Bridget Jones goes to Budapest
The new Eastern European woman has got a career, a home and a mind of her own. What she hasn't got, of course - in common with her fictional Western counterpart - is a man. By Adam LeBor
Tuesday 24 November 1998
A stainless-steel lift whizzed guests up to the flat, as stark and minimalist as anything in SoHo or Greenwich Village, into a designer-clad throng of artists and musicians, management consultants, diplomats and lawyers. Bright-eyed Budapest girls tottered on Spice Girl platforms, sheathed in black Lycra, sipping champagne, scanning the room with their party radar. The Rolling Stones thumped out from the stereo, soundtrack to the snatched glances and mutual appraisals.
A classic Nineties social scene in the Hungarian capital then, style capital of the other - post-Communist - Europe, with the usual round-up of Budapest's social butterflies, looking for fun, flirtation and, like Eniko, something more. Except this time there was a new addition to the guests: the late-twenty- and early thirtysomething single Hungarian careerwomen, alone and marooned by the capitalist tide that has swept through Eastern Europe.
Like MTV, Coca-Cola and the Internet, Bridget Jones has arrived in Budapest, and Prague and Warsaw too. Eastern Europe's Bridget Jones has a career, a home and a mind of her own. And like Bridget Jones, she can't find a man, for the region's males seem to be scared off by women with financial security, fearing that independence of wallet also brings independence of mind.
The panoramic view, the crisp chardonnay - none of this cheered Eniko or her friend Kati. As attractive as they were - one blonde and one black- haired, they knew they'd be going home alone.
"I couldn't understand why women in the west used to complain, they seemed to have everything we didn't, like nice clothes, money, cars and their own flats. I'm ready to settle down, but all the men I meet are scared of commitment, especially with someone who has a good job and doesn't need them to support her. They aren't ready for a partner, just someone who looks good, but time is starting to run out," said Eniko, who works for a western telecommunications company,
"Men here are afraid of women like us, because we are successful," said Kati, an account executive. "A colleague said that he would be frightened to go out with me, because I earn more than he does. But I need a man who is stronger than me, and can tame me. Sometimes I need to be told off," she said in that engaging Eastern European way of speaking one's mind. "But men think they have to be the provider and can't handle it if a woman earns more than they do."
Worse still, in traditionally conservative societies such as Hungary and Poland, if a woman isn't married by her mid-twenties, she is considered to be on the shelf. Women's biological clocks run much faster on Central European Time. Several unmarried friends of mine, all in their late twenties and with good jobs, are regularly nagged by their mothers to find a husband and start having babies. Even if they are unhappy with their boyfriends, they are admonished if they prefer to be single. There is even a phrase for such a dread - in the older generation's eyes - eventuality: "Don't let yourself fall between two benches", ie don't ever be without a man.
The arrival of capitalism, and all the jobs that simply did not exist under Communism, such as advertising executive, stockbroker or television reporter for a private station, has opened up undreamed-of opportunities for women, bringing them substantial incomes and all the independence that brings.
Under Communism women were emancipated in theory, and that was about all. Freedom to work meant freedom to work an eight-hour day and then spend hours queuing for food before wearily cooking it for their husbands when they staggered home from the pub.
Back in the early days of Bolshevism, in Russia in the 1920s, revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai preached free love and female emancipation, but once that first flush of enthusiasm faded, a patriarchy as rigid as the old system soon reasserted itself.
Now even the single young woman's bible, Cosmopolitan, publishes Hungarian, Czech, Polish and Russian editions. Eastern Europe's women are deluged with advice on achieving multiple orgasms and making their first million. But while the old one-party state has long vanished, old attitudes, that a woman's place is in the kitchen or, at most, taking dictation on the boss's knee, are still ingrained and will take generations to change.
Smart and bright careerwomen such as Eniko and Kati can earn wages nudging Western levels of around pounds 1,000 a month. Both their wages - in a country where take-home pay of pounds 300 a month is considered good - and their language and computer skills far outstrip those of many of their male contemporaries. And, it seems, make them run a mile. Ironically, it is capitalism that has brought Eniko and Kati a greater sense of solidarity with their Western sisters than Communism, with all its much-vaunted proclamations of internationalist idealism, ever did.
They have everything Bridget Jones has, and lack everything she does. The glamour of their Saturday nights are no compensation for spending every Sunday alone. Recently dumped by her boyfriend, who claimed he needed some time alone - shorthand for wanting to play the field - Eniko despairs of meeting someone who will treat her as an equal.
Which is why perhaps, Western men begin to look like a better bet. Globalisation means that Western ideas about equality between men and women are spreading. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are set to join the EU in a few years and, as the physical borders dissolve, so do others.
So hope springs eternal. Ten years ago few young Hungarians, especially women,could imagine living a Western lifestyle. If political and economic systems can change, then people can. "I'm not too depressed. I know that men here can adapt. At least I hope so," said Eniko, Kati in tow, as she downed her wine and sallied forth into the throng of dancers.
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