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.