I Spy

Coinciding with the October 23rd commemoration of the 1956 uprising, and an exhibition by the CEU connected with the role of surveillance of citizens living in the communist bloc, this month’s Time Out magazine has an article with a photograph that immediately caught my attention. It is a slightly grainy black and white picture from the 80s of an old friend, Peter Doherty, in Vörösmarty tér. Blithely unaware of being the object of interest, he appears to be eating something, walking in the company of a friend in front of what was then the smartest department store in Budapest, the Luxus.

The photograph was taken by the communist authorities as part of their monitoring of foreigners living in the country. Like us, Peter arrived in the early 1980s and – there being fewer than a dozen British people resident in Hungary – we were all regarded as potential spies. Peter was here to take up an official post organised under the auspices of the British Council, to teach English at ELTE university. The other handful of our compatriots were all married to Hungarians, so they also had a reason to be resident here – though they and their spouses were regarded as odd in the extreme, since marrying someone from The West was the dream of hordes of Hungarians who regarded it is a passport (literally) to a quick exit and a better life.

Prior to Paul’s first visit to Budapest in 1978, he was sent a leaflet by the British Council in London: Advice to Travellers to Communist Countries. It warned in stark tones of the likelihood of being compromised by communist agents posing as landladies, interpreters ready to inform on shared conversations, and bedrooms concealing microphones in plant pots.

Politically, nothing at all had changed by the time we arrived to spend a year in Budapest in 1982. Though realising we would inevitably be far more suspicious than our countrymen (both of us being British, and having arranged our stay quite independent of any organisation), we had obviously been screened before our visas were granted and did not expect to be followed. However, occasional odd occurrences reminded us that this was a naïve illusion: letters, posted weeks apart all arrived on the same day; the phone call in the Academy library, answered by the librarian who looked around the room, and when her eyes settled on Paul merely uttered, “Yes,” and replaced the receiver; the unexpected and unexplained visit from the police from the office responsible for foreigners in Hungary. Although from a discreet distance, there was little doubt we were being monitored.

In light of the fact that Peter was obviously followed and photographed going about his everyday business (when he had a university teaching post recognised and supported by the authorities), I have every intention of visiting the office in possession of such files, in the event that our daily lives were also photographed and documented.

It is a fact that Paul’s landlady, though grasping and with an envious, unrealistic view of foreigners (see my previous blog entry) was no Mata Hari; the interpreter provided on Paul’s initial visit later became our closest friend, as he is to this day; the police visits probably did little to contradict the generally-held assumption that Paul was indeed an eccentric musician; and we never found any bugs in our pot plants….. but who knows?


The Other Man’s Grass

Our very first step on Hungarian soil was in February of 1978. Not only was the country unimaginably and indescribably different from how it is today, it was also significantly different from how it would be a decade later in 1989, just before the final curtain fell on an era. It would be easier to list the few similarities present-day Hungary has retained over the last thirty or so years, than to try and enumerate the differences. However, certain attitudes and misconceptions in people’s minds have withstood the ravages of time far more enduringly than some of the bricks and mortar.

The official accommodation supplied to Paul when he arrived at the start of a two-month stay in Budapest in 1978, was with a woman who had been badgering the relevant authorities for some time, to send her a foreign student. With a mutual knowledge of just a smattering of German each, there could only be the most basic communication between landlady and tenant. However, it did not take Paul many days to discover that this middle-aged woman harboured a misconception shared by most of her countrymen, namely, that all foreigners (from western countries) are rich. As though to confirm her in this belief, friends of hers who had defected to West Germany a decade previously, arrived to stay at the Intercontinental Hotel during Paul’s stay, and even their dog had its own small room adjacent to its masters! (It later transpired they were both surgeons.)

