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

  • 22 Jan 2024 12:58 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 5 – Airport money drama; nocturnal money changing

The time of departure for England was approaching. We had spoken to István, who in turn had contacted the Ács-es and arranged that we would pay the full cost of the flat upon our return in late September. Only one fact troubled us.

We had expected the Ács-es to be delighted to receive our pounds in payment, since many Hungarians preferred to keep their savings in hard currency as an insurance against the forint’s continual devaluation.

But the Ács-es intended to spend the three and half million forints on both another flat for themselves, and a small one for their son still in Hungary – their elder son having emigrated to France. Thus, we would somehow have to find a person, or people, willing and able to exchange such large quantities of currency.

The bank rate was significantly lower than that on the black market and would not yield sufficient forints for us to purchase the property.

We had had a telephone call from England from Danielle, my piano teacher from my university days, asking if she might stay in our flat during our absence. She had first visited us in 1983 in Garay tér, with Nick, whom she was supposed to be marrying. Nick, though not a musician, was a great music lover, his interest in Bartók heightening his enjoyment of being in the composer’s homeland.

Despite living together for eight years their marriage had never taken place and they finally separated soon after their arrival at Keleti station on their ‘honeymoon’ – at opposite ends of the train. Subsequently, they continued to visit Hungary, albeit separately, though a close friendship formed out of the ruins of their previous relationship.

Both found the other to be a musical soul-mate, but otherwise impossible to live with. They visited Hungary regularly over the years and both had established friendships with Hungarians – Danielle with other musicians, Nick with computer buffs, some of whom had been my students in the southern town of Baja.

It was still hot and dry when we left in mid-September, arriving in an already damp, autumnal London. Following my brother’s wedding we began to try and make arrangements to withdraw our twenty-five thousand pounds from the building society.

‘We can give you a cheque,’ the immaculately-suited woman offered.

‘I’m sorry,’ Paul informed her, ‘but we can’t cash it in Hungary.’

‘Well, how about if we transfer it direct?’ she suggested.

‘But we don’t have an account, and anyway we could then only withdraw it in local currency and we need the sterling. We have to have it in cash.’

The woman looked disbelieving.

‘There aren’t any current accounts in Hungary, and anyway, we’re not even allowed to have hard currency.’

‘I’m afraid that we don’t keep such large quantities of cash on the premises. We’ll have to order it for you, and you will have to come and collect it at a pre-arranged time.’

It was agreed that the building society would ring and let us know when the cash would be delivered. Though the account was in both our names I could not go, as John had caught a bad cold and seemed to have a temperature.

Two days later Paul returned with the money. ‘You wouldn’t believe the security,’ he said, amused, having spent eight years in a country where cheques, bank cards and bank transfers were unheard of and where cash transactions for buying cars or flats were the only known method of payment.

I was becoming worried about John. Never a good patient, he was increasingly feverish and had begun to complain of earache. Though we had no medical insurance even paying seemed better than to risk being unable to catch our flight in a few days. The local doctor called, and struggling to make himself heard above John’s hysterical screams, beckoned me into the adjoining room.

I’m afraid he has a serious ear infection,’ he shouted, still battling against the howls. ‘He needs antibiotics and I’ll have to see him again in five days.’

‘We’re travelling home then,’ I said.

‘I see. Then consult your doctor as soon as you’re back,’ he said, handing me the prescription but waving aside my enquiries about payment.

John improved, but was still unwell as we boarded the plane to Budapest a few days later. He was more clinging than usual and insisted I carry him, leaving Paul with nineteen-month-old Hannah, and a shoulder bag containing twenty-five thousand pounds in cash.

Following take-off and food, John dozed fitfully on the seat beside me. In the seat behind, Hannah happily turned the pages of the book Paul had brought with him. However, as we began our descent, the calm was shattered by howls from John, whose still-infected ears were starting to hurt.

