Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Having sorted out my ID and registered with our 'customer-friendly' police, it was time to find a job. And, since I was fluent in Arabic and English, what better than to follow Mrs Szöllősi's suggestion and seek an opening at an 'impex' - that is a foreign-trade company, which were generally headquartered in Budapest.
Photo: I haven't got a piccie of the Elektroimpex HQ, but it was on what is today called Nador utca, but back in communist times, was Münnich Ferenc utaca. Elektroimpex was maybe 150 yards away from this shot of street signs on an OTP Bank branch.
But first, a note of explanation, because most of you today – even Hungarians - will have no idea what an impex was. Under communism, let's say you were the boss of a state-owned company that made medical equipment for both the domestic and export markets. Along with all the general inefficiencies you would have to deal with, you also had the problem of not being in charge of your own exports or imports.
You see, foreign trade involved, well, foreigners (surprisingly enough) and for the paranoid authorities, that introduced a whole new level of political risk. This was true even if they were 'our' foreigners ie from “brotherly socialist” countries, such as Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria but most especially when they were from the western or even the so-called non-aligned states.
All this meant that your medical manufacturing company would trade its goods via a separate import-export company – in this case it was called Medimpex - where the interior ministry always had its agents in place under some sort of cover job. As in 'normal' state companies, these agents were on the lookout for politically unreliable employees, potential defectors and most especially - spies!
In spite of these snoopers, a job with an impex was generally much coveted, holding out the chance of trips abroad with pay (which didn't count for much) and expenses (which did).
I, of course, had another ulterior motive to such a job: I thought that I might be able to travel to the west and meet my American controller at some safe venue.
Whatever, I had to nail a job first, and for that, I found our old mechanical typewriter and bashed out a CV, using carbon paper to make a dozen or more copies.
Looking back, I was fantastically, mind-bogglingly, naïve.
As I learned later, to get a decent job anywhere in Hungary, you normally needed 'protekció' - support from a godfather who would pull strings for you in the background – and this was most especially true at an impex.
And I didn't even get the basics right: for example, it didn't cross my mind that sending out carbon copies of your CV made it evident to any potential employer that you were churning out job applications!
But I was only 19, and carbon copies or not, I looked up the addresses of foreign-trade companies in a phone directory, made out a list, and started out visiting each one - just walking in from the street, and dropping off my CV. Worse still, it was July and the so-called 'uborka' or 'cucumber' season was just starting, meaning a low activity period (yes, even lower than normal) with half the staff at each and every company likely to be away on holiday.
The receptionists must have thought they'd met a madman.
I forget when I popped into Elektroimpex, on Nádor utca in district V: it might have been the third or twenty-third call for all I can remember.
But someone there told me that they did indeed have some vacancies, and would give me a ring if I was suitable for one. Well, of course, I didn't really hold out much hope, yet, as it turned out, they really rang me up, and asked me to go in.
So, donning my one and only suit and tie, I turned up to meet a lady from personnel, Rozália Kardos, who was a very pleasant lady in her 40s.
First things first – she asked me to sit down and fill in the standard application form that must have been created in the 50s, in the early, hard-line days of communism. And that meant not only my personal data, but information on even my grandparents – what they did and their financial standing.
This was all in the name of weeding out class enemies, of course, but what does a child know about the financial position of his grandparents? Nothing – at least in my case!
All I knew was that grandfather once had a vineyard in Cegléd, a small town some 70km south-east of Budapest. What I only learned later was that the state cooperative farm in the town had been created from that very vineyard. It was, in fact, huge, and my grandfather was indeed a kulak – a class enemy.
However, Elektroimpex had considerable sales in the Arab world, including Libya, Iraq and Egypt, so my knowledge of English and, especially Arabic, trumped any concerns about my “class enemy” background. In addition, unknowingly I had another source of support – but more of that anon.
Fact is, about six weeks after landing like an alien nomad at Ferihegy and with a CV marked “not applicable” when it came to employment experience, I was asked to start work at Elektroimpex on September 1.
It felt as if my life as an orphan-spy was at least going to have some daily routine, providing me with an economic basis for existence.