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.