30.12.10

Welcome Home




In the final throes of the fiasco at Heathrow airport, and its inability to cope with a few centimetres of snow prior to Christmas, I awaited the safe return of my children from London.

Their flight had been delayed by an hour, that was all, but due to a high temperature I was unable to drive and fetch them, so I sat at home, waiting. I sent a text message to my daughter asking if they were on their way. “In a taxi like none other!” came the somewhat cryptic reply. I wondered: was a year out of Hungary really sufficient to dim her memory of the driving antics of Budapest taxi drivers? I was otherwise unable to find an explanation for the puzzling text message.When the three of them finally arrived, we were given a detailed narrative of their return journey from Ferihegy airport in a car belonging to the newly-appointed official airport taxi company, Főtaxi:

John had sat alongside the driver, the two girls in the back. It was dark and cold, and the silence in the taxi prompted John to encourage the driver to switch the radio on. He flicked from one station to the next, but the choice seemed to be politics or techno. A sideways glance at his passenger confirmed that this was not what he had been hoping for.

“Do you like singing?” ventured the chauffeur.

“Well….she does,” replied John, indicating his girlfriend in the back seat.

Needing no further encouragement, the driver pressed a button, at which a small screen popped up between him and John. Simultaneously, the two small screens in the back of the headrests lit up for the girls seated behind. Then, casually holding the steering wheel with one hand, he produced an IPod with his other, starting a rapid search through its library. Having found what he was looking for, he pressed PLAY and the music started – Maria Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You; strangely, however, her voice was noticeable only by its absence.

It was at this juncture that, alongside adjusting his Satnav with one hand and holding the steering wheel with his other, he produced a microphone from his lap and began to sing along to the lyrics, reading them from the small screen, all the while driving at speed towards the city. And then, moments later, he produced a second mic and handed it over to the girls behind him.

John suddenly became aware of flashing blue and red lights behind them – he waited for the inevitable: that their car would be overtaken by a police vehicle which had obviously observed the antics of a driver multi-tasking to an unprecedented degree, even for Hungary. But no. Their chauffeur had merely switched on the rear disco lights to add to their total Karaoke Taxi Experience.

(www.karaoketaxi.hu )

11.12.10

Christmas: Now....


Andrássy út – a magical avenue of glittering trees, festooned with hundreds of thousands of lights; the ragged and hopeless huddled in every underpass around the city; the Christmas tram twinkling its way along the Pest river bank; Christmas stalls of colourful, handmade crafts; the scent of candles, the aroma of cinnamon, apples, oranges and mulled wine; Gerbeaud’s advent calendar windows opening to brass music; the reek of the poor and homeless attempting to warm themselves on public transport; designer shops, designer presents; Disney-on-Ice; domestic present-buying disagreements on engorged shopping-mall escalators; charity appeals; tinsel, light, silver and gold, garlands of pine; roasting chestnuts; McChristmas; poverty in the midst of plenty.

...and Then



Wind-blown cables of multi-coloured light bulbs in dark streets; shadows on the ice; quiet; deep, deep snow, unimagined cold; the Danube, frozen; hour-long queues for the annual delivery of oranges and bananas; no foil to roast meat – all redirected for the wrapping of szalon cukor for Christmas trees; first attempts to wrap parcels for posting, devoid of sellotape – not permitted, only string (for Customs purposes); excitement at discovering tinned salmon, brightly coloured Chinese notebooks, Milka chocolate, East German Christmas imports; stalls of gaudy tree decorations: glitter-coated yellow and orange fir cones; home-baked gingerbread; gatherings of friends exchanging unexpected finds and homemade beigli; quiet; peace; plenty in the midst of poverty.

22.11.10

Logic


A week ago I was standing, bemused and perplexed, in front of an array of DVDs in the impressive Alexandra bookshop on Andrássy út. My attempt to discover the obscure relationship between any titles on the same shelf was reminiscent of similarly fruitless efforts I have had in trying to establish the last in a number series of the type to be found in IQ tests. Having already excluded the more obvious – and perhaps unimaginative – ones, such as alphabetical, genre and language, I was forced to admit defeat and look for an assistant to enlighten me. The explanation that was offered, in a tone suggesting I would indeed fail to register a single point on the IQ scale, was that the films are ordered according to the year of their release….

Libraries, one would fondly imagine, are ruled over by a breed characterised by their preoccupation with order, already well up on the scale of Obsessive-Compulsive. Yet, my husband, faced also with a seemingly chaotic hotch-potch of titles on the Music Academy library shelves, was similarly forced to defer to the wisdom of the librarian. The solution to the riddle was that books are catalogued according to the date of their acquisition by the library.

On those occasions I have run the gauntlet of Magyar pride and suggested there is a singular lack of logical organisation in many aspects of life here, I have been assured that Hungarians are supremely logical. “Just look at all our great mathematicians,” I am told. “Don’t forget that we invented the Rubik cube.”

Many years ago we sent the beautifully produced and illustrated Gundel Cookery Book for friends in England. On visiting them in the summer I enquired as to whether they had tried any of the recipes contained therein. A curious smile passed between them, and they pointed out two examples of the difficulties they had encountered: the first, a recipe whose method ended with the words, “And finally add the mushrooms,” – these were nowhere to be found in the list of ingredients, and so they had not bought any before starting to cook; the second listed sour cream among its ingredients, but this subsequently failed to make any appearance in the Method!

I could list the flyers that have, over the years, been optimistically placed in our letter box: pizza delivery (with no telephone number); a new restaurant (with no address); advertisements for concerts (with no starting time) and exhibitions (with no dates); previews of events in the newspaper with no indication of either where or when they are to take place;interesting photographs with no captions….
Maybe I should console myself that the number sequences I have never been able to solve, and which stubbornly remain a random jumble, could also have been invented by a Hungarian!

12.11.10

By Any Other Name

One of the very first differences one has to accustom oneself to in Hungary is the order of names: Hungarian surnames come first, followed by any given names. This is also applied to the unwitting foreigner who must adapt to local custom. (I once had to spend an additional afternoon at the local council offices having inadvertently used my customary signature on my ID card, and was ordered back to reverse the order of my names.)

This simple enough adaptation of what one is used to, can still give rise to confusion. There is a large preponderance of names that can be either given or surnames: László, Simon, András, Tamás or Lőrinc, to name but a few. When combined (as in Simon András), and out of context, such names leave one wondering how to address the person in question.

What additionally makes demands on a lazy memory is the common practice among professional women of maintaining the use of their maiden names after they marry. It is folly to assume that the wife of a male friend can be addressed using the man’s surname. If it is a second marriage, the children will in all likelihood have yet another name, making family relationships difficult to construct.

Yet other women – these days more usually older women, or those living in more rural communities – go to the opposite extreme, abandoning the names of their pre-married state to the extent that they become Mrs. Péter Barna (or Barna Péterné – where the suffix means Mrs.) Faced with this, one has no inkling of the woman’s actual name. In addition, there exists still the not uncommon practice of the first son (and daughter) being given their parent’s name, meaning not only that Barna Péter’s wife could be Barna Péterné, but that his son. ifj. (junior) Barna Péter, would have a wife also named Barna Péterné! (See picture.)

A compromise solution is also possible, where women take their husband’s names and tack their own on the end. In this way, our above-mentioned Mrs. Barna (née Andrea Nagy) will become Barna Péterné Nagy Andrea! And to this one can add a final obfuscation – that of titles, as in medical doctors and PhDs.! Dr. written with an upper case D denotes a physician, while the lower case d is indicative of an academic title. Thus, Dr. Barna Péter is (for non-Hungarians) Dr. Péter Barna (medical practitioner). The equivalent for a woman taking her husband’s name would be Dr. Barna Péterné – or where she determines to keep her own name also: Dr. Barna Péterné Nagy Andrea. But the real fun comes where both people have the title, and the woman decides on the Full Monty version of her married name! Here, you might really find yourself trying to disentangle how to address the person on your business card : Dr. Barna Péterné dr. Nagy Andrea.

1.11.10

Remember, remember...

