For Budapest expats, it’s a common story: not satisfied with prospects at home, young (!) man pulls up stakes and moves to a foreign country to chase his dream. Now, 17 years later, let’s see how he’s fared.
When my friend and editor asked me to talk about myself on paper, I wasn’t sure how best to go about it. I thought the easiest way would be through an interview, so my friend Jack Griffin, the city’s favorite Unseen and Unheralded Man About Town and I wrote out a list of provocative, probing questions while imbibing too many pints of Dreher. What follows is the result of our inebriated meanderings.
Jack: Well, Gary, I understand you came here on a one-way plane ticket from the USA, not knowing anyone and not even being positive exactly where Hungary is. Can you elaborate a little on your first impressions? Like, how did you adapt to your new surroundings? How did you meet people? Did you find work easily? What were the biggest difficulties you faced? In short, weren’t you scared spitless at having uprooted yourself from all you ever knew and now found yourself in a new and strange land?
Gary: Jack, I was transitioning from one life to another and all the way here I kept asking myself if I knew what I was doing. I was going from a Banker (with a B, for my English friends) to an English Teacher. But it’s been a wild ride. Since my arrival in Budapest in 1999, my travels have taken me to 66 countries around the world. I have had five books published and I also write a blog. In addition, I contribute articles to the Inter Relocation website and Newsletter. I never imagined it would be like that.
But back then I had most of my worldly possession in three large suitcases and a backpack. Jack, when I got off that old Malév plane, my knees were shaking and I was bleeding from the ears. The signs were in a weird language, it was cold and raining, my throat burned from 15 hours on an airplane and then I found the airline had lost one of my bags. It wasn’t a great start to my second life.
But I persevered. I said to myself, “Self, get a grip!” So I picked up my other two grips and wandered off to find a place to stay. I had had to spend an hour or so with the Lost Luggage Department at Ferihegy Airport, so my pre-arranged pickup was long gone, along with my pre-arranged flat. I was about ready to sit down in the middle of the airport and have a tantrum, but, once again, good sense prevailed and I found a bar right when I needed it. Several shots of my new friend Pálinka later, I had arranged for a new pickup and a new flat and I was off on my new adventure.
Fortunately, I was lucky again when I was welcomed and embraced by the local expat and English-teaching community in Budapest. People were so kind and generous and helpful. Within a week I had found a flat and had a line on several teaching jobs at the language schools. I was buying groceries in local markets and enjoying my three meals a day at the Durban Sandwich Shops. I was on my way.
Not knowing how long I’d be here, I forced myself to explore. I took metro, tram and bus to the far corners of the city to museums, parks, monuments, sights, squares, bridges, hotels, castles, labyrinths, riverside restaurants and, of course, pubs. My newfound Hungarian and expat friends invited me to dinners, rugby matches (on TV), the old British Embassy Club, the Robert Burns Supper and many, many more activities and events. I’d never experienced this type of welcome before when arriving in a new town and I was as happy as a pig in a poke.
I soon overcame my concerns about living here. I realized quickly that Budapest is a big city with a small-town feel. Within a few weeks of my arrival I was running into people I knew on the streets and in the pubs. I couldn’t believe how quickly I was assimilating. Back then there weren’t many formal expat groups, more a collections of expats and English-teacher groups who ebbed and flowed with new arrivals and departures. But they were all, each and every one, happy to be here and eager to enjoy their new life, so we all connected easily and quickly.
Actually, if you’re interested in more details of my first year or so in Budapest, you can find the book I wrote about it on amazon.com: To Ur with Love. Any purchased copies presented in person (along with a pint of Guinness), will be personally autographed by the author (if semi-sober).