Premature Recapulation: (Nearly) A Year in Hungary

Some old skirt I used to shack up with would recap events moments after they occurred. After some time, the absurdity and laughability of it turned to incomprehension and irritation. Now, I know the value of taking time to reflect on experiences; heaven knows, a moving target’s hard to it, and after all this time abroad, I’m finding it hard to focus my sights on the future as my head is overwhelmed with capturing exactly everything that’s happened here and what it all means. Here, I’ll stop for brief recap, a deep breath, and hopefully some introspect on my life after recently turning 26.

What I'd give to compose like these Mo'Fo's

What I’d give to compose like these Mo’Fo’s

I am barreling toward the end of my tenure here in Budapest, and – as I expected I would be when I first felt the plastic, holographic victory of obtaining my Hungarian residency permit – I am stupefied by how little time I have left and overwhelmed with how much there is yet to do for my still uncertain future. In each of my classes, some I’ve had since the beginning of my teaching career, there is a perceptible feel of ending, a winding down of all things; soon, I’ll be assembling a final review for my favorite class, which I bike to every Wednesday and Friday and which brightens both the weekday hump and makes for an ideal laid-back lead-in to the weekend.

Even so, my weekends themselves have begun to fill up, as I’ve begun a new job at a small hostel in downtown Pest. My duties range mostly from letting people in, the occasional laundry load, and making coffee for weary travelers. In the meantime, I write a few paltry digests for TheDaily.hu, stories I rely on for multiple, horribly translated news bits courtesy of the Google Chrome translation app, in addition to my own feeble exposés on individuals in the community.

My friend, flatmate, bedrock, and personal liability, Heather Keagan

My friend, flatmate, bedrock, and personal liability, Heather Keagan

When I’m not “working”, I’m adjusting my internal tempo to that of Bartók’s and his Romanian folk dances, which still entrance me even after so many years since I received the first coin in my collection from a family friend, a Hungarian 100 forint, and since I heard the passionate flights of Gypsy violins in Brøderbund’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (Now, my dear parents, you know the true reason for my going to Budapest in the first place.)

As far as the social sphere I’ve created here, it’s small, and it’s taken a while to gain back the confidence lost after integrating into a country where I knew only one person and chose to pursue an equally isolating career as a freelance English teacher. Still, though the logic might seem erratic and disconnected, there’s something to failing people: it means you have people who count on you. The people who I subsist on for a social life are ones who expect something from me, holding me accountable, and the best kind of people with which to surround yourself. While personal relationships have been sparse, my time has been well used in their benefit as well as mine; I fear I may have actually gained something from this experience as a “teacher”.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

That being said, the time absorbed with lesson planning has proved a detriment to learning the Hungarian language, while we can also not rule out general laziness. Still, relationships have blossomed in the oddest of places due to this fault – with the owners of the gluten-free shop just down my street, giving me ajándék (presents) every time I visit; again, with the cheerful hostel neighbor; and even the security guard at Tesco who loves to recite the name of each purchase in English I make at the self-checkout machine. All of whom talk to me to no end in complete Hungarian no matter my comprehension. I do a lot of smiling.
Which brings me to happiness. It’s a mixed bag, but I’m pulling what I can out of it. A closer group of friends would be nice, but I have enough on my plate – partying hostellers coming through on their Europe-wide travels, Couchsurfers from all over the world, my students, and, lastly, those I interview for stories.

Travels. Yes, this brings us nicely and neatly back to travels. The future. The third glass of wine. Hungary has something to it, an enigmatic pull that threatens to keep me here, at least for another year. All the while, my family is getting older, having babies, getting married. Add the insistent and not-to-be-reasoned-with voice in my head always advising Go to Japan or your life will be awful if you don’t, and it’s enough to tip me over the edge.
There’s been a constant battle waging inside my head on where I am in life and what I’m doing: Is the life I’m leading selfish? Pointless? At 26, shouldn’t I go back to the United States to begin a serious career? Have I really gotten over my addictions to truly focus on such a career? Am I ambitious enough? Is my teaching English real? Can I go back to the States after having achieved so little here in Hungary? Will my parents see me as a failure? Do I even have any talents or skills? Am I a failure? A fake?

The haunting thing is that there are too many obvious ‘No’ answers, while even the ‘Yes’ ones aren’t terribly promising. It all boils down to who I want to perceive myself as, what I see as my limits and abilities, and where and who I want to be in a few years. This is, of course, the reason why I always held the highest respect for my friend and former flatmate, who knew when to appreciate a clear blue sky before it was obscured by clouds. Though I have no definitive answers despite my recapitulating, I’m certainly glad to have this time to reflect on all the good that has happened to me over this life-changing year in Budapest.

Budapest Castle, circa New Years 2013

Budapest Castle, circa New Years 2013

Advertisements

A Brief Insight: LGBT in Hungary

Pride marchers hold a rainbow flag taut as others run underneath

Pride marchers hold a rainbow flag taut as others run underneath

I shook the man’s hand firmly but congenially, thanked him for his time, gave a final nod to his black-clad comrades, and sidled past the line of police milling about in riot gear and looking titanesque in tightly fitting navy uniforms. The acrid smell from the now smoldering rainbow flag on the pavement stuck to the insides of my nostrils, which were more flared than usual – not out of indignity but excitement. I felt the surge of adrenaline in my body, the thrill of being in the lion’s den and coming out unscathed. Yet, as we got farther from the now dwindling crowd of counter-protestors, my friend asked me if I had thought it unusual that no one stopped the flag burning; while it was only a meager crowd of onlookers, the only spectator who didn’t join in on the chanting — “Down with the faggots” — was a middle-aged, tire-worn Hungarian woman who merely shook her head, mumbled something incoherently, and walked away without looking back. In this small pedestrian walkway under the gritty underpass facing Nyugati railway station, no opposition rose to challenge the hatred and incomprehension, deeply ingrained beliefs and feelings even an annual gay pride parade could not suppress.

