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.

I’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

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9 Responses

  1. I’m not too sure about your logic this time. The privilege of the citizen to vote (how ever ineffectually) for his representatives in Parliament is one thing, the right of the individual to bemoan (how ever ineffectually) his fate under circumstances that he can’t alter is another. We expats have the privilege that citizens lack, we have another hole to go to if we don’t like this one.

    1. Logic? Do I need logic? (Do I have any logic, Bernard :-)) I’m an expat living in Budapest without a vote, within reading/hearing distance of a number of expats who seem to find nothing good to say about the country in which they’ve chosen to live. That’s the logic that defies me.

  2. EU citizens registered as living in Hungary as their main residence, can vote in local elections. And you will be surprised how much local politica affects your daily life. So that vote for a local city council members and mayor that promises to “clean up the town” so it does not smell is important. Then stay active going to council meetings to pester them about it.

    Being charged one price and getting a bill for another is possibly fraud and tax evasion (but I don’t know the whole story, so I am qualifying it as “possibly”). Even a tourist not living in Hungary or in Europe can complain about paying one price and getting a bill for another. Nothing to do with voting. 🙂

    Magyar Posta’s new ticket system…. well there is simply no explanation for that. It seemed more a solution looking for a problem that simply caused a new problem we all suffer under now. Again, even a tourists wanting to mail a post card can complain about that one…. voting rights not needed. 🙂

    Overall, I am just having a little fun poking fun at your examples. But I was impressed in one word you used: engage. Even for me, as an American who really has zero voting rights here, I still engage. Complaining is really like spitting into the wind. There are better options. Expose an issue, make it public so not only TPTB (the powers that be) are aware of it, but you activate others to also apply pressure as a group (and throw in a law suit or two if TPTB still do not listen). You can still do a lot and make good even without a personal direct vote in an election. That is, TPTB have tried to make just “voting” the point, hoping that real citizen engagement is avoided. And too often they succeed as engagement is lacking today in many countries. Go to a local city or town council meeting and count the number of citizens there observing their government in action. Do this in any country. You may be shocked by the lack of citizen engagement (so I will just pick on Hungary).

    And lets not forget, that abstaining from a vote is also a legitimate option to consider; especially when you only have the left and right hand of the monster to choose from. In fact, it may be your moral duty to abstain at such times.

    1. You had me up till the last point – I remember reading that that only 30 something percent of those who could vote in the last election voted and of those, two-thirds voted in the current government with a super majority that allowed the constitution to be changed without referendum, abstention doesn’t sit well with me

      1. In the Hungarian 2010 national election, Fidesz had only a little over 50% of the popular vote. This year they had only 45% of the popular vote (of those that voted of course in each year). The 2/3 majority in parliament was (in 2010) and is (in 2014) an artifact of the peculiar system in Hungary for vote partitioning (which was changed by Fidesz for the 2014 vote to almost guarantee their win).

        So by “peculiar” I might suggest it may be borderline unjust. To participate in an unjust government, one arguments being, you legitimize that government (ergo, why you see many groups protest elections around the world). It is up to each person to decide where they perceive their vote can be used to fix the system, or if their vote simply perpetuates an unjust one. My final sentence was abstract, not intending it to be for one specific country or election. Just something to think about.

  3. Mary, I was once looking for expat English teachers to participate in a TEA event or something. Some bloke took the trouble to email me and explain why he thought all Hungarians were “talentless” and why I was mad for thinking that he’d work for free.

    I don’t blame him or the guy you mentioned. Hungary is still a country with one of the lowest number people speaking a foreign language, and there is definitely room for improvement in the smiling department too. Where I agree with you is if you have such an appalling opinion of a people, why stay there? Why expose yourself to all this drudgery and horror every single day? Perhaps because you married the only one who is not like the rest? No more questions.

    I’m going to vote here in BA tomorrow by the way just to keep my right to bitch 🙂

    1. hey – you can vote there? I had heard that only those living in the border countries could have an absentee ballot… that’s great news

      1. Sure, any citizen can vote at any of the Hungarian embassies around the world. All I had to do was fill out an online form. It would make more sense to vote online because here in Argentina people might be thousands of kilometers away from the embassy. But it’s possible at least.

        1. Heard a few stories of people in UK trying to vote and not being able because their ‘correct’ address wasn’t listed. Glad at least that you have the chance.

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