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!


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.


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.