Marchers wait along Andrássy Avenue for the parade to begin

Marchers wait along Andrássy Avenue for the parade to begin

This year saw Budapest’s 18th Pride March last Sunday go off without a hitch, a celebration in itself, as last year’s parade hit a bump in the road when the Budapest Police Headquarters unsuccessfully attempted to disband the 2012 Pride Parade, citing traffic obstruction particularly along the heavily trafficked Andrássy Avenue — a minor setback in the history of the city’s Pride parades.

According to Tamás Dombos, a volunteer at Háttér, Hungary’s foremost and most active LGBT organization, marches were fairly peaceful up until the 2007 and 2008 parades; in what Tamás cited as a civilian backlash against the current corruption during the 2008 election, outraged counter protesters caught police off guard as they descended on the parade, lobbing rocks and rotten vegetables at marchers.

Orsi, 27, Ildi, 28, Anita, 29, from Hungary, proudly display their work

Orsi, 27, Ildi, 28, Anita, 29, from Hungary, proudly display their work

In 2011 and 2012, the plight for the LGBT community turned even grimmer when the government, at the behest of the police force, decided to ban the march. In reaction to the ruling, Háttér sought damages against the Budapest Police Authority, claiming that the ban was discriminatory. The case only just had its first hearing in April of this year.

In light of previous years’ events having not gone so smoothly for the LGBT community in Hungary, 2013’s boisterous occasion seemed to be marked with an air of slight trepidation; as a precaution against counteracts as seen in the 2008 parade, police erected high fences one block off from the parade’s route, allowing spectators to squintingly observe the march from afar. The careful measures proved reassuring to some, including Mirko, a 26-year-old Erasmus student, who said the overall

A protester of the parade burns a rainbow flag as others chant "Halál a buzik"

A protester of the parade burns a rainbow flag as others chant “Halál a buzik”

reception of the LGBT community in his home country of Italy was much worse. “In Italy…it is really hard to meet other guys, only in gay venues. And I would not dare go hand in hand with my boyfriend.”

Others, like Chen, 26, visiting from Israel, echoed the sentiment. Flashing a colorful band on his wrist, he recounted that he was strongly dissuaded by a friend from wearing any gay pride insignia particularly when traveling through the country.

Budapest, on the other hand, may have a thriving LGBT culture, but the open displaying of sexuality or support for the LGBT community is not so prominent. Some LGBT venues, Tamás contends, tend not to display the ubiquitous multicolored flag as not to attract unwanted negative attention. Overall, Tamás points out, Hungary has yet to see the progress its neighbors Poland and Romania have had in the past 10 years, given that polls show that barely one-

Just across St. Stephen's, a few supporters wave on as the parade turns on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca toward Parlament

Just across St. Stephen’s, a few supporters wave on as the parade turns on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca toward Parlament

third of its population support same-sex marriage and 40% responded that they would not tolerate a gay neighbor.

Brandishing a sign reading ‘Say “No” to the Dark Side’ and a picture of Star Wars’ Yoda underneath, Orsi, a 27-year-old Hungarian native attending Sunday’s parade, said that her message was directed at those against the apparent display of sexual preference. “This is not about injuring the people or making them upset. It’s about acceptance. Don’t hate others.” While she said Hungary had much progress to make in bringing up the next generation in a more sympathetic environment, she said she was happy to see several businesses, such as Origo and Index, supporting the event for the first time.

Back over in the less-colorful triangle catty-corner from the monolithic railway station, it was exactly the sentiment feared by Les, one of the few onlookers who had heard of the flag burning and sped there on his bike to support his fellow anti-LGBT demonstrators. “The ultimate goal of the protests is to ban the parade, like in Russia,” he said as his eyes affixed on the globs of distinguished remains of the flag. “And not to become sick like the West.”

Marchers release balloons at Oktogon Square

Marchers release balloons at Oktogon Square

A Brief Insight: Fish out of Water

2012-09-01 15.30.26Language, as it is often said, is a river; it ebbs and flows. There are those who would like to dam it, to slow the tide and tame the barbaric turbulence of slang, colloquialisms, and turned phrases, which often seems only to increase and quicken, rather paradoxically, the diversity and creation of otherspeak that spawns as a result downriver. In opposition to the prescriptivists, the descriptivists would rather the river flow naturally, allowing language to take its course, no matter how muddy and overflowed it becomes. I wade somewhere in the middle of this current, and my teaching experience here in Budapest has involved a bit of white water navigation as well as a familiar and rather dull paddling of the canoe through placid waters. While, or whilst, winding my way through the myriad estuaries, my only talent – being a native English speaker – has been tested in my use of the language and how to guide others through the mire.

