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/ )


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.


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.



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.