Urbanist Miracle, Manufactured (in Hackney)

WW$Many say the Royal Wedding Street Party on 29 April 2011 was the turning point. It was then that Wilton Way, this manufactured urban miracle in Hackney, just north of London Fields was declared the coolest place on earth. And ‘the place to go’ for a street party in London. In the Times; no less. By noon the street felt like the Reading-London commuter train at 8.32 on a Wednesday morning. There were street musicians and clowns; and lots and lots of cupcakes courtesy of the street’s brand new artisan, hand-made, organic, ethical (and bleedin’ expensive) bakery, Violet. There was plenty of wine, too, mainly sold in the street’s Borough Wines shop that had opened a week earlier. Allegedly, the singer-superstar Sophie Ellis-Bextor was seen wandering around in a white wedding dress. Though she might as well have been anyone and everyone else… There were no stars on Wilton Way that day, albeit many-many were wearing wedding dresses (and not all of them female, or for that matter, human).

The Royal Wedding Street Party supposed to have been a small gathering for the locals and local businesses. It turned out to be anything but. According to Corinna Pyke, PR and community organiser working with the shops of Wilton Way ”We did not mean to make a big fuss at all. Obviously, we were very surprised that it exploded like that. Literally. We just put out some long tables and benches. All the shops got involved, there was some decoration… Hackney Council did not see the need to help us, they thought it was only going to be a tiny street party of very little consequence. We did not advertise it much, only a few local papers wrote about it. We still don’t know how it happened. Word of mouth, probably.”

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This story is about Wilton Way, a previously crime ridden and derelict shopping street in Hackney, London. According to the locals it has been “sleepy shopping street” for as long as anyone can remember. But as Muriel Chatel, the owner of Borough Wines puts it, Wilton Way “is a magical place”. The trees are well, high, so high and so green, you cannot not notice. You can feel energy floating in the air. Or if this sounds too esoteric, let’s just say for some reason people like it there and want to move there, or the very least go back there as often and stay as long as possible.

The magic is probably due to the stream running under the street. It makes vegetation greener and trees grow high on Wilton Way and in its close proximity. Then one day not too long ago some people saw the magic floating around and opened a few shops that became cool; and more and more people wanted a piece of the action. So property prices that rose by roughly 30% as a result. A few new shops (and a pub and a café) on Wilton Way completely transformed the street and turned it into a cool hipster paradise of sorts. But it also remained a street of harsh contradictions, now more than ever. On the one hand, there are the “fancy shops” as some of the locals like to call them. These shops, like Wilton Cafe where a latte costs £2.20, are frequented by people of ‘certain social background’, mostly people who recently moved to the area. Like it or not, they tend to be white and middle class. They live in Victorian houses and like gardening. Yet there are 2 large council estates housed in concrete blocks on either end of the street. And of course, there is the William Hill betting office visited by the local Caribbean community. There is no two ways about it: miracles might occur on Wilton Way, but it is also a strange mix of social extremes.

Indeed, life in the street has changed beyond recognition in the last 3 years, on that most locals agree. There are a lot more people around (footfall, the shopkeepers call it), visitors coming from as far as westest of West London. The fact that it has happened in this particular locality is by no means an accident. London Fields is just around the corner and it experienced its own similar, albeit larger scale transformation a bit earlier. And Hackney in general, with its ‘hipsters’ and political activists has always attracted those who could turn an area ‘cool’. Never more than of late, either.

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All it took was an idea and half a decade. And lest we forget: a man with a plan. David McHugh had witnessed the rise and rise of Notting Hill in the late 1980s and he also saw its decline. He lived there for decades, took part in a variety of community projects and is still involved in running the Notting Hill Arts Club. He is not happy about what happened. “The film (Notting Hill) was the kiss of death, really. The place became way too cool and as a result too expensive. When an area is proclaimed to be the ‘hottest’ is the end of it all.” – says David. Something similar happened in a number of other areas of London. First a cheap, run-down, but charming area becomes ‘cool’ because interesting businesses and artists move there. In a short while it becomes fashionable and more and more people want to buy property in the area, thus property prices increase. Simultaneously, investors show up, there are renovations and so everything becomes more expensive. Property, food, coffee, rent… Eventually artists and those original “cool” businesses cannot afford the rent anymore.

Several areas in London went trough a similar transformation in the last 2 decades. Islington is a prime example, so is Camden. Notting Hill, according to David is a shadow of its former self. The Notting Hill antiques market is in danger of closing down and all the interesting shops and restaurants closed. “All landlords started seeing were pound signs and became only interested in ‘dolly’. They started charging obscene amounts in rent. – David says – Now there are only big branches of multi-national shops, high fashion and bankers’ wives selling cushions. The character, the fun, the buzz is gone.”

