How to Live like a Local in Budapest

I just came home from home. The experience was slightly unnerving in both directions (as usual). To begin with, there was the inevitable confusion of languages: while at home, I tended to do it all wrong. I spoke Hungarian to Young Friend of the Elephants and English to my father, not to mention when I creatively mixed the two languages to the changing room attendant in the thermal baths. To end with, back home there was the immigration officer at Heathrow who asked cunning questions to find out if I was trafficking my child into the country to be some sort of a domestic slave. (She’s washing up after dinner right now but don’t tell that to the border police.)

Home vs Home

View from Gellért Hill. Photo by Moyan Brenn via Wikipedia [CC-BY-2.0]
View from Gellért Hill at dusk. Photo by Moyan Brenn via Wikipedia [CC-BY-2.0]
I enjoyed being at home. It’s true I no longer remember all the names of the smaller streets in Budapest but I’m still capable of making creative public transport choices on the run to halve the time needed to get wherever I’m running late for; I know whether it’s best to get on the front or the back of the tram; whether the metro carriage door will open on the left or on the right at the next stop; I know that only an idiot or a foreigner takes the trolleybus down Dohány utca when in a hurry. Back here at home on the other hand I can’t do any of these things without consulting a map or an app on my phone first and I get lost every time I emerge from under ground because the traffic is on the WRONG side of the road and the Thames can’t be trusted to keep straight, making it wholly useless as a point of reference.

By the way: This, to the best of my knowledge, is not a travel blog (yet?) but right now I’m going to treat you to a travel post and you’re going to suffer it. If it inspires you to visit one of the most lovable and liveable cities in Europe, if not the world, good for you.

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr [public domain]

Why Vienna is Not the Most Liveable City in the World (Or a Short Introduction to the Capitals of Central Europe)

Budapest doesn’t even make it on Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking but Mercer’s have ranked Vienna top city for liveability for 5  years running, which should tell you two things:

  1. Central Europe rocks
  2. Vienna is boring (read safe, law-abiding and prosperous)

Number 1 needs no explanation. Central-Europe has three great capitals, neither more, nor less – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I know all three and can explain to you the similarities and differences between them in one short paragraph:

Vienna, Budapest and Prague (which, BTW, also doesn’t make Mercer’s top n) share architecture and the Central-European mindset. Vienna and Prague share being small. Prague and Budapest share being the poor relations to prosperous Vienna. Vienna and Budapest share the River Danube… except Mr Danube shrugs his shoulders at the respectable and well-preserved Aunt Vienna to profess love to the spirited and beautiful Miss Budapest in her ragged jeans instead.

As for number 2: Budapest is no longer living the wild-west era as she did in the 1990s after the fall of communism when Russian maffias were attempting to carve up the city amongst themselves, shooting each other up in McDonald’s and using car bombs with gusto… nevertheless Budapest is anything but boring, law-abiding, or prosperous. On the plus side, it’s definitely safe.

The truth is Central-Europe is not so much a place as a mindset and you can call on well-known clichés like Strauss, coffee houses, Freud, faded grandeur and world-weary decadence to set the scene.

Why Live like a Local When You’re on Holiday?

Well, the answer to this one is pretty simple: wherever you go, if you want to get the best out of the place, you’ve got to live like a local. It’s fundamental. But in a liveable & lovable city like Budapest is the only way to carry on.

How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Winter Edition)

