My brother Mark Finney’s eulogy of our mother – Daisy Gizella Emőke Finney née Vészy

DAISY FINNEY EULOGY

Today I would like to say a little to celebrate the life of the quietly extraordinary woman who was my mother.

There are too many stories for just twelve or so minutes. They could fill a book and thankfully my sister, Patricia, is currently working on one. All I can do is to provide a few highlights and describe some of the people who shared her life.

Daisy grew up in Hungary in a well-to-do, highly intellectual family. Her father was a lawyer and a decorated hero of the first world war, her mother a writer and novelist who later became a psychoanalyst. She was an only child and was doted upon. Here is a brief extract from a beautiful tribute written by her cousin and friend: Vivian Foti-Wagner:

“Our greatest pleasure was when we could have sleepovers and spend the night together as well, either in our apartment or in their house. During these times we were chatting non-stop, probably until dawn if one of the strict grownups didn’t come in and turn off the lights. We never ran out of topics to talk about: the chatting and the giggling started at bath time in the evening and wouldn’t stop even while washing and getting dressed in the morning.

Emőke was a fundamental person in shaping my personality and my identity. I thank the Lord that He has gilded my childhood with her presence, which is radiating into my whole life.”

When, despite the avoidance tactics of the Regent, Miklos Horthy, the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Daisy Emoke was sent away to relatives in the country near Lake Balaton. Her parents stayed behind in Budapest and worked in the Resistance Movement against the Nazis. They were arrested by the secret police, miraculously released and eventually joined Emoke.

Then they were arrested again, in the spring in front of Emoke during a roundup of “undesirables” and taken away to be shot. On being led away, her father said to her. “Don’t worry, Emoke, we will be back for Easter.” She could not understand why everyone seemed so sad. Her father had promised something. He would keep that promise. And he and his wife did, through their own series of extraordinary adventures. As she was triumphantly reunited with her parents she rebuked the grown-ups for their doubts saying they, as adults, ought to know better.

One story best describes for me the gulf between my lucky generation which has known an enduring European peace and those who were caught up in that global conflict and, for that matter those who to this day throughout the world have had to flee their homes and their countries and become refugees.

This is what she told us. “We were travelling back after the end of the war to Budapest. We had walked across battlefields ankle deep in spent cartridges and I had seen sights not meant for a 12 year old girl. But it was alright. My father was with me. He had escaped the Nazis and had evaded the Russians and we were now going home to our beautiful house…if it was still there.

Now we were stuck at a station on a train going nowhere a few miles outside Budapest. We watched a train puff past and it became apparent that it was bound for Budapest and we had missed it. There were Russian soldiers about, which made everyone nervous and a railway worker said that the best thing would be to walk to the next station. The other passengers started setting off across the fields but my father, instead of following them, decided it would be easier going along the railway track where he (with his terrible sense of direction) could not get lost. Our path led along an embankment and people were gesticulating at us but we ignored them.

It was then that I noticed the unburied bodies from a recent skirmish , still with their boots on. This was unusual. Generally boots were the first things taken. I told my father who looked worried. I then pointed out some metal spikes I had seen sticking out of the ground. My father, who was a few steps ahead of me with my mother, went quiet and stopped. He could loudly lose his temper when faced with a miscalculated invoice but was always icy calm when it mattered, as it did now. We were standing in a minefield. “Don’t touch them, Csillagom (my little star)” he said using his endearment for me. “Just walk in my footsteps, only in my footsteps.” And so I did.

After the war, with the political situation becoming ever more dire, my mother escaped to Switzerland using, unbeknownst to her, a forged passport, where she attended a finishing school in Lausanne. There, she made many friends, learned fluent French and broke a few hearts of students attending a nearby boys’ school.

Despite my mother’s world being turned upside down she never lost her faith in her father’s miraculous ability to solve anything, do anything, find anything but it was a shock when as a student in England she met her parents at Victoria station on their arrival after their escape from Hungary . She didn’t at first recognize them as all she saw was a little old couple struggling with their suitcase.

Daisy’s first few years in London were not happy. It was so strange to witness her parents’ poverty as they subsisted in a tiny bedsit in Herne Hill. Thanks to her great friend, Anita, Daisy lived in a service flat in Bayswater. Her mother worked as a librarian and Daisy assisted her father with his work on émigré politics. She was relieved when her father’s unerring ability to spot a good location and to know the right people secured them a flat in St. Johns Wood.

