Adventures in Hungary

* Marriage
* Work, Housing & Income
* Architecture
* Manners
* Swearing
* Food and Drink
* Politics
* A useful guide

Marriage

Marriage in Hungary is free, though obtaining the paperwork may cost a few HUF. Both parties are required to present a Certificate of No Impediment and a Birth Certificate – if you are not Hungarian, both have to be translated. Translation has to be through the sole official agency, for which there is, of course, a charge; and since there is only one office, there’s also a delay.

There is no legally-binding religious marriage in Hungary: all marriages are State-officiated “civil” ceremonies, with any religious ceremonies taking place separately. The ceremony can be held anywhere in the country, provided the officiating officer is willing and able to reach the location.

The 19th Century De Beers’s advertising campaign, ‘A diamond is forever’, which introduced the idea of diamond engagement rings, did not take place in Hungary, and so the old tradition of rings remain: on engagement, both parties wear a simple gold ring on the third finger of the left hand, and during the marriage ceremony, this is transferred to the third finger of the right hand.

Architecture

As across Europe, buildings in Hungary vary from the fantastic to the obscene. In city centres, Hapsburg grandeur is common: Budapest has wonderful spa baths, and grand avenues. Older architecture, too, is common: ancient churches and basilica. In rural areas, bungalows prevail, painted in rich ochres, reds and yellows.

On the other hand, giant Soviet-style socialist housing blocks dominate large areas of the cities, towns and even villages. It was terrible that in the 1960’s UK, ancient market places were leveled for multistory car parks; it is tragic that much of Hungary has been leveled for similar monstrosities. They’re not cheap, though: the locals seem to think them highly-desirable locations.

Food and Drink

Food is spiced, to say the least. Most dishes come with garlic and hot paprika chilli — lovely!

Local favourites include spicy sausage, thick soups (goulash, pronounced goy-ash), and loads of pork – though as Hungary has the third-largest population of Jewish people in Europe, there are many kosher alternatives, particularly turkey.

You can eat out for as little as HUF 700 (£2.00), and get the countries best an excellent three-course meal for two, including finest Hungarian wine, for about HUF 12,000 – £30.00! Try Articsóka for the latter: it used to be very, very good, and whilst it is still better than most, the service is getting very slack. You may find yourself without a table despite having made a reservation, and may wait an hour to be served (if you can hold your tempter). [Articsóka is now defunct.]

Manners

I had read a lot of the manners of the Hungarian Hussars: the politest people in Europe, by reputation, so was a little surprised on my first visit to Budapest to see three young men push a woman of the pavement on a Friday night, so that they could continue to walk side-by-side. In London not even the lowest pig would act thus. Now I live in Budapest, I see it every day (though I’ve never seen it in the Matra mountains or in Pécs.

The solution is for a man to brace his shoulders: though rude, most of these pigs are cowards, and few will stop for a smack in the mouth.

The greatest show of rudeness I have yet seen is on the HÉV, the small trains that run over-ground from Budapest to local towns, and came not from a passenger but a ticket inspector, visibly shaking with anger and swearing loudly at a woman without a ticket, who had asked to buy one. She’d got on at a station halt where there is no ticket seller or ticket machine. Beware the ticket inspectors! Although the rules displayed in the carriages say, in English, that “you do not need to buy a ticket before getting on-board”, it totally contradicts the Hungarian wording: chances are the inspector doesn’t speak English, so you’ll have to tell him you are Leon Trotsky and give him your address in San Diego. News reports include a ticket inspector being thown off the train by a collective of passengers incenced at his rudeness to a pregnant woman, and a female inspector on the Budapest metro biting off the ear of a passenger. (Really.)

On the other hand, I have also had an elderly ticket inspector rouse me from my book with, “Good morning! Your ticket please!” in perfect, unexpected English. I’ve also seen old men and young mohawked punks hold doors most politely, for men and women, so it isn’t all rot. Those who remember have explained it to me that the Russian-funded dictatorship discourage politeness as bourgeois.

Swearing

I thought I had heard swearing in the UK, until I cam to Hungary. Under all Communist or Marxist-Leninist systems it was naturally a good idea to be — or appear to be — proletariat; the short route is to swear like a trooper.