  1. Rent a flat:
    Forget the hotels. Hotels in Budapest suck. They do look fancy on the outside and have impressive entrance halls but once you’re in the room, you could be anywhere in the world. So rent a flat: it’s cheaper and you can live like a local. Please yourself with a flat in a 19th century block of tenements with open air corridors around an inner courtyard in the city centre or a villa up in the leafy hills of Buda overlooking the Danube and the city – but take a flat.
  2. Use the public transport:
    Budapest has one that actually works and is dirt-cheap, even by the wallets of the locals. For less than ten thousand Forints (£27), you can get a monthly pass that will transport you everywhere by nearly everything that moves whether metro, the ‘little underground’, buses, trams, trolleybuses or the cogwheel railway… The only things you can’t use the pass to travel by are rickshaws, taxis, the Castle Hill Funicular, the chair lift or boats.
    Incidentally, the so-called ‘little underground’ is only the second underground in the entire world (the first was built in London), and the first on the Continent. Have a look in the Underground Museum in the subway of Deák tér metro station.
  3. Relax in the baths:
    Széchenyi Baths at night. Photo by Neef-2 via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    Széchenyi Baths at night. Photo by Neef-2 via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    Budapest sits on top of more than a hundred thermal springs and the one good thing Hungarians did get from the Turks is the idea of building baths on them. (If you think visiting a bath house is no big deal, come to London and try to enjoy the dirty and overcrowded municipal swimming pools.) Visit one of the 16th century Turkish bath houses from where under-14s are banned in the interest of peace and quiet or the Art Nouveau palace attached to Hotel Gellért – or anything in between from sport pools to spas.
    In winter, go for the outdoor pools of the Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths in City Park, where you can relax in pools decorated with statues while the steam off the water swirls over the surface and people play chess in the pool – all this in temperatures below zero (with snow by the poolside if you’re lucky).
  4. Take pictures:
    Budapest is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and offers plenty to challenge photographers, whether professionals or amateurs. Go up to the one of the numerous hills of Buda to enjoy unrivalled views across the River Danube to Pest: the best view is from Gellért Hill, from where you can see Buda Castle, the Parliament across the Danube and the Chain Bridge (city’s signature bridge) but the views from Buda Castle are not far behind. Shoot the scenic ruins in Margit Island or the reflections of Fisherman’s Bastion in the plate glass of Hotel Hilton. Keep an eye for the fine architectural details of the numerous 19th century palaces or the gilded ceilings of sumptuous coffee houses… Capture street life.
  5. Go ice-skating:
    The Ice Rink in City Park, photo by Xosema via Wikipedia [CC 4.0]
    The Ice Rink in City Park, photo by Xosema via Wikipedia [CC 4.0]

    The Ice Rink in City Park in Budapest is the biggest outdoor ice-rink in Europe – in surroundings that make the pop-up rink in the courtyard of Somerset House look like a beggar’s choice: Vajdahunyad Castle on one side and Heroes’ Square on the other. Not to mention that for the equivalent of a paltry £5 you can skate for four hours (if you’ve got the stamina). Go in the evening when the ice sparkles blinding white under the floodlights and the loudspeakers boom out the latest hits or popular classical music.
  6. Eat a chimney cake:
    Chimney cake – kürtős kalács – is a long cylindrical shaped cake sold at street stands. It’s a sweet raised dough cooked on a wooden spit over charcoals and then rolled in sugar, ground walnut or cinnamon. It warms you up and it fills you up.
  7. Warm up in the cafés:
    There are posh cafés and poor man’s cafés and everything in between and they are all over town. Although the famed Central-European coffee house tradition is not what it used to be when writers and journalists used to sit and smoke and drink espresso in the cafés all day long writing witty leading articles, moody novels and decadent poetry, a café is still the place to be whenever you’re tired from traipsing round or need to warm up. For the price of a cup of tea you can sit around all afternoon with a newspaper (some cafés still provide you with a selection) or your book and nobody will bat an eyelid. In some cafés you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner; in others it’s tea/coffee and cakes only. If you want something truly mind-blowing, go the New York Café – all gold, mirrors, live music and hot lemonade… and no locals (they can’t afford it).
    The New York Café. Photo by Yelkrokolade via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    The New York Café. Photo by Yelkrokolade via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
  8. Buy stationery:
    In certain countries, like England, schools provide all, including even pencils and exercise books. What the schools provide, perhaps understandably, is cheap and depressing. In Hungary, children are expected to provide their own text books, exercise books and pens – as a consequence, the selection is impressive. When it comes to exercise books, a certain Italian company (they’re welcome to pay me for naming them) rules supreme: choose between books with stunning city-scapes, cute animals or the latest Star War heroes or buy pens and pencils with all kinds of sparkling, dangling, carved or printed decorations to treat your kids (or yourself).
  9. Learn to speak a couple of words in Hungarian:
    Hungarian might be one of the most difficult languages in the world but a couple of words is not beyond you. Any efforts will be much appreciated by the locals who are fully conscious of the obscurity of their language, which stands alone in Central Europe in a sea of Slavic and Germanic languages. (Hungarian is not even an Indo-European language and is only related to Finnish and Estonian.)
  10. Shop in the plazas:
    Budapest is hot in summer and cold in winter – which is why the locals embraced the idea of air-conditioned shopping malls wholeheartedly in the 1990s. The plazas of Budapest are like every other shopping mall in the world except they boast rooftop gardens, waterfalls, exhibitions, aquariums, mammoth statues and god-knows-what-else, all to keep the shoppers indoors.
  11. Go to the theatre or a concert:
    Although your Hungarian might be lacking, Budapest also offers theatre in English or in Hungarian with English surtitles. If all else fails, there’s the opera, a building pretty enough to draw a good secondary income from tours for tourists during the day. Not to mention classical music: this is the city of Liszt and Bartók after all!
You might also like:Budapest shrouded in fog: wintry photos on
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Through the tube barriers on Fatal Friday

