The Post Office: Part Three / The Postman

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 And maybe like the milkman, whose role and importance have faded with the dawn of Tetrapak and Tesco’s, he has been superseded by email and a banking system.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.….


October 23rd

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 (Thou shalt 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…


European Chinese? (Part One)

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!’


The Hungarian Cow

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….

The Hungarian Health Service / Part Two

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

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.…

The Post Office : Part Two / Telephones

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!