Ms. Bella visibly hated the whole thing, she smoked during the lesson and painted her nails, often at the same time. Her husband would enter in a state of half-dress looking for his tie. “Excuse me, mini professors!”, he’d say. – How Ádám Nádasdy the boy began learning English.
A Romantic Love
It started when I was nine. Don’t be surprised: some loves do start so young, didn’t little Dante fall in love with Beatrice when he was nine? As for myself, at the age of nine I fell in love with the English language. A classmate of mine, Isti Bertényi – a very serious and long-faced boy – told me that his elder brother was attending English classes with a certain Ms. Bella who lived on our street. We thought it might be nice to learn English. We asked another of our classmates, Arnold Czigler, if he’d like to join too. He said he would, all the more so since his family were preparing to emigrate to Australia. Of course, he didn’t tell us this (perhaps he hadn’t been told either), after all in 1955 the mere thought of emigrating was illegal, it was known as defection, on top of that his father was in prison (he didn’t keep that one a secret).
That afternoon we met in front of Miss Bella’s building. We climbed the stairs and rang the bell. Ms. Bella was young, thinking back she could have been thirty-five, but of course to us she was Ms. Bella. She asked with surprise who we were and what we wanted. Bertényi told her that his elder brother came here for English and that we’d like to learn English as well. That’s very well, said Ms. Bella, but do our parents know about this? They don’t, we said, and were slightly amazed how this was of any importance – after all, since when was learning a language such a forbidden or improper avocation? We promptly made it clear that we’d pay, of course (10 forints per lesson was her rate, which we could’ve put together from our own pocket money). But she just laughed and insisted that our parents give her a call or write to her. That’s what happened, and the lessons began the following week.
Ms. Bella visibly hated the whole thing, she smoked during the lesson and painted her nails, often at the same time. Her husband would enter in a state of half-dress looking for his tie. “Excuse me, mini professors!”, he’d say. When the revolution broke out in October ’56, the whole thing came to an end. Czigler’s father got out and they immediately set off for Australia, Bertényi and I weren’t even allowed out onto the street.
After so many years I can now say: Ms. Bella wasn’t worth a pin. Her knowledge of English must have been minimal, nor did she know a thing about teaching, the lessons were void of any sense whatsoever. There was no book. You couldn’t blame her for the latter: you couldn’t find English books, either you had them since before the siege or you didn’t. But she taught us how to use the words do-does-did and he-she-it. She dictated a couple of sentences in Hungarian and we had to translate them into English for homework. “When does the Easter bunny come? The Easter bunny comes at Easter.” Although Ms. Bella was a novice I had officially been initiated; this was the first foreign language which I had deliberately begun to study.
My not so deliberate studies began at a much younger age. I was three years old when my grandmother who supervised our upbringing enrolled us at a nursery school. Not one of the newly founded comprehensive nursery schools where one sang about Mr. Stalin in 1950 and where – and this was worse – children of all social classes were integrated. No, she enrolled me at a private nursery school. This school was run by a tall and very ugly but extraordinarily kind lady, Ms. Ida. She had one speciality: English! “The English Nursery” was its name. We learned poems, songs and little stories in English. The nursery was in her flat at Kosztolányi square, it was spacious and clean. Ms. Ida was a professional; even a three-year-old could see that. By the end I knew the letters; I remember a picture book in which a very angry person said: “Give me my dog!”, and repeated it several times, in bigger and bigger letters until in the end they filled the entire page: GIVE ME MY DOG!!! It was terrifying.
Twenty years later I was walking on the square when an elderly woman as straight as a poker shouted to me: “Edöm! Hau nájsz tu szí jú! Hau ár jú?” It was Ms. Ida: she recognised in the adult the child she’d last seen when he was five. She spoke English fluently but her pronunciation was hideously Austro-Hungarian. I was almost ashamed to answer because by that time I’d managed to acquire correct English pronunciation and I didn’t want to show off or put her to shame. But she didn’t mind (or didn’t notice) and we held a brief but flawless and polite exchange. I told her that I’d graduated in English at university. She cocked her head to one side and said: “Jú szí?”
(read the whole story in Hungarian in Élet és Irodalom, 10 February 2017)
Translated by: Owen Good