This summer, three Hungarian friends returned to visit families from the respective countries in which they have now lived and worked for a few years. In each case they are either supporting their families in Hungary financially, or are expected to arrive with cash at the ready to top up paltry bank accounts. The one, from Canada, had brought photographs of her new homeland – it was the first time in three years since leaving, that she had been able to afford the flight home from the far west – bears and snow-topped mountains, but to no avail: she was presented with a catalogue of unpaid bills and repairs that were needed for the house, and asked what she could contribute towards them. There was no acknowledgement of the huge cost of her air-fare, the fact that she had had to borrow money to begin her new life before she had found work, the English course she is still attending (and paying for), or the obvious disparity between living expenses there and here. The unshakeable belief remains unaltered: all foreigners (including Hungarians working abroad) are rich.

In our case, the impossibility of explaining that we were students in England, and not surgeons in Germany, almost resulted in our arrest. We were presented by our landlady with a bill for food we had not eaten, phone calls we had not made, and sundry other services and expenses. Having spent the last of our money on a few simple presents for friends and family at home, we had literally no forints left. Since we were unable (as well as unwilling) to pay this fictitious bill, she first attempted to lock us in her flat, and when that failed, to wrest our passports out of our hands. When this failed, she made as though to ring the police, while we fled the building and made for the airport, hoping she would not follow us there and have us arrested before our plane departed.

The friend from Canada came to see us and expressed regret at having saved for three years to visit a family and some acquaintances who had little or no interest in her life in a far country, save its financial aspect. There are still situations where I avoid speaking English, knowing I am likely to be charged more if I am identified as a foreigner, though the days of meter-fixing taxis, which automatically charged double (or more) to foreigners, are largely a thing of the past.

Our friend gladly returned to Canada, just as we had escaped to London many years before; all of us had learnt that for those living here, the other man’s grass is always greener.


Travelling Time

Summers are a time of comings and goings: I regularly find myself travelling to the newly-christened Liszt Ferenc airport (or Liszt ‘Ferihegy’) either in order to fly, or to meet and see off friends and relatives in the two terminals which bustle with crowds of noisy travellers, as in airports everywhere.

Whenever I am at the airport here, I remember our first visits in the late 70s, when Terminal One was the airport. There were then about as many flights a week as there are now in a day - maybe fewer. There was just one flight a day, for example, between London and Budapest, B.A. and Malév sharing the week between them, operating on alternate days. The overwhelming majority of flights were to cities within the communist bloc. I well recall my first ever foray to Budapest in February of 1978 on a Malév flight, where a piping hot Bakonyi szelet and unlimited wine were served to all passengers – a long way from the mini sandwich and cup of instant coffee I had on my last flight!

If in other countries at this time, there still clung some small vestige of the glamour which had once characterised flying – when travellers donned their finest and real meals were served on even short flights – then the emotions and atmosphere at Budapest’s Ferihegy could hardly have been more different. Fear and uncertainty crowded the cold echoing halls of the building. The tension was tangible, anxiety palpable in the nervous silence of the queues; no excited chatter nor laughs of anticipation at the imminent holiday! A painted line on the floor clearly delineated the point at which those travelling had to take their leave from friends and relatives, forbidden from approaching the check-in hall. A bevy of nervous faces craned anxiously to see the moment when their loved ones passed through the various checks and were ordered towards the departure gates. Not until a plane had taken off could one ever be certain one would be permitted to fly. For Hungarians, or foreigners resident in the country (like us), travel beyond its borders was a nerve-racking procedure.

Passports were not automatically available but had to be applied for – two types existed: for personal travel or for business. An application could be denied as easily as granted, with no explanation necessary. Personal travel abroad was allowed just every third year, as the forint could not be exchanged outside Hungary’s borders, and foreign currency was very limited. Thus, every three years one was able to buy currency legally for foreign travel – needless to say, a woefully inadequate amount. This had to be supplemented by hard currency bought on the thriving black market, but entailed personal risk in smuggling it out of the country. Then came the visa, with its maximum one-month limit which one exceeded at peril of being regarded as a potential dissident on one’s return.

