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.


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‘).


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 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

A Brief Insight: Gypsies

“To a gipsy I have born,
homeless I wonder now;
As a child of the nature I have no worries,
as long as I am free.

“Why do you wander?” they ask me,
I do not know myself;
the wind shall answer that,
a turning star shall give advice!”

Mustalainen, adapted by Finnish composer and musician Oskar Merikanto

I’ve been meaning to eke out a short piece on the Roma – or gypsies, as more commonly known – for some time now. However, my hesitating to write has had its reasons: firstly, I won’t be able to justly capture the spirit that “Hungarian gypsy music” invokes in me, and secondly, the topic of gypsies here in Hungary is not so light-hearted a subject of conversation, as I will expound here. But first, a little music.

According to the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (HMFA) in its 1893 census, approximately 17,000 gypsies had registered as musicians in Hungary, six percent of the nearly 280,000 estimated to be living in the country at that time. Despite the popularity of Hungarian melodies – both the popular song form called the nóta and the capricious csárdás – played by the gypsies, as Bálint Sárosi contends in his article, The History of the Gipsy Band, even the most talented gypsy performers during the 18th and 19th century were not taken seriously. Succinctly stated, Zsigmond Móricz had this to say of a concert he attended much later in 1930: “Hey, Gypsy, dog Gypsy, you played the country away!” In his famous novel, Verry Merry, a highly esoteric historical fiction of Hungarian life at the turn of the century which I’m struggling to finish, the author gives the reader an equally disparaging view of the downtrodden, pathetic gypsy peasants constantly begging for work (though at least he credits them for wanting to work, a sentiment not universally shared today, as you’ll see below). Sárosi’s piece goes on to quote two other critics of the so-called gypsy music, both effecting that the gypsy musician could never truly conceive or improvise anything other than the music given to them by “the revelling Hungarian gentleman.” The phrase “so-called Gypsy music” was echoed in 1932 by the last person I would have expected (naively so, I realize only now) to present a similarly jingoistic view, although not entirely pejorative: Béla Bartók. In his essay, “Gypsy Music, Hungarian music?”, Bartók writes, “The popular art songs, on the other hand, especially as performed by Gypsies, have a romantic extravagance in their expression, which is admittingly fascinating in the beginning but becomes wearisome later on,” all the while holding Hungarian peasant music as more “advanced” than the “colorless” Gypsy tunes. Liszt, he penned, had it all wrong.

While forms such as the nóta were claimed to have their roots in Hungarian culture, the gypsies who took to playing these enjoyed some form of respect, if not altogether without a condescending nature or otherwise a bit fantastical. The latter view was even one I held growing up, the term “gypsy band” putting into my head visions of a wild people camping in caravans in dark mountain passes, dancing and playing passionate melodies into the night (I blame Carmen Sandiego). Even today, I still hold onto some of these romantic notions, fueled, in part, by a terrific documentary I recently saw, Latcho Drom (1993), following the Romani on a long and musical journey from India to Spain.

Of course, since my arrival in Budapest two months ago, I’ve yet to hear a sentence combining the words “gypsy” and “music” at all. As I will soon hope to publish an article detailing homelessness as well as its relevance to the state of Roma affairs in the city’s districts, I’ll only outline a few points on the history of the issues here. As of a recent census according to the data provided by the HMFA, the Roma comprise somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 of Hungary’s population, putting the country in fourth place in terms of the number of known Roma residents (the first three being Romania, Bulgaria, and Spain). Throughout the group’s existence here since the 14th and 15th centuries, they’ve experienced a veritable rollercoaster of near acceptance to intended extermination. Maria Theresa’s 18thcentury decrees bestowed a more respectful title to the aliens (“new peasant” or “new Hungarian”) but also sought to restrict Roma marriages and rehome their children in more upstanding and educational environments. Fast forward over several waves of immigrations – consisting of branches of Vlachs, Beas, and Romungros – to the 50s: a cultural institute with interests in improving the Roma’s state of living made some headway in doing so, only to close down after four years in 1961. Yet, during this time, although housing conditions were less than desirable, employment was still up; it was the 80s, particularly 1989, when the Roma experienced the worst of the downturn. As unskilled laborers, as documented in the HMFA report, they were the first to be let go. Boroka Féher, a social worker at Budapesti Módszertani Szociális Központ (BMSZKI), says that this impact was especially felt in northeast Hungary. Children growing up during this time would take after their jobless parents, she says, marrying early and having children of their own, a not-unheard-of problem in low-income communities, but a damaging, generation-to-generation behavior.