8 years ago David started looking for a new home and a place where he could ‘do’ things differently. He saw a positive example of how things can be done well in Marylebone High Street; which thanks to its landlords, the de Walden family managed to ‘avoid its fate’. The de Walden estate of course, has £2 billion worth of real estate in Central London, but thanks to their vision they managed to revitalise the “tired” shopping street that Marylebone High Street had been. “We wanted to create something that was different.” – Howard de Walden told the Daily Telegraph. Thus they invited businesses that were “different” from what you would see on an average high street. They came from “cool” places: from Borough Market, Notting Hill among others and the de Waldens decidedly preferred independent shops, not chains. They carefully chose their tenants and as the estate owns much of the street, they could guarantee that the rent would stay the same everywhere. The area was reborn and now the estate can charge higher prices for non-commercial property, while managing to keep the high street fresh and interesting. David McHugh had something similar in mind for Wilton Way, only on a smaller scale.

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“It took a while – says David – I moved here 8 years ago and it was a run down ex-shopping street with lots of closed shops. There was a betting shop and a corner shop and that was it.” Many shops were turned into flats, too. Over the years David and his business partner managed to acquire 3 shops on Wilton Way. As a first step two of the shops became pop-up galleries for a year. David asked Corinna Pyke for help; she had taken part in several other similar shop regeneration projects in Hackney. According to Corinna “The pop-ups were very important. They provided a transitional period. The shops were closed for a long time and with the pop-ups we gave them their original ‘meaning’ back. And people from elsewhere started coming here, too. It changed the perception of the street. Without the pop-ups, shops on Wilton Way probably would have been a lot less successful.”

The first “real” shop to open 3 and a half years ago was “The Other Side of the Pillow”, a vintage shop run by Henry Davies, an Australian and his Italian business partner Luciano Fabry. They sell shoes, clothing and all kinds of everyday objects. David also owns a café and a hairdresser in the street. There is a brand new pub, a wine shop and a bakery, all opened in the last two years. They all became success stories, people started flocking to Wilton Way.

This, in essence, is a success story. But obviously, there are many who talk about “segregation” and loaded questions” when it comes to those who do not or cannot take part in this resurrection. People living in the council estates, people who have lived in the area, but feel they have nothing in common with the new way of life represented in the street. “I have no business going there.” – said a local woman who lived in one of the estate blocks (she asked to remain anonymous). A sentiment echoed by many not living the “Hackney cool” lifestyle that now dominates the street.

Wilton Way will continue to shine brighter and brighter, there is little doubt about that. There are plans for more shops, a restaurant. Nuno Mendes, Michelin Star chef and quintessential East London fixture, who lives in a Wilton Way side street set up a supper club and would love to open a restaurant on Wilton Way. There are many others interested.

But, as Henry Davies of Wilton Way vintage shop “The Other Side of the Pillow” said “You can see the cool moving north. In Clapton, the are what was known “The Murder Mile” is the next big thing.” he said. Thus, there we have it. Wise men say every miracle ends after a day. Or a year. Even in Hackney.

I will walk unafraid

Secret Policemen in Budapest, 1956   by Paul Sadovy, LIFE Magazine

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”― Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear

I know it sounds strange, when you say it out loud: “I am afraid”. Afraid of… You cannot really put your finger on what exactly. It is shapeless and boundless. The first reaction most people have is that you have “problems”. Obviously. You have gone cuckoo. Yet I think, one way or another, it is very much part of the human condition, being afraid. And in Hungary today, many people are afraid.

I am grateful to Mr. Chomsky, because he was able to put what we are going trough into words. First and foremost I have to state that I am not going nuts (and I am only being taken to the asylum this afternoon for checks, I can assure you). It is just that I spent the first 11 years of my life in a totalitarian dictatorship (even if it was the soft kind) and there are certain things I never realized existed, that were deeply ingrained in me. It is scary to face up to this, I have to admit. It can be scary, how it follows you around and stays with you, even after decades spent “in freedom”.

On the other hand, being afraid has its political uses. It has its power. There are many politicians and religious leaders who take advantage of it. It is very much part of  everyday life, as I said. I am not going into it, but everyone should watch Adam Curtis‘ documentary “The Power of Nightmares” (it is available on youtube). Most of us are afraid of something. And if we happen to grow up in Hungary where there has been a lot to be afraid of in the last century, it makes even more sense. It is a small country and there were so many changes, twists and turns along the way, that in most families there is something to hide or something to be ashamed of. One way or another. When in a country’s parliament a government politician can criticize the behavior/politics of an opposition politician’s grandfather something is very wrong. Grandpa was a communist (in this context it means someone who was probably a member of “The Party” and/or “collaborated’ with the leaders of the “previous regime” i.e. not a “real” communist, whatever that means) and a high flier (i.e. successful), and apparently, according to the government politician, no “good person” was a commie after 1956. In other words, “dear opposition politician you are rotten to the core, cos your granddaddy was baaad and you should be ashamed of yourself and your family”.

As I mentioned, it is a small country and many people have lots to hide. Or so they think. Many are ashamed of this or that family member. There are many accusations out there, too. Many unjustified. They are said then written down and then they stay there… Like a stamp on one’s forehead. Verba volant, scripta manet. No-one will ever know if they are true or not and it does not matter, either. But it is safe to say there are ex-communists and ex secret policemen and woman everywhere – judging just by the size of the socialist era’s secret police organization. Over a certain age everyone can be suspected. Both in the government party, high up and down below – and in the previous government, too, of course… So I cannot help, but suspect those that scream “communist bastard!” on the top of their lungs have stuff to hide, too.

