'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 1.

  • 23 May 2023 5:41 PM
'An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Chapter 5, Part 1.
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 Five: Children and Change

Part 1 – A new home, new neighbours, a new piano – and our coldest winter.

Our new home combined grandeur with decayed elegance. The kitchen led off the entrance hall near the front door and then came the double doors into the sitting room. Another pair of doors led off from there to the bedroom and another pair to the third room, the three rooms adjoining one another in a straight line, though each could be entered also from the hall.

Unpacking was a slow procedure since the cupboards were almost full of Ági and Kazi's belongings. Eventually we managed to pack their things into our empty boxes which we stacked in the furthest room.

I had decided not to return to any regular teaching at Lingua, but continued to teach some children whose parents had worked as doctors in Libya. The children themselves had been to an international school where the language of tuition was English, so it was, for me, rather like being back at my school in England. They were bright and disciplined, it was obvious that they had no problems back at school in Hungary, and yet not one of them said they enjoyed school.

‘Why not?’ I asked in genuine surprise.

‘It's so boring,’ said one of the girls. ‘I always finish the work halfway through the lesson and then I just have to sit there in silence for the rest of the time waiting for the others to finish.’

The youngest in the group, who had only just started school added, ‘And I have to sit there learning the letters when I can already read...’

‘And at the school in Libya we wrote our own poems and stories and acted in plays - here all we do is copy out of books!’ a boy broke in.

It was sad that such obvious ability and enthusiasm were being stifled rather then encouraged.

We had, by now, met one of our immediate neighbours. Kazi's aunt, Marietta-néni, lived in a flat even larger than our own, one of its rooms joining onto our sitting room: the wall separating the two rooms had not existed before the flat was divided. Despite being in her late seventies, Marietta-néni still worked every day as a physiotherapist at the National Institute for Rheumatology.

She was both lively and enthusiastic about her work. Obviously, it was this that kept her so fit. She invited us into her flat one day: ‘Yes, that's what we had to build,’ she said pointing at the unfamiliar side of the wall whose other side we knew very well. ‘This was one, huge room leading all the way to the conservatory here at the front,’ she continued, walking ahead of us.

A wall of glass separated her sitting room from the conservatory beyond and we walked through its glass doors into a jungle of potted palms and plants, and looked through the huge windows which faced directly onto Dózsa György út and the Botanical Gardens. ‘The whole of this first floor belonged to the man who built the house, he owned Budapest circus.’

This was just the other side of the Botanical Gardens and the zoo. ‘Lots of things have happened beneath these windows,’ she went on. ‘The Russians camped over there at the end of the war,’ she said pointing towards Heroes' Square, ‘they ate the animals from the zoo when they had no food left. And of course in '56 the tanks came right down Dózsa György út, here in front of us.’

She lit a cigarette and took us into another large room. ‘When my grandsons come they play table-tennis in here.’ There was a full-size table-tennis table in the room, bats and ball on a nearby chair. She took us around the whole flat, but it was obvious that she only used the one room and the conservatory, unless she had family to stay.

On the other side of us lived another family, in what Marietta told us was a minuscule flat. We had not as yet seen them, but could often hear a child crying if we were in the bathroom.

This flat, unlike any since Vántus Károly utca, had a telephone. The apparatus itself looked as though it belonged in a museum, and it took a while to get accustomed to the complexities of using it. We were in fact ‘sharing’ a telephone with the family in the small flat next door.

This meant that when the phone rang it sounded in both households and whoever picked up the receiver first could hear the caller, the person in the other flat could hear nothing. If the call was for you, you continued the conversation. If the caller wanted the neighbour, you simply replaced the receiver and the person next door was put through.

If you wanted to make a call it could happen that there was no line when you picked up the receiver - that meant the neighbour was using it and you would have to wait. But in spite of all these apparent shortcomings, we were pleased at last to have a telephone at all.

It did not take too long before we got to know the couple next door. Cili had worked in the pharmaceutical research institute but was now at home with her four-year-old daughter, Zsófi, and one-year-old son, Dani.

Cili was vivacious and positive, down to earth and fun. She spoke some English and studied on her own when Dani had his nap. I was soon spending one or two lunchtimes there helping her towards the intermediate state English exam.

Cili and Laci's flat, all thirty-two square metres of it, was a perfect study in how to use space. Books lined all the walls of the room and the gallery which they had built. Toys were in boxes and boxes under tables, chairs and sofa pulled out into beds and a table pulled out from the wall, every cupboard door was covered with hooks and racks on the inside, and hooks came from high up on walls from the ceiling to hang things on.

