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

  • 26 Oct 2022 9:47 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 2, Part 1.
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 two:  Snow and Settling: Dózsa György út

Part 1 – Hungarian customer service; Customs Officers visit

On the day following our move our belongings were delivered. Despite the pages of advertisements from removal firms in the Yellow Pages in England claiming ‘Worldwide removal’, or ‘European removers’ only one was in fact able to handle our things - and then only as far as Vienna where a Hungarian company would have to collect them and take them on to Budapest. A typical response from the other ‘Worldwide removers’ was, ‘Hungary? What kind of regime they got there then?’ Followed by, ‘Sorry, we don’t go to none of them Communist countries.’

It had been difficult to decide what we might need, and we had first thought of taking only clothes and some books and records. However, the removal firm told us that the quantity mattered not nearly so much as the distance, and since we had no idea what would be included in the rental of a flat in Budapest, we eventually decided to take everything.

We had no furniture since we were leaving a furnished flat (our piano and cat went to our friends Sue and Steve in Cambridge) but we took crockery, bedding, record-player, books, records - almost everything we owned. The total weight of the container was some 600 kilos, so we were glad that the cost included delivery within Budapest to a ground or first-floor flat.

The lorry arrived late in the morning. Bálint was waiting with us to help with interpreting, should that be needed. The driver came up to our door, showed us the papers and indicated that we should follow him out into the street. The rear of the lorry stood open; inside was the huge wooden crate with our name chalked on it. We waited.

‘He wants to know if you've got an axe to open the crate,’ Bálint told us.

‘No, we haven't,’ Paul replied, ‘and anyway, why hasn't he got one, and where are the other people to carry the things, or is he going to do it alone?’

Bálint translated.

The driver took a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, lit one, leant against the lorry and said, ‘Well, I can't open the crate without an axe.’

At that moment, Eva's aunt came through the gate on her way to the shop.

‘Please ask her if she's got an axe,’ I asked Bálint.

She had, and she fetched it. The driver puffed out a final cloud of smoke, then swung himself up into the back of the lorry and began to open the container. One or two inquisitive people gathered round to watch. There were twenty-six large cardboard boxes inside.

The driver beckoned to Bálint, ‘Help me get them down onto the pavement, will you?’ he asked.

The fact that delivery had been prepaid did not concern him. No other men had been provided, there was only him, and if we did not help it seemed he would be quite happy just to stand and smoke. Gradually we unloaded them all.

‘Now what?’ Paul asked Bálint, ‘Don't tell me we've got to carry them all the way up to the flat?’

We did. It began to rain as we started the long trek from the street, through the gate across the courtyard and up the steps. We were all sweating, cold and damp by the time we had finished. The driver held out a paper to be signed.

‘He says you have to pay four hundred forints for delivery,’ Bálint told us.

‘What? We paid in England,’ we replied.

The man shrugged his shoulders.

‘They always say that, these foreign removal companies,’ he said.

It seemed pointless to try to prove our point by showing him the English language contract, so we decided to pay him and sort it out later at the Masped office.

‘You have to give a tip,’ said Bálint, a Hungarian mania which the Hungarians themselves cannot explain, especially since service is grudging at best and non-existent at worst. We gave him five hundred forints which he pocketed disdainfully, and muttered complainingly as he went back to his van.

Bálint had to leave us then, so Paul and I began to push the boxes through the main room and into the second room which we had decided to use only as a store for the time being, both for our own things and some of Eva's that we didn't need.

There was a ring at the door. A man and a woman, both in green uniform, informed us that they were from the customs and that we must not unpack any of the boxes until they had checked everything. Luckily, one of them spoke a little German. We led them into the back room.

‘Now, we need to see your record player, tape recorder and amplifier,’ they said. We had no idea which box they might be in, the boxes were labelled, 'Wardrobe', 'Books and sundries', 'Kitchen' and 'Miscellaneous'.

The choice seemed to be between 'Sundry' or 'Miscellaneous'. The man and woman settled themselves on top of a heap of plastic bags full of Eva's bedding and laundry and waited for us to find the things.

Slowly and unenthusiastically, we started to open boxes and rummage through them. It did not take too long to find the amplifier and tape recorder, but the record player was elusive. Having been through twenty-four boxes, all that was left were the two large wardrobe boxes: carefully packed among our clothes lay the record player.

The man and woman carefully noted down the serial numbers and then asked, ‘Have you got anything like a computer, television or other tape recorder?’

‘Nothing,’ we replied, ‘only that small radio over there, an old sewing machine and a typewriter.’

Our electric typewriter

‘You understand that you are not allowed to sell any of these things and that when you leave the country we will check that you still have them? We'll also need a list of all your other things,’ the man said, indicating our heaps of boxes and belongings.