Yet the secret police files are all but accessible for research. Many of them are sealed for another fifty or hundred years. Sometimes a little piece of info dropped here and there, accusations come out from “well-placed sources”, there are occasional scandals, but all is forgotten quickly. “And the rest is silence…” Nothing changes, nothing is cleared up, no consensus, no dealing with it. On it goes, back under the rug, only to be dragged out for a second next when they see fit and someone needs to be blackmailed or publicly humiliated. No-one talks about the realities. No-one talks about how people had to live and some made compromises. There is little actual distinction made between “mass murders” and harmless party members and the reality of what it took to survive or to simply do one’s job – whatever it might have been. And I have to point out that it is not different today, either. Only we are now talking about a different party and the rap is different. Anyway, it was long ago, why cannot we let it go? Or do something? And if somebody did things so terrible why aren’t they prosecuted? Why cannot they open up all files and the debate? Why do people have to be blamed for their grandparents’ political beliefs?

And it is not only in Parliament. It is everywhere. In the government media, mainly and in conversations everywhere – which is worse than the media. The newspapers you can ignore, you can turn off the television. But you cannot not listen to your family and friends when they are sitting opposite you. Intimidation is a nasty weapon. Bullying is even nastier. It is like when in school a big bully made a list of enemies and then the whole class hated them, because it was “the policy”.

So fear is a nasty “habit” to have. It creeps up on you gradually. It first started when I caught myself thinking twice about what to post on my Facebook page. Then I started to dread meetings with certain old friends and family members. Because some of them have gone bonkers. It is hard to describe but imagine your bullying classmate from grade school and put them into a grownup’s body. It is best to shut up and wait for the storm to pass. It is best to avoid confrontation. So I did and I did not say what I thought in their company. (Of course, there are friends who will not talk about politics and to whom your politics will not matter.)

Thus “avoid confrontation” is the name of the game. Because it is horrible. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth and your stomach in a knot. So you realize saying things can be very dangerous in general – heaven only knows what can happen. And things start to happen. Many people lose their jobs. People are inspected by Inland Revenue for no particular reason other than saying things publicly, things “they should not”. According to the government, that is. Horrible things are written in the government media (whose existence in itself is absurd), about representatives of certain political parties, beliefs, or generally: outspoken people. Certain Marxist and liberal philosophers (!!!) are harassed then fired from their jobs. Theater directors, judges, civil servants, municipality workers etc. etc. are fired and  replaced. Horrible things are written about certain people, their name is dragged trough mud. Horrible things are written, full stop. Horrible things start to happen, too, to many people. New expressions start to fly around all the time. Like “Hungarian hater”, “betrayer of his own country and people”, “Communist” etc.

It is easy to be afraid. Paranoia is practically ingrained into our DNA. I know it is ingrained in mine. It is obvious where it comes from, thinking it over now. My grandpa was fired several times because he would not join “The Party” (there was only one, the name is immaterial, something to the effect of “Communist Workers’ Party” at the time, it changed later) in the 1950s. His best friend was taken to forced labor camp (to Recsk) than to prison, because he was an aristocrat and a democrat and had western diplomat friends (an amazing man, read more about him below *). Grandpa spent a good few years in the 1950s not sleeping and afraid of when he was going to be taken, too. He spoke 8 languages, my grandpa, and came from a very diverse background. It was very dangerous then, speaking languages and coming from a well-off upper middle class family. He was a surgeon, an outstanding one, that saved him, probably. His wife, my grandmother was blacklisted in the 1950s and could not get a job. She had always wanted to be a teacher, she had a PhD in French. Then in the 80s my parents’ phone was tapped and they knew it, they knew there was a friend who reported on them to the authorities.

So I grew up with this shit and I am by no means alone. It is still there, even for children growing up in today’s Hungary. It is shared trauma. Because stories like this are commonplace in Hungary. I heard many-many similar. Or worse. I never thought it had an effect on me, I thought it is in the past, it did not happen to me anyway. But it does count. And I have to admit that I was afraid for a while this last years. Because thinking about it, god only knows what my childhood friend (now in a well placed government job) will say to whom about what I post on my wall (yes, it looks mad now, writing it down) and I am sure they can find stuff on me if they look hard enough and can intimidate me if they choose to. No, I did not think I am that important, or whatever – I just thought one can never know. I know it is preposterous – I live in London for crying out loud – but still. I have family in Hungary, property, a life. I might go back and live there later. One can never know.

This follows you to the grave, this fear. If you let it. Then I was told a family member is certain that his phone is tapped. He should know things like that. He is not paranoid, only he knows. Anyway, some of it is real, others are in the heads. But it is enough. Because what is in the heads is more dangerous. You are afraid. You are afraid what to say or not, what to write or not. To think, even. After I was called a “Hungarian hater” I seriously thought it over if I really was that offensive…? You start questioning yourself. But it had to end. I cannot live like that. And one day I woke up and decided that I am not going to let this get to me. There is a life out there. Unafraid. So I am going to say what I think and know to be true. And I know plenty. There is nothing to be afraid of. Thank god for that.

(* He was my mother’s godfather and one of the first heart surgeons in Hungary, but his eyes were damaged from the beatings in prison, so he could not practice surgery anymore and after he emigrated to the US he became a GP. Yet he was the opposite of bitter, vindictive or disappointed. I had dinner with him regularly when I lived in New York. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever had the fortune to meet. He was unafraid of anything. He spent 7 years in forced labor camp and in prison and he was the most fun, life-loving person, ever. He left me the ever-valid proverb “life is too short for bad coffee”. I try and live accordingly.)

Never complain, never explain

Oh, well…

I got one (!) email in answer to my post about Hungary; the letter described how I am a Hungarian hater and of Nazi tendencies in the way I think [sic] and asking if I was hurt by a Hungarian while living in Hungary “for a little while” after “somehow learning Hungarian”. I presume the guy does not understand English very well or did not read my actual blog post. Let me put this straight: I am Hungarian. Both my parents are and all 4 of my grandparents. They all spoke Hungarian as their first language. My great grandparents are another matter altogether and that’s what is hilarious about this whole discussion. For centuries Hungary was part of a big, multicultural empire and my folks came from ALL over. Apart from Hungarian (mostly székely) I am of Saxon, Sudeten German, Polish, Romanian, Czech and Italian (etc) heritage. I look more Germanic/Slavic than anything else… Three of my 8 great grandparents did not speak Hungarian as their first language. Genetically I am a mongrel (most Hungarians are). It is not something we, Hungarians ever talk about, though. Especially not if we are right-wing. We pretend to be Hungarian is to be “pure” or something. Genetically? Culturally? It’s just insane… So, yes, I am indeed Hungarian. I was born in Hungary, went to school in Hungary (for the most part) and lived there most of my formative years. Yes, I do feel somewhat British and a bit American, but I am definitely Hungarian.

Funny, that the other piece criticism I got recently is that “in a strictly western [sic] paradigm you count as an unreconstructed extremist and even use Enoch Powell‘s meta-narrative here and there.”  I mean, seriously?! (No offense intended. Do watch the BBC doc about him and his “Rivers of Blood” speech, though.) Anyway, a friend said all this before all contact was severed, stating that the fact that I do not get the reason (it has to do with me proclaiming to be Hungarian) shows how unworthy of his friendship I am. Or something. Both of these people are Hungarian, by the way. By Hungarian I mean they speak Hungarian, live in Hungary, grew up there etc. Talking about extreme reactions to one’s Hungarian identity…

I thought long and hard before I wrote “confused and misunderstood” about Hungarians‘ relationship to their identity. I did not use those words lightly, either. And (obviously) I did not mean all Hungarians (DUH! – I am sure there are many who are not at all conflicted by their identity), just many, many of us – including me. There are many examples and numerous reasons, most of them historical, I mentioned a few of them already. We, Hungarians, collectively inherited a huge amount of trauma, carry the burden of many sins our ancestors committed and many committed against them. We carry the burden of harmful patterns of thinking and behavior, too. We, collectively often have “interesting ideas” about right and wrong, i.e. lie and cheat at times one way or another. For example most Hungarian children of 8 think nothing of cheating on tests (that included me when I was 8) and do all the time. Many Hungarians thought nothing of the fact that president Paul Schmitt’s PhD thesis was plagiarized.  Many Hungarians think very little about corruption, lying on their tax returns. And most Hungarians think little about the fact that Viktor Orbán has been the leader of Fidesz since the very start, while losing altogether 4 (FOUR!) elections and failing to be re-elected as prime minister once (2002) and then once more (2006). In a democracy, now I know, when a leader loses an election they step down and political parties are structured in a way that when a leader start to go soft in the head (see a certain Margaret Thatcher) others in the party can step in and take over. In Orbán’s party there is no-one who would be willing to challenge him, isn’t that strange? In the real world, if that certain failed leader is lucky (and American, probably) they will get a second chance, but not a fourth and a fifth while completely changing the political direction of a whole party, collectively. Then Orbán finally became prime minister after spending 8 years in opposition undermining a democratically elected government. He and his party more or less questioned the legitimacy of the elections, thus the government and refused to work with them. In other words, Orbán decided he was not going to risk it anymore, he decided he was going to see himself as the only viable option and deem democracy less important. He got help from the incompetence of the previous governments and the credit crunch. So as soon as he got elected he got cracking; he wanted it all. So put all power over the judiciary in the hands of one person, took over the national bank, fired everyone from state media who is not “with them” or neutral, stole my pension (see below) and on and on. Also – by the way – made it impossible for me to have a civil conversation with my mother. Thank you, lovely Fidesz people. THANK YOU! People in a democracy would be outraged in a situation like this. And I know there are many who are, but there are many more who simply do not understand what the fuss is about.

But no, I do not hate Hungarians, no. And anyway, how can one hate a whole nation? Especially since it is my people, my tribe we are talking about. But I do criticize Hungary and Hungarians (or some of them, at least). I criticise David Cameron (the posh toff that he is) and the Tory Party ALL THE TIME. And the Labour Party, too. And Noam Chomsky criticizes the US quite a lot, but no-one ever questioned his right to do so. He also did say there is nowhere else he’d rather live and he is proud to be American. (No, I do not mean to imply that I am of Chomskian heights, by the way.) He also said something very interesting about the matter.

