Budapest, the beautiful

Hungarians who have been living abroad for a number of years and who visit the country of their birth only occasionally report a fantastic change for the better both in the capital and in the countryside. People comment on the number of new buildings, the elegant shopping malls, the modern office buildings, and, yes, on the fantastic public transportation system. People who live in large cities either in Europe or in North America think that Budapest's public transportation is perhaps one of the best in the world. Yet if one speaks with people who live in the city they are full of complaints: not enough buses, not enough streetcars, not enough metro lines. Too many cars, not enough parking places. The roads are in terrible shape, cars' axles are in jeopardy. On the other hand, if some streets are closed because they are being resurfaced there is a huge outcry. Right now the newspapers are full of dire warnings that life will come to an end because too many road projects will be undertaken simultaneously. So if the roads are neglected that's terrible, if they are being fixed that's also unbearable.

Yet foreigners are full of praise. What a gorgeous city. Some even decide to settle there. In today's Népszabadság there is an article about a French woman and an Italian man who came to visit and decided to stay. As the French woman said, she went up the Fishermen's Bastion and said to herself that this is where she wanted to live. She teaches French in one of the colleges in Budapest. Her Italian colleague teaches Italian in Szeged. Meanwhile they learned Hungarian quite well. Just the other day I saw an interview with an Englishman who has been living in Budapest for the last twenty years and who writes books about Hungary. There is a German fellow who has been living in Hungary for almost twenty years; he learned Hungarian so well that when he phoned in to György Bolgár's program it took Bolgár a few minutes to notice a very slight accent in this man's Hungarian. It was indeed fantastic. And there are quite a few Russians, especially women, who got married to Hungarian students studying in the former Soviet Union. There are some Arabs who stayed after finishing their college education. And, of course, there are many, many Chinese. So many, in fact, that there is even a Chinese school serving their children's needs. I read somewhere that there are about 25,000 foreigners who live and work in Hungary.

Thus Budapest is becoming an international city full of Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, French, and Chinese restaurants. As a result even home cooking is changing, especially in Budapest. Great was my surprise when a relative of mine, known for her conservatism, gave me her favorite recipe: curried chicken on rice. Curry? And what is this?–one would have asked twenty-thirty-forty years ago. Olive oil? Pasta? Today on Hungarian internet cooking sites there's mighty little that is typically Hungarian. The recipes more closely resemble those in Gourmet magazine. In fact, I know a Hungarian woman who has been living in Canada and who bitterly complained that in Budapest one has to search for typical Hungarian food. Perhaps she didn't look in the right place because, after all, it is enough to read Dumneazu's fascinating blog on food and music where there are descriptions of all sorts of old-fashioned Hungarian delicacies. However, even in his last blog where he talks about lángos Dumneazu had to add that it is difficult to find this fried dough nowadays because, after all, it is not good for you, and Hungarians are becoming increasingly health conscious. Read about lángos here: http://horinca.blogspot.com/ The last time I ate lángos was more than thirty years ago somewhere near Kálvin tér.

Speaking of Kálvin tér, the new metro line will go under it. This square was the site of one of the scary moments in the construction of the metro line. It turned out that the Hungarian Reformed church built there in the 1820s had no decent foundation because the city's Protestants were few in number and had (or at least parted with) little money. The metro construction endangered the structure, and apparently some very clever engineering solution had to be devised. This metro line, fourteen kilometers long, I believe, will be one of the most modern in the world. About two thousand people work on the site at any given day. There are open days when visitors are shown the progress that's been made. It sounds very exciting.

Now the only thing we have to do is to make the inhabitants of Budapest see how their city is developing and getting more and more beautiful. The progress is incredible. One just has to have the eyes to see it.