English+mother+fucker+do+you+speak+it+.+silly+yoda+he_f9ed4c_3718238Common in nearly every initial class, be it in a business contracted by the two schools I now work for (yet not employed by) or private individuals who have sought my tutelage through the internet classifieds, is the goal of perfection. “I want to sound like a native speaker”. “I would like to not have an accent.” “I want to be understood perfectly.” It’s unusual for me to hear this and, of course, absurdly impossible to achieve in the short amount of time in which they would like to reach this goal (which puts tremendous pressure on me as well). It’s also a shame to hear that a student would strive to purge themselves of their natural accent in order to move up in the ranks of the business world while shedding their linguistic endemism.

True, I’m not applying for a job here in Budapest or do not intend to relocate here permanently, but simply being able to hold a fluid conversation would be a reasonable and attainable goal. Accent-wise, I find it hard to believe I would ever reach native status, and I’m sure I’m easily identifiable as a Westerner when attempting to speak the local lingo to native Hungarians. Perfection is not an option, and I wouldn’t want it to be; it would suck out all the fun in learning a language. Nevertheless, my students’ efforts in achieving their lofty aims deserves tremendous respect, and the demands for lesson material I must prepare weekly vary widely from one to the other.

Carol: "You're white. You're completely white."Larry: "I know. All the blood rushed to my brother."

Carol: “You’re white. You’re completely white.”
Larry: “I know. All the blood rushed to my brother.”

One particular student, a man in his 40s from Székesfehérvár, a city southwest of the capital, spends his hour and a half with me once or twice a week on the second floor of Burger King, where we delve into the 30-plus-pages of idioms he has fastidiously recorded from watching episodes of Seinfeld or unusual choices for light and easy reading (think Vanessa Williams or Chelsea Handler memoirs). It’s one of my more favorite lessons, given I’m not expected to prepare anything but simply correct or point out inappropriate, double-entendre idiomatic expressions. On more than one occasion, I’ve learned a new phrase (usually British) or discovered the origins of one I’ve known and not given a thought to for years (for research and guilty pleasure, I soak in episodes of Stephen Fry’s Quite Interesting after classes).

At the end of these idiom-centered, grease-smelling sessions, I’m expected to appraise the extent of perceived German-Hungarian accent and offer any further advice on perfecting his speech in preparation for his approaching relocation to New York.

saying_body_idiomsSimilarly, my other student will be making a job-related move to the States, yet demands a little more than simply mastering Jewish New Yorker slang and bimbo speak. As he has some difficulty comprehending and keeping up in conversation, I find myself speaking at length, often reaching for relevant topics that stray into personal anecdotes and wild trajectories, nonetheless. Again, I’m faced with a small window of time in which I’m expected to bring the student up to par with everyday conversational English, common phrases, and an accentless fluency.The remaining students, mostly in the range of intermediate to advanced, demand much less but still with the aim of absolute perfection in mind. These classes, on the other hand, give a little more room for creative lesson planning (a.k.a. a rousing and surprisingly helpful game of Mujupuju, about which I’ll be writing presently).

Personalities, goals, and learning methods aside, however, there is no such thing as perfection. This is particularly prevalent when the issue of regional dialect and usage arises or subjectivity regarding style and preference surfaces. Idioms themselves pose a problem for students when botched language over time  – occurring from misheard pronunciations, instances of poor handwriting, and the likes – replaces the correct, original version, such as is the case for “to get one’s goat” versus “to get one’s goad.”

riverThe idea of language as an uncontrollable feature of nature has made itself even more apparent when I was recently asked to copy edit a document detailing collective bargaining laws and regulations in the Ukraine. After an eye-drying 70-page read with inconsistently formatted tables and a mix of British and American spellings to boot, I was informed that my job was “not professional enough.” An example cited was the fact that I had failed to correct a sentence beginning with “Promising is the fact that…” Feeling that I might alter the sentence’s meaning or replace it with an even more awkward rephrasing, I left the stilted structure as it was: imperfect, but certainly not unclear in its meaning. For this, and, I’m sure, other similar syntax slip-ups, I sacrificed a few thousand forints that might’ve otherwise made quite a dent in this month’s rent. C’est la vie.

In any case, this brought me back to my job in New York prior to leaving for Budapest and at which I would never be allowed to get away with the use of “prior to” without my supervisor reproving me for failing to replace it with “before.” Understandably, the bimonthly publication held up a certain standard for style preference and, thus, consistency, but to this day, I find myself slipping into prescriptivist mindset when perusing copy or simply when about to correct a student on sentence structure and word choice.

arcadia-hohensinners-danube-_animation1715-1991

Animation showing the transformation of the Machland floodplain 1715 – 1991.
All rights reserved © 2011 Severin Hohensinner

I must include, and remind myself, that many of my students (and those of my roommate’s, as I’m to understand) are attempting to steer and make sense of the river’s bountiful bends, much like the ancient, ever-changing Danube, in order to escape their lives here in Hungary. Employment – and, subsequently, morale, it seems – is at an all-time high, and every one of my students, not uncharacteristically, expresses much displeasure with the current government and its inaction or otherwise unproductive obsession with tedious bureaucratic law-enacting and -redacting. This is a torrent, of course, I could or would never dream to ford, so I leave you with the longest word in Hungarian at which you may marvel, on which you may contemplate, or with which you may entertain at parties, if I may be stylistically correct in suggesting such:

Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért (‘due to your continuous pretending to be indesecratable‘).

