'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 4, Part 8.

  • 8 May 2023 3:56 PM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 4, Part 8.
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 8 – Five in a Skoda to England

We still had about six weeks before we planned to leave for the summer. Danielle had written from England to say she was coming for a couple of weeks and would be staying at Ági's and Kazi's.

We decided with Laurence that we would all travel on the same plane back to England in the first part of July. However, Paul returned from the Academy one afternoon to tell me that one of the librarians there, a woman called Margó, had told him that she and her husband were intending to drive to England that summer and would be happy if we were to travel with them.

When Paul explained our previous arrangement with Laurence she said without hesitation that he could join us too. She invited us all to their flat that weekend to discuss the idea with her husband, István.

Thus, on Saturday afternoon, we met Laurence and took the bus to Tűzoltó utca where István and Margó lived on the second floor of a small block of flats. We were welcomed very warmly and introduced to their two young children.

Their living room was dominated by a huge aquarium where tropical fish in blues and turquoise darted between emerald green plants. We each told István something about ourselves and learned in turn that he taught law at the university. He had long wanted to visit England and they had now saved enough money to go.

He quickly explained that he only had an eight-year-old Skoda, but he hoped it would get us there. Their children would stay with his parents, and they planned to go for a month, the maximum time allowed. He told us that he had a friend who lived in Freiberg in Bavaria and that we could spend a night or two there.

So saying, he went to the bookshelf in the wall unit and brought out an atlas. It looked like a very long way to go in one day, though all of us except Margó could drive. ‘I thought we'd leave at midnight and drive right through the next day until we get there,’ said István.

‘Then we'll spend the day in Freiberg and have a look around and go on to Paris the following day. We'd like to spend a day or two there before going to England. What do you think?’

We were all for it - it seemed that it would be fun, and we had not been to Paris for a few years. The only question really was how we would return, as István and Margó would be travelling back before we intended to, but we left that question unresolved for the time being.

Danielle arrived some days later and was relieved to see the radiator re-attached to the wall of our flat. We met most days, but this time she was playing a lot with my cello teacher Zoli, and preparing for a concert with Tamás, so she was busy.

She had also made a good friend of Attila's wife Anna, and met her both in Budapest, where she was working in a restaurant, and at their flat in Budakeszi. On one such occasion Danielle came back to Szinyei utca with Attila and Anna in the car and they both came in to see us.

‘Would you like some tea?’ I asked unnecessarily as soon as Attila sat down, he never refused.

‘What kind?’ he asked. ‘An English tea? None of that continental mish-mash. Something you can stand your spoon up in.’

‘Okay, okay,’ I said. I knew by now that he liked his tea much stronger than even most English people, but producing it was not that straightforward with teabags designed to merely discolour the water slightly.

As I took the teapot in I heard Paul describing our proposed drive to England. Since Attila travelled back and forth every couple of months he was perfectly au fait with routes, distances and costs.

‘So, we're leaving here at dawn and driving to Freiberg in a day,’ said Paul.

Attila raised an eyebrow. ‘In a Skoda?’ he queried. ‘Five of you in a Skoda?’

‘Don't you think that can be done?’ I asked. He let out a sigh.

‘Well, all I can say, is rather you than me,’ and he smiled. ‘And how are you coming back?’

‘Well, they can only stay away for a month, but we don't want to get back till the end of August... you're not going to be in England then, are you?’ I asked hopefully.

‘I don't think so,’ Attila replied. ‘But have you heard about the coach that goes from London to Budapest? You could come back on that, it's pretty cheap.’

We had not heard about any such coach service. ‘It's called 'Attila Tours' - nothing to do with me - but I know the man in London who runs it. He's Hungarian, and it's mainly intended for Hungarians to visit their relatives. I'm not sure how frequently it goes, but there must be quite a lot of runs in the summer months. Do you want me to find out for you?’

‘Yes, that would be great,’ we replied.

‘Okay then, I'll call in and let you know in a few days.’

We had agreed to let Danielle stay in our flat while we were in England, she could not remain at Ági and Kazi's because they would be packing to leave, ‘And anyway,’ she said, ‘I am fed up with the water heater in their bathroom.

It's impossible to get the temperature right. Either the water pressure is so low that the gas doesn't light or when it does it's scalding hot. Then, if you try to add a bit of cold water the flames go out again. I'd rather stay here.’

So we did not pack anything for our own projected move deciding to do it at the end of August when we returned.

The weather was becoming increasingly hot. The glare of the sun reflected, glittering and sharp, from the tin gutters and pipes. There was no shade, no escape from its intense rays which bleached the tattered awnings of small, dark shops, softened the tar to a sticky goo, and when the wind blew, the dust stung your eyes and blackened your bare feet.

I felt glad we were leaving, glad it would be dark and sunless when we departed at night. We could not take much luggage. Margó was taking a small camping stove and tins of ready meals for the journey. We had a final meeting a few days before we left.

‘So, we will have a roof-rack,’ said István, ‘but please bring only what's absolutely necessary.’

‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘the only thing I insist on bringing is my opera. No, really,’ he continued seeing our smiles, ‘they wouldn't let me send it from the post office.’

‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.

‘They asked me what was in the parcel, I had to fill a form in, and then they said they couldn't send it,’ Laurence replied.

‘But why not?’

‘Because they said that it was a Hungarian work of art and you can't take a Hungarian work of art out of the country without a special permit from the National Bank or somewhere! We'll just have to hide it in the car!’

Margó shook her head disbelievingly. We discussed which ferry to go on, deciding on the Calais-Dover route, what presents to take for the couple in Freiberg and money matters: where to hide the forints we were also not allowed to take out, but which István and Margó would need for petrol or a possible emergency between the Austrian border and Budapest on the way home.

‘The best thing is if we say we have a few hundred forints, but you say you don't,’ said István. ‘They won't believe us if we say we haven't got any at all.’

I never really understood the problem of taking currency out of Hungary when, having crossed the border, it was as worthless as Monopoly money. Nevertheless, the regulation was strictly enforced.

Border crossing currency exchange booth  Courtesy Ami Volt

István arrived at around one o’clock on the morning of our departure, with Laurence already in the car. It was pleasantly warm now, and we soon began to doze once the initial, excited exchanges of our first hour in the car petered out.

Two hours later we were awoken by István some miles before Hegyeshalom to see dawn breaking over the fields; we felt stiff, and I yearned for some coffee. Apart from the odd farm vehicle there was little traffic on the country roads and no queue at the border crossing. We had to get out of the car while the guard looked at our passports and visas.

‘Have you got any forints?’ he asked.

‘Yes’, ‘No’ Paul and I answered simultaneously. I gave him a wry smile.

‘Nice one,’ I muttered.

The guard looked from one of us to the other.

‘Let me see in your purse,’ he said. I opened it, nothing but a few pounds.

‘And yours,’ he continued, looking at Paul. He opened his wallet to reveal about twice the allowed amount. The guard sighed. ‘You can't take that out of the country.’

‘So, what can we do with it?’ Paul asked.

‘You'll have to spend it - there's a shop over there,’ he said, indicating a small building behind us.

‘We won't be a minute,’ I said to István as we walked to the shop with Laurence. As we opened the door the aroma of strong coffee greeted us and instantly mollified me. We bought some wine and chocolate as well as five coffees then returned, receipt in hand, to the waiting guard.

‘Alright, you can go,’ he grunted, waving us on.

The journey to Freiberg was uneventful and slow. István insisted on completing the whole drive himself with only a very few breaks. At lunchtime we cooked a tin of Solet on the camping stove, at a lay-by on one of the motorways. We were refreshed after our nap in the back of the car.

Laurence was on good form telling jokes and playing the fool, the atmosphere was like that of children beginning a long holiday from boarding school. Thus, it was strange when I suddenly became aware of the cold stares of some Germans at a nearby table, sitting primly beside their immaculate Mercedes, eating unsmilingly, their expression of incomprehension at the jollity of five - as they thought - Hungarians, in an old Skoda, so carefree yet so obviously poor.

Picnic with our camping gas stove

We spent that night and the one following in Freiberg. We had an unscheduled evening in Rheims the next day as the distance to Paris was just that bit too far. We arrived the following afternoon in Paris and after much searching found a small, dubious-looking hotel near the eastern railway station.

It was just about affordable though to have a shower was an extra ten francs, the key to the bathroom being kept at the reception desk on the ground floor. Our rooms were up a dark, rickety staircase on the third floor, the windows looked out onto similar establishments up and down the narrow street. It was stiflingly hot and humid, and after throwing off some of our clothes, we slept.

Early in the evening we decided to go and eat, walk around the Eiffel Tower and come back for a shower.

Laurence sat on the end of my bed, idly twisting a coat hanger on one of his fingers while we waited for István and Margó.

‘I can't wait to have a shower when we get back,’ I said, pulling on my sandals.

‘I reckon we could get away with just paying for two rounds,’ said Laurence. ‘You go with Margó, then Paul, István and I can probably squeeze in together, they'll never know.’

‘Good idea,’ I said looking up, just in time to see the coat hanger spin off Laurence's finger and go flying out of the window.

We ran and looked out. Luckily, his missile had failed to make contact with any passers-by, but as we watched we saw an Arab woman walk up briskly, pick the coat hanger up, and quickly looking all around her, thrust it into her shopping bag.

We arrived back late from our evening's sight-seeing. Laurence went to get the key for the shower, and he, Paul and István walked down to the first floor where the bathroom was located off the dining room. Some minutes later Margó and I heard Paul's unmistakable laughter.

It was followed by a shout from Laurence. I wondered how long it would be before a member of the hotel staff would come and demand extra for the three showers. But no-one did.

They were, we mused, probably too busy managing the more lucrative activities of the several semi-clad women we had seen who appeared to be permanent residents of the establishment.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Hungary-Austria border crossing

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