BUDAPEST CRAFTSWOMEN. Making a living with nimble fingers and fleet feet

THE shop-lined promenade of Vaci Street, once known as the Fifth Avenue of Budapest, is a place to spend money, meet friends, and be serenaded by street musicians. But on a midsummer Monday this street, in the heart of the retail district, also serves an unofficial open-air market. Here, 18 women and two men stand in a row, displaying pieces of embroidery. Like superannuated children, they hold up their handiwork with half proud, half embarrassed smiles. At the same time, their eyes sweep from left to right, right to left.

Suddenly their faces cloud. With practiced precision, the nimble-fingered stitchers roll up their embroidery and stuff it into tote bags. Then they melt into the passing crowd of pedestrians strolling in the summer sunshine.

It may be the fastest disappearing act in the East.

The group's nervous presence and sudden absence signals that this informal free enterprise is not tolerated by the policemen and women who patrol the street in pairs - the authorities that the needleworkers anticipate and fear as their eyes scan the crowds.

Yet business, like the proverbial show, must go on. Soon the women reassemble in a row, unfurl their handiwork, and wait for more customers.

Although some Hungarian needleworkers find legitimate outlets for their work through state-run Intertourist shops around the city, the street-corner presence of these women serves as a touching reminder that for the majority of craftspeople around the world - most of whom are women - selling the work of one's hands can be difficult and only marginally profitable.

For them, as for millions of people everywhere trying to eke out a living in honest but informal work arrangements, there is no equal-opportunity employer, no comparable worth, no minimum wage, no pension or perks. Just long hours, tedious work, and minimal compensation.

And in Hungary this summer, the government-controlled prices on commodities and services have just gone up: bread, 19 percent; electricity, 18 percent; fuel, 29 percent.

On this particular morning on Vaci Street, one small, elderly woman wearing a babushka clutches a round tablecloth. A middle-aged woman holds a peasant blouse. Another displays a black, pleated skirt with small red flowers; still another a white-on-white embroidered square. The two lone males, presumably serving as unpaid sales agents for their wives, offer flower-bedecked wall hangings.

An American teen-ager, acting as translator for her mother, approaches one of the artisans. The woman is holding a linen runner, its shiny red flowers and bright green leaves climbing an invisible trellis toward the cloudless sky above.

``How much is that?'' the 16-year-old asks in German.

``Drei hundert?'' the woman replies, her voice turning the price - 300 forints, about $7 - into a hopeful question rather than a flat statement. Then, to be sure the mother and daughter understand, she traces the number three on her palm.

Her customers produce the necessary bills and coins. The needleworker hands over her skillful stitching and offers a shy, grateful smile. One less item to sell, a few more forints in her pocket, a few moments closer to going home.

For the American buyers, this folk art will add a splash of bold color and beauty to a suburban home - a reminder of a fascinating city and a pleasant craftswoman with a silvery smile and talented hands.

For the Hungarian seller and her companions - their careworn faces and somber dress suggesting lives of little ease - these sidewalk transactions almost certainly represent a much-needed addition to modest family incomes.

This kind of underground enterprise may become increasingly unnecessary for their daughters and granddaughters. As a younger generation of girls, better educated and trained than their mothers and grandmothers, finds wider job opportunities, they may escape the isolation of back-room sewing and furtive, undervalued selling.

But that is the future. For now, for this little group of entrepreneurs on a Budapest corner, there will be other bundles of handiwork to stitch and sell, other days of police-watching to worry about, more forints to earn.

For some, there may even be a small, intangible reward to offset the hardships: a measure of satisfaction in being part of a dwindling band of folk artists who can make red flowers climb an invisible trellis on a linen runner on Vaci Street.

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