Dobogókő, or I Am A Hedge

Pilis hills

A rolling belt of Pilis hills

I navigated my way through deep dales and imposing hills half hidden by heavy clouds, palming my compass every kilometer and now and then quickly consulting my map detailing the barely discernible brown lines announcing the monsters lying ahead. The wind slammed against a break of trees just over the summit of my newly conquered hill. My steady downhill pace turned into a frenzied and muddy tumble and slide as the melancholy-blue giants overhead flicked fresh yet foreboding drops of cold rain on my forehead. My Saturday hike to Dobogókő had been going so well. Yet, despite my initial determination and Boy Scout savvy, rash decisions, lack of courage and certainty, and the inability to see beyond the hills before me culminated in a failed objective, sore feet, and a defeated return journey home.

Dobogókő (or Dobogó-kő) translates roughly to “pulsating stone.” It is the name of a small area part of Pilisszentkereszt village in Hungary, a little over 20 miles northwest of the capital, Budapest. According to several suspect sources, legend has it that it is here – specifically, at a rock called Ferenczy sziklá – that the Earth’s energy lines intersect, creating a powerful and perceptible force and thus being referred to by many a hippie as the heart chakra of Mother Earth. For those seeking a more scientific explanation, the tremors purportedly perceived are caused by the remarkably thin crust in this particular geographic location, under which occurs incredible geothermal activity, thus giving Hungary its abundance of thermal spas.

Sunrise in the quaint town of Pilisvörösvár, Hungary

Sunrise in the quaint town of Pilisvörösvár, Hungary

Willing myself out of my warm bed at 5 a.m. to a hardly promising pitch-black sky, I cinched my mini duffel containing my map of northern Hungary, my grandpa’s hunting blade, and a cheap plastic compass and made for Nyugati train station, which was just beginning to stir with inland commuters and the last of the holiday-ers. The train ride to Pilisvörösvár took a mere 40 minutes, but the sun all the while had steadily crept over the Buda hills and presented itself fully before I even found my way through the pristine cobblestone main street of the Germanic town. In the distance, the obese Pilis hegy (pronounced something like “Pilish hedge”), its 756-meter (approximately 2,480 feet) peak ringed by deep-blue storm clouds, presided superiorly over the tiny yellow-red town abutting its rocky belly. To its right lied my path, a valley veering northeast of Pilisszántó, leading into védett fa, an area of marked and protected trees, and through the rolling obstacles between me and my fabled destination.

The massive, cloud-covered Pilis hegy looming in the distance

The massive, cloud-covered Pilis hegy looming in the distance

Unfortunately, northeast, it turned out, would take me just out of reach of Dobogókő, and into the thick of the southern section of Duna-Ipoly Nemzeti Park – nothing but tree-covered hill after steep mountain after more tree-y hill.

Believing myself to be heading in the right direction with the aid of my compass and map for bearings, I ignored the fading sunshine’s losing battle with devil-shadows flitting over neighboring hills by the ever-darkening clouds overhead and trudged through a land laden with sinkholes, ravines, and sudden igneous upshoots of Miocene andesite, phenomenal legacies of the tectonic work done by the former Tethys ocean and colliding African plate. Occasionally, as I crashed out of the brush on to an unexpected trail, a wooden signpost would declare Dobogókő to be directly West against my own stubborn notions and subsequent reliance on my trusty compass.

I choose "none of the above".

I choose “none of the above”.

These signs were emblazoned, too, with a curious M with a cross through its middle leg, what I discovered later to be demarcations of a pilgrimage trail leading from  Mariazell, Austria, to Csíksomlyó (or Şumuleu Ciuc, if you can stomach the pronunciation) in Romania. Perplexing to me at the time, my map labeled this as Mária Zarándokút in Hungarian and Marienwege in German. According to the Slovenian website promoting the yearly event, Marijina romarska pot, or Mary’s Pilgrimage Route, commemorates the saint with a 1,400-km (almost 870 miles, which could take up to 60 days to cover) spiritual sojourn, along which are places of worship, checkpoints, and towns holding events appropriate to the occasion.Maria_ut_turistajelzes

Faithful to my own instincts, rather, I barely footed a kilometer of the neatly patted path when I crashed back into the gloppy mat of leaves and maze of tall birch and beeches covered by the horse hoof—like protrusions of the parasite-turned-decomposer Fomes fomentarius (which make for excellent Romanian amadou caps). Easily distracted by the forest’s bracket fungi, I stooped to collect the beautiful carnation-like Trametes versicolor and pleasingly soft, green T. gibbosa blossoming on felled trunks.

More to add to the collection of Buda treasures

More to add to the collection of Buda treasures

At this time, I had been nearly eight hours on my feet, had little indication as to what hill – or, well in fact, what county – I was traversing over, or how I was going to find a train or bus back to Budapest. Finally, I mudsurfed my way down a particularly hellish mountainside to find a route, along which for nearly three kilometers I attempted, unsuccessfully, to hitchhike to the next town. Thinking perhaps I could find my way back up the previous mountain to break in and spend the night in the tiny wooden shack I passed on its western-facing steppe, I noticed a large hotel to my right. Thermal Hotel Visegrád. Tempted to book a room with the mud bath package for the night, I walked farther toward the city center, where I spotted a stately castle perched high up on the edge of a towering hill. Unsure of what to do next, I plopped down, exhausted, on a crumbling staircase leading to nowhere when a beast of a yellow bus came to a stop directly in front of me. Budapest bound. 450 forint. Glorious heat.

