Welcome to Bennett's World: a collection of articles and references covering a wide variety of topics in which I am involved. I am a very political person but I have no allegiance to any political party. Follow me on twitter @colinhove

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Winter in Hungary

Most British people have some idea where Hungary is but would be hard put to place it exactly or to tell you much about it. They might know it has one of Europe's most difficult and "lonely" languages with no connection to its Germanic or Slavic neighbours and they would be right. It so happens that I am interested in all countries. Every year I attend the European Deaf Blind Holiday which in 2008 was held in Sopron, western Hungary. It was very well organised by the Hungarian Deafblind Association and I enjoyed it enormously. I gained some good friends employed or volunteering for the association and I made some vague noise about perhaps being able to do some voluntary work in Hungary in the future. I was told that this would be very difficult because Hungary is a bureaucratic country. In fact it is not particularly bureaucratic, in my view and by pulling one or two strings I was able to get a "job" in the city of Debrecen in eastern Hungary during the winter of 2009 to 2010. Debrecen is the second city of Hungary and a long way from Budapest which I was pleased about. I was pleased about this because Budapest does dominate the country.

It was agreed that I would start work at the Feher Bot Alipetveny which as we all know means the White Cane Foundation in late September 2009. In fact, events interpose and I was not able to start until 6 November 2009.

Dr Szabo Miklos (in Hungarian they always put the surname first) is totally blind and the founder and current President of the Foundation. He made this offer to me; they would provide board and lodging in the Foundation's main building in Debrecen but could not pay me any salary. That was ok by me. I would help by encouraging "clients" to learn or improve their English as part of rehabilitation work. I would also help the staff if they desired that. So, early on 6 November I took the National Express bus to Gatwick from Brighton where as always I had a very speedy passage through all the formalities right up until the departure lounge. In fact the driver of the coach had arrived at Gatwick a little early and left his machine and took me right into Gatwick airport right up to the check-in desk. I do get spoilt rotten but I suppose it does have something to do with the £50 tips I give! Seriously, I often send thank you letters to travel providers and I think these are appreciated. It was a beautiful sunny Autumn day and I was looking forward to arriving in Budapest at the scheduled time of 1pm as my friend Marta was waiting for me there at the airport. We all boarded and we taxied towards the take off and then the aeroplane had to go back to the terminal block because there had been some bomb scare on the plane. There was no real problem but an hour was wasted and of course I was an hour late at Budapest. I arrived at Budapest Terminal 2B which is the most inconvenient terminal for the Budapest airport railway station. You have to catch a bus and then mount interminable steps over a main highway, my suitcase was heavy and Marta is only slightly built. She is good at egging me on but not so good at carrying things. Hungarian trains are not the easiest to board especially if you have heavy luggage because there are several steps up. However, we found a burly man and his son and they hauled me up into the train and put me into my reserved seat. It is generally necessary to get a reservation on a long distance train in Hungary. The only problem for me with that is that if I am alone I cannot see the numbers of the carriages or the seat numbers. So, I never know where to wait on the platform. Anyway, as always things went ok. Hungarian long distance trains are very satisfactory they are clean comfortable and well lit and I soon found myself sitting next to an amiable Hungarian woman who turned out to speak good English. She had been working in London for 2 years but had hardly met any English people there so she was glad to practise her English on me. The journey to Debrecen took a bit over 2 hours and it soon became dark. I HATE DARKNESS and every RP or Usher person will agree. I was going to be met at Debrecen railway station but even so it is an ordeal for us arriving at a strange place after dark. I was helped off the train and my suitcase was taken away from me by whom I did not know. It was actually by Alex from the Foundation who had come to meet me. It was cold, rainy, windy and dark and I could not understand any of the people who were meeting me. Eventually I was bundled into a minibus (I couldn't see anything) and driven to the Foundation which I was told was only 5 minutes away. It took 20 minutes because of the fiendish 1 way system and then I found myself walking up a ramp into a kitchen where I was sat down and given cheese on toast and a bottle of red wine. Nobody else wanted any of the wine so I downed the whole bottle. I thought this was all right if I was going to get a bottle of wine every night but that didn't happen again. I think they wanted me to get a good nights sleep, which I did.

In the morning I saw that my bedroom was quite nice. It was blue, I was told, and was of a good size with two large windows overlooking the court yard in which there was a peach tree. No peaches in November though. I had a good sized bed, a new wardrobe, a work table, two chairs and a very efficient gas heater. That was my home for the next 4 months. I had access to a bathroom with 24 hour piping hot water and also to a kitchen with all the things you need. I never did any of my own cooking as people who know me will not be surprised to learn.

