An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 4.

  • 9 Feb 2024 6:15 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 4.
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 4: A First Home
Part 1 – A snowy Christmas move

I could not wait to move.

In spite of having had six flats in our eight-year stay, I now looked forward to my first real home.

Packing was complicated by the fact that Hannah’s greatest delight was to empty boxes already filled, while John refused to allow me to box up toys he had long forgotten about, until he had had a chance to play with them again. Thus, we were forced to pack after they were in bed, when we too would have liked to sleep.

Though the date was far from ideal, we could not now move until December 21st.  This complicated matters further since Christmas presents – yet to be bought – a tree and decorations, would have to be accessible immediately upon our arrival at the new flat.

We also had little furniture: just a sofa, a few bookshelves, a rocking chair and the children’s cots. We hastily visited a shop in town which sold self-assembly furniture made at the factory where I had taught in Baja, and bought a bed for ourselves, a kitchen table and two armchairs. These were delivered to our new address and Paul drove over in the evenings and put them together, leaving me to pack.

On the 20th December Paul drove to Zugló with the children, leaving me in peace to finish the packing. We had decided to sleep in the new flat that night ready for the removers’ arrival on the morning of the 21st. This was the first time we had not relied on help from friends, but both the quantity of our belongings and the proximity of our move to Christmas made us feel it was too much to ask.

Éva looked in as she was leaving for work. ‘How’s it going?’ she asked.

I sighed. ‘It’s not all the books and records and kitchen stuff,’ I said, ‘it’s having to decide about every piece of paper, every old letter or knick-knack, whether to keep it or throw it away. And if we keep them there’s absolutely nowhere to put them in the new flat. We haven’t even got wardrobes yet.’

‘Will you still be here later this afternoon?’ she asked. ‘I’ll be home by five - you can come over and have something to eat.’

‘I’ll probably still be here packing tomorrow morning when the removal van comes!’ I said, laughingly.

As I accompanied Éva into the corridor we saw some men outside the glass doors near the lifts, peering through at us. I waited as Éva walked on and opened the door.

‘Merrick?’ they enquired. Éva pointed back to me as I walked to join her. ‘Removers,’ they said.

‘But it’s tomorrow!’ I exclaimed. ‘The 21st, not today!’

The man looked at the paper in his hand. ‘Says here the 20th,’ he said. ‘Nine o’clock.’

‘It can’t be,’ I said. ‘I definitely booked you for tomorrow.’

The two men exchanged glances. ‘We’ll go and check in the lorry,’ they said. Éva stayed with me to await the outcome. A few minutes later they returned.

‘Yes, you’re right,’ they said. ‘We’ll be back tomorrow.’

As I worked, I found strange mementoes of our year in Róbert Károly körút. Carefully concealed in a rolled up carpet under a cupboard was a chocolate Christmas tree decoration, much of the coloured foil scattered like confetti around it, tell-tale tooth marks ringing the dusty chocolate. In a drawer I found Pista’s mouse-shaped ‘Wanted’ poster which he had drawn for me, together with pages torn from a Hungarian magazine with an article written about our years in Budapest, and entitled ‘Are these English people mad?’ I laughed aloud – there were times when we had asked ourselves this same question.

There were a few loose photographs of myself with students from Lingua, and some of the children’s first scribbled attempts at drawing which had fallen behind the bookshelves. A cut out newspaper article which Éva had given me fell out of a bundle of Christmas wrapping paper, with a picture of the road sign Népköztársaság útja (People’s Republic Avenue) now crossed through in red, with Andrássy út written above.

I smiled as I remembered how long it had taken to master pronunciation of the long, communist street name, only to have it replaced by its much easier pre-communist one. As surely as statues of Lenin and banner-waving socialist workers had been removed, so was all reference to them in streets and squares throughout the country.

Countless streets were renamed

Éva returned at five and I gladly abandoned my packing for the order and tranquillity of her flat. I was punch-drunk and had reached the stage of alternately preserving or discarding what I found on pure whim.

The following morning, in a true example of déja-vu, I greeted the same removal men at the glass doors in the corridor, this time happy to let them remove the boxes.

By evening our new home felt akin to a depleted second-hand salesroom. The kitchen was bare but for the large white sink in one corner, and a table and old gas cooker in another. The maid’s room off the kitchen contained numerous boxes of Paul’s books, without even a stool to sit on. The children’s room had a cot and a small bed, several plastic bags of clothes and boxes of toys. Our room had the new bed and tea chests of bedding and more clothes.

The sitting room boasted a television and video – on the floor – a sofa, a rocking chair and two, as yet, unassembled armchairs. The cushions belonging to the chairs, still in their plastic covering, lay on the parquet, and the children happily sat there watching a film.

We found we could not light the gas heater in our bedroom and closed the doors so as not to make the remainder of the flat even colder. The box of Christmas decorations stood in readiness at the foot of the bed, while the enormous tree itself leant on the frosted railings of the balcony.

For John and Hannah Christmas was magic: with a ten-foot tree and with snow outside nothing else assumed any importance whatsoever. Somehow, we managed to locate clothes from the depths of tea chests – we still had no wardrobes – and somehow we cooked Christmas dinner in a kitchen without a single cupboard or drawer.

Between Christmas and New Year, I made several more trips to collect odds and ends from the old flat. On one such return journey, sitting at red traffic lights, I heard a loud metallic grating. Realising there must have been an accident I turned around, only to see a lorry wedged in the side of my car. I had felt no impact, or maybe I had been daydreaming.

Getting out of the car I saw that the wing above the rear wheel was badly damaged, and I wondered if I would be able to drive home. The lorry driver swung himself down from his cab saying, ‘Sorry, love, didn’t see you there.’

What was done was done. There was no need for recriminations, since there existed only one insurance company which paid automatically for all accident damage – car insurance ‘fees’ were included in the price of the petrol. One simply had to go to the nearest insurance office and show the damage, whereupon you were offered the choice of having your garage bill met by them, or alternatively accepting a lump sum cash payment.

Friends advised the latter since the insurance company’s estimate of repair costs usually exceeded the actual fee, especially if one could find friend or acquaintance to undertake the work. There was also the added advantage that the cash could be used for some other purpose if the car repair was not urgent. Wardrobes and kitchen cupboards seemed higher on our list of priorities, so we left the car to its fate in the garage.

One evening in mid-January I walked back from Éva’s through the dimly-lit underpass near our house. I saw piles of old clothes and ragged blankets in a dirty booth I imagined was destined to become a telephone box. A few days later more such ‘bedding’ appeared in an adjacent booth.

It was no secret that the dual phenomena of homelessness and unemployment had arrived in Hungary. Inefficient factories had been closed down with devastating effect in those areas where they had been the sole providers of work and a livelihood. In Budapest particularly, there had existed a network of hostels in which workers, predominantly men, from the rural areas, could stay from Mondays till Fridays, enabling them to undertake employment in the capital.

Many of these workers did not have a home outside the hostel at all: they were divorced, or had come to Budapest in search of work and could not afford to buy a flat. In order even to be put on the list for council accommodation you had to prove you had been working in the city for five years. Even then, without any special circumstances – two or three children were useful – it could be a good fifteen years before you were offered a one-room apartment in a ‘panel’ block.

Inside a workers’ hostel 
Courtesy Fortepan/ FŐFOTÓ

As I let myself through our front door Paul called to me urgently.

‘Quick! Come and see!’ 

On the television were the film director and producer I had worked with in the summer, discussing their new film. Instantly I rang a friend who worked at the television, but she informed me that the interview had been recorded earlier and that they had already left the country. It seemed they should have been in Budapest in October – as they had told me while we were working together – but due to the taxi blockade the visit was cancelled. And now, as our previous flat was currently unoccupied, they would not have been able to ring me.

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Moving…Courtesy Fortepan/Péter Horváth

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