Roma rumor: Limbless Roma are taken to Budapest from Romania to beg on the streets and then are picked up and driven back after a day’s work; the money is given to the operators of the scheme.

Today, while city social services and job centers push to place their Roma clients in the working world, Féher says that many employers are unwilling to hire the Roma applicants (most, she recalls, simply reject the candidate outright, whereas others immediately say the position has been filled). While the work is scarce in a state strapped for cash as it is, it’s interesting to hear what Katherine (not her real name) has to say in regard to the Roma’s work ethic across the country, that being that they all simply do not want to work and are lazy. For my roommate, Heather, it seems impossible to have a conversation without mentioning gypsies. She has been so far entertained with the following anecdotes (paraphrased from memory):

1.            A private student of hers, in his 40s, confided in her that the gypsies were the reason he couldn’t immigrant to Canada; there are too many Roma claiming refugee status in Canada, so now Canada hates Hungarians.

2.            In a class with four older women, she has been told to avoid going to the 9th district, as it is filled with gypsies and alcoholics (the one student called them “drug men”).

3.            Another student of Heather’s spoke highly of her country (Poland) that they “solved the Roma problem”.

4.            One of Heather’s friends explained that Romanians are just “watered-down gypsies”.

5.            “Going down the gypsy” has been a phrase coined here to mean that something unpleasant went down the wrong pipe.

In addition to these ubiquitous little numbers, another favorite song and dance repeated by Hungarian scholars and regular Joes alike has been the idea that the Roma have no history or form of stable and collective identity, as excellently discoursed in Sándor Romano Rácz’s Historical Consciousness Among the Roma.

Roma families stand by their claims from tossed-out treasures on garbage day in Buda

Indeed, it is easier to avoid the subject when at all possible; it’s terribly disheartening for an otherwise amiable new friend to turn out to be a potential enlister for Jóbbik (think the US’s Tea Party) and a bigoted racist. For isn’t that what they are? Never mind the facts and figures: the formation of the mouth, ready to spit out the crude “gypsy” and all other opinions based solely off of thoughtless, overgeneralizing news reports or their one experience seeing a darker-skinned bum sitting idly on the street, begging for change is enough to notice something very wrong in the rhetoric in this place. Perhaps, if one of these individuals took a second from sipping their Balaton wine while whining about the poor state of the economy and how they’re just scraping by, they might see that there could be much more done not only for the Roma but for all who are truly in dire need during these hard times they claim them to be. And while I have to understand the mentality of a people still transitioning from an Everything’s-fine-no-problems-here Communist state, I do expect a little more humanity and thoughtfulness from at least the educated youth of Budapest. If not, let’s get the subject back to music.

Some great Hungarian/gypsy-inspired music:

Taraf de Haidouks
Béla Bartók’s Hungarian Folk Dances
Johannes Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 5
Zoltán Kodály’s See the Gypsies
Budapest Symphony Orchestra’s Hail to Janos Bihari
Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen played by Joshua Bell
Ravel’s Tzigane played by Isaac Stern

SELTI, I Hardly Knew Ye

The news came as quite a blow to all three of us. While I had only recently begun teaching English in Budapest, my two roommates had been working with English schools such as International House and the British Council since arriving here some months ago. Now, with the closing of SELTI International, our future living and teaching in the city seemed bleaker than ever.

Freelancing as an English teacher in Budapest can become a complicated matter when dealing with Hungarian taxes; however, this is where SELTI, itself an English language-teaching school, comes in to save the day, providing a fairly straightforward business in which freelance teachers can avoid paying the exorbitant value-added tax (VAT) imposed by the government. Here’s how it works:

  1. Schedule an appointment with SELTI online, bringing with you on the day of your scheduled meeting a passport or other form of valid ID.
  2. Sign a document which affirms that you are a trainee employed by SELTI in New Zealand* (see form on the right).

    Travel to New Zealand without actually ever setting foot in New Zealand!

  3. Agree that SELTI may take 19% of your earnings for each invoice they process and that this service be provided no more than two years.
  4. After the school at which you are employed has sent a document detailing the hours logged teaching, get paid.

*This part may or may not be legal, as indirectly stated by a former SELTI representative, considering you are not, in fact, in New Zealand.

Although that 19% may seem brutal – a fairly decent base pay for an English teacher is approximately 3,000 HUF, around $15, per hour – it’s less jarring when compared with the government’s cut of 26% VAT. Whether this is a truly legal process or not (SELTI and others assure that it is, but see asterisk above) is now no longer relevant for English teachers, as the government recently decided to freeze all SELTI accounts. With no complete reassurance to its staff of New Zealand trainees of being able to pay for this and the next months’ wages, SELTI, having no other option than to close down, sent out the following apologetic letter to its clients:

I regret to inform you that due to the market downturn experienced in the language industry over the past year particularly, SELTI is no longer sustainable as a company and we are closing down. Fortunately we have settled payments owing to you to-date, but this obviously has implications for any further invoicing needed for October lessons. As the company winds down, we will be issuing cash invoices for October lessons (and any September invoices that remain unpaid). This means you will be able to collect cash directly from the language school for any lessons you taught, less the normal SELTI fees. It will mean you need to meet with someone at SELTI to collect the invoice and give it to the school upon receiving your payment.

We will explain more when it comes time for invoicing for the month, but we wanted to inform you now so if you need to make alternative arrangements from November onwards you can. As administrative staff are being let go during this time of transition, please contact accounts@selti-hungary.com with any queries you have, and remaining staff will respond to your queries there.

The news has undoubtedly soured a good number of people relying on SELTI to use the loopholes in the law to avoid the government VAT, but there remain other options: biting the bullet and going through the government directly being one, the other, becoming self-employed in the UK and performing the VATs through your own “business”. Given you don’t earn more than 12,000 pounds in the year, you are then exempt from paying the 25% UK VAT. This, of course, only applies to individuals within the European Union, leaving non-EU freelance teachers to find other routes or possibly piggyback off the self-employed EUers. All of which makes sense if you’re mad as a balloon or happen to be employed as a government tax accountant, if you’ll excuse the redundancy.

What prompted the government to finally crack down on this convoluted yet supposedly legal system? How will freelance English teachers working in such a volatile market for such low pay sustain themselves following the collapse of SELTI? Private lessons are an excellent way to pocket cash without having to report VAT (read: illegal), but just how feasible and sustainable this is remains questionable, particularly approaching the low season for English teaching in Budapest.

For now, our flat of English teachers will have to learn how to better our self-marketing skills or otherwise face a miserable winter of potato dinners and reading by candlelight.

A Brief Insight: Pest’s 8th District

From a window of one of the many warehouses along Baross utca, facing an overgrown area containing a few abandoned buildings

Alone, I rode the accordion bus no. 9 over its much trodden path to that place where Magyar mixes with the Orient. Here, the inhabitants have worn out their welcomes, the filled warehouses that hold them seeming to sigh out their bricks and shedding their once lustrous skins from years of heavy use and neglect. The eighth kerület, or district, of Budapest is nowhere near the largest of the city’s twenty-three (geographically, the seventeenth holds this title, while the seventh claims the highest population density) but is a contender for one of the most varied in landscape and ethnic backgrounds.

Seen from a lofty position of a window-side seat along this particular stretch of Baross utca is a mess of impromptu Asian outdoor marketplaces, looking like misplaced tectonic tin puzzle pieces that have been drunkenly jammed in to fit by an impatient god. Beneath these roofs, partially limbed manikins look like veteran security guards, eyeing the crowds for potential pilferers and shoplifters.

A narrow, crowded path in the maze of the tin-roofed Asian flea market

Like their stony-faced plastic counterparts, many of the vendors here sit eerily still, crouched, staring off into the distance, cupping their small white bowls of steaming sticky rice. Some of the more prescient sellers are listening to old radios emitting static and wailing Chinese violins. Their Hungarian and Romanian neighbors are tuned into American pop stations, creating an interesting clash of old world and new. Funneling down narrow paths past the ubiquitous makeshift shops, I took out my tablet to take a few shots, drawing heads to turn in my direction all at once. “Elado? Elado?” they called out excitedly, following close behind and abandoning their lunchtime kebabs, some reaching out to get a feel of the device. While a little curious to see just how much my used Samsung Xoom would go for in the black market, I decided to make my exit before it was pried from my hands for free.

A derelict railway factory building just beyond the shops

Opposite the slapdash shantytown sat spacious warehouses stuffed with shiny, tightly sealed candies, dried mushrooms, and seaweeds imported from the East. Here, too, the inhabitants fixed their expressionless gazes into the distance, some sitting on cardboard boxes and mumbling to themselves, a desolate scene out of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Again, the endless rows and passages seemed to repeat over and over again like the background of a primitively drawn cartoon, so I made my way around back over obliterated cobblestone and past ominous factories amidst heaps of rusted beams and shards of window glass.

