Peter and Dora

I WAS STAYING IN BELGRADE with my friends Peter and his wife. Peter said to me that because it was just over the border from (the former) Yugoslavia and neither of us had been there before, we should make a short trip to Hungary. That way, we could ‘tick off’ another country as having been visited. I agreed to accompany him. This was in 1981 when Hungary was still in the Soviet bloc.

B BUDA pioneer PF GOOD

British people required a visa to enter Communist Hungary. The Hungarian embassy in Belgrade was in Krunska, a leafy street near the Hotel Slavija. I entered and filled in a form. One of the questions on it related to the colour of an applicant’s car. It gave several options like ‘red’, ‘blue, or ‘green’, and one translated from the Hungarian as ‘drab’. I suppose that ‘drab’ was a mistranslation of the Hungarian word for ‘grey’ (the Hungarian for ‘grey’ is ‘szürke’ and for ‘drab’ is ‘sárgásszürke’).   After filling the form, I walked to a counter by a small window in the wall. It was covered by an opaque green cloth curtain. I waited. After a few moments, the curtain was pulled open sharply by a lady behind it and the counter.  I handed her my passport and the application form. My passport was full of bits of paper that I wanted to preserve safely. The lady plucked these out of the passport and handed them to me, saying:

“This I do not need.”

I picked up my passport with its new multi-coloured Hungarian visa stamp a couple of days later.

Peter and I boarded an overnight train from Belgrade to Budapest. Very soon, Peter fell asleep. After passing the station of Subotica in northern Serbia (Vojvodina), we reached the Hungarian border station at Kelebia. The train halted at the floodlit station for a long time. Apart from a few men in uniform, the platforms were eerily empty. Hungarian border guards entered the train. They carried satchels with shoulder straps. Each satchel was fitted with a hinged wooden lid that served as a small desk. Peter was sleeping deeply when two border officials entered our compartment. It was with great difficulty that the three of us, the two officials and I, managed to get him to open his eyes. Once he was awake, the guards took our passports. They looked at our passport photographs and then at our faces, and then back at the photos, then at our faces, and so on. This procedure was repeated several times until they were satisfied that our ‘mugshots’ were true likenesses of Peter and me. Then, they placed each passport on to the little desks attached to their satchels and pounded them with rubber stamps.

Some years later, the late Arpad Szabo, a philosopher in Budapest and a good friend, told me what he did when he was travelling out of East Germany (the former DDR) by train. The border guards in that country were particularly tough and very thorough. They entered his compartment and began prodding and opening the passengers’ baggage. When they approached his bag, he told them:

“Be careful with my luggage: I am smuggling an East German out of your country.”

The guards failed to appreciate the humour.

We arrived in Budapest Keleti Station early in the morning with no idea where we were going to stay. Someone directed us to a small window in a booth in the station. It was an official agency for arranging accommodation in people’s homes. We registered and were handed a scrap of paper with the address of our hosts. Without knowing the layout of the city, we hailed a taxi, which drove us across one of the Danube bridges to Obuda, a suburb north of Buda. Our accommodation was with a couple, who lived in a flat high up in a modern tower block. They were friendly but spoke no English. Somehow, I managed to communicate with them my interest in folk music. They recommended a singer called Katalin Madarász and told me that there were good record shops in Vaci Utca (Vaci Street), a shopping street in central Pest.

We made our way to Vaci Utca, where we found the Anna Café. This eatery served the most delicious cakes and savoury snacks in the form of open sandwiches. We found the record shops that we had been told about and that afternoon I bought the first of many Hungarian folk and classical LPs that are still in my enormous collection. I ate a toasted sandwich in a Café named Martini. It was there that I was able to add the words ‘meleg szendvics’ (hot sandwich) to my minute knowledge of Hungarian, a language outside the Indo-European language family.

I fell in love with Budapest, with the unfamiliar (to me) vocabulary of the Hungarian language, the food, and the friendly people we met. Peter and I explored many things in the city including a visit to the Young Pioneers’ Railway that ran in the Buda Hills. This was run and operated smoothly by youngsters, mostly teenagers, dressed in uniform. We visited Szentendre, a village north of Obuda, the Hampstead of Budapest. Not only is this place picturesque, but also it has a significant community of people with Serbian ancestry as well as a Serbian Orthodox church.  

One evening, Peter wanted to visit a night club. In the early 1980s, Budapest seemed devoid of life after dark, but we found that the Hotel Astoria boasted a night club. This was entered through a discreet, almost hidden, street entrance and then up a staircase. We entered a darkened room full of people seated at tables. Soon, the cabaret, such as it was, began. The highlight of the rather unadventurous show was a magician performing tricks. The audience was subdued but showed its appreciation by genteel clapping.  The people seated around us did not look as if they were used to visiting night clubs; they looked dowdy and provincial. I am quite sure that what was on offer at the Astoria was not what Peter was hoping for.

I do not know whether Peter ever visited Budapest again, but I did often. My appetite for Hungary was truly whetted by my first brief visit. I made another trip the following year, but not before doing some careful ‘contact tracing’ as they say in the current pandemic crisis. I wanted to meet Hungarians in their homes.  One of my many contacts was supplied by my PhD supervisor’s wife, Margaret.

Margaret, gave me the contact details of Dora Sos.  Dora was trained as a chemist in Hungary. Just before WW2 started, her company sent her to the UK on a business trip. When the War broke out, she was stuck in Britain and detained as an ‘enemy alien’. Soon, she was released from internment because she was not regarded as being a threat to the security of the UK. She was sent to work in a chemical laboratory in the Slough Trading Estate, just west of London. There, she met and assisted Margaret in her work connected with extracting valuable elements from household and other metal goods donated for the war effort. Dora and Margaret became close friends. During her stay in Britain, Dora was given a British passport.

After the war, Dora returned to Budapest and began working in a laboratory there. Every now and then, the British embassy invited her and other holders of British passports to parties. One evening, she arrived at the embassy, but the Hungarian guards at its door prevented her from entering. She was arrested and her British passport confiscated. She was told never to visit the embassy again. This would have been during the harsh times, when Stalin was still alive and before the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Working in the laboratory soon became difficult and unpleasant. Every night, everything, all notebooks and other paperwork, had to be locked up. An atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion reigned. As Dora had lived in the West, she was regarded as being unreliable by the state. She left and became an interpreter: she was fluent in Hungarian, German, and English.

Some years later, restrictions eased a little in Hungary. Dora was permitted to visit Holland, which she did using her Hungarian passport. She made her way straight to the British Embassy at The Hague and told them about her British passport. After checking her story, the ambassador issued a replacement. He told Dora that in the future when she wanted to travel, she should travel somewhere with her Hungarian passport and then she could pick up her British passport at the British embassy at that place. And, when she was about to return to Hungary, she was to hand it into the nearest British embassy at the end of her trip. This worked well for her. A British passport was subject to far fewer visa requirements and travel restrictions than a Hungarian one.

By the time I first met Dora in her flat in Buda, she had stopped travelling abroad. In her seventies, she was still busy working as an interpreter. Because young Hungarians had to study Russian as a foreign language at school, few learnt German or English. This meant she was in high demand. At international technical conferences, she told me, she was able to make simultaneous translations for people speaking in German to those who only understood English and vice versa. It is not a common skill to be a three-way simultaneous translator.

Every time I visited Budapest, I used to spend time with Dora, usually in her flat. A chain smoker, she used to have frequent bouts of uncontrollable coughing.  She was a good cook. Her speciality was chicken paprika, which she served with home-made pasta, which she extruded through a perforated metal disc straight into a pot of boiling water.  I used to write to her before I arrived in Hungary, asking if there was anything she wanted from the West. Invariably, she asked for the latest editions of technical dictionaries, which she needed for her translation work. She did not ask for works of literature forbidden in Hungary, like the works of Solzhenitsyn. She enjoyed trying to smuggle those illicit books into her country after her occasional trips abroad.   She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary, the customs officials would ask her if she was carrying any ‘Solzhi’ in her baggage.

While writing this, I remembered a joke I was told in Hungary. Two policeman’s wives were discussing the flats where they lived. One said boastingly:

“We’ve got Persian carpets on our floors.”

The other said:

“We’ve got Rembrandts on our walls.”

To which the first replied:

“Gosh how awful. How do you kill them?”

Enough of that. There was little for the average Hungarian to laugh about living in Communist Hungary. I recall seeing a shop where foreign goods could be obtained with hard currency (US Dollars, UK Pounds, Deutschmarks, Swiss Francs, etc.). Crowds of Hungarians pressed their noses towards the shop’s windows, staring at things that they might never afford. These goods, which were otherwise unobtainable in Hungary, included tins of Coca Cola, imported alcohol, western cigarettes, and electronic equipment that was no longer the latest in the world outside the ‘Iron Curtain’.

For several years after the ending of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, I did not return to Hungary. In the late 1990s, after our daughter was born, we drove to Hungary and stayed with some young friends in Budapest. Under Communism, Pest, which to some extent resembles 19th century Paris, lacked the ‘buzz’ of a city like Paris or London. After the end of Soviet control of Hungary, Budapest sprung to life as if it had come out of a coma or recovered from a general anaesthetic.

I wanted to introduce my wife to Dora. I tried ringing the number I had for her a few times, but there was never an answer. So, one morning we took a tram to the place where Dora had her flat. We entered the building and used the ancient lift to reach Dora’s floor. Her front door opened onto a gallery overlooking an inner courtyard where rugs were hung on wooden stands and beaten by their owners to rid them of dust.  Dora’s name was no longer on the small plate next to the doorbell. I rang the bell. Nobody answered it. I never saw or heard from or of Dora again. Maybe, her chain smoking had finally got the better of her.

As for Peter, whose suggestion in Belgrade led to my love affair with Hungary, I lost contact with him for many years. About two years ago, we re-established contact via Facebook. Last year, after he and I had returned from our separate trips to India, we arranged to meet up again face to face. I was really looking forward to seeing this highly witty and intelligent friend of ours again. A few weeks before the rendezvous, he sent me an email telling me that he was unwell and that we would need to delay our meeting until he recovered. Sadly, he never did.

 

Picture shows Peter seated in the Young Pioneer’s Train at Buda

Park of memory

REGIMES RISE AND FALL, as was the case of the Roman, Ottoman, and British empires. Each has left a physical legacy in the form of buildings, works of art, and a plethora of monuments. In India, a part of the both the former Mughal and British Empires, visitors flock to see their tangible remains.

In the late 1980’s, it was turn of the Soviet Empire to decline and fall. In many of its former ‘colonies’, its citizens hastily tried to erase its physical traces. Statues were toppled and monuments destroyed. Some of these artefacts were removed from public view by governmental authorities (maybe because they feared a possible return of Russian domination?)

For good or evil, the Soviet Empire has had a profound influence on what followed in its wake. Whatever one thinks about the Soviet Empire, it has become a significant part of 20th century history and it is a shame to try to erase memory of it. This was also the opinion of the Hungarian architect Ákos Eliőd, who designed the Szoborpark (Memento Park) in the countryside near Budapest.

The Szoborpark opened to the public in 1993. About 6 years later, we drove to Hungary from London. We stayed with a good friend of ours, Ákos, a pioneer of Hungarian rock music, and his family in his home in the outskirts of the hilly Buda section of Budapest. It was Ákos who alerted us to the existence of the Szoborpark.

