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

  • 6 Dec 2022 5:46 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 3, 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 three:  Market and May Day: Garay tér

Part 1 – Our new flat; our new landlord

Endre arrived as planned the following Sunday morning. He tried to prepare us for what we would see in the flat, describing its old furniture and general disorderliness. We were not interested: we had to find somewhere to move within the month.

It may seem strange that Garay tér, a mere two minutes' walk from Dózsa György út, was completely unknown territory to us. The preceding months from November to April had been spent in such a way that we generally seemed both to leave and return to our flat in the dark. The clocks were put back a month sooner than in England - at the end of September - and since darkness falls earlier even in the summer months, we had not felt encouraged to explore.

The square was almost silent. It was already warm enough that April not even to need a jacket, and the sun shone in our faces as we entered the square. To our left, the Palm Cukrászda was open, its narrow wooden steps divided by a rickety rail enabling two queues to form, one for ice-cream, one for cakes and pastries.

The ice-cream queue stretched down the steps and into the street, the people standing dozily in the sun. From the other came a father and son carrying their white parcel of cakes, the cream just beginning to make grease spots on the paper packaging.

 Pálmai Cukrászda, Garay tér  

Opposite was the main entrance to the market, which was, in fact, Garay tér. The huge, green, wrought iron gates stood padlocked, but outside on the pavement gypsy music could be heard from a transistor radio, coming from one of the many kiosks that surround the market square.

The door to the kiosk was open, and outside a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in her floral nylon apron was sitting heavily on her wooden stool, surrounded by plastic buckets of assorted flowers, and a small blackboard with 'Ferenc' chalked on it, showing that day's name-day.

(Every day of the calendar year is associated with one or more Christian names - many were originally a saint's day. While birthdays are usually only celebrated by family and close friends, name-days are also celebrated at places of work and are more ‘public’ occasions.)

We turned into the square. ‘This is it here,’ Endre said. The building was painted a pale lime green; the number above the door was obscured by dirty glass. On the right was a wooden door and next to that a small workshop, the door open and its proprietor sitting in blue, oil-stained overalls, cleaning something I assumed belonged to the car parked by the kerb with its bonnet open and engine running.

We walked into the entrance, bins and letterboxes on either side. It was dark and dusty, the uneven black and white slabs on the floor cracked and dirty. There was an odour of rubbish and damp. We climbed the stone steps to the second floor. Unmistakable smells of fried chicken and coffee came from behind the doors to other flats, combined with sounds of voices washing-up to the gypsy-music radio programme we had heard outside.

As we reached the top of the stairs the dull, brown door of 'our' flat faced us. Several small brass name-plates announced occupants both abroad and deceased. We rang the bell. After some shuffling and fumbling from within, the door opened to reveal Zoli-bácsi. Zoli-bácsi: seventy-eight years old, a retired watchmaker whose mother had owned the flat but had died three years previously.

Zoli-bácsi, who had spent those years renovating the flat for his daughter, resident in Canada with her rabbi husband and children, and according to Endre, never to return.

For a moment he peered at us uncertainly through glasses the thickness of milk bottles - the fate, presumably, of many a watchmaker. Beyond him stretched a long, dark hall, lofty and cool with its high ceiling.

Endre immediately began his usual jolly patter of conversation as we followed Zoli-bácsi through the door. The hall had a red flagstone floor and was quite bare except for a tall, carelessly-painted broom cupboard with a dusty spider plant on top. At the far end of the hall were huge double doors with brass handles and glass panels. They led into the enormous main room, with its parquet floor and stucco ceiling. We climbed over the paint tins and newspapers and looked around.

A monstrous chandelier hung from a chain in the centre of the room, grotesque wrought iron, looking like something from a Hammer-House production. Below it stood a large, dark dining table with four chairs. The table itself was hidden by an assortment of paint rags, beer bottles, chipped plastic cups, newspapers, pieces of tarnished silver cutlery and paint brushes.

The upholstery on the chairs was badly worn; something like straw hung from under the seats of two of them. In one corner of the room stood a black, sarcophagal piece of furniture, its wooden doors open, and crammed for the most part with ancient-looking tablecloths and curtains. The closed glass doors encased vases of dusty plastic roses, yellowing photographs, a few medals and an assortment of keys.

In the opposite corner was a giant dresser with a worn, pink, marble slab over its bottom doors. The drawers were open revealing more tarnished cutlery, plastic spoons and old postcards. Through the glass doors in the top part of the dresser I could see unidentifiable electrical appliances, possibly hotplates and small grills. The marble slab was covered with tools, nails, bits and pieces of clocks, more rags, more paintbrushes and more paint pots.

On a stand by the window, a large cheese plant sat in a white enamel bowl of the kind I was accustomed to seeing in bathrooms for soaking clothes or catching drips from leaking pipes. To our left was the kályha, an ornate example and probably valuable, and a television that looked decidedly unlikely to be in working order.

Zoli-bácsi stood in the middle of the room, large-boned yet frail, his trousers hanging loosely and his short-sleeved shirt revealing white, sagging arms. The floor was a sea of paint-spattered newspapers, small sticks resting on paint tin lids, and the odd beer bottle or screwdriver put down where it had obviously been last used.

‘I've been working here nearly every day for the past three years,’ Zoli-bácsi informed us, ‘painting, fitting the new bathroom - it's my daughter Anna's flat now, they'll be coming to live here when her husband's finished his research in Canada. He's a rabbi you know, and Anna's a doctor.’