“The concept “anti-American” is an interesting one. The counterpart is used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships, something I wrote about many years ago (see my book Letters from Lexington). Thus, in the old Soviet Union, dissidents were condemned as “anti-Soviet.” That’s a natural usage among people with deeply rooted totalitarian instincts, which identify state policy with the society, the people, the culture. In contrast, people with even the slightest concept of democracy treat such notions with ridicule and contempt.”

So, there… On the other hand most politicians who have been in power since 1989 I do dislike intensely. They made a disastrous job of it. But there are many Hungarians I love. Hungarians are (often) FUN! Hospitable, witty, loud etc. I love the language, the literature, the poetry. I grew up there, I lived most of my life there. I am often homesick. Hungarian is my mother tongue. I feel and think in Hungarian mostly and do so very intensely.*  I love in Hungarian and I sleep next to a Hungarian man every night. I want to teach my children Hungarian. I do not rule out living in Hungary again, either. The fact that there is another language and culture I feel strongly about does not belittle my love for my language, country and culture at all.

I sometimes wonder what I would have done in Germany, in the 1930s. The situation in Hungary is nowhere near that extreme, but it is bad enough. I have always hated people who move abroad and then trash everything at home. I do not do that. By criticizing Hungarian leaders and the behavior of certain individuals I do not condemn everything and everyone in Hungary. I am no moral authority, either. I just feel I have things to say about Hungary. And because I have lived and has been educated abroad for quite some time l feel I have the tools to see things from a different perspective. But because I am Hungarian, I am quite passionate, sometimes hysterical and slightly dramatic about (most things and) what is going on in my beloved home country. It is more than skin deep for me, you see. I now have to sit through family dinners without screaming and it is very difficult. I have to watch terrible things happen to a great number of good people. I have to witness how great people’s spirit is broken by idiots. I cannot help myself. So, no dear whoever-who-probably-cannot-understand-me-anyway, I do not hate Hungarians. I just hate some of them, the politicians mainly. And I have the ignorance that spreads like wildfire because of them. I have their ignorance, their greed, their corruption. I hate those made and let this happen. Those who make laws, so my best friend, A, an amazing secondary school teacher decided not to be a teacher anymore, because she is not willing to put up with the crap she has had to, and with the stuff she should say and believe in order to keep her job. I hate those, too whose influence turned my Facebook page into a tug of war. Those who made me think twice for a year about what I post on my Facebook wall, because “one can never know”. And I resent myself for feeling thus.

Above all else, I hate those in power because they bring out the worst in many Hungarians (and that includes me at times, I am afraid). The coward, the petty, the vindictive, the stupid, the nationalist, the racist, the anti-Semite, the bully – and I could go on and on and on and on… This past 10 years this is what happened, this is what Fidesz have done to us, Hungarians. And I absolutely resent it.

So, dear whomever, I doubt you will ever get me. And I am glad you won’t….

“History is a nightmare, from which I am trying to wake” – James Joyce

I spent the last six months between numbing shock horror over my home country of Hungary and trying to write about it. It is not easy, you see, writing about Hungary. It is bloody difficult. Being Hungarian, in general is hard. For me, at least. I find that being hysterical about our country and culture is a typically Hungarian trait. For most people of other nationalities being whatever nationality they are is a no brainer, a fact of life. They are who they are and that’s that. For us it is more ambivalent. And infuriating and awkward and filled with love and hatred and then love again. “Hello, I am Hungarian and I am misunderstood and confused.” – we should have that tattooed on our collective forehead for all to see, so you would know better than ask us about it. Or mention it, even. There are many reasons, most of them unconscious, very complex, historical and unexplainable. Many inexplicable, pushed under the rug and forcefully forgotten (not). As my friend Donald, an open-minded, educated Englishman said after reading Laszlo Kontler‘s great account on Hungarian history: “How can you people look each other in the eye at all?”

Imagine, if you will, a country isolated by its language (Hungarian is not and Indo-European language, there is very little cultural connection to any other language or country and only 10% of Hungarians manage to learn a foreign language fluently) and by its geography. It is right on the transit line between Russia (Ukraine, actually, but you get the point) and Western Europe. East and West, really, and whatever that meant at any given time in history. It is a very small, isolated country in the middle of it all. In the roughly 400 years prior to 1989 Hungary was always occupied by another country. Give or take a few decades when it was not, but even then outside influence was obvious and overwhelming. It is complicated, but one way or another Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after the Great War. After two and a half centuries in the Habsburg Empire, by the mid-1920s Hungary lost much of its territory and a World War, thus became misguided, lost, bitter and a tad anti-Semitic. It was a kingdom, without a king, a country without a sea run by an admiral (no, it is not a joke). Of course, in World War II it sided with Hitler who ended up sending 600 000 Hungarian Jews into concentration camps with active participation from the Hungarian authorities and often individuals; an issue still completely unresolved in Hungary (no proper discussion, only grudges and resentment, no apology, no absolution). After 1945 there was democracy for a strong minute, then Stalinism; which was universally disliked and there was an uprising against the Soviets in 1956. Consequently the Soviet tanks left for a few days, just to come back again this time with gusto, and shoot the revolution into oblivion. Thus came 30 years’ of “soft-dictatorship” of the socialist kind, where everyone had a job even when they did not, when everyone had “circus and bread” and everyone was treated as a child. All were taken care of and told to “shut up and play”, let the grown-ups do the thinking. Citizens were kindly asked no to think or say much other than what was “appropriate”.

