Or by topic: [Crime and punishment 1] [Crime and punishment II] [Crime and punishment III] [Americanization of Hungary] [Americanization of Hungary II] [Overregulation in Hungary] [Overregulation in Hungary II] [Environmental disaster in Hungary] [Holidays in Hungary] [Corruption in Hungary][Democratic elections]
?October 26, 1999
The tabloids here are
obsessed with what they call the "whiskey bandit,”
so-called for the whiff of whiskey always to be smelled upon his
Ambrus Attila, alias the "Wiskey Bandit"
DIS Internation offered to buy the movie rights to his life
I heard he had robbed 26 banks, all in Budapest. He has had a large number of girlfriends, too, and there’s always one of them gracing the cover of some tab like Mai Nap. Two of these girlfriends were surprised when, in the studio audience at a kind of candid camera show, they were confronted with TV interviews with their neighbors. The neighbors claimed they had seen "the Whiskey” making his getaway from the two girlfriends' apartment. Boy were those ladies surprised! And a bit frightened, it seemed to me. They nervously declined to identify their boyfriend's hiding place on TV!
All of this leads us to the "Americanization” of the Hungarian media, not only the papers, but up to and including tab TV. You can now--wonder of wonders!--see REAL LIVE people in the process of divorce laying into each other. At this point they don’t have knock down drag-outs. All a matter of time. Some of it is even worse than back home, full of flashing lights, and dancing green-haired, bare-midriffed dancing girls. Back off Vannah! (sp?)Back to top
?October 27, 1999
Yesterday I mentioned the
sensationalistic media here in Hungary.
Mai Nap: for those who like full frontal nudity [not shown] with their "news"
Today's front-page news: 'The wedding will be held today', and 'Renata is proud of her body'.
On the bright side, the weather here in Budapest is fine.Back to top
?October 28, 1999
Well, they caught the Whiskey bandit. This always happens. No sooner do I include something on my website, than it becomes outdated. After spending considerable time getting my anti-Kosovo pages up and running, explaining what a waste of time it was, and how it was useless without a complicated and expensive (not to mention dangerous) ground war, the Serbs capitulated. ALMOST WITHIN A DAY.
To add insult to injury, they caught the bandit on the street corner where I used to live. He lived above the shop where we used to get groceries. In the very building where my dentist had her practice. Unfortunately, no one got the five million dollar reward for advice leading to his capture. Apparently, the police did it all by themselves.
This is actually the second time he has been apprehended. The first time, he rappelled down the wall of police HQ on the intertwined phone cords of the interrogation room where police had left him as during a coffee break.
He actually robbed 27 banks. There was one branch that he robbed FOUR TIMES. The fourth time, he brought a flower to one of the woman clerks. What a guy! Before robbing that particular branch, he would always pop into the pub next door for a drink beforehand. I guess it's not just me asking how this could all be so easy.
Guess the tabs will have to find a fresh face to line their pages with.
?October 29, 1999
The time difference has got me again. Every Friday I come in early to check my email, only to find that the site I use, Netaddress.com, is closed for routine mainenance. Of course, it's not 7:30 AM in America, it's more like 1:30 AM. Guess I'll have to wait until the whirlwind of the day's activities whips up around me to find a free minute to look at it.
It was nice of my neighbor to drive me in today. No grouchy old Hungarian men on the 25 bus, dancing on my toes and then blaming me and telling me, "If you don't like it, get off the bus." Ah, those small luxuries.Back to top
? November 1, 1999
Another Hungarian Day of the Dead has
passed by, October 31. This is about the only day of the year
when Hungarians dress up in their Sunday clothes in order to do
the gardening. The "gardening," of course is the
tending of the graves of their relatives.
Hungarians tending to the grave of a deceased loved one on the Day of the Dead.
It is a no-nonsense holiday.