Standing on the corner of Dòzsa György ùt and Dembinszky utca in the prematurely dark evening yesterday, stood a witch, complete in full-length black gown and pointed hat. My fellow passengers on the 70 trolley bus stared openly as the figure was swallowed in the gloom. Of course: Hallowe’en – nothing surprising here to anyone from an Anglo-American background, but a novelty to Hungarians who have little or no idea of its origins – less even than those Americans and English who mark the day. An informal poll of friends and acquaintances showed total ignorance of the reasons for celebrating Hallowe’en among the Hungarians (other than those involved in English teaching), and only the very sketchiest of notions among the British and Americans.

Even more recent than the adoption of St. Valentine’s Day in Hungary, Hallowe’en is only just beginning to penetrate the consciousness of confused – and dismissive – Hungarians who view it as the latest in a series of American imports. I am old enough also to remember the time when Hallowe’en was no more than a date on the calendar in Britain – a day that fell in the period of build up to the far more exciting and important celebration of November 5th and Bonfire Night. In an age bereft of Risk Assessment forms and Health and Safety Regulations, we scoured the neighbourhood for logs and branches to add to our huge garden fire, begged for discarded clothes for our guy, and saved pocket money for fireworks. It is only in the last twenty years that Trick-or-Treating has crossed the Atlantic in (coincidental?) parallel with regulations that over the years have seen ever-increasing numbers of people attend organised Guy Fawkes events, rather than family parties, and where last year, in the interests of safety, there were even pre-recorded virtual bonfires on large screens!

These same days in Hungary have their own long culture: All Saints’ Day (November 1st, now a holiday) offers families time to tidy the graves of family members and cover them with flowers and candles. Whole families make their pilgrimages – some people travelling long distances, even as far as Transylvania to do so – the elderly and children alike. November 2nd is Hallotak napja, (The Day of the Dead or All Souls). It is neither ghoulish nor morbid, but gives people the opportunity to remember and pay their respects to deceased family members on the one day of the year set aside for this purpose. It is conceivable that over time, young Hungarians will dress up and go to Hallowe’en parties in preference to the quiet of the cemetery. However, for those Americans and British people new to Hungary for whom the onset of winter darkness and the close of October mean only witches’ costumes and spiders’ webs, the atmosphere and peace of a darkened graveyard, heavy with the odour of white chrysanthemums and bathed in a sea of yellow candlelight, should not be missed - and will long be remembered.

10.10.10

Price of Progress



Over the course of the summer, following two weeks away, we returned to Hungary and a familiar paper in our letterbox from the Post Office, informing us that we should collect a registered letter. The envelope contained a threatening missive from Főgáz, the Hungarian Gas company, informing us that if we did not pay something in excess of 76,000 forints which we owed, we would be cut off. Having received a number of such letters over the years, we no longer felt any sense of panic – the specified time had already elapsed without incident, and anyway, we had the small yellow counterfoils to prove payment.

I decided, however, to ring Főgáz – more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else. The youthful male voice was friendly as he entered our identification number into the computer system. There followed an awkward silence. Then he muttered, “According to what I can see, you don’t have any outstanding payments…” I asked him then, to account for the threatening letter. He could not. I enquired whether such registered letters were sent on the off-chance that someone more easily intimidated, an elderly person or a foreigner with little time (and probably less patience in trying to find some logic in the system), would take the easy way and simply pay in the demanded sum. No answer was forthcoming.

The following month we received the customary bill from Főgáz. Though it contained the familiar yellow pay-in slip, it also made a very unfamiliar demand for precisely 000.000 forints. Another month passed, and we received an identical bill. We had opted to pay a fixed monthly amount, followed up by an annual meter reading, and the last two ‘free’ bills now totalled 35,000 forints we had not paid. More surprising still, was the subsequent arrival of the postman with 41,000 forints for us in cash – from Főgáz. Was it mere coincidence that the two ‘free’ bills, in addition to the cash payment totalled the mysterious 76,000 forints? The explanation presented itself that, following our annual meter reading it was established we had used less gas than the projected yearly total, and that we were in fact owed money – not that we owed anything. This remains conjecture though, since we have received no communication subsequent to the registered letter.

In the now barely-remembered days before computers, (but in reality, only about ten years ago) we were still visited every first week of the month by the two pensioners who supplemented their meagre allowance by going door to door to read the gas or electricity meter, and who collected from us all what was due for the month preceding. Armed with nothing more than a large, battered leather bag, they climbed the steps to flats around the whole city. For years, pensioners like these covered the same patch, familiar to us all when we bumped into them in the street, but (as they said) never threatened – though in winter they obviously carried large quantities of cash.

Like distant relatives they chatted about the weather, their families, our children, the likely amount of a winter bill and ways of economising; they gratefully accepted cold water on hot summer days and hot tea on bitter frosty evenings. They were genuinely upset at the death of our elderly neighbours whom they had known for years – and we regretted in equal measure their departure, when a more ‘efficient’ system came to replace them.


18.9.10

OFF Your Bike!



September 16th-22nd marks European Mobility Week, and for its part Hungary has this weekend closed various roads and organised the so-called Critical Mass bike ride for the 22nd. The organisers state that The aim is to draw attention to the harmful effects of present modes of transport on human health.

Whilst not for a moment decrying or disputing the obvious benefits to both the environment and the cyclist’s health, I am far from convinced that the explosion in numbers of Magyars (and others) wheeling their way in amongst us more sedentary walkers and users of public transport, is a cause for unequivocal celebration. Safe from harm in their fluorescent helmets and resplendent in the latest cycling gear, their unvoiced superiority regales motorists and pedestrians alike, as they shoot up hills and over bridges past queues waiting at bus and tram stops. Yet, while their physical well-being may be improving, those of us negotiating life on the pavement are finding it increasingly fraught with the ever-present hazard of being hit by a bike. Since when have the pavements been declared open to cyclists? Without a bell, akin to adolescents on their skateboards, they silently weave in and out of unsuspecting pedestrians, quite unaware of the danger lurking just behind. However, unlike the teenage skateboarder who can hardly claim to be saving the planet, our errant cyclists, sure that they occupy the high moral ground, feel free to do as they please without fear of censure.

The humble pushbike was hardly if ever to be seen on Budapest streets twenty years ago – it was the transport of the country peasant who could not afford the several years’ salary to buy a Trabant (let alone a Lada), and in areas where buses were infrequent. Villages were full of men and women riding slowly along their streets (not pavements), to and from market – and in evenings, with neither lights nor helmet to protect them, men would wobble drunkenly home from the pubs along dimly-lit roads – a real hazard for motorists.

Today I stood at Jászai Mari tér waiting half an hour for a friend, and counted approximately 45 cyclists pass the sign requesting they dismount, thus enabling pedestrians to navigate the narrow walkway left on Margit hid to walk safely to the island. Of these, just two dismounted. Subsequently, we too took our chances along the same fenced pathway, the risk exacerbated by the fact not only that we had a three-year-old toddler with us, but that my friend is blind and also had a guide dog. Yet only with eyes in the back of our heads could we have negotiated the walk peacefully, as cyclists pedalled inches behind us, waiting an opportunity to overtake. Their selfish disregard for pedestrians can be witnessed everywhere in the city, in spite of the fact that there are increasing numbers of cycle paths provided for them – and which they would not for a moment contemplate sharing with pedestrians!
I agree that the time has indeed come to draw attention to the the harmful effects of present modes of transport on human health – the mode of transport being of the two-wheeled variety. Time they got OFF their bikes!

11.9.10

Time Travel



Last weekend I stood on a somewhat wet and windy Andrássy út to hear a friend play the piano on one of several temporary podiums that had been erected along its length - the occasion being the celebrations of both the centenary of Mahler’s death concurrently with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Erkel. This was a somewhat unlikely tribute by a bevy of highly-talented pianists braving numbed fingers and the electronic amplification of their heroic renderings, to two composers who wrote little if anything for the instrument! This fact notwithstanding, the pianists fittingly selected to play Chopin (whose anniversary is also this year) and Liszt (whose will be next year). The broad avenue was closed to traffic, and all around me I was aware of the many foreign tongues expressing delight and admiration, hands clasping guide books and maps, and young employees of the Hop-on-hop-off bus distributing leaflets with great alacrity.

