Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love lessons at the Hungarian honey-trap school

My article in The Times:
As an ardent Romanian nationalist, the deputy mayor of Cluj was eager to explain the workings of the honey-trap operated by Hungary, the ancient enemy.  “Every year they send out scouts to look for the most beautiful and intelligent girls. They bring them to a special school in Budapest where they train them in special skills…you understand?” he asked, giving me a knowing look.
 I did, or at least I was hoping to. The first thing any male visitor to Budapest notices is the legendary beauty of Hungarian women.
He continued: “Then the government sends them around the world to the best universities where they target future political and business leaders. They seduce them and marry them.”
“Why?” I asked.
 He was amazed at my naivity. “So their husbands will support the Hungarian position on Transylvania, of course.”
Cluj, or Kolozsvar in Hungarian, and all of surrounding Transylvania, was part of Hungary until 1920 when it was ceded to Romania. The borders are still a sore point. But as a correspondent for The Times I needed evidence: dates, times, locations. Give me a name, I asked.
The deputy-mayor sat back with a satisfied look in his face. “Manfred Woerner.”
In fact Elfie Woerner, the wife of the former secretary-general of NATO, was born in Berlin. Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the peace accords that ended the Bosnian war would have been a much better example. He married Kati Marton, a well-known Hungarian-American journalist, in Budapest.
But never mind. There was a much more important question to answer. Why wasn’t I being targeted by these sirens? The Times, after all, is a newspaper with influence. I had a thick, embossed business card that opened the doors of governments and chancelleries across half of Europe. I was ready and waiting to be persuaded of the righteousness of the Hungarian, er, position on Transylvania, but nobody was bothering.
In fact I was striking out all over the place and only because the honey trap school only existed in the minds of Romanian conspiracy theorists. I arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s, having previously worked with several other freelancers out of an office in Islington. London N1 was not a good training ground for dating in Budapest. All the politically correct ideas I had absorbed about relations between men and women were useless, in fact counter-productive. Hungarian – and Polish, Czech, etc - men held doors open for women and let them go through first, they helped them on and off with their coats, pulled out the chair in a restaurant so their dates could sit down, complimented them on their looks, dress sense and hair and they paid the bill – not always, but at least the first couple of times. Confusingly, there was a different rule for bars or caf├ęs. The man went first, just in case there was a fight.
Hungarians introduce themselves to each other with a smile and handshake. Strangers greet each other in lifts, wishing each other good day and saying good bye when they leave. They even wish each a good appetite in restaurants. After a while, I realised that behaving like this actually felt more natural than the N1 model. I also noticed that when I returned to London with my new manners, such courtesies were appreciated by even the most modern women. Of course there is also a down-side to this: old fashioned courtesy often goes with old fashioned sexism. There are hardly any women in Hungarian public life apart from newsreaders and tabloid celebrities and not a single woman cabinet minister. Only 9 per cent of MPs are women, one of the lowest ratios in Europe.
Outrageous as that was, it was not my immediate concern. Now that I had learned to behave, more or less, the next step was to learn to speak. Speak, that is, in English that people can understand. It’s only when you live abroad, among people whose first language is not English you realise how we much native speakers have been socialised to communicate as much by what is not said as that which is actually vocalised. The passive circumlocutions and vague conditionals that we use every day are useless outside Britain, especially in social situations. Eg:
Me, at party, to attractive young woman after long talk: “Could I ask you for your telephone number?”
Her, puzzled: “I don’t know? Could you?” (Thinking –Does he want it or not?)
Eventually even I got the hang of it, which also provided some useful material for the tumultuous personal life of Alex Farkas, the hero of my thriller, The Budapest Protocol, who, purely coincidentally, is a foreign correspondent based in the Hungarian capital. Then I met my wife, at a party. We talked for a long time. She went to the bathroom and I ambushed her as she came out. I asked for her telephone number in clear, direct speech, which she duly provided.
We were married in little over  a year and two children quickly followed. Child-rearing in Hungary has so far proved much easier than dating, especially if you are lucky enough to get places at a good Ovoda (kindergarten). The state provides free childcare for children of working mothers from the age of six months until the age of seven, when children start school. The kids receive a three course lunch, afternoon snack and fresh fruit. There are numerous extracurricular activities from karate to folk-dancing. Hungarians love and are tolerant of children, even noisy ones and Budapest is a safe and very child-friendly city. Our neighbourhood boasts several EU-standard playgrounds with safe and modern equipment. Mothers organise pass-on rotas of clothes, which return, years later, long-forgotten but washed and folded, having been used by friends of friends of friends. Elderly ladies offer endless advice about the need for children to wear a hat.
Most analysts believe that the decline of the family in Britain helped fuel the riots. Here the family remains profoundly important: even the coolest Budapest hipsters go home to their parents  for lunch on Sundays. A respect for the elderly that has all but vanished in Britain’s inner cities still thrives. The young almost always give up their seats for the elderly on public transport. Older people even give up their seats to those travelling with toddlers, or try to. Travelling with our children on the tram I have several times thanked and reassured grey-haired pensioners that they do not need  stand up.
I witnessed a telling scene recently on the train from Lake Balaton to Budapest . It was a hot and sticky summer’s day and all six seats of the carriage were taken. A hot and bothered elderly lady looked in, shook her head, and then walked along the corridor to find a seat. The woman next to me bounded up and brought her back. She gave the elderly lady her seat and explained to the two schoolboys next to her that she would stand in the corridor for ten minutes, and then sit in one of the schoolboys’ seats while he stood in the corridor, and so on. The schoolboys immediately agreed. In fact they looked embarrassed that they had not given up their seats in the first place. The system worked smoothly  all the way to Budapest.
Deeply impressed by this, I wanted to tell my wife all about the rota when I got home. She also wanted to talk…curiously enough, about Transylvania.
The Budapest Protocol by Adam LeBor is published by Beautiful Books.