Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Life Among the Natives or Scenes from the Hungarian Jungle sans Dorothy Lamour

Janos Gereben
October 14, 1969

Fellowship Year

(but Zsa Zsa may be substituted)


Oct. 1969
Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

BUDAPEST—Hungarians are all crazy. They really are. All right, we are. I mean it helps to have a name like “Janos” to make such a statement. It prevents any charges of prejudice or xenophobia.

“Crazy,” the way it is used here, means more than “foolish” or “cute.” It also means neurotic, sick, and unreasonable.

The proof of the pudding is in the Hungarian suicide rate, among the highest in the world, as well as in the world-wide spread of Hungarian greats, way out of proportion for a nation of 10 million, from nuclear scientists to opera tenors (and in these two extremes the evidence, indeed the need, of some kind of unbalance is obvious). In the category of lesser greats of damning Hungarian exports are a frightening number of malicious journalists.

Impeccably courteous to foreign visitors, to the point of a national mania, which is constantly lampooned in their own press, Hungarians among themselves are rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.

For a Hungarian, trying to deal with his fellow country-men in person is like trying to communicate with an American Express computer to clear up your bill.

**Right, on the ramparts of Buda Castle; notice peculiar behavior of couple on the right. Drawings by Csaba Rekassy for a Hungarian travel brochure.

From symptoms already present in their national or ethnic character, Hungarians have developed their peculiar behavior with the help of a most turbulent history whose highlights include wars with and occupation by Romans, Turks, Germans, Austrians, Russians—among others.

To appreciate the extent and seriousness of this historical background, Hungary’s 145-year-long occupation by the Turks beginning in the 16th Century may be understood by the unlikely comparison of the American Indian driving off the white settlers and reestablishing his national existence. Imagine the social and psychological confusion that would follow such a turn of events in America.

Well, the Hungarians have done it and small wonder that they appear somewhat strange.

The latest addition to a long series of traumatic events in Hungary, of course, is the presence of some folks from Moscow who really believe that they have accomplished the creation of a Communist Hungary. It isn’t true, naturally, but in the two decades of trying, the insanity of totalitarian rule just added to the natural propensity of the natives to make life for themselves and for others just a bit less congruous and more miserable.

As George Scullin, the well-known Kremlinologist, once observed: “Facts should not be allowed to stand on their own feet under any circumstances, however, in dialectical materialism, facts don’t have any feet, and therefore they should not be allowed at all. “Mr. Scullin was named an honorary Hungarian soon after uttering this undeniable syllogism.

Jim Becker, a Hawaiian prince and sociologist, often writes about the behavior of “life’s losers.” His works, not always fully appreciated in Honolulu, would receive enthusiastic acclaim in Budapest.

**SALUTE—Hungarians killed the last Turkish governor here in 1686 and then noted on his tombstone: “A Heroic Enemy, Peace Be With Him!”

**ALIENATION—Current comment from Ludas Matyi on this added pressure on the a1ready overburdened Hungarian psyche. The caption: “Thank you for the compliment, comrade director.”

All in all, the weight of centuries, of strife and suffering, combined with “something in the blood,” a factor well cultivated under the rather severe circumstances befalling on their country, Hungarians appear today in their natural habitat (and among themselves) as irritable, irritating, rude, sassy, peevish, aggressive, whining, loud, pessimistic, always complaining, and altogether insufferable people.

They are all crazy, and they admirably symbolize in themselves something of a Real Universal Everyman.

There is a story in Hawaii about a fisherman catching crabs and dumping them in a basket without a lid. A friend comes along and remarks in his allegedly peculiar manner of speech: “Eh, bruddah! No lid, da crabs come out a-basket an’ go a-way!”

“These are Hawaiian crabs,” the fisherman replies, “and when one tries to climb out, the others will pull it back. Who needs a lid?”

The story was told by a Hawaiian who can afford to make such statements. This writer can speak in the same vein only about Hungarians and say that the crab story applies to them very well.

Following are but a few examples of their strange behavior.

WIENER WALZ. The express train by that name serves to bridge the gap of 250 kilometers between Vienna and Budapest in a mere four hours. It has not only the speed but also the appearance and hygiene of a Long Island Rail Road commuter special. Its famous sister train, the Orient Express, shares all these qualities, but—perhaps because of its former reputation—it has a few extras such as toilet paper in the appropriate places, but only on first class. The Wiener Walz is without any evidence of such foolish luxuries.

In rolls at the Gyor stop (it is called an express because it makes six stops vs. the eight of the “local”) an elderly peasant woman with a dozen huge paper sacks, all full of goodies.