In recent years, tourism has increased notably, while the months now covered by the presence of foreign visitors in the capital, and the events organised to tempt them here, have grown significantly. The many arts festivals, food and wine festivals, popular and classical music events, to name just a few, have seen Budapest experience the phenomenon of tourism as never before.

How difficult it now is to recall the situation which prevailed when this part of Europe was effectively isolated and forgotten by those whose foreign holidays ended in Vienna. Not that travel to communist lands was outlawed or impossible – but the yards of red tape and a fear of the unknown were enough to keep all but the most intrepid at bay:
An artificially low exchange rate (in 1980) of just 62 forints to the pound, and a return flight of 200 pounds, did little to induce the potential traveller. In addition, one had to procure a 30-day visa from the Hungarian embassy (or endure a long wait and a lengthy procedure at Ferihegy airport on arrival).Then followed the uncomfortable scrutiny by passport control, questions by grim-faced customs officials, and the feeling of insecurity as to the legality of bringing certain items (like jeans) into the country. Within 48 hours one had to register at the local police station – another intimidating experience.

Tourism, both as a concept and as a reality, was non-existent. Aside from East Germans using the only possible method available to them to meet their relatives from the West at Lake Balaton, one could occasionally witness a dirty old coach bearing Russian plates and some party faithful making its was around Heroes’ Square, but that was all. Monuments and bridges lay in total darkness – no illuminations dazzled the eyes of the awestruck tourist on the river bank – there were very few days a year when the expense was deemed justified. The one airport terminal saw as many – or as few – flights in a week as now arrive in a single day. No tourist maps, tourist offices or information, and all else only in the vernacular. A real experience of travel and the unknown for those who were willing to take their chances!

It was thus a real pleasure to now find myself among the hordes of people who had chosen to visit this unquestionably beautiful city, which was for so long hidden in both metaphorical and actual darkness. It is possible that some native Hungarians feel there are now enough tourists – but my suspicion is that like me, they enjoy the feeling that Budapest is no longer ‘’off stage” and that their isolation has truly ended.

16.8.10

Baja Revisited








It is now thirty summers since I first went from England to the southern Hungarian town of Baja to teach English, and this weekend I returned to meet my erstwhile students. Baja is little-known by visitors, lacking the more obvious sights or notable events which would make the journey to Hungary’s southern border unmissable. Yet its tranquil atmosphere, its imposing main square and its beautiful setting on the Sugovica river guarantee that I can easily be persuaded to re-visit it.

Back in 1980, a four-hour train journey in sweltering temperatures, ending with the expansive bridge over the Danube at its widest, was my usual way of reaching Baja. Then, just an old pedestrian bridge linked the sleepy town with the small island (Petöfi sziget) where I was both to hold the course, and to live for the weeks of my stay. The English lessons were arranged for employees of a furniture factory by its manager, a self-confessed Anglo maniac, in the factory’s modest holiday home at the far end of the island. In the breaks we sat out in the garden and waited for the manager’s young son, Gordi, to cycle along the sandy path, past the KISZ (Young Communists’ Association) building, and back to the bridge to fetch us lángos (deep fried flat bread). Little could we have foretold that thirty years later he (Gordon Bajnai!) would be running the country!

Afternoons were frequently spent swimming in the Sugovica which wends its way to the mighty Danube nearby. Apart from the enormous main square (Béke tér) the town’s main meeting places were the market, and the fish market which was located on the stone steps leading down to the water. Evenings saw us take our (wooden) seats at the small local cinema, or sit chatting around the fire, watching Baja’s speciality of fish soup bubbling golden orange in a cauldron in the garden; mosquitoes were an inescapable part of life there. With no motor traffic on the island its silence was interrupted only by the cooing of the wood pigeons or the splash of the water. More islands lay further downstream, and a ferryman sat by the shore in his old rowing boat, well beyond the crimson sunset and into dusk, waiting for passengers.

Life after 1989 saw some unexpected changes: a second building where we had held an English course was temporarily transformed into a brothel, while the Yugoslav war yielded undreamt-of opportunities for those seeking to make their fortunes from cross-border gun-running and other forms of smuggling, and the town’s cafés filled with dubious clientele from both sides of the border. Baja today is a hotchpotch of the old and the new. Inevitably, there have been many changes – for my part, the least welcome being the demolition of the old bridge to Petöfi sziget and the construction of one able to take motor vehicles; much building has also taken place on the island. The market continues to thrive, though the fish market has relinquished its small cove to the mooring of small motor boats; the cinema is closed, though none has been built to replace it. The buildings on the main square have been restored to their original splendour - churches and parks likewise. Meanwhile, the spectacularly ugly concrete department store stands still in all its communist glory – a true reminder of the horrors we all accepted stoically as a part of life at that time!

But wandering the quiet paths alongside the sandy shores of the Sugovica with its motionless fishermen, the sun’s setting reflected in the river’s small waves, the smell of soup wafting from the Halászcsárda (fish restaurant) and the willows hanging in the deep green water, I realise that even these changes have not spoilt this town. I will be back.

5.8.10

End of the Saga?




Anyone who has followed this blog from its start, almost one year ago, will have noted the occasional entries connected with the fate of the Music Academy. It has, unwittingly, become a symbol of the ‘planning’ which characterises many aspects of life in the country.

The completed renovation of the nineteenth-century building in Liszt Ferenc tér, was originally planned to coincide with its centenary in 2007 – this did not come to pass, and the new deadline became 2011 – the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth. Work was set to commence in 2009, then this too was postponed. Finally, amid closing ceremonies and marathon concerts, a grand Farewell was taken last autumn….only for teaching to continue for the following academic year as though nothing had happened.

Now, apart from the ghostly strains of a piano being played in a far-flung practice room, and the odd thud of heavy boxes being moved along in its empty corridors, the Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia is deserted. The renovation work should soon begin, though as everyone is well aware, this senseless timing means that there is not even an outside chance that the building will be open for the important anniversary next year. That renovation is both necessary and long-overdue, is not in question. But having missed so many planned dates to start the work, would it not have been logical to delay this by a mere twelve months more in order to allow access to the building when, inevitably, musicians will flock to Hungary’s capital to celebrate Liszt’s birthday next year? It may be a little shabby, but the Zeneakadémia is hardly in danger of imminent collapse. Meanwhile, the unsolved problem of where the institution might move to during the renovation period seems to have been solved. An office block at 25, Űllöi út, between the Museum of Applied Arts and Kálvin tér, and which once housed the country’s Standards Office, will become the temporary home of the Academy.

The vexed question for those working and studying there – for there is no point here in enumerating the countless shortcomings of an office block for the teaching of music – is quite how temporary this sojourn is likely to be. The reason cited for every problem in Hungary is a lack of money – and there is no question that the renovation of the Academy will be a costly affair. However, as with many other large-scale projects in the country, the EU has provided funding. Yet only this week, the Wall Street Journal commented on the stance of Hungary’s present government towards the outside world, stating that: Mr. Orban, who took office in late May after a landslide election victory, has made it clear that he believes Hungary can survive without more IMF and EU aid. There remain, then, two critical questions: Is the Zeneakadémia already in possession of the money earmarked for its renovation? And, if they are, what will be the situation if – as seems to happen as a matter of course with such things – the designated sum is insufficient, and more money must be found?

Hungary is strewn with half-finished building and renovation projects which bear the stars of the EU flag, promising a secure source of capital that will see the job finished - the fourth metro line and Margit híd to mention just the two most obvious. If additional finance is required for these or other works (which will now need to be raised nationally), one need not speculate long on the relative priority that will be given to a music academy against a bridge or an underground line.
The 150th anniversary of the founding of the Zeneakadémia as a teaching institution, is in 2025….

