An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 2

  • 18 Sep 2023 5:51 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 2
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.

Book 2, Chapter 1Changes

Part 1 – ‘Panel’ flat life

The three weeks of house-sitting, high in the hills above the city, passed quickly. Narrow stone steps led down the steep hillside to the house which nestled in a craggy escarpment hidden among a profusion of trees, wild flowers and stray cats.

It was soothing to sit on the terrace where the only view was of the densely-wooded valley, and the only sound was the gentle rustling of the forest as the wind shaped its contours against the cloudless sky.

The peace and isolation from the invisible city which lay below was total. A sensation of limbo, of retreat from the realities of moving, and the unavoidable decisions regarding our future, were what I had unknowingly craved. Paul spent the days at the new flat unpacking and organising. I lived in a cocoon of heat-induced somnolence, while the children peacefully played, listened to my stories and dozed with me on the huge wrought iron bed.

I had made one visit to the new flat. Of course, I knew what to expect: Lingua, the language school where I had worked, was housed in just such a prefabricated block, and we had friends who also lived in them. The 60s and 70s had seen whole areas of Budapest, in fact all major towns, litter their skylines with such buildings.

Like voracious weeds they sprouted in hitherto unpopulated areas and among small run-down peasant houses: by the river and in the hills, in small clumps and sprawling conurbations.

The Hungarians called them ‘panel’ buildings, a literal description of the uniform concrete panels from which they were constructed. Each slab had an electric socket in the centre of one side, while others had a hole for a door or window to be fitted.

The ceiling slab had neither, meaning that in order to have a central light fitting in the room, a cable would hang limply from the middle of the ceiling to the socket at the top of a wall. Some blocks had small balconies, but their cramped living areas and lack of storage space often meant that these were piled high with everything from sledges and bicycles to camp beds and pushchairs.

Indeed, many occupiers had their balconies ‘bricked in’ as an extension to their flats. Such estates were an attempt to fulfil a chronic housing shortage in the aftermath of the war, as well as solve the general overcrowding that existed with several generations living in small apartments. Their complete uniformity even extended to the fact that every such flat was handed over with the same yellow curtains sagging at the windows.

Every flat was handed over with identical yellow curtains

Their grim austerity, however, was softened by large grassy areas between individual blocks, by children’s sandpits and brightly painted climbing frames, or by small shops and nurseries. People sought to individualise their homes in any way they could. This was not easy though, since no nails could be hammered into the concrete walls, making the hanging of a picture or a clock a virtual impossibility without a good quality drill.

Most such buildings had small, hand-written advertisements stuck near the lifts and letter boxes, offering the services of some occupant lucky enough to be in possession of such a piece of equipment. The work was charged per hole drilled - a lengthy and noisy procedure which could only be carried out during ‘sociable’ hours.

The whine and vibration of the drill were effectively transmitted through large areas of the building, something which regularly made teaching at Lingua a stressful if not altogether impossible task. Indeed, soundproofing was not a feature of these dwellings and standing in a corridor provided an aural patchwork of the lives of the building’s occupants: their yapping dogs and crying babies, their booming hi-fis and out-of-tune pianos, their smoker’s coughs and drunken quarrels.

This was eclipsed only in the stifling summer evenings when every window was flung open and the noises of living wafted out into the still, balmy air, while a thousand grey television screens flickered in unison, as if a giant grapevine of buildings were signalling one to the next, on into the infinite night.

Our block, though not graced with balconies, was in every other way identical to these. Two lifts faced the stairway which ran up the ten floors, and which we would later have the misfortune to use when the lifts were out of order. We were on the ninth floor, on the ‘wrong’ side of the building - the other side had a spectacular view of the Buda hills on the far bank of the Danube.

Our vista consisted of the small car park below, and the mirror-like image of more grey façades opposite. There were ten flats on each floor, and a long, red-lino, dimly lit corridor running past the ten cream-coloured front doors. Being as we were at the very end of the passage, meant at least that our kitchen had a window - none of the bathrooms did. The flat was exactly half the size of the one at Dózsa György, but it had the advantage of being quite unfurnished.

