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 I think this square has now superseded Moszkva tér as the seediest among those in the centre of the city, full of the homeless, alcoholics, and a disturbing number of people who could be mentally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.
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...