I would get up every day at about 7, potter around in the bathroom and kitchen until I went to the main part of the Foundation next door where I would begin my daily work at 8. This would consist of lessons to clients or staff for a few hours in the morning and afternoon. Quite often I would go to outlying branches of the Foundation in towns some way from Debrecen where I would give classes. This usually involved staying overnight in the buildings which I enjoyed. I was also able to go sometimes on their outreach work visiting and collecting clients. Of course it was winter and there was often snow on the ground and Hungarian winters are cold. However, all the buildings are warm, not to say overheated and my little flat was very cosy for those 4 months.

What I particularly enjoyed doing was visiting some schools in the City. One was for visually impaired children and was partly a boarding school. The classes were small and the children very polite and eager to learn. Hungarian children are quite well-educated and they all had some knowledge of English but had never spoken to an English person. I had a lot of fun in those classes especially as my unorthodox methods (we will say no more!) spread through the school and I had more and more classes to attend. Some of my pupils were autistic and were extremely knowledgeable about certain subjects which they were eager to talk about. They could be a bit taxing. Another school I visited was a vocational school for children who were going to join the health service and they had a few visually impaired children in their classes. I enjoyed that too.

Public transport in Debrecen is good. They have a tram system and I like trams. They were two types of trams: Old and clanky, new and silent. I didn't like the latter because I could not hear them coming and nor could other people. I never went out alone at night when the trams could be seen coming because they were lit. Incidentally they were very well lit inside. In the day time, when I often did go out alone and when the trams were not lit I tended not to hear or see them coming so I always stayed with the crowd. By the way, all the tram stops are announced and that is a great help. In Budapest, the tram stops are announced in Hungarian and English. The bus system is good too and all the stops are announced automatically. At most street junctions audible announcements tell you what street you are crossing. There are virtually no obstructions on the pavements. Something surprised me. They don't seem to use "articles for the blind" stickers or envelopes. You take your letter to the post office and tell them they are for blind people. This seems to be a complicated way of doing things. Also, they no longer seem to use cassette tapes but CDs and memory sticks. They have the same problems as we do in older people not wanting to come to terms with their disabilities and not going out or declining to carry white canes. Unemployment is a very big social problem in Hungary especially among blind people who are generally not expected to work. The State does subsidise organisations that employ disabled people but usually disabled people do not work. Travel is quite good for blind people because there is a 90 percent discount on all public transport including the Budapest Metro. Public transport is free for all people over 65 - not that I can imagine being over 65.

Debrecen is in the Great Hungarian Plain and the land is really, really flat. In the Summer because the land is so flat there are mirages as there are in the desert where you can see pools of water that do not exist. The land is extremely fertile and is considered to be the best in Europe and until the great changes of 1989 the area was one vast fruit field but their main markets, the Comecom countries have shrunk. The health system is still good although it has been partly privatised. Education is good by our standards although the older Hungarians complain about it. The population has shrunk from 11 million to 10 million in the last decade or so because of emigration and the lower birth rate among indigenous Hungarians. There is a lot of conflict in the country between what we have to call Roma and the Hungarians and this is not swept under the carpet. Hungarians are quite elegantly dressed and compared to us are homogeneous. Nearly everyone has very dark brown hair, brown eyes and very fair skin. The language is supposed to be connected to Finnish but I did not find that to be the case and I have lived in Finland for a year. The people are reserved and polite and there appears to be no underclass of very poor people such as you find in the UK. By our standards the people, especially the children, are overdressed. Because Hungarian is such a unique language English is widely understood by younger people although they are shy to speak it.

I was due to stay in Debrecen for a probationary period of 4 or 5 months. Everything was quite satisfactory and they were pleased with me but my classes of adults slowly shrank. I discussed this with Dr Szabo. The problem was that it is very difficult for ordinary Hungarians to learn English without formal English lessons ie by mere conversations with an English person. The structure of Hungarian is quite different from all other European languages. We decided that the best way to help Hungarians learn English is tuition by an English speaking Hungarian backed up by a conversation with an English person. It was decided that I would return to England in March and perhaps come back another time. So I did that.

I am returning to Hungary in June partly to attend the wedding of a very good friend I made in Debrecen and also to see eastern Hungary in the summer. I am also going to visit the city of Pecs in southern Hungary where there is a blind school that is eager for me to do some voluntary work there. I am very keen to encourage cooperation by organisations of and for people with sensory problems and I am an active member of the World Federation of Deafblind People. I do hope to visit and perhaps work in other countries in future years and I will write about my experiences. I took many photos while I was in Debrecen and you can see them on my Flickr Photo Gallery by going to this site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hova/

These photos need to be weeded out and I will try and get around to weeding them. I was not able to make contributions to my blog while I was in Hungary because it was difficult to find someone whose English was good enough for me to dictate to. You could say that I should type myself and you are quite right. In England I am spoilt rotten by having readers but I realise I must become more self sufficient.