Our building on Róbert Károly Krt. Courtesy Fortepan/ Sándor Bauer

We moved in, as planned, towards the end of August. There were no blinds on the outside of the windows and the sun blazed in mercilessly. The flat was officially described as having one room and two ‘half rooms’ - a strange concept to a non-Hungarian who would doubtlessly imagine two incomplete living areas, probably open at one end to the elements.

What it meant was that there was one room larger than ten square metres and two which were smaller. The front door opened into a tiny area, barely large enough for two people to stand in close together. Three doors led into the toilet, the kitchen and sitting room, while a dark, narrow hall led to the two smaller rooms and the bathroom.

The kitchen, due to its length and narrowness, had its cupboards down just one side. If you wanted to open a door you were obliged to lean back against the opposite wall to do so. Two people could not squeeze past each other within its confines. The sitting room however, was large and light, and we looked forward to furnishing it to our own tastes.

The two shoebox-size bedrooms left no scope for imagination since the presence of a double bed in one, and two cots in the other, left merely enough space to walk in and out. The bathroom was similarly cramped and posed the additional problem of how to dry the washing, since with ceilings so much lower than in older buildings it was impossible to have an overhead drying rack.

Built-in cupboards lined the dingy hall, and here in fact the doors could only be opened if one stood between them - the width of the door being the exact width of the hall.

Bathrooms were very basic – few had windows

Each floor of our building had four larger flats to one side (such was ours) and six smaller ones at the opposite end of the corridor. In between were the lifts and the staircase, and each group of apartments was separated from the lifts by a glass door.

We had been told by Tamás that a hospital consultant and her husband lived immediately opposite us - indeed, Paul had met them twice while he was unpacking there - but we knew nothing of the occupants of the other two flats on our section of the corridor. It seemed eerily quiet. We soon established that the flat adjacent to ours was empty, though I had seen a blonde-haired woman of about my own age, with a boy of around eight, coming out of the flat opposite this empty one.

The woman said, ‘Good afternoon,’ and smiled at John, the boy remaining silent. In fact I saw the boy with more frequency, coming and going from school presumably, with his bulging rucksack, but when he was alone he always used the stairs, for which I could find no possible explanation but that he enjoyed doing so. I later learnt that the lift had a habit of stopping, often between floors, if it was not carrying sufficient weight, and so the boy preferred to walk up.

We soon made a reconnaissance of the local shops and discovered that the best bread was to be had from the butcher’s, while the small supermarket, in the best socialist tradition, was cramped and gloomy and had a poor selection of goods. Our block was adjacent to Árpád híd, which links Pest with Óbuda and a similar jungle of tower blocks including Lingua where I had worked.

The Danube is very wide here with Margaret Island, a green oasis of calm away from city bustle, at its centre. After three years of daily trips with the children to the City Park I looked forward to walks on the island instead.

It was the last day of August and I had arranged to start some teaching again and to meet friends we had last seen in June. Lingua would now be a mere two tram stops away, and private students could easily reach us on the metro.

I was considering these prospects for September as I left the flat, John in the pushchair and Hannah in the sling. I barely registered the elderly lady watering the tangled mass of plants by the window in the corridor. ‘Good afternoon,’ we greeted one another. I felt I should introduce myself to what must be our other neighbour.

‘We’ve just moved in here,’ I said. ‘You must be the doctor.’

The grey-haired woman put down her watering can and lowered her voice.

1No. I’m Lidi-néni. I’m Éva’s cleaner. Did you know that her husband had died?’

I was surprised. ‘When?’ I asked.

‘About ten days ago.’

‘We only moved in last week, I haven’t met either of them, but my husband told me about them.’ I did not really know how to express sympathy for someone I had never met, to this woman I was also meeting for the first time.

‘Go, Mummy,’ said John, trying to propel the pushchair forwards.

‘I’m very sorry,’ I said quietly, making to move in the direction of the lift.

‘She just cries all day,’ said the woman, nodding in the direction of the front door, and then without waiting for any response she picked up the watering can and continued to douse the plants.

‘Panel’ building corridor with plants

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Ten-storey ‘panel’ flats - Courtesy Fortepan/ Kornél Umann

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports