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.

A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.

OHRID 0

Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”