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.

Two professions

We made several visits to Central Europe in our car during the mid-1990s.

CZECH

Twice during those years, we drove to the Czech Republic, entering it from the eastern edge of what had formerly been prosperous West Germany. The Western part of the Czech Republic, which had been the largely German-populated Sudetenland before 1945 is thickly forested with tall dark pine trees. We were dismayed to discover that for the first ten or so kilometres beyond the border, the roads through the Czech forests were lined with ‘gentleman’s’ clubs and prostitutes.

When we were in the middle of one forest, the rain began pouring down. At the corner of a road junction in the middle of the wood, we saw a young lady dressed in a shiny red jacket with matching short hot pants. Our three-year old child saw the woman, took pity on her, and said:

“Shouldn’t we offer her a lift.”

The innocence of our child was touching.

Hungary is south of the Czech Republic. In the late 1990s, we drove into it from Austria. For the first few kilometres of Hungarian territory, we saw no prostitutes, but numerous dental surgeries with signs both in Hungarian and German. Often the dental surgery was in a little compound that included a restaurant and a food shop. The presence of so many dentists offering their services so close to the border with Austria suggested that dentistry in Hungary was good value compared with that in Austria. And, while a member of an Austrian family is having his or her teeth repaired, the rest of the family could enjoy a good Hungarian meal and buy some tasty souvenirs to take back home.

Dental tourism is still popular in Hungary. English newspapers frequently contain adverts encouraging people to obtain supposedly cheaper dental treatment in Budapest.

The proximity of Bohemian prostitutes to the Czech border and Magyar dentists equally close the Hungarian border made me consider a possible uncomfortable comparison. I wondered whether people ever see some similarity between the two professions. I hoped not!

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.

Night club in Budapest

I apply for a Hungarian visa in Belgrade in 1979

The Hungarian Embassy in Belgrade was located in a smart residential
building on a tree-lined street near to the Hotel Slavija. I waited at a
small curtained window in one of the embassy’s reception rooms, and
after a while the heavy green canvas curtain covering it was swept
aside suddenly. The lady on the other side of the window asked me for
my passport. I handed it to her. It was stuffed full of bits of paper that I
wanted to keep for one reason or another. She removed this extraneous
material, and holding it gingerly between the tips of her thumb and
forefinger, flung it back at me, saying,
“This, I do not need.”

Konak Ljubica

Konak Ljubica, Belgrade

I filled in a short visa application form whose questions were in
Hungarian and English. One of these related to the colour of an
applicant’s motor car, should he or she be planning to drive it into
Hungary. The motorist was required to tick one of several boxes, each
labelled with a colour in Hungarian and also its English translation. The
form included a mysterious colour: ‘drab’. I imagine that this must
have been a mistranslation of the Hungarian word for ‘grey’. I paid a
modest fee in Deutschmarks rather than Yugoslav Dinars; the official
kept the passport, and asked me to return the next day….

After arriving in Hungary

…We did a lot of sight-seeing during our brief stay in Budapest (pic below). Not only
did we see the better known sights, but we also explored the lesser-known attractions, including the Museum of the Hungarian Workers’
Party and the Young Pioneers’ Railway.

BU 2 BUDA view of Castle

Budapest

This narrow-gauge railway
line, which wound its way along the ridges of the hills behind and
above Buda, was staffed and run by schoolchildren. Dressed in the
uniform of Hungarian State Railways, these youngsters operated the
scenic train service under the supervision of a few adults. The railway
was high above the city, and to reach its terminus we rode the cograilway
that travels up into heights of the Buda Hills from its terminus
near the ugly but huge triangular Moskva Ter (Moscow Square), one of
Buda’s transport hubs.

BU 4 BUDA Saluting young pioneer

Just as I had a yearning to shop for LPs, especially in the Hungarian
shops in Vaci Street and the fascinating East German Cultural Centre
shop in Deak Square, Peter also had a special desire. He wanted to visit
a Hungarian night club. We asked our hosts in Obuda about this, and
they suggested the Astoria Hotel in the city centre. One evening after
eating dinner in an enormous art-nouveau restaurant during which I ate
a portion of the amazingly pungent and highly smelly Pálpuszta cheese,
we turned up at the main entrance of the Astoria. We were directed to a
smaller side entrance, where we paid a modest entry fee to enter the
night club.

BU 3 BUDA Young Pioneers GOOD

We were led upstairs into a dimly lit smallish room furnished with a
small stage, tables, and chairs. Most of the chairs were occupied by
middle-aged couples dressed-up for an evening out, but wearing
somewhat dowdy outfits. I felt that they did not look like city dwellers,
nor did their appearance fit in with my preconceived idea of typical
habitués of night clubs. I suspected that they might have been a group
of visitors who had come from the provinces to visit Budapest. After a
few performers had regaled us with folk-songs, to which many of the
audience joined in, a magician appeared on stage. He performed a
number of conjuring tricks, after which we left. I don’t believe that the
homely show that we had just observed was exactly what Peter had
hoped for.

 

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