As my taxi hurtled through the streets of Budapest at 4 am on my way to the airport, it was hard to believe everything was coming to an end. At no point had any of this felt real. Not when I booked my one-way ticket out, not when I said goodbye to all my Hungarian friends, not even as I sat there and cast my eyes over the sleeping city for one last time. But that morning, by the time everybody else woke up, I would be gone.
It’s hard to imagine that something so real, something that you’re living and breathing every day, could suddenly disappear, but I knew that was going to happen. It’s what happened when I left Russia, and even when I’d left the UK the year before. Like everything in life, all things come to an end at some point. I’m getting better at it now, but for me leaving a place behind is far harder than arriving.
What I learned from living in Hungary
Budapest taught me a lot. Living there helped me to learn things about myself I might otherwise never have noticed. It showed me a side of life that I know would have passed me by if I’d stayed in London. It gave me the space and financial security to be able to start my career online, a real privilege that I am grateful for every day.
But this time, living abroad was also very different. Unlike when I’d lived in Russia and in Germany, Budapest never had an end date. There was no rush to get back in time for the next semester. If I’d decided to, I could have lived the rest of my life there and nobody would have batted an eyelid.
Equally, the support networks of fellow exchange students, university admin staff, and a ‘structured programme’ were never there. It was up to me to find a place to live, to open a bank account, to get work, and to set up my own life there. If I’d known how challenging those things can be (in your home country, as well as abroad) there’s a very good chance I would never have gone. This adventure would never have happened, and Budapest would forever have just been one of those places you visit with Ryanair at the weekend.
That would have been a disaster.
I wouldn’t say Hungary is an easy country to move to as a foreigner. Like anywhere, at times living so far away from family and friends can be really hard. In the winter with little sunlight and rain that would last for weeks, there were days that were gripped with self-doubt. Was coming here a mistake? Was there a reason why most people live their whole lives in the towns were they grew up?
But living in Budapest gave me something more valuable than anything money can buy. It gave me something that employers spend millions each year trying to give to their freshly recruited graduate employees. It gave me something that I can keep and use for the rest of my life.
It gave me experiences.
For the rest of my life I will have lived in Hungary in a crumbling building in downtown Pest and walked along the Danube every day and picked out different sorts of paprika in the supermarket. For the rest of my life I will know that I arrived in a new place with nothing – not speaking the language, not knowing any people, and not even with a permanent place to live – and made a life for myself there. For the rest of my life I will know what it’s like to work for €2 an hour – to have to pay rent, feed and clothe myself on that money.
London could never offer me that. It doesn’t matter how big or cosmopolitan a place is, nothing quite replaces being there, and being there the next day, and the day after, and every day after that until you decide it’s time to move on.
Learning to speak Hungarian
It’s not just experiences that I take with me from Budapest.
My friend and fellow polyglot Richard Simcott, who speaks 30+ languages now and has lived in something like 10 different countries, gave me some advice when I told him I was moving to Hungary: “The best souvenir you can take from each country you live in is the language. Learn it well, and speak it as much as you can. Afterwards, that’s how you’ll always remember it.”
Learning to speak Hungarian is one of the most rewarding and fun things I have ever done in my life. The language is insanely difficult. Its grammar was invented by maniacs and its vocabulary stretches off the page, armed with sharp and unsettling accents that look like they’ll poke your eye out if you get too close. Its pronunciation sounds like someone recorded Swedish and played it backwards until the tape broke, and telling a group of friends that you’ve decided to learn it is like announcing you’ve decided to become a fruitarian.
Sometimes I’d look around and was convinced I was living in The Sims.
For the first six months, every time I walked into a shop and tried to talk to anybody I felt like I had some kind of contagious disease. People would recoil from my mutilated grammar and be sent running by my hallucinogenic attempts at vocabulary.
“Do you have gigantic spinach?” I asked some poor unsuspecting vegetable seller in my first week.
“What??” she asked and reached for her phone to call the police.
“Do you have gigantic spinach? Not small, gigantic!” I asked again. I thought I’d smile at her to try and calm the situation (this backfired).
After showing me out of her shop, shaking her head and telling me she didn’t understand, I cursed Colloquial Hungarian with every breath in my body for teaching the word ‘gigantic’ in Unit 3 but saving ‘big’ until Unit 7.
But things improved. The MagyarOK textbooks and other local resources became a real help in teaching me vocabulary that was useful not just for visiting Hungary, but for living there too. I worked with Zita for three months on iTalki to get used to speaking and iron out my more ridiculous sounding expressions. My Hungarian friends (whose English is all impeccable) eventually started letting me practise with them too, and I started making progress.
Nine months after moving to Budapest, I felt confident enough to make a video speaking with Bálint Kőrösi. People’s reactions overwhelmed me. I can’t tell you how motivating it was after so many frustrating negative reactions to be told that you sounded good. Having the support and encouragement of the online polyglot community throughout this year is one of the best things that could ever have happened to me.
On that surreal day that started in the middle of the night when I finally left Budapest, I was able to speak the language. I did the check in and security procedures all in Hungarian (for the first time ever, the security guard even came up to me and asked if I spoke Hungarian first). I’d stopped my landlady ripping me off hundreds of thousands of Forint by calling her and demanding she return my deposit in Hungarian. I spent two weeks selling my old things on Used Stuff For Sale in Budapest and had to do much of that in the language too. I wasn’t exactly writing essays, but communication was there.
As the plane took off that morning and I looked down on the place that I’d called home for the last time, I felt happy with my progress, and what I’d achieved in that year.
My next adventure
So where is next?
There is no chance of going home. London is in no better state than when I left it a year before, with rent prices rocketing to even more eye-watering levels and the economy still horrendously imbalanced towards the financial sector.
But apart from anything, I’ve grown to like living abroad. Adventure is addictive, and the opportunities it brings are priceless. I like using my languages every day, and the opportunities to travel that living on mainland Europe offers.
So after a stopover in Rome, my second plane took me west. It was a beautifully calm morning flight over the deep blue sea, and I watched Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands appear and disappear beneath me. Two hours later and the coast was just coming into view.
We started to descend, and I started my next adventure.
Want to find out more about how I learn languages?
Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:
- the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
- how to take your languages to an advanced level
- how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
- how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success
Our next events will be in:
Valencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 2016
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016
Places are limited, so book now to secure your ticket! Once we’ve sold out, we can’t make any exceptions.
Can’t make any of those events? Don’t worry, we’ll be planning a new one near you very soon!
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