In 1956 she worked assiduously with the British Council for Aid to Refugees helping to deal with the huge influx of refugees from the Hungarian Uprising which had been brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union tanks. At that time refugees were welcomed with open arms by this country.

Despite English not being her first language and being away from her parents, staying with a variety of her mother’s friends in England since her mid teens, Daisy had done well in all her exams and was able to study law in preparation for becoming a barrister. At Grays Inn she was worshipped by a number of young men. On the periphery of her little coterie was a tall, dark, handsome man whom she had noticed but whom she did not really know very well. Late one afternoon after a pleasant time spent in the Students common room she announced that she was off to buy some typewriter ribbon. “I’ll come with you” said one Jarlath Finney and indeed he did, as she said herself at his memorial, for the next 45 years.

Just before her marriage, Daisy was asked to join a particular organization. This organisation’s public persona was as a charitable foundation which received donations of books from publishers and organized their distribution to countries behind the iron curtain. It was, in fact, a CIA front. The subtle operation, which ran for 37 years, was dubbed in one article “the Marshall Plan of the mind” and was run by George Minden a Romanian intellectual and refugee. He said, perceptively, that the main thing the West was up against was “not Marxist obstacles but a vacuum” and that “what is needed is something against frustration and stultification, against a life full of omissions.” The communist authorities, while resisting direct attempts at propaganda, could not stop these mass charitable gifts of books – of the great literature otherwise denied to the populace, of ideas and information that they would never otherwise see and of an alternative world out there, just across the barbed wire. When the breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellites took place, it was in no small part due to the ability of the people to think, to see beyond what was fed to them by the state and to choose and demand freedom when the moment came. My mother worked quietly and efficiently for that organisation, charming and wheedling from publishers and running the London office single handed for eighteen years. To quote from an article by John Matthews:

“Daisy Veszy, a young upper class émigré from Hungary, whose Oxbridge English, together with her soon-to-be-acquired name, Finney, disguised her foreign origin, was a person whom Free Europe had earlier tried to recruit. She had luxuriant dark hair surrounding a pale and pretty face, from which flowed a mellifluent contralto voice… In the all-male bastion of British publishing, she found her femininity raising eyebrows, but the fact that she was charming, attractive and had a law degree of her own, invariably broke the ice.”

Daisy adored Jarlath. In supporting him and his career, she subsumed her own. She never practised as a barrister but, had she done so, her determination and intelligence would no doubt have carried her to success. In those days, however, she chose to bring up a family – as well as the work of running the London end of a CIA operation, which she was able to do largely at home, while she acted as referee, mediator, comforter and enforcer to four children. She did, however, find time to become a magistrate and was a mainstay of the lay bench at Horseferry Road magistrates court where she greatly enjoyed the challenge of dispensing justice in this most important historical bastion of the English legal system.

I knew my mother dressed well but it was with the selfish eye of a son that I saw her and I did not really notice…until going through some old photographs recently restored by Gavin, it struck me quite forcefully that, whether as a twenty-something posing on a stone seat in Edinburgh, a young mother going for a walk in Devon with her toddler children, sitting in a deckchair in our garden or attending Vicky’s first holy communion, she always looked effortlessly glamorous. Her outfits were beautifully matched and generally set off by a pair of elegant high-heeled shoes. Even in her later life I recall my daughters noting with respectful awe at a family get-together that my mother was wearing a Chanel suit.

Daisy was, to use her own words, utterly bereft when Jarlath died. We all fretted for her as she sat alone in her house and eschewed activities where she would be able to socialize and meet people, although she did venture out to attend this church from which she derived great solace. “You need to get out of the house more” we said. “People will not come to you!”

We were wrong…people did come…in particular…

John Freeborn was an acquaintance and neighbour. He had lost his wife, tragically to cancer some time before and he started spending time with Daisy. He soon became a firm friend and her close companion who took her on the holidays she always wanted to go on but never did, who went with her to the theatre, the cinema, restaurants and cafes, the houses of friends and relations; even to visit Hungary again for the first time since she had left as a child. It was John who organized the transport of a stained glass window showing Jesus calming the storm which had been dedicated to her father’s memory but had languished in a box after its church had been demolished. It was he who enabled it to be placed in the church which her father and a friend had planned many years before and which had finally been built, and he took her to Hungary to unveil the window and to meet friends and relatives, some of whom she had not seen since childhood.

