I arrived in Hungary on a dazzling, boiling-hot day in August. The year was 1981, and as I stepped out of the plane’s exit door onto the movable stairway leading down onto the concrete of the aerodrome, I was confronted by the first of many of the differences I was to experience, differences that contrasted Hungary and England. The heat! It literally hit me as I stepped out of the air-conditioned plane. When I had taken off from London a couple of hours earlier it had been about 64 degrees Fahrenheit, but as we were preparing to land, the captain had spoken of a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius in Budapest!
Walking across the concrete to the terminal building (as I remember, there was no airport bus to transport us those several hundred yards) I had mixed feelings when I saw the armed soldiers positioned at various points over the area. They did not look very threatening, they seemed to feel quite at home, but they were armed, they were holding machine guns, and there was a reason for that. I was reminded that this was communist Hungary, it was a country occupied by Soviet Russia. I tried to shrug off recollections of calls from family members to be wary, of supplications to think twice before making any decision to leave England and come to live in this Eastern Bloc country. But then I thought of my fiancé, who was waiting for me at Arrivals, who I would be seeing as soon as I was through passport control and for me, that was all that mattered, the cloud of apprehension was lifted.
Thus began a process of adapting that went relatively smoothly for me because I was young and wanted to learn. I knew it was vital that I settled in as soon as possible, and not consciously, but instinctively, I knew that the first step to this was to gain the acceptance and approval of my immediate environment – who cared about the communist government?!
When learning a foreign language we soon experience that the way native speakers communicate in everyday life can be very different to how we learnt the language in a non-native environment. Although I am half English – half Hungarian I still had to learn how people in Hungary communicate. But I quickly got a hold of the “real” Hungarian language. I worked really hard to learn, and I said to myself that when I could read, understand, enjoy and appreciate a work of fine literature (that is how I translated the term “szépirodalom”) then I would be able to say that I was beginning to know Hungarian. The first book I read in such a way was Az arany ember by Jókai Mór. What individual, characteristic ideas the author had! I realised that because the Hungarians were still reading the works of great writers like Jókai and Petőfi, because they had preserved the old customs and folklore of their nation, because of these things the Hungarian people were able to take Communism in their stride. In some ways, I feel that Hungary has lost more since the change in political system that came about after 1989 than it lost during the years under the Communist Regime.
There are many contrasts I could mention while describing the way of life I experienced when I came to Hungary in 1981. I had grown up in London and now I was living in a “község” that to me was like a village. True, it had a shoe factory that provided work for thousands of people (4494 in 1988), but everyone kept pigs and chickens in their backyard, and they grew grapes and vegetables in their gardens – not just flowers – and there were even fruit trees by the roadside. At that time the side roads were non-asphalted, and after a lot of rain you were lucky if you could drive the car up to the house without getting stuck in the mud…it was dangerous on a bicycle, too! Speaking of cars, there was not a western car in sight, but I soon learned to identify the Moszkvics, Warburg, Volga and Trabant – all collector’s items these days!
Reminiscing over those early days, I could talk of food, humour, “pop” music; of television (no broadcast on a Monday), working hours (only every other Saturday was free), the 1st of May (parades in the streets), pálinka (you distilled it at home), policemen (they carried guns), queuing at the bus stop (nobody did or does it), weddings (so traditional), pig-killings (a ritual, really) – and I could go on…
Today Hungary has moved closer to the West. These days there are many more similarities between the British and Hungarian way of life than there were 30 years ago. What has not changed is that Hungary is still a beautiful country, it has customs and traditions that can still be kept alive, and more and more people from other nations are showing an interest in, and an appreciation of Hungary. Hungary is a wonderful place to visit – and, really and truly, not a bad place to live!