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.