Lauren McCawley was born in Germany and spent her childhood moving around America. She graduated from a small liberal arts university in 2007 with a degree in Spanish, Political Science, and History. Then she volunteered for a year in California before moving to Budapest, where she taught English for two years. Lauren blogs about her experiences at www.laureninbudapest.blogspot.com
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: My father was a career soldier, so I moved around a lot. I was born in Germany, but I’m not German. I grew up in the southeast US, went to high school in New Mexico, and university in Pennsylvania.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Budapest, Hungary.
Q: How long you have you lived in Hungary?
A: Two years.
Q: Why did you move to Hungary; what do you do?
A: Well. I graduated from college in 2007 and volunteered for a year in California. Through that process I fell in love with teaching but was frustrated with the situation in education in the States so I looked for a job abroad. I found a job in Budapest through a placement agency so I went there in August of 2008. I fell in love with the city, but not being a trained teacher I decided to study some more; I moved to Madrid in September 2010 to study a masters degree in Bilingual and Multicultural Education. I have a job offer to return to Budapest to teach Spanish and Geography and I plan to do so this summer!
Q: What do you enjoy most about Budapest, how’s the quality of life?
A: The thing I most enjoy about Budapest? What a tough question! I guess I enjoy that it is vibrant and exciting while still being liveable and personal. The city itself is gorgeous. I especially love teaching in Budapest; the kids are innocent and lovely. I think Hungarian is a fantastically interesting language and as someone quite obsessed with languages, that’s big for me. I also really enjoy the little cafés, specialised shops, and “destroyed” bars. The tiny, hidden away green places and courtyards in the city are a special treasure.
And the Hungarians! I appreciate the sincerity of the people. If they tell you you’ve done a good job with something, they mean it. And if they don’t like your hair cut, they will tell you so, but also suggest many ways of fixing it! They touch often. They have fantastic dark humour and spontaneously burst into poetry. Traditions are fiercely held. If you learn a few words of Hungarian, they REALLY appreciate it.
The quality of life takes some getting used to for the average American. The standard of living is a bit lower than in most places in the States or western Europe. Everything works fine and is comfortable, things just look a bit dingy more often. Give it a bit and you’ll get used to it!
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Hungarians are very welcoming to strangers, but they aren’t the best at making friends. It takes a bit of an effort and a bit of time for them to open up to you and trust you. Don’t worry, though, once they do you know they mean it. This extends to public relationships with shop clerks, waiters, and the like. If they don’t know you, they won’t smile at you and ask you about your day; it’s nothing personal, but sometimes I miss that American friendliness and openness!
Q: Is Budapest safe?
A: If you’re safe, Budapest is safe. I know of some people who were pickpocketed, but after hearing the story, they put themselves in that situation. There is some prostitution, so if you are a young male hanging out alone in certain areas at night, you’ll probably get approached. A firm “no thanks” works fine. Something I was lucky enough not to worry about as a blonde girl is the xenophobia of a particular minority group; I know that some racial minorities have been harassed when out alone at night.
There is a mob presence, you’ll see them in certain clubs in their dark suits and earpieces. My advice is to stay away from them. They’re mostly involved in trafficking drugs and sex, so if you’re not into those worlds there is no reason to worry.
The thing tourists might have to worry about is money scams. Be careful where you pay with a credit card and don’t let one out of your sight. And yes the “konsum” girls mentioned in all the guidebooks are real. Fellas, just be honest with yourselves! And always buy a metro ticket.
Q: Describe an ideal way to spend a weekend in Budapest
A: I’m going to assume you’re at least a bit into history, so Saturday is going to be Communism Day, hooray! Start Saturday morning at Statue/Memento Park, which is just fascinating and a bit surreal, with a bunch of Communist statues sitting together in the middle of a field... plus there’s a direct bus there now! Head back to town and grab a quick lunch at any “etkezo” (Hungarian diner) that catches your eye. Just point to what you want! Next, visit the Terror House Museum for a first-hand (and quite artistic) look into the dictatorships in Hungary in the 20th century; don’t bother with the audio guide, all the information on it is available on the sheets at the entrance to each room. Have dinner at Ko Leves (Stone Soup) in the 7th district.
For Saturday night either grab a chill drink at Mumus (Boogeyman!) for an authentic experience in the old Jewish district or, if you want a crazier night, head to A38 and party on an old Ukrainian stone freighter! Alternatively, if it’s summer, go to Hold Udvar on Margaret Island for a lovely outdoor experience or any of the little garden bars that pop up in the 5th, 6th, and 7th districts.
Start Sunday well-hydrated, then head to the baths! My favourite is Szechenyi. While you’re there, visit Heroes’ Square and the castle in City Park; it’s made of different parts of different castles and churches from historic Hungary. Afterwards, head to “Paprika” nearby for a big, traditional Hungarian lunch. In the afternoon, take a nice long walk along the river and check out the Synagogue, Basilica, and Parliament. End at Margaret Island and enjoy the ruins, fountains, and happy Hungarians. Grab a light dinner and drink somewhere in Liszt Ferenc ter for dinner.
Also worth visiting if you have the time is Kerepesi National Cemetery. It’s peaceful and green and the monuments of famous Hungarians are truly monumental.
About living in Budapest
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Budapest as an expat?
A: Most expats with families live either in Buda or in the outer suburbs of Pest, where single-family homes with yards/gardens are more affordable. Young people should live downtown in Pest! Budapest is not such a big, crazy city that more than a few streets would be uncomfortable to live on. I like the 6th, 7th, and inner 8th districts in particular.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: There are a fair number of newly built buildings, though some of them in traditionally dingier districts. If you want to live downtown, you’ll probably do so in a “traditional” building that is about 100 years old. The flats themselves vary WILDLY in these buildings, from beautifully renovated to horrible on the same floor. Check them out in person before renting whenever possible. A good flat will be pretty standard for Central Europe: smaller than in America for sure, but well equipped and cosy. The washing machines and water heaters in particular, though, can be quite unsettling at first use!
After you’ve been in Hungary for a bit, you’ll probably be able to find a flat to rent under the table, without a contract. This has its advantages (much cheaper) and disadvantages (illegality, in all likelihood they’re not going to give you your deposit back). You can decide for yourself, but I would not recommend going through the process without the help of a Hungarian friend to serve as translator.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Hungary compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Compared to America, life is cheap. Utilities can be an unpleasant surprise, especially heating costs in the winter. Plan for them to be as much as half of your rent from December through March if they’re not fixed. Food is cheap and medical care (assuming you’re legal) is free, though prescriptions do have a small cost.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Hungarians are very welcoming, then suspicious (“But WHY are you in HUNGARY?” is a frequent question), then fantastic friends. Just give them a bit more time to warm up than you might otherwise think would be necessary. Young people often speak English and are generally happy to mix with expats. Of course, there is a great expat community in Budapest as well, with a fairly large number of English-language events.
To be perfectly honest, my first year in Hungary I mixed mainly with other expats. My second year, as I learned Hungarian and settled into my life in Budapest, I started to hang out with more and more Hungarians, though we still spoke mainly in English!
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: As I said above, just give them more time than you might otherwise think necessary. There is also a whole different culture regarding visiting other people’s homes that I still don’t understand entirely. Needless to say, bring a small gift. Expect to be stuffed with food and drink. Poke around a bit and ask questions that you might otherwise consider prying. If you don’t, you may be thought disinterested!
About working in Hungary
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: I went through an agency and worked at a public school. It was easy enough, though time-consuming. Again, as in all official Hungarian situations, bring a Magyar whenever possible!
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: I never had trouble finding additional work as a native English speaker. Most, if not all, of this kind of work is under-the-table, though, and it can be hard to find enough hours. I’d recommend having a job lined up before coming if you plan to stay beyond a few months.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Colleagues touch and socialize more amongst each other than in America. There is a limit, however, and personal lives are expected to be kept personal. Hungarians are very helpful to new colleagues. That being said, the culture requires you to ASK for help if you need it because to offer help can be seen as offensive, so don’t be afraid to do so! It is also important to say hello to everyone when you arrive in the morning and goodbye when you leave in the evening. And make sure to bring in treats on your birthday!
As a teacher, the schools in Hungary are definitely different: children have a much closer relationship with their classmates and teachers, as they stay with the same classmates for up to eight years and the same teachers generally for four. This closeness and affection is expressed physically and verbally; it is perfectly normal and natural for students to touch or hug each other and their teachers or to express love. The curriculum is also different, focusing much more on memorisation and the acquisition of vast amounts of knowledge than in the United States.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No, but most rental flats are fully equipped with furniture, linens, and kitchenware. I moved with three suitcases, so it really wasn’t that difficult!
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: There are many private British and American schools. If your children are young, however, I would recommend one of the bilingual kindergartens, which generally employ native-English-speaking teachers and allow the children to learn the local language.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Hungary?
A: The public healthcare was fine for my needs. Some of the hospitals and health clinics are externally a bit shabby, but the standard of care is good. That being said, few doctors speak English. My expat friends who had children, however, tended to go to private clinics. I also went to private dental clinics for a good American-style cleaning.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to learn a bit of the language. You don’t have to become fluent, but a small effort is really appreciated. Get to know some Hungarians and a bit about their past and culture.
Expect things to take a bit longer than they might in the states, always carry a book when you think there’s a small chance you’ll have to wait somewhere, and try to bring a translator when you have to do something bureaucratic.
Other than that, just enjoy your time in Budapest! It’s a fantastic, exciting place that is really like nowhere else, and once you get past its rough edges, you’re sure to love it.
~ interviewed April 2011