The Hungarian Health Service Can(not) Help You / Part One

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?’


The Post Office: Part One / Letters

‘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.


Information Blackout

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!


We are very pleased not to be of service….

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!


Őrült ez az Angol? (Are these English people mad?)

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?

Follow this blog and I’ll try to explain………