When I was ten we moved to Geneva, as my father had got a job with the World Council of Churches. After an unhappy term in an international school which involved a boy with learning difficulties being pushed down a staircase by the class bullies and me having to protect my sister from a ring of agressive children (something that still comes up in my dreams 50 years later) we started at the local state school. It turned out that one of the girls in my class lived in the flat next door to ours, and we became best friends. Anna and I communicated with a bell system between our balconies, and spent endless time together in each other’s small rooms. Mine was shared with my sister and a fluctuating population of hamsters, Hers was a microcosm of the Eastern European world her parents and grandmother had left after an apocalyptic war. Her father Tomas, a Serbian, had lost all his family, he had survived because he had been in a labour camp rather than a death camp. Now he was a doctor with the World Health Organisation specialising in heart disease. Her mother Zsuzsa, also a doctor, worked with sex workers in the Calvinist city of Geneva. Tomas could never sleep through the night, and he and Zsuzsa used to get up at 3am and go to pick mushrooms in the woods at dawn rather than fall prey to insupportable nightmares. Her mother, known to Anna and me as Mamica, had left her house in what she called Subotiça, in the Vojvodina area that used to be Hungary but was now Serbia, and lived in the flat with her daughter and her family. Mamica was in a wheelchair and only spoke Hungarian. Their fridge was always full of interesting dishes of pickled mushrooms, and leftover gulyas, and stewed apricots.
I learned a lot from the Strassers. Anna received regular Micky Mouse comics from her aunts and uncles left in Communist Hungary. Tamas played records of Lily Pons singing opera before the war. Mamica taught me and Anna how to embroider and how to cook Hungarian dishes in Hungarian, with the liberal use of paprika. I still have tray cloths I stitched under her instruction, and I still cook the recipes she taught me. I have always kept a place in my heart for the taste of paprika. I learned words like ‘Kukorica’ for sweet corn, and ‘edes’ for sweet, and ‘szep’ for beautiful. When I was fourteen my family moved back to the UK. I knelt down beside Mamica in her wheelchair and made her a melodramatic teenage promise - ‘One day, Mamica, I will come back to you and talk to you in Hungarian’.
When I was fifteen, I went to stay with Anna and Mamica at their house in Subotica. I took the train by myself from London in a maxi skirt and a large suitcase, fought off soldiers in Belgrade station at 2am, spent three days with Anna’s uncle and aunt in a communist flat running with silverfish, learning not to admire anything because my hosts would buy it for me, and then moved on to to the family home. Anna and I went for a walk through the town early on our first morning. I was wearing my Laura Ashley Edwardian frock, and all the neighbours teased me for being a princess. A cousin came one day to make the year’s supply of pasta with an antique machine, and we helped to harvest the apricots from the garden and make jam under Mamica’s stern eye, carefully smashing each kernel ‘to release the cyanide’ which would apparently make it so delicious.
At home, I bought Hungarian primers and dictionaries, and struggled with learning the basics of a language which, in the end, was less of a maelstrom than I had been led to believe by passing linguists. At 18 I was given a bursary to attend what I thought was a summer school in Western Hungary and turned out to be conference on the Year of The Child to which I was amazed to discover that I was the UK delegate and expected to give a big speech. In the next couple of years I went back to Hungary each summer, to learn about folk art, and to attend the Summer University in Debrecen in Eastern Hungary, learning Hungarian and dancing the csardas with Bulgarian artists and American spies.
After university I went to live in Budapest on a British Council scholarship to study the Hungarian theatre. I didn’t actually spend much time doing that, but I learned to love Palinka, (an apricot schnaps), helped with the apple harvest, directed the worst ever production of Pinter’s Caretaker, danced the csardas twice a week, went to lots of opera and comic opera productions, lost my virginity to an Italian philosopher, and acquired a jobbing mastery of basic colloquial Hungarian, whilst earning my living teaching English.
After a year I hitched a lift to Geneva and was reunited with Mamica. Her first question, after discovering that I could actually talk to her in Hungarian, was ‘Deborah, what’s playing at the Vigszinhaz?, and I was actually able to talk to her about the last production I’d seen at the comic opera, which was well known to her from the 1950s, when she’d last been in Budapest.
My Hungarian is rusty now, to put it mildly, and I haven’t been back more than once or twice in the last thirty years. When I did go back, the places I knew had mostly changed beyond recognition. The last I heard, Anna was a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières and Tomas had died. The world I touched in the early 80s has been swept aside by the West, and on the whole, hoorah for that.
But every week in my Northern kitchen, I pick up the paprika and think of the Hungary that stirred my blood when I was young - the rows of trees lining bleached roads between fields of sunflowers and tobacco. The village houses with paprika drying on the walls and cool inner courtyards. The bullet-pocked walls of old Budapest appartment buildings and the mouldy smell of the stairwells leading to high-ceilinged flats with small bleak bathrooms and beautiful parquet floors. The money-changers sitting on the terrace of the Gellert Hotel, and the sound and smell of clattering trams before deodorant. The thump and swish of the csardas in the people’s dance houses and the taste of peach schnaps and the excitement of first romances. The visceral thrill of meeting new people from cultures utterly different to those I had been brought up in and realising that we had so much in common as well as so much that was irretrievably alien. I loved Hungary and Hungarians, and paprika will always take me back.