One of the things about Budapest that continues to surprise me is how many expats from all over the world live here. Some are students, some are workers who received job offers or transfers, some simply wandered here and stayed. Mary Murphy first came to Budapest in 2003 and returned again in 2007. A native of Ireland, she now has not one but two homes in Hungary and is one of the longest-term Budapestian expats I know.
So why Budapest? I put forth several questions to highlight one woman’s draw to this Central European capital, its people, culture, food, and ideas. And, yeah, we’ll find out just how far she’s gotten in mastering the Hungarian language. :)
L: At the end of the day what do you love most about the country overall? When you are away, what do you miss?
M: There’s an energy in Hungary that I’ve not found anywhere else, an almost tangible sense of possibility. I say this and Hungarian friends laugh. Some get it; most don’t. For me, the last ten years have been the most productive years of my life. Call it happenstance or serendipity, or whatever you like, it seems that the planets aligned and things came right. There’s a massive sameness between Ireland and Hungary - the people, the culture, the psyche. I think we both love to be miserable :-) American author James Michener once described Hungarians as ‘the Irish of Eastern Europe’. I get that. But Hungary is far more affordable than Ireland - on every level. So when I’m away from Hungary, that’s what I miss most - the affordability. And the wine. And the Kis-Balaton.
L: You have lived in many places outside of your native homeland, such as Los Angeles, a place where many Hungarians “dream” of living. How do you compare life in Budapest to La La Land?
M: There’s no comparison. None. I can’t think of one thing they have in common, except perhaps Hungarians (I think LA is home to the largest Hungarian diaspora stateside, outside of Cleveland, OH). And Irish expats. LA was a great place to visit, to work for a while, but not somewhere I could live long-term. I like to walk the streets and take public transport, neither of which is easy to do there. Budapest county is relatively compact and easy to get around, compared to Los Angeles county (which has more people than in the whole of Hungary). I liked being near the ocean. That was a major plus. But I didn’t connect with the place, I felt like I was just passing through. Other cities I’ve lived in - like San Diego, Anchorage, London, Oxford, Dublin - all have their plus points but none, for me at least, have the rare combination of energy, beauty, history, culture, and affordability. Budapest has it nailed.
L: As a foreigner, how do you feel locals view you, in the city and in the countryside?
M: It amuses me when I get a slip from the post office telling me that there’s a package waiting for me to pick up and I see that they’ve written külföldi next to my name. Or when I order a taxi and it arrives and I see külföldi displayed on the meter next to the address. There’s an impatience I feel, with foreigners. And given the complete lack of respect for the locals that many visitors show, I’m not surprised. My neighbours took about a year to warm to me. I did an interview for a Hungarian magazine and posted copies in their mailboxes. Whatever I said about my mother turned the tide and overnight they thawed. They’re lovely. I’m one of the youngest in the building (and that’s saying something for the demographics!) and love that they take the time to chat when we meet. Now, compared to, say, ten years ago, far more people speak English and are ready to engage - on their terms, but the impatience is much more evident. Years ago, in Poland, I caught myself wondering in frustration why no one spoke English. Since then, I’ve been a lot more aware that I’m the visitor. That said, there are two types of expats in the city - those on expat packages, and those making their own way. It’s a shame when locals see expats and think we’re made of money. That’s not always the case.
Down in the country, there’s more curiosity. It’s far more laid back. People have time to chat. They see solutions rather than problems. They have time to figure it out and never seem to be in a rush anywhere. I like that. And I like the fact that they’re at pains to point out to me that I might get taken advantage of - me being a külföldi and all.
Mostly though, I think the locals wonder what I’m doing here - when I could be anywhere but here… which is sad. But then, I didn’t appreciate Ireland until I left. I was the same.
L: Professionally speaking, what makes Hungary attractive for you as a freelancer?
M: Again, it’s the sense of possibility and the affordability. I work with people who write in English as a second or third or even fourth language: students, young professionals, business people, retirees. All of them have a story to tell. All of them want to be better at writing, or speaking, or presenting in English. They want to succeed. And when they see the progress they’ve made, they tell someone else. So in the time I’ve been here, I’ve been blessed with referrals from all walks of life. And this makes my work interesting. Hungary is also a central location so if I’m doing workshops in Malta, or Serbia, or Poland, or Switzerland, or even India, it’s all manageable.
L: Food, drink, nightlife? What’s your favorite aspect of local culture on this front (please don’t say ruin pubs!)
M: Ok- I won’t say ruin pubs, although back in the day, I loved how different they were. Now, I tend to avoid those places that have made it into the guide books. I like the local bars in Districts VIII and IX. I like places where I struggle to understand what’s being said around me. I like places that are authentic, that offer a friendly service and have good food. When I came over first, I did the lot - Szimpla, Piaf, Instant, Jack Doyle’s, Iguana, all the popular bars; but the older I get, the less interested I am in the bustle. I like places like Muzikum and Kuplung, that offer good music. I like restaurants like Fricska and Huszár that have some characters working for them and serve up great food. Locally, I’m a fan of the daily menu at Kompót and like the wine at VinoPiano and vinoWonka. I’m fond of the spacious Grund, too. And when I venture across the river, Kisrabló is my new port of call.
L: How complicated would you say it is for someone to set up their life here?
M: I was blessed in that I had very patient Hungarian friends to help me. Today, with English more commonly spoken and many service centres offering English-speaking support, it’s a lot easier than it was 10 years ago. And it’s even easier again, outside of Budapest, where people have more time to help and are less tied up in the bureaucracy of it all. The danger lies in centering yourself amongst expats. I found this in the States, too. That tendency to stick together and not connect on a deeper level with local people. I met a woman a few years back who had been here six months and had yet to meet a Hungarian (outside of those serving in a shop, or café, or bar). Her life was built around expat groups, societies, and events. Many expats have been here far longer than I have. Those who came over in the late 1980s and early 1990s are really localised. They had to learn the language to get by. Most of them married Hungarians and have kids who speak Hungarian and English. They probably have the best of both worlds.
L: What makes you proud to call Hungary home?
M: Oddly enough, I’m not sure I do call it home. Ireland is still home for me, as that’s where my parents are. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of Budapest as home - more as where I am. But the house in Zala County is rapidly becoming more like a home from home. Village life in Hungary is a far cry from life in the Capital. It’s simpler, easier somehow. And given the madness that pervades our world today, it’s nice to step off the rollercoaster and go back to basics. The danger is, perhaps, that there’s a temptation to disengage completely. I’m struggling a little to find the balance.
L: And, finally. How’s your Hungarian? :)
M: Did I mention struggling? I can understand way more than I can make myself understood. Hungarians are not used to hearing their language mispronounced so if I don’t get it exactly right, I may as well be talking Greek. And as I can’t hear the difference in the vowels myself, it’s pretty hard to reproduce them. That said, I’m still trying. And one of these days, it’ll all come together.
You can learn more about Budapest and Hungary via Mary’s blog, Unpacking My Bottom Drawer, where she offers up some insightful thoughts on life, God, food, books, gratefulness, and more. Or check out Any Excuse to Travel, where she chronicles her many journeys around the world.