Now the myth of the Whiskey Bandit (capitalized in the Hungarian press) grows and grows. The topic has broken into educated circles now with his capture, so my colleagues will chat about him. (I.e., no one will automatically think they read the tabs) Seems he once swam across the Danube to avoid capture. Some regard him as a bit of a superhuman. There are signs of a myth growing up. My nephew here says that it wasn't really him that they captured, that it was a decoy, because the real one, with his abilities, could never been captured--they must have cut a deal, etc. Maybe he's off in the Caribbean chatting with Elvis, wondering when Kennedy will finally admit he's living next door, get off his duffs and save the U.S.A.Back to top
?November 2, 1999
The weather has turned its usual autumn gray
in Hungary, which generally matches the mood of the people for
the last nine years or so. I don't really blame the people here
if their disposition is a bit sour. Immediately following the
changes of 1989, the economy contracted an astonishing 30-40%, a
level to make or worst recession pale by comparison.
The weather has turned its usual autumn gray in Hungary, which generally matches the mood of the people for the last nine years or so. I don't really blame the people here if their disposition is a bit sour. Immediately following the changes of 1989, the economy contracted an astonishing 30-40%, a level to make or worst recession pale by comparison.
Yet even the Hungarians admit that they are a people pessimistic in nature. This is a typical exchange, one I have had more than once with Hungarian people:
"What are the ingredients in
"God only knows."
"Well, why don't you just read the label?"
"Why, you don't actually BELIEVE what is written on there, do you?"
Actually, I usually do, but whether that tells us more about Hungarian or American character is a riddle I've never fully assailed.
Even successful Hungarians feel obliged to be pessimistic. Talking to a shop owner, I found that although she conceded business was brisk, she insisted that the shift to capitalism was a turn for the worse, and could bring only disaster to the Hungarian nation.Back to top
? November 3, 1999
One thing that has struck me about life in Hungary is the exaggerated way in which a small group of people can determine the life patterns of millions. Sometimes I wonder how Hungary would rate on an international scale of bureaucracy and corruption. I read that this country actually does well in a comparison with other countries "in the region". Yet I suspect that the "region" includes the former Soviet Union, which is another world entirely from the one that I am accustomed to living in.Back to top
?November 9, 1999
One example of the bureaucracy I mentioned is the fate of our institution, the Hungarian State Language Examination Board. Our institute has always had a monopoly on language testing in Hungary, since the old communist days. The government appointed a panel to study the issue, which took years. They hired foreign experts and flew them out to Hungary to make recommendations about how testing should be regulated. Their recommendation? A professional guild, a loose association of testing professionals across the country who would regularly meet to discuss criteria and standards for testing.
This didn't sit well with the government panel. Their decision: the panel will certify every every person, every institute, and EVERY ROOM to be involved in language testing, and assess a fee for each. Each language to be assessed must be applied for separately, so, out institute will have to shrink the number of languages we offer examinations in from fifty-three to seven. The remaining forty-six languages, as far as I know, will be impossible to take an exam from in Hungary. Continuing to offer all of the languages we always did would have meant a mammoth loss. It seems like just another opportunity to squeeze money out of something.
After "accreditation" has taken place, 4% of every examination fee will be paid to this panel.
Instead of examiners from across the country sharing ideas, this panel will try to impose a system on everybody. They issued a guidebook to testing, which I am told is in bad Hungarian and devoid of up-to-date testing ideas, written, I heard, by a washed up teacher.
Back to top
?November 16, 1999
Here in Hungary the parliament spent years—ten, almost—wrangling about the new decree to govern language testing, and finally coming up with one that should please no one but the government panel that thought of it. How many laws governing language testing in the USA? How long did it take out government--one much derided for inefficiency and bureaucracy by Americans—to hammer out government policy on language testing. The answers: none and not even a minute. Why should there be a law or decree regulating testing? As far as I know, pilots and air traffic controllers, who have great power over life and death, must take some federally determined test. Drivers must take a test on the state, and not the federal level. A private company wishing to engage in language testing should seek to gain the approval of its clients, in this case universities and employers. These institutions could shop around for the testing provider they deemed the most suitable, as in the US. Thus, a small number of institutions would win out, those that the clients—undoubtedly the universities, whose lead would be followed by non-educational institutions—deemed the most suitable. Universities would be free to set up their own testing centers, as long as they could turn them into paying propositions. The only problem is that this doesn’t turn them into a cash cow for some government panel.