Concerned Hungarian stewardesses rushed to our seats offering advice and consolation, but to no avail. The screams became more frantic and I broke into a sweat at the thought that some permanent damage might occur to John’s hearing as a result of our decision to fly. His crying did not abate even as we left the plane, and I hurried to disembark, leaving Paul to carry Hannah along with our hand luggage.

As I boarded the bus which would take us to the terminal, Paul appeared looking flummoxed. ‘He’ll be all right,’ I said, assuming his agitation was caused by John’s screams.

‘No, it’s not that,’ he said breathlessly. ‘When I was coming down the steps the stewardess asked if she could help me with the bags, and before I could say anything she took the bag with the money.’

What!’ I exclaimed. ‘Where is she now?’

‘She got in the car with the pilots, she said she’d find us in the terminal.’

Malév crew

I felt faint. I imagined her looking in the bag and discovering its contents, maybe even keeping the money, or more likely being made to open the bag at some kind of customs or security check inside the building, which would have dire consequences for us.

There was nothing to do but follow our fellow travellers into the terminal and hope. As we stood in the stifling queue, waiting for our passports to be checked, the stewardess suddenly appeared.

‘Here you are,’ she smiled, handing us back the bag. ‘I hope the little boy will be all right.’ And with that she was gone.

We did not dare to check the bag’s contents and our tension only dissipated when the custom’s officer, seeing the two children, waved us straight through.

Once home with the children asleep in bed, we unpacked and put the money in Paul’s desk. There was a soft knock at the door.

‘I heard you come back,’ whispered Éva. ‘Are the children asleep?’

We led her into the sitting-room and narrated our homeward journey. She shook her head in disbelief and sympathy.

‘But the money was all there, wasn’t it?’ she asked.

‘Yes. I don’t suppose she opened the bag,’ said Paul.

‘And how’s John now?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘He hasn’t got a temperature but he’s still not back to normal.’

‘Bring him in to the hospital tomorrow and I’ll get someone to check his ears,’ said Éva. ‘And now what about the flat? When do you have to pay for it?’

We explained our dilemma over the Ács-es not wanting the pounds and the necessity of having to change the money on the black market.

‘That won’t be a problem,’ she said. ‘While you’ve been away there have been all sorts of rumours about a huge devaluation in the forint at the start of next year. People are panicking, and now everyone who’s got savings is trying to buy hard currency.’

‘That’s great,’ we said, ‘but none of our friends have much in the bank to change.’

‘I know people who will buy the pounds,’ interrupted Éva, ‘Just tell me what you want for them and I’ll do the rest.’

Thus it was that over the coming weeks in the late evening hours between ten and midnight, various friends, acquaintances and colleagues of Éva passed through our flat where we sat in a row on the sofa, counting and recounting the wads of notes before us on the table.

Finally, the twenty-five thousand pounds had been converted into exactly the three and a half million forints required – a total of three thousand five hundred one-thousand forint notes. These were bundled into a plastic bag to await our visit to Zugló.

The following week Paul left with István on the tram, his shoulder bag stuffed with money and firmly clutched to him, to see the Ács-es. Their immediate neighbours, another elderly couple who had also lived in the house for over thirty years, acted as witnesses and money-tellers.

The thousand-forint notes were counted into bundles of twenty and passed to the next person for checking. Finally, legal documents were signed and dates agreed upon.

However, István then informed Paul of a further unforeseen complication. We would have to obtain a document stating that we had been granted permission, on the basis of our permanent residency, to buy a property for forints which had been legally exchanged in the bank. This could only be issued by the Ministry of Finance.

‘But,’ said István, brightening as he noticed our worried faces, ‘I’ve just found out that an old schoolfriend of mine was made Minister there two weeks ago, so he can stamp and sign it for you! You don’t realise how lucky you are – the rate of changeover in these government offices means he’ll probably be moved out of that ministry in another few months, but he’s there now!’

Fate seemed to be willing us to stay. Three weeks after authorising our purchase of a property for Hungarian currency, István’s friend was relieved of his post.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Terminal 2, Ferihegy airport Courtesy Fortepan/ Zoltán Kölcsényi

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