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!



Book Launch

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)