaning was not lost on me. I went to find my purse….
As I look out of the window, the evening is very dark. It is true that the clocks went back a few days ago, exacerbating the feelings of gloom – an event which thirty years ago, took place on the last weekend of September, and not October as it does now. But this is not the reason for the uncustomary blackness. It is that, yet again, the street lights are out along the entire length of the road on which we live. The traffic lights flash amber – giving, perhaps, a shred of hope for the poor souls left to attempt to traverse the road on the zebra. However, all else is blackness.
These occurrences in Budapest are far from rare. What is more, their duration can be days or weeks – especially in the case of traffic lights. I spent five consecutive mornings offering up prayers and sacrifices to the deities as I attempted to manoeuvre my way round a Hősök tere devoid of traffic lights. And when I still used to cross Moszkva tér by public transport I was frankly amazed at the number of instances of traffic-light failure at what must be one of the busiest and most complex road and transport intersections in the city.
In our modern homes full of electrical gadgetry, the frequent short power cuts - which would earlier have passed by unnoticed - are now witnessed by the flickering of time displays on DVD players, cookers and electric clock radios. Even stranger is the phenomenon totally unknown to me before coming to live in Hungary, of clocks gaining time!
One event, however, stands out from the rest. In 1985, Paul and I went to a performance of Puccini’s Tosca in the Erkel Szinház. Somewhere into the second act, the whole theatre was plunged into total darkness. A few gasps in the audience, and some subdued mutterings on stage were accompanied by the valiant resilience of the undaunted orchestral players, who devoid of both light and a conductor, continued to play. Rather as in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony (where the players depart the stage one by one, until only two violinists remain) the musicians ceased their unequal struggle, raggedly, in the middle of bars, until even the lead violinist was forced to surrender. Silence ensued. Footsteps then echoed off stage, and a man appeared holding a torch in front of his face – somewhat akin to a Hallowe’en Trick or Treater. He assured us that within fifteen minutes there would again be light, and so there was. Act II was resumed from the beginning, and Tosca was none the worse for its unscheduled interruption. Maybe the urgency accorded to the resumption of an operatic performance outweighs the safety of motorists and pedestrians of the city’s unlit and un-traffic-lighted streets.….
I am not a political animal. I have just returned from a week in England where almost every news channel was anticipating, and then dissecting the BBC programme Question Time, whose panel included the BNP leader, Nick Griffin. His appearance on the programme was marked by demonstrations and controversy in all sections of society, due to his alleged policies on immigration.
I arrived home to Budapest yesterday, wondering if I would also be greeted by the news of riots and demonstrations here - now almost de rigeur on the day which marks the beginning of the 1956 revolution against the Soviets. But no. It would appear that Hungarians have perhaps lost their appetite for cat-and-mouse games with the police, and blowing tear-gas filled noses. I was out three years ago with the sole intention of taking photos of whatever I saw, and found myself in the midst of all the well-known consequences and troubles of that day.
Having seen the transition to democracy, I am still puzzled by one simple fact of political life here: can anyone explain the actual policies of the various parties? Anyone over the age of being able to cross the road unaided, knows that politicians lie. Could anyone feel anything but bemusement at the Hungarian horror at the fact that a prime minister was found to have lied? Is an honest politician not the very definition of an oxymoron? The eleventh commandment (Thoushalt not be found out) had unfortunately not been followed. And yet we still need to be informed about what the parties say they will do – even if in reality they seldom do it!
In the UK each party publishes its manifesto, setting out in detail, point by point, its policies on every aspect of life: Education, the Health Service, Immigration, Tax and so on. At least you know in theory, what you are voting for. I am at a total loss to explain to any foreign visitor what the various parties in Hungary claim, never mind what they might actually do if they were elected. The vociferous flag-waving, the passionate loyalties which even split families in the last election, seem difficult to understand, when no-one is clear about anything other than their hatred of the opposition.