‘You mean we have to list every book?’ asked Paul, his voice touched with hysteria. ‘We've got about six hundred books and the same number of records.’

‘And you want me to write down every pair of socks and shoes?’ I asked incredulously.

The customs officer considered.

‘Well, if you write down something like fifty history books, one hundred music books... you know... you needn't write down all the titles...’

‘And the clothes?’ I asked.

‘Oh, just write down… have you got a fur coat?’

I shook my head. He sighed. He obviously considered the whole situation as ridiculous as we did.

Resuming his seat on top of the bags he said, ‘You're from England, aren't you?’ We nodded.


‘I'm teaching at the Music Academy,’ Paul replied.

‘My son's a violinist. He's in an orchestra in West Germany,’ he told us proudly. ‘It's very difficult for musicians here. It's a small country and there aren't many orchestras. Anyway, the pay's so bad they have to spend all their time teaching. They have no time to practise, and no-one wants more than one rehearsal because they lose their teaching time and money. Then people wonder why the standards aren't what they should be.’

This was a situation we too were learning about - the standard of orchestras we had heard bore no resemblance to that of the playing of the students in the academy, many of whom went abroad to work at the first opportunity. The customs man chatted a little longer, the woman saying nothing, and then having put his hat back on and the sheaf of papers back in his case, they left.

We felt very much at home in this new flat, though it was far from ideal from many points of view. Perhaps the worst fault was that we always had to have the lights on except on the very brightest days. The kitchen had no proper sink and no hot water, what it did have was something made of cast iron, painted white, comparable in appearance only to a urinal.

This was attached to the wall with a single cold tap above, and it had many small holes like a colander, and no plug. We used it for peeling potatoes or vegetables, but washing-up could only be done by bringing a bowl of hot water from the bathroom, and standing it on the table. Gradually we unpacked our boxes and found to our amazement that not a single item had been broken.

Our kitchen sink

It was November: dark, cold and cheerless. The foreign tourists disappeared, and the Hungarian winter 'uniform' of black leather jackets and coats was once again in evidence.

Street and shop lighting was dim, and we were glad of our warm flat. All Hungarian homes, even down to the simplest peasant houses, have two sets of windows, an extremely effective form of double glazing, and are generally heated to a level uncomfortable for anyone wearing more than a t-shirt.

In the week following our move we went to the embassy to register our change of address, as was compulsory for all foreign residents. The embassy also housed the British Council library, which contained a good number of both books and records, as well as a selection of daily papers and magazines.

Most Hungarians, for whom the library actually exists, were afraid to go into the building. To do so had once been illegal, and even now they feared being reported by the policeman on the door. Foreign newspapers were only otherwise available in the large hotels, but even then, our friends preferred to ask us to buy a paper or a magazine for them rather than go into the hotel themselves.

On some days I still began teaching at seven-thirty, which meant I had to leave home at six-thirty. I was amazed that even so early in the morning, I had to wait for the third tube at Keleti station before I could push my way on.

Illegal sellers at Keleti  Courtesy Fortepan/ Sándor Rubinstein

Keleti (the Eastern) railway station is an imposing structure, its entrance facade flanked by large statues: on one side, James Watt, on the other Robert Stephenson. The station is situated in a poor area with a proliferation of illegal street traders selling quartz watches and calculators.

The station itself was always alive with a colourful assortment of widely contrasting people – the Wiener Waltzer bringing the ostentatiously well-dressed Viennese, the trains from Romania with Transylvanian-Hungarians shouldering heavy bundles of indeterminable content and baskets of food, drink and the occasional live chicken or goose.

The trains to and from Moscow were always overcrowded with Russian soldiers, with their characteristic uniforms and huge flat-topped hats which looked as though they had a long-playing record in them. Keleti was one of the meeting points for Hungarian conscripts, self-conscious in their new uniforms and short haircuts, their parents nearby with carrier bags full of their sons' possessions.

Small stalls crowded the entrance and platforms selling newspapers and refreshments including surprisingly fresh chestnut purée and cream in small plastic cups.

Station refreshment trolley with chestnut purée Courtesy Fortepan/Sándor Bauer

Outside the station was a large opening in the road leading down to the underground and a pedestrian area with stone seats and one or two espresso bars. There are three underground lines in Budapest; the first was built not long after the first London one, with trains rather like underground trams.

The other two lines, built on the Russian model, are very deep under the ground, and the trains are spotlessly clean, spacious and fast.

Keleti station underground Courtesy Fortepan/ Magyar Hírek Folyóirat

Related links

An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 1, Part 4.

An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 1, Part 3.

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

An Englishwoman in Communist Hungary: Chapter 1, Part 1

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