It was John who gave her back her zest for life and it is thanks to him with his quiet, good humoured determination, calm nature and often wicked sense of humour that until dementia took her, and in fact beyond, Daisy enjoyed several most happy years. As Altzheimer’s took an ever more malicious hold, he cared for her, at increasing emotional cost to himself as he tried to maintain for her a sense of comfort, security and normality. Patricia then stepped in to look after Daisy for nine months but still he was always on hand to help… every day. Even when we had to move her to a wonderful care home near me in Farnham , John battled with the M25 traffic at least once a week to visit her.

We all owe John such a debt of gratitude for all he has done for our mother and he has demonstrated how one should behave as a friend, a companion, a Christian and a gentleman of honour.

So – an extraordinary eventful life. Often a difficult one. But above all, the life of a woman determined to be brave, to survive no matter what obstacles were thrown in her path, to love the country of her birth and the country which took her in, to do the best for people who needed her help, to love life, provided it was interesting, and, of course, at all times to be dressed with impeccable style and élan wherever she happened to be and whatever she happened to be doing. We all miss her.

Mark Finney 22 February 2017

The Three Witches

Actually I’d really like to call them the technical term for lady-dogs, but I’m trying to be nice and clean up my act. I’m calling them witches.
So. These are three girls in one of the classes I teach in Sajokaza. They’re fifteen or sixteen years old and they have total contempt for everyone and everything, especially stupid English women (if England even exists) who keeps talking to them in stupid English (it’s just noise because it’s not lovely clear Hungarian) and even expects them to write stuff down in their notebooks (whut?)
One of them is a pretty fat girl with lovely black ringlets and a round face who giggles a lot. One of them is a classic troubled teen, petite, boyish, constantly playing on her ancient mobile and flopping about with her feet stuck out in front of her and going to sleep theatrically with her head on the fat girl’s shoulder. Often she doesn’t turn up which is good news for me. One of them clearly has a good brain but doesn’t see any reason to use it and makes cutting witty remarks occasionally which the stupid English woman doesn’t understand, but mostly just plucks her eyebrows, gives herself a manicure and puts on her eyeliner and mascara (remarkably accurately considering she’s using her phone as a mirror).
I tried moving them to the side of the room, old fashioned lift-top desks and all, but they came back. They didn’t want to have a beauty party by themselves, they wanted to make sure nobody else got a chance to learn stupid English either.
And I want to say to them – I totally grok you guys. I’m like totally grooving…
No, I don’t. What I do want to say to them is: I was you, once upon a time. I wasn’t quite as selfish because I was happy to sit at the back of the class and write stories. I only broke out the attitude if some stupid teacher tried to teach me some stupid language like French and kept insisting I answer her stupid questions. I slept through most of the French lessons, head on the table, probably snoring. A friend from those days remembered me knitting through one lesson and when Mrs Wood told me to bring her the knitting, telling her I was only doing it to try and keep awake.
Occasionally I would triumphantly take the other girls’ attention away completely by letting them read my “Alias Smith & Jones” stories in the lesson.
I don’t think the Three Witches are doing anything as creative as writing stories, but then if mobile phones with games on them had been invented when I was a stroppy fifteen year old, I would never have done anything except play on them.
Of course I could tell them that they’ll regret all this when they get older and especially when the brainy one realises she could have done something better with her young life than (probably) get pregnant and that possibly learning stupid English might have helped her do it. They wouldn’t listen, of course, even if I could cobble together the Hungarian to say it, because they already know everything.
So I think, well, Mrs Wood, you should see this, it would make you laugh a lot. Karma’s a wonderful thing.

Apuka

Or why you can’t let a historical novelist near your family history.
Last week I posted a blog about my grandmother, Dr Lilla Veszy Wagner (Anyuka). This has caused a certain amount of controversy in my family and on one particular point I think they are absolutely right.
I said that I thought my grandfather, Counsellor Matyas Veszy (Apuka), had kept kosher all his life – which would mean of course that his conversion to Christianity was not sincere and that in his heart he was still Jewish.
Well I’ve been told by my siblings in no uncertain terms that this is wrong: Apuka’s conversion to Christianity was as sincere and faith-based as Anyuka’s and there is plenty of family oral evidence to show that he ate bacon and pork and documentary evidence to show he was an active member of the Reformed Church in Hungary. It’s also clear from many of my mother’s stories that he felt he had a very special relationship with Jesus Christ, who would always look after him and his family.
Worse still, as my brother has pointed out, to have pretended to be a Christian would have been something he would have considered utterly dishonourable – and if my grandfather was anything, he was an honourable man. It was an integral and vital part of him. In Hungarian one word for “honour” is “tisztelet” which connects with “tiszta” which means “clean.” When he was asked to take the brief for Cardinal Mindszenty in the cardinal’s show trial under the Communists, that was the word Apuka used when he said (against the advice of his friends) that yes, it would be an honour. Mindszenty wasn’t allowed a lawyer in the show trial so Apuka didn’t appear. It was dangerous enough just to take the brief.
So I got that spectacularly wrong and I’m sorry.
Why did I get it so wrong? Well because I’m a novelist not a historian which means I dig around in the great and wonderful quarry of history and when I bring up something interesting or when I find a few little clues that might point to something interesting, I grab them and weave all sorts of speculations and stories around them which might later turn into a novel. I’m doing something similar at the moment with the character of Fr. John Gerrard – a 16th century Catholic priest. That’s fine: a 16th century Catholic priest doesn’t have any descendants to be upset by the stuff I’m making up about him (probably).
I can’t do that with my grandfather. So I’ll start digging and researching now, despite the fact that my Hungarian can’t even cope with children’s stories yet, and document everything as thoroughly as I can. Maybe I’ll write my mother’s story as non-fiction, maybe I’ll do it as fiction if I can’t find what I need – but it’ll be clearly labelled as one or the other.
No more half-arsed speculations.

Anyuka

That’s not what you call a grandmother in Hungarian – the word is “nagymama”. Anyuka means something like “mummy” though now it’s mostly used by older Hungarians. But we called my mother’s mother “Anyuka” because of course that’s what my mother called her in Hungarian. Apuka means “daddy”.
She was small, quite bent, with birdlike bones. As a young woman she was pretty, with brown hair and eyes. When I knew her she kept her hair short by cutting off any bit that grew too long. Her face was no longer pretty, partly from age, partly because she was full of rage and bitterness and depression – some of it entirely understandable, some… not.
Her name was Lilla Veszy-Wagner. She knew seven langages including Hungarian (German, English, French, Latin and Ancient Greek). She had been the wealthy novelist wife of a successful Hungarian lawyer, living in a lovely house in Svabhegy, Budapest. Although both she and her husband were Protestants, all four of my mother’s grandparents were Jewish. Anyuka had converted during WWI and according to my mother, it was a genuine conversion and stemmed from a real faith. My grandfather’s was less heartfelt because he converted so he could marry Lilla – and also perhaps because it simplified his professional life. He certainly kept kosher for his whole life although my grandmother didn’t: he wouldn’t eat pork and claimed to be allergic to shellfish. Anyuka told me a very elaborate Freudian psycho-analytical tale about why he wouldn’t eat szekely gulyash which features pork, sauerkraut and sour cream. I’m not sure whether she believed it herself or whether she just didn’t want any of us to discover our Jewish heritage. By that time my grandfather had died of heart disease so we only heard one version of events. My mother was quite anti-semitic herself, in the unthinking way of children. She was 7 when she learnt of her Jewish ancestry from the servants – and 1940 was not a good time to discover something like that anyway.
Of course from March 1944 Anyuka, Apuka and my then 11 year old mother were in deadly danger. The Jews in the countryside were swept up and “deported” to the camps by the Nazis, where they died. The Jews in Budapest were luckier and sometimes recipients of extradordinary generosity and kindness. That great hero Raoul Wallenberg was working in Budapest at this exact time. Long before anyone else had heard of him, my mother told us we always had to remember him because he was a brave and good man. Did she know him or of him? I don’t know. There’s much much more to her story and that’s one reason why I’m in Hungary – to research and write a book about it.
Eventually Anyuka and Apuka came as penniless exiles to England in c 1950. My grandfather never really learned English but my grandmother retrained as a librarian while simultaneously studying to be a psycho-analyst. She already had a PhD in Psychology & Anthropology which helped. Just as she started to earn real money as a psycho-analyst, my grandfather died in 1959 – which basically broke her. She was always depressed after that and kept a scary looking death mask, a terrible portrait in oils and also a bronze sculpture of Apuka in her flat. For part of the story is the love affair between my grandparents, who married a scandalous three months after they met, but not, as my mother carefully explained, because they had to. It was a coup de foudre, a stroke of lightning, love at first sight.
Anyuka started writing an account of what she and Apuka were doing that dangerous autumn 1944 in Budapest, but then abandoned it because of her depression. She was so angry, manipulative and had at least a black belt in emotional blackmail. My father couldn’t stand her and every Christmas Eve, when she came to us for Hungarian Christmas, there would be an argument – or so it seemed to me. Once she asked him in her heavy Hungarian accent, “Vy do you hate me because I am old?” There’s no answer to that, as my father pointed out.
Yet she taught me how to write on those Tuesdays in school holidays. I got used to someone taking what I had written seriously enough to give me a written critique and her taste was excellent. Even in her third language she had an unerring nose for a cliché and never let me get away with anything. She died around the time my second book was published and although she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia just as my mother is now, I was devastated. It took me nine years after that to write anything but journalism.

