'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 3, Part 9.

  • 31 Jan 2023 6:56 AM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 3, Part 9.
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 9 – Journey by Trabant; a taste of country life

‘I'll pick you up at nine o'clock,’ Feri said. ‘It's about a two-hour drive.’ He grimaced as the gypsy musicians began their journey around the tables and so, washing the remaining pancakes down with the last of the second bottle of Bull's Blood, we switched on our lamp to pay.

The following morning Feri was at the door before nine. ‘I forgot to tell you yesterday,’ he said, ‘to take some warm clothes. It's much cooler up in the Bükk mountains.’ We each packed a thick sweater, though we found it difficult to believe that the difference in temperature could possibly be so great.

Feri had parked in the square outside the Palm Cukrászda, giving Brian an excuse to nip in and buy one or two things for the trip. Meanwhile, I went to one of the flower stalls in the market and bought half a dozen gladioli. 

‘I didn't know you had a car,’ observed Paul.

‘I haven't,’ replied Feri, ‘it's a Trabant!’ - a comment we were to hear many times about this East German vehicle, the cheapest car available in Hungary. We clambered in. It was a tight squeeze, and Brian and I in the back had our knees almost under our chins.

We spluttered off down the road, stopping soon after to buy petrol. ‘This car has a very modern fuel gauge,’ said Feri. We looked. ‘Here,’ he said, pointing to a blank space on the dashboard.

‘When the car stops you know you've run out of petrol.’ In fact, Trabant drivers had to keep a rough record of how much petrol they had put in and how far they had driven.

Trabant dashboard

The engine was very noisy, like a motor-mower going at full throttle, and conversation was achieved only by sitting on the very edge of the back seat and yelling into Feri's and Paul's ears. ‘You know, a horse once ate a part of a Trabant,’ said Feri.

‘They're made of fibreglass. I don't suppose you have them in England, do you?’ We shook our heads. And yet this caricature of modern road travel cost fifty thousand forints, and you had to wait about five years to get one. Feri told us the joke about the accident between an Englishman in his Jaguar, a West German in his BMW, and a Hungarian in his Trabant.

All three cars were write-offs. ‘I'll have to work a year before I can buy another Jaguar,’ moaned the Englishman. ‘And I'll have to work two years before I can buy another BMW,’ continued the German. ‘Huh! I'll have to work at least five years before I can buy another Trabant,’ concluded the Hungarian, whereupon the other two looked at him and said, ‘Well, why do you want to buy such an expensive car?’

At the time Feri was speaking, the cost of a Trabant was one and a half times the average annual income.

We headed northwards in the direction of the Czechoslovak border, climbing up into the Bükk mountains. The name of Feri's village was Bükk-Szent Erzsébet (Bükk Saint Elizabeth), and every year on St. Elizabeth's day, the whole village joined in huge celebrations.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the villages we passed through were the number of imposing new houses being built. Feri laughed, ‘Yes, everyone's building,’ he said.

‘These country people build their enormous houses with six rooms and two bathrooms and then you know what? They live just as they did in their little peasant houses, washing outside in a bowl of water, and living in the kitchen, not using the other rooms.’

We jolted our way off the main, and only made-up, road through the village, and up the dusty track to Feri's house. He jumped out of the car and opened the garden gate, then parked in the grassy drive with the single-storey house on one side and a small vineyard on the other.

Feri’s home

Feri's father, in accordance with tradition also called Feri, and his mother, Mária, appeared at the same time - his father from the cellar where they kept their wine, his mother from the house. His young sister Mari, named after her mother, was also there.

Their dog leapt about excitedly as Feri introduced us. Feri's father shook us all warmly by the hand and led us inside and into the small sitting-room. He opened a glass cabinet under the television set and took out a bottle of pálinka.

Pálinka is a clear, fruit-flavoured spirit, potent and fiery, especially the home-made brew. It had, however, uses beyond its capacity for satisfying a desire for oblivion: Tamás had used it to weld his broken violin-bow resin, while during the previous winter's unavailability of antifreeze, drivers had used pálinka as an effective substitute.

Filling six small glasses, he beamed at us all, ‘May God give you a long life,’ he said in traditional greeting. He knocked back the small glassful. I sipped mine, enjoying the slight burning sensation as it slithered down. We toasted both Mária's name days and then sat down around the table.

Feri's father was a miner, a strong, ruddy-complexioned man who did shift-work on the coal-face. He quickly refilled empty glasses and laughed at our protests saying, ‘It's good stuff, home-made.’

Meanwhile, Feri's mother had disappeared into the kitchen. She was a large-boned, wide-hipped, heavy woman, with a warm motherly smile and a practical, un-fussy manner.

‘I'll just wash before we eat,’ said Feri's father, leaving Feri to show us our rooms. After a brief look at the clarinet music his sister was learning, which was lying on the piano, Feri took us back out to the car to fetch our things.

