An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 3.

  • 3 Jan 2024 5:00 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 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.

Book 2, chapter three: Neighbours
Part 3 – Country life; our flat-search commences

My brother was to be married in England in September, so we decided that we would spend our summer in Budapest looking at flats, and following his wedding we would return to Hungary with our savings to buy our first home.

We visited Virginia in Dabas to tell her of our decision, marvelling at the coolness within the wattle and daub walls of the rectory. Outside, József had filled the paddling pool for the children and prepared to cook lunch for us in the bogrács, a black cauldron suspended over a fire.

The heat shimmered above the water where the children played, stabbing rays of sunlight danced on its surface; the dog lay panting in the coarse, browned grass, his saliva beading in the dust; an old woman in black shuffled her way to the cemetery, and the smells of charcoal from József’s fire mingled with the scents of burning nettles and sun lotion.

Sounds carried from afar: the squeaking of a rusty bicycle on the path outside, children shrieking in a distant garden, a dog lazily barking, the drone of wasps and a Trabant coughing its way past the church.

József, Paul, Virginia with Flóra, Hannah & John in Dabas

I stretched languidly.

‘It’s so peaceful here,’ I muttered, ‘and so cool inside the house.’

‘Yes,’ said Virginia. ‘I always think I’d like to live here in the summer but have the winters in the city. But as for being quiet – haven’t I told you?’

‘Told me what?’

‘That the Party Secretary moved away from that grand house opposite – remember, we went to look at it once? – and now it’s been turned into a kind of restaurant where they have weddings. You can’t imagine how noisy it is, and they go on until two or three in the morning. All the neighbours have complained to the local council, but the woman bribes them – I’ve tried earplugs but even that’s not enough.’

A Hungrian lakodalom, a country wedding, was something we had not yet been invited to, but which I had nevertheless witnessed. Such events began on the Saturday with the bride and groom walking to the church through the village, followed by a line of family and friends, a motley assortment of musicians bringing up the rear.

In some cases, and in smaller settlements, the whole village might be invited, while in larger communities the wedding party would be watched from every garden gate. Following the church ceremony the guests would walk with the young couple to the venue where the reception was to be held.

Here, a veritable feast would be waiting and the eating, drinking and dancing would continue all night, and often well into the following afternoon. Tradition required that the bride change into a red and white spotted dress at around midnight, and that stuffed cabbage would then be served.

The ‘bride’s dance’ was another element, where money was promised for the honour of dancing with her, and this was then used either to offset the vast expense of the lakodalom or towards the newlyweds’ first home. It had once also been customary for the men of the village to help the groom build his new house, though this was now confined to smaller communities.

Such wedding parties were thus by their very nature large, noisy affairs and became increasingly raucous in relation to their length and the quantities of alcohol consumed. The restaurant opposite offered a more updated version, and supplied loudly-amplified music in addition to, or instead of, the more customary village band.

As we dried and dressed the children and József cleared away the bogrács, we heard someone call from the gate. József, wiping his hands on a rag, walked to meet them.

Village bicycles  Courtesy Fortepan/ Pál Schiffer

‘Oh no,’ muttered Virginia.

‘Who is it?’ we whispered.

‘Just a woman and her husband who used to live in Dabas – I just wish that they’d send a telegram before they come. It’s always the same, people just turn up and you have to drop everything. Even if we had a phone I don’t suppose they’d ring.’

By this time József was leading them into the house. Virginia waved. ‘I’ll have to go in,’ she said quietly, taking Flora. We followed with John and Hannah, also feeling that the timeless tranquillity of our day had been abruptly truncated.

Inside, József sat with the couple in the entrance hall. We shook hands and sat down, not knowing whether we should stay or go. The three children went to Flora’s room to play. The woman chattered on about her family, quite oblivious of us, her bird’s nest of black hair perfectly lacquered to remain immobile, even when the rest of her was at its most animated.

Her husband sat meekly, nodding his agreement. Having served tea, Virginia sat down next to me, trying to mask her displeasure. I had not been paying attention to the conversation when József, deciding that linguistic limitations might thusfar had prevented me from joining in, said, ‘Yes, they have eight children and when they lived here they didn’t have electricity in the house.’

‘Nor inside plumbing at first,’ the woman added, beaming her self-congratulation.

I slipped away to pack up. It was slightly less stifling now, so the car would be bearable. As we walked in the shade of the dusky, vine-covered terrace the first booms of the distorted, over-amplified music throbbed forth from the building diagonally oppposite.

‘I hope they’ll leave soon,’ I said to Virginia.

‘That’s what József would like me to be like,’ she sighed. ‘Eight children, no modern gadgets, endless energy….’

‘Bird’s-nest hair!’ I added, and we giggled.

As the car bumped over the ruts and swerved around the potholes I waved back to Virginia standing at the gate, with the now-familiar feeling of sadness at abandoning her to her isolation.


We had, as yet, no clear idea of where we would look for a flat to buy. We had so far lived wherever a friend or acquaintance offered us the possibility of renting their apartment, and had made do with each in turn. We decided against the centre of the town, but wanted to stay in Pest for its ease of travel: though fortunate enough to own a car we both enjoyed using public transport.

The daily Expressz newspaper advertised everything from overgrown houseplants seeking good homes, to second-hand wedding dresses and allotments for sale.

I scanned the columns of flats, my attention caught by a flat in Szentendre. We had not considered moving out of the city, but this flat was adjacent to the HÉV terminus, the electric suburban train, meaning that in thirty minutes we could be at Margit híd. It could easily take that long to travel within the town if one had to change once or twice.

Picturesque Szentendre, originally a Serbian settlement full of narrow, winding streets, had become an artists’ colony, and was an attractive option. We decided to drive out and see it that afternoon.

As we were putting the children in the car, Geoff appeared.

‘Hallo, where are you off to?’

‘Szentendre,’ Paul replied. ‘We’re going to see a flat.’

‘I’ve just finished teaching at Lingua and I thought I’d drop in and see the children,’ Geoff said.

‘You can come with us to Szentendre if you like,’ I offered.

John’s enthusiastic agreement decided it, and Geoff squeezed in between the children’s seats in the back. However, when we located the building it turned out to be one of several concrete blocks of the type we were presently living in, only with four floors rather than ten. We sat outside in the car.

‘Let’s not go in, there’s no point,’ I said.

Back at home I extricated the newspaper from the wastepaper basket.

1I’m going to have another look,’ I said. Geoff helped John arrange his Matchbox cars in neat lines along the parquet, taking each car in turn from Hannah who ceremoniously took them from their boxes and handed them to him.

The Expressz newspaper

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Cooking in a cauldron in Dabas

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