On first arrival in Budapest, one is struck immediately by the amazing language of Magyarul (Hungarian) – completely incomprehensible to anyone who has not studied it for a long time. Even hazarding a guess at what ‘bevasarlo kozpont’ could possibly mean would never give you the right answer – and just trying to pronounce it in the correct way will render you exhausted and tongue-tied. It actually means ‘shopping mall’ and will become an easily recognisable word as you tackle the day-to-day intricacies of living in this post-Communist city.
However, although Hungarian may be the mother tongue of about 16 million people, for a large majority of foreigners it is quite impenetrable – especially as many expats are relatively short-term residents and do not have the incentive or time to really take it on successfully. This Finno-Ugric language is not only very complex, it is quite different from the majority of European romantic languages. Not being able to remotely understand what someone is saying to you can be as frustrating as it is intimidating.
The majority of Hungarians do not have any fluency in English – it was only added to the school curriculum post-communism. Although some brave expats do take on this language and studiously attend regular lessons etc, many give up along the way simply because it is so difficult to learn. Unfortunately, this can create a huge barrier to ever totally integrating into life in this beautiful city.
Expatriates generally do have a great time in Budapest, but there is always a feeling that they are on the outside and never really connect with true Hungarians and their culture. For many Hungarians, the Communist years have left a legacy of distrust of foreigners and, together with the difficult language, this has meant that many expats remain within their own community here. Depending on your personality, this has its good sides and its bad sides.
Worryingly, the architecture of Budapest is rapidly crumbling and decaying after so many years of neglect, corrosive lead-fueled air pollution, unrestored war damage and successive ‘take-overs’ throughout history. But many of the remaining baroque and fin de siecle buildings are eclectic and incredibly lovely through their grime, giving Budapest great charm and making it worthy of the old name ‘Paris of the East’. The beautiful Danube (only really blue when reflecting a clear blue sky) divides this beautiful city into two: Pest on the flat east bank and ‘working/business’ side, and Buda on the hilly west bank where most expats (especially the ones with children) choose to live.
Climate is pretty much Central European. Long, sunny and very hot summer days usually go through June, July, August and often continue through September. BBQ’s are frequently planned and there is definitely a more outdoor-eating way of life here than in the UK. The heat can become oppressive during high summer but generally it is bearable. Pavement cafes are open all over Budapest and restaurants usually have terraces/gardens for outdoor eating.
Autumn comes and goes very quickly – about 3 weeks in October – but it is an artist’s dream as the colours and light are amazing, especially up in the Buda hills. Winters are long and cold. November brings the cold and dark evenings and December usually brings the snow – although a white Christmas is not always guaranteed. As temperatures fall nightly to about minus 10 and below, the snow, once here, tends to stay for a long time. But that is more than made up for by the usually clear blue skies and sunshine most days- very pretty.
Warm outdoor clothing and flat winter boots are the order of the day (although some young Hungarian ladies do manage to walk amazingly well in their stiletto heels!) The hills of Buda become a tobogganing heaven during the snow – but be warned, they are not all safe and accidents occur often. Cafes become warm and cosy places selling hot wine and hot chocolate, sometimes beside open fires but always in ‘overcompensated’ heated interiors. It is not unusual to wear a t-shirt and jeans under a fur coat here. Spring is short and usually starts in April – the signs of green leaves are always welcome after that long winter.
Public transport is amazingly efficient with – albeit very old and decrepit looking vehicles at times – trams, trolley buses, regular buses and an underground ‘tube’ system. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you cannot pay as you get on transport here. Small kiosks at some Metro stations sell booklets of 10 or 20 tickets (for a fraction of the price of London transport) that have to be ‘punched’ into machines at the beginning of each journey. Monthly passes are also available for everyday use.
There are frequent, random checks on the transport systems – usually someone who just stands up, puts on his official armband and checks to see if you have a correctly punched ticket. Note: do not attempt to travel without a punched ticket – Inspectors do not speak anything other than Hungarian, are oblivious to your pleas of being an ignorant foreigner, and show no mercy. On-the- spot fines are enforced and you will not be ‘let go’ until all is regulated.
Opportunities for work are not as prolific as some people would like but this is definitely getting better each year. Once again the Hungarian language is mainly to blame. It is without doubt difficult to acquire work here without some proficiency in the local language. Qualifications sometimes do not equate to what is required by companies here and lawyers/doctors/nurses/midwives etc usually find it difficult to find equivalent work. However there are some exceptions.
Generally, salaries tend to be much lower than the UK so careful consideration of the financial reimbursement should always be enquired about. International House (not the same as the London based one) can train TEFL teachers here and provide the full course etc in English. Once again though, financial payment (when qualified) is lower (about £6.00 an hour and no travelling expenses) so unless one is determined to work, the incentive isn’t too great.