21.7.10

Home from Home


In common with many people at this time of year, we travelled away for a short holiday. Summer it may be, but summery it was not in Donegal, Ireland, our chosen destination. However, the unspoilt beauty of its green hills and mountains, the heartfelt warmth of its people, and a total dearth of tourists (there must be more sheep than people in this area) were magical. Just three other people combed the empty miles of sandy beaches which look out over the Atlantic, while country lanes were choked – not with traffic – but with wild flowers, where the only ‘noise’ was provided by the breeze, the sheep and the larks; a stark contrast indeed to the urban living of Budapest.

Our late-evening return flight from London was delayed, meaning we were sitting in the homeward-bound taxi at 2a.m. No gradual transition back to Hungarian reality for us: the outside thermometer showed an unequivocal 27c, even at this hour: as the pilot had said, “We are now descending into the furnace…,” while our driver careered from one lane to the other, simultaneously answering his hand-held mobile phone, and shooting through two red lights. To complete the Hungarian experience in style, he asked for 5,500 forints in place of the fixed price of 5,200 – a small increase, but nevertheless, a sharp reminder that one can never relax one’s guard. And then finally, the flat, which must have been ten degrees hotter than it was outside…

The following morning I found an email from a friend who, after many years, decided to return to his native America. In the decade I had known him in Budapest, the overriding tenor of his conversations was one of complaint and disbelief at many aspects of life which he found unacceptable and intolerable (too many to enumerate here). On countless occasions over the years he had emailed me, having decided to abandon Hungary, and suggested a farewell meeting – only to return again! Now, it seemed, he had finally carried out his long-stated intention; his message was brief: How are you? I am miserable in New Jersey…

This phenomenon is far from unique. An English musician friend who spent five years in Budapest, but then left entirely from choice, admitted he could not come and visit us, as he was not sure he would be able to leave the city once he again set foot in it… Meanwhile, ten years ago, I had an Irish colleague who, similarly, could find little to compensate for the many irritations she had with the practicalities of her everyday existence here. These, together with an untenable work situation, prompted her to leave after just four months, gleefully and without a second thought. Imagine then my surprise when some months later, I bumped into her in a Budapest café!
“What are you doing here?” I asked in astonishment.
“Well, you know, after I left I realised just how much I really liked this city…”

Our visit to Ireland was, in fact, to another musician friend who shared some of our Communist years here in the 80s. It was a topic of conversation among us even then, how one could miss a place with all the frustrations and shortcomings it undoubtedly had – especially at that time. His conclusion was that like drinking or coffee, life in Budapest was quite simply ‘habit-forming’ – something one cannot expunge from one’s soul.

Just two days ago, another American friend also returned home after the best part of twenty years in Hungary. These years caused a similar amount of agonising about her decision – which involved five years spent back in the USA, only for her to return to Hungary for a further ten years.

With her flat denuded of all her possessions, some shipped, others given away, she left for an early morning flight to New York, ready for her new life back home. From the taxi I received the shortest of text messages from her as she headed for the airport - :-((
Maybe there really is no escape…..

29.6.10

Theatre of the Absurd


It was with great joy that I happened to notice the forthcoming performance of a play (Macskajáték) last month, by one of my favourite Hungarian writers, Őrkény, to be staged in the Thália theatre.

Having waited a long time to see my other favourite of his plays (Tóthék), and being familiar with the phenomenon of performances being sold out the very day tickets become available – even in the days before the internet – I rushed home to book tickets online. I was in luck – some still remained and my card payment went through without a hitch. However, when I opened my email account there was no confirmation of the purchase and no tickets waiting to be printed. It was a Saturday evening, and I decided to wait until Monday in the event that the procedure was only slow and not faulty. By Tuesday – the first day I had time to make a personal visit to the theatre – I had still to receive any form of communication regarding my tickets.

I approached the box office in the beautiful foyer of the theatre and waited my turn. I then explained I had paid for two tickets but had not received the promised email nor the e-tickets.
“Are you sure you’ve checked your emails carefully?”
“Yes.”
And your Spam box?”
“Yes.”
The woman then enlightened me that it was not the theatre itself which managed the internet ticket site, and therefore she could not help me. She suggested I go to my bank and ask for a print-out of a statement showing that payment had gone through, and then return to her with it. It was already past bank closing hours, and I had no intention of queuing for an hour after work on another day in order to acquire the document, and then return to queue again at the box office. I asked what the situation would be if I lived in another part of the country and could not come to the capital – after all, purchasing goods online is intended to facilitate matters, not involve hours of queuing and travelling. No answer.

In desperation, she pointed to a glass door opposite bearing the inscription Management, and told me to try there. The door was locked, though three young women were clearly visible on the other side, chatting. I knocked and was buzzed to enter. Here I explained the situation once again, and was again informed that it had nothing to do with the theatre. Their suggestion was that I contact the company managing online ticket sales, and they scribbled their telephone number on a scrap of paper.
“How about you ringing them now while I’m here?” I asked.
This brought a look of shock to their faces, but having no ready reason why they could not do so, the woman dialled without any acknowledgement of my request. She handed the receiver to me, whereupon I told the story for now the third time.

The new woman told me that the purchase could be seen – not only on her screen, but on the theatre’s network – whereupon I asked her to repeat this to her ‘colleague’ in the office where I stood. Szia Éva….persze, persze….(Hi Éva…of course, of course.)
“The email was sent to you,” she elucidated, unsmilingly, “But it has now been re-sent.” And with that she turned to one of the other women and resumed the conversation I had no doubt interrupted. Then, as I emerged from the glass doors, the woman in the box office called to me:
“Did you manage to get it sorted out?”
“Yes, thank you. They’re re-sending the email – but I never did get one.”
“Yes – several people have been in to complain about that…”

The evening itself provided a fitting postscript to the purchase of the tickets: swathes of elegantly dressed theatre-goers who had arrived in good time for the performance, were kept waiting in a tightly-packed crowd outside the theatre doors, unable to access the bar, toilets or their seats until three minutes before curtain up.
The play itself was wonderful – small wonder that such a master of the Absurd should have sprung from this country.


14.6.10

Ignorance is Bliss



Returning home from work on one of the warmer afternoons last week, I saw a woman sweating her way towards me on the otherwise deserted path. She was still some distance off, but I could make out that she was carrying several bulging bags as well as the jacket she had divested, as she trudged heavily in my direction. When she came within a few metres of me, I realised she belonged to that category of people impossible to age: their youth prematurely truncated by an excess of food, drink and Life in Hungary; now careworn, obese and unkempt. Looking towards her again, my attention was caught by the English words emblazoned on her tightly stretched t-shirt. They read: Go on, admit it – you’ve got the hots for me. Little could have been more incongruous, and I felt certain she could have not the slightest inkling of the message she was broadcasting, on a garment she had most likely found in one of the numerous second-hand clothes shops that have sprung up in recent years.

Before 1989, anything which could be identified as having originated from kint, (abroad, and not socialist) was a status symbol, whether it was a pair of Levi jeans or merely a carrier bag bearing the name of a foreign shop. This was true to the extent that a friend persuaded me to part with two old Indian skirts in exchange for a fridge, and it also resulted in daily requests for me to sell a PVC shopping bag with the Cinzano label printed on it, when I made my shopping trips to the market on Garay tēr where we lived. Unconvincing imitations of foreign goods were also manufactured inside the country’s borders – unidentifiable from the genuine article to all but a small handful of people with a smattering of a foreign language – a real rarity – or those who had managed to travel abroad. Thus it was that one of the alcoholics who was as permanent a feature of the market as the flower-sellers, owned a sweatshirt purportedly from ‘Oxsford University.’

Yet this phenomenon was perpetuated into the 90s. Our elderly neighbours at that time had a son who had defected to America, and who every now and then would send a parcel for his elderly parents. Maybe he considered it of no consequence in a country where few knew English (including his parents) but the sweatshirt he sent his 70-year-old mother, and which she proudly wore for our weekly shopping trip to the local market, bore the sizeable inscription: Fuck You! It was as uncomfortable as it was unavoidable that I impart to her the meaning of the words on her new garment.

