Recycling – Communist Style

It would no doubt elicit raised eyebrows and scepticism were it to be suggested that the communist years witnessed even a passing nod at ‘green’ policies or practices. The two-stroke cars, buses and lorries belched noxious clouds of sooty fumes that choked the city, blackening the façades of architectural treasures, and necessitating frequent hair and curtain washing. During weeks spent in the countryside I noticed that the water in which I washed my hair remained transparent: in Budapest it was black, while factories billowed varicoloured gases over the concrete tower blocks.

Yet – albeit it for reasons of shortage or economic necessity – recycling was at a more advanced (or more retarded) stage than that back in Britain. Little was thrown away: everything could be mended for a few forints. In Blaha Lujza tér, the Corvin Áruház ( still grimly hanging on to life, but surely to be demolished soon, as the building nextdoor already has been) boasted a stocking-mending service. A middle-aged woman sat on the first floor at a small table, peering closely at one of the multitude of pairs of laddered tights their owners had left with her, and which they would soon come and collect, perfectly repaired.
Close to Gerlóczy utca was an umbrella repair shop. Following an age when an umbrella was not a throw-away item, but whose polished wooden handle and strong spokes were covered with good quality material, it was not uncommon to have them re-covered at a modest cost. Every kind of electrical appliance which in more affluent countries would be thrown away and replaced, could be repaired. And where the requisite spare part was unavailable – either because it simply could not be procured, or because the gadget itself was from abroad – repairmen would simply adapt an existing part, or fashion the necessary component from whatever they had in their workshops.

Meanwhile, a deposit was payable on all glass containers from fruit juice (no Tetrapak!) and wine bottles to jam jars, bottled fruit bottles and even medicine bottles. There was little by way of frozen food, thus vast quantities of fruit and vegetables were bottled, increasing the weight of the average shopping bag at least threefold. Cough mixture and antibiotics all came in small glass bottles – all with a deposit to pay, and all returnable. Of course, this also meant carrying these heavy glass containers back from whence they had come – and many was the occasion when the supermarket hatch for taking returns was closed, or they had no more crates to store the bottles, or today was a ‘beer’ day and not a ‘wine’ day, or…..in which eventuality one had to return home again with the empties as one’s shopping bags were already full!

But maybe the most extraordinary recycling is witnessed still today in Budapest streets when it is time for lomtalanitás. It is then that the city’s streets fill with every imaginable and unidentifiable kind of bric-a-brac: untidy, sprawling heaps of tangled wires and splintered furniture, headless dolls and handle-less saucepans; singed mattresses and collapsed ironing-boards, rusted heaters and torn school textbooks. This is the annual opportunity for Budapest residents to clear out dusty cellars of those items the weekly refuse collectors cannot take. The dates are posted in advance, giving serious ’collectors’ warning of the impending rota around the city’s districts.

After our move in 1990, we were forced to part with our first automatic washing machine, a Russian Vjatka. Though only three years old, and with the motor working perfectly, the plastic door had split and was leaking ever-increasing quantities of soapy water. In spite of all attempts, it could not be effectively repaired, and with the change of regime, the factory had ceased to function and spare parts were unavailable. Thus, we manhandled the solidly-made machine onto the street corner in readiness for the lomtalanitás. Before we had even manoeuvered it into position, a gypsy family appeared and sat the youngest of their brood of children on top. The child seemed undaunted by his responsibility of preventing any other person from laying claim to the Vjatka, and untroubled by the fact that his family then quickly disappeared around the corner in search of other treasures.
It was several hours later and growing dusk when they finally returned with a small handcart – possibly procured from a neighbouring pile – and then, placing both child and washing machine ontop, they made for home.


Say it with Flowers

St.Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in Britain for centuries. February 14th is associated with romantic love, and since the late 18th century cards have been sent – often anonymously - by those unable to express their love and admiration personally to the object of their desires. In the 19th century cards were made with ribbon and lace, tiny mirrors, feathers and even hair, with verses declaring true love and often ending with the question, Will you marry me or no?
Whether anonymous or not, the sending of Valentine’s cards in Britain is still limited to lovers – the English language lacks any differentiation between the love of a friend or family member, and that reserved for those with whom we are ‘in love.’ In Hungarian there is no such ambiguity, szeretet expressing the former, szerelem the latter.

