Introducing Marion Merrick
English teacher, author and long-term resident
During this time they have seen up-close the changes this nation went through: freedom over tyranny with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the rise of capitalism, EU membership and greater international relations, the right to travel and the obvious rise of the expat community. It’s realistic to say that the Merricks have witnessed two very different and defining eras, from Brezhnev to Brexit, Kádár to Áder, black market to open market and much more. Alexander Stemp spoke to Marion Merrick.
Welcome, Marion. Tell me something about your background. What made you move to Hungary? What did you both do during earlier times? How can you summarise those days and general atmosphere pre-1989?
The short answer is our first – and totally unexpected – contact with Hungary came in 1978 when Paul was awarded a two-month British Council scholarship to complete research relating to the music of composer Liszt. I was just starting my teaching career in England and Paul was working full-time on his PhD.
The atmosphere prior to 1989? That’s so difficult – not because I can’t tell you but it’s completely unimaginable to anyone who wasn’t here and didn’t experience it first-hand; this became a reason for writing my book, to try and show what everyday life was like.
The main difference, which is now impossible to grasp, is the reality of being in an information vacuum. Not only could we not understand a word of Hungarian but almost no one spoke English. There was no internet and only about 10 percent of people had phones (we didn’t), and there was no access to world news except via BBC World Service radio, which our radio couldn’t always get. You couldn’t buy a Western newspaper except occasionally in one of the Dollar Shops – these were set up for diplomats, and Hungarians weren’t allowed to access them. We used to go to the British Embassy which then housed the British Council Library, where they kept week-old copies of The Times. Maybe the best illustration of this information vacuum is when Chernobyl exploded in 1986. We heard about it on the BBC but no one in Hungary knew about it for about three days, when the USSR permitted them to report it.
I understand the ex-pat community then was very minimal. Tell me something about what it really meant to get by with local people and with general communications.
You couldn’t call the tiny group of British people here, ex-pats. The embassy told us there were just ten of them, all married to Hungarians, who had arrived in the 1960s. In order to get permission to live in Hungary you had to have family or a spouse here. Needless to say, many Hungarians were keen to marry Westerners in order to leave the country – those who came from the West and stayed here were regarded as crazy!
As you say, almost no-one spoke English but luckily I speak German and was able to use that with some older people. But learning Hungarian was clearly a priority and the fact that we couldn’t manage even basic shopping without speaking it meant we learnt fast. Shops weren’t like today, you had to ask for most things, so if you couldn’t speak you couldn’t eat!
What were the perks/attractions from early times which finally made you want to stay? What were significant “highlights” and hints of nostalgia from the Kádár era, (omitting politics), which perhaps are lost/forgotten/no longer apply today?
Our children were born here in 1987 and 1989, and we always thought we’d return to England once they got to school age. We had no inkling at the start of ’89 that anything was going to change. When it did we were faced with the dilemma of trying to decide whether to stay or go. After seven years here we had many close friends, work we loved and no pressing reason to leave. We made a list of the advantages and disadvantages of staying or leaving, in order to clarify what we wanted. After about six months we decided we’d stay.
Aside from friends and work, another significant factor was the school system here. We had worked in education in the UK and were less than enamoured by its developments in the 1970s. Free state grammar schools, which we had attended, had been abolished. Here, they not only existed but were thriving, and not regarded as hotbeds of social elitism as in England. We thought our children would do well out of the system as it was then – and they did!
As for some nostalgia…yes, there are things that I’m sure people miss: life was quiet, more sociable, and it revolved more around friends and family than work. As so few people had a telephone, dropping in on people was natural – it was the only way of talking to them. Most of our evenings were spent calling in on friends or being visited by them. Now it’s text messages and emails. Because there were few luxuries available, people enjoyed the simpler life; I suppose that life then revolved more around people and less around things.
Another major difference was that although we earned little (HUF 3000 a month was the basic state wage), all the necessities of life were unbelievably cheap: the monthly transport pass was HUF 110, a cinema ticket HUF 10, an opera or concert ticket the same. Everything was subsidised. We had never been in a position in England when we could afford these things in limitless quantities – they were luxuries. Of course, buying a car, colour TV or hi-fi in Hungary was another matter!
Were you ever “watched” by the secret police? Were there any hidden dangers? Or was the general “fear of imperialism” and “foreign invaders” over before your arrival?
When Paul first came he was given a booklet by the British Council entitled “Advice to Visitors to Communist Countries”. It detailed the dangers of microphones in flowerpots and landladies bent on seducing the unwary Westerner in order to recruit them to the cause!
When we came to live in 1982 we were definitely checked up on – our letters were opened, we had unexplained visits from the police – a few things like that. And of course, our friends warned us never to speak about anything to do with buying foreign currency, politics and some other topics, over the phone. We were only ever given a year’s permit, so we knew we had to avoid annoying the authorities if we wanted to stay longer. But that wasn’t surprising – what did surprise us was when we overheard people in the British Embassy discussing what we were really doing in Hungary! That was something we hadn’t anticipated.
