Monday 23 September 2013

Home on the hill heals Hungarians' ills

European literature of the 19th century was crammed with sanitariums. The lovelorn heroes of Turgenev’s and Lermontov’s novels were forever creeping up and down the corridors, seducing frail, young countesses. They declared their passion while taking the water cure in Baden-Baden or walking moodily about the garden in the film, ‘Last Year in Marienbad.’ Pale Hollywood heroines would divulge unrequited loves while dying of consumption in the rarefied air of the Swiss Alps as they pined away under a rug on the veranda. Visegrád sanitarium is one of five remaining institutes in Hungary. The others are at Parád, Sopron, Balatonfüred and Kékes, each specialising in treating different parts of the body. Patients come to Visegrád to convalesce after a serious illness or operation, usually connected with the digestive tract, although nervous complaints and psychosomatic problems can also be treated. Some patients return year after year with chronic internal problems and treat the centre like a home away from home. Head nurse Sándorné Rácz says, “We receive patients like a long-lost family member. I see our dear patients returning again and again. Around 35 percent ask specifically to come here.” Bathed in sunlight, Visegrád certainly looks idyllic. It sits on the side of a hill overlooking the Danube Bend, a 200-bed care centre surrounded by a flower garden. In the shade of blossoming chestnut trees patients sit, chatting or reading, or, as Rácz says, they, “Stare out into the big void and contemplate life. It is a peaceful place where people can relax and switch off. Many patients have nervous problems or are chronically depressed.” Inside, the walls are a soothing pale green and there is a smell of boiled potatoes and disinfectant. Patients sit in the corridors, dressed in track suits. Dr. Ferenc Kocsis, senior consultant, says, “It is important that patients take an active part in their own rehabilitation in healing surroundings. Relaxation is an important part, but they should not lie around in bed all day if they can get up.“ The sanitarium stresses the important of complete rehabilitation, both physical and spiritual. There is a psychiatrist to look after the emotional recovery and a mysterious closed door marked “Human Politics Department.” Patients can also visit the on-site hairdresser or dentist for confidence boosting. A little church stands on the sanitarium grounds. It is heated in winter to make praying more comfortable. The Miklós Horthy Sanitarium – as it was then known – opened in 1929. It became a state sanitarium under the control of the Ministry of Health in 1950 before it was taken over by Budapest local government a year later. Patients are sent here from Budapest and the surrounding area. A minibus service ships patients twice a day from Batthyány tér. “Residence and treatment at the sanitarium is free for Hungarian citizens with a blue health insurance card,” says Péter Fodor, the financial director. Patients stay in a three- or four-bed room, but for a daily fee of Ft900 they can have a single or twin room with a separate shower, toilet, colour television and refrigerator. Married couples can even receive treatment together and stay in a twin-bedded, albeit fairly spartan, room. Fodor says, “There are 12 in-hospital doctors and a further eight specialists; X-ray operators, dentists. There are 69 nurses, which is the optimum staff number for 200 patients. The yearly budget is Ft160 million, which comes from the Social Insurance.” In the corridor between the wards stand three huge jars of mineral water – bitter water, alkaline hydrogen carbonate medicinal water and something called Glauber salty water. Underneath is a big urn of chamomile tea. Patients can dip in at leisure. Strangely for a health institute, smoking is allowed outside and many bare chested ‘bácsi’s sit in the sun playing cards in a cloud of ‘Multifilter.’ The sanitarium takes a pragmatic view that many have nervous or psychosomatic problems and they cannot be forced to give up smoking for the period of their three-week stay. Swimming is possible in the Lepence thermal pool nearby, although a pool is also being dug for balneotherapy – physiotherapy in water for those with locomotive and other disorders who are not strong enough to exercise on dry land. Relationships which sometimes develop between patients are not encouraged. Nurse Rácz says, “Unfortunately, although the patients may have stomach problems, their emotions are still working fine.” Matron Rácz is terrifyingly friendly and overenthusiastic. She says, “We get severely depressed people coming here, but they all cheer up and smile back at me after three days and if not, well I just don’t say hello anymore.” She greets everyone as she walks around, saying “Szia!” or “Puszi!” She says, “We are a big family here. There are no barriers, patients can come and go as they like. All we ask is that they are in their rooms for two hours in the morning when the doctors visit. It is like paradise here. We take the patients on day trips to Esztergom and Mogyoróhegy. Next Monday, we are holding a cabaret evening in the social hut. One of our patients can play old nostalgic songs on the piano. We have musical evenings and joke competitions.” At lunch time, most patients are in the spacious canteen. Dr. Kocsis said the average patient age was 45, but most seem to be pensioners. The lunch is tasty and all staff eat there, too, which is reassuring, although there is something ghoulish about eating fried liver in a gastro-intestinal hospital. In the cool dark-green atmosphere of the day-room there is an aquarium, a television showing English-language classes on ceefax and lots of plants. Through the window you can watch middle-aged ladies strolling past in curlers from the 1950s. Two sisters, Bözsi and Rózsika, sit on a bench in the flower garden. Both in their 70s, they have come here many times with a frightening list of complaints. The sanitarium now arranges for them to come at the same time and share a room. Bözsi was on Margit Bridge when it blew up in 1945. The average length of stay is 21 days. Dr. Kocsis says, “Many patients have chronic illnesses and need at least three weeks’ break. We work on the basis that we want to make people fit enough to return to work. As they come back again and again, we need to establish a good relationship between the patient and the sensible doctor.” Many hospitals in the countryside are facing bankruptcy and many resorts, like Hévíz, have had to be privatised. The government intends to overhaul and restructure the health care programme in the autumn and health care institutes will be nervously looking over their shoulder. Kocsis says, “I am an optimist. I am quite old and I have seen many changes. The future now lies in Bokros’s hands.” Home on the hill heals Hungarians’ ills Lucy Mallows visits an oasis of peace where Budapest’s old and sick while away their hours. Published in Budapest Week, June 1 -7 1995 Photographs: Katalin Széphegyi

