In college, I admired the photos of Robert Capa and learnt that he had died in Thai Binh, not far from my father’s home village. Of Capa’s 31 photos of Vietnam, I particularly like two of children crossing a Hanoi Street, with French soldiers in the background. The small details of daily life reveal a world quickly eroding, a universal phenomenon. Never before has so much been lost so systematically, eagerly and rapidly. Capa’s last photo took place seconds before he stepped on a landmine. In my twenties, I read Arthur Koestler, Géza Csáth and two poems of Attila József, who wasn’t really available in English. His astonishing “The Seventh” remains a favorite, and I’m also charmed by the manner of his death. With his sleeve cut off, József laid next to a rail, with his bare arm extended across it. Though he just wanted to be amputated, the greedy train took everything. Finally, in my 50’s, I was able to visit Budapest, a most elegant and stylish city, though still ravaged from decades of Communism. Its subway system was not grand or sleek, but intimate, and it was delightful to be squeezed into a car with such a lovely people. I feel very blessed to have had a glimpse of this magnificent country. Below, I interview an American who’s lucky and plucky enough to make it his permanent home.
How long have you lived overseas?
I have lived continuously in Budapest, Hungary, since the fall of 1999, so going on 20 years as of date of this interview. NB: I also lived in Germany for two years in the late 1960s, when I was working for the US government – which sounds better than saying I was in the Army.
Budapest is one of those wonderful places that just gets hold of you and never lets go. Budapest is a big city with a small-town feel. Nearly every expat I have met here is still here; the only ones who left did so reluctantly and are always eager to return.
What made you decide to leave the US?
I finally made my move to Hungary for many reasons. First of all, my mid-life crisis had grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shaken me so roughly I virtually HAD to get myself out of my ennui and enjoy the rest of my life. My daughter was grown and about to get married and would be starting her own adult life. Most of my younger male friends in my social circle had gotten married, so I rarely saw them any longer. I was tired of the same old office job day after day for too many years and I desperately needed some adventure in my life. It was time I lived my life for ME instead of for what others thought I should be doing. And I wanted to travel much more. And, of course, I could read the writing on the wall (which has gotten bigger and scarier since I left).
What did you do in the US? Please describe your background a bit.
Like most other people of my generation, after university and a stint in the military, I spent nearly 30 years in the same industry, moving around among financial companies (and states) as an Internal Audit Manager. There were obvious challenges and rewards, perks and benes, but I finally had my fill of sitting in an office all day and decided I wanted to spend the remainder of my life living in Europe and traveling. My two years in Germany had given me a taste for the exotic life. Pushing papers and numbers around had gotten me as far as it could, and I was ready for a major change in my life. Other than my daughter and her family, I had no ties in the US, no place I called ‘home,’ as my family, and then later I, had moved so many times I really didn’t have roots anywhere (I had lived in eight states). It appears I was born to be an expat.
What do you miss about not being in the US?
Krispy Kreme donuts, corned beef hash and cold water drinking fountains. OK, seriously? I don’t see my family as much as I’d like and….well, that’s about it, actually. Living in Hungary has so many advantages (at least, these days) over living in the US that I really don’t miss anything worthwhile about living in the states.
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
Sometimes the language is a barrier to being understood or needing to do what needs to be done, but that has become more rare over time. After a surprisingly brief time, foreigners can easily blend into the city and country where they live to the extent that major challenges just don’t crop up any longer. Learning enough of the language to get by (no need to be fluent) helps immensely and you’ll find many locals will be eager to help you. One particularly annoying occurrence that repeats itself almost endlessly is when I order some dish or drink from a menu and the waiter tells me they don’t have that. This happens constantly and still drives me up a wall.
How are you making money in your new country?
I taught English as a Foreign Language when I first arrived in Budapest, and continued doing so for about seven years. With my background in the financial industry, teaching Business English was a natural for me. As such, I could command higher fees and so, on that income alone, I was able to live quite well (rent, utilities, food) and to travel extensively all over the world. I am now retired and my pensions are sufficient to allow me a lifestyle I could not have – literally, could not have – in the states. In fact, I could not live on my pensions in America, whereas in Hungary I live quite well. Obviously, the cost of living in Budapest has increased over the past 20 years, but it is still among the lowest in Europe and what would be an income just above the poverty level in the states allows me to live quite well in Budapest.
Why did you choose Hungary initially? What were the other choices? Were you well-traveled?
I had originally thought of teaching English in one of the hot spots of Europe: Madrid, Paris, Rome, Athens. My trainers in my TEFL school, however, told me that back then (1999), it was quite difficult for inexperienced American English teachers to find work in western Europe, due to competition from the young British teachers who were members of the European Union. My trainers told me they had taught in Budapest for a while and loved it. So, I thought, what the heck, I’ll teach in Budapest for a year or two and then move to one of the hot spots of Europe. It took me about a week to realize Budapest was the hot spot of Europe, especially back in 2000 when it was still the Wild, Wild East!