Security checks consisted not of metal detectors and searches for arms or bombs, but detailed questioning about whether or not one was taking Hungarian forints out of the country, and showing receipts for legally acquired hard currency. Everyone feared the detailed examination of their luggage or person, with the attendant possibility that the hidden dollars or Swiss francs might be discovered! This would forfeit you the right to travel. Additionally, you risked losing a flight ticket that, in the 80s, cost at least £200 return (to London). With monthly salaries of just 3 or 4,000 forints it took a whole year to save such a vast sum! With foreign bank accounts deemed illegal, it was an additional risk to carry any documentation that could arouse the suspicions of a zealous border guard; in fact, an English friend of ours (resident in Hungary) was prevented from flying when her bank card was discovered among her belongings.

Finally came the passport checks, characterised by minutes of silent, unsmiling stares, alternately at you and then your likeness in your documents. It was difficult to maintain an indifferent air and then to walk, not too quickly, away from the watchful eyes of countless armed guards. A quiet sigh was all you might allow yourself, and possibly a quick wave to your relatives, before making your way as inconspicuously as possible towards the departure gate.


Window Dressing

I make no apology for returning to a subject which is close to me – being as it is, the original reason for our coming to Hungary almost thirty years ago – and which illustrates well the scandalous mismanagement and stupidity of present-day “window dressing” in Hungary.

I am certain that even those with no interest whatsoever in classical music, have not failed to register the stream of reminders of Liszt’s birth 200 years ago, in 1811. Events both in Hungary and abroad have celebrated the anniversary. Yet the Music Academy in Liszt Ferenc tér was closed at the end of 2010 – just in time to coincide with this important year.

The building, though admittedly shabby, was not in danger of imminent collapse; renovation work had already been planned – and postponed – a number of times in recent years. Then, for a whole year after the series of concerts and events held to mark its closure, it remained open, and teaching continued unabated. Why then could it not have been kept open for another twelve months during this, the Liszt year? Having waited for more than five years for this huge project to begin, what difference would another few months have made?

But no. Last year, the whole institution was moved to a number of sites around the town – the main one being an office block on Ũllői út – a building devoid of sound-proofing, where singers compete to be heard above neighbouring trumpeters, while the bureaucratic wheels organising the renovation have ground rustily to a standstill. Meanwhile, unable now to hire out its concert hall (nagyterem), the Academy is losing millions of forints monthly, while millions more are being paid in rent for the totally unsuitable office space. And what of the Zeneakadémia itself, now ten months after its closure? Nothing at all. The building is home only to a few security guards – not a cobweb has been removed, no workman has set foot inside. Scholars, tourists and musicians arrive from abroad to visit in this anniversary year, but cannot enter the building.

However, priorities must be priorities: the airport has been renamed Liszt Ferenc, the cost of this change running into many millions. Maybe there is nothing to get excited about in a country where the government is seriously contemplating changing the name of the very country itself, which would cost countless billions (new bank notes, identity cards, driving licences – in essence, everything would have to be renamed). When both national and personal debt are at record levels, and when homelessness, unemployment and poverty are increasingly evident, this is window-dressing at its most worrying.


Then – and Now

I usually pick up the Metro paper on the way to work in the morning, and last Friday’s edition had the front page headline: Bills consume an ever greater amount. The article went on to say that the relative proportion of the cost of paying for gas, electricity and water in relation to earnings, has been climbing for the past ten years. It is presently reckoned to be 25% of the total family income. Those who have retired are able to pay for only half the amount of gas from their pensions that they could in 2003.

Having both a parent and children living in England, I am easily able to make comparisons – not only of the actual costs of these, but also of the amounts relative to people’s incomes, both here and there. The uncomfortable reality is that prices of gas and electricity are now at least as high as in Britain, with fuel prices almost on a par – and here I am speaking of the actual price in £ or Huf, and not the percentage of earnings. Postal charges are in many cases more than in the UK, while BKV is not far behind. Thus it is, that although some Hungarians have seen an astronomical rise in their fortunes, with all the attendant conveniences and luxuries that were (twenty-five years ago) unavailable at any price, the majority are struggling to manage their basic monthly expenditures – never mind new clothes, cars or holidays.