But its just a dream. The high salaries of an "expert" panel can easily be justified by charging fees to institutions to be accredited. Here in Hungary the bureaucracy extends way beyond language testing. Consider the common driving exam. The state determines not only the criteria for the exam, but necessary number of hours that must be studied: a certain number of hours for learning the Highway Code and a certain number of practical driving lessons. Together with the exam itself, this is likely to set a prospective driver back 80,000 forints, or over three $325. This, by coincidence, the average monthly salary. A nurse makes about 35,000 forints per month, or about $143. How much do you make per month, and is that how much you paid for your driver’s license?
What difference does it make who teaches me to drive as long as I can pass the test? Why can’t I study the highway code at home? For the answers to these questions, turn to the Hungarian government.
The test is irrelevant, though. Automobile examiners expect to be paid off. A student of mine said that an acquaintance of his had an accident every time she drove a car, but still paid off the examiner, and got a license. Some pilot students told me the same thing about getting a license to fly. It’s all about cash flow.Back to top
?December 2, 1999
There was another jailbreak from a Budapest jail, the same place where the Whisky Bandit made his daring escape rappelling from intertwined telephone wall cables. This time it was a big crime boss. It seems he had got all the necessary papers forged perfectly. After the clean getaway, police asked local residents if they had seen anything suspicious. That is when they discovered that observers had been stationed at regular intervals along the road to ensure that the escape went without a hitch.Back to top
?March 2, 2000
Well, spring is finally making its timid arrival on the scene here in Hungary. Gone are the snows and frozen slushes of January and February. Gone are the ubiquitous dead and denuded curbside Christmas trees, their needles pooled around the m in little chains of cone-shaped peaks, their empty candy wrappers pathetically flapping on their branches. Gone is the infuriating ultraslick permafrost from the sidewalks of my district, where the poor council was unable to hire even a single workman to shovel the walks. Many were simply unpassable for hundreds of yards. Add to this the sad few who refuse to curb their dogs, resulting in a foul brown sheen that would eventually coat the path for seven feet at a stretch.
I couldn't help feeling envy as, on my way through the more densely populated sixth district, I saw a dejected worker lethargically chipping away at the last remaining isolated "floe" of piled up ice on a corner, while my neighborhood was still ideal for shit-skating.
I would excuse the local district council on a financial basis if it were not for an acquaintance of ours, who works close to the government, and is always regaling us with tales of corruption in our district: "Hey, this year only three million is missing from the budget, last year it was fifteen million!"
But back to spring. This is a log entry about spring, remember? The sun is shining, the flowers are sprouting, and real estate prices are spiraling skywards. At least 5% a week. So we assailed a purchase under these conditions.
But never fear! The well-intentioned government is here. They have unveiled an assistance plan! It sounds pretty good. You can qualify for a grant and a low-interest loan. But there are some things you should know:
a. Only new homes can be purchased with the assistance.
b. They will often only pay one month or so after construction on your new home is completed.
c. Builders require payment in advance.
d. The disbursing bank will only give the money by direct transfer to the builder.
Your mission: try to reconcile these. The bank will not even commit to the assistance until I have a signed contract, which invariably requires a 30% down payment. This way I do not even know if we will be able to get the money we need when I sign my name to a contract.Back to top
? March 9, 2000
I kind of wonder how much the rest of the world has heard about the situation here in Hungary. The eastern part of the country has been hit by crisis after crisis. It seems like there's a flood there every few months.
The latest development
there is far more alarming. An Australian gold processing plant
in neighboring Romania has recently spilled several thousand tons
of poisonous sludge into a tributary of the Tisza, an unspoiled
fisherman's, birdwatcher's, and canoer's paradise here in
Hungarian fishermen struggling to remove the tons of dead fish from the Tisza, to avoid bacterial catastrophe.
It was one of th largest spills in Europe.
The river is totally dead, and thousands of fishermen are out of work. The Romanian government, which owns a 40% stake in the company that caused the accident, disclaims any responsibility, saying this is a private matter. The Australian company has suggested that unseasonably cold weather might have been responsible for the disaster.
The cyanide, meanwhile, infested, in a diluted form, the Danube as well, which runs through Budapest.
That's all for now...I'm going to get a...er... drink.Back to top
?November 21, 2000
Another Day of the Dead has come and gone. This is the time of year corresponding to Halloween and falling on November 1st. Yet it is a serene, sad holiday when Hungarians visit the graves of their dead loved ones.
