Colm FitzGerald, an Irish-American expat living in Hungary, is a budding authority on the great tradition of Hungarian winemaking. Colm has previously lived in Ireland, America and Spain. A hiker, rock-climber and general outdoor adventurer, read about how he gave up California’s endless summers and golden beaches to settle in the Hungarian city of Miskolc.
His blog, Hungary for Wine, chronicles his enthusiasm for Hungarian wine, as well as his continuing wine education.
Read more about Hungary in the Expat Arrivals Hungary country guide or read more expat experiences in Hungary.
About ColmQ: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Ireland but my family moved to southern California when I was three.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I live in Miskolc, Hungary.
Q: When did you move to Hungary?
A: January 2015
Q: Did you move here alone or with anyone special?
A: My wife is Hungarian and from Miskolc, so we moved here together.
Q: Why did you move to Hungary?
A: We moved here to get a fresh start and to be nearer to my wife’s family. We also moved just for the adventure of it all.
Living in Hungary
Q: What are the benefits of living in Miskolc? How would you rate the quality of life in Hungary compared to America?
A: Being near the Bükk mountains is a real plus. There are tons of hiking trails and I have access to rock climbing about 20 minutes from my house, which is ideal for me. The quality of life for me is about the same as it was in America. That being said, a lot of people in this region live in poverty.
Q: Are there any negatives to life in Hungary? What do you miss most about home?
A: The city of Miskolc isn’t the most pleasant. It’s a former industrial town, so there are lots of empty buildings, factories and derelict spaces. It’s also one of the poorest areas in Hungary and people can be a bit rough around the edges. Despite this, all in all, my experiences have been positive. This city definitely grows on you and you learn to love it just as it is. You also learn to be more direct and to stand up for yourself. The countryside around Miskolc is absolutely beautiful, too.
I do miss my friends and family. And of course, I miss the Californian beach and the year-round good weather. Winters can be tough here!
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Hungary? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock when moving to Hungary?
A: The language. My Hungarian is decent but some situations go over my head. Years ago, when I first visited Hungary, a lot of things came as a surprise: how much people smoke, the open racism, the low salaries and food like kocsonya (aspic), which is a meat-stock jelly. I was 21 the first time I visited and, coming from California, Hungary felt like a different planet. Now I’m 33, I’ve travelled much more and have spent a lot of time in Hungary. Most things that initially shocked me seem pretty normal now.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Hungary compared to America? Is anything cheap or expensive in particular?
A: It’s a lot cheaper here. Especially in terms of real estate. In Budapest, things are getting expensive but everything in Miskolc is still very affordable. Compared with America, groceries are cheaper in Hungary, but the salaries are low. Relative to salaries in Miskolc, food should be more affordable. At a dollar or two for a beer in a bar, compared with a minimum of five dollars back home in America, alcohol is much cheaper in Hungary.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Miskolc? Do you need to own a car in Hungary?
A: Public transportation is very good. There are lots of buses and a central tram line that runs the length of the city. You don’t need to own a car but we have one.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Miskolc? Have you had any particularly good or bad experiences dealing with Hungarian doctors and hospitals?
A: Healthcare services are pretty good. The state of the facilities are not the best, to be honest, but it works. Almost all of my experiences have been positive. Most doctors are excited to talk to me when they realise that I’m a foreigner, although nurses and some staff can be rude.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Hungary? Are there any areas expats should avoid in Hungary?
A: In my experience, Hungary is a very safe country. Petty theft is common but violent crime doesn’t really pose any threat. Common sense should keep you out of any trouble.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Miskolc? What are the different renting options available for expats in Hungary?
A: Most people live in apartments, quite small ones. I’m not that familiar with rental processes as we have our own home outside of the city. Friends who taught English here were set up with simple but adequate apartments
Meeting people and making friends in Hungary
Q: How tolerant are Hungarians of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions, women or identities?
A: There aren’t many foreigners here in Miskolc. You’re kind of a novelty for most people. Generally, people are very nice and curious. People here are not used to different cultures and people who look different from them. People can also be fairly open with their racism. That being said, I don’t think that there is any threat of violence or confrontation. Lots of staring and strange looks for sure! The government’s anti-immigrant propaganda doesn’t help.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Miskolc?
A: It was relatively easy for me because I go to the local climbing gym about twice a week. So, if you have a hobby or sport, it can really help in finding and meeting like-minded people.
Q: Have you made friends with Hungarian or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends in Hungary?
A: A mixture of both. There is a group in Miskolc called the British-Miskolc Club (strange name, I know) that meets every week downtown. You can find them on Facebook.
Working in Hungary
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Miskolc? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job in Miskolc?
A: Miskolc isn’t the best place to find a job but it’s improving. The Bosch and Takata factories have improved the situation dramatically. There’s also a small start-up scene.
Q: How does the work culture differ in Hungary? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Hungary?
A: The work culture is very different in Hungary. Things are generally not as efficient here. Communication and structure are sometimes lacking. It can be frustrating as projects move at a slower pace than in America.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expats arriving in Hungary?
A: There’s Budapest and then there’s the rest of Hungary. They’re kind of different worlds. Budapest is cosmopolitan whereas everywhere else is decidedly not. Even larger cities can feel a bit rural in terms of attitudes and lifestyles. It may take some time, but when you make close friends with Hungarians, you will find them to be honest, warm and caring. Enjoy the countryside in the summertime, including the wine, the garden parties and all the amazing produce. So, swim in a lake, go for a hike and eat more pork fat!
~ Interviewed March 2018