When I first arrived here, my closest friend told me, ‘You can’t live in this part of the world and not be interested in politics.’ I knew what he said was true. And yet I still feel unable to understand much beyond the playground squabbles. Maybe the absence of demonstrators yesterday, is in some small measure indicative of the fact that others are also finding difficulty in unravelling who, or what, they should support, in the absence of anything but empty rhetoric without policies…
When we knew we would be coming to live in Hungary, back in 1982, I began to contemplate the necessity of learning to speak the language. A Hungarian emigré we had encountered at a party had told us quite flatly that this would be impossible. He was the first - though not the last - to describe his mother tongue as European Chinese. What made the venture unavoidable was the fact that very few Hungarians had even a smattering of English: older citizens had learnt German while the present generation were struggling with compulsory Russian lessons.
I placed an advertisement in the local newspaper in the hope of finding a teacher. It was answered by a woman who had left Budapest in 1956 and now lived in a small community of fellow-countrymen in Reading. There was only one problem: she was unable to speak sufficient English to enable her to teach me - and this after 26 years in England! And so it was that I decided to wait until we arrived in the country and start in earnest then.
Paul had already acquired the then only available language teaching book, Learn Hungarian. It contains such gems as the conversation between the Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian railway workers, textile workers and miners meeting at Keleti station, all addressing each other as Comrade, and illustrated with a small drawing of them all holding hands as they wait for their train! Or the farm where the animals are ‘beautiful’ and the 'peasants are happy, rich and jolly.' Whilst this is arguably the best book available if you are serious about learning Hungarian grammar, it is also a wonderful example of the socialist idyll Hungary wanted to portray to foreigners.
Having arrived to live in Budapest in the summer of ’82, I enlisted the help of a university English teacher to help me with my language learning. As we limped towards chapter 4 or 5, I still felt queasy before attempting to secure the correct ending to my verbs. It was at this point in the book that they gaily began a new unit with a second set of verb endings! And so it was that Learn Hungarian joined a shelf of books busily gathering dust, and Péter lost his ‘second job.’
I decided that I would try and pick up the magyar nyelv by the so-called Direct Method (otherwise known as making an ass of yourself). This involved the endless repetition of phrases until they tripped off the tongue effortlessly. There was not the slightest room here for ambiguity in pronunciation: no Hungarian ever heard a foreigner try to speak his language – and certainly not in a market! Tourists in the 1980s were limited to East Germans (who came only in summer and headed straight for Lake Balaton) or Poles who came to buy and sell, and they tried to make use of the few words of Russian they hoped Hungarians might understand. Anything less than perfect pronunciation would be doomed to failure.
The day arrived for my first solo attempt. I prefaced my raid on the market by standing in the flat and repeating the sentence to myself for what I wanted to buy, and then rushed down and tried to find a stall without any customers so that my excruciating attempts were not witnessed. I found a butcher standing looking bored. After checking the coast was clear, I approached the stall and blurted out my well-rehearsed sentence: egy fél kiló darált húst kérek. I waited, hopefully, while he stared at me. Then folding his arms, and regarding me with the same curiosity Darwin might first have looked at the Galapagos turtles he said, ’Where on earth do you come from? You speak such horrible Hungarian!’
Next to their children, Hungarians love their pets unconditionally. Budapest is inundated with dogs of all shapes and sizes – those shapes and sizes frequently reflecting a closer affinity to their owners than the size of apartment they are kept in! Whilst their country cousins may keep their dogs out in all weathers, housed in a simple kennel even in the middle of winter, Budapest pooch owners pamper their pets with trips to the cosmetician, and equip them with coats and even miniature Wellington boots, before subjecting them to the rain or snow of the city’s streets. Recent developments have seen somewhat less ‘dog rubber’ (kutyagumi) on the pavements and the ready availability both of plastic bags with which to collect it, and ‘toilets’ in which to deposit it. Cats, too, are beloved by many, and I still remember the old lady who appeared nightly at the gates of the old Garay téri piac (market), where she fed the strays who waited on the other side. More unusually, I watched in disbelief when I saw a man taking his goat for an early morning walk on Andrássy út, stopping to allow it to graze on the small bushes which bordered the pavement! Yet stories abound of dog poisoning – invariably put down to the neighbours. When one of our cats had a suspected fracture we took her to the vet’s for an x-ray, only to be informed that she had three pellets in her – obviously the result of someone’s taking pot shots at her with an air rifle. But all in all, Hungarians reserve their greatest love for their adored pets – second to their children, of course.