Some international schools take on qualified teachers for ‘supply’ teaching and occasionally full time jobs come up – once again, though, be warned: you do not receive an expat wage – only the local rate if recruited in Budapest. Having said that, some expats have established themselves in regular work with a UK equivalent salary, and some work freelance via UK companies - but they are still in the minority rather than the majority.
Socially, Budapest is what you make it. Some expats say there is a definite ‘small town’ feeling to life with the other expats of Budapest. To a certain extent this is true – cultural and language differences with the Hungarians and their – sometimes- reluctance to make friends with ‘foreigners’ means that almost everyone in this community knows everyone.
There are many groups for expats: The British Women’s Association (BWA), The International Women’s Association (IWC), British Chamber of Commerce (BCCH), to name but a few. Along with the International schools, foreign embassies and church communities here, social events are planned throughout the year. The ‘Pirates of The Caribbean’ Ball by the IWC provided much fun and frivolity in May and their ‘Hands Across the World’ Ball saw 30 Brits all dressed up in British School Uniform (with the sobering spectacle of grown men in short grey trousers). The BCCH and BWA ‘Bollywood Nite’ in November provided a taste of India and had everyone mixing saris and Indian culture way into the early hours. There is an annual St Andrew’s night, Rugby Ball and ‘Burns’ night supper. Christmas is full of parties, carol services (in English) and a general community spirit does prevail at these events.
Even after so many centuries of political struggle and upheaval, museums give glimpses of Budapest’s rich and glamorous past and the streets are full of stunning Baroque buildings slowly emerging from their grim and careless past. The Opera House is absolutely beautiful and a delight to everyone who visits it. Even if you are not an opera lover, a trip there is a must. Many expats have season tickets and prices are ludicrously low compared to elsewhere in Europe. A box for six people for the Christmas ballet performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ (a sell-out with expats and well-to-do Hungarians alike) will cost about £50 and is a treat worth repeating every year.
There are small English language theatre groups around and they produce some brilliant performances, but it is not Stratford upon Avon: for a seasoned theatre lover, Budapest may be slightly lacking. However, there are a number of cultural events, exhibitions etc throughout the year and much is on offer.
There are a few English Roman Catholic Church communities, a Scottish Church and various other religious affiliations that hold regular church services in English. It is a good way to meet fellow expats and Hungarians (although these tend to be the minority of the congregation) and they also organise religious education lessons and social occasions etc. Schools (American International School and British International school etc) organise community events/Christmas fairs/international festivals etc and are, as always, a great way to meet people.
English speaking doctors are available in Budapest with a few very comprehensive (but incredibly expensive – think Harley Street prices) Medical Centres mainly on the Buda side. As long as you are medically covered, you will be referred and treated much quicker than in the UK. However, local hospitals tend to be very old-fashioned and not always up to the cleanliness of even NHS hospitals. Once again language is a problem – it is highly unusual for nurses to speak English and not all doctors do either. There are private clinics but many do not have emergency resuscitation teams in place so there is a risk – for emergency surgery a local hospital will usually be used. Dentists here live up to their brilliant reputation, so orthodontics and dentistry are excellent. Private companies fly patients over from the UK for treatment – enough of a recommendation I think. Again, insurance is necessary as some of the treatments are expensive.
Local shopping improves all the time and Hungary boasts the largest Tesco* store in Europe. There are also small supermarkets all over Budapest. Many are located in shopping malls where smaller delicatessens etc offer a wide variety of imported products. Prices vary wherever you shop. In the Second District in the Buda Hills (where most expats live), the prices are higher than anywhere else in Budapest – some items being even more expensive than the UK. Basically if you stick with what is ‘in season’ for fruit and veg, prices are great – but luxuries like green beans and mange tout or the more exotic fruits tend to be imported and only available in the smaller outlets – at highly inflated prices.
There are markets overflowing with fresh and cheap produce. Of course, the logistics of getting to the biggest market (no parking nearby) mean you could end up with arms like monkeys having carried your goodies home via public transport. However, the markets are very good and, for certain things, the variety and prices are better there. Your weekly shopping usually costs less than the UK –certain items like cheddar cheese is more - but for everyday produce, local equivalents are fine and cheaper. Tesco sometimes have UK goodies (tea bags, mince pies etc) and it is not unknown for expats to text all their friends telling them if something good is in.
In general there tend to be two markets in Budapest – one for the locals and one for the foreigners (this harks back to the Communist days). Shopping malls have all sorts of ‘western’ goods and all the top brand retail outlets are here – but you often pay more than the UK equivalent. Take your calculator with you on shopping trips. International chains Zara and H&M have recently opened stores in downtown Budapest and their prices are roughly the same as UK – and of course C & A continues to thrive here.