It is a very practical holiday; there is no service to clean up the graves, so this function falls to the surviving relatives. In this way Hungarian graveyards come to display a gradation of order: the newest part of the yard, where all of the graves and their stones are in perfect condition; an intermediate section, where immaculate graves are interspersed with little islands of neglect--the resting places of those whose relatives have all died--and a clearly delineated older section, where overgrown graves can be seen among the bushes and saplings. Beyond this can be found a forest, the oldest section of the graveyard, where you can still pick out the crumbling headstones among the grown trees. Then, in my wife's village, there is the Jewish graveyard, well forested, where no new additions are made. Sadly, there has been no one to care for these graves since World War II.
|Typical grave arrangement in the evening on the Day of the Dead
In the village of Ozora, where the graveyard is on a hill overlooking the settlement, thousands of candles can be seen from the main street.
The holiday is commemorated by travelling, often long distances, to the graves of lost loved ones, to place candles and wreaths on the graves, as well as to trim the grass and weed the area on and around it. Long-distance buses are full of middle-aged and elderly Hungarians toting pinecone wreaths able to withstand the elements intact until the next visit. Those unable to visit the graves personally light candles in the window at home to wish the spirits well.
It is a lovely, non-commercialized holiday (though it makes the florists happy), and in this way, I think, with its emotional connection to the deceased, one of the most heartfelt of all holidays.Back to top
?November 23, 2000
Well, my co-workers had another "only in Hungary" experience here the other week.
Things go pretty much via the old boy network in this country, and this is especially so in the countryside. Sometimes examiners from the Center for Foreign Languages, where I work, go out to administer exams in rural areas and small towns, only to be met at the train station by the mayor.
The mayor will show concern about the examiners' health, families, the duration and quality of the ride out, before getting down to it. "There's a bright young lad who's going to take his exams today, a fine young man. He's terribly hard working, and he has a lot riding on the results of his exam. His mother is ill, poor soul, and I know that this places an awful burden on the poor kid. He's had exams in other subjects every day this week. I just don't see how he can perform at his usual outstanding level."
So everybody knows everybody else, and they are looking for special favors with their connections.
But what my friend and colleague--call her Marta--experienced recently hit a new level of absurdity. The chief of the examination center there--say, Vilhelm--had already had a few by 8 a.m. when the examinations started. Marta and my colleague "Janos" could tell the drink--the potent Hungarian Unicum--by the clouds of rank vapor being ejaculated from the vociferous Vilhelm. Unicum means "unique", and boy, is it ever unique, a malodorous blend of herbs and alcohol, just vile.
So they began examining on time. They sought out room 105, where they were supposed to go, and got underway. But there was a persistent and bothersome hammering at the door. It was distracting, but they paid it no mind. But when they came out for lunch, they were awfully puzzled. There, written on the door, was clearly 104.
Vilhelm, who by this time had added a few beers to his repertoire, was belligerent and uninformative about what could have happened. "Yes, this is room 104, it has always been room 104!"
"But look, we were sent to 105, even our registration paper says 105."
"You are in room 104." And so it appeared, they were, until the numbers had been changed back that afternoon. So the only question is what VIP was taking an exam in room 105. We can only imagine that the son of some local boss was slated to take an exam in room 105, and was steered away from my friends' room, and toward one where the person in question could safely be examined by employees of Vilhelm's school.
Believe it or not, there's more. When Janos and Marta went to pick up the confidential examination material, the secretary was photocopying them. Janos objected, of course.
"What!" cried Vilhelm. "What are you doing, you bad secretary? Oh, I will fire her, what is she doing?"
Naturally it was out of the question that Vilhelm's language school might be tring to profit by pilfering our materials, in order to share them with his students.
This same Vilhelm goes everywhere in his own personal double-decker bus, because it advertises his private school on the side. Now that our school has lost its monopoly on language examining, he wanted to hold a funeral for the school, making a coffin with the name of our school on it, parading it around town and then burning it in the town square. We told him we didn't think it was such a good idea.Back to top
?May 11, 2001
Well, spring cleaning is here, and with it, the most effective kind of recycling in Hungary: the so-called "lomtalanítás". This is a most unusual method of recycling, whereby entire neighborhoods empty out the entire year's accumulated junk and throw it on the curb, where it is taken home by other individuals.