A lone tombstone among the deep ravines beyond Pilisszántó reading "P.F. 1883"

A lone tombstone among the deep ravines beyond Pilisszántó reading “P.F. 1883”

My hands could barely function even after a few minutes warming up over the vent, but I realized I had hardly anything to write for all my troubles anyhow. I had experienced little than a normal hiking trip, albeit that I had failed to reach my true destination and touch the rock the Dalai lama himself had visited. I interacted with no one but myself, and I can say that I’m often not the best roadtrip buddy. At this point, I didn’t care; I was on my way home. Maybe I would do something productive, or maybe I’d just feed my face while watching forgotten episodes of The Simpsons. While doing the latter, I shamefully recognized the contrast between this disgusting and habitual comfort that would otherwise leave me an obese shut-in and the chances I take that, in the short-run and obscured view of things, might not seem worth the effort. I have to embrace my restlessness and heartache, pull myself up from the valley, and be a hedge.

A Brief Insight: A Pestilent Problem

A litter patch along the Ferdinánd híd walkway, near Nyugati Railway Station

A litter patch along the Ferdinánd híd walkway, near Nyugati Railway Station

The city park is the last vestige of the lazy yet restless urban dweller who can’t be buggered to make the lengthier trek or train ride outside the city limits. Considering New York hoards over eight million inside the relatively tight squeeze of five boroughs, the numbers contained in the twenty-three districts of Budapest, with its headcount stretching to top even two million, might not seem so impressive. Still, with Pest (the portion east of the Danube River) covering about two-thirds of the city’s territory and given the continuous albeit staggered flow of tourists and immigrants alike each year, the toll on the land, and particularly the designated green spaces within, is apparent.

One of the most familiar features of the Hungarian capital, besides the grand castle upon its Buda pedestal west of the Duna, is Hősök tere, Heroes’ Square, unabashedly planted at the end of the route of Andrássy avenue and thus announcing the opulent entrance of the famous Városliget, or City Park. Beyond this monument and its vast mall are the splendiferous Széchenyi Fürdő and multi-era-style Vajdahunyad Castle, the former demonstrating the geothermal advantages of a thousands-of-years’ thinning of the earth’s crust in this particular region and the latter lauding the achievements of agriculture, forestry, and fishing since the arrival of the once-nomadic tribes in a down- and westward swoop from Siberia. Outside the castle doors inviting visitors to appreciate the efforts of conservation and environmental awareness, however, a moribund scene of few trees, some oaks with bulbous evidence of cancerous disease (in fact, on display in the forestry exhibition of the Castle’s Museum of Hungarian Agriculture) and trampled, dying grass throughout is not unlike many of the other smaller and often worse-off recreational areas within Pest.

Flea market wares in Pest's City Park

Flea market wares in Pest’s City Park

Only last weekend, the most unsavory of characters (said with the utmost adoration and interest) set out their treasures on cardboard pieces, dirty threadbare rugs, and worn car mats – a fine affair for the last-minute buzzard looking to peck out possible gifts for family and friends only a few days before Christmas. But woe to the grass that once was, as the area is now a frozen mud tundra littered with the waste of discarded containers, empty (or suspiciously half full) two-liter plastic wine bottles, and toked-to-the-last cigarette butts. All this despite the abundance of sidewalks and vehicle-free thoroughfares winding through the park.

Besides the troubling issue of trampled terrain and remarkable amount of litter in noticeably consistent locations in Pest, another eyesore remains the act of public urination – and sometimes defecation – in and around public parks. Given most businesses and public bathrooms charge a fee for use of their facilities, it’s not uncommon to see a squatter or wall-wetter even in the most visible of places, be it in clear view from a tram, next to a park bench, or shamefully (or shamelessly?) attempted behind a slight lamppost. As dog owners are apparently wont to do, these public load-pinchers don’t see the point in a post-clean-up either.

Pest's Parlament, equally fouled by politicians and pollution alike

Pest’s Parlament, equally fouled by politicians and pollution alike

Lastly on the Budapest bitching list is the status of the city’s air pollution. A jog through the dimbes-dombos (“hilly”, uttered mostly by children, yet irresistibly alliterative) region of Buda is a welcome reprieve to the smoggy lungs of the Pest resident, who unwillingly inhales the foulest poisonous fumes of diesel-powered cars along the districts’ narrow streets. The evidence grimly presents itself on the otherwise grandiose facades even on the fanciest hotels, museums, and shops, adding a gloomy layer of soot to match the miserable winter skies of December – a pretty town, nonetheless, when viewed from afar.

A Not-So-Brief Insight: Immigration Impossible

It’s amazing how little accomplished I feel having received my official Hungarian immigration visa today. In my mind, this trite but well-earned achievement deserved at least the uncorking of a shitty bottle of Balatoni, not particularly in my honor but in the acknowledgment of my roommates and I ringing in the new year together and toughing out the shared experience of teaching English in an otherwise inhospitable country (as far as employment, payment, and taxes go) for a year’s time. Instead, my one flatmate and closest friend just managed to raise her tone an octave above suspicion, while the other – and expectantly so as well as much appreciated – offered his genuine bro-ski boons when I told him the news. It was the former’s sad excuse for a flaccid high-five that crushed me and more so because only a day before she announced that she would be going home for the holidays, leaving me to have a holly, jolly Hungarian Christmas on my own. Cue an ironic, bittersweet “I’ll be home for Christmas” and pop open the holiday sherry for the pity speech I’m about to make…actually, don’t drop that needle just yet, but do down that sherry.

For the sake of posterity and my obituary photo.

For the sake of posterity and my obituary photo.

