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Interview with Daniel S – long-term expat in Hungary

Updated 5 Apr 2012

Daniel Swartz has lived in Hungary since 1990. He is a polymath, working as an environmental activist and facilitator, writer, translator, bookseller and concert promoter. He studied international relations, history, and Chinese Language at Bates College in the United States. Since 1990, he has been working for and with Central and Eastern European environmental NGOs, local and national governments, and businesses on various environmental issues. Since co-founding the ZHABA Facilitators Collective in 1995, he has split his time between being an environmental activist and facilitator. In his spare time, he is an avid Hungarian folk dancer, swimmer, cyclist, squash player, and of course, reader.

Read more about Hungary in the Expat Arrivals Hungary country guide or read more expat experiences in Hungary.

About Daniel

Q: Where are you originally from?

A:  Massachusetts and Maine, USA.

Q: Where are you living now?

A:  Budapest, Hungary.

Q: How long you have you lived in Budapest?

A:  It will be 22 years in August.

Q: Why did you move to Hungary; what do you do?

A:  I had planned on being a diplomat, having studied international relations, Asian history and the Chinese language at university, but the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened in 1989 and changed everything. As a result of the Chinese authorities murdering hundreds if not thousands of peaceful protesters demanding some democracy, I changed my priorities and decided I did not want to go back to China when I graduated in 1990. Instead, I came to Hungary in August of 1990. Even then, things changed on the plane. I came as an English teacher for 9 months before I started graduate school, but on the plane over I decided I did not want to do that. I wanted to do environmental work, preferably combined with international relations. My main job is as an environmental activist and facilitator, mostly campaigning against genetically-modified organisms and incinerators; while campaigning for sustainable waste management, Fair Trade products and organic farming.

However, since environmental activists do not usually get a salary, 6 years ago I opened one of Hungary’s first social enterprises, Treehugger Dan’s Bookstore Cafe. The bookstore is Hungary’s biggest second-hand English book seller (20000 books in stock), leading promoter of English language culture, and premier retailer and wholesaler of Fair Trade organic coffee and tea. We host weekly concerts, book launches, wine tastings, poetry evenings, theatre performances. We are the local bookstore with a global conscience.

About Budapest

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life?

A: Thermal baths, folk dancing houses, extensive and cheap public transport (one month complete coverage for 33 euro), castles, good national park system, accessible and inexpensively priced cultural events (theatre, music of all types...), great wines, cheap beer, gorgeous women, farmers markets, state health insurance...not necessarily in that order

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: The bureaucracy makes it impossible to get ahead. Locking myself to a nuclear power plant was easier and more rewarding than trying to open and run a small business here. Very intolerant/racist and negative population. I do not miss much from the US...the ocean, Appalachian Trail, breakfast for dinner at a 4-calendar diner, foliage season. But, as I said, Hungary has a lot of other positive stuff going for it that the US lacks.

Q: Is Budapest safe?

A:  It is a very safe place. There are no guarantees, but if you are aware and keep an eye and hand on your valuables at all times, you should be fine. Of course, it has its share of pickpockets, and you should stay out of dodgy places.

Q: Describe an ideal way to spend a weekend in Budapest?

A: Food shopping at Hunyadi Square open market, after which a well-deserved langos (fried dough) with lots of garlic, cheese and sour cream inside the market hall. Best in Hungary. Then go for a long hike in the Buda Hills or Pilis Mountains; or a long bike ride to Szentendre or in the Buda Hills with some beers along the way. Sundowners at one of the ruin pubs like Koleves kert, Szimpla kert, Bar O, Most kert...

About living in Hungary

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?

A:  I prefer the 6th District, but the 7th is really happening for the “ruin pubs” and beer gardens.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A:  I have been here too long to remember what costs are like in the US.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  Most of my friends are Hungarian, and some expats.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A:  Like anywhere, it takes three to four months for locals to realise that you are here to stay for a while, and it is worthwhile to get to know you. No reason to open up and make friends with someone who is going to just leave in a week.

Working in Hungary

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A:  It is a nightmare, and the rules seem to change daily. It is so random, it could depend on if you have your guitar with you or not, phase of the moon, or if the person at the Interior Ministry got laid that morning. 

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?

A:  Dismal.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A:  They do not understand that 'There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch'.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?

A:  State health insurance/healthcare is very good and affordable.

And finally...

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  Force yourself to mingle. 

~ interviewed April 2012

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