Before 1989, February 14th in Hungary was the name day for those called Bálint (in other words, Valentin), but the whole concept of Valentine’s Day as an occasion for sending cards, buying flowers or other gifts was quite unknown. However, as we stumbled into a post-communist world, increasingly bombarded with advertising and coming evermore under the influence of the media, I noticed the first flower shop window sporting red hearts and the words: Február 14 - Valentin Nap. Also having noticed this same phenomenon, my cleaner asked if I had any inklings as to what Valentin nap might be. Clearly, it was an attempt to boost flower sales in the dreary cold and wintry gloom in the ‘dead’ period between Christmas and International Women’s Day at the beginning of March.
Lacking all knowledge of the origins of this custom, and led firstly by florists, Valentin Nap quickly became an occasion for giving flowers and sending cards to everyone you ‘love’ (szeretet) – obviously opening a far wider market than just those in love (szerelem).

The custom of giving flowers in Hungary is deeply embedded: no self-respecting guest would appear for lunch or dinner without at least a modest bouquet of flowers or a beautifully wrapped plant. Flowers are given on every imaginable occasion, to both men and women, and even to children (more especially girls) for birthdays and name days.
Flowers can be bought on every street corner in premises varying from the most elegant and sophisticated florist’s to market stalls where the blooms stand in plastic buckets. Those working in flower shops take genuine pride in their ability to produce stunning arrangements, and to fashion bows and wrapping with true dexterity while one watches. Having discovered a particular favourite shop, I frequently leave the choice of flowers and complementary greenery to the florist: I simply state for whom the bouquet is intended (daughter’s birthday, 85-year-old friend’s name-day – male – and so on), and an approximate price, sure that the completed creation will perfectly befit the occasion.

Yet, in spite of all admiration for their adroit and creative work, I find it difficult to forgive the annual exploitation of the beautiful old St. Valentine’s Day tradition.


Communications / II

It took more than a year to organise the permits to come and live in Hungary in 1982. The preparations also entailed a visit to the Hungarian Embassy in London where we were given a talk about what we could not take with us when we left: the list included all forms of pornography or a photocopier (strictly banned and not to be found anywhere in the country) – furthermore, we were told that if we brought a typewriter, we would have to provide a sample page of typing from which our machine could, if necessary, be identified.

Communications of every kind were severely curtailed in Hungary at that time. The rarity of telephone ownership and their technical shortcomings were further complicated by the fact that everyone was well aware that calls could be – and were – monitored. Certain topics were never alluded to on the telephone, but only in personal meetings. Letters could be opened – the clearest indication to us that ours were being read was that weeks passed when we did not receive a single communication from home, following which we would find half a dozen envelopes in our post box, bearing postmarks as much as three weeks apart; some letters never arrived. That parcels were always opened was not even secret – wrapping paper was torn, contents arrived damaged or even missing, and a fee was payable for the ‘privilege’.

Meanwhile, the media was, inevitably, strictly censored – not that our Hungarian was halfway to tackling the complexities of a broadsheet in the language – no tabloid press existed. A friend consoled us when we expressed some frustration at our inability to read the papers with the words, “In England people read the press to know what to believe; here we read the papers to know what not to believe!”

Watching television left us none the wiser. There were no broadcasts on Mondays, the official explanation being either that people should use their time for more uplifting pursuits, the more plausible one, that it was an energy-saving measure. The Evening Exercises programme (Esti Torna) was enthusiastically promoted – as were all forms of sport and keep fit – and many people made sufficient space in their overcrowded concrete flats to participate in the gymnastics every evening. Meanwhile, the news was dominated by pictures of combine harvesters bringing in the wheat, and smiling factory workers showing off the products that would more than fulfil targets in the Five Year Plan.
Access to foreign media proved equally limited. Foreign newspapers were occasionally available in dollar shops, though they were expensive and usually out of date. I experimented once with newspaper booths, but was only offered the Daily Star, the organ of the British Communist Party – I had heard of this, but never seen it. The only reliable source was the British Embassy library where we would go when we had time, but where papers were also days old. Hungarians who were not diplomats could not enter dollar shops, and most were wary of entering the embassy since it was an open secret that such visits were monitored by the porter at the entrance to whom you had to show your ID card.

In the obvious absence of the internet, the situation resulted in almost total ignorance of what was, in reality, happening in the world beyond Hungary’s borders. Interestingly, the Hungarian use of the word ‘outside’ (kint) to mean outside the country, in other words, abroad, persists to this day, but then had the added overtone of ‘on the other side.’

We were fortunate enough to be able to locate the BBC World Service on an old Russian radio we found in our first flat. It was somewhat of a surprise that it had not been jammed, but so few Hungarians knew English that possibly it was not deemed a threat. It was over its crackly reception that we heard that Chernobyl had exploded in 1986, while Hungarians went about their daily business in blissful ignorance.
None of our few English compatriots had a telephone, so we were unable to pass the news on to them – a telegram could have been a risky strategy. Thus it was that we sat with our musician friend Laurence that evening, ruminating on the severity of the fallout, the extent to which Hungary could have been affected, and the likelihood of our being subjected to radiation. His solution to the absence of information on the subject from local sources was as practical as it was simple: Let’s put out the lights and see if we glow in the dark! he suggested. Thankfully, we did not.


Communications / I

Possibly the comment most frequently made when talking about the nigh twenty-eight years I have spent in Hungary is, You must have seen a lot of changes in that time! It would obviously be impossible to enumerate the differences, but I have mused upon what single factor has, in fact, changed most dramatically, and it would undoubtedly have to be that of communication. This aspect of life has altered everywhere since the advent of the mobile telephone and the internet, but here in Hungary these dramatic developments, occurring within a much eclipsed time span, have completely transformed society.

Before 1989, approximately one tenth of people in Budapest had a telephone, whilst in villages the doctor was likely to be the only such person – a single public kiosk having to suffice for the remaining inhabitants. To this must be added the fact that phones were notoriously unreliable: a deafening silence often replaced the comforting purr of a working line; numbers remained engaged for days at a time; rain frequently rendered phone lines unusable, or resulted in crossed lines (I succeeded in speaking to someone in Pakistan when trying to reach a friend in Buda!), or so many callers were apparently sharing the same line, each demanding the others hang up, that it was impossible to have a coherent conversation.
And this was in the happy event that you had your own apparatus at home - even a party-line was heaven-sent! (Before coming to Hungary this term was something I had only come across in black and white Ealing Studio films my parents watched!)

Street phones came in two varieties, red and yellow. Yellow appliances were for domestic calls at 2 forints a time; their red counterparts were for calls abroad. Here, the range of possibilities preventing the successful procedure of ringing someone, was vastly increased. Though vandalism did not at that time exist per se, frustrations with the shortcomings of phones were often turned into destructive revenge on the receivers themselves which hung limply, their disembowelled wires hanging from cracked ear pieces. Then came the list of technical problems: the phone was dead, there was no line; it was impossible to insert one’s 2-forint coin in the slot; the coin kept dropping through; the coin was retained but the buzzing line continued; you dialled, but even your most frantic shouts could not be heard…

In these circumstances it was usually quicker (and considerably less wearing on one’s nerves) to visit the person you wished to talk to. This resulted in impromptu gatherings in people’s homes all over the city on any night of the week. The only way of talking to someone who did not have a telephone, was to visit them. This was as accepted as it was unexceptional – there was quite simply no alternative. The result was that one’s friendships and relationships were close and extensive, as one inevitably met the children, parents, families and friends of existing friends and colleagues. This provided new contacts and a growing network of friends: one could almost say it was a living counterpart to the virtual world represented by today’s Facebook.

The red and yellow shiny plastic apparatuses are long gone, having been replaced with the shocking pink T-com models. But almost as quickly as these were installed, and colourful phone cards sold in place of using coins, so mobile phones rendered public phone boxes passé in their turn. (I cannot remember when I last observed someone using a public telephone.) In fact, many Hungarians went from having no phone at all to having a mobile, leaving out the stage of an (unreliable) mainline telephone altogether.

Today, the brave new world of emails and text messages, Facebook and twittering, have obviated a trek though wind and rain to the other side of town to see a friend, bottle of wine in hand, possibly to meet an unknown group of people, play with a friend’s children and share in a very real evening of food and un-virtual chat. Regret at its passing may be regarded as nostalgia pure and simple; but in the era that sought to make communication as difficult as possible, it thrived as it has not done since. Yet another paradox.