Today, it is more ambiguous as to the intention with which such clothes are worn. The attractive young woman selling hot dogs at the Palatinus swimming pool on the Margaret Island, may well have known the meaning on her t-shirt: Can you maintain me? Though whether the white-haired porter working at a small hospital for the elderly where I go regularly, knew the meaning of his, I doubt. As he wandered the corridors, pushing octo- and nonagenarians in their wheelchairs, and politely greeting their visiting relatives (for the most part, also elderly), he appeared sublimely ignorant of the message on display on the front of his t-shirt: Born 2 FXXK.
Ignorance is bliss….

4.6.10

Cock and Ball Story



Living in distant – and not so distant – parts, is an education on a number of fronts. Certainly, living among the locals, shopping and cooking, brings one into direct contact with the culture in a way mere tourism, or even travelling, cannot.

In 1980, I was dispatched to the southern town of Baja (still a favourite) to undertake a few weeks’ teaching. The students were of lower intermediate level, and morning sessions frequently began with questions about the previous evening, and morning routines. On asking one of the weaker members of the group about that morning’s breakfast, I got the following response (in an accent as thick as any Hungarian stew): ‘I had some bread, some tea and some cold dog.’ I blinked; then I moved quickly on to the next student, silently telling myself different countries, different habits… However, having come full circle back to the first man, I asked him to repeat what he had said (in the vain hope that I had misheard). But no - he repeated it verbatim. Possibly some involuntary facial expression prompted him to elucidate, ‘Not hot dog – cold dog.’ Of course.

The apparent strangeness of other Hungarian delicacies proved not to be the result of linguistic misunderstanding. We failed dismally to meet the challenge of matching the enthusiasm of our friends for tripe, brains, bone marrow and jellied vegetables - never mind fighting over unidentifiable animal parts fished out of steaming tureens of soup – particularly chickens’ feet, claws and all.

Last weekend I had lunch at Gerbeaud’s Onyx restaurant – a firm favourite. Having been a not infrequent guest over the last year, the restaurant manager had come to notice that we were as comfortable to converse with him in Hungarian as English, and had apparently decided he would ask for some little assistance with the translation of the menu. He explained that although there had been no complaint as such, he had observed a degree of consternation on the faces of his guests, especially, he added, the Americans. He apologised for interrupting our meal but said he would much appreciate our help in finding a more appropriate description of the delicacy – a dish which took first prize at the national chefs’ Tradition and Evolution competition earlier this year. However, in view of the reactions he had observed on the faces of foreign diners, and their subsequent failure to order the dish, he was keen to amend its translation.
Bringing over the original Hungarian version of the menu, he pointed to the dish in question: Csirkemell és glazírozott comb hús, füstölt burgonya pürével, kakas herés rizottó ropogóssal és „uborkasalátával”. This had been perfectly accurately – if not entirely delicately – translated: Breast of chicken and glazed leg of the chicken with smoked potato purée, crispy risotto with ball of the cock* and cucumber salad.

I did not blink – far less blanch. This time I succeeded in maintaining the legendary British cucumber coolness combined with a very stiff upper lip. Lesson learnt.



(* in other words, Risotto with cockerel testicles)

( http://www.onyxrestaurant.hu/ )

28.5.10

Information Blackout…the saga continues




In September of last year I wrote my first piece (Information Blackout) on the imminent closure of Budapest’s Zeneakadémia. It was announced that the long overdue renovations would begin in 2010. In fact, these renovations were originally intended to be completed for 2007 – the hundredth anniversary of the building’s opening in 1907, but the date came and went with no discernable result.
Plan B, was to have the building renewed from top to bottom in time for a grand re-opening in 2011, in time to mark the 200th birthday anniversary of Franz Liszt (born in 1811). With the projected 2-year period necessary for the work to be completed, the mooted 2009 closure was already behind schedule – though Liszt’s birthday being in October, some sought to console critics that October 22nd 2011 was suitable for such a ceremonious re-opening.
However, a new academic year began in 2009 with still no concrete date for work to begin, now making the dream of an October 2011 opening all but impossible. Voices were raised, suggesting the entire project now be delayed until after 2011, but in vain. A whole programme of Farewell Concerts was organised between the 3rd and 9th of November of last year, culminating in the non-stop playing of all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in the main concert hall of the Music Academy, conducted by Kocsis. Alongside the concerts were photo exhibitions, evening jazz concerts, tours of the building, a symposium, and Music History lectures open to the public. 2011, the concerts and conferences planned worldwide, with their focus on Liszt (and therefore Hungary and the Budapest Music Academy), had suddenly become an irrelevance.

But then the Music Academy did not close. Nor has it to the present day. Concerts which would have been held in its Grand Hall were rescheduled to the French Institute, but teaching and examining continued, undisturbed, in the Liszt Ferenc tér building as though nothing at all had happened. Moreover, no-one, neither teachers nor students were told when or where to the move would be. Rumours abounded, but were neither refuted nor confirmed by the institution. Rumours then began that March would be the month for the momentous relocation – yet this seemed a bizarre choice, in the middle of the year’s final term and just two months from the May examinations and end of teaching. Needless to say, this also failed to be realised.

It is now the end of May, 2010 – a full academic year from the announcement of the Academy’s imminent closure. The Farewell Concerts raise no more than an ironic smile on the lips of those who refer to them, while teachers, librarians, piano technicians and students have become bored with laying bets on the whens and wheres of their shared futures. The academic year is as good as over; teachers and students are beginning their summer holidays, and not one knows where they should go come September. And having now delayed the renovation for a whole year, would it not seem reasonable to delay one more year, leaving the building open for the anniversary events which will be taking place worldwide in 2011, and which will inevitably see many foreign musicians visiting Budapest?

The concept of shared communication and even a small degree of transparency being as alien as it was twenty years ago, not even the Academy’s web page refers to this most burning of all questions. The promising homepage headings such as The Renovation of the Music Academy – only available to those who read Hungarian (this section is curiously absent in the English version!) - will be disappointed if they expect any hint at all to be divulged as to where teaching will continue following the closure. Should you be curious about the future catering plans of the building, the acoustics, its toilets and cleaning regimens, detailed descriptions are provided.
After scouring the web site for some time I thought I had discovered the key: on the Academy’s final web page is a link to ‘Privy Councils Communications,’ promising Strategic Communications – herein must lie the answers I felt sure. But nothing relating to the Zeneakadémia can be seen; I therefore entered its name into the Search facility. This provided me with….a link back to the Academy’s homepage!
Possibly, I should have tried two of the other links proffered by the Privy Council, aptly named: Image Building, or even more appropriately, Crisis Communication.

(See: http://www.zeneakademia.hu/ )

22.5.10

Communication G_p


There is no doubt that the overall foreign language-learning situation in Hungary has improved. Prior to 1989 it proved nigh on impossible to find a Magyar who could hold a coherent conversation in anything but their mother tongue. While the elderly had a smattering – or maybe more – of German, the younger generation, faced with compulsory lessons in the language of their occupiers, given by teachers who were burning the midnight oil to keep a few pages ahead of their students, were notable only for their failure to teach even a basic knowledge of the Russian language. Indeed, it was a source of great pride to the majority of Hungarians to boast of eight years and more of lessons, and profess their inability even to ask for a glass of water.

This linguistic isolation, compounded by the difficulty of travelling anywhere except East Germany and of course the Soviet Union, resulted in a conspicuous lack of impetus to begin language study. Here, I must admit that this was entirely to the advantage of anyone like me, bent on the unlikely task of mastering magyarul! The futility of trying to communicate in anything but the local tongue guaranteed rapid progress in this difficult language.

Yet even in those communist years, western products trickled in here and there, smuggled across the border, or available in the exclusive diplomatic or dollar shops – accessible only by the few. Such brands as Levis and Wrangler jeans – particularly useful as a form of currency in the Soveit Union – and JVC cassettes, which could be relied upon not to shred when over and over they played the western pop music not to be heard on the radio, and which had been recorded from a lucky friend’s LP. This, in direct contrast to the locally produced and notoriously unreilable Polimer cassettes. Yet, popular as they were, few people had even the vaguest notion of how these names should be pronounced; or more accurately, they knew exactly how they should be said: Layviss (Levis), Rangelair (Wrangler) and Gee-Vee-See (JVC) tapes on which they could play The Bitliss (Beatles) music they loved. They looked bemused if someone gave the correct version, and, having ascertained what the poor uninitiated person was trying to say, quickly corrected their erroneous pronunciation. Thus, along with mastering gy, ty, ggy, ő, ű and the rest, I perfected the local pronunciation of foreign names and products such as Verchestair (Worcester sauce – popular even then) and learnt to use the unlikely term ‘farmer’ for jeans that were neither Layviss nor Rangelair.