Some of the most common, in close translation:

Horse-fucker
Used to describe something very big; not like the American mother fucker
Go to the twat
As in fuck off
Go the the whore’s twat
Fuck right off
Your whore-mother
Inversion of the once-popular London whore’s-son

Work, Housing & Income

The minimum wage in Hungary is about HUF 40,000 a month: one hundred Pounds Stirling at the time of writing. The average wage is about HUF 50,000.

Sounds hard to live on? It is. The average rent in Budapest is about HUF 100,000 a month; prices vary depending upon location, and in more rural areas, rent can be much less.

British companies pay tax in the UK, and do not have to charge foreign clients VAT. Hungarian tax is obscene, and the amount handed over the government is often more than the individual takes home, even at lower tax levels.

Politics

Which brings us to politics. English politics are pretty straight-forward, with the hundred-or-so year-old socialists competing with the millennia-or-so old establishment, with various degrees of subsumation, success and failure. Every so often there emerges a large-scale corruption, someone goes to prison, and small-scale corruption continues much as before.

Hungary is of course very different.

Since the end of the Second World War, Socialism in Hungary was less the British Owenite, Marx-less model, and more the Marxist-Leninist model. That is, a dictatorship that enforced it’s will with the aid of Soviet tanks and bombs, death-squads, secret police and informants.

These days, the official who fifty years ago called in the Russian tanks to quash the democratic revolution is a member of the ‘new’ Socialist government, along with former members of the secret police force, and other members of the former dictatorship.

How they got in is anyone’s guess: the last first time they were elected to power they let interest rates rocket to the 30%+. The Fidesz government which won the election before last reduced rates to 5%, but the people were swayed by elections promises not to raise utility prices, not to sell the national gas company and health system (not that anyone else wanted to), and to double state-paid wages and pensions. Naturally they have raised utility prices several times within their first year in office, have announced plans to sell hospitals and the gas company, and have apologised for not being able to raise wages and pensions.

Familiar story, but what amazes me is how anyone could vote for ‘former’ Stalinists anyway. I could go on….
Photo: Pörneczi Bálint, Magyar Nemzet 04 July 2002

This picture was taken at a peaceful protest on Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest. At around 9.00 am, ten people blocked the bridge with their cars in protest at the new “Socialist” government’s refustal not to save the ballot papers from the recent election in order to hold a recount. Within three quaters of an hour there were 100 people on the bridge: half an hour later a thousand. When we turned up half an hour after that, just before the riot police, we counted at least four thousand heads.

We saw little violence of any kind, but the site linked with the image on the right shows photographs of the police in helmets head-butting protesters, police molesting women demonstrators, head wounds. We saw several people being carried away in ambulances. No police were injured.

The lack of injury to the police is hardly surprising, for despite their claims that the crowd were “a fascist mob”, the thousands spontaneously gathered varied from a large number of pensioners (asking the police to remember the Communist days) to students and business men (chanting the name of the old Secret Police).

Once copper overheard me talking to a local who had asked me why I was there. “In the UK”, I said, “people think of Hungary as a lovely place.” “It used to be, ” said the cop, with a sad look.

Hungarian Elections, Budapest, 2002 April 14

Prior to the first round of voting on Sunday 17 202, opinion polls, including Gallup’s, placed the Fidesz government on average 10% ahead of the opposition MSZP, (Hungarian Socialist Party). That the Socialists won the first round with a 0.5% margin would seem to be a cause for celebration here in Budapest, where they won every seat. Yet the Metro, the trams and the cafés are unusually and disconcertingly silent.

As a foreigner living and working in Budapest, I thought it perhaps imprudent to observe that many members of the Socialist Party were members of the communist government of twelve years ago. Before moving over here from London, my pulp-fiction imagination had turned over images of the old AVH secret police that forced so many Hungarians to live in fear or escape to Canada, the US and UK. On arriving, however, I was relieved to find a prosperous, cosmopolitan, thriving European city. Finding work in the flourishing Hungarian IT market was as easy as finding a cup of good coffee in the pavement cafés. Hungary has experienced a 5% national growth in the last quarter at a time when the world’s major economies are generally taking down-turns. The rate of inflation has been brought down from a soaring 16% in 1998 to a very respectable 6%. And on a level more personally communicative, the installation of my Internet cable connection was twice as fast as the installation of my BT ADSL line. No wonder the country looks set to be at the head of the new entrants to the EU in 2003.

