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

  • 19 Dec 2022 9:00 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 3, Part 3.
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 3 – Everyday corruption

All the others left except the twins, Kálmán and Jóska, who seemed to have nowhere special to go, and so returned to the flat with us. We unpacked our bedding and the necessary items to make breakfast with, and we then had our first really close look around all the rooms.

Kálmán soon disappeared to his regular haunt, the 'Melodia' disco, while Jóska helped us take down the chandelier which seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the whole sitting-room. It was thick with dust and enormously heavy, and as Paul helped Jóska carry it through to the room by the kitchen I wondered what Zoli-bácsi would say if one day he came to the flat. I took a few stray bottles and odds and ends to the larder to join all the other bric-a-brac that lined its shelves.

It began to get dark. Jóska left, and we sat in our newly-acquired, though far from new, armchairs and planned to remove the 'sarcophagus' from the room the next day. There were no bookshelves, so finding some would be a priority.

There were no curtains in the flat, and as we passed the window a movement caught our attention. An old woman was walking very slowly on the opposite side of the road, in a long coat of no particular colour, carrying a long pole in one hand, and a vinyl holdall in the other.

As she reached the side-gate to the market, she called softly, looking around her almost guiltily. She put her bag on the ground, removed several pieces of cardboard from it and put food onto each one. The cats were already waiting. Taking the pole, she pushed the pieces of card under the gate. She waited, maybe to see how many cats had come, quietly talking to them. Then, taking her pole and bag, she shuffled off back down the street.

Sunday, just one week since we had first come to see the flat. We hardly knew where to start: the sarcophagus was to be moved to the back room, but the back room was full of our boxes. In retrospect we realised it would have been better to put the boxes in the other small room.

The doorbell rang. Endre and his wife Kati had come to see how the remainder of the move had gone, and to help us clean up. Kati opened the doors of various cupboards and looked horrified - more newspapers, more bottles, corks, paintbrushes and ancient electrical appliances.

She disappeared into the bathroom and re-emerged wearing a faded, baggy tracksuit she had brought with her, and immediately put us all to work removing the rubbish, while she washed out the drawers and cupboards and then started on the floor. So we continued till noon, whereupon we gratefully accepted their invitation to lunch, having lost our previous enthusiasm for moving the boxes yet again.

Kati only began cooking when we got back, so while Endre and Paul talked politics, I sat in the garden with their daughter Flóra, half-dozing in the sun. Lunch was late in the afternoon, and it was nearly ten o'clock by the time we had walked through the park and found ourselves back in Garay tér. The Family Circle was closed, but we just caught sight of the cat-woman, as we had come to call her, disappearing round the far corner of the square.

Within a week we had made the major changes to the flat we had planned. The sarcophagus was moved out - almost a day's work, which had meant shifting all the boxes. Bookshelves were found, bought and transported home. Kálmán came and painted the walls in the hall and the cupboard in the kitchen.

The table in the sitting-room was placed next to the window, the giant cheese plant near the door was moved into the hall, records, books and crockery unpacked, curtain material bought and taken to be made up, a carpet found and most things cleaned. There was no washing machine and the price of a new one was beyond us, considering the increased amount of rent to pay.

The tiny fridge was inadequate, but Kati said they were on the point of buying a new one and offered to swap theirs for a couple of old Indian skirts I had. Endre said he would go back with me to the second-hand shop where we had got the bed, as they also had washing machines.

A few days later we met outside the shop. We walked past the rows of beds and chairs to some stairs that led down to the basement. There were maybe thirty washing machines standing at one end of the room, and a young assistant of about twenty, smoking nearby.

Endre walked up to him and began to chat, so I wandered around the machines looking at the prices. Some certainly looked less battered than others, but otherwise there was no way of ascertaining their ages or how long they could be expected to last.

‘Have you found one?’ Endre asked me. I told him that apart from the price I had no idea which to choose, so after a quick consultation with the assistant, I was shown a particular one that looked neither better nor worse than the rest, and which at five thousand five-hundred forints I could just afford. A contract was filled in and a guarantee for three months, after which the assistant disappeared, and we slowly walked upstairs.