Saturday 18 May 2013

The Attila József Museum - A poetic genius

The poetry of Attila József is said to be the most beautiful in the Hungarian language and has reached the hearts and minds of many people in Hungary and abroad. It is possible to trace some of the events of his tragically short life at several sites throughout Budapest. József was born on April 11, 1905, in the poor working class district of Ferencváros. The modest two-roomed apartment at Gát utca 3, where he was born, has been transformed into a fascinating museum by Péter Sára of the Petôfi Literature Museum. It is easy to spot the apartment from a plaque, which was erected in 1965 and floral tributes and wreaths. The green door was ajar and a knock alerted Mrs Ferenc Soltész, the curator. "We had a Swedish translator here yesterday. People come from all over the world to pay tribute," she said. Inside the small apartment the walls are lined with black and white photographs. A picture of József’s father, Áron, in a military uniform is striking and a photo of his mother Borbála Pöcze reveals a pretty and delicate-looking woman. In his poem, A Dunánál (By the Danube) József wrote: "My mother was a Kun, my father was half Székely, half Romanian, maybe pure Romanian. From mother’s mouth the food was sweet, From father’s lips the truth was beautiful." József’s father, a soap boiler, abandoned the family when his son was three years old. There is a photo of another house in the same street and a poignant inscription reads: "Papa disappeared from this flat." His departure left his mother to care for József and his two elder sisters Jolán and Etelka on a small income she earned from taking in washing. In 1910, aged five, József was sent away for two years to foster parents, the Gombai’s, in the village of Öcsöd where the young boy worked as a swineherd, like other poor children in the village. At the age of seven, his mother took him back and with three children she again tried to make ends meet. A map by the door shows the 19 different places, all in Ferencváros, where the family lived. "Every time she had trouble with the rent, the landlord kicked them out and they had to move on," said Soltész, who supplemented the exhibition with stories and snippets of interesting information. The writer Zsigmond Móricz once asked József how he had managed to finish school. He expected him to say he sold newspapers to support himself, as many did. However, he said his sister Jolán married Ödön Makai, a lawyer from Hódmezôvásárhely, and they paid his school fees. József’s mother died of cancer in 1919 when he was 14 years old. Makai became József’s legal guardian and sent him to Makó boarding school. The museum shows József’s first volume of poems, Szépség koldusa (Beauty’s Beggar), which he wrote aged 17. The young poet furthered his education at Szeged university, but left after threats from Professor Horger who was disturbed by the publication of his poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) that began: "I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country." József then left for Vienna and Paris where he became a member of the Anarcho-Communist group. When József returned to Budapest two years later he fell in love with Márta Vágó, who came from a very well-to-do family. But the romance failed and he wrote, "Osztálya elragadta tólem" ("Her class tore her away from me.") József’s love life provided fuel for his poetry, as did his political leanings. He became involved in illegal left-wing movements and published his fourth volume of poetry, Döntsd a tôkét, ne siránkozz! (Fight capitalism, don’t whinge!) The work was confiscated and József was charged with "political agitation and obscenity." In 1933, the Fascists were in power in Germany and József continued with his work in the Communist movement. József was very disappointed not to be invited to the Soviet Writers’ First Congress and in 1935, suffering depression, he entered a sanatorium for the second time. When he left the institution a year later he became the co-editor, alongside Pál Ignotus, of the civil humanist periodical Szép Szó (Beautiful Word). He wrote and edited much of the publication in the Japán Coffeehouse, now the Írók Boltja book shop at Andrássy út 45. Despite his work, József became more and more isolated and depressed. His life was occupied by painful love affairs and periods in hospital with depression. The poet’s sisters did their best to care for him, but to no avail - József ended his life in Balatonszárszó, on December 3, 1937. There are many places in Budapest where you can find Attila József. At Kossuth tér, by Parliament, a beautiful, melancholic statue of the poet sits facing the river, his hat in his left hand and coat at his side, as if exhausted after a long walk. An inscription in the style of József’s handwriting, taken from A Dunánál (By the Danube), reads: ”Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna” ”As if it flowed straight from my heart Troubled, wise and great was the Danube” At Mester utca 67, you can see a plaque marking the spot where József attended school between the age of seven and nine. The plaque was erected on May 1, 1957, to mark the 50th anniversary of his birth (actually 52 years earlier in 1905). József was first buried in Balatonszárszó, then moved to Kerepesi Cemetery in 1942 to be united with his mother. József was then claimed by the working classes and given a decorated grave in the Workers’ Pantheon, but finally moved back to be with his mother, sister Jolán and nephew Péter Makai at Kerepesi. Recently add to the gravestone is the name of Attila’s sister Etelka who died in April 2004 aged 101. Former cemetery worker Antal Sinka added a theory to the many that surround the poet’s death. He said József did not commit suicide: "He left his sister’s house in a distracted state to buy two cigarettes. He was impatient for a train to pass and stepped out in front of it," said Sinka. To find the grave, go through the main entrance along the avenue, through the arcade and past the graves of Endre Ady and Mór Jókai. When you reach the next roundabout you will see a mausoleum with the words "Ave Domine" on your left. Turn right towards the Deák mausoleum and you will find Plot 35 where the great poet lies. The author and her hero...