Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Passports were a particular problem for the average citizen in the happy days of the Peoples' Republic of Hungary. You should know that while poor, exploited westerners had just one colour of passport, we lucky socialists had three! At least, that was the case in Hungary – red, blue and brown.
Of course, for any younger readers among you, even Hungarians, this may all be confusing. I mean, until the Covid-19 pandemic from March this year, people had been hopping on planes from London to Prague or Budapest or Krakow for two or three nights away, and vice versa since around the beginning of the millennium.
In 1973, this was beyond dreamland.
In those days, people in east European communist countries simply couldn't travel to the west without overcoming huge bureaucratic hurdles. Within Eastern Europe, people from the “Brotherly Socialist Countries” such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, could travel among themselves quite easily, but even going to the Soviet Union was not simple, except in organised tours.
Hence the proliferation of coloured passports in our part of the world.
I don't know what it was like in our dear neighbours, but for us Hungarians, the red ones were valid for communist bloc countries, and therefore little coveted: blue were for travel to the west and almost everywhere, and therefore prized like no other.
Brown were also valid more or less everywhere, but were for 'official' travel purposes only.
Based on my father's work status in Sudan, mine was brown. But once back home, official duty ended, and it had to be surrendered within 24 hours of arrival.
So my first port of call on the Monday was to the passport office, located on what was then called Rudas László utca – today's Podmaniczky utca – which runs parallel to the railway leaving Nyugati railway station.
A routine affair on paper, it proved to be a visit with important ramifications. Indeed, what might be termed the “practical start” of my career as an American agent began that very morning as the receptionist-guard handing me the entry card issued a stern warning not to misplace it – or risk incarceration.
I was directed to an office on the second floor.
An average good-looking woman, I guess in her forties, dyed blonde hair, sat behind the desk, and – unusually for the interior ministry - came across as a genuine, friendly sort.
Even more unusual, it soon transpired that for the BM (the Hungarian abbreviation for Belügyminisztérium), Mrs János Szöllősi was also exceptionally intelligent, and obviously had some sort of university degree.
We exchanged introductions, and I handed her my passport, bulging with extensions.
As she leafed through it and saw all the countries I'd visited, Mrs Szöllősi began asking about my life and travels.
And though she was seemingly friendly, her questions were not at all easy to answer.
Most importantly, where were my parents? How come I'd returned alone?
When I told her they were still visiting relatives in Germany – that only invited more questions: When exactly would they be coming back? Why had I not gone to visit Germany?
Well, I didn't like my uncle, nor Germany nor Germans in general. And I'd wanted to visit Athens and my Bulgarian friend in Sofia.
This, at least, was all true.
What I didn't tell her was that my parents intended to stay in Germany. When we said goodbye in Khartoum, they had told me I was now to be on my own because they intended to defect. But of course, I just wouldn't dare tell a BM officer that in 1973!
She also managed to winkle out of me that my half-sister, Zita, had defected to the UK in 1965 – which was another tricky subject.
It was not at all easy going. Why, for example, had we not returned to Hungary during the summers?
I told her, to be frank, we saw no reason to come back during these eight years, because we had a passport valid for the world (except Israel and Portugal) and we wanted to make use of it.
Especially as, each year, we got free tickets valid for Khartoum-Budapest and return, but we could use this for any equivalent mileage to and from wherever. The University of Khartoum and Sudan government didn't care a damn where you went.
Of course, if we flew more than that, then we had to pay for it. This way we could see such parts of the world that the average Hungarian in those days could only dream about. (This was one of the biggest gifts that life has given me, via my father, because I think I learned a lot from it. )
Whatever, after two hours of mental squirming, I'd told her practically everything about my past eight years in Khartoum, the Sudan and holidays in Europe and Africa which we'd taken while there.
What was funny, sort of, was that towards the end of our talk, it was almost as if she wanted to ask: Well why on earth have you come back here, to experience this communist nonsense then? But of course, she, a loyal servant of the system, couldn't possibly ask that!
She said this was all very interesting, and with me speaking English, Arabic, and some French, I should find it “very easy to find yourself a job”.
And what I was interested in? I told her mostly trade, because I'd been attending a trade faculty at school. And she said: Why don't you become a foreign trade specialist?
Hmmm, why not? That sounds interesting, I thought.
Anyway, she gave me the idea to apply for a job in the foreign trade business. Otherwise, this might not have occurred to me.
She also wrote down my name and address and phone number, because, as she said before I left, “We” - and 'we' here meant the Ministry - “We might make use of your knowledge of foreign languages some time.”