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.