Outside, the sound of chickens and pigs was unmistakeable and when I asked about them, Feri took us to where they were kept. There were two sties of pigs and several chicken runs. There were also a lot of rabbits which they did not eat, but sold to the Italians for their fur.

‘Oh, by the way,’ said Feri, ‘the toilet is out here,’ and pointed to a small wooden shed. When the door was opened, the smell hit us straight away. Inside was a large wooden box with a neatly carved hole in the centre to sit on, and a cesspit somewhere far beneath.

Outside lavatory

Taking our bags inside Feri showed us to our rooms, obviously kept in permanent readiness for guests. The enormous feather eiderdowns and pillows looked wonderfully inviting and all round the walls were family photos, souvenirs of past holidays, and a dresser full of precious Herend china.

He took us past the kitchen to his parents' bedroom. On the far side was a curtain behind which was a bath and basin. ‘You can wash here,’ said Feri, ‘and don't worry if no water comes out at first, we are not on the mains and the water has to be electrically pumped up from the well.’

Feri's mother called from the sitting room, extra chairs were brought and we all squeezed round the table. More pálinka was poured, and several bottles of wine stood ready on the piano. Then Feri's mother brought a large tureen of chicken and vegetable soup and a basket of fresh bread.

The tureen, once emptied, was quickly refilled, as were our plates. It was followed by a platter of roast chicken and a variety of home-pickled vegetables. By now we felt quite replete, and I was wondering how on earth I would eat any of the cakes that were sure to follow.

We talked about Feri, and how he had come to be a musician. His grandmother had had a harmonium which he had taught himself to play at a young age. His parents, glad that at last he seemed to be interested in something other than reading, encouraged him to play.

He soon began composing his own pieces and sent off to the main music shop in Budapest for scores, unbeknown to his parents, so when the postman arrived carrying heavy brown parcels, they were left to foot the bill. Later on, they bought a piano for him and soon he was asking if he could go to a music school.

There are countless music schools all over Hungary where children learn all the usual school subjects but where the emphasis is on music, and everyone learns an instrument.

As there was no such school in their small village, Feri had to travel every day to the town of Eger. He was given the choice of learning either the violin or the trumpet, his father categorically refused to put up with the sound of violin practice, so Feri became a trumpeter. A year or so later, he transferred to the Bartók Conservatory in Budapest (for fourteen to eighteen-year-olds) and from thence to the Liszt Academy.

While we had been chatting and drinking the plate of chicken had been removed, but ominously, our dinner plates remained. A few minutes later another tureen was brought in, this time with stuffed cabbage.

The leaves of the cabbage were filled with spicy minced meat and rice, which is usually eaten with a good dollop of sour cream. We could hardly move after eating as small a portion as was polite and then, of course, came the cakes…

Feri's mother, refusing all offers of help, cleared away the plates, while we sprawled in the worn armchairs and little Mari played one or two clarinet pieces.

Two more plates of cakes were brought in and left on the table, and by seven o'clock the family was ready for supper: cold meat and cheese, salami, sausage, tomatoes, sweet yellow peppers, boiled eggs and bread and butter. More wine was fetched from the cellar together with a jug of fruit juice.

By nine o'clock Feri's parents were ready for bed - they usually got up before five, due to the lack of mains water. They had no washing machine, and Feri's mother did all the washing by hand.

Things were especially difficult after a long, dry spell, when it was sometimes necessary to fetch extra water from a stand pump, which is what many people in villages have to do.

Women getting water from a stand pump on a village street

Apart from the obvious chores of shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing, there were the animals to be fed and looked after, the allotment in the neighbouring field to be tended, as well as the vineyard next to the house. And in addition there was the constant disruption to their lives caused by the regular changes in shift that

Feri's father worked. We were left together in the sitting room with an unopened wine bottle, but soon we too felt in need of sleep. I still had to write something in a large guest book kept in the house, full of beautiful drawings and poems from those who had been to stay.

Glancing through, I found entries from people of many nationalities, and I realised that what Feri had said was true: his parents were accustomed to his bringing friends home without warning.

Although it was dark, a last trip to the toilet was unavoidable. Some light from the house illuminated the drive, but beyond that lay total darkness. I fumbled my way past the chickens and towards the pigsties, to the little hut beside them. I opened the door and felt for the hole in the seat.

By leaving the door slightly ajar I could vaguely see where I was and take a few breaths of fresh air at the same time. Through the gap I could see the outline of the vines standing in neat rows behind the fence, the fields stretching into the distance, and far beyond them, the Bükk mountains outlined against a darkening sky. I wondered what it must be like in the depths of winter looking out at a snow-blanketed landscape from this freezing hut.

As I walked back past the vineyard, I could hear the pigs grunting softly behind me, while ahead lay no light, no house, no sound.

Click here for earlier extracts

 Main photo: The Trabant -  Courtesy Fortepan/ Katalin Hlatky-Főkert

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