It is a sad truth then, that Hungarians dislike one another. They happily relate to newcomers and foreigners, a number of anecdotes to illustrate their profound antipathy to their fellow Magyars. For example: there is the well-known saying that if my cow dies, I also hope my neighbour’s cow will die. No Hungarian can bear to see their neighbour doing better than they are. A blacker, and altogether more depressing version of the same idea is when a man descends to hell, only to see Satan watching the futile attempts of various groups from a number of nations, to make their escape from the fire and brimstone. A group of Russians clamber to the rim of the pit, but as they put their heads over the top, they are shot by the waiting soldiers above them. The Germans, also reaching the summit are greeted by shouting, threatening guards who order them back into the fires below, and being Germans (so the fable goes) they obey. Finally, the man sees a group of Hungarians, also intent on their escape. No guards threaten, no soldiers lie in wait to shoot them. Why then are they still in the smouldering pit? He turns to Satan and asks for some explanation. Satan says simply, ‘Watch.’ As the first of the Magyars scrambles to the top of the pit he is pulled back by those below him….
A feature of Hungary’s National Health Service which is as alien to most people as it is outrageous, is the institutionalised habit of ‘tipping’ doctors. Exactly when and how it started seems to be the topic of some debate, but what is certain is that it existed before the beginning of Communism. In villages it appears it was a tradition to bring the local family doctor produce from one’s garden or allotment, the spoils of a pig killing or some home-made wine. Similarly, other esteemed figures in small town life, such as the priest, could also count on having their meagre incomes supplemented in this way. In cities, this presented somewhat of a problem, as most people did not have access to such produce, and naturally resorted to giving money instead. Quite when this became expected, compulsory even, is unclear, but that it did, cannot be disputed. Before 1989, almost everyone earned a standard wage, irrespective of their type of work: a teacher, a doctor or a bus driver, earned within a few hundred forints of each other. A combination of the already-ingrained habit of giving doctors a ‘present’ following certain types of treatment and all hospital surgery, and a feeling that they deserved more than the average worker, completely established this custom.
Thus, if you were going into hospital, your preparations – alongside packing your own toilet paper, cutlery and mug – was to enquire from others what the going rate for this intervention currently was. The requisite amount was then put into the customary envelope, in readiness to slip to the surgeon at a suitably private moment, out of ear and eye-shot of colleagues and nurses. This could generate a certain degree of cloak-and-dagger activity, in those instances when the doctor could not be found except in others’ company – though most doctors generously gave their patients an opportunity to pass over the envelope when issuing them with their discharge notes, in the privacy of their offices.
When I enquired whether my friends feared the doctor might not take care with an operation or the like if he were not paid, it was explained to me that the money was always given following surgery, and not in advance. Logically, then, he could not know beforehand whether he would be tipped or not. However, people always feared that if they had for any reason to return, to have some further treatment, not giving money could prejudice the doctor against them. It should be added that nurses – who are indisputably poorly paid – also expect small ‘presents’ to attend to their duties.
Typical of the double-think that anyone familiar with Orwell’s 1984 will already be aware of, every department on every floor of every hospital had to display a written declaration outlawing the giving and the acceptance of such gratuities – universally ignored. These framed edicts were still hanging there after ’89 when income tax was first introduced, and when the government decided to tax doctors on these very ‘earnings’!
Today, in a society where there are extreme disparities in earnings, and when some kind of attempt is being made to stamp out corruption in all its various forms (with only varying degrees of success), the situation has become more complex. There is no ‘going rate’, and patients are reluctant (at best) to discuss what they are giving the doctor. An enquiry made to a fellow patient who is in for the same surgery, as to what they think is the appropriate amount to tip, is inevitably answered with: ‘Whatever you can afford.’ Not a lot of help.
How much simpler it is in the private clinics, where the rates are publicly displayed for all patients to see. As it is, whatever you decide to give in the ‘free’ National Health system, you feel it is probably too little, leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that should you be forced to seek that particular doctor’s help in future, he may be ‘too busy’ to deal with you. Though a few brave souls actually choose not to tip, how much better it would be if this system which demeans both patient and doctor alike, and undermines any truly professional relationship between them, were well and truly stamped out altogether.