If you and I sat down to have a cup of coffee right now… well, to begin with, I’d be drinking lemon tea. And despite of all the interesting books that you think we could or should be talking about, chances are we’d end up talking about politics and football.


(Yeah, I know. It pretends to be a book blog.)

But we had a referendum last week and the UK decided to leave the EU. Simultaneously, we reached the knockout stage of the European Championship…

Continue reading “Exit”

On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

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33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

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Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

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To Know Who We Are

Thought for the day (okay – night):

“Somos un país cuya transición a la democracia estuvo pilotada por las mismas élites que lideraron la dictadura… y quizá no pudo ser de otro modo, pero es necesario saberlo.

…Porque hablar de políticas de memoria nunca es hablar de pasado, es hablar de presente, es hablar de identidad. La memoria es la capacidad de entender lo que somos y a la vez la voluntad de querer decidir lo que seremos.”

“We are a country whose transition to democracy was piloted by the same elite who led the dictatorship… and perhaps it couldn’t be in any other way, but it’s necessary to know it. It’s necessary to know who we are.

…Because talking of politics from memory is never talking of the past, it’s talking of the present, it’s talking of identity. Memory is the ability to understand what we are and, at the same time, the will to want to decide what we will be.”

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The Great Siege: Malta 1565

I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.

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Part of the Folk Process

Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?

On the River Rance, Dinan, France

A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was  not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.

I’m not particularly into music history but I believe volumes have been written about the spread of folk songs, sailors’ shanties, etc. across the Atlantic and there is in fact nothing remarkable about the song being known both to the French and the Americans. Witnessing evidence for this first hand though was another thing altogether; especially because the kids experienced folk music – the way it’s meant to be – for the first time.

About Folk Music and Music Education

When I was a kid, I was taught folk music in school. In Hungary folk music is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of music education; in the land of Kodály and Bartók folk music is a sacred cow and the only way to teach music is by drawing from a “clean source” (ie. folk music).

Only from a 'clean source': children in a suburban folk dance club in Budapest
Only from a ‘clean source’: children in a run-of-the-mill suburban folk dance club in Budapest, Hungary

In Hungary toddlers are taught rhythm by clapping and tune by hand-signs, and every child, even if tone-deaf like myself, leaves primary school with the ability to sing on sight from a sheet. I acknowledge my debt to the Kodály method but I do remember how dreary we used to think folk music, degraded to a compulsory school subject. (On the other hand, in England music education consists of teaching children snatches of West End musicals, often singing lyrics that are highly inappropriate in mouths of under-10s. But perhaps it’s just me who cringes as 7-year-olds render songs from Jesus Christ Superstar at an infant school’s Nativity play.)

I’ve heard some great traditional songs on recordings. I’ve been to some great concerts listening to folk musicians who really knew what they were about. But I always came away with a feeling of having been somehow robbed: a crucial ingredient always gets lost. It’s music played by trained musicians and (barring its origins) it’s got nothing to do with us ‘folks’. Not like French holiday makers singing together on a boat just for the fun of it. Not like that evening in my aunt’s overcrowded kitchen, when I was about 8 or 9 and the family, three generations, gathered together for some forgotten occasion, and with the red wine and the talk flowing freely somebody started to sing. One by one the adults joined in, and my uncle brought out his zither. That was folk music: untrained voices, joining together, sharing something. Red faces, bright eyes, laughter, much banging on the table and half-sentences shouted over the twang of the zither, while the music and the singing got progressively worse as the evening wore on and the effects of the wine began to tell.

