Experts in expatting

Life is full of contradictions. For every scientific study published arguing one thing, another one publishes arguing the exact opposite. There’s no denying that we are living in the information age. Never before has so much knowledge been as accessible to so many. Never before have we had so many platforms from which to air our views, expound our beliefs, share our thoughts. We can post, tweet, and blog. We can video, record, and podcast. We can write tomes or thimbles of text. We can find an audience of one, of ten, of millions. And it’s doing my head in.

I don’t know where to turn. Too much choice and I’m likely not to make any choice at all. Or worse still, have someone make the choice for me. [I miss the days when my choice of coffee was limited to black or white.]

I have friends whose opinions I trust on certain topics. They’re not necessarily any smarter than me; they’re just more interested, more engaged. I use them as my guides. I listen to their recommendations. When it comes to making decisions that require some form of expertise, I go to those who have already done the research and made the call. It’s all so easy now. A quick email or an SMS might lead to a longer coffee or a lunch, and eventually, I’ll get the information I need to make my decision.

But I wasn’t always so careful.

When I decided to more or less make Hungary my base, I didn’t do any research at all. None. I’d visited twice, yes. But on neither occasion was I anything more than a tourist. I chose to ignore all the advice I was given. I visited a fortune teller (as was my wont back then) and even ignored his dire warnings of bad things to come if I persisted with the move. I didn’t listen to those Hungarians who quite accurately predicted the country’s current state of chassis. I had my mind made up.

But not everyone is as foolhardy as I. Others like to do their research, to plan, to weigh the pros and cons. Guide books will only tell you what to visit. Local news is often biased and subject to the vagaries of translation. Country nationals can’t tell you what life as an expat will really be like.  So where can a body go to get some decent, on-the-ground information about what it’s like to live as a foreigner in another country?  Any country?

xpEnter Billed as possibly the largest expat help and support network in the world, this brainchild of Julien Faliu was born in 2005 as a simple directory of expat websites and has now evolved into a real social network with over 250 000 members. Showcasing blogs from Algeria to Zimbabwe, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, from Anguilla to the Virgin Islands, from Albania to Wales, from Armenia to Yemen and everywhere in between, is a wealth of information written by real people, living real lives, experiencing real challenges. All of them have one thing in common: a willingness to share.

Take the Hungary site as an example. It has job offers, forums, and ads for accommodation. You can ask questions of those already living the dream. You can meet new people, make new friends, and build new networks. If the information is out there, you’ll find it on And if it’s not there, there are hundreds of people you can ask. If you’re thinking of moving to Hungary, why not read accounts of life in Hungary written by those who are living it. And then make up your mind. And if you’re already here – I’m sure there’ll be something in it that surprises you.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 February 2015


Rubbing the magic lamp

Being branded an expat in a foreign city comes with many labels and tags. At first meeting, many assumptions are made and the usual litany of questions is asked. Being a woman, there’s the assumption that I’m here because of my husband. When that gets a shake of the head, it’s assumed that I’m here because of my job. When that gets another shake of the head, the words ‘independently wealthy’ flutter around the conversation, remaining unspoken, while the question every expat has had to answer more than once is finally issued. What are you doing in Budapest?

There are all sorts of answers to that, depending on the day. I dislike being tagged an expat, although I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that it is something I will always be, as long as I choose to live in Budapest. What amuses me though, is the mistaken assumption that because I’m foreign, I have money. And, unfortunately, when you’re not on an expat package, or didn’t come over in the early 1990s and set up business then, it’s rarely the case.

This monetary divide splits the expat community into two: those who have the wherewithal to attend the many worthy big-ticket charity dinners and balls that go on in the city and those who simply don’t. But that shouldn’t exclude us from contributing in some form or fashion to the countless hundreds of charity initiatives that form part of the social conscience of the city we have chosen to call home.

Last week, I met the Patzauers, Éva and Gábor, the husband-and-wife team who founded Csodalámpa Alapítvány (the Magic Lamp Foundation). They lost their young daughter, Dóri, back in 2003. She was just eight and a half when she died and had been sick for eighteen months. During that time, this remarkable couple realised that children like Dóri, grappling with a terminal illness, need a special kind of emotional support to help them through. Their young lives, so often cut far too short, need a special ray of hope; they deserve to have their wishes come true.

The Patzauers set up Csodalámpa and in their first year, granted wishes to two children. In 2013, ten years later, they granted 287. Remarkable. Nine-year-old Csaba who dreamed of being a goalkeeper got to play with the Hungarian National Football team. Milla (10), Fanni (15), and Melissa (16) went to Rome to play with the dolphins. Harry Potter fans Vivien (9) and Marci (6) spent the day at Hogwarts.

That night, I also met Réka, a beautiful young woman who radiates hope and joy. Her wish was to meet her hero Johnny Depp. I shook the hand that had held the hand of Johnny D. Some six months after meeting him (they’re still in touch, by the way), Réka got the all-clear. A miracle.

1586_Daniel_ 017 (800x600)To raise funds, Csodalámpa organises fashion shows, concerts, and comedy nights. They run cookery classes – the Wish Kitchen – where supporters take classes from top chefs in town. In cooperation with Libri booksellers, actors in five cities regularly sing and read to kids in Csodalámpa reading corners. No wish is too big or too small. Whether it’s a box of Lego (Dániel, 4, pictured) or a visit with the Pope, the Foundation finds a way to make it happen.

There is room for all kinds of support and all are welcome. Check their website for how you can contribute. And if time is a luxury, think about contributing to their crowdfunding campaign. Every forint helps. Five minutes of your time and a few forints can make a big difference to some young person’s life. It’s not much to ask. Not much at all.

First published in the Budapest Times on 27 February 2015.