One sunny day, we drove to the park. It was a wonderful place containing a collection of the Soviet era statues and monuments gathered from all over Hungary. It was/is a treasure trove for those who like or are fascinated by socialist realism art forms, an aesthetic that I like. We spent a couple of enthralling hours in the hot sun, wandering about this open air exhibition.

I took many photographs of the Szoborpark, which I have ‘unearthed’ recently. One of them is of wall plaque celebrating Béla Kun (1886-1938) son of Samu Kohn, a non obervant Jewish lawyer. He was the dictator of a short-lived communist regime that terrorised Hungary for a few months in 1919. With its downfall, Kun fled to the USSR, where he organised the Red Terror campaign in the Crimea in 1921. He was executed in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Trotskyist purges.

Many years after seeing the Szoborpark, my wife and I visited Albania in 2016, more than 3 decades after the downfall of its highly repressive Marxist-Leninist regime piloted for 40 years by its dictator Enver Hoxha.
Interestingly, all over the country there were still numerous monuments erected during the dictatorial era. Many of them were in need of tidying up or cleaning, but they were still there despite being daily reminders of what was a difficult and fearful time for most Albanian citizens.

We believed that the endurance of these monuments erected during difficult times was due to at least two factors. One of these is that many of them were put up to celebrate heroic feats of Albanians carried out against their German invaders during WW2. The other is that despite Hoxha’s repressive regime, many things were done to move Albania from being a Balkan backwater in the former Ottoman Empire to getting nearer to being a 20th century European state.

This is not to say that statues of Enver Hoxha, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin (the mentor and hero of Enver Hoxha) were not pulled down in Albania. They were, but fortunately a few have been preserved by an art gallery in the country’s capital Tirana.

In countries like Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, the arrival of the Soviet Army and the Russian domination of their countries was not felt by most citizens to have been even remotely beneficial. Obliteration of memories of this era were not surprising in places like these.

To conclude, I am glad that I have neither lost nor obliterated the photographs I took at the Szoborpark so many years ago.

Hotel Lokomotiv

IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was  becoming a renowned travel writer.

 

SOPRON 1

Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.

On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway).  Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.

The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop — only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang…

Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.

After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary.  To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.

The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.

After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.

On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:

Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”  

I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.

After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:

You like wine?

I replied that I did.

Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.

“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.

We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.

During our drinking session, my friend said to me:

It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York.  But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”

Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.

Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”

By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.

I will take you there,” he said slurring.

As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:

Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”

With that, we parted company.

I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.

Scene in a ticket office

BUDAPEST KEL PU 83 Farewell 2

I used to visit Budapest in Hungary frequently in the 1980s during the Communist era. I had many good Hungarian friends there. They were very hospitable to me.

One day, I happened to visit the advanced booking office at Budapest’s grand Keleti (Eastern) Station. I have no recollection of where I was planning to go, but that is not relevant to the true story that follows. The smallish rectangular room was lined with about ten (or more) counters at each of which there was a booking office official. 

A young Soviet Russian soldier entered the room. He was in an immaculately smart uniform and looked proud. He went up to the first counter and spoke to the person behind it. After about a minute, he was instructed to go to the next counter. Once again, he spoke to the official behind the window at the counter. And, after a few minutes, he was directed to the next counter. This went on until he had visited each counter in the room and reached the last one. At the last one, the official indicated that he should leave the room as he was in the wrong room for obtaining tickets for Soviet military personnel.

You might have thought that the official at the first counter he visited would have directed him to the correct place, but no. So great was the average Hungarian’s disdain for the Soviet soldiery that was keeping their country under the thumb of the Soviet Union that the officials in the booking office conspired together to waste the young Soviet soldier’s time and humiliate him. It was a beautiful example of passive resistance.

Facts and opinions

NEWS

 

The title of this brief blog article was inspired by the name of a Russian magazine  Аргументы и факты (‘Arguments and Facts’).

When I was a PhD student back in the 1970s, I did my experimental research in a laboratory.  For a while, the maintenance of this lab was supervised by a technician, ‘H’ by name. H was left-wing in his political views and made no attempt to keep his views to himself.

One day while I was working, H and I started talking about the newspapers we read. In my case, it was simple. I hardly ever read them. H said to me:

“I read two papers every day.”

“Which?” I asked.

“Oh,” he replied, ” I read the Times for the facts and the Morning Star for the opinion.”

For those who do not know, the Times used to be Britain’s most authoritative newspaper and the Morning Star is published by British Communists.

So, for H, the Times provided the facts which he coud use in arguments inspired by the Morning Star.

 

How China viewed Albania

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!

Albania is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Between 1944 and late 1990, it was isolated from the rest of the world by a stern dictatorship that held in high regard the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his methods of government. In brief, Albania was ruled by a pro-Stalin dictatorship.

The dictatorship, led by Enver Hoxha from 1944 until his death in ’85, had few allies. For a couple of years after 1945, Albania maintained an uneasy friendship with Tito’s Yugoslavia. Then for a longer period, the USSR became its ally and provider of assistance. With Stalin’s death and his replacement by Nikita Krushchev, who denounced Stalin posthumously, Albania rejected the USSR.

For a period between about 1964 and the mid to late 1970s, tiny Albania became closely allied with the enormous Peoples Republic of China. This period included the ten year Chinese Cultural Revolution. Albanians were subjected to Enver Hoxha’s own version of what the Chinese people had to suffer. Eventually, China’s drift away from Albania’s approach to Marxism- Leninism, caused an end to friendship between the two countries.

I have met several retired diplomats who served in China during the period of Sino-Albanian friendship. Their anecdotes make interesting reading.

When I was last in Tirana, I met a retired Albanian diplomat, who had served in China during the years of Sino-Albanian friendship. He said that in those days the Chinese newspapers were full of pictures and articles about Albania. One day, some Chinese people approached him. They told him that because there was so much about Albania in the news, it must surely be a huge country like China!

A retired Indian diplomat, who had served in China during the Cultural Revolution, collected atlases, something that I also enjoy doing. He found a Chinese world atlas and looked for Albania. In this particular atlad, Albania was hidden away near the spine of the book where two pages met. The country was barely visible except by opening the atlas as widely as possible without cracking the spine. When some young Chinese students asked the diplomat to show them Albania in his atlas, they were surprised at its almost hidden representation in the book. They could not believe that their country’s socialist ally in Europe was so tiny and insignificant. Almost immediately, the students began insulting him with phrases like: “capitalist spy”, “imperialist lackey”, and “enemy of the people”. They refused to believe that the country, which was so important to China, was so tiny.

Another retired Indian diplomat, whom I met in India, came up tomeafter I had given a talk about Albania. He told me that he was serving in China when Enver Hoxha sent the open letter declaring that he was terminating the friendship between his country and China. He told me that he was amazed that such a minute nation like Albania had the nerve to throw mud in the face of a major power and ally such as China was and still is.

These anecdotes help illustrate that tiny Albania had a larger than life history during the 20th century.

Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.

TAXI 2

A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.

TAXI 1

Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“Why?”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”

TAXI 3

Traffic in Tirana, 2016

DISCOVER  WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY

It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

A lady in Budapest

My PhD supervisor’s wife was fondly known as ‘Wink’. When she learnt that I was about to visit Budapest in the early 1980s, she told me the story of her friend Dora, who lived in that city.

Sometime during the war, Wink got her first job. She became a supervising chemist at High Duty Alloys, a company that had its premises on the huge Slough Trading Estate, which had been established near Slough in 1920. It was the middle of the war, and there was a great need for metal for aircraft and armaments. Everything was being melted down in order to extract vitally needed metals. Wink was involved in developing ways of improving the extraction of the highly reactive metals magnesium and aluminium from seawater. Everyone was donating whatever metal items that they could spare to help the war effort. A great number of metal cooking pots reached High Duty Alloys. Sadly, Wink related, many of these were so full of unwanted metals that separating the desirable ingredients was uneconomical; the cooking utensils had been donated in vain.

