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The right to bitch

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a wide-spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. I wish I could claim that as my own but English philosopher Bertrand Russell beat me to it. And he makes a good point.

When I’m looking for excuses not to do what I should be doing, I like to scan expat blogs, check out the many expat forums, and read through the myriad Facebook comments, in an effort to see what the expat world thinks of living in Hungary. While many comments are at best rather inane, others border on outrageous.

This week, for instance, an advertisement seeking a native-English-speaker to work in an office here in Budapest got this response to a follow-up question as to why native English was a requirement, given the number of Hungarians who speak better English than a lot of native-English speakers:

“As someone who’s employed a hell of a lot of expats and ‘Hungarians with excellent English’ – let me share a common consensus when it comes to employing Hungarians in the future…. NEVER AGAIN. English is invariably sub par, general attitude problems are rife (how to motivate someone who struggles to smile??), pay expectations beyond reason (often due to a degree in something pointless) and to top it all off a real ‘no can do’ attitude.”

Thankfully, subsequent comments to this one showed that this is far from the common consensus the author claims.

voteI’ve long since held that if you don’t vote, then you shouldn’t complain about those in office. If you don’t get involved, you should keep your opinion to yourself. If you don’t engage with the community, then you should put up and shut up. But as the election approaches next week, I’m all too conscious of the fact that I don’t have a vote and yet whatever is decided at the polls is likely to affect how I live my life. It’s a scary thought.

But when it comes to my earned right to complain as a tax-paying, law-abiding, active member of the community, I’m left wondering where I draw the line.

Is it okay for me, say, to complain about the arbitrary nature of Magyar Posta’s ticketed queuing system, which by virtue of the fact that it’s automated should mean that everyone is seen in turn but rarely is? Or the fact that the ticket for a concert I attended as part of the Spring Festival on Tuesday night cost me €13.00 online and yet the printed ticket I received said 3000 ft (which is no more than €10.00)? Or the fact that as the hot weather approaches, alleyways and side streets are starting to smell like public urinals?

I say yes – I can complain. I live here. I pay taxes. I engage. That gives me the right to express my opinion. I’m not claiming it’s a common consensus. I’m not saying that I represent a majority. I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone but myself.

But if I were an expat living in Budapest who thought that the English spoken here was ‘sub par’ (vs Hungarian-language fluency level of foreigners living here???), who thought that pay expectations were beyond reason (sure, as a qualified teacher in Hungary, is it ridiculous to expect to take home more than €300 a month???) and that the country (which is buzzing with entrepreneurial talent) had ‘no can do’ attitude, then I’d do the sensible thing: move on or go home.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 April 2014

Gabbing on new horizons

I met a woman recently at some birthday drinks or other who, at the time, had been in Budapest for six months. To my shame, I can’t remember which international organisation she worked for, or even where she was from herself. What I do remember though is that the Hungarian friend who was with me was the first Hungarian this woman had met socially. After six months!

Her week was planned around international expat activities, so I couldn’t fault her for being tribal (as I have so many Irish I’ve come across on my travels stateside – those who seem to want little more than to recreate a mini-Ireland around them and in doing so become even more Irish than they ever were at home). She did meet plenty of people from different countries, just not Hungarians.

I was struck by the ludicrousness of this. Here she was, living in Hungary, and rather than getting a sense for how the locals live, what they eat, where they go, what they do (I mean, why else would you move to a country if not to learn and broaden your horizons?), she had opted instead to live within a UN-like cocoon where every nation but Hungary seemed to be represented socially. And yes, I can see the necessity of this in some other countries where expat compounds are de rigueur, but in Budapest?

And it’s not like she was stuck for choice.

EmeseThere is plenty of cross-cultural stuff to do in Budapest. The city is a haven for arts and literature, for music and dance, for speed-dating and pub quizzes. My personal favourite, the Gift of the Gab, is now in its fourth season. It continues its quest to see who in Budapest has that ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to and believe them. The audience and competitors are truly international (and include many Hungarians!) with non-native-English speakers giving native-English speakers a run for their money when it comes to entertainment. Every forint donated goes to support an orphanage in Göd. If you’ve not yet met a Hungarian socially, or simply want to expand your horizons, join us on 25 September at the Cotton Club.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 September 2013