Top talent on Thursdays

How the various expatriates living in Budapest engage with this city is a source of constant amusement … for me. I know some who rarely venture outside established expat circles. I know others who will go to great lengths to avoid expats altogether. Me? I ebb and flow.

Some friends returned to Budapest earlier this month, having lived here for a year a while ago. Both were taken aback at how even after their 12 months of active exploration, the city as still coughing up new sights. It’s as if it is constantly morphing into something new; circumstances contrive to entice you into an area you’ve never ventured into before; and even old haunts offer up something unexpected.

I was in Jack Doyle’s last week, an Irish pub on the corner of Pilvax and Varoshaz utca. There’s a regular music session on a Thursday night where two of my favourite Hungarian men – Attila and Csaba, collectively known as The Jookers – entertain the punters and create a welcoming space for those who want to sing or play themselves. It’s one of the many times where I find myself wishing I could hold a tune for longer than two seconds.

Top talent on ThursdaysI’m familiar with the concept of open mic nights and have yet to be disappointed in a Thursday night at JD’s. When I have visitors in town, it’s on my list of places to go. But what I hadn’t fully appreciated is the wealth of talent this town has to offer. There’s no denying that the two boys are brilliant musicians in their own right and that the regulars who get up and entertain are gifted themselves. But the drop-ins, the random acts that pass through – that’s what adds spice to the evening. You never know what you’ll get to hear.

One after the other, they sang their hearts out last Thursday night. Hailing from Ireland, England, Australia, Scotland, America, France, and everywhere in between, they sang covers and their own songs, too. We had it all – from the Mountains to Mourne to La Boheme; from Tracy Chapman to Mary Black. Everything worked. My goose bumps were plumping.

If you’re at a loose end on a Thursday night, you could do worse that popping into Jack Doyle’s after 10pm. There are no guarantees though. I can’t promise that every night will be as good as last Thursday … next week might be even better.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 November 2013

Once bitten, twice shy. Bloody Mary indeed!

A favourite question of travellers everywhere concerns the tipping protocol. Do we tip? If so, how much? And do we tip everyone? What exactly are we tipping anyway – service or service with a smile or service with a smile and a little banter?

I’ve had two posh-bad tipping experiences [in fancy places that you’d expect more of]. Both experiences are quite dated now and I’m sure the wait-staff in question have long since moved on. My anecdotes should not be taken as a reflection of current service, which, as I’ve never been back to either establishment, I can’t vouch for. [Once bitten, twice shy – that’s me!]

Valuing time over money

The first was the illustrious Gerbeaud. I’d dropped by for a pre-lunch cuppa to show the place to a visiting friend who is rather fond of a bit of grandeur.  It took about five minutes to catch someone’s attention – although it was a Sunday about 12.30 and the place wasn’t exactly hopping. I ordered a coffee, my friend a tea. Some ten minutes later, my coffee arrived along with a cup of hot water sans teabag for my friend. By the time the bag appeared, I’d finished, and we had a pressing lunch reservation (elsewhere, thankfully). I tried in vain to catch said someone’s attention to ask for the bill. So I calculated what we owed. Because I hadn’t the exact change, I rounded it up and left a sizeable tip [some indication of how much I value time over money].

As we stepped outside and began our walk across Vorosmarty tér, the missing ‘someone’ appeared running after us shouting ‘a szamla, a szamla’. I turned. I told her that I’d left the money on the table. ‘With the 10%?  she asked.  ‘Yes’, I said, through gritted teeth – ‘but only because I didn’t have the correct change’.

Using my discretion

Can it be that tipping for service is becoming mandatory in Budapest? I’ve been told as much, particularly when I cross out the added 10% and refuse to pay anything more than the actual amount as the service was so bad it couldn’t actually be considered service. Mind you, even if the service charge is added automatically, when the service is so good that it’s added to my enjoyment of the occasion [i.e. service + smile + said bit of banter], I’m happy to add the same again.

Making sure I’m noticed

I was being treated to a cocktail at the New York Café one afternoon. Again, it took an age to get someone’s attention – we were but two, neither bedecked nor bejewelled. We took the initiative and  sat ourselves down at at small table. Someone materialised immediately, completely aghast. We should have waited to be seated. The 10 minutes we’d been holding up the wall obviously didn’t count as waiting.  We decided that given the price and the surrounds, the Bloody Mary would no doubt come with vegetables and be topped with the regulatory spoonful of sherry. So we ordered two. They eventually arrived…in plain water glasses accessorised with a simple plastic straw… and the bill. Not brave enough to make a scene, we supped and upped, leaving our money on the table. My friend was all for not tipping, but I added 50 forints just to be sure that said someone knew we hadn’t simply forgotten!

Reading the fine print

I’ve heard some similar stories this week. One diner had a 12.5% service charge added to the top of the bill. I’ve only ever seen it added to the bottom as a percentage of the total, and I read my bills religiously from top to bottom. Not seeing a service charge at the end, the diner tipped an additional 10% – generous to the extreme, in hindsight. Someone else ordered what they thought was a 2000 ft bottle of Tokaj (on special offer) but it was added to the bill at three times the price. Apparently the 2000 ft was the take-away price.

I am sure that there are hundreds more stories just waiting to be told. Who’s at fault?  Is it too much to expect that bills contain only what’s been ordered and that the service charge is added once the bill has been totalled and not before? Or should we each take responsibility for how we spend our money, check the bill before paying, and only reward good service?

One thing’s for certain – variances in tips and tipping or  bills and billing are not peculiar to Budapest, or indeed to Hungary. They’re part and parcel of the service industry worldwide. Whether we call it pulling a fast one or trying to get one over, man has been at it since the dawn of time…and isn’t looking like he’ll stop any time soon.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 November 2012