My only other serious contender for my new lifestyle at the time was Istanbul, Turkey, which I had visited while on a cruise. While I was in my TEFL school, however, Turkey had a major earthquake and I didn’t think they needed me there during all that upheaval (pun intended). So I opted for Budapest on the advice of my trainers. And I’ve never looked back. Best choice I ever made.
I was moderately well-traveled at the time: London, Paris and Rome when I lived in Germany, Greece (Athens and the islands), Istanbul, plus a trip to Egypt and a cruise up the Nile, along with shorter jaunts to Mexico and Panama. But I wanted more. I had my Bucket List of 50 or so cities and countries I wanted to visit, which was my primary reason for moving to Europe to live and work. Air travel from Budapest to other exciting places would be faster and cheaper than if I stayed in the US. (Note: when I return from my next trip to Lebanon in March 2019, I will have been to 75 countries around the world on six continents – I skipped Antarctica as it’s too cold for me there anyway).
What are some of the pleasant surprises you’ve encountered in your new home?
Kindness and generosity of the Hungarian people (after an initial period of overcoming their general discomfort with foreigners); welcoming and acceptance by other expats/foreigners; ease of earning a living; variety and type of restaurants in this major European capital; better quality of life on a much lower income than in the US (e.g., don’t need a car, which is a huge major expense in the states); world-class public transportation; ease of traveling to other countries; world-class dentistry; living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
For most of my time in Budapest, I have lived in the southern part of the “downtown” area, which includes one of the best huge indoor covered markets in Europe. Lots of fresh food: veggies, meats, fruits, dairy, etc. I usually cook at home 4-5 nights a week and go out the other days. You can spend a bit these days at restaurants (Budapest now has three Michelin-star places!) but you can also find good deals at the smaller Mom and Pop places. I can get a good solid meal and drink for less than $4 US! Whiskey and wine are rather expensive, but beer is always a deal. I am five minutes from the Danube, always a pleasant place to pass a summer day watching the boats go by. There is also a lovely small park close by and University Square for outdoor dining in the summer. Everything I could want is right near me, which makes everyday life so much easier.
I have a small flat, 40 sqm, which is certainly large enough for one person. Rental flats here come fully furnished, so no need to buy anything else. Due to inflation and the new popularity of Air BnB, standard rentals have gone up quite a bit, probably about 450 euros now for a one-bedroom place. But as one gets acquainted with the locals, there are always better deals to be found.
What are some of the unanticipated problems?
Dealing with Hungarian medical system; other than that, really, none. I read widely on Budapest and Hungary before moving here and was ready for pretty much anything I encountered. A little (or a lot of) research will ease the move considerably.
You mentioned kids, so did you come to Hungary with your wife? If not, have you found another significant other?
I have one daughter who lives in southern California with her husband and two children. I knew I would miss seeing them more often, but I had my life to live and I made my choice. I had been a widower for quite a few years, so I was alone and fancy-free. I found out as I met more expats in Budapest that nearly all of the young men here had followed a lovely Hungarian girl to Budapest and then, even if their relationship didn’t last, they decided to remain in the city. Most of them are still here and have found other Hungarian women eager to hook up with what they consider a well-heeled foreigner. Nearly all of these mixed marriages have stood the test of time.
As for me, still single after all these years. Budapest is a big candy store, with some of the most beautiful women in the world – as is true of Central and Eastern Europe in general. Young Hungarian women are fun-loving and love to socialize and I have done my best to oblige them. Also, surprisingly enough, it is difficult to meet single Hungarian women over the age of, say, 50 or so, who come without baggage. So the older Daughters of Venus seem to prefer locations where I am not.
Please tell us about some of your Hungarian friends.
Once the Hungarians get over their discomfort with strangers, they are some of the warmest, friendliest people anywhere. I have made many, many friends here, some I see every week, others only once every few years. It is too much to list them all here, but they include:
Zoltan and Ildiko, married couple, she was my first private student and he has the same job I had in the USA. He is also a wine connoisseur. They have been friends for 18 years.
Andras, mid-fifties, a singer with a raspy voice, I follow him around Budapest on his various gigs.
Zsofia, a young lawyer and pop singer and my only current student
Hungarian Kendo champion Tibor Istvan and his brother Bela, managers of one of our best neighborhood pubs and karaoke clubs.
Eszter, owner of a small pub in my building.
Younger Hungarians love to meet foreigners and to practice their English with them. In addition to locals, I have also met and remained friends with expats from all over the world, as Budapest draws people from everywhere as The Gateway to Eastern Europe.
What is some advice you have for Americans who also want to get out?
Do it! Make your plans and break your bonds. Do your own research (lots of good books out there about relocating to a foreign country). Don’t listen to ‘friends’ and family who wonder how you could ever leave the states; it’s a great big wonderful world out there and if you are the adventurous sort and yearn to live the expat life, pack your bags and make that move. You’ll never regret it. I certainly haven’t.
(BTW: you can read my book on moving to Hungary, To Úr with Love. Copies purchased and presented in person will be signed by the author while imbibing a palinka, one of the national drinks of Hungary)
Gary Lukatch (75-years-old)