This is a modern country rapidly coming to terms with its past. Ten years after the evaporation of the secret police, their infamous headquarters at 60 Adrássy Ut – a hundred metres from my flat, and one-time station of the Nazi Gestapo – has been opened to the public as a memorial: A Terror Háza, The Terror House. Its walls are lined with testimony, written and filmed, of those who survived torture under the two dictatorships; it makes public the disappearances of citizens into its basements that was for so long an unmentionable terror ever present just a breath from the surface of Hungarian society. It was an exhilarating, elating experience to see the crowd of 200,000 people on the street at the opening of the Museum:I was inexplicably proud to see so many individuals with tears in their eyes.

Naturally, such elation and faith in human nature couldn’t last, and what time in a modern democratic country is more suited to the dilution of faith in good nature than an election? Yet what I’ve heard in the past seven days is forcing me beyond healthy cynicism to consider my future in a country I had hoped would mother my children.

Whispers, increasingly loud, on the streets is that the elections are a coup for the Russian Mafia, those well-known faces in the Moulin Rouge. As gossip on the streets is never to be trusted, I asked the opinions of informed friends and colleagues. One attorney of the Supreme Court told me she had recently attended a public meeting in which it was reported that the MSZP had given to pensioners and the unemployed lifts to polling stations, along with handfuls of currency. When I asked how she knew this, she told me that those making the accusations had taken the offerings. I was doubtful, until the television news the following night reported the same story – set in a different town – and substituting fresh food and beers for currency. Naturally an official investigation was called: The MSZP spokesman appeared on televions to say that the food was allowable as part of the ‘entertainment budget’. ‘True,’ he continued, ‘there were lots of Gypsies given these gifts, but we all know how Gypsies are attracted to public events.’

[No need for comment?]

As time passes, disconcerted voices are gaining courage to speak up.

The day after the election, an unpublicised FIDESZ rally held in a Budapest University had an unexpected attendance of more than 150,000 people, according to the M1 television channel. The following Saturday, FIDESZ held a publicised rally outside the neo-Gothic Parliament building.The party and benefactors subsidised transport to the event; there were flags from every part of the country. Two national television channels broadcast the speeches of the politicians, statesmen, academics and authors to a crowd that the police estimated to be of around two million people. There were many tears in the heightened atmosphere, but many more when the evenings news reported a crowd of on 40,000. Who should I, a stranger in a strange land, trust: the television, or the police and Prime Minister? Having seen the photographs of the PM as a young man, speaking against totalitarianism in a communist state, faced by machine-gun totting police, beating on the young political dissidents, it is hard to remain without bias.

Harder still to remain convinced of the free and fair nature of these elections when speaking to an Official Witness of the polling in Gödöllõ. These individuals are unpaid volunteers, members of the public appointed to see that all is correct during the process of vote counting. ‘With the way things are going, who can I tell that I saw Mr X walk away from the counting tables with an armful of voting slips, and returned with a large pile of MSZP votes and a couple of FIDESZ votes.’ I thought to suggest reporting to the national media, but remembered their reporting of the Saturday rally. I suggested the electoral regulators – but it transpires that unless such crimes are reported within three days, the report cannot be considered.

This evening, in a local café, I was accosted by a middle-aged woman, frustrated and apparently scared by the threats to, if not out and out usurping of, democracy: ‘And your Prime Minister,’ she pressed her finger to the table, ‘your Tony Blair has invited Medgyessy Péter [the MSZP candidate for PM], to London! Has congratulated him on his victory before we have even finished voting!’ She found it hard to believe that Blair did not already know for a fact that Medgyessy had won, that it was merely international freindliness.I explained how in Britain things were different, fairer; how we had dealt with the cash- for-questions scandal in such a thorough manner, and the price the part involved had to pay. ‘Do you not know who Medgyessy is? Have you not read of his expulsion from the last MSZP government for taking huge bribes for accepting a bid on a government contract for one million Forints over a bid of eighty million Forints?’ Of course I had not: what English-language paper reports events in Hungary? Neither had I heard more than a cursory mention of his on-going public prosecution for allegedly taking bribes in the sale of a Budapest Palace to a private company.

As time passes, disconcerted voices are beginning to be raised: but they have yet to be heard.