He picked his way over to the open dresser drawer, took out one of the postcards, and raising it till it was perhaps two inches from his glasses, peered at it carefully and then handed it to us. ‘This is where they live - I went there last year,’ he said.

‘Have a look around,’ said Endre, resuming his rapid conversation while Zoli-bácsi rummaged in the drawer in search, perhaps, of other postcards.

The flat was large. The first door to the left on coming in from outside, led into the kitchen. It had a stone floor, a small wooden table with a peeling plastic covering, the usual double sink unit and small white enamel sink with a cold tap.

The cooker was of black cast iron, spattered with whitewash from the newly-decorated walls, the only remaining item being a small dresser containing more plastic flowers. Leading off from the kitchen was another room, nearly empty, with a worn rug on the floor, a dusty sofa and two enormous black wardrobes.

Opposite the kitchen, on the other side of the hall, lay the larder, large enough to walk into and bulging with empty bottles, paint tins, glass jars, old flowerpots, chipped crockery and every imaginable kind of rubbish.

The toilet was next to that, and the bathroom was at the end of the hall. This had obviously also been newly decorated, had a bright blue bathroom suite and tiles, whitewashed walls and patterned blue lino, which had been roughly cut with a bad join in the middle and considerable gaps around the bath and basin.

Climbing over the debris in the main room where Endre was still talking, we looked into both the smaller rooms which lay one either side of the sitting room. One had a sofa and a wardrobe. Both rooms had the same nine-foot-high double doors with brass handles. There was no doubt about how grand the flat had once been.

We stood by one of the windows and looked out across the square. The roofs of the buildings around the perimeter of the market gave way to an open central area full of small, covered stalls and I could make out one or two of the painted signs, 'Live Fish & Fish Soup', 'Poultry', 'Flowers'.

There was no sign of life. To the left I could see the cake shop, still with its queue on the wooden steps, and down below I could hear someone relentlessly revving the engine of a car. Then, as I was about to walk away from the window, a movement caught my eye: a cat on the market roof had got up to stretch itself and then lie down again in the sun.

A corner of the market as seen from our flat Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

Endre called. ‘He says you can have it for five thousand forints a month,’ he said. Zoli-bácsi stared at us, as if trying to gauge our reaction to the rent. Then he interrupted Endre asking him to tell us that he was not mercenary, he was a good communist and party member, but he and his wife were old and still had to pay the council rent for the flat out of their pensions.

We told him it was no problem, mentally calculating how many more hours of teaching would be needed to pay the difference between our present rent and this. It was agreed that we could move in on the following Saturday and that by then Zoli-bácsi would have cleaned up.

Together we again crossed the swathes of paint-covered newspaper and walked to the door. He shook hands with all of us, and almost before we were outside, he closed the door and we could hear the sound of the key in the lock.

‘Are you sure you can afford it?’ asked Endre, as we walked back out into the street and past the shuttered shop windows. ‘You'll have to pay the gas and electricity bills on top. I tried to get him to let you have it for four thousand, but he's sharper than he looks. And you don't want to believe all that business about being poor - they've got a lovely flat in Buda, and a summer house up in the hills somewhere.’

We were just relieved that we had somewhere to go, and long after Endre had left us we were still talking about our separate impressions, our plans for earning the rent, reorganising the flat, and the move itself.

The following Saturday morning our friends arrived early. It was already hot. Miklós came in a van with a driver that can be hired just like a taxi and found us already carrying the first boxes along the balcony and down into the courtyard.

It was a slow job even though there were seven of us: Endre, János, Miklós, two friends of his called Kálmán and Jóska, and ourselves. The driver of the van merely loaded the boxes out in the street. One or two people living on the second floor leaned on the railings of the balcony to watch, including an old man in tracksuit trousers and vest, smoking, and a woman in a dressing-gown watering some plants hanging on the wall next to her flat door.

Sometimes we were forced to have a stop in the courtyard between the flower beds, before continuing to the covered entrance, past the letterboxes and bins and out into the street. It was ten o'clock and already twenty-eight degrees. On the kitchen table stood a dozen beer bottles, glasses and an opener, but otherwise the flat was bare.

Endre travelled with the driver to Garay tér while the rest of us carried pot plants, the typewriter, the guitar and the bottles. When we arrived, they were still trying to park the van, and the man we had seen in the workshop the week before was waving them into the space between two other vans loaded with vegetables.

The square was a noisy, swarming multitude of people carrying enormous shopping bags bulging with food from the market, cars hooting, stall-holders shouting; the street was congested with cars, vans and people trying to carry crates and boxes of produce across the narrow road.

Garay tér market entrance  Courtesy Fortepan/ Sándor Kerekes

There was no time to watch. Endre had already gone up to get the key from the neighbour, an honest, friendly woman, eager to help.

By the time we arrived, they were inside the flat. We walked into the hall and on to the door of the sitting-room only to find it had been padlocked, and that the bunch of keys Zoli-bácsi had left did not include a key for it. We pooled all the keys we had between us and then tried each in turn: we were in luck, one fitted.

Garay tér market (left)  Courtesy Fortepan/ Magyar Rendőr 

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Garay tér (with its market)  Courtesy Fortepan/ Magyar Rendör

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