City Life: Budapest: Attila's sad retirement

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The Independent Online
THERE WERE two grandfathers at Zsolt's fifth birthday party. Both Hungarian, in their sixties, who had worked all their lives in Budapest. But they had passed the decades in two parallel universes.

Kalman was tall and well-dressed, and joked in perfect English. Attila wore a brown jacket, mismatched grey trousers and scuffed beige shoes. His English was halting and he rarely used it.

Kalman's daughter and Attila's son were married, and everyone was celebrating Zsolt's birthday in his parents' stylish detached house in the plush Buda hills. Sitting around the table, blowing out the candles, the scene looked like an archetypal family celebration. But over the decades the fortunes of one family had risen as the other fell. Until 1989, when Communism collapsed and Kalman and Attila's worlds' were turned upside down.

Kalman, like his parents, was a doctor, part of the thinking classes targeted for poverty under Communism. It was a means of keeping intellectuals focused on their own immediate financial future, instead of pondering the future of society.

Attila grew up in a tiny village outside Budapest. His parents were peasants. The Party picked young, malleable citizens, usually from the countryside, and brought them to the city. There they fed them, housed and educated them in the tenets of Marxist-Leninism and explained that they were now part of an elite cadre, charged with building the world's first workers' and peasants' states.

While Kalman's family suffered harassment from the police and security services, and occasional arrests, Attila flourished. He joined the Young Communist League and the Party itself, advanced up the bureaucracy, and became a member of parliament. He reached the peak of his career in 1970s, becoming a minister in the cabinet of Janos Kadar.

And then, in the 1980s, the old system began to crumble. Now it is the bourgeoisie that once more calls the shots in Hungary. The reformed Communists, reborn as Socialists, were defeated in this May's general election by a centre-right coalition preaching the values of the middle- class. They got Kalman's vote, and the support of Attila's son as well.

But despite their political and social differences, Kalman and Attila can still enjoy a drink together at family gatherings. For a while, at least, until the conversation dries up. "Come, comrade minister, sit down with us, comrade minister," joked Kalman as he gestured at Attila. But beneath Kalman's surface bonhomie lay ice, and comrade minister wasn't laughing as he left the room.