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

  • 6 Dec 2023 12:22 PM
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 Two, Chapter two: First Cracks
Part 6 –  business developments and disagreements

I swung open the metal door to the Lingua building and waited for the lift to take me up to the sixth floor. The customary cacophony of distant noises echoed all around: the crash of cooking pans, a blaring television, the lift door banging shut, a barking dog. I noticed some graffiti on the outside lift door: an innocuous reference to some television programme, but a new phenomenon, nevertheless. Upstairs, I could hear the kettle boiling in the dark cubby-hole of a kitchen, and through the open door of the office, the figures of Miklós and János poring over papers which littered their desk. A half-empty whisky bottle stood on the dirty window ledge alongside overflowing ashtrays.

They turned at my approach. To my amazement I saw they were both wearing suits.

‘We’ve been negotiating,’ said János, in answer to my unspoken question. He gazed at me shortsightedly through his thick-lensed spectacles. ‘Well, don’t you think we look business-like enough?’

Now I noticed that Miklós too had glasses. Their somewhat tight double-breasted wedding suits, with top shirt buttons undone, and their broad, garish ties, made them look like extras from a spoof film about the Mafia. I couldn’t help laughing.

‘But what are you wearing glasses for?’ I asked Miklós.

‘To make me look more serious. They’re János’s spare ones.’ I wondered if anyone could possibly take them seriously in their present costumes.

‘What were you negotiating?’ I asked.

‘A course in a bank,’ said János. ‘Things are more difficult now, we can’t manage with just the private students who come here, and so many new language schools have opened in the last couple of years that we’re going to need more courses with companies.’

I left them and walked towards the classroom. The sounds of taped English dialogue which emanated from within indicated that the previous lesson was still in progress. I waited in the hallway, its grimy windows and grubby walls brightened by the posters of England I had procured on my last visit: a map of the London underground, a life-size guard in a bearskin, the tower of London and Windsor Castle - once the reminders of a world across a border few could cross; now a tantalising invitation to a liberated people unable to afford the luxury of foreign travel. Thus, the dream persisted.


The door opened and Geoff stood before me. Only a few years previously he had been my student in this same room, following the same course. In common with all Lingua students, his typically Hungarian name – Zoli - had been changed for an English one which he continued to use long after he ceased to study there.

Now, though still a student at Budapest’s ELTE University, he had been entrusted with teaching a group at the school. Coincidentally, his musician parents lived below on the second floor, his mother had been responsible for arranging Paul’s work permit in her capacity as personnel officer at the Music Academy. It was through this contact that Geoff found out about the school and subsequently became my student.

‘How are the children?’ he asked. He had been a regular visitor both before and after their births.

‘Fine. Why don’t you come and see them?’

‘Well, if you’re home on Saturday I’ll call in. I’ve also got some language questions I’d like to ask you,’ he said. In the best Lingua tradition, Geoff was not simply a poor student using his knowledge of English to earn some money, but an insatiable learner of the language.

I taught my group, both my and Lingua’s first real venture into the world of business English. These students had been coming to Lingua since it was founded, from what was then a socialist enterprise producing electrical components. Their primary business contacts then were within the Warsaw pact, particularly the Soviet Union, and their enthusiasm for things English was regarded as eccentric if not undesirable. But times were changing, and their knowledge of English was now viewed as an asset to be capitalised on.

At eight o’clock they made their way to the lifts, while I headed back to the office. As I neared the now closed door I could hear Miklós’s sarcastic, impatient tones, and János’s quiet, stubborn responses. What they themselves had described as a ‘marriage’ was now in the midst of its first crisis. I had frequently found myself the arbitrator between them, no difficult task, since I was now no longer so closely involved with the day-to-day running of the school, and I knew them well enough to find a compromise they could both accept.

But this had become increasingly difficult since Miklós’s year in America, a year when János was in sole charge and had developed leadership ideas of his own. I opened the door and put my books in the pigeonholes. The whisky bottle stood drained, a third ashtray full to overflowing.

‘Come on, let’s go down to Bea’s,’ I said, hoping a change of atmosphere would help.

‘In a minute,’ said János.

I took the empty bottle and glasses to the kitchen, locked the door and replaced the key in the office. ‘Now,’ I ordered, taking my bunch of keys to lock the office.

Miklós acquiesced. ‘Come on,’ he said to János, stuffing some papers together with his Herald Tribune and Marlboro packet in his leather case. ‘Let’s go.’

Bea’s was one of a new type of establishment that had recently sprung up. Located on the ground floor of the building, it had once been a storeroom of some description. But it was useful for the house to have rent from leasing out such an area, now with a small bar and colourful curtains, the imported, albeit expensive, drinks, and the hitherto unfamiliar atmosphere of quick, friendly service. Miklós and János were regulars, and Bea automatically reached for the bottle of Unicum.

‘Just a small one,’ said János, ‘and a coffee.’

‘Yes, sir,’ she said, looking meaningfully at their suits and ties. Miklós took János’s glasses from his breast pocket and put them on.

‘Do you like them?’ he asked her.

‘Impressive,’ she replied.

‘You see?’ he said, looking at me. ‘She knows about business. You go back to reading your Thomas Hardy,’ he mocked, though not without affection.

‘I’m hungry,’ said János. ‘Why don’t we go to the Krúdy?’

The Krúdy in Óbuda  Courtesy Fortepan/ Sándor Bojár

The Krúdy was just across the road from where we sat. This was not the official name of the run-down restaurant, but a nickname taken from its most famous patron - a writer whose lengthy descriptions of food are quite unrivalled. Its crumbling, yellow-plaster walls, heavy wooden tables and sombre lighting contrasted with the lively sramli accordion music and the singing of its regulars.

The warm, unpretentious atmosphere and large portions of cheap, tasty food made it one of our favourite haunts. We shouted out orders for thick bean soup above the raucous singing, which thankfully prevented all discussion. Soon János and then Miklós joined in with the song, taking it in turns to shout the words to me, so I too could sing, if only with the chorus.

Sitting on the bench between them, I watched their tense features relax until suits, glasses and business negotiations were completely forgotten. Miklós replenished our tumblers with the rough red wine, while János put his arm about me and gave me a look of unspoken gratitude.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photoMen’s clothes shop Courtesy Fortepan/ FŐFOTÓ

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