When we arrived in Budapest in 1982, our monthly state wage – alongside everyone else's – was 3,000 forints. Our unlimited travel on BKV was exactly 110 fts. (this was a ‘bus’ pass – more expensive than the ‘tram’ pass, as petrol was more than electricity). Gas and electric bills together totalled about 200-300 forints, while water was free. Rent for a state-owned flat was also a few hundred forints. For a couple with a combined income of 6,000 forints, these outgoings were extremely modest, leaving several thousand forints for non-essential ‘luxuries’ like opera and cinema tickets (10 to 20 forints) LP records (70 forints), a meal out or a taxi ride home (7.50 forints a kilometre). Meanwhile, the staggering cost of even the most unglamorous car (a Skoda, Lada or Wartburg) required years of saving – plenty of time for that, as the waiting list even for a mud-brown Trabi was also several years! Colour televisions, hi-fis and other electrical gadgets were also prohibitively expensive – even when they were available. Foreign holidays were, for the most part, limited to East Germany, Poland or Bulgaria, whilst most people made the most of the Balaton. However, summer camps for children were affordable by all, and very heavily-subsidised holidays were available to everyone through their places of work, which owned holiday homes in resorts all over Hungary.

As I finished the article in the Metro, I wondered how many people are now in essentially the same position as in the 80s: unable to afford a car or a holiday, (though they are now quite probably in possession of a flat-screen TV). Yet in the ‘bad old days’ Hungarians lost not a moment’s sleep over the possibility of losing their jobs or their incomes, being turned out of their flats, or having their gas or electricity switched off due to being unable to afford the bills.

It would seem that those things which were considered absolute basics in the past, have become veritable luxuries of present-day living.


The Paper it’s Written on

Not long ago, I attended a choral concert given in the Terézvárosi templom (church) by the conductor Richard Solyom and his excellent Gabrieli choir. I have been a regular concert-goer since my first days in Budapest, and can attest to the fact that although this performance was free, I have paid money for greatly inferior offerings in more impressive surroundings. I felt I could not leave the venue without expressing my appreciation and enjoyment of the evening, and so joined the queue of well-wishers at the end of the concert. When my turn arrived, I asked if the choir would be performing in the Spring Festival – a prestigious annual arts festival which has been running a number of years. His answer was astounding: “No. I can’t perform there because I don’t have a diploma in conducting,” he explained.

Last week, I went to a performance of Liszt’s Christus in MŨPA, where I bumped into an old acquaintance who is a senior member of staff at the Liszt Academy. She informed me that the young conductor at that evening’s performance was, in fact, undergoing an examination. This was a surprising piece of information: I have never been aware that a performing artist is examined at a public performance. Moreover, would the award (or not) of the piece of paper make any difference to his musical career? Well, he would certainly be permitted, henceforth, to perform at the Spring Festival, if nothing else! But would the award of a degree or certificate mean he was a better conductor – or the lack of such, that he was any worse?

This way of thinking is endemic in Hungary, where the country is currently struggling with reforming its education system. Where twenty or so years ago, The Economist carried an article praising the thoroughness and rigour of Hungarian schools, more recent international comparisons find them lagging ever further behind in tests increasingly based on the application of knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. Tinkering with reform, both those in charge of policy making and the teachers themselves, find they are straddling a growing precipice.

When we arrived in Hungary I was startled to find just how many people had quite how many degrees, never mind how many preceded their names with the title of Dr. But soon I found that gathering up certificates, diplomas and other sundry qualifications amounted to a national pastime. The chasm that so often existed between paper qualifications and the ability to do something in practice existed in most spheres of life. Half the population had (has) driving licences but cannot actually drive! Half the working population has papers attesting to the fact that they are disabled, but is hard at work renovating flats or moving furniture.