I began the immigration process to attain my one-year residency permit over a month or two ago. Albeit a tedious process of filling out one repetitive document after the other, I had little difficulty actually going through the proper bureaucratic steps. Well, in fact, I enjoyed the tedium, the organization, and the challenge of travelling from one person or business to the next, much like a highly-ordered scavenger hunt. Immigration having sent me to places where English was scant yet the office environments slightly more relaxed, I covered districts unknown and met many friendly people along the way. Recounting my experiences – from the humorous and helpful Iranians at Földhivatali Portál (Official Portal of the Hungarian Land Administration) who aided me with vexing Hungarian accommodation forms to the sympathetic immigration worker who despite a policy against photocopying documents for clients did so anyhow – I’m perhaps not so ready to throw in the towel despite how dirty the window to my world has been in recent weeks. As my recent interviewee who more aptly cleverly quipped, “Never mud wrestle with a pig; you get messy, and the pig likes it.”

What’s more is that I have the opportunity to help others going through a similar process, which I outline below. My path to successful residency, of course, is specific to my case in that not everyone will be going through the process individually, but rather with a school or company; in those cases, I can only offer a general idea. So, without further ado…

So you want to stay in Budapest, Hungary…

The lovely exterior of the Office of Immigration and Nationality

The lovely exterior of the Office of Immigration and Nationality

Why the hell do you want to do that? This will be your first submitted form to the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN), a simple piece of paper detailing your reason for wanting a residency permit. For me, three sappy paragraphs of tripe about wanting to continue studying the language and music, teaching English to my beloved students, and bandying about as a freelance journalist were enough; while I myself went the professional route and had my informal plea typed, I’m not so sure a scrap of toilet paper with the words “dinosaur” and “cinnamon bun” written on it would get a second look, as we’ll see later on.

Also before making the bus ride to the Budafoki headquarters, a stop to the post office is in order. For me, Nyugati palyaudvar (Western Railway Station) Posta was closest, and the procedure was fairly straightforward. At the small window, I politely asked the woman (in Hungarian, though English might work, too) for 18,000 HUF in bélyegilleték (duty stamps), which amounts to about 83 USD. Tuck these colorful little postage stickers in a safe place; if you lose them, OIN will not be able to place them in the designated boxes on your application form, and, therefore, the ancient Magyar magic required to move on to the next document will not be unlocked.

Immigration RequestAnd that’s it! Aside from the other forms, of course. Next, is the Application for Residence Permit for Other Purpose (this varies depending on the exact reason you are requesting a longer-term stay, so choose the appropriate form), which can be downloaded from the Bevándorlási és állampolgársági hivatal (BÁH) website, found under Administration –> Standard Forms. Aside from your passport number and other necessities covered later on, the Hungarian government is very keen on knowing your mother’s maiden name multiple times, so do know this before going. Also on the form, you’ll notice a box to be checked with the stipulation that you have full health care coverage during your stay in Hungary. While it’ll cost you around 33,000 HUF (roughly 150 USD), it’s a relatively straightforward process: simply send an e-mail or call one of the offices of Generali Testőr (the one I used was conveniently located not far from my place on Teréz körút 42) requesting an English-speaking (or Hungarian, if you’re able and willing) representative in regard to receiving basic health care. The shittiest aspect, while frustratingly understandable, is that this coverage won’t actually kick in six months into the annual coverage. Make sure to keep a copy of your signed contract as well as your receipt in case OIN needs another paper to pad your appeal.

Then, we have the notorious accommodation form, the bane of my existence for a trying three weeks in which I requested the appropriate signatures from my landlord. This fun little sheet of cardstock must have all the details filled out according to your current residence in Budapest as well as every – and sweet krumpli, I mean every – signature of those involved in the ownership and leasing of your digs. This is available on the BÁH website listed under Administration –> Standard Forms –> Accomodation reporting form for third country nationals (Yes, it’s spelled wrong). But how do you find out who is registered as owners and leasers, you ask? For that, you need another document, the Title Deed, this time supplied by Földhivatali Portál, or Official Portal Of The Hungarian Land Administration, of which there are three locations. The website lists the appropriate office depending on the applicant’s district of residence (as I am in the VI district, I had to report to the Főváros headquarters at Bosnyák tér 5). Lease contract in hand, I took my call number (given to you by the security guard/gate keeper) to the window and asked in my shittiest Hungarian for the appropriate deed documentation, coughing up a little over 6,000 HUF (around 30 USD) for the three-page proof of tax-paid housing. Listed on this are the names of the owners, all of who are required to be signed on your accommodation form. If one signature is missing: no deal.

Courtesy Accommodation Letter

Courtesy Accommodation Letter

Accompanying this reporting form is a very simple Courtesy Accommodation Letter (picture on the left), for which is required a copy of your lease, the J. Hancocks of your accommodation providers, and two witness signatures, for which I’m almost positive Captain Crunchballs Shitcans and Margarine Butter Fiend would work – but don’t push your luck.

The next documents required are bank statements, of which I supplied three months’ worth for both my checking and savings accounts. Typically, the prepubescent processor behind the plastic window at OIN informed me, only one month’s statement is needed, but the more, the better (and that goes for the amount on the ledger as well, of course). Speaking of money, some form of income, while not absolutely required but appreciated particularly if your bank statements aren’t an impressive read, should be proven on paper. For me, this required little more than a contract with SELTI, a now nonexistent company, as it was recently shut down by the government. However, if you’re a freelance English teacher, for instance, have either your school/employer or your students/company print a letter of contractual agreement on a letterhead, another document to sweeten the punch. As before, litter with signatures.

Lastly, two recent passport-sized photographs must be provided. At OIN, there is a handy photo booth in which you can model your most expressionless face for the price of 1,000 HUF (approximately 5 USD) for four photos. Though I’m sure there’s a certain amount of upkeep every now and then, it might be best to have these photos taken beforehand just in case of any unforeseen operating problems on your special day. During the process, which mostly just involves a lot of patience (the waiting area is nice and warm, has a free restroom, and offers vending machine coffee for about fifty cents), you will have your photo taken (again) and be required to subject to some fingerprinting.

A few notes:

–There are plenty of immigration agencies through which you can go through the process. While they charge a hefty fee, it might be a good way to go if you’re unsure of your chances. For these resources, check out Hire A Hungarian, request assistance on Expats Facebook, or visit the forums at Expat-blog and Internations.

–Buy a monthly metro card. You’ll need to take a bus and possibly other transportation to reach the OIN and will most likely be using the city’s transit system often during your stay, so the 50-odd bucks spent are worth it.

–Short of going through this rigmarole, there are always border runs. I have no advice on this, and I’m far too much of a law-abiding pansy to even remotely entertain the idea.

So, let’s review. To win the game of life here in Hungary, you need the following:

  • Statement detailing the reason for wanting a residency permit
  • Bélyegilleték/Duty stamps (Available at post offices)
  • Application for Residence Permit for Other Purpose/Application for National Residence Permit/Permanent Residence/For Official Purpose, etc. (All downloadable on the BÁH website)
  • Proof of full health care coverage
  • Accommodation reporting form for third country nationals (Downloadable on the BÁH website)
  • Title Deed (Provided by the Official Portal Of The Hungarian Land Administration)
  • Courtesy Accommodation Letter (Pictured above)
  • Copy of your lease
  • Bank statements
  • Proof of employment or form of income
  • Two recent passport-sized photographs

Again, I’m not supplying a tried-and-true method for attaining a visa extension or residency. Circumstances dependent on a certain day or the capricious mood of a particular white collar might have been fortuitously in my favor alone. If anything, I naively believe the generosity of others and my own determination have paid off in the end, and I’m happy to use my experiences in helping others facing similar obstacles. So, instead of the whinefest I would’ve waxed on about here, I offer a toast to the new year and the mountains I have yet to climb here and elsewhere. Indeed, Fuji is in sight.Cliffside Szepvolgyi

A Brief Insight: Homelessness in Budapest

Homeless men sleep on old benches at Erzsébet Square

The City Is For All, a social justice and housing rights organization based in Budapest, defines homelessness broadly, including those on the edge of homelessness, those facing possible eviction, and those simply struggling to keep the lights on and themselves off the streets. Outside, it’s the bodies slumped over park benches, huddled in building entrances on salvaged sheets of cardboard at night, and wrapped in ratty sleeping bags in subway stations and forests that satisfy the basest definition of the homeless, those people otherwise known as Budapest’s “rough sleepers”.

Their obvious presence in the city is surprising in spite of the law introduced here two years ago by the current government to make rough sleeping illegal. Western media– including Human Rights Watch and NPR– and sympathizing citizens cried foul as the new law quickly swept through Parlament and the streets, cleaning up the most heavily infested areas of the first district’s Móricz Zsigmond körtér and Lake Feneketlen and the forested areas in the eastern section of the tenth district.

Nora Bagdi, manager of the day and night shelters at Menedékház Alapítvány

Good intentions notwithstanding, the government’s actions drove the roofless denizens into the city’s already overcrowded shelters. A social worker at Menedékház Alapítvány, Nora Bagdi says that the Orbán government was unprepared for this outcome, but that the aim was “not to keep them alive in the streets, it’s to put them in institutions.” This, in itself, she holds, is a basic violation of a human right to live freely where one chooses.  At Menedékház Alapítvány, secluded in a walled community in Buda’s eleventh district, Nora acts as the manager of the day and night shelters, which, combined, has the capacity of 80 beds. Currently, the shelter is at 100% occupancy.

With such limited space but the appeal of the shelter’s loose restrictions on entry – they are one of the few that allows couples and pets and also waives the requirement for health papers from the first night – the organization finds itself not only strapped for space and funds but the necessary staff required as well. “If you take more people, you need more social workers, and a social worker works for a salary. Now, we don’t even have enough social workers by the law,” she says. In dorm-sized rooms on the upper floors of the facility, families of four or five happily play and watch television, cook in communal, well-equipped kitchens across the hall, and darn laundry on ubiquitous slatted drying racks, a pleasant scene amidst the darker picture of the shelter’s future come January.

One of the numerous cardboard beds in the store alcoves along Rakoczi street

At present, Nora says the shelter is unsure of what money, if any, will be dispensed by the government toward the facility’s expenses, as it has not yet determined how funds will be dispersed and will not be revealed until January 2013. The same uncertain mist hangs over the heads of Zoltan Aknai and his assistant Erika at Menhely Alapítvány.