It was comfortable and cosy, and although I could appreciate the difficulties of living in such cramped conditions I disliked leaving the intimacy of their flat for the aircraft-hanger dimensions of our own. Often I would hear the music of her favourite Bee-Gees through the bathroom wall and sometimes I would go over and have a coffee while Cili smoked and bustled about cooking and chatting.

We were the same age but her experience born of two children made me feel like her younger sister. She was looking forward to the birth of my baby, since Dani, she explained, was unfortunately already past the ‘babying’ stage.

It was towards the end of November that Paul's student Tamás offered to lend us a grand piano which one of his sisters had inherited, but which in her present home she had no room for.

We accepted the offer gratefully, and thus it was that one evening Tamás, his brother (a priest), brother-in-law and two cousins turned up and heroically manhandled the instrument up to the first floor. It was badly out of tune, but useable, and I looked forward to Paul being able to accompany some of my cello pieces.

Inside our flat with the piano and proud removal team

I was feeling well, but as winter approached I doubted I would endure the long train journey to Germany. The snow came early and we decided to fly to Düsseldorf where my cousin Ben would meet us and drive us north to Braunschweig. It was unusually cold in Germany too, but as always the abundance of food, bright lights and good cheer created a warm atmosphere.

Everyone was curious to know if we wanted a boy or a girl, and our standard response was to reply in union, Paul: a boy, and myself: a girl. I was, in fact, indifferent, but partly as a reaction to a certain degree of Hungarian male chauvinism (when country people ask 'how many children do you have?' it traditionally includes only the boys), I told everyone I wanted a daughter.

With the new year came the first of many falls of heavy snow. Roads were blocked, cars abandoned, and temperatures plummeted to minus twenty degrees. My cousin Ben was undaunted, however, about driving us back to Düsseldorf, though we decided to leave a day early and stay the night in the house of another of my aunts who lived there.

It was a painfully slow, tiring drive, with only one lane of the motorway cleared in either direction and snow still falling thick and fast. I was sleepy and dozed on the back seat bundled up in blankets. My aunt and uncle were away but had informed us that we should help ourselves to food from the freezer. The snow continued to fall all night.

The flight from Düsseldorf to München was happily uneventful, but we had to leave the Lufthansa aircraft in München where it was reported to be unfit to continue the journey. Sitting in the terminal we could see the de-icing machines working on every plane due to take off in the blizzard-like conditions which prevailed.

We had to wait for ten hours before, at eight o'clock in the evening, a Malév aircraft touched down on the snowy runway. We were soon led aboard and took off into the night sky, though the snow obscured any view there might have been of the city below.

The engines roared, the plane rattled and the 'fasten seat belts' sign continued to shine as the stewardesses walked up and down the steeply inclining aisle between our seats. It seemed as if we were struggling to maintain altitude throughout the flight, while the dim lights flickered and the windows froze up completely.

As we began our descent at Ferihegy the weather conditions appeared to be identical. It was disconcerting to be approaching an invisible runway, and after a surprisingly smooth landing the passengers burst into spontaneous applause of relief.

The airport building was deserted, the luggage roundabouts at a standstill, and the few remaining staff obviously waiting to go home. We were told that the conditions in Budapest were catastrophic with no public transport running except the underground, and no taxis back into town.

We all huddled onto the two poorly-heated buses waiting outside and looked in silent disbelief at the mountains of snow on the roadside, the many abandoned cars and lorries, and listened to the silence of a city paralysed.

We did not see another moving vehicle nor a single pedestrian in our long drive back. The buses drew up in Engels tér where the drivers shrugged helplessly in reply to the requests for advice from those unlucky enough to live in Buda.

We walked backwards against the raging wind towards the underground, dragging our suitcases along in the snow. We then repeated the procedure in a deserted Heroes' Square and along Dózsa György út, until we were home.

Our flat was freezing cold having remained totally unheated for the two weeks of our absence: unfortunately, the kályha would take several days to warm up. The following morning the thermometer showed more than minus twenty while the silence of the empty streets in the pale sunshine was blissfully peaceful.

I moved to the sofa but still cocooned myself in blankets, while Paul discovered that there had been no deliveries of bread or milk to our local shop and he had to go into the city centre to buy some food.

Marx tér with Western railway station (right). Midday, -17c.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Entrance to our building with piano remover friends

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