When I went to teach at ELTE’s Teacher Training College, I soon learnt that I was, in reality, the only person in the English Department who had ever stood up in front of a class of school children and taught them! My colleagues had studied the art of teaching from every book available on the subject, and passed every conceivable examination on the subject (and got their dr. titles for good measure) but had never actually taught! There was even a subject entitled Methodology, again, instructed by those who had never faced a class in their lives! I shudder to think how many people there are with degrees in English – some of whom I myself taught – whose degree certificates are, in reality, meaningless.

Needless to say, I would balk at the notion of consulting a medical doctor who did not possess the requisite degree and examination passes, but quite what relevance a scroll of paper has to conducting, even thirty years here have failed to prove to me. It is in this area that a diametric alteration in attitude is vital if reform – educational or other – is to have any real effect. As a male Hungarian friend and colleague told a group of students we were jointly teaching: Don’t anyone bring me a medical certificate for absence – I could produce one for you tomorrow stating I have an ectopic pregnancy. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.


A Multitude of ‘Sins’

Interestingly, the words for sin and crime in Hungarian are the same; but while the Church has managed over the centuries to confine itself to a mere seven sins and ten commandments, the Hungarian state is attempting to rack up as many laws as possible while it enjoys an unrivalled opportunity to do so. Or at least, so it would seem. Having recently commented (see below) on the absurdity – to me, at least – of making smoking at public transport stops fineable by up to 50,000 forints, I have just been made aware that actually lighting up on the transport itself, is punishable only to the tune of 6,000 forints. Thus, to smoke in an unventilated bar, restaurant or café is entirely legal; to smoke on a tram or bus will cost six thousand, while doing so out in the fresh air will cost more than eight times as much!

I say, ‘will cost’, but in practice the press reports that only one such fine has been officially levied for smoking within the stipulated seven by three metre area of a bus stop. A veritable army of police would be required to patrol the city to even attempt to enforce such a ruling. And for what possible result – to improve the overall air quality of the capital? Or is it to fill the coffers of the government? If so, it is totally superfluous: there already exists a battery of other fineable offences which – were the police sufficiently motivated to uphold them – could achieve that particular goal. For example, the simple wearing of seat belts in cars, and more importantly, the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. Though outlawed, anyone standing long enough on a street corner to wait for the lights to change can hardly remain unaware of the high percentage of drivers using their phones. This includes bus drivers, weaving their way through rush-hour traffic, packed with passengers; taxi drivers dodging pedestrians and jumping the lights. As a friend of mine who lives on the colourful Almássy tér laughingly told me, “If they want to make money, they should just spend a day on my square – every law in existence is broken here on a daily basis and no-one does anything about it. They could make a fortune.”

The attitude in times past was not dissimilar from a certain point of view – many things were nem szabad (not allowed) – in fact, it was one of the first expressions I learnt, hearing it on the lips of everyone from mothers scolding their children, to over-zealous museum curators who would utter these words as soon as you got within sneezing distance of an exhibit; and bookshop keepers, when you attempted to creep over to the shelves and touch a volume. Fines, though, there were none. If you failed to pay your telephone bill on time the solution was simple – it was disconnected, and it would take months before you would be able to arrange its reconnection. When I ran across the (much less busy) road at Margit hid and was stopped by two policemen, they simply demanded my ID card and, reading I was a teacher, tutted at me like a cross aunty. In fact, the only effective method of curtailing the population’s indifference to the rules and regulations of the time was the tacitly accepted habit of the police to extract their own fines from motorists in order to supplement their incomes. Their alacrity then for standing long hours, flagging down motorists come rain, come shine, was indisputable. A dodgy rear light, a failure to observe a Stop sign obscured by a tree, or simply exciting the interest of a bored officer, would almost inevitably result in a ‘fine’ – the amount of which was determined by careful negotiation. Today’s ineffectual attempts (where written receipts must be issued) to enforce regulations would seem to indicate that this older method was, all in all, more efficient.

The most recent addition to the list of unenforceable laws is the one making it illegal for people to go through dustbins – in the eighth district only! – fine: 50,000 forints.


