It really has been two months since I squashed as many of my belongings as I could into two suitcases, leaving pretty much everything that was precious to me behind, not for the first time in life, and moved to Budapest, a city that is as diverse and exciting as it is dated and surly with the weight of its past.
Its past is an immense treasure, uncovered piece by piece, day by day, as life here goes on. The first thing I learned was always to look up. I have since realised that it should be always look everywhere. You never know what next point of interest is hiding around the next corner, beneath your feet, or towering above you.
My first weeks here were a wonder – the novelty of everything new, everything waiting to be discovered. I was here and despite the terrible stress of my day job, despite the culture shock and despite a horrible cold/fever that plagued me for those first weeks, I could not have been more hungry to experience all that my new home could offer.
Somewhere between then and now the great many administrative tasks I have had to negotiate in a language I cannot speak have put a more dull coating on my new existence. Apartment hunting – landlords, agents, tenants, appointments – always a bit of a bore. Opening a bank account – not so easy when you realise that English speakers are the definite minority. Thankfully a recommendation from a colleague solved my issue. And residency permits. Who knew as a European – for indeed we Brits still are European for now, and long may it last – I needed one? Queuing for nearly and hour in the cold then for almost as long again in a stuffy hot hall amidst a nervous, eager, frenzy of immigrants clutching passports and paperwork, desperate to be allowed to stay in a country where they have secured jobs and laid roots all the time knowing that it could all be snatched away. I almost felt guilty that firming up my residency status was so easy in comparison – I only needed to provide my signature 10+ times on papers I could not read (placing a lot of trust in my translator there!) to get a printed, laminated card that makes me an official Budapest resident now.
And from immigration I move to poverty, for it has become very apparent that many Hungarians are living in poverty. Homeless roam the streets even more visibly than back in Birmingham. Their makeshift homes and tiny communities are evident. I cannot understand them when they speak, but when they smile and greet me good morning on my way to work my heart aches. This is a city where you cannot recycle glass at your home – something that enraged me initially – but now I know if I get my glass empties to someone homeless, they can exchange them for a few forints at a supermarket. I may not be able to solve their problems, and I ‘do not judge’, which is all they ask of me when I pass by, but I can send a few forints their way. How they choose to spend it is up to them.
This is a city where a ‘few forints’ can buy an exceptional cup of soup or a pretty decent ‘daily meal’. Another thing I have realised is that here, with my ‘British’ salary, even on a single income I am far nearer the ‘wealthy’ end of the living spectrum than I ever have been before. This is a country where first class train travel, luxury spa treatments and slap up three course meals with drinks are very affordable. This is a country where I qualify for a premium bank account, for goodness sake. Me. I have my own banker.
This is a parallel universe, but not one that is easy to digest. Maybe I should be revelling in my comfortable status, but it actually leaves a bit of a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The difference in perception of money, value, affordability, between myself and my Hungarian colleagues, is jarring. For me, being able to buy a two course lunch, every day if I wished, for about £2.80, or a very, very tasty fresh soup for £1.40 is a miracle. To them it is ok but they can’t afford to do it very often. To me, jumping on a train from Budapest to Vienna with a return first class ticket for less than 40 euros was a miracle. To them, it is an occasional trip that would need planning and saving for.
I have lived the highs of Budapest, and I have seen and heard the lows, and I have had wonderful days, and I have had days that are not so wonderful. Is that any different to life anywhere else, at any other time? Had I not come here, would I be sipping a glass of wine, eating olives, and tapping out my thoughts just the same as I find myself doing tonight?
The language is my main problem, fact. Going to places. Doing things. Shopping. Online shopping. When you realise that you cannot read or even pronounce almost every word you see, and cannot converse with people, life becomes hard. Every task that would usually be easily accomplished takes ten times as long as it should and comes with an added level of stress and challenge. Today I managed to buy the correct postage stamps in the post office from a non-English speaking clerk. And this is a great achievement of the day. I have to try and focus on the positives and take something from each experience.
So here is the best thing I have learned since moving to Budapest: the things we take for granted in life are blessings. Without them life becomes much harder, much sadder at times. We can become easily disappointed with our own limitations. So we must try not to. We must try not to get downhearted, and we must try not to take things for granted. Where we have advantages, comforts, benefits, we must appreciate them, because for those who do not have them, life is not so tinted with joy.