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

  • 29 Mar 2023 12:06 PM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 4, 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 four:  Courtyard and Characters

Part 3
– “Every problem has a solution”…

In spite of some trepidation on their part, the stay went well. We had recommended they bring their backpack to take Tim around, something still unknown in Hungary. They were surprised at the Hungarian obsession with children - Tim was constantly chatted to, given biscuits and smiled at on trams and underground, while Sue and Steve were frequently asked if Tim were really comfortable in his backpack.

After much persuasion we took them with us for lunch at a restaurant, together with Márta, János their son András and Danielle. Tim happily wandered around the tables being talked to by other people eating there and was given a guided tour of the kitchens by one of the waiters.

Back at the flat we had problems with the front door. The key turned in the lock, but the door would not open. The only solution was to leave a window open and climb in from the walkway outside. Anywhere else this might have been regarded as an open invitation to burglary, but crime in Budapest was scarce.

We had not personally met anyone who had been burgled, and we had also been amazed to learn that postmen brought pensioners' money in cash to their doors on the fifth of every month, along with the letters. They walked the streets carrying large quantities of money - there being no banking or cheque system - in their brown, leather bags.

Postman with his leather bag  Courtesy Fortepan/ Tamás Urbán

Another aspect of living in such a building as ours was that it was impossible not to be seen down in the courtyard by eyes from every window. In the sunny weather it was customary for pensioners to sit on a stool on the walkway, surrounded by potted geraniums, talking to a neighbour, listening to the radio or reading the newspaper.

No-one entered the courtyard unchallenged, no matter how politely. ‘Who are you looking for young sir?’ someone was sure to call down to the unsuspecting stranger. We often returned from teaching to be given a photofit description of some friend who had called to see us, together with a message of when he would come again. Thus, leaving windows open posed no risk at all.

The comings and goings of not only the five of us, but various other friends, the gas-meter reader and Zoli with his cello, all through the window, provided a certain amount of entertainment for our neighbours.

What was less amusing but more dramatic was when Danielle decided to try and jump through the window - unfortunately, the wrong one - and brought the gas radiator off the wall with her. It took several months to get it mended since spare parts were unavailable and we needed to find someone with contacts at the factory who could obtain the necessary parts.

The shopping around our new flat was disastrous. One small supermarket was all that existed within walking distance. It was dark, the assistants rude, and you could smell sour milk from the doorway. Taking empty bottles back was a constant problem, either they did not accept the particular type of bottle I wanted to return, or they would have done but they had no spare crates and told me to return the following day.

In this event I was forced to go home again to empty my shopping bag of bottles, and return once more to the shop. I tried another supermarket near Ági and Kazi's but their bottle return hatch in the outside wall was closed, even when according to the sign it should have been open. I had once tried throwing them in the dustbin but was berated by the neighbours from their vantage point on the walkway.

Thus, the kitchen floor was covered with neat lines of dusty bottles to the point where we could hardly move. Paul decided that the only solution was to throw them away late at night when everyone was asleep. He filled several large carrier bags and crept along the dark walkway and down the stairs.

There happened to be one dustbin at the foot of the spiral staircase, which he silently opened. What he could not see in the dark though, was that the bin was completely empty, and as the first bottles crashed to the bottom the sound of breaking glass rang out around the courtyard.

Lights snapped on and Paul beat a hasty retreat just as the completely paralytic caretaker lurched out of her door, bottle in hand, shouting, ‘Who's that using my bin? That's my bin down there!’ and then presumably calling to someone on the ground floor she continued, ‘Laci, who's that using my bin? Laci!’

A door opened and a head emerged. The man ambled over to the bin, peered in and then shut it.

‘It's alright,’ he called, going back into his flat.

‘Who was it?’ shouted the caretaker, clutching the railing for support and peering down below.

But no-one answered. She had not noticed Paul hiding in the shadows and as she staggered back inside, he ran up to the flat where he found me laughing helplessly. From that time on we put the bottles in with our other rubbish and they silently disappeared.

Courtyard gangways Courtesy Fortepan/ Marton Ernő Kovács

Something that was not going to be disposed of so easily was our old car. We had already heard from Miklós's brother Dani that the presence of a right-hand drive, western made vehicle had excited the curiosity of the local police.

When challenged, Dani had stated that the car belonged to his wife. The police duly made a note of the fact that Dani's spouse was one Paul Merrick. Following this, the English M.O.T. certificate expired, since it was valid for only one year.

In Hungary however, such a certificate was issued for three years, so that the obvious solution presented itself of forging a new date on the original paper. I did so, gaining another two years' grace before we would have to get it through a Hungarian M.O.T.

However, the car was now rusting badly, the steering column was gradually parting company from the chassis, and Dani felt it was not worth the cost of repairing. It was fourteen years old and had 200,000 miles on the clock, though the engine was fine.

We agreed to go on the train to Debrecen and bring the car back to Budapest, Dani seemed to think we could still sell it. There was, however, one major obstacle we had not foreseen. We should, apparently, have declared our possession of the car to the customs.

All the information concerning the car was contained on our original thirty-day visa forms with which we had entered the country, so we had not considered it necessary, and no-one had ever asked. Had we declared it, we would have been issued with a new number plate and documents which we now did not have.

Even with such papers it would also have been impossible to sell the car, as it would have been entered onto the same list as our record-player and other ‘valuables’, in the National Bank. None of our possessions could be sold and they would be checked when we left the country. Whoever we approached flatly refused even to consider buying a car without papers. Furthermore, we could not take the car out of the country without them either.

Courtesy Fortepan/ György Gárdos

Endre offered to let us keep the car at the side of his house which at least avoided more parts being stolen, and more importantly the possible enquiries of an over-zealous policeman. Miklós for his part, offered some good advice, ‘Tell everyone you can trust, someone's bound to come up with an idea. Every problem has a solution,’ he said reassuringly.

Fortunately, as usual, he was right. One of my students in the Foreign Trade College group, who also worked at the Ministry of Foreign Trade, had a colleague who was very interested in the car. We met, arranged a time for him to see the car and agreed a price.

I asked him about the lack of papers. ‘Don't worry,’ he said. ‘I've got a friend at the customs who will give me false papers. I'll probably take the engine out and use it in my Beetle, and then scrap the rest.’ And so he did, and we never heard anything about the car again.

It was towards the end of the Lingua term when I was greeted by a stocky Hungarian as I came out of the classroom at the end of one of my lessons.

‘Are you Marion?’ he asked. I nodded. ‘I'm Attila,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘My wife is having English lessons here. I've just come back to live in Hungary - I left in '56 when I was fifteen,’ he added.

‘Nice to meet you,’ I said, shaking his hand.

‘I just wanted to ask you if there's anything you'd like from England, or anything you want to send,’ he continued. ‘I drive over about every six weeks, so I could bring something if you need it.’

‘That would be great,’ I replied, ‘but can I contact you in a day or so, I need some time to think?’

‘Just give Anna the list,’ he said, ‘and give me your phone number. We don't have one.’

‘Nor do we,’ I laughed.

Two days later I gave my shopping list to Anna, which included some of the usual things we brought for ourselves in the summer: tea bags, soap, some herbs and spices, sellotape that would stick and ballpoint pens that would write.

Attila returned some five weeks later and called in with not only what I had asked for, but some Stilton cheese and a bottle of sherry. This marked the beginning of a long friendship.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Every building had its caretaker -  Courtesy Ami Volt

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