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.


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....


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.


Greasy Palms

Corruption, like crime in general, exists on some level in every society. In certain geographical areas it is endemic: developing countries where basic necessities are unavailable and where the majority live in abject poverty.

Hungary is no exception. Whilst still communist, bribery was not only accepted but expected. It caused neither embarrassment nor sleepless nights – it was frequently the only way to circumvent absurd regulations that seemed to serve no other purpose than to provide petty bureaucrats with an opportunity to ‘earn’ some extra cash. Everyone was familiar with the going rates for anything from being caught by the police for speeding to the ‘fee’ expected from the obstetrician for the delivery of a baby, or from being supplied with the name of someone who could help you get a telephone to ‘helping’ your child get a place at university. Though resented to an undeniable extent, these bribes – more often referred to as ‘tips’ – were a part of everyday life. State wages were low, and people sought any method to supplement their incomes.

State-owned shops had little on offer, but even some of the available stock was hidden away in back store-rooms. Thus, if you were unable to find shoes in your size, and the assistant hinted that a suitable pair might be in stock, using the well-worn ‘code’ of I would be very grateful if you would have a look, indicated that your gratitude would subsequently manifest itself in a few hundred extra forints. The police were infamous: no proof was available (nor indeed necessary) to accuse any driver of an array of misdemeanours, each with its attached rate. Refusal to offer a tip was much more of an inconvenience than to offer a few banknotes and put it down to bad luck. A student of mine worked to pay for his studies in a gaming hall: one-armed bandits in a small, dark room in the eighth district. A policeman was a regular: he would lose 20,000 forints in a short session, and then replacing his cap, stand on the corner of the busy road, flag down some ‘speeding’ motorists and return with his pockets replenished. With a (very) few notable exceptions, everyone expected to have to give such tips, and few refused when offered: there was almost nothing that could not be ‘arranged’ for a fee, and if one person refused to accept the bribe, there would be half a dozen more waiting for such an opportunity.
Meanwhile, veritable armies of men and women claimed they were unable to work for health reasons, all claiming disability allowance while pursuing lucrative activities, unchecked, for decades.

There was a belief, a hope, that with the collapse of the communist system, these ingrained habits would fade – indeed, that with higher wages they would become an anachronistic curiosity, at least on this everyday level. Yet the truth is that little has changed. In 2000, Britain’s The Independent published an article entitled: Bribe menu shows Hungary has best police force money can buy”! Whilst public intolerance of bribery is promulgated in official circles, it continues unabated. Whether the small-time acceptance (expectance) of 25,000 forints to see you through your driving test, or the odd million for planning permission in green-belt zones, the situation remains, in essence, unaltered. According to Transparency International, Hungary fell eight positions from last year to 47th on Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. In fact, Hungary has now slipped lower than both the Czech Republic and Slovenia – countries which twenty years ago lagged far behind Hungary in terms of development, but which have now surpassed the Hungarians. Is the correlation between their economic success and decreasing corruption pure coincidence, one wonders?

In view of April’s forthcoming election, the perceived lack of transparency in Hungary's party and campaign financing begs the question as to what has been achieved in the twenty years since The Change. More worrying is the conclusion: If no effective action is taken against corruption, Hungary may easily slide down the ladder in the next few years.
We will all just have to wait and see.