It was more than 40 years before Hungary became a republic once more in 1989. Hungary had only been a republic twice before, mind. I am not sure if any time before 1989 Hungary could be called a “democracy”. I am not sure it could be called that after. Maybe a little bit, if that is even possible. Anyway, democracy is a process and there are many historical prerequisites to it, very few of which have ever been available in Hungary. In the last 20 years a new state was built (on the shambles of all that was already there), one where political parties are akin to Mafia clans with economic interests high and low and everywhere. There were a few democratic institutions that worked and there were democratic “checks and balances” present, but… (Do read Charles Gati’s great article on the subject). The country has always been corrupt and to a varying degree governments were run like crime organizations. It has been true about all parties in government since 1989, but the current government took this lovely system further (see below). Normally (in Hungary) when one party loses power the winners “clean house” and fire “people of significance” and replace them with “their people” etc. Two years ago the new government fired more or less everyone down to the last cleaning lady in all government institutions (and beyond). Top it off with an economic breakdown and slight changes in all things political, government and beyond (state television, radio, schools etc). So some Hungarians are now afraid and many feel uneasy. Old habits die hard, you see. In a country where roughly 15-20% of people reported on one another to the authorities for 40 years (another issue, by the way, still untouchable, unopened and unresolved), one can quickly relearn to watch what they say. Many are afraid for their jobs they are afraid what they can or cannot say about the government, about Hungary, about practically anything.

Long story short, in 2010 Fidesz, a right-wing party of opportunistic tendencies (they started out as liberals in the late 1980s then after failing to “win big” on the left and when a “vacancy occurred” on the right they collectively became right-wing in the mid-1990s) and its leader Viktor Orban (a true Machiavellian, if there ever was one) won the general elections with 52.7%, which in Hungary amounted to a super-majority. And with them Hungary started sliding into a soft fascism of sorts – for lack of a better word. And fascism, as we know, comes about in times of extreme hopelessness and economic hardship. And confusion and lies. The foundations were there already – Fidesz had spent the previous 8 years in opposition laying them.

First, they nationalized all private pension funds. Just like that. I woke up one day and I had no pension anymore (not that it was much by any means, but still). They said it was not theft, they are “protecting” it. Then (secondly) they manged to take the independence of the judiciary and (thirdly) that of the central bank, too. Then (fourthly and here I’ll stop counting) they created a new constitution with lots of God in it and explanations of how Hungarians are special; “putting all power into the current government’s hands for the foreseeable future”. And (by the way) Hungary is not a “republic” anymore, either (why, for heaven’s sake, why???). In the mean time there was a  shift away from what we call “freedom of information”. It is not that there is no criticism of the government in the Hungarian press, no. It is just that it is not widely read. Oh, and there is a new law that if you want to enter higher education in Hungary and get state funding you more or less sign an agreement that you will not leave the country (other than for holiday, that is) for a certain number of years (5 in 10 or 7 in 15 – there are several different numbers around). There is also a new “National Curriculum” – I found it bonkers, out-of-this-world, rather nationalistic, slightly anti-Semitic and not completely secular. But please, do read the outline here and make up your mind yourself. Although I will say this much: Hungary’s only Nobel Prize winning writer Imre Kertesz‘s work is curiously nowhere to be found in the curriculum. But he is Jewish and lives in Berlin and knows his own mind about Hungary in general and the current government in particular.

And, of course, there is the imposing building that is the Hungarian Parliament, which the government managed to turn into a joke. They, after all, have super majority in Parliament and can change the laws whichever way they please. And they did. Now they debate crucial laws at 2 am or not at all, close debate before it has even started etc. In other words, the opposition has no say whatsoever in anything. Thus the government pushed trough an unparalleled number of new laws. The EU did make a fuss over things but nothing changed much.

And there is the dispute with the EU and the IMF. Hungary is flat broke, you understand.15 years of economic mismanagement took its toll and by now the money from the pension funds is running low, too. Hungarian governments in general do not like austerity, nor are they any good at it (obviously). After 40 years of being taken care of, Hungarians are not so keen on having to figure things out themselves. Also, since everything is more or less run Mafia style you cannot really figure out anything in the traditional sense even if you wanted to – unless you have the right friends and say the right things.