Blowing in the Wind

At the present time, when the world daily reviews the likelihood or otherwise of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, the magnitude of the disaster which is threatening is inevitably being compared to that of Chernobyl in April 1986.

Hungary in 1986 was still firmly under the thumb of Soviet Russia; little if anything could find its way into the public domain without the prior careful consideration of possible repercussions by those working for any branch of the media. Thus, when without warning the reactor at Chernobyl sent clouds of radioactive smoke across vast swathes of Europe, the Hungarian media remained stubbornly silent on the subject. It is difficult now to imagine living in a country – any country – where there is almost no way of finding out what is happening even as close by as Hungary is to the other side of the Austrian border. Yet with no internet, virtually no foreign newspapers, no satellite television and few telephones, it was a relatively easy matter for the communist authorities to keep the population in total ignorance of even such an international disaster as this.

We relied for news on the old, Russian radio we had in our rented flat. To our surprise, the BBC World Service was not jammed. Possibly, the tiny minority of people with sufficient knowledge of the language – and the patience to twiddle dials and strain their ears through the crackling – were regarded as too few in number to make the exercise worthwhile. In any event, with a little patience it was possible to tune in and hear news worthy of the name. Thus it was that we learned of the nuclear disaster, and heard the advice being offered as to how to safeguard one’s health. Budapest was significantly nearer to the site of the disaster than Britain, and we pondered on what we ourselves should be doing. A short visit to the embassy confirmed the guidelines we had heard on the radio: to avoid all leafy vegetables grown outdoors and not to stay out if it rained.

It was a full three days before any hint of the event was tentatively broadcast by the Hungarian radio or television. During this interval we informed all our friends, passing on the advice we had been given. The grapevine was indeed a speedy means of disseminating information at a time when none other existed. Once the news had been broken, a multitude of Chernobyl-related jokes swept Budapest: “What is Russian-Hungarian friendship like?” “It’s radiating.” Meanwhile, at Lehel piac (Lehel market) the lettuces were now labelled as ‘sure-fire safe’ (atombiztos) while the ‘atomic strength papika’ (atom erös) had had the ‘atomic’ crossed through.

No-one felt any confidence in what news, heavily censored, trickled down to us. In reality, we had little notion of what danger we might or might not be in, and our relative proximity to the origin of the trouble was a source of some anxiety to our relatives at a safer distance. One evening a good English friend of ours came to see us, and we inevitably discussed the situation. He too, bemoaned the paucity of information, and the fact that his parents were pressing him to go home, at least for a while. “We might be perfectly alright here,” he explained. “It all seems to depend on the direction the wind was blowing.” There was a short silence. We knew he did not want to leave the country and return to England, even for a few weeks. Then he leapt up saying, “I’ve got it! I know how we can find out if we’re affected!” We waited as he walked towards the light switch. “Let’s put out the lights and see if we glow in the dark!” Thankfully, we didn’t.


Laying Ghosts

According to recent press reports, the lurking ghosts still haunting Budapest’s streets and squares are finally to be exorcised. I speak of the perhaps surprising number of places still bearing the names of communist heroes, most of which were gleefully obliterated the best part of twenty years ago, their accompanying statues evacuated to the Statue Park. The re-naming of the many roads and public spaces which somehow escaped the attention of the country’s newly-elected government in 1989 has once again become topical, while some discussion has ensued about the possibility of honouring Elvis Presley with a square bearing his name.

The speed with which the process of re-naming streets was executed in the year or two following the change of regime, was not matched by the country’s cartographers, nor by updates in telephone directories, leading to inevitable confusion. Many people were bemused to find that not only had their addresses changed overnight at the twist of a screwdriver, but to realise that they had had no inkling that their street name bore the name of a communist – far less, who he may have been, or what heroic deed had granted him the honour of representing their road.

