An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 3, Part 4.

  • 28 Dec 2022 1:35 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary: Chapter 3, Part 4.
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 4: Unwelcome visitors; “there’s no Cambridge in England”

After perhaps three weeks of living in Garay tér we had a surprise visit. It was early evening when the doorbell rang and standing outside was an elderly couple: a thin, smiling man, and his plump, beaming wife.

He spoke a little broken English, and asked if they could come in. I led them along the hall to the main room, aware of their stares.  

‘Very nice. How nice you're making the flat,’ the man said. His wife just continued to beam silently. Paul came into the room and the man held out his hand and introduced himself.

‘We are relatives of Rózsi-néni - but please don't tell her we were here - a family difficulty…’

We nodded as if we understood. He rambled on about English football teams and his holiday in England some twenty years previously, interspersing these reminiscences with more compliments on the flat, until I wondered if they had come out of pure curiosity just to see it and us. Then, finally, he came to the point.

He and his wife were going to Austria on holiday that summer and - as we must surely know - it was very difficult for Hungarians to obtain hard currency, so they wanted to change some money with us.

We were completely taken aback. Not even our oldest friends had asked us this, knowing that our earnings were in forints, and that we needed what currency we could get just as they did. And this smiling pair of strangers had sought us out and were expecting us to give it to them.

We hastily explained the situation, agreeing to change ten pounds as the only way we could think of getting rid of them.

The man pulled the newspaper out of his pocket to calculate the amount, not offering - as anyone else in the same situation always would - a higher rate of exchange. Then still beaming, and with a last final comment on the transformation of the flat and a promise of a postcard from Austria, they left. 

We received the postcard, and unfortunately, several more visits. However, on each occasion we sadly confessed to having no currency but promised to contact them if any friend or relative were to visit. Once we caught sight of them coming around the square.

It was early evening, and heavy drops of rain were already falling from the storm that was to follow. Quickly switching off all the lights and locking the front door we waited to see if they were coming to us.

After repeatedly ringing the bell, they left a note: ‘If you have any news for us, please ring. Kindest regards…’ 


Postcard from Austria Courtesy Wikimedia

They never found us in after that, though we had a postcard from Italy and one from Germany.

Later, after we left Garay tér, feeling we had escaped their visits for ever, the porter at the Music Academy informed Paul that a man had been calling regularly to ask for our new address, and from his description there was no doubt as to who it was. But apart from once finding ourselves in the same vegetable shop, and having to make a rapid exit, we never saw them again. 

Meanwhile, we were having problems with Zoli-bácsi.

It seemed that after three years of coming to the flat to paint and tinker, he was unable to keep away.

Several times after being out, we would return to find the huge cheese plant back in the small bedroom where it had been when we took over the flat. He had also usually watered it, short-sightedly sloshing water and soil on the floor.

Once or twice he was just leaving the flat when we arrived home and informed us that he had been repairing something. As we expected, he complained about our having moved the chandelier and furniture and insisted on our moving all our boxes down to the cellar.

The final straw came when, at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, we got up to find him kneeling in the toilet reaffixing the toilet-roll holder to the wall. We decided to visit Endre and ask him to have a talk with the old man. 

We were still not officially registered in the flat. Within a few days of having moved in, a woman had come from one of the travel agencies that also dealt with the renting of flats - they always charged a far higher rent than was normally agreed privately between landlord and tenant.

Either Zoli-bácsi had thought of the idea himself or one of his family had put him up to it, but in any event she had arrived while the place was still in an awful mess. After a cursory glance she asked us with disbelief if we were satisfied with the flat, declaring it to be below even their fourth category.

We were relieved: the rent would not be going up. 

Zoli-bácsi arrived one day asking Paul to accompany him to the council offices so that we could be registered.

This was in fact entirely superfluous, but he seemed to have an exaggerated fear of, or respect for authority. When they arrived at the building the relevant office was closed for lunch, so Zoli-bácsi invited Paul for a coffee in the large espresso in the Emke hotel on the corner.

Feeling hungry, Paul ordered an egg mayonnaise for himself as well as the coffee, whereupon Zoli-bácsi, much put out, announced that he had only invited Paul for a coffee - eight forints - and the egg - sixteen forints - he would have to pay for himself. The waitress arrived.

Zoli-bácsi paid for the two coffees, but as the girl could not change the only note Paul had, Zoli-bácsi was forced to pay for the egg too. He did so, grudgingly, reminding Paul that he must reimburse him the next time they met. 

The extraordinarily hot, dry weather continued into May.

Towards the end of the month, we received a card from Sue and Steve in Cambridge saying that their first baby, Tim, had been born on the 10th, and since I could not telephone, we decided to send them a telegram. Sue was my oldest friend, we had met at the age of nine at primary school and she and Steve were looking after our piano and cat. 

Post Office Courtesy Fortepan/ UVATERV

I decided to go to the main post office at Nyugati station on the assumption that sending telegrams abroad would be run-of-the-mill for them. Although countless forms exist for anything from registered parcels to customs declaration forms, none is readily available.

Two equally unattractive options exist to obtain one: either you join the end of a long queue, get the form, fill it in and rejoin the even longer line of people, or apologising profusely for your very existence, you push to the front saying, ‘Please forgive me, please be so very kind as to let me have a telegram form,’ and then, ‘thank you, thank you so much,’ as it is unceremoniously shoved towards you. I always refused to ingratiate myself in such a pointless and absurd fashion, so I joined the queue.

(When I later asked at the post office why the forms could not be put around the walls for customers, it was explained that people stole them. For what unimaginable purpose I was not told.) 

I duly wrote my message and waited until I was once again at the front of the queue. I pushed the form towards the unsmiling woman behind the curtained widows. After a cursory look at it she pushed it back. 
‘I can't send this,’ she said. 

‘Why not?’ I asked incredulously. 

‘Because there's no such place as this in England,’ she stated, in a matter-of-fact voice. 

For a moment I was dumbfounded. 

‘But there is, I've been there,’ I said unconvincingly. 

‘No. Not in England. In America, yes Cambridge, Massachusetts, but not in England.’ 

‘But there was a Cambridge in England long before there was one in America,’ I spluttered. 

The woman sighed. She opened a tome to her left and leafed through it. 

‘See?’ she said, pointing to the word CAMBRIDGE. ‘In America.’ 

Luckily, the man standing behind me in the queue, obviously identifying my accent, decided to help.

‘Surely she knows where it is, she's English,’ he said. The woman, now outnumbered, decided on a conditional surrender. 

‘Alright, I'll send it,’ she said, ‘but on one condition. You have no right to your money back if we can't deliver it. You'll have to sign here to say that you take the responsibility.’ 

‘I'll risk it,’ I replied, the irony lost on her completely. I duly signed the form and left the building with the same degree of bemusement Alice must have felt on leaving the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. 

Main photo: Garay tér market Courtesy Fortepan/Tamás Urbán

Click here for earlier extracts

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports