An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Ch. 1, Part 2.

  • 3 Oct 2022 5:14 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Ch. 1, Part 2.
Marion Merrick’s books are the only first-hand account written by a westerner of what it was like to live and work in communist Hungary, and then in the aftermath of the 1989 change of regime.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards have been included as part of the Open Society Archive dedicated to this period in the CEU. You can read a serialisation of them here on Xpatloop. You can also buy the dual-volume book on Kindle as well as in Stanfords London.

CHAPTER ONE :     Beginnings and Belongings:  Vántus Károly utca

Part two  -  Journey to Baja; police station experience

The following day Miklós rang and invited us to lunch, and then we spent the afternoon in the flat, finding places for all our things. The building was in a quiet cul-de-sac, but after just one night we found there was a hub cap missing from one of the wheels of our car. Later we learned that since many spare parts were unobtainable, it was common practice for people to help themselves from other cars. In time, a wing mirror and a strip of silver trim also disappeared.

Close to Vántus K. utca Courtesy Fortepan /FŐMTERV

The following Monday we decided to try our hand at shopping. Miklós had gave us some money to tide us over until we started earning, so with bags, dictionary and money in hand, we decided to try the Skála that Péter had mentioned. We walked past the building I took to be a school, down a quiet tree-lined street and into a busy main road. Opposite was the large modern building, just as Péter had described it.

We wandered along the aisles, surprised at the choice of goods in comparison with what had been available in the smaller shops we had visited during our earlier visits to Hungary. Cold meat and cheese were weighed at a counter, not pre-packaged, and I realized with alarm that as well as the language problem, we also had the metric system to grapple with.

Of course I knew all about 1000 grams to the kilo, but how heavy, in ounces, was a 200-gram-piece of cheese, for example? Before I could calculate, it was my turn at the counter. I pointed to some cheese that looked slightly less oily than the rest and tried to show the size I wanted. So far so good, then we looked for milk. We could have found it with our eyes shut.

A sour smell hung around what were supposedly refrigerated cabinets, but which felt no cooler than the others. The milk, packed in plastic bags of half or one litre, floated in a pool that had leaked from bags which had burst. People were wiping their milk bags on a sour cloth draped over the side of a crate, transferring the smell to their hands. A smudged line of purple ink was intended to indicate the sell-by date, but was hopelessly blurred.

Food items were at least easy to identify; cleaning things were not. Of the various bottles with pictures of kitchens on their labels, I found it impossible to decide whether they were for washing up or cleaning sinks or floors. Later, friends laughingly told me that there was probably no difference.

The dictionary we had brought was not much help in the event because it would have taken too long to translate the lengthy instructions on the bottle. Opening one or two, we hazarded guesses according to smell and appearance as to what they were likely to contain. Unfortunately, washing powder was not in evidence anywhere.

Inside the Skála department store Courtesy Fortepan/ Magyar Rendőr

We had decided to try to cook pőrkölt, a rich casserole-type dish, since it seemed probable that ingredients for traditional Hungarian fare would be the easiest to come by. This entailed a visit to the butcher on our way home and Paul's using his few words of Hungarian; he had been on a summer course at the University of Debrecen the year before and had stayed with a Hungarian family who spoke no English.

They had taught him to cook local dishes, so I left him to it. He had only to mutter the word ‘pőrkőlt’ and the butcher made for one of the pig carcasses suspended from a hook on the wall. I looked around. A fly was crawling over a tray of chicken legs and others had settled on the salamis and sausages hanging above us. The meat was diced, thrown on a piece of white wrapping paper and slapped on the scales.

Our shopping over, we went home, where the first thing I did was wash the meat and pick off the bits of paper that had stuck to it. Next, we had to find a container for the milk which remained in a leaking packet - and then to wash all the other things in the same bag, followed by the bag itself. Ever afterwards bags of milk were carried in a separate plastic carrier bag.

It did not take many days to get used to our new home; pulling out the sofa every night to sleep on, after moving the armchair and coffee table; getting to grips with the rhapsodical gas water heater in the bathroom which would alternately scald or freeze you depending on the gas pressure; and remembering that the phone, when it rang, was in the cupboard by the front door.

Miklós had lent us a tape recorder and some cassettes and we had managed to find the BBC World Service on Péter's Russian radio; we had even seen Starsky and Hutch dubbed into Hungarian on the large black-and-white TV set that dominated the room.

It was interesting that there were no television broadcasts on Mondays. The official explanation was that on one day a week Hungarians should engage themselves in more meaningful activities, but our friends seemed to agree that it was a money-saving measure.

Cooking had become a real chore, mainly because we could not find the ingredients to make the things we were used to eating at home in England, and we were becoming bored with pörkölt, and sliced pork fried in breadcrumbs, another everyday dish in Hungary. Also, as August gave way to September the price of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables shot up, so most people turned to pickled gherkins and cabbage, on which we were not too keen.

Surely the best piece of advice we were ever given about shopping was from Miklós: always to take at least a thousand forints, so that if we saw something we might need within the next six months, be it sellotape or a tin of bacon, we could buy it because we could be sure we would not find it when we needed it. How invaluable that advice was, and how I rued not having followed it on those occasions when I did not have spare cash with me! However, Paul had at least found some washing powder, stacked high in the corner of a small tobacconist's.

We spent the first few weeks living from one day to the next, relying heavily for help and interpretation on Miklós and another friend, Bálint, whom we had met the previous summer. Listening to Bálint's English was rather like reading a literary masterpiece - his immense vocabulary and choice of phrase would put most English people to shame. His mother had been a famous translator from Russian and he himself was translating Hungarian poetry into English.

Teaching at the Music Academy would only start at the end of September but Paul had to go there to discuss whom and what he would be teaching, and to obtain papers we needed for both residence and work permits.

Miklós had organised a group of young children for me to teach. They lived on a large housing estate and I was to teach them in a room in the attic of one of the blocks of flats. On the second occasion that I went there, one sunny, Monday afternoon, I found the children waiting for me outside as usual, but this time they were all standing around a spot on the path discussing something.

One of the mothers approached me as I reached the children. ‘A man jumped from the seventh floor and landed just here this morning as the children were going to school,’ she explained. Miklós later informed me that not only was Hungary's suicide rate the highest in the world, but leaping out of high-rise flats the most popular method of maintaining the statistic.

Meanwhile, things were being arranged for me to teach for two weeks in Baja, a beautiful town on the Danube south of Budapest, which we had visited with Miklós two years previously.

Miklós and his closest friend János both taught English at the Karl Marx University of Economics in Budapest, but for some time it had been their ambition to start their own school of English. Until January 1982 this had not been permitted, but now they were able to go ahead. In the meantime, they had organised one or two English courses in factories or companies outside Budapest and were teaching there when they were not at the University.

Such a course was the one in Baja, designed for the manager and a small group of employees at a small furniture factory called Blévisz. The course was not held in the factory itself, but at a small ‘holiday home’ belonging to the company. This was on a tree-covered island in the Danube accessible only by a footbridge.

Most factories and companies in Hungary have these holiday homes, which vary from the extremely simple to the luxurious. Employees can stay there for a short holiday at nominal cost, and they are also used for company functions and visitors. Blévisz, being a relatively small company, there were only four bedrooms, a shower room and an outside toilet, and the building was only used during the summer.

A few days before I was to start teaching I went to collect books and cassettes at the premises Miklós and János had leased for their school, Lingua. I had been given detailed instructions how to find the building, and apart from making the mistake of getting off the bus a stop too soon, I found it easily.

It was a ten-storey block, identical to those in the area where we lived, and right beside the river in Óbuda (Old Buda, which is now a suburb of Budapest). Óbuda has many old houses, courtyards with grapevines and flowers, wine-cellars and the ruins of the Roman town of Aquincum and its amphitheatre.

Lingua was in such a block  Courtesy Fortepan/ Óbudai Múzeum

Miklós and János had leased two rooms on the sixth floor for teaching, with a small office, toilet, kitchen and storeroom. Heaps of books lay strewn all over the floor of the larger classroom, along with newspapers, posters, a couple of tape-recorders and piles of cassettes. Someone was drilling holes for bookshelves and blackboard, and in the corner was a pile of new chairs. In the corridor stood an old fridge, destined for the kitchen once it had been cleaned, while in the office two desks were already covered with books and papers.

The drilling stopped for a moment.

‘This is Pisti,’ Miklós introduced me to their electrician friend, who smiled and asked a question in Hungarian. ‘He wants to know why you've come to Hungary.’

‘Tell him it's a long story,’ I said as I climbed over a pile of books and an open bottle of some black alcohol which I failed to recognise even when I picked it up and smelt it.

‘Here, try some,’ said János, offering me his glass. ‘It's medicinal.’

It tasted like it; bitter and strong. This was Unicum: people either swore by it or hated it, and I quickly accepted a glass of wine instead.

Kneeling on the partly unrolled carpet which was to cover the linoleum floor, we searched for the books and cassettes I was to take to Baja. That done, János began to put some posters on the wall, and Miklós took his wallet from his leather bag and handed me a train ticket.

‘I'll try to come and see you off at the station, but in case I can't make it, here's your ticket. Your train leaves from Déli station on Sunday at one-forty. This is a first-class ticket; the factory pays, and Zsuzsa (one of the students) will meet you. I sent her a telegram today. I'll probably come down on Friday and see how it's going. The lessons are like last year, from seven till three, with an hour for lunch. Make them work hard and fine them if they don't do their homework.’

Along with the books and cassettes, I collected a list of topics to be covered by the time Miklós arrived on Friday, then kissing them both good-bye, I left them to continue cleaning up.

Sunday arrived, still hot and sunny even now in September. Paul came to see me off and we found Miklós and János waiting for us on the platform of the beautiful new station.

‘Just to make sure you've really gone,’ said Miklós as I climbed on.

The distance between platform and train is so enormous that old people usually throw their luggage up and then try to heave themselves in, often with the help of a good shove from a friend on the platform.

li station Courtesy Fortepan/ Sándor Bojár

The train was not due to leave for another half-hour, but Hungarians always arrive early to settle themselves in with bags of bread, salami and beer, so it is advisable to go early to make sure of getting a seat. However, in the first-class compartments there were relatively few people in spite of the very small difference in cost. So we all got in to chat till I left.

Miklós gave me a pile of work he had marked for the group, then János wandered along the platform to buy something to drink. A stillness hung in the air on this hot Sunday afternoon, a quietness and laziness as we sat in the compartment drinking the cool juice János had found.

The guard blew his whistle. Paul kissed me, saying ‘Good luck. I'll write,’ and János pulled out a white handkerchief, brought specially for the occasion, and continued to wave it till the train was out of sight.

Main photo: The market and the Skála department store Courtesy Fortepan /Magyar Rendőr

Related links

An Englishwoman in Communist Hungary: Chapter 1, Part 1

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