Speaking not a word of Hungarian upon our arrival, we grappled with its tongue-twisting pronunciation. It was with true satisfaction that we mastered the art of rolling Népköztársaság útja or Felszabadulás tér off our tongues! But in speaking to older people, we found we had soon to learn a second set of names: those of pre-communist times, which they persisted in using (and which in the latter two examples were considerably easier – Andrássy út and Ferenciek tere). Thus, for this reason alone, we were well prepared for the change when it finally came.

As with most things that seem strange at first, it did not take many months following our initial arrival before we had ceased to register the slightest surprise at names of places or institutions bearing the names of Marx or Lenin, any more than the red stars that graced most public buildings. Every town and every village had a Lenin tér or a Marx utca, a Vöröshadsereg (Red Army) útja or a Május 1 (May 1st) út. This reality was soon no stranger to us than the High Streets and London Roads of many an English town. However, it obviously managed to create unwarranted confusion in the minds of a group of young Americans who were travelling on the metro with us towards what is now Nyugati tér, but which was then Marx tér. Hearing English spoken immediately attracted our attention: it is impossible to convey to those living in present-day Hungary, the rarity of hearing a foreign tongue in the 1980s. Months could pass without coming across a foreign visitor – and even then, the few who came were almost inevitably from East Germany or Poland. But an American? We were agog. Then, quite suddenly, one of the small group leapt from his seat and, beckoning wildly to his friends, announced in urgent tones,

“Come on guys! This is our stop! St. Mark’s Square!”


Curiouser and Curiouser

Were I ever to write another book about Hungary (which I do not intend to), I have toyed with the idea that it would open with a young girl falling down a rabbit burrow, only to find she has arrived in a world of unimaginable topsy-turviness – but then it occurs to me that someone has already used this particular idea. Did Lewis Carroll ever set foot on Hungarian soil? Perhaps only in his drug-assisted fantasies; he could certainly have derived much inspiration for the further adventures of his heroine had he done so.

All countries have their idiosyncrasies: Britain is the home to many thousands of these, conveniently labelled under the headings ‘tradition’ and ‘eccentricity’. However, Hungary’s latest entry for the title of the Curiousest of the Curious must surely be awarded first prize – having neither the excuse of tradition nor eccentricity to rescue it from ridicule. It is the bizarre – and to me, at least – quite incomprehensible law which now forbids smokers from indulging at bus or tram stops.

I have never smoked, and I have endured countless evenings, and days, cooped up in small offices, staffrooms, cafés, restaurants and friends’ flats, as the only prim and kill-joy non-smoker in a room where I was barely able to make out who else was there. My initial desire to do as when in Rome... – well, at least not to complain about it – and accept their perogative to smoke, very soon gave way to sitting by open windows, gasping for air, goldfish-like, when I was able. I began to leave parties earlier, and once my son’s band began doing gigs in bars, I often waited on the pavement or in the car rather than endure smoke suffocation for hours.

It was announced in the media this week that proposals are to be put forward to ban smoking in restaurants, cafés and so on, from July. This has been greeted with the same outcry from those whose livelihoods may be affected, as it was in other European countries which have already taken this step. However, an editorial in the Metro newspaper suggested that the government might as well ban its citizens from drinking alcohol, since the rationale must be that of preventing cigarette-related illnesses, and alcohol was surely equally culpable.

Aside from the obvious difficulties of policing the capital’s public transport stops – apparently, an exact 7-metre by 3-metre area has been stipulated as designating the territory of the ‘bus stop’ – one surely has to wonder who, and more interestingly what the thinking behind this is.

But the fault is obviously my own. When Alice states, But I don’t want to go among mad people, the Cheshire Cat informs her: Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. You’re mad. You must be, or you wouldn't have come here.


Money Makes the World Go Round

On my most recent trip to London, I found myself loitering outside a small newsagent’s: I wanted to buy a tube of Polo mints, but having just withdrawn some money from an ATM, found I had no small change, and would therefore have no alternative but to proffer a £20 note for this small item. I wondered if there was anything else I could buy to minimise the awkwardness I felt. My son wondered at my reluctance to enter the shop, so I explained, asking if he had some coins. He didn’t, but laughed at my Hungarian response to finding myself with only the large note with which to pay. “It’s a shop,” he stated matter-of-factly, “of course it’s not a problem.” Nevertheless, I found myself mumbling apologetically as I simultaneously handed over the tube of mints and the £20 note. Big smile, “No worries!” – the assistant handed me my change and we left the shop.