That, and the world also experienced a slight economic meltdown. So, as I mentioned, Hungary is running low on cash and most folks are doing pretty badly. Thus the government in their great wisdom decided to blame the EU and the IMF and the multinational companies (“those foreigners want to bleed us out”) for… pretty much everything.  The multinational companies came and took everything, you see, they did not pay taxes and made all those profits and now they want to turn us into a colony. We are poor because of them and the previous government, naturally. There is a desperate need for an IMF bailout, but the government do not like the austerity attached. They actually considered bankruptcy, too (see Newsnight’s very grim report on the matter here), which is still an option. Now there are serious discussions with the EU and the IMF about the problem Hungary has become. The questionable freedom of the judiciary, information, racism, corruption etc. There were warnings from the EU, then baffled and baffling government statements. What the government is saying in essence is that the EU and the IMF misunderstand us. They cannot see that what is happening in Hungary is “real” democracy, in its truest sense. We are a small nation, but we are proud. So bugger off… Just leave the money, for god’s sake, only make sure the voters do no not see…

So, this is the very short and simplified version of what has been going on. And I cannot help but wonder: What the fck can one say to that? Or do? Or think? Or…? So, now you see why I have spent the last year with a larger and larger, neon “WTF” sign blinking above my head every time I read/talked about/thought about my home country. I am confused as it is, being Hungarian, but now I am deeply saddened, too. It was only possible because we – all of us – let it happen. And because, to quote Donald Rumsfeld (the bastard) “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Most Hungarians do not know and have no idea whatsoever what it is they should know or see; and there are many-many others who simply do not give a rat’s ass.

And I am also sad because this is the least of it… And it is very likely that there is a lot more to come.

But at least we became infamous. Fukoyama felt the need to write about Hungary, for instance. And look, here is another fun summary about what has been going on. And, gee, Princeton University has a whole page on Hungary. And I could go on and on – but I’d rather not…

Just shoot me

 A man is standing in front of me and he is screaming. At me. I cannot blame him, in his shoes I would be screaming at me, too. Or maybe not… I am way too repressed, and I have never been in his shoes, either. Anyway, he is clearly not repressed, or not today, he probably cannot take it any longer. Again, I do not blame him. It is not my fault, but that is beside the point.
It is your average Tuesday morning, say, 10ish and we are in London, in an office. He is screaming at me because he has been let down and ignored and more or less cheated by the company I work for and because I am the one here, in the office. I work here, apparently. And he is here, too, frustrated having traveled from X (very far), probably not for the first time. He also called multiple times. In vain, we both know that. He will probably go home empty handed today, just like the last time and the time before that. So his patience is… Well, waning, to say the least. And I am representing the company that did this to him and he is screaming at me, because I am the one here and because he can. So, I sit listening to him because it is my job; part of it, that is, albeit a significant part, as it turned out.

I work for a company that runs courses for people who have been unemployed for at least 6 months. Sounds great and charitable, but it isn’t. This is a for profit company and running courses for unemployed people costs money. Running them properly would mean less profit, I presume. The money comes from the government (I think it is wise not to specify how exactly) and some trickery is required. That, and staff and heating and rent etc. have to be paid. So the owner, Mr. X “economizes”. Thus we are severely understaffed, there are no sufficient databases available, there is nobody properly qualified around to set up a system that actually works, either. We are clueless, for the most part.

Ideally, after the unemployed we train finish their respective courses we should be able to give them certificates (in due course), then help them get a badge (which is more or less a piece of plastic proving they are who they are and are not axe murderers, or were not caught, at least), also their many specific pieces of paper are duly checked, they filled out paperwork precisely and correctly etc. All this so Her Majesty’s Government‘s institutions can exercise their rights to come up with more ways to create higher mountains of paperwork and jobs and institutions – to ensure health and safety prevails above all else in this gorgeous country – whatever health and safety should mean exactly. This is, apparently all essential for them to find jobs. I bet in the line of work we train people for 10 years ago they could have just walked in and if the boss liked them they were hired – which is pretty much how I was hired, unfortunately.  Anyway, all this means we work with tons of pieces of paper and we misplace many of them. In the mean time, someone has to make sure learners’ exam papers reach respective exam boards, photos and signatures have to be uploaded onto databases. If they fail the exams they are re-booked and students need to be notified, too. Also, when the certificates arrive, students have to be phoned and asked to collect them. Then badge applications have to be processed. They need to fill in the papers, bring in relevant documents that have to be checked and sent off. And this is the least of it… Most importantly, of course, and above all else, their files have to contain the correct photocopies of specific documents, forms, reviews and the like, so the people allocating the funding get large amounts of (correct and specific) paperwork to play with, too. For some reason that we do manage to achieve somehow. I cannot help but wonder why it is specifically that of all things we manage to always achieve…?

Anyhow, we are doing very badly. We would need at least twice this many people for all the above to happen properly, so it obviously does not. It is mayhem and hell. Hell is a place where I sit behind a desk and people scream at me more or less all day long (either over the phone or in person) and I cannot help. Neither the person, nor the situation. If we had enough staff it would take about 3 months for all the paperwork to go trough – and that includes the course. For us it can take up to 6. Or sometimes more. Or we fail miserably or the clients just give up and stop coming and calling. Many of them do. We suck, I guess I have told you that already.

