This week in my conversational English class, we talked about vacations. One man shared that he went to “The Balaton”. Balaton is a Hungarian lake, the largest in Central Europe. It is lovely, wide enough that you can’t see across it in places, bordered on one side with forested hills which some might call “mountains” (I reserve “mountain” for rocky protuberances covered year round with snow). Suffice it to say, the hills around Balaton are big. We rode a train along the shore last month. Sunlight created a surreal metallic sheen on the water’s surface illuminating a fleet of sailboats. I began to understand the enchantment.
Grammatically, I considered why most people say “The Balaton” vs. Lake Balaton (I wouldn’t say I am going to “The Superior” or “The Tahoe”). Internally, I wrestled with a potential grammar error. But I was willing to consider something else at play. “The Balaton” represents this very special place in the life of most Hungarians. They describe it like no other place. Maybe I should let “The Balaton” go uncorrected. This became our discussion topic. What is the deal with Balaton?
Those Hungarians fortunate enough to vacation during communism went to Lake Balaton. Some employers provided “coupons” redeemable for a two week discounted stay at a resort. As youth, everyone I talked to attended camp on Lake Balaton – Young Pioneer Camp. My friend describes it as a YMCA camp – one which involved learning how to march and play the drums, to make a flag and to celebrate Socialist holidays. Other friends describe the camp as a mandatory communist indoctrination.
No matter the political leanings, everyone I spoke to enjoyed the camp and recounted their camp days fondly. At the conclusion of camp, successful students earned a neckerchief. A 33 year old woman in class shared stories from her time at camp. She had earned her blue neckerchief when she was 8 or 9. The summer of 1989 she earned a red one. It was to be presented at a school ceremony in the fall. But that fall, the school announced the red neckerchief ceremony was cancelled. The transition commenced – communism, and by extension The Young Pioneer Camp, was over.
Our discussion moved on to the “dollar store” at Balaton. I laughed and told my own dollar store tale – five bucks of crap I couldn’t live without and shortly wouldn’t be able to find. They corrected me. The Hungarian dollar store was different – a store which sold expensive western goods for US dollars. Each family received an annual dollar stipend – generally 50 US dollars. Each year you could exchange Hungarian forints for dollars – up to your family’s annual stipend. If you think of communism as the ultimate paternal society, the dollar stipend was that bit of money your grandpa slipped you as you left on vacation with the parting words, “Buy something fun”.
A woman in class emotionally related her personal dollar store experience. “As a girl, I was really quite spoiled. My family used their stipend to buy me a Barbie doll.” Her Hungarian Barbie fell apart after a few months. She played with the real Barbie for years and passed it down to her four year old daughter. The special memories associated with its purchase were palpable. Other people bought Levis, or walkmans – or any of a host of American products from the 80s.
As a kid, I had a toy closet – a walk-in closet overflowing with Barbie dolls, a pogo stick, board games, Mr. Potato head, Sherry Lewis’ puppet set, books, and on and on. My friends owned these same toys. We never considered ourselves “spoiled”. Today, I have no idea where my toys reside – my bet is on a landfill in New Jersey. As this young woman earnestly defined “spoiled”, I felt embarrassed. I never considered how much I had, how little others had (other than the starving children of Africa which were part of the standard American dinner rhetoric), or that my toy closet was excessive.
Communism was a terrible system which left the eastern part of Europe decades behind the west. I am relieved I did not grow up with restricted movement, purchasing sanctions, and politically inspired camp. That said, a dollar store allocation might have done me good. Perhaps I would have cherished my toys, passed them to my children and described myself as spoiled – or at least fortunate. But sadly, I did none of those things.
Below is a scan of a photo of my friend, Szabi Vig, showing off his new blue neckerchief … He has nothing but fond memories of growing up in Hungary (Though you can’t tell by the look on his face…)
Categories: Insiders Budapest