You can shop and eat quite as happily here as you would in the UK – fish is expensive (but Hungary is a landlocked country) and not as readily available but pork, turkey and chicken and beef (labelled ‘Without BSE’) are plentiful and cheaper than UK. Lamb is difficult to find and expensive. Organising dinner parties can mean trekking to different shops for all your ingredients, but most things can be found in local equivalents. Indian, Chinese and Japanese goodies are also now available.
On a separate note, you will observe inconsistent levels of customer service. Remember that in the Communist era, this was not a consumer-based economy, and workers had little incentive to give good service or entice customers back. A grasp of this cause and effect is slowly coming back, but not unsurprisingly, you will still find the odd shopkeeper or waiter whose training pre-dates the cheering behavioural modification of self-interest and capitalism. This - combined with the above mentioned distrust and self-preserving caution developed from living under a totalitarian state, not to mention the language barrier - can make Hungarians seem arrogant and even gruff, when they may in fact only be shy or wary. It is possible to batter those defences with relentlessly pleasant good manners. And of course possible for this hopeful strategy to fail abysmally.
It is also possibly because of the Communist era that most Hungarians seem to have bypassed systems like paying by cheque and telephone landlines – all purchases are in cash or by card. It is not unusual for certain companies not to take credit cards – we had to resort to visiting bank machines every day for four days to take out the money to pay for a holiday, in cash, to the travel agent. Also a charge is made for using cash machines here. Setting up a local bank account is now easier and Citibank offer a good service – and will find someone who speaks English for you.
Almost everyone, regardless of age, seems to have a mobile phone, but do not be surprised if they do not have a home landline. Landlines are more expensive which could be the reason. BT offer a cheaper deal for overseas calls but it is still expensive. Once your internet is up and running, www.Skype.com is definitely the cheaper option to a UK landline [even if your computer doesn't have the right set-up, and the requisite headphones make you look like an air traffic controller].
Mobile phone contracts can be expensive; it is highly recommended to check out the deals offered by the major companies here - otherwise ‘pay and go’ is popular. Many companies can set up the internet for you and cheap deals can be found which compare favourably to the UK.
Since the end of communism, lots of new and large (even rather flashy) houses have been built and continue to be built in the residential areas of Buda. Swimming pools, jaccuzi’s, saunas etc in beautiful detached houses with gardens are available. However, rents can be very high and Hungarian landlords are not the most reliable when it comes to fixing things which invariably go wrong – especially in the newer houses. Many expats can tell you stories about their landlord – some resorting to moving out rather than suffer the interminable arguments over who pays for or who fixes what in rented accommodation.
Generally there are fabulous places (houses and apartments) to be found near schools and transport but a few checks into your landlord beforehand may save a lot of headaches further down the line. Once again, the language can be a barrier and you will need someone to relay your complaints/requests for you.
You will certainly get much more for your money further out of Budapest, but one major thing to bear in mind when finding your new home is the snow in winter! As Buda is full of hills and Hungarian side roads can be both steep and less than perfect, it is common to be ‘snowed in’ for, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. Basically, if you live on a bus route the roads will be cleared very efficiently, if not, that pretty little winding road going up the hill in summer will most certainly change into a skating rink over the winter – leaving you unable to drive out and quite isolated.
Most people live in apartments or houses although a few people live in purpose-built housing compounds - these tend to be further out of Budapest. Making friends with your neighbours is quite difficult – again, the language is the barrier but also, as mentioned previously, a slight reticence on the part of the Hungarians – justified as a hang-up from the communist times when foreigners were ‘out of bounds’.
Many expats have cleaners. It is still relatively cheap to have someone come in and it is usually through ‘word of mouth’ in the community that their names of cleaners are passed on. Most people just ‘share’ days with others – usually the cleaners have been on the expat circuit for a while and are reliable and honest.
Nannies are not that common - most just have someone coming in a couple of days a week although there are some who will ‘live in’ if necessary. However, most prefer to go home each night. Babysitters are, again, usually found through word of mouth. As there is a zero tolerance for alcohol consumption in Hungary and police checks at night are pretty regular, most people take taxis. It can be expensive paying for a babysitter, your taxis and the babysitter’s taxis. A possibly cheaper alternative is to use the British/American school students/ expat teenagers who are also willing to babysit.
Living as an expat in Budapest can be great fun; even the difficulty of mixing with the native population helps draw the small expat community together and provides good friends and a busy social life. The city does have real charm, and things are changing and getting better all the time – both because of and in spite of joining the European Union. Most expats are sorry to leave and only really appreciate the close unity of expat life here when they return to their own bigger and more cosmopolitan city. Without doubt, the old ‘Magyar magic’ is still here – you just have to be patient and it will find you somewhere or other!
* For mystified Americans, Tesco is the name of a major UK grocery store chain.