Some years ago I was given a box of chocolates by a gynaecologist for whom I had done some revision of a translated article he was hoping to publish. On opening it at home, I found an envelope containing 20,000 forints in the wrapping paper. He had obviously been presented with the chocolates by a patient (in preference to just an envelope), but not realising what lay within, and having no use for the chocolates, had passed the gift on to me. I hardly knew him, and he was thus surprised to find me waiting for him in the hospital the following day. However, as I explained the situation as delicately as I could, he gave not the slightest hint of any embarrassment or awkwardness. Pocketing the envelope he wished me good-day, and returned to his waiting patients.
Personal space, its uses and abuses, is one of those things you seem only to become conscious of when you start to travel.
Living space in Hungary was severely restricted by the communist government. One person was allotted a mere 10 square metres, meaning a family of four was only entitled to 40 sq.metres of living space. Those living in larger apartments were forced to divide their flats up, invite relatives to share their home, or have complete strangers foisted upon them. Thus, if you have ever wondered about the bizarrely ‘planned’ layout of your flat, you’ll know why!
The ‘flat problem’ in Hungary was alive and well when we arrived here. Just as for the telephone, waiting lists for flats averaged ten years or more, unless you were willing to have three children in as many years, putting you to the top of the list. In the meantime young couples lived with one or other set of their parents – no doubt a factor in the high rate of divorce. (Renting was not an option – rents amounted to an entire wage for a month, and there was a high degree of mistrust on the side of landlord and tenant alike. This solution to the flat problem was extremely rare.) It was not unusual to find three generations of a family living in one flat, sharing one bathroom and one kitchen.
Possibly it is for this reason that I have found Hungarians to be quiet and unobtrusive in public places: used to living in such confined spaces they have adapted in order to maintain a modicum of privacy. They generally talk in lowered tones, reminding their children also to keep their voices down; and on the Margaret Island which is deluged with people on a sunny weekend, there are no ghetto blasters and wailing children, as I remember in English parks. Foreigners are instantly noticeable speaking at twice the volume of the locals (dare I say it?especially Americans!)
However, Hungarians have some instantly noticeable and quirky uses of personal space. Quiet they may be, but also blissfully unaware of those around them! The habit of sitting on the outside seat on buses and trams, even when they are only going one or two stops, leaves you with two equally unattractive alternatives: to attempt to climb over them, or to continue to stand – often adjacent to them, hoping they might slide over – but no. On the London tube, something I detest for its overcrowdedness, any slight contact with another results in mutual apologies. In Budapest, pedestrians and public transport travellers seem to lack all awareness of others, silently bumping and pushing those near to them. Unless you stand within a dangerous proximity to the edge of the platform, it is perfectly likely that someone will wedge themselves immediately in front of you in order to be able to enter the tube or tram before you.
At the wonderful Turner and Italy exhibition a few weeks ago, I stood in contemplation of one of the paintings. I must have been no more than a metre from the canvas. Suddenly, a man walked between me and the picture, squeezing himself into the minute space, practically standing on my feet, and obscuring my view of everything except the back of his bald head! I wondered if sufficient inches remained for me, in turn, to manouevre myself in front of him, and what his reaction might be. I adjoumed to the next picture.…
Sitting on the 5 bus last weekend, forced with everyone else to listen for twenty minutes to the whining monologue of a young woman, I wondered if this could be regarded as an example of post-communist progress.
As with most aspects of modern life, Hungarians have very quickly caught up with western trends, this extending to the ubiquitous use of the mobile phone. In fact, when the large, brick-like contraptions first came into being, there were probably more of them evident on Budapest’s streets than on the streets of London: for one simple reason - because so many people still had no landline telephone!
Possession of a telephone before 1989 was the major selling point for flats. About one in ten people in Budapest owned one, while in some villages it was only the doctor who did. Waiting lists for acquiring a phone were around 12-15 years – not the apparatus itself, but the line. I was assured that the reasons for this were primarliy (if not entirely) political, inasmuch as communications could hereby be both limited and monitored. Many topics were not deemed safe to discuss on the phone, as for example, matters connected with foreign currency. In these cases the code used was: This is not a telephone topic. But your problems did not end even if you were one of the lucky few to have a phone. Hefty bribes were also payable even just to get the name and number of the person who could assist you in your quest.
Firstly, you might have a party line, (a ‘twin’, as they were called) whose identity was secret, though occasionally people had managed to find out. It could be someone in the same building, or someone in another district entirely. Only one of you could use the line at a time – so if you had been paired with a particularly lonely person with lots of time on their hands, you might constantly find yourself picking up the receiver to the sound of silence on the other end – especially as calls were charged at a mere one forint a call! And if they did not replace the receiver properly, days might pass when you were unable to use it at all! (Hence the secrecy, as threats were not unknown!) Secondly, assuming you had a telephone, and even better, had no ‘twin’, you could not be guaranteed a line. The joke went that the Hungarian spy was caught because on making a call, he lifted the receiver and first waited for a line before dialling. Quite regularly, you might also find yourself at the centre of a real ‘party’ line, when two other people would unwittingly already be talking on ‘your’ line, demanding you hang up! Rain could also frustrate your attempts to make a call. It was widely believed that the Hungarians had bought their telephone technology from Sweden, but had not insulated the lines, and therefore wet weather meant phones were regularly unusable. And woe betide you if you failed, for any reason, to pay your bill immediately. Your phone would be disconnected, possibly permanently. And all this was if you were lucky enough to have a telphone at all!
Pity the 90% who had to use public phones! There were two varieties – the yellow boxes for domestic calls, and the red ones for international calls. The string of variables that usually prevented you from making a call are almost too many to ennumerate: the receiver was in pieces; you couldn’t insert the coin; you inserted the coin and it fell through – again….and again…; you inserted the coin but it was just swallowed, and the line remained dead; you got through but the other person could not hear you, in spite of your most frantic screams….It was usually less stressful, and took hardly any more time, to see your friend personally!
After five years, and in our fifth flat, we became the excited owners of a telephone. It was a party line, but our ‘twin’ was a friendly neighbour, so the relationship was amicable. With five years’ experience of making calls in Budapest, I thought I was as much of an expert as any local, and could not be caught out by the vagaries of the Post Office. I was wrong. On returning from a summer visit to England, the neighbour told me that our number had been changed whilst we were away. Not only had we not been notified (see the blog on Information Blackout!), nor could we find any explanation for the change, but we had no idea what our new number might be!
We were to find out soon enough, though, when we received an endless string of calls from people enquiring about the availability of spare parts for their washing machines. We had (inadvertently?) been given the same number as the Hajdu washing machine repair shop! Another service from magyar posta! Maybe, being forced to endure others’ mobile calls is a relatively small price to pay – at least I can get off the bus or listen to my Ipod!
In the early days of working in Hungary I made frequent visits to teach a group of students in Orosháza, who at that time, worked for the glass industry; they counted two doctors among their number. The lesson dealing with the topic of Health, and all things connected with it, almost inevitably ended with discussion and complaint about the Hungarian health service. Several students related tales enumerating the all-too-familiar shortcomings of hospitals, and the resultant consequences. The two doctors had, no doubt, to endure such conversations on a daily basis, and thus sat impassively throughout. When the last such tale had been told, one of the doctors sighed philosophically, summarising the dilemma: ‘The problem is, we all have to die.’ Quick as a flash, another student countered, ‘And the Hungarian Health Service can help you!'
I have had a number of sojourns in a variety of state-run hospitals, along with being in attendance when my family or close friends have found themselves there. The situation is not as black and white as it would seem at first sight – or as terrifying as it appears to the expat who happily taxis out to Telki Hospital (hotel?) at the first sign of trouble, Gold Card Health Insurance in his back pocket! I have infinitely more trust in the doctors employed within the crumbling walls of the state sector, than in some of the privately-run clinics with which I have also had some experience.
