7 September 2017

Hungary

Life existed before the internet came along. And before the Berlin Wall came down, life existed behind it.

In the summer of 1989, I volunteered to be a summer school English teacher under the aegis of The British Council. My destination was Hungary. 

The summer school took place by the shore of Lake Balaton, a vast inland lake about fifty miles south west of Budapest. My tutees were all students at The Technical University of Budapest which like many other large Hungarian organisations owned a sort of holiday-cum-conference compound by the lake.

This was the summer before TV showed images of happy Berliners hacking away the concrete. Later that same year and into the early months of 1990 we were to see the historical transformation of those old Iron Curtain states but in August 1989 it was same old same old.
Lake Balaton
The lake was lovely and warm. You could swim in it all day if you wanted to and if you could bear the mysterious muddiness beneath your feet. Half a mile from the university compound I discovered a campsite amidst the pine trees and virtually every vehicle there had come from East Germany. Did communists have camping holidays? Did they barbecue sausages and play volleyball? Did they laugh? Yes dear reader, it seems that they did.

One day, I had a ride in a mustard-coloured Trabant. It was proudly owned by one of my Hungarian teaching colleagues. I was in the back and in spite of myself I had a fit of giggles. The very idea of being crammed n the back of a Trabant as it coughed and spluttered its way along a windy Hungarian lane really tickled me for some reason. But I knew I shouldn't laugh because acquiring any kind of motor vehicle in Hungary in those days was a big deal. Understandably, my colleague was quite proud of his ill-designed East German car. He had waited more than three years to buy it on a paltry salary that made me look like a millionaire.
One day I met two children at a cafe. They were perhaps nine and eleven and surprisingly spoke enough pidgin  English for basic communication between us. Of course this was in the days before paedophilia came along. They took me through the dappled woods to a hidden rock face and there they showed me a little-visited cave that had been cut into the limestone some hundreds of years before. There were sleeping platforms and a fireplace area and tantalising images scratched upon the walls. It was very possible that this cave was prehistoric. I felt privileged to be in such a place.

One night after I had been drinking beer with a bunch of East German students at a lakeside bar,  I was approached by two furtive men. They wanted to know if I had any British or American money they could buy from me. One of them opened his wallet and showed me a huge wad of foreign currency. It was now close to midnight and very few people were around. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming premonition that they were about to mug me. They were just too pushy and besides what was in this shady deal for me? Nothing.

I indicated I needed to use the toilet and as soon as I got round the corner  I ran like the wind along the woodland track that led back to the safety of the lakeside compound. Christ Almighty, I couldn't run like that these days but I should remind myself that twenty eight years have passed by. The wall came down and countries like Hungary became "free" at last - whatever that might mean.

20 comments:

  1. I can hardly imagine a great lake full of warm water in Hungary! I guess I have a kind of naive arrogance that assumes Eastern Europe to full of cobbled streets and grim frozen forests!

    The premonition of being mugged was a very handy thing to have! and even better that you managed to act on it, I would probably freeze in fear

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    1. In Hungary there were vineyards and antiques markets, gypsies with violins and traditional dance troupes. No mater what the political regime is people strive to live and be happy.

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  2. Amuses me to think of you giggling away in the back of a mustard coloured Trabant.

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    1. My head was touching the ceiling and my knees were almost touching my chin!

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  3. While we loved Budapest when we visited, we did keep in mind that we did not have to live there and there was an undercurrent of what you could do and say, and what you could not. I remember that lake from when Jane and Lance Hattat, English residents of Budapest, visited the lake. Pedophilia is not modern or new, just more reported on now but I do get your point. Great teenage memories from you and Hungary/Budapest is a wonderful place to visit. Kind of related to the camp, we caught the character building scout like Children's Railway in Buda.

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    1. I was 35 years old Andrew! But I admit that I sometimes behaved like a teenager.

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  4. Interesting post, Yorkie.

    We are told to "trust our gut"...and rightly we should because the feeling that something isn't quite right is usually right 99.9% of the time. It's a feeling that should never be ignored.

    As for paedophilia...it's been around for centuries...it's nothing new...but it is as despicable now as it always has been...and it always will be. Paedophiles are oxygen stealers, and don't deserve any leniency.

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    1. The point I was making was that there I was wandering about with two children and I had never even met their parents. They trusted me and I trusted them. In the current climate I would be very wary about doing the same.

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  5. http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com.au/2017/09/the-mature-zucchini.html

    Nothing to do with Hungary, but all you need to know about zucchinis!

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    1. Mmmmm... Now I'm feeling hungary! Thanks for the link Margaret!

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  6. Bit confused by the dates here - you say 1990 but wasn't it 1989 the wall came down? I visited Berlin and Bratislava in 1988 and they were such strange places. Even knowing they were totalitarian didn't prepare me for the odd mix of drab and sinister. Berlin was the best and worst for that. There was nothing I could buy with the $40 worth of Ostmarks I had been forced to change, so I tried to give it away before I went back. Nobody would take it! And when I put some of it in the bin they accused me of sabotage. Bratislava was nicer, (maybe it was the beer) but still nobody was prepared to talk to me except a few black market types. I don't want to go back - I'm sure it's just another Euro city now with Starbucks on every corner.

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    1. Thanks Michael. Silly me - I got the year wrong. It was 1989. I am pleased that, like you, I had a taste of eastern Europe before democracy took a hold.

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  7. Very interesting post, YP. And scary at the end there. It's probably good that you followed your instinct.

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    1. There was no way they were going to catch me unless they were runners in Hungary's Olympic squad!

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  8. Sadly, Hungary has (more or less voluntarily) given up some of the freedom it enjoyed after the Iron Curtain came down. In my part of the world, we closely watch what is going on in Poland, Hungary and some other countries where it seems they are about to fall back into old times, with very controlling governments and no real freedom of press or independant courts etc. Only that this time around, it is all under capitalist instead of communist rule.
    The nickname for the Trabant was (and still is) Trabbi, by the way. Some people in the former DDR (GDR in English) were on waiting lists for 10 years.

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    1. Yes. Things do seem to be heading in a worrying direction under the stewardship of Viktor Orbán.

      Have you ridden in a Trabbi yourself?

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  9. That was certainly a time of great change. It was hard to believe what we were seeing.A few months before we could never have dreamed that the wall would come down. You bring back some vivid memories.

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    1. It was like a row of dominoes. Push one and all the rest come down.

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