DORA 1

Dora Sos in 1985 in Budapest

Soon after joining High Duty Alloys, Wink was assigned a technician. She was a Hungarian called Dora, who had been visiting the UK as the representative of a Hungarian chemical company when WW2 broke out. She was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ until the authorities decided that she did not pose a security risk. When she was released, she took up the job at High Duty. Wink and Dora, who was a little older than her, became close friends. After WW2 was over, Dora was given British citizenship. However, she was getting homesick and decided to return to her home in central Budapest.

Every now and then during the late 1940s, the British embassy in Budapest held parties and receptions for British subjects living in Hungary. One evening when Dora was on her way to attend one of these, she was prevented from entering the embassy by Hungarian police officers waiting near to its entrance. She was taken in for questioning, warned never to try to enter the embassy again, and her British passport was confiscated. Dora continued her life working in a scientific laboratory in Budapest, but under appalling conditions. Each night at the end of a day’s work, all of the laboratory notebooks had to be locked up in drawers for which she had no keys. The Stalinist authorities who ran the country at that time were terrified of espionage and sabotage. Conditions became so bad in the laboratory that Dora, who was fluent in German and English, gave up being a scientist, and became a language interpreter.

Wink told me that after a few years when Hungary’s Communist regime became a little less strict, Dora was issued with a Hungarian passport and was given permission to travel to the West for a holiday. She went to The Hague in Holland and visited the British Embassy there. She related her story to the ambassador and his staff, and after they had checked up that she had once been issued with a British passport, they issued her with a replacement for the one that had been taken from her in Budapest. She was told that she could use the British passport whenever she was out of Hungary. All that she needed to do was to enter whichever British Embassy was near her, and then arrangements would be made to issue her with another British passport. And, before returning to Hungary, she could return her British passport to the nearest embassy for safe-keeping. Thus, she was able to visit Wink in Britain on a number of occasions.

When I began making regular visits to Hungary in the early 1980s, Wink gave me Dora’s address, and I met her. We became good friends. Whenever I was in Budapest, I used to visit her in her first floor flat in a late 19th century apartment building near to Moskva Ter in Buda. She always asked me for news of Wink and her family. A chain smoker, she was also a good cook. Whenever I visited her, she would serve me generous helpings of her home-made chicken paprika. This was always accompanied by noodles that she had just prepared with freshly made dough that she extruded through a mesh straight into boiling water.

Dora told me that under Communism very few young people learnt English in Hungary. Learning Russian was compulsory. Therefore, there was a shortage of English interpreters in the country. Often, she was asked to interpret at scientific conferences. She was able to perform simultaneous translations from German into English and vice-versa. This is no mean feat for someone whose mother tongue was Hungarian. Before my visits to Budapest, I used to write to Dora and my other friends there, announcing my travel plans. On more than one occasion, Dora commissioned me to bring the latest editions of particular technical dictionaries from London to her in Budapest, where these volumes were not available. She told me that whenever she was able to travel to the West, she would buy copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works. These were strictly forbidden in Hungary. She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary from the West, she would be asked by the Hungarian customs officials whether she was carrying any of these so-called ‘solzhis’.

DORA 2

In the house where Bela Bartok lived in Budapest

When I visited Budapest with my wife in about 1999, we visited the apartment house where Dora lived as I had been unable to get through to her by telephone. When we reached the door of her flat, which opened onto one of the galleries surrounding the building’s courtyard, I looked at the name on the doorbell.

It was no longer Dora’s.

Uncle Joe

STALIN

 

Standing by Stalin,

albeit in bronze:

odd memories evoked

 

This statue of Stalin, now in Tirana, was cast during Albania’s Communist era (1944-91). Albania was the only country to continue revering Stalin after his death.

Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

ALBDENT 0

Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

ALBDENT 1

Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

ALBDENT 2

Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

ALBDENT 3

Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle