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Interview with Gary – an American expat living in Hungary

Updated 20 Mar 2018
Gary Lukatch left his house, car and his 30-year career in finance behind in the US to move to Budapest, where he's been living for the past 19 years. According to Gary, "becoming an expat is the best move I ever made". Since embarking on this 'second life', he's become an English teacher, author, prolific blogger and a veritable man of the world. Having travelled to nearly 75 countries and published six books, Gary enjoys living his life to the fullest.  

His blog, Travels with Myself, follows his musings and continued adventures. 

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

About Gary

Q: Where are you originally from?

A:  USA. I lived in eight states, spent my high school years in Atlanta and my working years mostly in Los Angeles and Albuquerque.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Budapest, Hungary
Q: When did you move to Hungary?
A: 1999
Q: Why did you move to Hungary? What what do you do there?
A: I left my long-term ‘career’ in the financial industry (29 years) to live in Europe and travel. I still had to work, and I found out about teaching English as a foreign language. My TEFL trainers told me that Central Europe was the best place to start my second life and a new career. They had taught in Budapest and loved it, so I decided to try it for a year or two, get some experience and then move on. But Budapest is so amazing that I decided to stay.

Living in Hungary

Q: What do you enjoy most about Budapest? How would you compare the quality of life in Hungary to America?
A: I pretty much live a hassle-free lifestyle in Hungary. I have no need for a car, as public transport is so good. Everything I want and need is here. I could NOT live in the US on my pension, but in Hungary, I live very well, travel all over the world and eat out several times a week. For me, the quality of life in Budapest is far superior to that in the US – at least these days! 
Q: Are there any negatives to life in Hungary? What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss cold-water drinking fountains and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I really don’t miss much of anything in the US, although I don’t get to see my daughter and grandkids nearly enough.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you made when settling into expat life in Hungary? Did you experience any culture shock when moving to Hungary? 
A: I had to adjust to the language barrier. Although, over my 18 years in Budapest, so many more people speak English that it’s no longer much of a concern. I didn’t feel any culture shock though – maybe a few minor elements of culture surprise. It’s best to just go with the flow. 
Q: What’s the cost of living in Hungary compared to America? Is anything cheap or expensive in particular?
A: For a single bachelor, it’s much cheaper in Hungary than in the US. My furnished flat rental in Budapest, including the average utility costs over the year, runs me around EUR 320 a month, which is amazingly inexpensive. Food is also very cheap for one person. The cost of gas heating in the winter is quite high but manageable. I live so much better in Hungary than in the US. 
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Hungary? Do you need to own a car in Budapest?
A: Public transport is outstanding. I haven’t driven a car since I moved here, as there’s no need for one. And if there was a need, I could always rent one for a weekend. The buses, trams and metros in Budapest are wonderful and very affordable. 
Q: What is the quality of healthcare in Budapest? Have you had any particularly good or bad experiences with regards to Hungarian doctors and hospitals? 
A: I hooked up with my doctor when I arrived and she has been great in overseeing my prescription needs ever since. I had to have an angioplasty a few years ago and the hospital, doctor and operation services were excellent. The visit and procedure cost a fraction of what they would have been in the US. Living in Hungary is especially good for heart conditions. 
Q: What are the biggest safety issues in Budapest? Are there any areas in Budapest that expats should avoid?
A: Pickpocketing is a problem, as in every big city in the world. Burglary is also a minor concern. Otherwise, there is virtually no street or violent crime. Stay away from District 8, otherwise, most areas of Budapest are OK.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Budapest? What different options are available for expats in Budapest?
A: All options are available, however, accommodation mostly consists of flats, apartments and condos. Apparently, buying a property is expensive, so I prefer to rent. The standards are generally high, although many old buildings need refurbishment in specific areas such as electricity and plumbing. 
Q: Can you recommend any areas or suburbs in Budapest for expats to live in?
A: This depends on the expat’s needs. Families should probably live in Buda, District 2, 11 and 12. Singles can live anywhere, but the action is in Pest, Districts 5, 6, 7,9, 13. Really any place is great as long as you’re close to public transport and markets.  

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: People are more tolerant than they were in 1999. Locals are more used to seeing foreigners in Budapest and have become resigned, if not accepting. Learning some of the language helps immensely, although many people under 35 now speak sufficient English to communicate. Older Hungarians seem less tolerant and may even refuse to help a foreigner struggling with their language. Generally, though, locals are helpful.
Q: How did you go about meeting new people in Budapest?
A: When I arrived, I met almost all of my acquaintances and friends through working at language schools, including all of my Hungarian students, some of whom I am still in contact with. Also, returning to the same pubs, restaurants and shops will result in locals knowing and greeting you – older Hungarians are generally not be comfortable with strangers, but once they know you, they become much more accepting.
Q: Have you made friends with Hungarians or do you mix mainly with other expats? Do you know of any social/expat groups in Budapest that you can recommend?
A: My social circle is split evenly between expats and locals. There are several local expat groups available for finding social connections, as well as some groups that have mixed gatherings of locals and expats. Check out The Club (meets weekly at Champs Sports Pub), Internations, International Meeting Point, The Friday Crowd and Toastmasters. 

Working in Hungary

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Hungary? Did you tackle the Hungarian visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I had no problems at all. I went through Interrelo Relocation Company which handled everything speedily, reasonably and professionally.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Budapest? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job in Budapest? 
A: There are more jobs for locals and not as many for expats. It’s best to have a job you can do over the internet. English teaching is tapering off.
Q: How does the work culture in Hungary differ from America? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Hungary?
A: In my experience, many older Hungarians don’t want to work, they just want the state to take care of them. Generally speaking, the work ethic is not particularly alive and well in Hungary. Hungarians work because they have to, and many young people live with their parents until they marry.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you can offer to new expats arriving in Hungary?
A: Dive right in! Take a basic Hungarian language course right away. Go to as many expat and mixed gatherings as possible to meet as many people as possible during your first six months. Remember – it’s not your country, so you have to adjust to their rules and customs. Walk the city to learn where everything is. Talk to people. Inhale your new life every day and savour the experience. Budapest is still one of the most fun, exciting and vibrant cities in Europe, so take advantage of your time here. 

~ Interviewed March 2018

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