An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 5.

  • 19 Apr 2024 2:36 PM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 5.
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 5: Building Plans
Part 1 – Crime, vandalism and inequality

Nick took the train to Baja, having agreed to meet two former students of mine from the water authority who were keen to assist in his plan to buy a property there. His relatives were all either dead or incommunicado, thus the part-time job and the continued friendship with Danielle were his only links of any significance with England.

Some days later he returned to us to spend the night before his homeward flight. He had found a small house in the village of Dunafalva, a few kilometres from Baja, on the banks of the Danube. Though little more than a hut, it had its own small vineyard, and Nick stated his firm intention of purchasing it.

I always hated January. The protraction of winter beyond a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year seemed interminable – the frost-bleached roads, the bleak grey days, dark afternoons and starry mornings.

Hannah still slept regularly after lunch, and one particular day, having dozed longer than usual and waking at four o’clock to an early dusk bathed in orange streetlight, she asked, ‘Oh, it’s dark – do I have to go back to bed again?’ But our long dark hours were filled with books, poetry and stories, and John was beginning to read English.

January also heralded the Bad Fairy appearing as she does at the end of Sleeping Beauty’s christening party: every new year brought price rises and stringent economic measures. Income tax, a concept unknown under the previous régime, was fast becoming higher than in other European countries.

Gas and electricity charges, public transport and petrol costs, were all rising at many times the meagre increase in salaries, and inflation was soaring. The overwhelming majority of people, still employed by the state, found themselves unable to afford the basics of everyday living, while those with business acumen were busy building palatial villas in the hills.

These were often in green areas where development had been prohibited, but a combination of bribes and hopelessly inadequate fines removed any real obstacle for the newly emerging nouveau riche.

A dizzying chasm had opened between the struggling majority and a growing minority, conspicuous with their mobile phones and ostentatious – if tasteless – manifestations of newly acquired wealth.
Crime escalated too.

Car theft reached epidemic proportions, burglary was an everyday event, and iron grille doors, elaborate locks and entry phones became commonplace. It was no longer possible to walk through the unpromising, battered door of an inner-city building to discover beautiful courtyards of statues and stained glass, or grapevines and flowering plants.


Graffiti and vandalism began to appear in the city

People no longer stopped to stare in disbelief at the smashed glass of a telephone box, or the ugly graffiti that had appeared overnight on their buildings.

These were grudgingly accepted as evidence that ‘the change’ they had so long awaited had actually occurred, and that Hungary now truly belonged to western Europe.

Yet for many it seemed that the combination of unemployment, inflation, increased crime and vandalism, and a new form of poverty where consumer goods were available but unaffordable, was not what they had dreamt of during the previous decades.

Even so, in stark contrast, the postmen continued to deliver pensions and sundry cash payments to people’s doors, armed only with a battered, leather bag, while both gas and electricity bills could still be paid in cash; the elderly woman who called monthly to read our meter and have the bill paid was known to everyone. In winter months when heating costs were high, she carried a small fortune with her.

‘And no-one’s ever threatened you?’ I once asked her.

‘They’d better not!’ she laughingly retorted.

It seemed that car theft and burglary, usually carried out surreptitiously, had not brought mugging in their wake. Even the beginnings of Mafia activity and gangland killings had thus far been confined to carefully planned car bombs or gunnings in dawn hours when no innocent bystanders were injured.

Children still travelled on public transport unaccompanied, as I myself did, whatever time of night or day.

We received an unexpected phone call from Ági and Kazi, our erstwhile landlords in the Dózsa György flat. They seemed keen to re-establish contact and wanted us to see the place for the last time before they moved away. We occasionally passed by the building on our way in to the town. The shabby Chimneysweep restaurant opposite was long gone: in its place stood the new Park Hotel.

I noticed that the small garden of the house was unkempt, the stairway dirty and the beautiful green tiles dull and dusty. This must mean that the elderly neighbour who had taken such pride in these jobs had become too old or too ill or had died in the interim.  But if the public façade of the building had deteriorated, its private areas were rejuvenated.

The dowdy genteelness of our previous home had now been restored to what might have been the elegance of its heyday of pinafored maids and lace-tableclothed Sunday lunches.

Chandeliers sparkled, reflected in white marble floors, the Biedermeier furniture, now divested of its baggy green dustcovers was upholstered in white satin, the wooden arms and legs highly polished. Sumptuous curtains hung at the windows, but the vista of Heroes’ Square and the park beyond was now completely blanked out by the pink and green concrete of the new hotel.

The Liget Hotel with our building beyond on the opposite street corner

‘The whole area’s become much more respectable since they pulled down the old restaurant,’ Kazi said, wrinkling up his nose in distaste at its memory. I turned away from the window.  

‘But you’re moving, aren’t you?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ replied Ági. ‘We’ve bought a flat in Buda near the Farkasréti cemetery. We’ll rent this out again.’

‘And what are you doing these days?’

‘Well, Kazi is still developing his car business, they’ve got offices on Krisztina körút now, and I’m just starting a business consultancy for French and Belgian companies thinking of starting up in Hungary. And you two?’

I explained that I did a little teaching and some editing work, but was now otherwise occupied with the children. They were not surprised to hear that Paul was still at the Music Academy.

 ‘Things are so much better in Hungary now than when you used to live here, aren’t they?’ asked Kazi, and without waiting for a reply he continued,

‘You’ll see, things here will one day be just like in Austria.’

Another post-Christmas invitation came from our lawyer friend István and his wife Margó, with whom we had made an unforgettable journey to England in their Skoda in 1986.

They had already moved from their small ninth-district flat to a house they had built in a leafy Buda suburb. They were in the middle of converting the attic space, but the house itself was complete. Marble pillars divided the large open-plan ground floor area, and French doors led into the garden.

István had been a lecturer at the law department of Budapest university, but at the time of the change had been requested to act as a legal advisor to the newly-elected government, with an office in parliament.

‘Are you still working in parliament?’ Paul asked him.

‘No. I have my own legal practice now,’ he answered, and then turning to his wife continued, ‘And Margó’s given up her job in the Academy library so she can help me – you’ve probably noticed she’s not there any more?’

‘Yes,’ replied Paul. ‘The others often ask me if I’ve seen you,’ he said to Margó, ‘and when you’re going to visit them.’

She looked slightly uncomfortable. ‘Well, I’ve lost touch really,’ she admitted, ‘and we have made new friends now – the people István goes sailing with…’ She tailed off. ‘You know, we live quite a long way out of the city, I rarely go in.’

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Dunafalva

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