The largest denomination in Britain is the £50 note – roughly equivalent to 15,000 Hungarian forints. The largest note in circulation in Hungary is the 20,000 forint note – nearer £65 – and this in a country where the average net national monthly income is a mere six or seven times this figure!

Many people (myself included) can be heard cursing when the ATM spits these out, as they remember they have run out of bread, and realise that the only place willing to give change will be a large supermarket. This will either entail a detour and a long queue, or much grovelling at a smaller shop – with the distinct possibility of being told they cannot (will not) give change, leaving you to go elsewhere, or do without the bread.

In addition, Hungarians have a strange relationship with their banknotes: the smallest tear renders them unacceptable, irrespective of the neat repair done with Scotch tape, almost invisible to the naked eye. Having been declared ‘damaged’ you must either exchange the offending article at a bank, or attempt to palm it off – as though it were, in fact, counterfeit – and hope the cashier fails to register the blemish.

It has ever been thus: I clearly recall the consternation, both when the 500 forint note was introduced (when monthly salaries were 3,000) and then the 1,000 note in its turn. Before current bank accounts and plastic, all transactions were carried out in cash: even cars and properties were paid by people clutching attaché cases, or just carrier bags, containing their life’s savings, as they made such purchases. Yet herein lay the paradox: while the notes were an endless source of difficulty where shopping was concerned, they were hopelessly inadequate when such large transactions as a flat purchase were involved. Our first flat cost some 3.5 million forints at the time when the 1,000 forint note was the largest denomination available. The elderly couple from whom we were buying, called in their similarly elderly neighbours, and the five of us sat in a row along the sofa, counting out the notes into small piles of tens – all 3500 of them! Twice.


Publish and be Damned?

Back in the bad, dark days of a single-party state, of censorship and the freedom only to express our views in the privacy of our own – or a friend’s – home, we were pitied by our English friends and regarded as quasi-lunatic by our Hungarian ones. Why would anyone volunteer to leave the ‘home of democracy’ to live in a country where the press was anything but free? A land where every piece of information had been sifted and shaded, paraphrased and polished? As a friend so aptly put it: in England you read the papers to know what is true; we read them to know what is not true!

Arriving with a miscellany of possessions in 1982, we sat in a sea of twenty-six large boxes, forbidden from opening them until the Hungarian customs officials had been to satisfy themselves that we had brought nothing illegal with us. The Hungarian embassy in London had been quite clear: no pornography, no political tracts, no photocopier. Our papers showed we had, nevertheless, brought an electric typewriter. Before they left, the officials required we provide them with a sample of the type so (were we to begin bashing out anti-communist propaganda) we could be identified.

Self-censorship was the order of the day – we were all well aware of approximately how far we might go, in what contexts we could speak freely, and those where some circumspection was to be advised. Yet the reality was that then, in the 80s, there was much satirical reference to that which could not be mentioned directly – as for example, in films like A Tanu, and in the lyrics of countless pop songs. No-one took these things entirely seriously (other than those whose job it was to do so).

One important difference now separates our present situation from the one of thirty years ago. At that time there was no choice: we were living in a communist regime, we had not been asked what we wanted, and what our neighbours to the west thought or said, was quite simply irrelevant. But today, as Hungary takes over the leadership of the E.U., some 53% of Hungary’s population have voted for a government that has brought in media laws that have been commented on at length, both by those in the E.U., and in the international press. This was a free and democratic choice. Whether the newly-appointed guardians of the spoken and printed word (I will refrain from using the word censors) will exercise the draconian powers they have been granted, remains to be seen.

But, as I write these words, I am aware they could, theoretically, be among my last. I did not think I would be in Hungary long enough to see history repeat itself.