Later on the district council sends around a garbage truck to pick up the dregs, usually just bare scraps of paper.
You see, larger items cannot usually be disposed of in Hungary, just once a year. Thus, truly impressive heaps of unwanted material are dumped, dropped, and stacked up on the pavement all around town. As it takes a couple of days for the overburdened authorities to haul it away, this gives scavengers plenty of time to rummage through it all in search of that perfect something. Just this morning I saw a large number of individuals picking through a very large pile of rubbish, while one gentleman--a tad scruffy looking but in a nice brown corduroy blazer--was admiring a painting with a damaged frame.
I have often delivered an unwanted article directly into the waiting hands of an eager scavenger. They don't want just anything, in many cases. They often specialize--in scrap metal, for example, or machine parts. Materials like copper--or any metal--can be delivered to a recycling business for remuneration, and these are thus removed systematically from any appliance or item of furniture that is unusable. An old fridge, put out on the curb, will be reduced to so much shredded foam rubber insulation by slow-motion street "piranhas" by the time the City arrives to tidy up.
Our neighborhood witnessed a pretty significant accumulation of brick-a-brack, including loads of newspapers that the residents didn't even bother to tie up. Naturally there was a windstorm that night, and advertising leaflets and calendars from years past were everywhere, swirling in little vortices. By the next day, a Gypsy family had claimed the pile, as the men scoured over it, and the women sat on chairs nearby, chatting, in case the men needed anything.
Nor is it only the needy who pluck through others' castoffs. I read an article about a postcard collector, who always made a point to be out around lomtalanítás time. Seems you never know when someone will opt to part with a whole box of postcards from the thirties and forties--a remarkable find.
It would be nice to be rid of larger waste at any time of year, and sure, lomtalanítás is an eyesore, but at least I know that my junk is being put to good use.[return to top]
?January 18, 2002
One of the current controversies in Hungary is the Status Law. This is a law designed to help ethnic Hungarians living abroad. It would allow them to undertake jobs here in Hungary by applying for work visas in their home countries. There was concern among Hungary’s neighbors, however, to Hungary granting any special status to their citizens while they are still on Romanian or Slovak soil.
The European Union was also concerned about discrimination between Hungarian and non-Hungarian Romanian citizens. In the face of Romanian objections, Hungary agreed to grant special status to all Romanian citizens, regardless of nationality. In return, Hungary will support Romania’s bid for NATO membership. Interesting deal, eh? We agree to provide job ops for all Romanians, and in return, we help them into NATO. I scratch your back, I’ll scratch yours.
The thing is, other countries have status laws, including Slovakia and Romania. As far as I know, all Moldavians enjoy Romanian citizenship. People of German blood are considered German, even if the speak only Russian and have lived in Belarus for generations, but a German speaker born in Germany to the children of Turkish immigrants is a foreigner. All Jews worldwide have the right to “return” to Israel, even if their ancestors left centuries ago.
This is a sensitive issue, but it is not about Hungary trying to unfairly discriminate. It’s amazing how my perspective has changed, since, arriving here in 1990, I was bewildered by talk of the difference between nationality and citizenship. Imagine a debate about ethnic United States people living as a minority abroad, without U.S. citizenship. Absurd. But there’s a lot of history over here that needs to be understood.
Meanwhile, back in Hungary, many ordinary people fear for their jobs, and don’t want to let anybody in. The first couple to be employed here from Transylvania, in Romania, who are ethnic Hungarians, have been receiving death threats.
Back to top
A co-worker told us one of those ‘only in Hungary’ stories. It seems she was waiting for a train back to Budapest from the provincial town of Debrecen. All was uneventful, even more so than one would have imagined. "The three o’clock express to Budapest will be arriving at platform two in five minutes,” came the announcement over the loudspeaker. All well and good.
"The three o’clock express to Budapest approaching platform two,” came the next announcement. "Please exercise caution near platform two.” Yet, there was still no sign of the train.
