Hungarian attitude toward alcohol consumption

I would like to talk about two incidents that happened only a few days apart. We briefly touched on the first in the comments. István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an obscene letter full of four-letter words to the foreign correspondents in Budapest. In it he accused them of false reporting, resulting in an unjust and untrue picture of Hungary. The English-language letter can be read here at the end of the Hungarian introduction. Now it turned out that Lovas’s excuse is that he was drunk.

Two days ago there was a curious scene in the Hungarian parliament. An MSZP member of parliament happened to be delivering a question to one of the ministers when István Pálffy (KDNP), who is in his first term in parliament, got up, went by the speaker, shook hands with him, and began unsteadily ambling toward the exit. Then he suddenly stopped and began a conversation with two Jobbik members who, after he had left, indicated that the honorable member was drunk.

We may also add to these two recent incidents that József Balogh, another parliamentarian, hit “Terike” while intoxicated. In fact, he had to be so drunk that the next morning he had no recollection of the events of the night before.

According to the World Health Organization, mortality due to alcohol-related problems in Hungary was over three times the European Union average for men and around two and a half times that of the EU average for women. A full 10% of the population has been officially diagnosed with alcoholism. It is likely that there is a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and violence of all sorts, not just the domestic variety.

An American researcher reported that during her stay in the country she was offered a drink at practically all the families she visited regardless of the time of the day. I can attest to that myself. People wanted me to drink cognac at 11 a.m. and they could be very insistent, viewing refusal as an insult. Perhaps that’s why there is a certain tolerance toward “being tipsy.”

In an interview with Lovas in Heti Válasz the discussion turned to his unspeakable letter to the foreign journalists. There were jokes about the amount of alcohol he consumed, which turned out to be a whole bottle of wine and two ponies of pálinka. At least this is what he admitted to. Jokes were flying about the Hungarian expression “the glass suddenly became full,” meaning that “it was the last straw” that foreign correspondents were not reporting on the Baja video.

Pallfy Istvan

István Pálffy

As for Pálffy, I suspect that he is an alcoholic. Although he has an engineering degree, he spent most of his adult life as a newspaperman. First in Magyar Rádió and later at MTV. Between 2002 and 2008 he was in charge of the news and, given Pálffy’s political views, MTV’s news even before 2010 was anything but balanced. In addition he shows a keen interest in gastronomy and, not surprisingly, wines. He wrote guides to Hungarian wines with the title “The best 100 Hungarian wines.” I somehow doubt that he could be a great judge.

A Hungarian right-wing Internet site ran a story about these two incidents with the title “Pony” (Kupica). In it the author called Lovas’s letter “astonishingly sweet and obscene.” What was sweet about it I wouldn’t know, but Lovas’s obscene outburst seemed to have been explained away and forgiven.

Today an article appeared by György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who often publishes short articles in Magyar Narancs. He is bothered about “the jovial manner” in which the topic is treated. The way the interviewing journalist actually condones Lovas’s drinking that ended in great embarrassment not just for himself but for right-wing Hungarian journalism in general.

While Lovas thinks that he was justified in complaining about the alleged “anti-Fidesz” behavior of foreign journalists and only the alcohol made him use inappropriate words, Pálffy threatens anyone who says he was drunk in parliament with a law suit. Although the Hungarian parliament has a pub, according to one article I read its sales are ridiculously modest: one bottle of wine and ten bottles of beer a day! Pálffy claims that he has never bought any alcohol in the parliamentary pub. I believe him. But one doesn’t have to purchase liquor there in order to be loaded by the afternoon. The parliamentary session normally starts at 1 p.m.

Just as the attitude toward the role of women and domestic violence must change in Hungary, so should the attitude towards excessive drinking. But how can this happen when such a widespread “understanding” of the phenomenon exists? Interestingly enough, while there is some attempt at curbing smoking, I see no government effort at educating the public about the pitfalls of excessive drinking. In my elementary school we had a poster on the wall: “Az alohol öl, butít, és nyomorba dönt!” (Alcohol kills, makes you stupid, and reduces you to destitution.) I’m not sure that it shaped later behavior, but at least it was pointing in the right general direction–as opposed to granting a tax exemption for the production of pálinka.