Being the lucky possessor of a UK passport, I was sometimes asked to purchase items not available on the open market, for friends or colleagues. A regular request was for audio cassettes – few western pop records could be bought, but anyone with relatives kint (literally ‘outside’, meaning anywhere abroad, usually in The West) would have received them as presents. I worked in a language school and reliable cassettes were invaluable, and so I made a forray into a dollar shop on behalf of the school and asked for six Gee-Vee-See cassettes. The shop assisstant looked at me disdainfully. Witheringly, she stated: “That’s not how you say it - it’s JVC,” and shook her head sadly at my ignorance. Then, she carefully wrapped the precious items in tissue paper, and giving a final sigh of admonishment, handed them over to me.

8.5.10

Rite of Passage




















Anyone who has been in Hungary in the last few weeks may have been aware of two unusual phenomena: first, that the towns were full of groups of people who looked as though were en route to a wedding or a birthday party – elegantly dressed, bearing bouquets of flowers and assorted teddy bears and balloons. Then second, this last week, that there was a palpable dearth of teenagers on morning rush-hour public transport, albeit for a few who looked as though they were left over from the previous week’s ‘wedding’: attired in suits and ties, almost exclusively in black and white, possibly smoking nervously, reading distractedly, or taking leave from a similarly agitated parent. These students on trams, or waiting for buses, exchange looks of unspoken understanding with others similarly clad whom they happen to see, on their way to a similar fate. Every year is it thus: the beginning of the Érettségi – the weeks of school-leaving examinations. While younger students have a few days’ holiday, those now leaving school take part in a tradition that has hardly changed over the decades and which all students have been anticipating for the last year.

One does not simply ‘leave school’ in Hungary! At the end of April or beginning of May there is a formal school leave-taking ceremony, the Ballagás, which is attended by both the families and friends of the student about to celebrate this rite of passage. Naturally, each school has its own particular traditions, but it is usually the responsibility of the students one class below, to organise the event. Classrooms and corridors are decorated with fresh flowers – the flower of choice being lilac. On the day in question, extended family and friends make their way to the school, where they then line both sides of every corridor in the building. The classes of those leaving then parade (ballagni) in single file between the onlookers, often singing their farewell to their alma mater. Each has their hand on the shoulder of the student in front, and as they pass their families they are handed flowers and assorted cuddly toys or balloons. It is a wonderfully colourful and celebratory leave-taking, from whence many make their way to restaurants or cafés or a family celebration at home.

Later in the evening students gather once again in order to serenade their teachers. They make their way to their homes and sing for them – often from outside their flats, out in the garden, whereupon the teacher will invite them in. Here, there follows eating, drinking and more celebration before they continue to the next teacher’s, on into the late evening.

The day over, the following days’ thoughts turn to final revision for the examinations ahead. And on Monday morning, conspicuous in dark suits and ties, staring blankly or engaged in frantic last-minute cramming, they are observed by sympathetic people on their way to work, reminiscing on their own Érettségi. It is an event which will be recalled and commemorated annually, then less frequently, but celebrated nonetheless, when classes gather for Érettségi reunions, even many decades later.

2.5.10

Mayday


Country traditions of maypole dancing or choosing a May Queen from among a village’s most beautiful young girls, are complemented in Hungary by the tradition of making a May Tree. It is the pleasant task of any boy in love, secretly to tie coloured ribbons to a tree in the girl’s garden during the night before Mayday while she sleeps. She then has the equally pleasant task of speculating on the identity of her ‘anonymous’ admirer.

On my first Mayday, spent away from the city in Hajdúböszörmény, I witnessed the solution to the problem posed by the increasing urbanisation of even country people now living in blocks of flats. Though trees surrounded the block, a May Tree would obviously not indicate which particular girl had received such adulation. The young man in question made his way to a nearby copse, broke off a large branch and took it home. That night, he used the door key to the block (his married sister lived there) to let himself in, and propping the branch - resplendent in its myriad of coloured ribbons - outside the girl’s flat, he crept out, back into the night.

May the First


As on every warm and sunny May 1st since coming to live here, I watched yesterday as families sauntered to the Varosliget alongside a man bearing a cloud of foil balloons filled with helium to sell in the park. Unawares, they passed by closeby to our resident homeless man, who in the warmer Spring weather has returned to living on the railway embankment (see Blog for Jan. 26th).

As on all such bank holidays now, the various political parties were also gathering, this time in the wake of the general election, to lick their wounds or celebrate their successes. May the first, Labour Day or International Workers’ Day, has traditionally celebrated the rights of working people and the right to form unions which represent those same people. In Hungary, as in other European countries, approximately ten percent of the workforce is unemployed while political loyalties further divide a society increasingly disparate in terms of wealth and living standards. Thus, the political rallies which now dominate every national holiday – be it October 23rd, March 15th or May 1st – fail in every way to achieve the sense of unity that bound a society (albeit on a certain level of hardship), which could celebrate one hundred percent employment. There was then undeniably also the element of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – the ‘them’ being Kádár and the other party officials standing on the tribune, the ‘us’, everyone else. But there was no-one eeking out an existence in the city’s underpasses, disused railway carriages or woods.

We then lived on Garay tér, a small market square just off Dózsa György út. Sleep became impossible after six o’clock in the morning, as groups of people from various factories and other places of work, gathered beneath our windows. Buses arrived from every part of the country carrying thousands of people who would represent their co-operative or union. By the start of the parade at 10 a.m. the whole road had become a swathe of marching bodies, a sea of people bearing flags, banners, balloons, salami sandwiches and bottles of beer: an ocean whose current was so strong, that when I ventured around the corner I was swept along, unwittingly, behind representatives of a shoe factory, and in the midst of the sailors’ union MAHART. Speakers which had been attached to lamposts in the preceding week bellowed out communist songs, rallying cries and thunderous applause. And thus it continued for hours, the never-ending swarm of humanity - uncountable numbers - moving as one before the tribune and the statue of Lenin, until they spread out into the park behind Hősök tere: to peruse the stalls (where such rarities as Matchbox cars and Smarties could be found), to picnic – or simply to stretch out on the grass and fall asleep in the sun.

24.4.10

Watching the World Go By



I have to admit to being an inveterate observer – not just of people, but of my surroundings. I have long enjoyed simply to stroll the streets of the city, noting such changes as have occurred since my last amble in that vicinity, and this reason alone explains my propensity for walking rather than riding, and for public transport over driving. But given a sunny day and sufficient free time, my greatest self-indulgence is to settle myself at a table at a street café, and simply to observe the eccentricities of the characters who populate this city, and who guarantee I never experience a moment’s boredom within its confines...

Some years ago, having a coffee in Pasaréti tér, my attention was attracted by an elderly woman approaching from around the corner – I was able to hear her before I could see her: she kept up a steady monologue to her equally invisible companion about the exhorbitant rise in her medication and the scandal of government subsidies being reduced on medicines. As she rounded the tree, becoming visible, I saw that her escort was neither her friend nor husband, but a somewhat portly dachshund. They continued past my vantage point, only to return some ten minutes later with the requisite medicaments, and with the elegantly-attired lady continuing her diatribe, pausing only to wish some acquaintance, “Good morning,” before disappearing once more from view.

Last summer, I was sitting lazily outside the Europa café in the sun, when my attention was drawn to an elderly man in tracksuit and trainers nearby. He stopped adjacent to a nearby lamp-post a mere few metres from my table, and, holding on to it, began to perform his constitutional exercises - much like a ballerina at the barre in a slow motion version of a silent movie. Paying not the slightest notice either to us or passers-by, he continued thus for some twenty minutes before shuffling on along up Szent István Körút.