"The three o’clock express to Budapest is now arriving at platform two,” came the announcement. "Please exercise caution.” But there my friend was, at platform two, and no train.
"The three o’clock express to Budapest is now boarding at platform two. Please board expeditiously.” The waiting Magyars handled the unusual complete absence of anything resembling a train with their usual aplomb. Hardly an eyebrow was raised.
"The three o’clock express to Budapest now departing platform two,” came the announcement. It was a living voice, not a recording.
A few minutes went by with no train.
"The train driver fell asleep,” came the announcement. "The three o’clock express to Budapest will be arriving soon.” And so, after a suitable delay, it did. The Hungarians sober-facedly boarded, neither upset nor amused.
There was a time when I could have made a few quips about the greater symbolism of the Hungarian leadership being asleep at the controls, but this is, perhaps, less of the case now than ever before. More about that later.Back to top
?May 19th, 2002
The recent elections in Hungary were the most divisive since the advent of democracy in 1990. For the first time, people were beating each other in the streets over political issues. Both side pumped up the debate sharply--through their negative ads, through their whispering campaigns. This was a crucial juncture in Hungarian politics, because the winner of these elections will lead Hungary into the European Union. At no point has any government since the end of communism survived more than a single term. Both sides seemed to whiff the chance at a double term and place in history--that the wave of happiness at EU admission will sweep the 2002 winner into a second four years come 2006.
Families had rows and swore never to see their relatives again. Able-bodied young men got into shouting matches with little old ladies in the street. Feelings ran really high on both sides.
|Victor Orban: Sometimes accused of headstrong tactics, for many he is all but synonymous with Fidesz. After this failure then, who will lead Fidesz into the future? Will he groom an heir apparent?
Many felt that Fidesz indicated that supporters of the liberal opposition were disloyal or un-Hungarian.
Indicators had been looking up after four years of center-right Fidesz government. Yet certain classes still felt the austerity pinch, and many Hungarians still view the National Health Service as an embarrassment. The opposition MSZP was not at all slow to use these themes in their campaigning. The Fidesz slogan, "The future has begun," must have rung hollow to those who didn't feel they had personally benefited from the improving economic figures.
Campaigning became even more shrill after the center-left MSZP won the first round. It seemed demonstrators, flags and ribbons were everywhere.
|Peter Medgyessy: Many consider him the puppet of Laszlo Kovacs. Ironically, this highlights a strength of the MSZP, which can change faces and bounce back, banking on their "brand" name.|
Although the national psyche received a divisive shock that left many natives aghast, voter turnout in the second round was a whopping 75%. People were involved in the national debate.
The end result was essentially in keeping with West European trends: a dominant liberal-socialist coalition squaring off against a well-defined, powerful center-right party.
It wasn't exactly a landslide, however--the opposition edged Fidesz out by less than 1%. Perhaps owing partly to this small margin, each side strongly accuses the other of vote-buying.
|Negative ads equated Orban with ultra-right-winger Istvan Csurka, the Hungarian saying "korpara megy" indicating he is a pig. It was hard for me to discern who funded the most negative of the ads.|
Tellingly, no extremist party, neither the right-wing MIEP nor the leftist Worker's Party, survived the first round. :) Compare this with the recent results in France, where Jean Marie LePen met defeat only in the run-off.
Though Hungarians never stop complaining about their government, they have actually had relatively good government. In 1990, after the change of regime and the collapse of the Soviet trading block COMCON, the Hungarian economy plunged a staggering 25%! In the States, any negative growth, even one measly percent, causes upheaval. After four years of relatively rudderless government by the MDF (basically anti-Communist protesters), a term of rather more pointed stewardship under the MSZP (facelifted communists) /SZDSZ (liberal) coalition from 1994-1998, and four years of seemingly energetic government under Fidesz, Hungary now boasts a steady, modest growth rate, hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable and a steady flow of (for better or worse) sparkling new shopping malls bus terminals and university buildings, as well as the new bridge, National Theater and beltway.
Hungarians never stop complaining, but every year they seem to be doing it from ever larger and more expensive cars.Back to top
[Star Trek] [Golden student bloopers] [Shop]
[Hungary] [Music] [Magyarnyelvû honlap: Hungarian homepage] [Home]