It was in 1958 that a friend from her English boarding school asked Caroline Griffin if she would like to become the pen pal for a fifteen-year-old Hungarian boy living in Kecskemét.
“István’s English was not very good but sufficient for basic communication,” says Caroline, who still has some of their early letters. “He used to send me cards with scenes from Budapest and other places – they had a 45 rpm record engraved on the card that you could actually play, with music by Bartók and Kodály.”
Their correspondence continued even when Caroline moved to Canada to work for a few years. Upon her return, she and a friend made the decision to hitchhike through Europe; it was in January 1966.
“Somewhere on our way to Vienna I thought: well, why don’t we see if we can get into Hungary?” she remembers. “At that time, I knew quite a lot about István – and he about me. Visas were very expensive – and you had to convert $18 a day in Hungary – we were doing Europe with a frugal $2 a day! But there was a cheap 48 hour visa, so we got it.
The trip east was difficult with little traffic in that direction. “The border was horrible,” Caroline recalls with a shudder, “with barbed wire fences and machine guns. It was quite grim.
To their delight, they were offered an unlikely lift by a German traveling to Budapest in a Mercedes. It was January, the depths of an Eastern European winter, and the fog had descended, shrouding the entire landscape. “It was rather beautiful, everything was white. There was deep snow; we walked through the villages and all the women were wearing black clothes, long dresses and shawls – it was very Eastern European.
“There were white geese gathered… everything was black and white with the black trees against the fog and the snow.
“Luckily the driver left us on the Pest side of the Margaret Bridge – even though we didn’t know what that was – and István lived in Pannónia Street right next to it. But it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be his own apartment. István usually lived in a shared apartment in which the landlady and her family also resided. Caroline and her friend have found a student hostel for their one night on the town.
“You couldn’t even see the river – they were burning lignite at the time and the smog was terrible; everything was dirty and people were moody. All the buildings were full of bullet holes so it was a bit spooky. It was very different from Western Europe… nobody seemed to be wearing colors.
“The next day we decided to go to Kecskemét to meet István’s parents. We took the HÉV [suburban train] to Soroksár, then to the barrier above the railway line, we walked along the line of vehicles to see if we could take a lift to Kecskemét.
Eventually, they were offered a ride in a truck on the condition that they agree to ride with a group of peasants in the back. “We went up the back under the canvas, it was dark so we couldn’t see anything at all, but we knew there were other people there. They passed around a pálinka [fruit brandy] bottle from which we all took a sip…”
With István’s interpretation, Caroline was asked about farm life in Canada, including the price of a pig. It then turned out that the truck driver, Józsi, had failed to sell his pig at the market in Budapest and was there among them in the back. “It was at some point that something came out of the darkness towards us, the size of a Shetland pony! It was huge! He was a mangalica boar and he had long red hair, curly hair all over – I couldn’t get over it, I had never seen anything like it.
The next day, Caroline and her friend waited in vain for a lift on the main Belgrade road, but apart from a few horses and a cart, there were no cars moving in that direction. They returned to Budapest by taking the night train out of the country – their visas had expired but with no common language, the border guards let them through.
“In the meantime, István and I had fallen in love,” laughs Caroline. “So he actually asked me to marry him that last night, and I said yes. It was really, really romantic. Caroline went back to Hungary three times that year (by train) and then in 1967, she got a visa to stay for three months.
István was in his final year at the Academy of Fine Arts, as Caroline began to struggle with daily life in Budapest. « The ABC [small food shops] weren’t very clean and there was this terrible thing nincs [there isn’t any]. You asked for something very ordinary and you received the automatic and shameless answer: nincs! The other thing that really struck me was that people weren’t smiling.
“After my three month visa expired, I had another three months, but then they said I had to either get married and stay – or leave. We got married here, but not before MI6 visited my father in England to ask about us.
“We were still in the rented room when I got pregnant and the landlady threw us out,” continues Caroline. “If I had had the baby there, I would have had the legal right to stay.” They then moved to the castle district, where their first son, Nicky, was born, and from there to Zugló. But after inheriting some money, they decided to try to buy a small house, opting for Budakeszi.
“People thought we were crazy because if you left Budapest you couldn’t come back unless you had a job there. Even then, you would have to wait ten to fifteen years for a social apartment.
There were very few other Britons living in Budapest at that time: Charlie Coutts, who arrived in 1956 and worked in radio, and two English women – Judy and Liz – who had also married Hungarians and arrived just before Caroline. The concept of “expatriate” at that time was unknown and did not exist.
“Liz and I both had western cars,” Caroline explains. “I had a Beetle and Liz a little Austin. And we had private license plates, so we were stopped by the police all the time, especially since we were the only female drivers. The first two letters of car registration plates at the time denoted vehicle ownership: A was Állami (state property), B was Belügy (Ministry of Interior), while R was Rendőrség (police ) and H was Hadsereg (army). Private cars started with a C.
While István won art scholarships to support them, Caroline began teaching and then working in Hungarian radio writing and starring in “Galaxy X”, a series for teens learning English. In the meantime, his sons Peter and Tony were born, but the radio work continued for fifteen years.
“‘Galaxy X’ made me famous”, says Caroline, “I once went to the National Bank and the woman said to me: are you really Caroline Bodoczky? In fact, Caroline’s name quickly became synonymous with English and English teaching in Hungary, as the original documents could not be purchased abroad, resulting in books and recordings on tape published locally. Her voice became instantly recognizable as she participated in virtually all of these recordings.
Opportunities for teaching English have also emerged, including at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Budapest and then at one of the many burgeoning language schools. Their growth has been made possible by a growing interest in learning English and changes to employment law – previously it was only possible to employ one person, but this has now increased to ten .
Following the change of regime in 1989 and the suspension of compulsory Russian lessons in schools, a crying need for good English teaching was felt. It was then that Caroline was recruited to the new English Teachers’ Training Center, where she worked for seven years, and it was there that she completed a master’s degree in teacher training and focused primarily on teacher training and mentoring. His final years of teaching were spent at the International Business School.
It is now fifty-five years since Caroline moved to Hungary. Looking back, she says: “I think the only time I felt homesick was at Christmas, but we quickly established English Christmases. And we were celebrating Guy Fawkes on November 5th, but since Hungary was still celebrating November 7th [anniversary of the Russian revolution] we took care to burn the guy where no one could see us in case they thought we were burning an effigy of Lenin!
Caroline remembers a visit by Brezhnev to Budapest. “I was shopping with Tony in Astoria and there was going to be a fashion show on Rákóczi Avenue. They were bringing kids with red flags to wave, so I decided to stay and watch. Standing under one of the trees that then bordered this road, Caroline was joined by an old peasant woman who put her baskets on the ground, also stopping to watch the parade. “Suddenly a huge flock of sparrows flew into the tree above us, and the old lady turned to me and muttered dryly: even the sparrows were invited to come.”
Looking back on her life during those early years, Caroline says, “I think the challenges of those early days were new and interesting, and any difficulties we had were outweighed by the fact that we were newly married and we had children – perhaps the highlight of someone’s life.
“If you saw a queue, you joined it and only then wondered why you were queuing (it was probably oranges or bananas). When you saw things you wanted, you bought a lot of them. We didn’t have a fridge for a long time, we didn’t have a TV or a washing machine, and I had to wash the children’s diapers by hand.
“I think the worst was the telephone – when we moved to Budakeszi there weren’t even any telephone lines. We had to wait eighteen years to have a telephone: we only had one in 1994! But we had a lot of fun – we didn’t have a lot of money, nobody had any – but the food and wine were cheap, and we had plenty of time for friends and family. All in all, these were good years.