Over the Hill in Hungary
By Virginia White (Hungary 1992–94)
Kroshka Books, $23.95
1999
207 pages

Reviewed by Don Beil (Somalia 1964–66)

    This is not a book about the Peace Corps presence in Hungary, a wise decision by the author, as such works have, for the most part, found a limited audience. Since I’m an RPCV myself, and a part of that limited audience, I was hoping it would be about PC Hungary; but I was nonetheless well satisfied with what’s in Virginia White’s book Over the Hill in Hungary.
         White went to Hungary “at an age when most people are planning their retirement …” She obviously loved her time there, as she stayed well beyond her tour, and now divides her time between Budapest and New York. If you haven’t traveled to this part of the world, specifically to Budapest (as I have had the good fortune to do several times recently), you may not be aware that living there is something to be envied, and it shows regularly throughout her book. Her quote: “When my Peace Corps service ended, I decided to remain a while since there was so much I had not seen and done in Hungary” rings true even for this country that’s the size of Indiana. (Hey, she reports that there are 192 museums just in Budapest.)

    Post-Communist changes
    Hungary is enjoying an enormous resurgence after 40 years of Communist rule ended roughly 10 years ago. The streets are filled with beautiful young people and stylishly dressed older ones. Ice-cream cones are licked everywhere you turn (as well as fingers from the Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Wendys, and Burger Kings, all of which are also everywhere you turn). Budapest has a new four-story mall, City Center, with 400 stores, a four-story waterfall, and a captivating ever-changing fountain that hundreds sit and watch for extended periods of time. The mall opened in November 1999, and was filled with people then – as might be expected – but it was equally crowded in February, 2000.
         Hungary has exploded with a democratic economy in an extremely short period of time, and White was there to see – and report on – most of the changes. “Hungary was the first socialist country to move directly from a collectivist to a free market economy and from a one-party dictatorship to a multiparty democracy . . .” Her book reflects both the old and the new, but perhaps it’s the effect of this rapid change that’s a principal topic running throughout the book. “The change in the past six years has been so complete that if I were not a compulsive notetaker, it would be easy to forget how it was when I arrived (in 1992).”

    Some history
    There’s also a continuing thread of the long Hungarian history of adversity played against its resilience. Those into history will find all they want here in great detail, and those looking for an oversimplified historical background may be satisfied to know that 80 years ago Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and people to its neighbors. (This type of nation creation is certainly nothing new to those who keep tabs on the world – especially RPCVs. My own country of service, Somalia, has a five-pointed star with each point representing a part of Somalia. However, only two of the five are now part of Somalia, a source of continuing strife for that part of the world.)

    A breadth of insight into Hungarian life
    Much of White’s insight into Hungarians comes from her early home-stay with a Hungarian family during training. No one in the home spoke English, a surefire, sink-or-swim way to learn a language.
         These insights cover a broad range of topics at enough depth to be interesting without being exhaustive. For example she discusses: family life, sexual harassment, the marketplace, gift giving, the place of women in society, domestic violence, wedding ceremonies, malls, churches and synagogues, Hungarian attitudes toward Jews, crime, and the impact of a Hungarian’s age upon his/her perception of the world and Hungary’s place within it. On each topic there’s the equivalent of a short essay woven into the context of the book.
         I must discuss one of these – gift giving. I could only smile, and disappointingly so, when I read “One cultural hurdle that I completely mis-managed, however, and have not yet fully mastered, is the established conventions for gift-giving.” Unfortunately, I was hoping she would clear this issue up for me. I’m still uncertain of exactly what’s proper etiquette. All I know is that I’ve still not mastered the art and science of Hungarian gift giving. Although I’ve been paying close attention, and for quite some time have been trying to get it right, I’m still nervous and always have second thoughts before I give a Hungarian a gift. I’m nervous about the gift itself, nervous about the timing of the gift giving, and even nervous about the manner in which the gift is physically presented. Fortunately, and as White reports, my gifts have always been graciously received, but I still wonder if I’ve given the right gift at the right time in the right way.
         But nonetheless, White’s really managed to capture the Hungary I’ve recently been learning to love. Most reassuring in our technological age, and something that I still miss from my own Peace Corps experience, is the fact that in Hungary people spend an enormous amount of time simply visiting with each other. Her book repeatedly describes: group outings (while on short vacations or attending formal conferences); people visiting family members and friends; and long ceremonies (such as wedding receptions) with no one in any hurry to leave.

    A Peace Corps book after all
    As I reread the opening paragraph of this review, I’ve decided to retreat from the view that this is not a Peace Corps book. Perhaps a better description of this book is that it is not a book about the first two goals of the Peace Corps. However it is a book that succeeds in meeting the third goal of the Peace Corps – to help Americans understand other cultures of the world.

    If you go — some suggestions of travel books on Hungary
    If you’re about to travel to Hungary, I recommend purchasing several guidebooks. Purchasing a variety of books – I have six about Hungary – for some will be overkill, while for others it’s just what’s needed. I usually spend a large part of the plane trip from New York City to Budapest (approximately 8 hours) studying one or more guidebooks planning how I’ll use my free time.
         My all-time favorite guidebook about Hungary is the TimeOut Guide: Budapest from Penguin Books. This book has the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly of Budapest, as well as the poop on a number of trips out of town. The book is the only one I have that includes ads, but there is no question that they have successfully separated the editorial and business publishing functions. You know a guidebook that opens with the line “This place is ridiculous” is going to be out of the ordinary. Can’t be beaten.
         Another book on my shelf is Budapest and the Best of Hungary, from Frommer’s by Joseph S. Lieber and RPCV Christina Shea (Hungary 1990–92). It’s not a book that I’ve studied, but I’ve found it useful for its coverage of Budapest (about 75% of the book is on Budapest). Its descriptions of hotels I’ve stayed at – the Marriott (don’t laugh it’s fabulous, every room with a balcony overlooking the Danube and the Castle District) and the Hotel Kulturinnov (their Best Bet for a modest guest house in a perfect location) – are right on.
         Their walking tours also hit the (right) spot(s). Any free time I have while in Hungary I walk the streets, and it’s not unusual for my pedometer (OK, laugh), to hit between 6 and 9 miles for the day. Although you can’t go wrong almost anywhere you walk in Budapest, their five walking tours definitely point the right way for newcomers and include the necessary details of what you’ll walk past and where to stop along the way.

    For the past 25 years, Don Beil (dhbndp@rit.edu) has been teaching computing to deaf and hard of hearing students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY. NTID is a partner with the Hungarian association of schools for the deaf in a grant from the Soros Open Society Institute to improve information technology education in the schools for the deaf in Hungary. He travels frequently to Hungary.