In November 2013 I put SafeRoads India on hold, accepted a short-term project contract and moved to Budapest, Hungary with my wife. It wasn’t planned and both of us weren’t sure of what to expect, but an opportunity to work in Europe is not something that comes by very often. Besides, who doesn’t want to see the world?
We knew language would be a challenge. Hungarian is widely quoted as one of the most difficult foreign languages to learn. Some of the words and places sound like Elvish. Most of the information we could find online in English was for tourists. I tried to buy a book on Hungarian before we left, but I couldn’t find one. Google Translate for Hungarian to English is a shame (I’d say it has about a 40% success rate). After coming here we discovered that there are a lot more English-understanding/speaking people on the Pest side (even the announcements in the tram switch to English). We haven’t yet found ourselves in a shopping or traveling situation where language was a barrier.
We had also heard that Hungarian bureaucracy is notoriously hard to deal with, but in hindsight we’ve dealt with much worse in India. There was a fair bit of visits to various government offices involved after we arrived. Without the help from my office though, we wouldn’t have been able to figure out where to go and what to do. Interestingly a lot of offices don’t have the same opening hours on all days of the week.
Everyone here follows traffic rules, although with the onset of spring some people seem to be losing patience. Pedestrians are given right of way, unlike in India where they risk death or grevious injury every minute. There are hardly any SUVs, the city is trying very hard to become bike-friendly and they still have awesome Ladas. Actually you can find almost every car here, from 3-axle Hummer Limos, UK-registered Land Rovers, Slovakia-registered Maseratis, Ferraris for rent, Czech Skodas, Japanese Evos & GTRs, and of course the boring German Audis & BMWs. A lot of the everyday cars sold here are the same as India (especially the Suzukis). One thing to look out for is the emergency vehicles. They get on to the tram tracks if there is too much traffic, and their speed & skill will put WRC drivers to shame (imagine an ambulance in opposite lock).
Finding an apartment was a bit of a struggle. Several people at work were genuinely helpful, but we had to narrow down from our search results to a handful of English speaking agencies. We ended up with one where we’re paying a bit of a premium price, but we had hoped that the lack of a language barrier would be worth it. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a very pleasant or reassuring experience so far. I’ll reserve the story for a separate post, but on the positive side, I’m convinced that real estate agencies taking advantage of foreigners is not a regular practice. We were just in the right place at the wrong time.
Compared to living in a city like Bangalore in India, the cost of living is lower (yes, lower), especially considering the quality of life. Even as outsiders, we feel relatively safer almost everywhere we go. Hungarians don’t seem to agree, but they have world class public transport. Case in point: I have witnessed at least on 4 occasions a disruption in the tram lines due to a car accident, or some other fault. The authorities react in minutes, reversing tram directions, making announcements on the tram stations, sometimes deploying shuttle buses between stations, and even deploying personnel to redirect the clueless tourists. 35 Euros will buy you unlimited travel by tram, bus, trolleybus, boat, metro and train within city limits… for an entire month. By contrast, Switzerland was approximately 10 times, for 3 days.
Most public spaces, roads and sidewalks are fairly clean (not Scandinavian clean, but also not Paris dirty). Their heritage and history is proudly preserved in the beautiful, decades (often, centuries) old buildings that line just about every street (post-1940 buildings are considered “new”). A lot of the city’s impressive features have been rebuilt after destruction in war. Locals generally have either strong pro-German or pro-Russian views and are not afraid to state them. There are 10 bridges across the Danube, each of them with an interesting history of its own.
The food is excellent, and virtually every cuisine in the world can be found here. Including at least 4 Indian restaurants that we know of. And there are a couple of Indian stores where everything can be found, if you are willing to pay the price… But in general, food is quite reasonably priced, drinks are cheap and ingredients are fresh. Service charge is often added to the bill, but if not, 10% is accepted with a gracious smile (I had to get used to tipping in coins though – Indian coins are of too little value to use as tips). Although I love soups, being vegetarian I haven’t been able to try the famed gulyás (“goulash”). But there are plenty of food options (and growing) for vegetarians and vegans here. Nevertheless, Hungarians eat everything from snails to wild boar 🙂
Budapest is extremely tourist friendly. I can not overemphasize this. There is a published list of establishments and taxi companies with a known record of shady behavior. English-speaking students accompany cops in downtown areas to provide assistance. Despite the insanely high amounts of alcohol consumed per hour, including very potent Pálinka, disorderly conduct is extremely rare. Oddly, public transport is more packed at midnight than during the morning “rush hour” (yes, certain trams run the entire night). Sometimes there is harmless singing of Christmas Carols at 3 AM on the street in a drunken high pitched voice, though. I’m told it gets worse in the summer. And you are more likely to encounter a person holding a cigarette than one holding a cellphone.
Hungarian women are divinely pretty. More importantly, regardless of age, brand of clothes or time of day (or night), they carry themselves with grace. As a result, Hungarian men are equally well-groomed and (more often than not) chivalrous. Also, I’ve noticed some unusual customs, for example men don’t shake hands with women. On Saturdays, I have seen a lot of kids out and about. Sadly, most of them seem to be accompanied by a single parent.
There is no doubt that Hungarians are amongst the smartest people in the world, and each day at work is a pleasant reminder of this. They often don’t know much about India (understandably) but after the first conversation are quick to google their facts. The questions I get asked most often about India are: Do you have broadband in India (yes we do, about 93% more connections than Hungary. What we don’t have enough of is electricity), why are most Indians vegetarians (negative, we have 1.5 times the number of McDonalds as Hungary, and many people are vegetarians by choice simply because we have access to fresh local produce all year long) and why are there so many rapes (because of a combination of too many men with cheap broadband, lack of education and a moral void created by the glorification of violence & sex in the media).
Finally you can’t deny that Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, especially by night: