Vignettes from Hungary

Vignettes from Hungary

In every March, one day is designated “trash day” in Budapest, each of the 22 Districts having a slot. On that day in our District V you cannot really walk the street.

1.  Trash Treasures

In every March, one day is designated “trash day” in Budapest, each of the 22 Districts having a slot.  On that day in our District V you cannot really walk the street.   Mountains of non-perishable throwaways grow about 3 per block.  (See photo)  And as fast as they grow, they are spread, by the annual treasure seekers who come into the city to stake out ‘their stuff’ until a family phalange can arrive to help them haul it away.  Actually, most items are for sale the moment they are claimed by a scavenger.  Bookshelves, a set of matching chairs, used printed materials, mirrors, clothing, parts of stoves and refrigerators, pieces of wood-brick-metal, pots, toys, plumbing, electronic junk; – all are valued eventually by some new owner!   The throngs of claimants are overwhelming and their revelry usually goes on through the night!

And then, the next day, early, cadres of four to five clean-up men with shovels, brooms and a dump truck, move from pile to pile – processing the smashed and useless pieces left behind, and leaving each block pristine once more.  It’s always a wild and unsightly one-day event, unequaled anywhere else we’ve ever lived.  Puts me in mind of Don Blanding’s beach reference, “Treasure or trash is mine for the taking.  Trash into treasure, mine is the making.”

2.  After So Much Of Their Life

We have been living with a “porter” couple for the five years we have been in this apartment building.  Mariska and Istvan, refugee Hungarians from Rumania, were able to get this job at the end of the Soviet years.  In addition to keeping the interior of our building constantly clean and operational, collecting garbage to set out twice a week, and trouble-shooting any malady any of the 28 units of us might have with keys, elevator, unwelcome callers, mold, mail, or electric outages, they were expected to know (and to report on) the comings and goings of each of us!

Though our building is locked up from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., they worked even in those hours.  And they were handy and business-like and inordinately kind.

One Sunday, Mariska was mopping stairwells (again), but dutifully asked if we were on our way to church.  We said yes, it being Sunday.  She said, “Yes, it is for me, too!”  Istvan was always able to fix our toilets and make our windows airtight, and to direct expected visitors to us with great aplomb.  Mariska’s mother loved to shine up our windows whenever she came into the country, in order to take some money back home with her.  Sometimes it was their married young daughter who so willingly could tell us which cleanser to use on our stains.

A year ago they spoke with us about their desire, after all these years, to have a nearby apartment of their own.  (They’d been cleaning another whole apartment building daily and a pub near us nightly while living in a one-room part of our building that never got any sun.)  Well, as of September, they were able to go ‘independent’ of the system and move into a sunny old laundry room turned into a two-room unit on our sixth floor!  Istvan built Mariska a lovely glass-fronted kitchen cabinet set (he’d been a carpenter in Rumania!), and Mariska began making curtains.  We called on them with a housewarming gift and “toured” their home.  And we rejoiced with them! – (while they moved their young widowed cousin from Rumania into their old “porter” job and one-room unit.)

They still clean two other apartment houses every day. But at our building they have become normal folks like the rest of us, – even though only yesterday, Istvan, at the front door, wanted to know where we were going and why.  Changing from one system to another does take time.

3.  Necessary Progress?

We began to realize this February that the weekly English-language newspaper, so important a resource for me and my students, didn’t seem to be available at any of our usual news-stands.  Our enquiries showed us, instead, a rather glossy magazine being put out in the newspaper’s name but fulfilling few of its functions.  I was sorely disappointed.

At the # 1 news shop in town we asked the manager about this, about why the newspaper was being converted into a not-so-good magazine.  He answered, typically, Hungarianly, “Why, to make the paper worse, of course!”

A week later, all the substitutionary magazines were gone from the shelves, too, so we “expats” are without general Hungarian news in English.  Of course, we could always improve our Hungarian.

4.  The Bottom Line

During our first few years here, whenever we were on the run, we knew we could always stop in at one of the three local Soviet-era kitchens (lunchrooms) for a quick and nourishing inexpensive meal.

Then the one nearest us was closed down, and re-opened as an expensive Italian pizza place.  A few years ago, the one near Dorottya ut also closed, even though it had a large following of young downtown white-collar folks.  And this month, our catch-all Paprika is no longer in business.  No more hot soups on a blustery day (the “regular” restaurants won’t serve only soup), no more homemade-style food to go (local restaurants don’t have that provision); no more warmed desserts with a cup of coffee (unless you want to pay for ‘kavehaz’ ambience and service).