Yet it is not just us. After all we are talking about people here. Unemployed people, to be precise. Do not get me wrong (and my middle class guilt wants to make sure this is duly recorded, so listen up): there are many here who are absolutely lovely. They are keen on completing the paperwork and the course. They are helpful and kind. But there are some who are not, shall we say, “socially refined” by any means. People who do not show up, when they should or who are very late and then do not understand the fuss over it. People who scream at me because I ask them to bring in something absolutely essential (i.e. some piece of paper or other), they do not have it and it would probably cost money, which they do not have. They are on job seekers allowance, obviously. Of course, there is very little I can do. And there are the people who call in drunk or high or both that they won’t be coming again, ever. People who stink, who are abusive because they are and people who steal the toilet paper and the coffee and the sugar. But there are people who scream at me because they are fed up. With me and the organization. And, as I mentioned earlier, rightly so. They call and it either goes to voice mail, and if they leave a message they do not get a call back. Or if I pick up, I either put them on hold or hang up, or I fiddle about the computer and/or tell them I will get back to them and I rarely do, or I just tell them to call back in a few weeks time. Either way, I mostly lie. When the phone stops ringing for a second and there are no people waiting to scream at me I do try to do something, for instance I go and try to find the certificates or email a colleague about a certain issue. I am rarely successful. My colleagues do roughly 3 people’s work just like I do so very little actually gets done. I am, though, successful 30% of the time (give or take). You see, the phone rings all the time and people come and my boss nags and I get lost and forget things. I do not remember people’s names and faces at all. I have no idea how many people I deal with every day, but lots. So names and faces melt into oblivion. I mostly do not remember what I was doing 2 minutes ago, let alone what day it is or what I had for breakfast. I have a headache, my back hurts, I want to go to the loo and I need a drink of water. But I can’t and I don’t because I have this gentleman here screaming at me and the phone rings off the hook and I should get on with my work, too, checking documents, calling people to bring in documents, or photos or whatever, scanning them and calling people back and following up stuff I should, because I promised I would. Well, I swore, I would. To people coming in, who are about to start screaming and/or people on the phone – likewise. Or they do not scream, because they are too kind, repressed and/or jaded. And because I am convincing they mostly believe me. I think I am convincing because I am scared of people screaming, but mainly because I do mean it. I really do. I would like to help, I really would. I just rarely can and I feel exceedingly frustrated and guilty as a consequence. But unless I turn into the lord almighty to be present at several places simultaneously at any given time, or find a way to clone myself asap, this is not subject to change any time soon.

So I am here and the guy is still screaming. He took the course 7 months ago and no-one called him to tell him what was going on. He failed 2 exams and he had no idea. He could have retaken them and had his certificates by now (wishful thinking, mate, I want to say, but don’t). He called about 20 times and visited twice in the last 6 months. He was told he would be called back, he was promised answers he never got. My mind boggles. It took me roughly 30 seconds to figure out what is wrong (this is the easy part), I have no idea why no-one else managed this much in the last 6 months (staff turnover is rapid here for some reason). The guy stops screaming and says he had enough. No, he does not want to retake the exam. It has all been a colossal waste of time. Yet again, I do not blame him one bit. His face is sad, he gets up and walks out.

I have had this job for less than a month. They say it gets better, I will get used to the abuse and will stop taking it personally. They say it will toughen me up. That, and that I should get drunk if I feel overwhelmed after I go home. I do drink sometimes, but not every day as it just makes it worse. I did try my first week. I was in hell. Hangover is horrible when it accumulates and my life is a nightmare as it is.

I apply to many jobs every day and I pray to God (the one I am not sure I believe in) for something miraculous to happen.

Like waking up one day to not having to do this job ever again.

Ten years

It was horrible. It was truly really bad. I wanted to die and walk out, not necessarily in that order. Every muscle in my body hurt, I hated my job, could not learn the menu and remember the table-cloth sizes, numbers, the wines etc, etc, etc. And I knew I would be fired and/or wait tables for the rest of my life. It was roughly 55 hours a week, the commute at 2 in the morning, the people on my back testing me on everything… Most of the time I felt like an idiot. I had always been a shit waitress (mediocre at best). I had no idea what I was doing in this stellar restaurant, where captains of industry, politicians and celebrities go to feel cool and be seen. Where everyone worked really hard, but got paid well, too. Where everyone was always impeccable and impeccably nice. To me, too, not only to the patrons. But I sucked.

It was that day that I served razor clams to Dustin Hoffman and almost dropped the food into his lap. I stumbled and the silver plate jumped in my hand. Suddenly everyone around the table was looking at me. I just stood there, stupid. Then Mr Hofmann said: “My god, you are like I was. I got fired for stuff like this all the time. Nobody got fired more times from restaurants than I did and I was a waiter for 10 (TEN!) years. I was hopeless. I would stand around staring at people, so I got fired.” My heart missed a beat and I wanted to hug him. I wanted to tell him how much what he said meant to me and how much I respected him and loved his work and it was extraordinarily nice of him to say such things now, when I feel so hopeless and wrenched and he made my day and I feel there is hope for me after all. For a moment he made me feel like a human being, an emotion I forgot I was capable of. But of course I did not say any of those things, you are not supposed to talk to patrons, that I was told more times than was necessary. So, I just swallowed and said:”You are very kind, saying that.” Then got on with my work.

I got fired a week later.