There were a number of things which surprised me on my first encounters with hospitals, and which I imagine still surprise the uninitiated foreigner, brave enough – or poor enough! – to opt for a state hospital. A few examples: there are no curtains around the beds in a ward, making you an unwilling participant in your fellow patients’ medical interventions - I still remember lying approximately two feet from a woman having a liver biopsy. You need to take your own cutlery and drinking vessels, along with a tea-towel so you can do your own washing up when you’ve finished. And most importantly, you need to be provided with edible food! Few countries could boast of their hospital fare, but a bread roll and a cheese triangle are all you are likely to be given between noon of one day, and breakfast on the next.
My first stay (in the old MÁV korház) was in 1987 for the birth of my son, John. A few weeks before his expected arrival, I went to the British Embassy in order to clear up questions relating to his nationality, with the Consul. Summarising the information I had been given, I concluded, ‘So there’s no real reason for me to return to England to have this baby?’ I still vividly remember how he peered at me over the rim of his spectacles and said, ‘Tell me – have you ever been in a Hungarian hospital?’
‘Why don’t you write about the Post Office?’ asked a friend this week, knowing only too well my fraught relationship with that particular institution over the last thirty years. Were I writing this by hand, the tension and frustration evoked in those memories would be discernible in my manuscript.
In a world where all salaries were paid in cash and a current bank account was as unknown as a Big Mac, the magyar posta assumed a far larger role in people’s lives. All bills were paid here, letters, parcels and money sent, and the ubiquitous stamps could be bought for official documents. And in a country where only about every tenth person had a telephone – most of which went wrong with alarming regularity – trips to the post office were frequent, either to use their (somewhat) more reliable phones, or to send telegrams to those not fortunate enough to have one. The disastrous combination of every member of society requiring the services of the P.O., and their snail’s pace of work, guaranteed that you were unlikely ever to get away with less than half and hour in the place; an hour was more usual. Some of my most bizarre experiences have taken place in this venerable institution. In December 1982 I took some thirty or so Christmas cards to Nyugati P.O. on my way home after work. The queues were longer than I had hoped for in the evening, and resignedly I joined one of them. A more unseasonal pall of gloom would be difficult to imagine: no Tidings of Good Joy far less Peace, Goodwill to All Men here! Just the slam of the door, the bang of the rubber stamp, the surly silence of those manning the brown be-curtained glass windows, and the sighs of the customers already half-an-hour into their long wait. The flicker of 40watt bulbs did little to brighten the dingy hall.
As I approached the front of the queue I realised that the Post Office had now branched out into Christmas card sales. An elderly woman stood examining a pile of cards in her hands. Leaning towards the clerk behind the glass she said,’ I quite like this one. What do you think? Or maybe this one’s nicer?’ she continued moving on to the next in the pile. Thus for a further ten minutes as the queue waited, helplessly.
As my turn came I pushed the small stack of envelopes towards the impassive clerk. His face registered incredulity as I spoke the well-rehearsed words, ‘Airmail, please.’ ‘All of them?’ he asked in strangulated tones. I nodded; (this was a post office, was it not?) Looking past me into the dim shadows of the distant end of the room he called, ‘Laci! Bring a chair!’ Now it was my turn to look incredulous, as Laci (presumably) emerged from a door, carrying a wooden chair. Without a word he placed it next to me and sloped off. I soon understood why. It took half an hour to complete the process of weighing each card, finding the appropriate stamp, licking it and sticking it on, then similarly the Airmail sticker, and finally adding up (and checking the addition) of the list of thirty numbers. In November 1983 I found a friend travelling to Vienna, giving him my cards and some schillings; it took him a mere seven and a half minutes to get them safely on their way.