My grandmother and novel-writing in my teens

The weird thing is, I’ve always told stories. One of my earliest memories is talking to my little brother who had just been moved from our parents’ room into ‘my’ room – so I was probably about three or four. I was telling him he was NOT to interrupt when I told stories and talked to invisible people –  or else. Another memory I can date is when I was in hospital to have my tonsils out at the age of 5. A nurse came into my room to find out why I was shouting – she thought I was having a bad dream. “I’m telling a story about a naughty hamster,” I informed her coldly. She told me to be quiet so I stuck my head under the blankets and went on with the naughty hamster story.

By the time I was seven I was writing several pages when we had to write compositions at school. It’s true that I usually left it until Sunday evening before I admitted I had to write something and my parents often had to shut me in the dining room which was full of encyclopedias and books so I’d get on with my homework. It was a waste of time sending me to my room because they knew I’d just read one of my many books. So I’d storm and yell that it wasn’t fair and then eventually settle down and start writing something.

This is when I got the story feeling – the feeling that something much larger than me that was also me was leaning down and pouring the story through my fingers and out through my pen. I always wrote a rough draft because I often had trouble keeping up with the story and so the first version was full of mistakes and words that turned into a scribble because I knew what they were. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical feeling and it’s still the reason why I write. Poetry made the story feeling as well and the sense that a poem was there, waiting to be written though I didn’t know what it was yet, was so exciting I couldn’t sit still and paced up and down for hours. I used to get a peculiar ache in the palm of my hand, around my thumb which was always the harbinger of a story and that still happens too.

When I was 12 I demanded a typewriter for my birthday. I got my grandmother’s old one and learned to touch type when I was 15 (I taught myself). I needed the typewriter, I explained, because I couldn’t keep up with the words otherwise. Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter, full of the story feeling but not knowing what to write; sometimes I’d be writing and writing late into the night, gripped by what I was reading as my fingers typed it.

Around then, when I was 12, my grandmother decided to take a hand. She had been a Hungarian novelist before WWII and what she gave me when I went to visit her on Tuesdays was essentially a writing apprenticeship.

Most of the time she just asked me to write a story or another chapter of a novel and then critiqued it very carefully, usually in writing. She was only a bit harsh with one story which was about a cat and which she thought was twee. I’m still trying to write the cat book in a non-twee way.

I kept on going to her until I was seventeen when she had another stroke that put her in a care home. At least she saw my book in draft form, and said she liked it. She helped me with some of the situations in the story which were too far out of my experience. She knew that my book would be published but I don’t think she saw it as an actual book. I visited her a couple of times – the nurses put my Hungarian grandmother next to an Italian lady so they’d have something in common! – but she couldn’t really talk any more. She died a couple of years later, after my second book was published. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I stopped writing fiction for about five years then because… well, because my grandmother wouldn’t be reading it. I did freelance journalism instead.

Firedrake’s Eye was the first thing I wrote after I realised this and came out of the dry period. I wrote it on my grandmother’s old typewriter in a garden shed while I was pregnant with my first child.

BKK – I love you. Budapest is the world’s best public transport city!

Now I’m really not a transit fan or a public transport nerd or a metrophiliac or whatever you call people who like to photograph buses and collect their registration numbers. But I have to tell you that Budapest is turning me into one.
Why? Because it has a wonderful transport system. Hungarians and Budapestis disagree with me on this, they tell me it’s terrible, it’s dirty etc. etc. They’re wrong. If you survived London Transport in the 1980s and have any experience of public transport in, say, Cornwall you will be gobsmacked at how good the system is here.
For a start there are eight (count them, 8!) different forms of public transport you can use here. There are the metro, the trams, the trolleybuses, the buses, the HEV (suburban trains), the funicular railway and the cogwheel railway and the boats. Boats! One of them is 95 years old and still works well, weaving up and down the Danube and providing a timetable service that costs almost nothing compared with the tourist boats (750 HUF or about 2 GBP).
You can buy a monthly berlet (season ticket) for less than the cost of a week’s limited travel on Transport for London. You can sit on a magnificent modern tram that is the longest in the world (4 and 6) or you can sit on a much older tram (19) and try to fathom the workings of the little ticket machines stuck near the doors where you punch your own ticket. Each ticket costs about a pound, by the way, if you don’t feel like getting a berlet. You can admire the super modern stations of the M4 metro line or sit in the cute little carriages on the M1 metro line, historically the second underground line in Europe after the one in London. You can also admire the noisy squealing of the M3 line trains which were built in Soviet times and look it.
By the way, Budapest often seems to check what London does first and then copy and do it better. Budapesti Kozlekedesi Kozpont claim to have modelled themselves on TfL, though they don’t have Oyster cards that continually drain of money, thank the Lord.
Budapestis to the contrary, the vehicles are mostly clean and they seem generally to run to time. Did I mention my berlet? I love my monthly berlet. It costs about 26 GBP and lets me travel on the metro, HEV, buses, trams and trolleybuses anywhere in Budapest, as much as I like, whenever I like. For a month.
Match that, Boris!

In Hungary at last!

At last I\’m in Hungary, marinating in Hungarian. It\’s a language I heard throughout my childhood when my mother used it as a kind of secret code so she could talk freely to her friends and her mother. She never taught it to us though it would have been so easy for her – the excuse she gave was that our father would have felt left out if we could talk a different language. My brother believes this, I don\’t. I think my father was a bigger man than that and also that he would have loved to show us off as brilliantly bilingual children.

***

I think my mother was secretive. There were things she didn\’t want us to know and denying us her mother-tongue kept the keys to certain locked boxes away from us.

***

Her excuse to us was that she wanted us to be completely English.

***

A silly idea. It\’s true that until her stroke and subsequent slow descent into Alzheimer\’s and vascular dementia, she spoke perfect English with no trace of an accent. She was so good at being English that English people would talk about \”bloody foreigners\” in front of her – which she told us with great pride. She believed she could pass for English despite being far too chic.

***

However our household world was not really very English. We had an exotic Christmas Eve with presents and smoked salmon, followed by a normal Christmas Day with more presents and turkey. We ate very different food from our friends; beef stroganoff and chicken marengo and gulyas (pronounced \”gooyarsh\” please, not \”goulash\”) were completely unknown in those far off pre-cookchill days. There would be emotion, shouting, intense arguments over politics and literature and pretty much any subject at all. Exotic foreign friends of my mother would turn up and talk Hungarian, Polish, French and this was regarded as normal.

***

I wasn\’t encouraged to invite school friends home to tea. That was after my best friend was presented with chicken marengo (the least exotic thing my mother could think of to cook), asked for ketchup, was asked why and burst into tears. I was blamed for this, of course, and it was my fault because I should have warned her.

***

Occasionally, I look around me at England, where I was born, and my fellow-English and wonder what on earth they can be thinking. I\’ve got better at being English as the rules on Englishness have relaxed and I\’ve got over the thing about having to feed anybody who comes to your house.

***

I still want to learn Hungarian, open those locked boxes if I can find them. In fact, all my life I\’ve tried to learn Hungarian. I\’ve bought at least six expensive Teach Yourself Hungarian courses, some dating back to the days when \”munkas = worker\” was the first word taught and Communism made any visiting very difficult and, in my mother\’s view, dangerous.

***

I failed to learn it because… Well, I\’m not that great at sustained application and to be honest the whole thing bewildered me. As all Hungarians tell you with apologetic pride, \”Magyarul nagyon nehez\” or \”Hungarian is very difficult.\” Perhaps I could have come in my twenties. I didn\’t and it wasn\’t only because that was when Communism was crumbling through its own dementia and everyone thought there would be a nuclear war before 1989. Instead Hungary was the country that made the first hole in the Iron Curtain. God, I wish I could have been there but I was busy with children by then.

***

And now it\’s all around me sounding both familiar and strange. Although I can take refuge in English whenever I want, thanks to the Internet, words here and there are starting to come clear.

***

I find I do better if I don\’t really listen. I perfectly understood the woman at the supermarket who had bought a tin of beans and forgotten to pack it, but I dried up completely when I tried to point out the vagrant tin at the check out.

***

Next step – dreaming in Hungarian.

***

After that – finding those locked boxes that may not even exist.