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, 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


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.


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 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

Buda Treasures: Part I

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I’m a naturally curious person, but I have my limits. Even during one of my exploratory hikes, I often question why I’m pressing on, what I’m trying to find, and if my life is really just going in circles. Through this existential cacophony, I hear my mother’s words, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and, if only for a few extra tenuous moments, I’m no longer in my downward spiral.

As is my custom now, it seems, I took another stress-relieving hike after teaching English at a business far up Szépvölgyi út on a Buda hill. I trundled and stumbled over terraces of foot-tall stone walls – possibly remnants from wartime fortifications of the German holdouts during the Siege of Budapest – which seemed to wrap around the great mound like lacing around a wedding cake. At the top, I acknowledged another uneventful triumph of yet another Buda hill with yet another panoramic view of Pest. Then, I noticed the eyes staring at me with horror – or intense interest? – from the muddy ground. What I foolishly mistook for a rogue seashell I later discovered to be the shedding of Helix pomatia, a common relict in Hungary and the surrounding European countries and also known informally as the Burgundy or Roman snail. Against the pressed wet leaves matting the forest floor, they and the smaller, more cylindrical Phenacolimax annularis were easier finds than the spherical discs I was really after: Marasmius oreades. Known as the scotch bonnet, the fungi’s other namesake, fairy ring mushroom, more appropriately describes the phenomenon, rather, that I hoped to happen on. Imagine my shock then, when I looked down from a clearing and saw this:

Of course, I was disappointed on two counts, the first being that the patterns were constructed with rocks, and the second, that I’d be seeing no dancing devil elves on this day. A homeless man (or otherwise an unusual camper) was tidying up his tarpaulin shack nearby, and I asked what he could tell me about his fantastic lawn decoration. What with my poor grasp of Hungarian, I gleaned that he had no idea of its origin, as he was from Yugoslavia, having presumably escaped to Hungary in the early 90s during the Yugoslav Wars.

Nearly back where I started my now three-hour expedition, I veered off the path in another direction, this time to find a perfect container for my growing collection of Buda treasures: a spun ceramic jar from Kecskemét Cannery, 50-some miles from Budapest and which first opened and produced these candied goods containers from 1901. A rigorous scrubbing later at home would reveal a red crest with a rearing goat (“kecske” in Hungarian), the official coat of arms of the city. Not only was this the birthplace of a favorite famous Magyar musician of mine, Zoltán Kodály, but it is also now linked with Universal Group (Univer), the products of which my flat mate Heather is very fond (look up their popular squeeze-tube flavors such as Onion, Goulash Cream Mild, and “Erős Pista” or “Strong Steve”).

At the end of the day, I felt my silly little trek turned out to be another time-waster, something to fill up the pages and pass the hours, ending exactly where I had begun. But perhaps not. Maybe my trajectory was and is more of a line than anything: Maybe the reason I can’t see where I am or where I’m going is because I’m not going in circles but rather a line, which stretches onward and can never go back on itself. And, after all: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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