Evidently, every large employer or hi-density working area had been required during the Soviet years to provide “a socialist kitchen” for the easy accessibility and health of their workers.  No more.  Its ‘financial feasibility’ is gone.  

Another change.  Before “we’re” ready for it?  Yes, before an alternative is in place.  (Burger King, MacDonald’s, KFC, and Subway, though here, are too costly for most!)

5.  Bread For The Hungarian World

Laslo, in times of nostalgia, can describe the smell-taste-pleasure and intense importance of bread-baking day in Okany where he and his sisters spent summers (in the country) with their grandparents.  But, can you believe it?  Country bread has come to the city!  We know of two area bakeries who are selling it this year.

Country loaves are 16-18 inches across, about 7 inches high, round-shaped, heavy!  They’re usually made from potato and wheat flours, are wonderfully delicious, and two slices are a meal for anyone!  Toasted, with butter and honey, they are food for the finest.

Laslo remembers how to hold the loaf in one arm, with some meat and onion in that hand, and with a knife in the other, cut off bites of a sandwich-in-the-making, country-style.  Buying one-half loaf at a time is enough for us for many days.  However, with some of our children coming from the States for Easter break, we’ll introduce them to country bread, full-size.

6.  Cleanliness Is . . .

One of the more visible jobs in this country is that of the street sweepers.  Folks are hired, for 12-14 hour days, each to keep a section of the city clean.

They dress in an orange vest and pull a rolling plastic container behind them which is decked with twig broom, shovel, cloths, paper towels and spray bottle, their shed jackets and caps, and usually a bag of their lunch.  Some have become absolutely professional in their care of their assigned area, and report great pride, when questioned, in the job they do.  No apartment advertising on their light poles; no spilled ice cream or doggie droppings on their sidewalks; smoked stubs don’t exist and scrap paper is never seen.  They keep a non-messed street!

However, this week we’ve been hearing a strange motorized buzz going up and down the streets early morning or late at night.  Street sweepers of a different kind are being introduced.  Tourists and locals are having to adapt to a new hulk out there.  Whatever will become of the army of orange-vested men and women if mechanized street sweepers take over?  ‘Twill be a shame if progress replaces the personal touch (and displaces so many low-income laborers).

7.  Building With EU Funds

A particular “cross” for the neighborhoods around us this last year has been the amount of EU-funded ‘infrastructure’ construction, unfinished, with which we’ve been living.  For much of last year, we waded through earthen paths while old streets and plumbing were torn up, and hand-laid, gorgeous; cobblestone-type walking streets were being plotted and put in place.  Trucks were hard-pressed to make business deliveries, emergency vehicles could not get near those in need, and residents and merchants were (and are) without parking places. 

A larger project, though, has been the constructing of Subway Line (Metro) # 4, only a couple of blocks south of us.  Building underground in the delta sands of the Danube basin is not so easy in itself, but what to do with the ancient debris (and its ancient dust and bacteria), as well as pedestrians, trams, vehicles, and buildings top-side, is an equally-loaded challenge. Traversing the several blocks of construction-in-progress on foot is still hazardous.  

The Kalvin Ter Reformed Church is one such focus of our concern.  Established in the early 1800’s, a first Protestant church in the area and therefore having to be located outside the old City walls, it is being strongly assaulted by the Metro construction.  Machines and shuddering drills interfere with hearing and any feeling of peace during Sunday worship.  Access is limited to a small side door accessible only from the rear.  Week-day gatherings have been eliminated.  The number of attendees is very much down.  City engineers did reinforce the hefty bell tower when it began canting toward the immensity mawed out at the church’s street side.  Strong cross bracings were arranged in the window framings so they wouldn’t burst in on us.  And recently, the very foundations of the church were reinforced to help calm its shaking. 

Certainly other buildings have survived the establishing of Metros # 1-3, though in many you know exactly when a train is passing beneath, and you hold your breath and check the structure around you.  Those tremors are still in the Kalvin Ter Church.  We’ll see, as tracks are laid through the under-river tunnel and unmanned trains begin running, Pest to Buda and back, whether the building will hold together or crack, and whether worshippers, once again, can center on God and their worship at the local Reformed Church.

Laslo and Coralyn Medyesy


Budapest, Hungary

Laslo and Coralyn Medyesy serve with the Reformed Church in Hungary, based in Budapest, Hungary.  Laslo serves as professor of theology in the Department of Theology of the Gaspar Karoli Reformed University in Budapest.  Coralyn serves as a teacher of Social Work and Diakonia at the Nagy Koros School.