2017 Grateful 40

When a seven-year-old child has no idea what they want for Christmas, you might immediately think that they have so much already that there’s nothing left for them to ask for. But when that seven-year-old child cannot answer the question because it’s one they’ve never before been asked, it’s enough to make your heart break.

Hos utca 15

This week, I went to visit some families living in two tenement buildings in Budapest’s Xth district, not far from Stadion, a part of Budapest tourists and many locals never see, Hős utca 15/a and 15/b are home to some 600 people, about 130 of whom are children. These 300 one-roomed apartments were built back in 1939. The conditions are dire. A gas explosion resulted in higher common costs for tenants, only half of  whom live in council-owned flats; the others are privately owned. The local development strategy seems to want the building levelled but there is no place for the people go to. Those who have council leases will not have them renewed on expiration. If they have kids, they’ll be taken into care until the parents can find alternative accommodation. The local government has ruled that it has first refusal on any flat offered for sale but the paltry 1.5 million huf (about €4800/$5600) on the table won’t rehouse the sitting tenants. The street, which translates into Heroes Street, is in the middle of an area bordered by the Anti-Terrorist Unit HQ, Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University, and a police station. The mind boggles. What should probably be the safest place in the city, is one that is anything but.

We got there about 4pm and met with Zsuzsanna Urbanovszky from Kontúr Egyesület. Zsuzsanna has been volunteering at Hős utca for about four years and it’s immediately clear that the children like and trust her. We were in safe hands.

This YouTube clip was filmed in 2012 and believe me, nothing has improved. It gives you an idea of what the place is like.


We met some other volunteers in one of the flats that Kontúr uses. The door was locked at all times, even though kids were coming and going. Kontúr is cooperating with the Letters to Santa initiative. In its third year, it’s probably one the most rewarding things I do each Christmas. The brainchild of Zsuzsa Bozo, kids fill out their letters to Santa and then volunteer Elves make sure that Santa delivers on what they’ve asked for. It’s hoped that 50 of the 130 or so children will participate, but it’s proving difficult to get the completed letters back. Parents are reluctant to let them visit the little community centre, and even more reluctant to commit to taking the kids to the party where the presents will be distributed on 22 December. More are suspicious about why the Zsuzsas are doing this. Gifts without strings are rare in their worlds.

We wandered upstairs and down, ably guided by a ten-year-old girl, who, if she had a magic wand, said that she would stop people robbing. Later I met a five-year-old who, with her magic wand, would change the windows in her flat into doors. A couple of young boys told me that they’d make people stop fighting. The doors are grilled, padlocked, and chained. The windows are boarded up. The passageways are dirty, smelly, and full of rubbish. There’s an air of abandonment and yet there’s evidence of life. Shadows flitted about the landings, silhouetted by the glow of a cigarette or the reflection of a phone. Everyone greeted us politely. No threats. No lewd comments. No smart remarks by the groups of young men that hung out in the stair wells. Three women and a child wandering freely in a part of town that the police are reluctant to patrol. Yes, Zsuzsanna has earned respect.

I was walking, head down, making sure I didn’t stumble or fall when I passed a pair of shiny leather shoes sitting beneath a pair of well-pressed trousers and an expensive woolen overcoat. I looked up in surprise. Definitely not a local but one who walked as if he knew where he was going. Drug dealer? Money lender? Who knows.

For some strange reason, the Hanoi Hilton came to mind. Perhaps it was the bars, the flittering shadows, the disembodied voices. Perhaps it was the poverty, the filth, the squalor. Or maybe it was that sense of imprisonment that defied freedom of movement. People are certainly free to come and go, but few, if any, ever truly escape.

And yet, there is a pride visible in the homes. Clean, tidy spaces, furnished with old furniture and hand-me-downs. The children are well turned out, polite, and friendly. They have a fascination with manó – leprechauns – asking if I’d ever seen one and if there was really gold at the end of the rainbow. They showed me their letters, explaining what they wanted, asking me to check on the Net to make sure Santa knew the specifics. I learned a lot about Hungarian YouTubers and Soy Luna 🙂 and today, we went shopping for five.

Hymnist Henry Burton wrote:

Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on.
’Twas not given for thee alone, pass it on.
Let it travel down the years,
let it wipe another’s tears, till in heaven the deed appears – pass it on.

If you want to get involved, check the Facebook page. Consider passing it on.

For the Zsuzsas in this world, who give so graciously of their time, and work tirelessly to better the lot of others, I’m grateful. Ladies, you do the world proud.


PS – the observant regular reader among you will notice that I’m out of sync on my grateful numbering – back to normal next week.

Christmas shopping with a difference

Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, four friends and I have done a Kris Kindle. We each pick a name and buy just for that person with a budget of about €30.00. I look forward to this: not so much the getting, but the giving. But a motion has been made to drop it this year and instead to give each other something far more valuable – our time.

I was horrified. It’s a tradition. We’ve been doing this for years. It’s part of the annual Craigford party. We can’t just stop it…

But on reflection, I saw sense. Our time is a very precious commodity. Choosing to spend it together, pooling the respective €30s to have that togetherness is way more valuable than a gift-wrapped something I could more than likely have done without anyway. I’ve reconciled myself to the change.

That said, I still love buying. If I had to choose between getting a present and giving one, I’d choose the latter every time. There was a void that needed to be filled.

I wrote some weeks back about Zsuzsa Bozo of the Caledonia Scottish Pub and her Levelek Télapónak (Letters to Santa) initiative. Some 160 children from the village of Gáborjan have written their letters to Santa Claus. In them, they say how good they’ve been throughout the year. They also list what they need, what they’d like to wear, what book they’d like to read, and what would make them really happy. Four things.

lp2The letters, and the accompanying pictures that the kids have drawn, are on display in the Caledonia on Mozsár utca. Ready-made wish lists. Just what I needed. I dropped by and had a look. Some I needed help in translating, but that was no problem. Help was there.

Viktor, aged 5, says he’s been good all the time. Fair play, I thought. That kid deserves to be rewarded.  He’d like books to practice writing and drawing, a t-shirt and jumper, a book on motorbikes, and a police car. Doable, I thought. Definitely doable. In writing my name on his letter, I committed to getting everything on his list.

I leafed through some more and came across Dominik, also aged 5, and a little more of a realist. He’s been ‘mostly good’ all year. How’s that for hedging? He’d like drawing stuff, a t-shirt and jumper, a book on animals, and a tipper truck. Mmmm … tempting. I could have fun shopping for the truck. But I’m not made of money. I have a budget. Something else would have to go.  I thought quickly. My dad doesn’t put much store in Christmas  – he’d be well happy with just a book. Dominik – you’re in luck.

I had a few more minutes to kill so I kept reading. Tibor, also aged 5, admitted to being naughty. I loved the honesty. He’d like a puzzle, a tracksuit, a book on cars, and a tractor and trailer. I couldn’t resist. Down went my name again.

So if your Christmas present from me this year is more thoughtful than extravagant, you’ll know why. There are lots more kids from Gáborjan with wish-lists on the walls of the Caledonia whose hopes are just waiting to be fulfilled. And there are 30 more from the Vamósszabadi refugee camp who really need something good to happen in their lives this Christmas.

If you don’t like shopping, don’t worry. Zsuzsa and her team can shop for you. And if your budget won’t stretch to a full child, then give what you can  – every forint goes one step further to making a child’s Christmas one to remember. What’s not to like about that?    Check it out on Facebook:

First published in the Budapest Times 4 December 2015