Communication, imparting information, clarity and transparency: all seem to represent as painful a procedure for Hungarians as a trip to the dentist or even the confessional. It is no secret that the Liszt Academy is in dire need of renovation, from the electric wiring, the plumbing and plastering, to the creaking wooden seats of the concert hall, almost guaranteed to send you running to an osteopath the morning following a concert. Liszt was born in1811 and died in 1886, thus rendering dates in multiples of 50 and 100 from then on automatically earmarked for jubilations and celebrations. Such will be – would be – the year 2011: the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth. It would seem unthinkable that this particular year should be chosen for renovation work, which could see the Academy closed at the very time locals and foreigners alike will be making anniversary pilgrimages to the city. And yet….this is Hungary. The Zeneakadémia will be closed from November, and will quite definitely have its doors shut in October 2011. What is more, as yet no-one seems to know where it will be moving. The rumoured – and seriously mooted – options have variously included the now-abandoned building of ELTE’s English department on Ajtósi Dürer sor (itself in even direr need of renovation); a disused hospital at Lövölde tér; the home of the World Federation of Hungarians near Heroes' Square (apparently rejected for political reasons), and the idea put forward that it should be fragmented into a dozen or more buildings which have a few spare rooms, scattered over the capital. The latest rumour circulating among (understandably) interested teachers and students alike, is that they will move into the Post Office building in Petöfi Sándor utca. No information of any sort is available on the Academy’s website – including the ‘News’ section which does not so much as mention the imminent closure of the building - while the press reports only that ‘the Music Academy will be moving to temporary accommodation while renovation work is completed.’ Students at the official opening ceremony of the Academy last week were informed by the Rector that they will be told of the new location “at the appropriate time.” And therefore, at the appropriate time, I shall inform you, too.
The wonderful study of England and the English written by George Mikes (alias Mikes György) includes a short chapter on the British fascination – one might even say obsession - with the art of queuing. Mikes chose to describe it as ‘the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race.’ A cartoon I once saw in a newspaper depicts a middle-aged couple queuing at the supermarket check-out, only to be bypassed by a greasy-looking (and obviously not English!) man, intent on being served first. The woman looks at her angry husband, and by way of quelling what threatens to be a most un-English outburst, she calms him with the words: He can’t help it, dear – he’s a foreigner.
Thirty years ago, Hungarians regarded the subject with the same degree of disdain as Mikes. Queue jumping was endemic: there was no shame inherent in ‘overtaking’ people who had been waiting for an hour before you had even arrived, nor honour in waiting your turn patiently. Queuing was for those lacking the wherewithal to bypass the annoying process; ‘losers’ who devoid of the technique of getting to the front first, would have to suffer for their disability by having to wait their turn.
In my early days of pre-1989 Hungary, I soon learnt every trick in the book of The Art of How to Avoid Queuing. First, there were countless variations on the ‘due to circumstances beyond my control’ theme. These included the brazen – ‘I’m in a hurry,’ – often finished off with ‘because I live in the country and my train’s leaving,’ or ‘because I came yesterday and I wasn’t seen,’ but best of all, and always a sure-fire winner, ‘I have to get home to breastfeed the baby.’ Mention of children (preferably sick ones) always guaranteed you immediate access to whomever and whatever you wanted, (assuming you were female). Another favourite was to hang about nonchalantly somewhere near the door in question, only to shoot through it, akin to an olympic athlete, when the door handle moved just an inch from the inside. Equally popular was to place yourself at the side of a long line of people, and gradually worm your way in. Other Hungarians rarely, if ever, complained – after all, they frequently used the strategy themselves. (This can still be observed today on every Easyjet and Wizzair flight departing Ferihegy One.)
Five years into an EU Hungary, a certain veneer of order has been imposed by banks and the like, in the form of a numbered ticket system. This cannot be circumvented, but is shamelessly abused by T-mobile and the like, where if you want to purchase a phone, you take priority over everyone who has been queuing an hour or more to query a bill. And in shops, despite a passing nod at the ‘European’ (and therefore civilised and certainly not Balkan!) acceptance of queuing, as soon as a cashier closes her till, and the snake of customers has to move elsewhere, it again comes down to a Darwinian survival of the fittest: no semblance of self-control remains as everyone rushes from the back of the line they were in, to the front of the new one! It has been said that if the British re-introduced capital punishment it would be for one category of miscreants only: queue-jumpers!
Unsurprisingly, the concept of customer service in a Communist society was a contradiction in terms, illustrated on a daily basis. The first hurdle was to even get anywhere near the goods you were considering purchasing. In bookshops and record shops a counter and a cordon firmly separated you from the items in question, each of which had to be asked for by name or title – though these were indecipherable from such a distance, leaving you craning your neck and straining your eyes in the hope of being able to identify what you might want. Browsing was both alien and forbidden. ‘Have you got a …..?’ or ‘Where can I find the….?’ were invariably greeted with a shrug of the shoulders or a vague wave of the hand into the distance.