A church, still in use and very much having the grandeur that such a building should have in Europe, stood just down the street, squashed between blocky, yellowing tenements that had at first hidden it from my view. A little more carefully this time, I took out my tablet to take a quick snapshot, when a voice startled me from behind. “Do you need directions?” he asked politely. “Are you lost?” It didn’t occur to me just then how perfect his English was, and the fact that he was speaking English.

The 56-meter-high water tower behind the Hungarian Bible Speaks Church on Golgota utca

After explaining who I was, that being a szabadúszó újságíró, or freelance journalist, he introduced himself, with the slightest of Scandinavian accents, as Pastor Borgyucca. A Finnish native, he had joined the church as pastor on its opening in 1999. Pointing to the scrapyard I had just passed, he explained that the area was once an important hub for the Royal Hungarian State Railway. With its demise came massive unemployment in the district, which has seen its fair share of changes over the last few years. In fact, the very church before us, he explained, had a chameleon life of its own up until recent years, having been a site for the castle-like water tower that still juts up stalwartly from behind as well as a notorious club for rock and roll and rampant drug use.

Now, it peers peacefully over the other crumbling buildings of this slowly fading yet distinctly diverse part of the eighth district, a few homeless people digging hopefully through its oversized, rectangular dumpsters in the courtyard or otherwise simply sitting, eyes forward, waiting for something to happen.

A Budaerobic Brief

One flat mate calls me a crazy man, the other merely shakes her head, while my ever-overprotective mother even some 7,000 kilometers away in the eastern United States vehemently warns me against the follies of being ill prepared and naïve, cautionary tales of lone outings gone awry and horrors abounding for unwary wanderer.

What were my whole being to burst as a result of pent-up energy that I would not take to the hills at least three, maybe four or five, times a week; only having moved here a month ago, I’m now well addicted to running up the Buda hills, rousing myself in the early morning to beat the tourists to the top of the Citadella.

Barely a quarter of the way up the meandering slope of the hill’s southeast side

With Pest being flat as a potato pancake as it is, I’d be in need of a new set of kneecaps jogging in circles around Varosliget every day. Nothing can compare to the short warm-up and cool Duna air to fill the lungs crossing Erzsébet Híd, only to surprise the body with a sudden vertical charge up Géllert Hill.

I return a righteous peace sign to an enviable rock-hard Géllert standing and signing vigilantly to the flaccid spread of Pest before him, say my “Sziasztok” to the two aged women selling embroidered table cloths on the slick staircase, and kick my motivational motor into high gear as I take on the excruciatingly mildly steeped paths meandering ‘round the great Buda mound. I give a friendly wave to the homeless gentleman rolling up his sleeping mat in the more wooded part of the hill, feign retching — very difficult to do at this point between the labored panting — at a couple christening a splintery red love seat (read: bench that a certain homeless man certainly did not piddle on moments before) just off the main path, and add injury to insult by guiding my poorly shod feet onto a boulder-strewn, unpaved path which I fondly deign “the fairy road” for its tiny, yet deep hollowed-out grottos.

Vendors at the base of the Citadella, selling everything from traditional embroidered throws to wooden puppets smoking sticks of incense

At the top, once the heart has slowed from my 235-metre-high fortress siege, I’m rewarded by the lady-in-waiting (-to-pop-off-a-giant-beer-bottle-top), the uniquely named Statue of Liberty, and, below, her worshippers hawking her miniatures to sagging tourists exhausted from the jaunt to the hillside stronghold from their  felt-seated coach buses some fifty feet away.

I make it a point to pass my favorite vendor, a serially surly Romanian man whose most curious souvenirs are a collection of flimsy hats purportedly made from the area’s indigenous mushrooms. Past the anachronistic artillery and archery range and ‘round back of the tower lie pebbly paths snaking, as the Danube does around Margit and Csepel islands, around a colorful, undiscerning blend of Gerber daisies, marigolds, wave petunias, and feathery fiery red and orange cockscombs. The ground gives way to cracked pavement once more, and I begin my jiggly descent down dangerously steep, crumbling stairs, a fatal tumble made more possible by common wall lizards flitting in and out of dark holes.

A giant statue of a turul, a creation myth symbol of the Hungarians, sitting atop a lightpost at the base of Géllert Hill

As the pulse levels out along with the grade of the path, I slow enough to admire the blocky statues of heroes past and graffiti-tagged murals depicting faceless, square-shouldered Hungarians forging and fording the country’s way into the age of industry: an extra push to run harder and, upon reaching the bottom just before the grand entrance of the famous Géllert Hotel facing the forest-green Szabadsag hid, the energy to do it all over again.