If you’re a member of Budapest’s ever-dwindling population of English-speaking expatriates, you’ve probably already heard that popular Pest-side Scottish pub the Caledonia has been slapped with a two-month closure by the authorities for some pretty goofy violations, namely keeping two bottles of the same booze open at the same time at the bar, and using whiskey to cook in the kitchen.
I spoke today with proprietor Patrick McMenamin and got some additional details on the draconian punishment heaped on the Caledonia, which he fears could result in the pub being unable to get back on its feet after it completes its “sentence” in early December.
According to McMenamin, the closure order arrived in early September, and followed an inspection in late spring by officials from the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV), the tax and customs authority that a few years back replaced the APEH (and which many locals by habit still call “APEH”). It was not the first visit of the NAV to the Caledonia, though McMenamin said the pub hadn’t been regularly inspected. He also said that during the most recent inspection the officers indicated that they had discovered some issues, but did not let on to the severity of the problem. Crucially, he said that at no point during the inspection was any bribe or improper payment solicited, offered or otherwise referred to by anyone on either side.
As for why the pub may have been closed on such flimsy grounds, McMenamin maintains that he is utterly stumped, and indeed there seems to be no shortage of potential explanations:
- Zealous official or officials who want to make sure establishments which sell alcohol follow each and every last silly rule on the books;
- A need for inspectors to “fill a quota” of penalties handed out or just to look like they are being busy;
- A misunderstanding on the part of official(s) who were expecting a bribe;
- A conspiracy aimed at helping a competing pub, or someone who hopes to take over the business or location if the Caledonia’s current owners give up and walk away;
- Someone at the NAV who doesn’t like foreigners or foreign-themed bars;
- Someone at the NAV who just wants to be a killjoy and destroy someone else’s business for the hell of it;
- A payback for the club’s vocal opposition to an earlier plan by District VI to force all area “catering” establishments to close up for the night at 10:00 p.m. sharp.
Working from top down, I’d say No. 1 is rather far-fetched, if not inconceivable. No. 2 is more plausible, though not hugely so, as the Caledonia was not slapped with a fine of the sort that NAV officials have handed out in sweeps of retail establishment. Sadly, No. 3 is very plausible indeed, since such shakedowns are known to be commonplace at least when health and safety inspectors come knocking in Hungary, and one can easily imagine both sides being shy about raising the topic of a “friendly solution.” It’s hard to even make a guess about 4 through 6, but neither do they seem totally out of the question.
Happily, I very seriously doubt the most sinister possibility – No. 7 – could have been decisive, because the judge and executioner in the current case wouldn’t have been involved in the earlier “War on Nightlife” brouhaha, and the district government that launched it has since been voted out of office. At the same time, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely, judging from the recent shutdown of another Budapest fixture well-known to expatriates: The T. Nagy Tamás cheese shop on District V’s Gerlóczy utca.
Shut down: McMenamin, Nagy and Rogán.
The sudden closure of post-Communist Hungary’s first retailer devoted to high-quality imported cheeses made some small headlines in the local when it happened back in January, but until now was apparently not covered in the foreign-language media.
According to various sources, the shop was forced to relocate (eventually to way out in District X) after the local government refused to renew the least for the small space it had been occupying since the early 1990s. And the alleged reason its lease was yanked is that owner Tamás Nagy had apparently been too vocal and personal in his criticism of the policies of Antal Rogán, the district mayor (and Fidesz parliamentary faction leader), most notably the heavy permit fees demanded of local businesses that are resupplied by truck. As payback, Rogán supposedly ordered the district to kick Nagy out of the shop. For his part, Nagy is said to have decided not to press the matter, not wanting to put in jeopardy his other, more profitable local venture, the adjacent Gerlóczy Kávéház, above which a boutique hotel was added in 2008.
Details of the case are obviously open to debate. But nine months after Nagy’s left, the space on Gerlóczy utca it is still vacant, which at least suggests that the district didn’t have any tenant lined up for the spot. Plus, Rogán is the all-around poster boy for everything twisted, sick and sad about big-power Hungarian politics. Either way, the whole thing reeks to high heaven.
Back at the Caledonia, McMenamin says he has filed an appeal against the closure, and holds out some hope it will be overturned or reduced, a feeling I share. Though if he decides to not re-opening a business in a city where you can be closed at any time for any number of crazy or criminal reasons, I would understand as well.