Upon the relatively recent change of government – from the twenty-year reign of the left liberal Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) to the current party in power – contracts between the social welfare organizations and government were terminated. Currently, only two contracts exist, one of which is held by Budapesti Módszertani Szociális Központ (BMSZKI) and the other by the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service. While new contracts have yet to be drawn up, the former receives the same amount of funding from the government as before – only they must share a slice of the pie with Maltese Charity Service. “They made it easier for themselves, “ Erika says of the government’s decision to start clean and take decisive action on the streets. “We had a good relationship with [homeless individuals],” she says of the organization’s work with rough sleepers in the subways prior to the 2010 ban. “Every week, we could see what was happening with them, have a chance to tell them where to go, get clothes.”

A rough sleeper outside a Chinese restaurant in Budapest’s 8th district

Citing the introduction of penalties for rough sleeping introduced last year, Erika affirmed that some were fined and others arrested though couldn’t provide an absolute figure of those taken into custody by the police or amounts fined.  While an individual imprisoned for such an offense as rough sleeping would run up a daily room-and-board prison tab of 8,000 forint a day, she claims, the expenses for an individual living on the street receiving a meal provided by a local shelter would amount to approximately 2,500 forint per day. While this discounts other services rendered with the aim of assisting the transition of street living to sustainable flat life, the core problem, she says, is communication between those more experienced and knowledgeable in the social sector and those in power.

What the government also ignores is the folly of opening more shelters and the wasteful funneling of money into existing facilities, according to Boroka Feher, a social worker at BMSZKI. After the transition of the closed-off Communism economy to a more mixed economic model in which widespread decentralization occurred, City Hall sold off a large portion of state-owned housing stock, leaving a meager 4% in the hands of the government; on this small percentage, however, it still collects a hefty 16% on housing tax, or should, as many home owners choose to skirt this exorbitant fee. This, in turn – while unburdening both the leasers and lesees from paying more – makes for a very tenuous situation when renting flats in the city. With no official contract, many renters might find themselves evicted without ample prior notice should they not be able to promptly pay bills or make rent on time.

Homeless beggars at Jaszai Mari Square near Margaret Bridge

Basic subsidies for those receiving aid from the government are around 22,000 forint per month, says Boroka, not even enough to secure the cheapest option for a single-room occupancy in Budapest, running from 30,000 to 35,000 forint a month. On top of that, she continues, bills can run anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 forint. Collecting benefits that are available for government aid receivers becomes an issue tied to renting illegally. As the lesee cannot register an address in order for the landlord to avoid paying the 16% tax, they are thus not qualified to receive any such benefits of that district.

Boroka’s own organization has seen success in offering support housing but say this success is fleeting; even a year to 18 months – depending on the individual’s situation – of support, she says, is not enough for a sustainable living situation for the employed individual, and they can soon find themselves back on the street. On the other hand, the program Pathways has seen great success for placing clients directly into housing, stipulating that one-third of the individual’s income is to be spent on housing costs, while social worker visits are required four to six times a month.

Still, unemployment remains the most important factor for the individual transitioning from street to sustainable living, something in which the government has taken decisive action, Boroka says, but in the wrong direction. While she cites the need for more employment training projects, the ones that are currently in place by the labor office she describes as useless or otherwise not in demand: in the south of Hungary, basket weaving, and, in Budapest, training in becoming a shop assistant or a fork lift driver. Others program offers include computer and IT training, but she says most would-be trainees lack the appropriate attire and hygiene for such office jobs.

An overnight container for individuals too inebriated to safely enter the main facilities at the Hungarian Baptist Aid Shelter

Job applicants also face the stigma of having been recommended through the city’s job centers, which are currently designed and perceived to help only the most unfortunate of cases. In addition to such unemployment woes, Zoli, a resident of the Hungarian Baptist Aid shelter in the eastern part of the tenth district, says that while he can hardly dream to afford renting a place of his own, he has health problems to worry about as well. At 45, his body betrays his age only in the toughened skin on his face, the unnatural sharpness of his cheekbones, and mouthful of few and mostly broken teeth, but his short stature, bone-thin arms, and wide, eager eyes might belong to that of an undernourished adolescent. After discovering his wife with another man, Zoli began what would be his dangerous year and a half living on the streets; upon request, he unabashedly lifts his shirt to display a poorly healed purple scar running the length of his abdomen, a gruesome souvenir from a knife-wielding robber attempting to steal his money as he slept. Having had his lung removed from complications prior to this incident, Zoli must front up 20,000 forint per month to cover healthcare expenses. Using the city’s day warming shelters, soup kitchens, and the Hungarian Baptist Aid shelter as a home base, he manages to get by but is unsure of his next move. Shrugging but with a sad smile, he says he hopes to meet a girl. “But that’s my imagination.”

Peter, a 25-year-old mentor at Hungarian Baptist Aid, says Zoli’s case is not uncommon, citing a leading cause of homelessness to be family problems and divorce. Often, he says, the men leave the house to the wife and children and, once out on the street, turn to drinking or drugs. Out of the approximately 100 staying at the shelter at any given time, he estimates that around 90% are men.

Of the women at the shelter, Kinga, 19, arrived a year ago, also affected by family issues. She receives some financial support from her working mother while working one of two days a week as a government-employed street cleaner, bringing in a meager 3,000 forint per day. She and her boyfriend, Norbi – they met each other at the shelter – would like to sublet an apartment, she hoping to train to become a social worker, and he, to work in the building and construction industry.

In the meantime, as the less fortunate and struggling shelters alike manage with what they have and wait for a better future, winter is noticeably approaching, and the need for funding, more space, and better services may become all the more dire come January and February.

Police patrolling as a homeless man wildly rants at Blaha Lujza Square