Late on a Friday night I find myself standing, yet again, in the arrivals hall of Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc airport, mesmerised by the clicking of the Cold War style flight boards that tell me my friends’ flight is an hour delayed. The hall is packed full of people waiting for it, and the Blue Danube is blasting on repeat from an information machine someone had clearly tapped out of desparation, interrupted only by an automated voice saying “KÉRJÜK VÁRJON – PLEEZ VEYT”. As an exasperated woman in an expensive Italian coat starts screaming “Mi az?? Mi az??” (What is that??), I notice that each of the five clocks on display is showing a slightly different version of the time. The police go and stand next to the machine and start hitting it to try and turn off that music plaguing every country of Central Europe fortunate enough to share the continent’s longest river. They remain unsuccessful.
With only a few forint in my pocket, I cannot afford to go to the airport’s ominously placed café. Instead I decide to join the other glum-looking Hungarians on their inviting metal seats, and work out how to pass the time. Moments like this are good for only two things: drinking, and self-reflection. As the former was impossible, I decided to go for the latter.
Since arriving in Hungary nearly two months ago, I’ve been asked many times why I came. But actually, this is a question that has not become any easier to answer. Salaries here are some of the lowest in Europe, and the country’s complicated system of invoicing makes it even less likely you’ll ever see what little you do make by the end of the month. Newly qualified language teachers like myself are rarely ever employed full time, and so go from door to door like trick or treaters on Halloween, hoping eventually to rack up enough hours to pay the bills. The weather was awful all summer, with torrential downpours managing to make it through my roof and flooding my kitchen floor, and the city’s population seems to be decreasing day by day, as gradually everyone packs their bags, sells their stuff, and heads west.
My thought train is broken by the sudden sound of translucent doors lurching open and scores of people coming off the Ryanair flight, which has landed early. A small group of some friends in their mid-20s start shrieking as their friend rushes towards them, still trying to shove her Hungarian SIM card into her phone while still clutching her one from the UK. Their sign was too small to fit the Hungarian word for ‘welcome’ (üdvözöljük), so they had just written “Üdv. Timea!” instead. As they hug and cry, one opens a cheap bottle of Hungaria champagne and pours it into plastic cups for everybody. Surely there are parking tickets to pay, or even far nicer places in Budapest to have a drink, but everything is forgotten as they stand there like at a cocktail party for hours, catching up. The crowd is split roughly evenly between Hungarians looking conflicted about coming home, and bald, tattooed English blokes sporting t-shirts advertising stag parties, opening beer cans as they ask their waiting tour reps whether women here have big tits.
This scene reminds me of one reason why I did decide to move to Budapest. There is a freedom here that is hard to experience elsewhere. People drink in arrivals halls out of plastic cups without any shame at all. The cost of living is eye-wateringly low, which meant that my first shock on arriving was being able to find an entire apartment right in the city centre for less than a quarter of what people pay in run-down areas of London. My second was discovering that all my neighbours were young and living either as couples or alone, which is something so alien to anyone from the UK. At home people either fork out a fortune to live cramped up like factory workers in the developing world, or just live with their parents indefinitely, vaguely hoping one day to just inherit the house. In Budapest a month’s transport pass for the whole city, worth over £300 in London, costs just under £20 here, and the city is packed with hundreds of outdoor and indoor bars, restaurants and cafés, each totally different to the next, that stay open as long as there are people sitting there and where a drink costs less than a bag of Walkers crisps.
I sensed this freedom immediately when I first came here for the Polyglot Conference, even though I hardly saw any of the city. Everywhere I looked people seemed relaxed, every building I saw radiated breathtaking beauty and told a unique and fascinating story that was ringing out from every brick. When we took off back to London that time, the plane’s wing dipped a little to reveal the perfect view of the city at night, with its unmistakable parliament building ablaze in spotlights. It was at that moment that I vowed to return.
So here I am, in Hungary, and I love it. I feel free from London’s suffocating pollution of profit, the UK’s eternal autumn, the fear mongering of tabloid papers about impending terrorist attacks, and most importantly, the monotony of the familiar. I am abroad again, forging my own path, and it is hard to see how I will ever want to go back. And that is what I tell the Hungarian woman sitting next to me at the airport, who’s struck up a conversation with me as she waits for her flight back to London.
“Fine,” she said. “I can see all of that, and I think you will enjoy it here. But only until you speak enough of the language to actually understand what everybody’s saying.”