Hungarian ‘Hajdu’ washing machine Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

At the far end was the desk, surrounded by people filling in forms, or just sitting waiting. We sat down on a nearby bed. Eventually our assistant appeared, handed us various papers and motioned to us to go to the cash desk to pay.

As our turn approached, I took out the money, then looking at the receipt I saw it said only four thousand five-hundred forints, and not five thousand five-hundred. Endre anticipated my question. ‘Five hundred for us and five hundred for him,’ he said. I had no idea what he was talking about. I paid four thousand five-hundred and left the shop with Endre.

Outside on the pavement stood our assistant with the washing machine. He had already hailed a taxi-van for us, and after a brief exchange I saw Endre hand over a five-hundred forint note as they shook hands. It was really quite simple: the price on the washing machine had been changed to four thousand five-hundred; I had saved five hundred forints while the assistant had made five hundred. Not bad for ten minutes' work.

When we arrived at Garay tér Paul was looking out of the window and came down to help carry the machine. We put it in the bathroom where there was already an attachment, with the outflow pipe hooked over the side of the bath. Endre left and I collected a pile of washing and put it in the machine, meanwhile explaining to Paul about the money. I switched it on; nothing happened; it was quite dead.

As luck would have it, the state repair shop for household appliances, Gelka, had a branch just off Garay tér. This was Paul's destination the following morning, as he left, contract in hand, to set about getting our machine repaired. However, it was naïve of us to have expected anything to be so simple.

As the woman pointed out, that shop dealt with the Fourteenth district and we were living in the Seventh, so Paul would have to go to a different address which she wrote down for him. Twenty minutes later he arrived at the new address, only to be informed that they dealt only with televisions, radio, vacuum cleaner repairs and the like, but they would give him the address of where he had to go.

Off he set once again, and found the street written on the scrap of paper in his hand: Number twenty-three was the Gelka shop. However, on approaching, from the opposite side of the road, it was quite obvious that number twenty-three was nothing other than a butcher's.

Paul walked back and forth - maybe there was a 23/a, or 23/b? Finally, summoning up what reserves of patience he still had, he went and joined the queue of women inside. The smell of cooking sausages and grilled chicken filled the tiny shop. There were several counters in the middle, at which men in blue overalls were standing, grease dripping from their calloused fingers, sausage, mustard and a hunk of bread before them.

Garay tér Courtesy Fortepan/ Zoltán Szalay

‘What's it for, pörkölt?’ asked the butcher.

‘Yes…no, not that piece. Haven't you got anything nicer? What about that there?’

‘That's one and a half kilos.’

‘Mmmm...perhaps a chicken. Have you got a nice chicken?’

The butcher unceremoniously picked up one of the pile of chickens and slapped it down on the paper. ‘That's a beauty,’ he said wrapping it up before any further discussion could ensue. ‘One hundred and ten forints.’ The woman, still peering unconvincedly at the paper parcel in front of her, opened her purse, while the butcher turned to Paul.

 ‘Er..I'm looking for the Gelka service shop,’ he said. The butcher merely raised his eyebrows. ‘This is number twenty-three, isn't it?’


‘Well, I was sent here to this you know where it is?’

The butcher shook his head. Paul hurried out past the woman standing in the doorway, prodding the half-unwrapped chicken in her bag. He walked further along the street, and then caught sight of the Gelka sign on the other side.

‘Yes?’ said the woman sitting on the brown vinyl chair at the desk.

‘I'd like to have my washing machine repaired.’


‘Seventh district,’ he paused waiting for the inevitable.

‘Yes?’ ‘Garay tér.’

‘What's wrong with it?’

‘It doesn't go. It's quite dead.’


‘Merrick,’ he said in as Hungarian a way as the name would allow.

‘Tomorrow alright? Between eight and three.’

‘Very good. Thank you. Goodbye.’

It all seemed too easy, and we both suspected that no-one would turn up, but they did, and the small electrical fault was soon repaired. It was not the last time the repair man was to call; in the months that followed we had two floods and numerous other problems, and finally we were told the necessary spare part was unavailable. It remained unavailable until we left the flat - and the machine - behind some eighteen months later.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Our local butcher’s - Courtesy Fortepan/ Benjamin Makovecz

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports