Mary Murphy, an Irish woman living in Hungary, can be just as impulsive as she can be indecisive, but luckily for her, moving to Budapest was a matter settled by higher intervention. Find out what convinced her to take the plunge and read more about her expat life in Hungary.
She maintains a blog about living in Budapest and travelling the world, Unpacking My 'Bottom Drawer' in Budapest, and her professional expertise as a publishing consultant can be accessed at Irjjol.com.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Kildare, Ireland
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Józsefváros, Budapest, Hungary
Q: How long you have you lived here?
A: Since September 2007
Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?
A: Nope – on my own.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I had this notion that I wanted to live in mainland Europe, where I could get to places easily by train. I had been to Budapest in 2003 for a few days on holiday. When I went back again in 2007, I remembered my way around. As I’m famous for my poor sense of direction (I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag on a good day!), I took this as a sign from the gods that I should move here. I wanted to start my own business as a freelance publishing consultant and figured Budapest was as good a place as any; I can pretty much work from anywhere as long as I have internet access.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Budapest, how’s the quality of life in Hungary?
A: There’s great energy in Budapest; I’ve been way more productive here than anywhere else I’ve lived. There’s so much to see and do; something new around every corner. That’s probably what I like most – the surprises. I’ve been here more than three years and I’m still discovering new places.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
Apart from the food, the language, and the currency, I feel quite at home here.
The food is great - if you like meat (which I do!) Goose and duck are quite popular, but lots of stuff is deep-fried in fat so not the healthiest. How Hungarian women stay so slim and gorgeous defies all logic. It’s getting better for vegetarians, but is still very difficult for coeliacs.
Hungarian is a very difficult language to learn – not at all intuitive - so I struggle there. I find it a lot easier to understand than to make myself understood. You need to have a good ear to pick up the different sounds and I am tone deaf. But I’m getting there. Getting my head around spending millions of forints on my flat took a while. It’s amazing how closely I watch the exchange rates, too. The forint can really jump around, so if you catch it right, it can be quite nice!
Q: Is Budapest safe?
A: I’ve never felt unsafe. There are some no-go areas, but you’d have to be really lost to find them. Walking around at night is fine. The public transport system is great (although it’s hard to find a Hungarian that agrees with that!) Like anywhere else, it pays to be smart. Walk in the middle of the road if you’re going down a side street; stay in well-lit areas; don’t walk around plugged in – you need to be able to hear what’s going on behind you. General common sense that applies to any big city.
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Budapest as an expat?
A: I live in District VIII, which is locally known as nyócker. Or, to some, the ghetto. More than twelve different minorities live here and it has the highest Roma population in the city. People told me not to buy in the Eighth; I should look at Buda, or the posher District XIII. I looked at 57 flats before I found what I wanted; it’s in the Eighth, and I love it. It’s quite Bohemian and there’s lots going on.
The city itself is actually two: Buda and Pest. Buda is hillier, greener, with more villa-type housing than apartment blocks. A lot of expats live there, particularly those with families. For me, I prefer Pest. It’s more ‘alive’. Near Raday utca in District VII is quite the hotbed of expats with more still living in the Fifth. If you’re into buying a flat though, it’s important to get yourself a good estate agent and shop around. Prices can vary considerably, particularly for renovation work. Unfortunately, many work under the assumption that if you’re an expat, you’re on an expat package and are therefore loaded!
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Hungary?
A: It’s quite reasonable to buy flats in Budapest (but if you’re buying, get yourself a good lawyer). Each district will have a guideline price per square metre. Flats are designated as having two rooms, or three rooms (not to be confused with two-bedroom!) Ceilings are very high so many have mezzanines built in to give an extra ‘floating’ room. The city has seen a lot of new-builds and while I can see young Hungarians choosing this option, I couldn’t see the sense in moving to Budapest and living in a flat I could find in London or Dublin.
So I went for the traditional. My building went up in 1896 – and it’s an údvar (flats surrounding an inner courtyard). The ceilings are nearly four metres high and unusually for Pest-side flats, the rooms mainly open off the hallway. A lot of flats were randomly subdivided back in the day so many have rooms opening off of rooms – like a warren. There will most likely be two rental prices: one for locals and one for expats and the difference in furnishing will be reflected in this, too.
Overall, it pays to shop around. Don’t be in a rush.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Hungary compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Compared to Ireland, anywhere is cheap! Eating out in Budapest can be as expensive or as cheap as you like. If you go local and stay away from the ‘tourist menus’, you can eat very well for very little. Supermarket prices (particularly those catering to an expat audience) are quite expensive. We have the usual set of foreign chains (Tescos, Auchan, Aldi, Spar, and Lidl) as well as local CBA, Match and Kaiser. There are lots of markets selling fresh fruit and veg. Obviously, the more expensive markets are the main tourists areas, but the local ones are as good and a lot cheaper. The ruin bars are great… good on atmosphere, low on price.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I tend to move around quite a bit, staying somewhere for about three years or so. One year to get to know it, one year to enjoy it, and a third year to look forward to moving on. This is the first time I’ve settled (as in bought somewhere). From experience, you have two types of expat: the ones who come to live the life and those who want to recreate a home from home. There is plenty going on in the expat scene in Budapest. You will never be stuck for something to do. English-language theatre, quizzes, comedy nights, music nights, combined with a very active internations network means that, sadly, many expats mix mainly with expats. I think I have a good balance, with possibly more Hungarian than expat friends.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: William Butler Yeats, that famous Irish poet, described the Irish as having an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy. James Michener, in his book, The Bridge at Andau, describes Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. So for me, it was easy to meet people and make friends. I made a few trips over before I moved, lock stock and barrel in 2007 so I had met a few people already before I came. Then, with that weird energy I mentioned earlier, all I had to do was to say I needed to meet someone (say an English-speaking accountant) and I’d run into them or into someone who knew just who I needed to know. I joined Toastmasters International and it was a good place to meet locals and expats alike. People are extremely helpful and there are some good online forums for expats new to the city.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The Budapest Times, the city’s English-language newspaper, publishes a section on schools once or twice a year. It’s a good snapshot of what’s available.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: I use FirstMed, which is excellent. Touch wood, I’ve not had a need to use the public healthcare system.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Enjoy the city. Make the most of it. Get out. Explore. Don’t get caught in the expat trap of going to the same pubs and places or hanging out with the same people. There is so much to do and see and it’s all the richer if you have local knowledge. Take the time to learn the language. It will really make your life a lot easier. Budapest is at the heart of Europe so there’s a lot you can get to by train (and international train travel is quite reasonable). Even if you’re only here for a short time, use that time wisely and you can see so much more. Hungary is a wonderful country and there’s more to it than Budapest. Get out there.
~ interviewed March 2011