Looking back to 1989, what was your take during that distinct time?
Things changed so quickly in 1989 that I think few people knew the regime was about to implode. We all followed the daily developments in disbelief – we knew something momentous was happening but not that this was The End. Personally, I’d just had our daughter in February and was caught up with two small children, moving flats and daily life. I wasn’t reading the Hungarian papers, and the latest developments were related by friends.
We were living on Hösök tere in 1988; we were able to watch the demonstrations against the destruction of Hungarian villages in Romania from our windows, and it seemed unbelievable that the police did not intervene – mass gatherings were totally illegal. Then in ‘89 we watched the reburial of Nagy Imre – yes, momentous times.
The 1990s clearly was a time of “opening” a new era and obvious changes. Even so, Hungary was then lesser-known Europe and far from the tourist mainstream. What did this follow-on time also mean for you? What were you doing then?
I think the difference between actually living in a country and being a part of it, as opposed to being a visitor or tourist, is that whatever is going on, you are living your everyday life and are concerned rather with those small realities, not the “big picture” – especially if you have small children.
A lawyer friend told us that having decided to stay, and because we owned no property (either in the UK or here in Hungary), we should buy a flat. He correctly predicted an explosive rise in prices and cautioned against a delay which would find us unable to afford to buy anything. As the forint was not convertible, it meant that if we brought all our savings to Hungary for this purpose it would be in the knowledge that we could never change them back again. It was daunting. On top of that, the official exchange rate was so poor that we changed the money illegally at night in our flat. As it happened, people with savings were desperate to invest their forints in goods that would maintain their value, or for other currencies, so we were lucky. There was rampant inflation at that time and people were employed in shops just to keep changing the price tickets.
The next significant step was 2004 EU membership. What was happening with your life then?
EU membership was greeted with great enthusiasm – most Hungarians saw it as a new beginning, a chance to re-establish themselves where they felt they had always belonged, in the heart of Europe proper. I remember the celebrations well, walking down Andrássy út to Hösök tere with our friends. There was such an optimistic atmosphere.
How about travels to parts of “greater”, or post-Trianon, Hungary, that would have been distinctly different to today?
We originally drove to Hungary in 1982, via West Germany, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. People in the West assumed that the countries of the Eastern bloc were all the same but this journey showed how different they were, especially in their atmosphere. Once we were living here we made a number of train journeys from Budapest to the then West Germany, via East Berlin. Again, it’s just impossible to convey the oppressive atmosphere of the DDR [East Germany], a world apart from Hungary in that same period. As we needed visas to travel anywhere at all and – as British passport holders – expected to pay for everything in “‘hard” currency (which it was actually illegal for us to have!) – we didn’t travel except to family in Germany and England. Later, in the 1990s we visited Transylvania and Croatia.
You wrote a cheerful book that clearly relates to early days and to a distinct bygone time. Tell me something more about this.
I asked the British people who had come to Hungary before us if they intended writing about their experiences, but they didn’t. It seemed to me that the 40 years under communism would be resigned to the history books merely as that, with no explanation of what it meant beyond the politics and economics. I wanted to answer the question I was constantly being asked: But what’s it like living in a communist country? That resulted in “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”, which covers the years 1982-1989.
I hadn’t intended to write any more. However, the changes after 1989 not only brought the longed-for opportunities to travel and to buy Western goods, but also a Pandora’s Box of unemployment, homelessness and hardship, and so I decided to write “House of Cards”, which explores the far more complex reality of this change.
https://www.stanfords.co.uk/Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Dont-and-House-of-Cards_9789630682213 (Stanfords, London)
https://www.bestsellers.hu/search?keywords=marion+merrick (Bestsellers, Budapest)
Will there be another one?
No. Hungary is not so different now from other countries in Europe.
Nowadays Hungary is a safe and prosperous country. What were your favourite/ personal highlights? Achievements? Cultural attributes? And anything else?
As musicians and music lovers we were overwhelmed by the fact that we could afford to go to a concert or the opera every single night! There was no limit to the beautifully produced books one could buy, the cinema tickets; we could heat our flat and be warm – this was unaffordable in England – and it was far colder here in Hungary. I never worried about personal safety even in what were considered dodgy areas. My children travelled to school unaccompanied once they could safely cross the roads – our friends in England drove their children everywhere; meanwhile the free nursery care we had then is a mere dream in the UK.
There’s no denying the dark side of pre-1989 life and I have no wish to do so. But equally, people who say that every aspect of life changed for the better after ’89 are choosing to ignore the positive aspects of life back then. It’s not that simple.
For those new to Hungary today, what are your general tips and advice?
My real advice would be to learn the language! I know it’s not easy, and in fact the situation must be far more difficult today when you can get by with just speaking English. But to truly understand the people, their mentality and their culture, you have to immerse yourself in it by way of the language. Otherwise you remain an outsider, a long-term tourist, an expat.