“I am not feeling well,” she announces to all interested parties, “and the second class is full. I must sit down. Please stop smoking, it’s bothering me. I don’t feel well at all.”

She pulls out a foot-long salami from one of the sacks and starts chomping on it with great vigor while further explaining that she doesn’t feel well and that she hopes she won’t have to pay extra for traveling in this “reserved section.”

(“Reserved” means paying first-class fare plus in exchange for a paper towel on the seats.)

A long scene ensues with the conductor (who is all too happy to have something to occupy him on the long trip) ending with the woman pulling out a thick roll of bank notes to pay a small extra.

A long conversation follows with another woman who wanders in, whispering “water, water!” The orange drink on the train is too sweet, she says, and she is dying of thirst. The woman who is not feeling well shows the second sufferer her bottles of assorted liquids (sacks seven through nine), but refuses to share them. “May God curse you,” the second woman says kindly, making her exit.

As the border and customs officials (who occupy half the space on the train) make their unending appearances in the cabin, the woman explains to each that she is not feeling very well and that’s why she came over from the second class, but she hopes it won’t cost too much.

She is exposed mercilessly when, by force of habit, she tells her story to the same conductor who issued her the ticket. There is a great argument, accompanied by the shaking of the still-substantial salami in the direction of the conductor, who “makes a joke” by suggesting that the woman should pay again.

She doesn’t see the humor at all and screams at the top of her very healthy lungs until the conductor gets bored with it and proceeds to the next stop of his uneventful rounds.

**PRIVATE SECTOR—Hungarians are now allowed to run small enterprises under the New Economic Mechanism (which Lenin tried in Russia 40 years ago). Here are two examples of what can be done privately: above, a weight scale (with the note “war widow”) for 20 fillers a shot (less than 1¢) and to the right, wooden spoons for two Forints (7¢).

PURPOSE DEFEATED. The Hungaria Cafe in the New York Palace, at the very center of Budapest, has been a haven for Hungarian artists for almost a century.

Here, over tables of Italian marble, they could sit and talk and write all day ordering only a cup of coffee.

In the Viennese tradition, the coffee comes in a glass, just a drop but stronger than a potful of the American variety, and with it, gratis, comes a glass of water.

The water glass may be refilled, but the other, for the coffee, need not be touched after consuming its contents which, for financially unstable artists, may mean breakfast, lunch, and dinner all in one.

Hungarian espresso coffee used to come in two doses: “simpla” or “dupla,” both meaning the same miniscule quantity, but the latter made with more coffee and also costing more.

One important Hungaria Cafe tradition has been the service of simpla only for the sake of economy—the economy of the customers, that is.

It is against this background that the following conversation may be understood and appreciated.

Nostalgic Visitor, having just explained the cafe’s tradition to some Genuine Foreigners, to the waiter: “A simpla please.”

Waiter: “Sorry, we don’t have it.”

NV: “You ran out of coffee, perhaps?” (Note biting irony, an absolute must in Budapest conversations.)

Waiter (unperturbed): “We have coffee, but we can serve only dupla.”

NV (choked up): “Why?”

Waiter: “We used to have a lot of people come and sit here all day with only a simpla. It was bad for business. Now we don’t serve simpla at all.”

The Hungaria Cafe’s sacrilegiously business-oriented management (which now has people sitting there all day with a dupla) was duly punished by NV who paid for his coffee (a dupla) with his Diners Club card.

The Diners man for East Europe must be an outstanding salesman because the blue disc is seen on every downtown shop, even those that are never likely to have a sale for anything over 30 Forints ($1). The surely waiter of the Hungaria Cafe spent 10 minutes filling out the credit card form for the dupla which costs 2.40 Forints.

And that’s a lot of work for eight cents, not counting the commission, which goes to Diners Club.

**The New York Palace


SERVING THE PUBLIC. A tobacconist’s shop. The lady in charge is engaged in an animated conversation with a visiting lady friend. As the customer enters, the proprietress, who is employed by the state tobacco company, speaks:

“Impossible, the way customers treat us. They think it is still like in the old days when these stores were private and we depended on them to make a living. They know that we work for the state, just as they do, and yet expect us to be so courteous as if we were working for ourselves. They get irritated and hurt without any reason…”

The customer coughs a few times and then interrupts with his request.

A pack of cigarettes and the change are thrown in his general direction while the irate lady continues her monologue without missing a beat:

“I don’t see why they expect us to be different from anybody else. We are working for the state, same as themselves, and there is no reason to expect special treatment here…”

FULL EMPLOYMENT. Gellert is a famous hotel named after a German missionary thrown into the Danube by the reluctant Hungarian Christians in the llth Century) and it is also a famous public bath with a pool that has artificial waves.

The hotel and the bath are in the same building connected with two elevators (the staircase is blocked for some unknown reason). One elevator takes guests from the hotel to the bath only from the second and fifth floors—it will not stop anywhere else.

A guest leaving the bath, planning to return to the third floor, timidly approached the lady attendant of the other elevator who was sitting rather idly on a chair in front of her ample vehicle.

To his request that he be taken to the third floor, the attendant indignantly pointed to the sign next to the elevator, which states that it operates only to the sun roof.

“Are there many passengers in October?” the shivering guest inquired innocently. “None,” came the unhesitating answer.

“And how long will this elevator serve only the sun roof?” the guest pressed his luck.

“Until April,” the attendant replied. “It doesn’t operate during the summer.”

They claim, and have, fall employment in Hungary.

HEALTH CARE. “To smoke or not to smoke?” ask large posters in Budapest, making one expect a Hungarian entry in the world-wide anti-smoking campaign.

The next line replies: “Yes, do smoke, but only such-and-such brand…”

There are many posters encouraging people to drink “stronger liquor.” And one poster exhorts: “Drink MORE coffee…MORE frequently during the day…”

“TYPICAL EAST EUROPEANS.” Nepstadion, the 100,000-capacity soccer stadium, was packed full for the Ferencvaros-Sofia cup game.

“Go back to your gardens,” “rotten bums,” the kindly fans addressed the Bulgarian team in the deafening noise.

The Hungarian team was gaining.

“They play typical East European football,” was the disgusted comment about the Bulgarians. “Get up and fight, you &*%@#!”

By the time the score was 3-1, it was obvious that the Bulgarians were not worth insulting. As one man, the spectators turned against the referee. He was from Scotland and did an excellent job. His only offense was that the fans couldn’t find fault with their own team and the opposition was hopeless.

But it all ended well: a squad of policemen rescued the dignified official from the spectators who were shouting rather derogatory remarks about “typical East European referees.”

**THE MILITANT AND THE NEUROTIC—Two Budapest statues; left, a kuruc, one of the Hungarian fighters feared even by the Turks (who had a remarkable reputation themselves on the battle field), and the figure of Endre Ady, one of the best poets of the Hungaria Cafe circle of the early 20th Century who, like many of his colleagues in Budapest, suffered from chronic depression and schizophrenia. There is no psychological record of the kuruc fighters, but—judging from their exploits—they must have been on the blink themselves.

FREE-FOR-ALL. It is in stores and offices that Budapesters are at their best (worst) in making each other suffer. The payoff of Kadar’s Gulyas Communism is a mini-boom of affluence with crowded shops busting out in tension and constant quarrel. Examples:

A flower shop on Lenin Korut. Salesgirl wrapping up a package for one customer, writing out the bill for another, working very fast. Woman who just came in asks the salesgirl: “Can I help you?” The girl looks up, confused: “What do you mean?” Woman, loudly, with tragedy and pathos in her voice: “I’ve been standing here for an hour and you ignore me. I thought perhaps I could be of assistance to you if you don’t want to work today.” The girl stops working, the two customers being served turn against the newcomer, the manager is called for, all activity stops.

Keleti Palyaudvar train terminal. A long line before the ticket window. Woman buying ticket to London. She is told how much she has to pay (tickets for trips abroad must be paid in foreign currency) and she objects to the pound sterling rate she is given. A 15-minute shouting match brings up the entire matter of how she got the foreign currency in the first place (“my daughter sent it to me, here’s the National Bank receipt, do you want to call the police or just insult me here, I mean I have friends in the government and if you want to get all this out in the open…”), why does she want to travel abroad, why does her family waste the money on her, etc. It’s beautiful and the people waiting in line all join in, but it’s only Round One. She has to pick up the ticket at the adjoining window and here the clerk is already signaled by his colleague to give the woman a hard time. She gets it. During the next half-hour she gives it all back.

The Corvin department store. Screaming salesgirl, hysterically slaps down a pair of gloves in front of another girl: “You give it to that rotten, fat woman over there. She thinks she can play games with me. I had it. You give it to the SOB.”

Rotten, fat woman comes around the counter, screaming: “Who does she think she is? I just asked her to put it in a bag.”

Second salesgirl, motivated by loyalty: “Why did you give her a hard time? You’re a rude, rotten, fat woman.”

She now passes the gloves over to the third girl: “You give it to that…”

Received in New York on October 14, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Alicia Patterson Fund.