I’m not a great one for making plans. Most of my major life decisions were taken on the spur of the moment. I’m definitely a heart-over-head type. There’s a closetful of clichés that talk about regret, and intuition, and going with your gut, and if I had a rule by which to live, it would be to go for what feels right. At the time.
Some 10 years ago, I decided to see what it would be like to spend time in Budapest. I knew nothing of the city other than a glimpse I’d had on two separate weekend trips some four years apart: one in the dead of winter and the second in an unseasonably warm spring. I liked what I saw. I liked the feel of the place. And I’m on record as saying that I believe Budapest has an energy about it that I’ve not found anywhere else. I’ve been at my most productive here and somehow, everything seems possible, even when I’m banging my head off a bureaucratic brick wall and decrying the city’s ability to make the simplest act hair-tearingly complex.
I’ve seen the city change. District VIII is a case in point. Ten years ago, it was probably the least desirable address to have in the city. Today, with the development around Corvin Negyed, Corvin Sétany, and the walk between Klinikak and Nagyvarad tér, it’s one of the most attractive. The castle district has undergone a facelift as has the parliament and a host of other buildings and churches that dot the skyline. Shops and restaurants and cafés have come and gone but the delightful old stalwarts are still there, places which take enjoying a cup to an art level.
The politics hasn’t changed much. The pendulum swung a little left and then a little further right but it keeps swinging. Antisemitism, never far from the surface, is obvious to greater and lesser degrees. Likewise, the pervasive attitude to the Roma. Public involvement in how the country is run has enjoyed various upswings and downswings with the passivity scale hitting minus figures at times. Hopefully, though, it’s on its way back.
Like a lot of capital cities, Budapest is often perceived as epitomising the whole of the country. Those who have visited on a weekend break will claim to have been to Hungary in the same way as Dublin tourists think they know Ireland and Parisian visitors think they know France. But if I’ve learned one thing over the course of the ten years that I’ve been spending time in Budapest, it’s that Budapest is not Hungary, not in its entirety. It’s like a city-state within a larger state, where time runs faster, imbued with an urgency and a sense of must-do or must-be-seen-to-be-doing that sets it aside from other cities in the country.
Like every other country on the global map, Hungary has its detractors and its supporters. Blanket statements of Hungarians being miserable, never smiling, always complaining, amuse me. I file them in the same bin as claims that every Irish person is an alcoholic or every German was born with a punctiliousness that borders on pedantry. They’re simply not true. But perhaps, if you were to view the city’s inhabitants on any morning, when the army of workers wends its way to their desks, then yes, perhaps the smiles might be missing. As they are in London, or Dublin, or Paris, or any major city where the populace moves in synchronised droves at given times.
I read a series of posts recently from expats who had lived or spent some time in Hungary and apart from a few positives, they were overwhelmingly negative. The Hungarian fear of foreigners. The high levels of corruption. The chronic homelessness. The poor wages. The high costs (relative to other EU countries like Spain and Italy). The unwillingness to help strangers. The language difficulties. And I’m sure that all complaints are valid, not imagined, but very real to those who wrote in. I can still remember bawling my eyes out in frustration walking down the körút having failed dismally to make myself understood and having been dismissed unceremoniously from a shop by a sales assistant who told me that I was too big for their clothes.
But it’s unfair to say that a Budapest experience constitutes the Hungarian reality, just as a Berlin experience isn’t Germany and a Pretoria experience isn’t South Africa.
Bureaucracy is a symptom of city life. Harried people live in fast-paced cities. Those looking in from the outside tend to focus on the centre of policy, on where the politicians meet, on where the cruise ships dock. International reporting is naturally drawn to the headliners. And the result is a pixelated picture of Hungary that however accurate in isolated detail, leaves a lot to be desired as a complete image.
Go outside the city. Visit other cities. Go to Veszprém or to Keszthely or to Vác and see how different they are. Spend time in the villages and market towns and see how inordinately helpful people are. See the lengths they go to, to circumvent the petty bureaucracy because they have the time to see how inane the rules are. Witness how non-English-speaking locals make Herculean efforts to understand and make themselves understood. They, too, have the time. And time makes a difference.
Ten years ago, a tarot card reader in Brighton told me that I’d spend 10 years in Budapest. I didn’t believe them. That’s wasn’t part of the plan I didn’t have. But life has a way of taking over and things simply happen. Hungary happened.
First published in the Budapest Times 4 August 2017