Rushing to work in the rain just a week ago, I noticed an elegantly-dressed man in a suit some distance ahead of me who kept bending over as though to adjust his shoelaces. I soon caught up with him, stooping again over his shoes and oblivious to my stares as I saw him carefully remove a snail in danger of pedestrians’ feet, and put it safely to one side on the grass verge….

An ex-colleague visited recently from Basel where she now lives – her most frequent complaint with the city being its perfect organisation and lack of the ‘character’ she came to love in Budapest. We decided to eat out on the terrace of Két Szerecsen, where we caught up with the eighteen months since our last meeting. While we waited for our wine, we noticed a man crossing the road towards us, carrying two buckets. He stopped just the other side of the wooden trellis separating us from the pavement, and started digging up the soil in the large, concrete box there, in perfect view of several diners and any passer-by. He methodically filled both buckets with fresh earth – perhaps put in readiness for flowers to be planted the following day – and then returned from whence he had come, no questions asked.

Yet the most incongruous spectacle I still remember with great fondness, happened one June about ten years ago. It was almost seven o’clock on a sunny summer’s morning as I drove around Hősök tere, taking my children to school. As we turned onto the grand avenue that is Andrássy út, its wonderful villas bathed in dappled sunlight, its footpaths lined with flowers, I had to slow down dramatically in order to confirm what I thought I had seen, but could not believe: walking alongside the neatly trimmed bushes that border the flower beds, was a man leading a large white goat on a lead, waiting patiently while it nibbled the fresh greenery available for its breakfast!

17.4.10

Signs and Portents


I was 23 years old when, alighting from the dodgems in an English country fairground, I announced, ‘I want to learn to drive.’ Those brave individuals – including my husband and my brother – who volunteered to take me out to practise, were sorely tested. When asked how it had gone, my brother stated simply, ‘I didn’t know what fear was before this afternoon.’ This aside, I managed to pass my driving test first time, and to date have been the cause of only one accident with another vehicle. I have driven to a good number of other countries including twice from Budapest to England without any trouble at all. In fact, I enjoy driving.

However, I have to admit to having failed abysmally in trying to fathom the signs and regulations governing traffic in this country. Admittedly, I have no excuse, since the Hungarian equivalent of the Highway Code, KRESZ, is available on the internet; I am also not unaware that there is now a written exam in Britain which did not exist when I took my test. Yet the entire KRESZ document is comparable only to a legal contract: paragraphs and sub-sections, references back to previous (i) or (a) or (b) points, all swimming in a mass of dense text and convoluted sentence structures. Certainly not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted!

When my children were making their own intrepid attempts to commit these some five-hundred rules to memory (another sixty have just been added or modified), they also began to analyse and pass critical comment on my hitherto acceptable mode of conveying them about the city: ‘You don’t have to give way here – look, that street’s got the mackósajt sign!’ explained my son. This aforementioned mackósajt is the affectionate term for the upturned triangular Give Way sign familiar all over Europe, which indeed resembles the triangles of processed cheese (sajt) with the bear (mackó) on the label. What is not quite so well understood is that in order to determine that you have right of way, and that the drivers coming from your right have to stop, you are required to look along the road at rightangles to yours and try to spot the back of this sign! I have as yet not managed to achieve this at a speed which does not require me to slow down, especially in summer months when foliage may obscure the sign altogether – and I was taught to keep my eyes on the road (the one I am driving down!)

The truth is, that the most obvious difference when driving in Hungary – as in many areas of life – is that the regulations seem to provide more of a reference point than a series of unassailable rules; more of a general indicator of what the average driver is deviating from, than a rigid law. For example, probably around fifty percent of drivers do not wear seat belts, and most use their hand-held mobile phones as a matter of course. No sane pedestrian would expect a driver to stop for them – not even when that driver is a policeman – even allowing for any number of painted lines on the road or signs not obscured by greenery. So well trained is the average pedestrian, in fact, that when I recently stopped at a pedestrian crossing where the lights were out of order, and waved the man across, he steadfastly refused to move, angrily gesticulating at me to move on.

Thus, I continue to drive in the strange hybrid style born of a British training and a Hungarian penchant for jumping the lights – which must surely explain their time delay – and conclude that probably the best possible preparation for taking to Budapest’s roads would indeed be a few hours spent on the dodgems.




4.4.10

Easter in the Country


Living in the city, it is doubtful whether even the Budapestiek will have experienced a ‘real’ Easter: a gentrified and somewhat anodyne version of events is practised by some in Budapest, but the colourful traditions of the festival can only be experienced outside the capital.
The giving of young rabbits to children alongside both chocolate and painted eggs is, of course, to be found in the cities – though the feasibility of keeping them in a country garden (as opposed to donating them to the zoo, where it is strenuously denied that they are used as fodder for the carnivores!) is obvious. For those who attend church, people in country towns and especially villages, may take their Easter fare to be blessed on Easter Sunday morning. The freshly-baked sweet bread (kalács) is carefully covered in white cloths and carried to the local church where, weather permitting, services are sometimes held outside. Easter lunches, frequently attended by the whole extended family, can be as important an event as Christmas.
But it is Easter Monday which is witness to the real disparity between town and country. This is the day for locsolás, for ‘watering’ the girls. In Budapest, this consists of fathers and sons visiting female relatives, or maybe limiting themselves to those in their own family flat. The boys should recite a short poem to the effect that they noticed a flower wilting, and ask the ‘flower’s’ permission to water her. The girl acquiesces and her hair is sprinkled with (usually cheap and overpoweringly fragrant) cologne. Bottles of this dubious eau-de-cologne can be seen on sale on every street corner in the days leading up to Easter. Hereupon, the girl gives the boy an Easter egg – traditionally a dyed red one, and maybe also some money.
My first experience of this day was in Hajdúböszörmény, close to Debrecen. The family we were staying with had no fewer than seven (now adult) sons and one daughter. By ten o’clock the seven elegantly-dressed boys accompanied by their sons, and with my husband Paul in tow, left for their annual walk around the town, pockets bulging with bottles of cologne, the young boys with small baskets in which to carry their booty. They always called on every single female relative, from their 90-year-old maiden aunt, to the youngest newborn baby in the family. Two of the men also carried soda syphons – the real tradition of locsolás consisting of drenching the village girls with buckets of water!
I was left at home with the seven boys’ mother, her daughter and granddaughter, to prepare both for the men’s return, and any others who might meanwhile call on us. A large bowl of dyed red eggs had been prepared the previous day, and plates of smoked ham, boiled eggs, and kalács stood in readiness, alongside bottles of wine and homemade pálinka. We had several visitors, some of whom recited long verses of which I understood not a word, but knew I must answer igen when the recitation stopped. In return for being saved from wilting, I then offered the egg, food and drink.
It was well after noon when the crowd of men and boys returned – in various stages of inebriation, from the mildly merry to the totteringly tipsy. But the worst casualty of all was Paul – being less experienced, and not wanting to offend any of his hosts, he had accepted the pálinka proffered in every home, and was literally carried through the garden gate and into the house where he slept until late into the evening. Whose fate was worse we discussed at length: Paul’s hangover lasted only another twenty-four hours; my hair, following sixteen 'waterings', and even in spite of washing it daily, still reeked of cheap perfume for more than a week.

27.3.10

April 4th


Communist Hungary had a good number of high days and holidays, some celebrated, some less so. November 7th – the anniversary of the great October revolution in Russia (hence the discrepancy in the dates) – was a national holiday, but there was little outward sign of any associated festivities. It was possibly a reflection of the Hungarians’ view of the extent to which this day merited any sort of celebration whatsoever: when I enquired of some students how the day was usually marked, I was informed that probably more people got drunk than usual.