The answer, ‘We might have it in the storeroom,’ on the other hand, provided you with the opportunity to indulge in some small-time bribery. An answer of ‘I would be grateful if you would have a look,’ meant you were tacitly agreeing to tip the assistant for taking the trouble to fetch it. It was a matter of complete indifference to everyone whether you bought anything in their shop or not. The assistants were paid a pittance (as everyone was) and no-one stood directly to gain from your purchase – except if you had to tip them to sell it to you in the first place!
Where the transaction was more complicated, possibly in an office or suchlike, it was not at all uncommon to see satisfied customers or clients return with bouquets of flowers and other presents for the person who had so pleased them by, in fact, just doing their job!
Friends visited in the summer, and on their last afternoon we went to the House of Terror museum, ending up in the shop half an hour before the museum closed. Standing with the card and money in her hand Rose turned to the counter, but no-one was there. A young French couple stood waiting to buy a book. A security guard informed us that the shop assistant had gone home. ‘But the museum doesn’t close for half an hour,’ I said. He shrugged. ‘You’ll have to come back tomorrow morning,’ he said. They were flying back the next day. I took Rose’s money from her hand, put it on the counter and walked past the stupified guard, postcard in hand. ‘You can’t do that,’ he began; we did. Then on Friday in a small, unassuming café where I sat out on the pavement, the flowers I had just been given were smilingly put in a jug of water; food and drink were brought quickly; and when I left, kitchen paper was offered for me to wrap the stems of the flowers in for my journey home. Today, most shopping experiences seem to straddle the old, ‘We are very pleased not to be of service,’ variety, alongside what foreigners consider normal - and what those of us innured to old Communist ways still find a pleasant surprise worth commenting upon. Following a ‘normal’ transaction where the assistant talks to me politely (smiles, even!), offers to get something from the infamous storeroom, packs it up and hands it to me (with a smile!) wishing me viszontlátásra, I cannot desist from thinking (saying, if I’m with someone else) : She was friendly / pleasant etc. And if they have had to go to particular trouble – ringing another of their shops to see if the item is available there - I still have to stop myself wondering what tip I should give!
This was the question posed in the title to an article written in a Hungarian newspaper in 1989. The ‘angol’ in question was me – or more accurately, all four of us, including Paul, and our young children, Hannah and John. Though I cannot now recall the precise details surrounding the writing of the piece, it must have been connected with our then seemingly irrational decision to settle permanently in Hungary. The Hungarian journalist cast serious doubt on our sanity in taking this step – something not voiced by our English family and friends. Our optimism in a future life in Budapest was countered by the characteristic pessimism of the Hungarians we told. The adage goes: What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? Answer – the pessimist has more information! (Did Hungarians come up with this clever definition?!) This would explain their take on our decision. The question in the article should probably have been asked in 1982 when we initially set off in our VW Beetle for Communist Budapest, where at the time only about 10 British people were living!
Anyway, a couple of decades and a few tens-of-thousands of expats later, we’re still here, and this blog gives me a chance to write about a life in Budapest that’s a bit more up-to-date than what is described in my two books. In 1989 we asked Caroline (a close English friend who came here in the 60s) whether she thought our children might become schizophrenic, living two lives which were culturally so very different. Without any hesitation she replied, “No. But you might.”
As I daily walk the streets of a city I’ve known and loved since the 80s, I realise that the changes that Budapest has undergone - as well as the effect these changes have had on its inhabitants - have certainly made me ambivalent. Would I want to turn the clock back? Not really. Do I like the changes I see?
31 years after coming to Communist Budapest 'for a year or two', I'm still here. My two books 'Now You See It, Now You Don't' (Hungary 1982-1989) and 'House of Cards' (1989-1996) are now printed in one volume, and are available from the places listed above.
In this Blog I write about events and matters connected with present-day Budapest, linking them to the way they were...