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John Hunyadi
Guest
As one of those 25,000 or so foreigners who has settled in Hungary I can provide some further incite into this issue of perception. But first I’ll provide a couple of anecdotes that really encapsulate the difference in thinking between locals and expats. A few days ago I was waiting for a tram here in Budapest when a young man started a conversation with me. He had seen that I was reading a book in English and no doubt assumed that I was not Hungarian. He asked me (first in pidgin English and then, more comfortably, in Hungarian) what I thought about transport in Budapest and seemed genuinely shocked when I told him that I think public transport is very good – better, in fact, than in London. I further explained that it is less reliable in London and far more expensive. His only reply was that compared to the average salary, public transport in Budapest is expensive. I was clearly not going to be able to change his mindset, so I admitted that well, yes, in terms of affordability of public transport Budapest is behind Prague (though I can also point out here that most things are more affordable… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest
“Yet if one speaks with people who live in the city they are full of complaints: not enough buses, not enough streetcars, not enough metro lines. Too many cars, not enough parking places. The roads are in terrible shape, cars’ axles are in jeopardy. On the other hand, if some streets are closed because they are being resurfaced there is a huge outcry.” So, after the anecdotes, my personal view. I agree entirely with what Eva has written about transport. Every person who has visited me here has mentioned how good public transport is in Budapest compared to where they live. I also think it is good, though fortunately I do not have to rely too much on buses (the weakest part of the system, often 20-year old vehicles subject to traffic and potholes in the roads). It also amazes me when Budapesters complain about traffic – compared to London or any large city in Britain, Budapest has relatively few cars and a relatively short rush hour. On the other hand, locals seems far more accepting than I of dangerous an inconsiderate driving (and parking). But we all agree on the poor state of the roads, and I can even… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest

“This metro line, fourteen kilometers long, I believe, will be one of the most modern in the world.” They were similarly praising of Combino (longest tram in the world, super-modern, German-engineering) and what happened? Budapest overpaid for untested technology and mismanaged the parts of the project it was responsible for (remember the overhead lines collapsing?). The Hungarian government and public sector (at all levels) needs to learn that it cannot afford and is incapable of effectively using the most modern technological solutions – it should stick to cheaper, slightly-out-date, but proven technology that is easier to handle.

Sandor
Guest
A subject very close to my heart. Every time I go to Budapest I love it more and more. Every time I go to Budapest I can hardly wait to get home to Toronto. The city is beautiful and exciting. The people are lousy. But as usual, let’s start with the politics! In Hungary and by extension in Budapest, there is no property tax. All municipalities are trapped in a cash flow shortage. The users of municipal services are not paying at all for them. And then they do nothing but complain about the service. Now this is the “par excellence” Hungarian thing to do. This brings me back to my usual disgust with Budapest. It is the people I cannot stand. Although my former social circle I grew up with are all over the society today, in influential, even trend setter position, my impression is regularly confirmed that the level of civilization and especially civility is rapidly declining. I also cannot countenance the amount and level of poverty. I have not been used to see such poverty in Budapest. Go see the beautiful Budapest, before the Hungarians completely screw it up! An other thing I could also write about… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest
On to the other issues. It is true that Budapest is slowly becoming more cosmopolitan. But 25,000 foreigners is 0.25% of the Hungarian population which is a very low figure. Even if more than half are living in Budapest that equates to less than 1% of the city’s inhabitants. A far higher proportion of foreigners live in Vienna or Prague. Budapest may be an attractive city but the Hungarian economy and tax regime are both decidedly unattractive. That is why the number of Chinese living here is decreasing; they are returning home to better economic prospects. Restaurants in Budapest have improved markedly during the past decade. But they have improved even more in British cities over the same time period. Yes, home eating habits are changing in Hungary as is the variety of food available in shops. But they remain very parochial in comparison with the UK and possibly even France or Germany. So things are changing, but at a slower pace than I would like. The reason for the change is that Hungarians are increasingly holidaying and, to a lesser extent, working abroad. But Hungarians remain reluctant to try anything new or foreign in both travel and eating…rather like… Read more »
Tom
Guest
I agree with the comments regarding the goodness of public transport in Budapest. (A brief note: in 1956 one of our protest points was that the government should stop building the metro. Now a very large portion of inner city traffic is done quickly and efficiently with the Metro. It is good that our protests were not heeded.) In contrast, where we live in the USA, near Salt Lake City, cars are (at least for now) indispensable. There is a move towards better public transport. (More light rail is being built.) But, e.g., in 2002 when the winter olympics was held downtown I decided that parking may be difficult there. To use public transport. So, here is what I had to do. Drive from our place about 8 miles, to the terminus of the light train going downtown. That took us downtown in about 40 minutes, and then had to change for a crosstown train (both newly built for the Olympics.) Of course, one had to wait for both trains. It took altogether one hour. I could do the same by driving there in 40 minutes, AND had no problem parking. I used public transport for ONE day. In 1977… Read more »
PeterBurian
Guest

Well, it’s too bad that I did not visit Hungary before it changed so dramatically.
We moved to Canada in 1957 and we still eat lángos occasionally here.
I have not been back since 1957 but will be doing so in September. No doubt it will all be entirely different than my recollection.
It will be interesting. Thanks for the update on the current situation.