April 4th was a little more ambivalent. It marked the day of the liberation of Budapest (from the Nazis) by the Soviets in 1945. The day was unlikely to be greeted by enthusaistic flag-waving Hungarians, but had nevertheless to be marked in official circles to appease the country’s ‘liberators’. This national holiday was used for military parades on Dózsa György út which were boadcast on the news, but few went to watch who had not been instructed to do so. As on all such days, the flags came out: Hungarian tricolours and the red communist flag with hammer and sickle. Every house, every public building, every bridge, every tram and bus sported one of each, while huge banners fluttered over Népköztársaság útja (Andrássy út) and Dózsa György út, suspended from wires stretching across the entire width of the broad avenues.

Leaving the city behind, we spent one such April 4th with our friend Miklós and his brother, János, in the village of Polgár not far from Debrecen. János was the leader of the State Farm, and April 4th was the day on which two duties fell to him to perform: the first was the distribution of bonuses to Outstanding Workers; the second was to lay wreaths on the graves of the three Russian soldiers who lay buried in the small local cemetery. Through dark and rain we bumped along muddy unmade roads in János’s Lada, parking beside the low building which was to host the celebration. There we joined the already-assembled state farm workers, and took our places in the throng.
We all shuffled along the muddy track – János, and one or two other dignitaries at the front – we at the rear. At an appropriately solemn pace we marched raggedly through the muddy rivulets to the small wicket gate of the cemetery which was only large enough for the first few to enter. There, more speeches were given and the wreaths placed alongside gravestones bearing Russian inscriptions.

Back at the building, rows of wooden chairs stood in a hall with a small stage at one end. Once the room was full the speeches began: quotas fulfilled, ambitious five-year plans; then followed the traipsing onto the stage of those workers who had been singled out for a reward: a certificate and a small bag containing cash.
The event would have been reminiscent of a school speech day – apart from the beer and pálinka, the pogácsa and the cakes; and the fact that we were being surveyed from every wall by pictures of Lenin and socialist-realist farm workers smilingly reaping corn, with the red star hanging above us all.

18.3.10

What’s in a Name?


In these days of increasing hysteria surrounding climate change, fanned by scientific fact and a not insignificant amount of hot air, it is maybe comforting to find that the peasant wisdom of folk lore continues to hold good.

If you had been under the (erroneous) impression that Spring begins on March 21st, think again – at least if you are living in Hungary. March 15th signals the onset of Spring, so long-awaited after the dark, dismal winter months. Allowing for slight hiccoughs (the sprinkling of soggy snow the morning of the 16th this year was an unpleasant surprise!) there is almost always a marked rise in temperatures around this date.

However, though it is difficult to outdo a revolution (March 15th), most weather forecasting is linked to Name Days in Hungary. I have not yet discovered another country where the saints days are celebrated in this way – all Hungarians have a name day, and it is often this – rather than a birthday, usually a family affair – which is celebrated by acquaintances and colleagues. All calendars list the names allotted to the days of the year, and some of the more prominent names (Mária, János etc.) have several. Many flower shops display name days in their windows, eager to remind you in case you had not consulted the calendar or listened to the radio that morning, (name days, including their origins, are given on the early morning radio programmes).

March 18th, 19th and 21st mark the days of the saints which bring us warmth in their sacks: Sándor, József, Benedek, zsákban hoznak be a meleget. A quick look at the web pages forecasting weather in the coming days confirm the rhyme. Similarly, though May can be gloriously warm, there remains the ever-present threat of the freezing saints, fagyos szentek: Pongrác, Szervác and Bonifác, on May 12th, 13th and 14th. If not actually freezing, these days are often marked by cooler and frequently rainy weather. If you are hoping for a white Christmas, the day to watch is Katalin nap on November 25th. As the saying goes, if this day is wet then Christmas will be frozen ( and vice-versa). Interestingly, June 8th, Medárd, is ascribed the same properties as St. Swithin’s (July 15th) in Britain – should it rain on this day then 40 more days of rain will follow, or conversely, if the day be fine, 40 days of drought will ensue. Many more folk weather predictions, particularly associated with farming and harvests,exist, though with a more urban lifestyle, are rapidly being forgotten.

Some years ago, when teaching at a university English department, in order to qualify for the small addition to my salary a pass would occasion, I was persuaded to sit for the advanced level state language exam in Hungarian. The examination date was set for May 16th, a warm day but with relentlessly heavy rain. On leaving the flat and locking the door, umbrella at hand, my elderly neighbour appeared, ready to go to market. “Awful weather!” I said. “Well,” she replied, “you know the saying: Májusi eső aranyat ér,” (May rain is worth gold). I did not know it, and found little consolation for my soggy departure in the fact that farmers would be happy.
On arriving at the exam centre I was presented with the first part of the test: a 50-question multiple-choice paper on grammar, vocabulary and miscellaneous other items. Question twenty-three had me chuckling silently to myself with what would have passed as exam-nerve hysteria; it said: Complete the saying: Májusi eső....

11.3.10

March 15th : A National Celebration


March 15th, 1848, was the day when Hungary’s poet, Sándor Petöfi, stood on the steps of the National Museum and recited the poem which was to mobilise Hungarians into an (unsuccessful) attempt to overthrow the yoke of Austrian oppression, and win the nation independence and freedom. The anniversary of this event was marked under communism, just as it is remembered today – albeit that present-day celebrations have witnessed a shift in emphasis.

Prior to 1989, March 15th was not a national holiday - it was only a school holiday. The heightened feelings of nationalism around this time of the year (as opposed to allegiance to the Communist cause), and the very obvious parallel situation of the occupation of the country by the Soviets (like the Austrians before them), resulted in the decision to keep the day low-key. Banning any commemoration at all would have been likely to escalate existing tensions, and so it was decided to allow schools to celebrate the fight against Hungary’s 19th century oppressors, but to keep the adult population at work.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, children practised the Petöfi poem, folk dancing, and re-enactments of the events of that historic day, which they performed at school. Rosettes (kokárda) of the Hungarian colours were sold on every street corner, and hardly a lapel was to be seen without one – even we felt the urge to join the celebration. Yet again, in order to ensure that feelings of patriotism did not run out of control and spill over into anti-Soviet sentiment, certain modifications of perception were instilled both into the history teaching at school, and in official circles: the Soviets had conquered all oppressors (like the Austrians) and to this extent March 15th symbolised a celebration of the more general victory over oppression – not just the Hungarians’ particular attempt in this direction.Thus, to further reinforce the message, both Hungarian flags and the red flag bearing the hammer and sickle were hung side by side in every public place. Every bridge, every office building, every block of flats had one of each flag, and it was a fineable offence not to hang them out on appointed days. A decision to hang only the Hungarian one would have been foolhardy in the extreme. The statue of Petöfi on the Danube embankment had hundreds of small flags planted in the earth at its base: both Hungarian and red flags. Understandably, the Hungarians felt that their very national holiday had been hijacked by a state that had not even existed in 1848.

One of the very first groups of students I taught in 1982, was from the Karl Marx University of Economics (now Corvinus Egyetem). When I asked how they would be spending their free day, a girl in the group said that her parents would be locking her in the family flat: in the previous year, she (along with fellow students) had gone at night and removed the small red flags from around the Petöfi statue, leaving just the Hungarian tricolours – something which carried a not insignificant risk: plain-clothes policeman could be observed at such sites, loitering conscpicuously, cameras in hand.

Following a brief respite in the early 90s, March 15th was once again ‘hijacked.’ In the lead-up to the 2002 election, Viktor Orbán declared that all those who supported him should wear the kokárda which was traditionally only worn in the days surounding the March anniversary. Suddenly, the wearing of the Hungarian colours professed allegiance to a political party and was no longer the neutral symbol of pride in one’s home country; for those who were not Orbán supporters it became a no-win situation: they either abandoned their patriotism and desire to commemorate 1848, or by wearing their kokárda, declared their tantamount support for the FIDESZ party. What had always been a unifying celebration, had, overnight, become highly divisive.

Today, the recitation of the Petöfi poem on the steps of the National Musueum and the associated official celebrations, have become a backdrop to demonstrations – peaceful and otherwise – by a variety of political parties. Once again, March 15th has become politicised – no longer by the communists, but now by the self-professed exponents of democracy: the result, sadly, is an unsavoury exploitation of this national holiday.