Christmas came early for many people in Budapest this year with the election of the beautifully named Gergely Szilveszter Karácsony as mayor of the city in October. New Year in Hungary is known as Szilveszter and Christmas translates as Karácsony. And yes, I checked. He was a June baby.
This early Christmas present caught the powers-that-be unawares. It came as a major surprise to many, but it didn’t take the election scrooges long to track down the cause. It was the foreigners’ fault. For the first time that I can remember, the opposition parties targeted the expat vote. YouTube videos, Facebook posts, even campaign phone calls in varying levels of English motivated as many as 90 000 non-nationals with Budapest addresses to go to the polls. This hitherto unheard-of showing was apparently what turned the tide.
Where exactly the expat vote went is a mystery as exit-interviews with non-Hungarian-speaking voters were rare enough. But those election scrooges reckoned the 50 000 votes that separated the two main candidates were expat votes. In the aftermath, I read various translations of what was being reported and was amused to hear that as a foreigner I apparently don’t understand what’s going on in the country and I’m less receptive to ‘national impulses’. I was disturbed to read that although the Hungarian constitution allows EU citizens with valid addresses in Hungary to vote in local elections, many (pro-government) Hungarians don’t agree with the practice. I had this peculiar sense of belonging and not belonging, as if I were good enough to be part of the EU tribe but not good enough to be part of the HU family.
When I first came to Budapest, I was very conscious of being treated differently. I was out for a drink one night with a Hungarian friend. They went to the bar and ordered two drinks. When my round came, I ordered the same and got the same but was charged more. My friend took issue with the bartender that night and other nights in other bars where the same thing happened. But after a while, it stopped.
Fast forward to 2019 at a flea market one Sunday in Buda. In my best Hungarian, I asked the price of a picture I fancied. 5000 ft, he said. I commented further in Hungarian and was completely taken aback when the price jumped from 5000 to 15 000. Even wrapped in an apology, it stung. This happened twice that day. I’ve heard reports from other expats who phoneless, hail a taxi on the street, and are given silly prices to get home. Really silly prices, like 6000 ft to get from Astoria to Kiraly, a ride that should cost no more than 2000. Trying to get a taxi from Keleti one night, we were turned down three times because although foreigners we weren’t tourists and were obviously familiar enough with the city not to be easy marks.
When I get a notice from the post office to say there’s something there for me to collect, it’s marked külföldi (foreigner). If I order a taxi, I see külföldi written on the screen when I get in. And once, at a KFC, I even saw külföldi written on my ticket. But in fairness, that’s probably a heads up to the postie, the cabbie, and the Colonel that I might not speak Hungarian. At least, I hope that’s all it is. But külföldiek living abroad want to feel part of it, too. I know I do.
In November this year, Jack Doyle’s, an Irish-owned pub in the city, celebrated ten years of serving ceol, caint, agus craic (music, chat, and fun) alongside pints of Guinness and shots of palinka to an international clientele. I was lucky enough to be invited to the party. Many of those present had travelled from abroad especially for the occasion. They came from Ireland, England, the Netherlands, and Belgium, back to pay their respects to Charles and Elvira, the duo behind it all. It was an opportunity to reconnect, to catch up with those who’d drunk in the place when it wasn’t quite on the map, those who’d supported it throughout the teething pains, trials, and tribulations, and those who’d come more recently to the party.
Old friends reunited. Those who hadn’t been able to travel were part of the reminiscing. Those who’d travelled over for the fifth birthday caught up. The hundreds of framed pictures that usually adorn the walls were covered with photos of punters celebrating birthdays, graduations, and engagements or simply enjoying a night out with friends. It was like walking through a hall of fame – each photo had a backstory and that backstory involved many nationalities, many countries, many cultures.
Singers and musicians from all over took to the stage. There were no barriers, no walls, no fences. Everyone brought the best of themselves to the party. Grandmothers and great aunts had travelled from Ireland, remarkable women who gave the young ones a run for their money. Such staying power is truly amazing. When a woman in her eighties walks into the Kempinski at 7 am after a night on the town and bids a cheery goodnight to the concierge, what else could he say but ‘It’s actually morning, madam’.
I cried during the speeches. Not because I was in my cups (I’d been pacing myself) but because the air was thick with sentiment, redolent of good memories. I heard English, Irish, Hungarian, and Norwegian with snippets of French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Chinese. I heard stories that embarrassed, flattered, and inspired. Compliments traded at the beginning of the night gave way to friendly banter as the slagging ratcheted up a few notches with each pint sunk. For one night, in the middle of Budapest, there were no külföldiek. Everyone belonged. Everyone was accepted. Everyone mattered.
Kudos to Charles and Elvira and their multinational team of stalwarts who continue the JD tradition of inclusiveness and bonhomie. Theirs is a gift that keeps on giving.
First published in the Budapest Times 13 December 2019