Homer and the Oral Tradition

I was thinking about this, about folk music, and about what a difference it makes to take part in it as opposed to merely studying it because of what I’ve been reading in The Mighty Dead – the book I’m about halfway through – about the oral tradition and how this may give us an insight into Homer.

Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]
Gusle player. Photo of Orjen via Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA 4.0]

This is about Milman Parry, that careless packer, the brilliant American scholar who went to Yugoslavia between the two world wars in search of the Homeric process. Parry saw Homer as a man embedded in a long standing tradition of singers retelling the same story, and with an assistant and a translator set out for the remote mountain villages to listen to the guslaris, singers of epic poems accompanying themselves on a gusle, a single-stringed violin. Parry and his companions collected 13 thousand songs and were astonished to find singers who could remember over ten thousand lines. Others followed in Parry’s footsteps: in the aftermath of World War II, a Connecticut professor by the name of James Notopoulos travelled to Crete and collected songs in the mountains of Sfakia. On the request of Notopoulos, one of the singers improvised a song on the spot about the famous kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, in 1944 by the British. Almost nothing in the song as heard by Notopoulos corresponded to the actual facts; the singer utilised ancient formulas to improvise a story to his own liking.

Homer vs Academia

People try to read the Iliad today, or the Odyssey, and as often as not are confronted with convoluted language, forced into dactylic hexameters. In lauded scholarly editions the introduction is often longer than the epic itself and the mountain of notes at the back of the book is enough to scare away even the most eager readers. The famous Homeric epithets bore today’s readers to death, because after all how many times do you really need to hear that Achilles is swift-footed and does Apollo really need to be constantly called “god of the silver bow”, nice as the phrase might be?! But these phrases are aide-mémoires, ready-made building blocks to fit the dactylic hexameter. The Iliad and Odyssey were not meant to be read in solitary comfort on a sofa.

Homer, detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum
Homer. Detail from a Greek vase in the British Museum

There was a time in history, the time of Homer, presumably, as well as the centuries that went before and after, when the Iliad or the Odyssey were not merely an academic exercise. Unlike today, they were not just the territory of university professors indulging in self-serving discussions on the merits of each line or bickering over whether Homer was one man or more, killing the epic story in dry scholarly analyses. There was a time when the themes on which the Iliad and the Odyssey are developed were shared by ordinary people, when everybody knew the fundamentals of the stories. In the fifth and fourth century B.C., travelling storytellers, rhapsodes, performing the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of life in Greece. And so these stories were told and retold, sang by the rhapsodes, changed and shaped slightly differently in each telling. Not everyone can (re)tell a story well, much less make one up on the spot no matter how familiar with its elements, but everybody can listen, and a travelling storyteller can and will, if he wants to make a good living, adapt his story to his audience’s perceived likes and needs. And much like the interaction between the actors and the groundlings in Shakespeare’s Globe makes a play more alive, more memorable and wholly unique and unrepeatable, so this manner of performing made the Iliad and the Odyssey alive, memorable and unique.

Step back from the book and see in your mind the rhapsode in his travelling cloak, with his staff in hand, singing out to a crowd of random listeners in the bustling agora to earn his dinner. Imagine watching several of them perform in competitions, one after another, each desperately trying to trump the previous singer.

Homer, admirable in all respects…

(Aristotle: Poetics)

I don’t really care if Homer was one man or more. I don’t really care if there never was a man called Homer. What I do care about is the stories. The way they are taught in schools (when they’re taught at all) they seem dead and boring – nothing to do with us today. But these stories didn’t survive thousands of years by being bad. I happen to like the way the Iliad has been told by Homer, epithets and all. Not everybody does. But you don’t have to read Homer to enjoy the story of the Trojan War or the wanderings of Odysseus. They’ve been told and retold time and again, sometimes focusing on this episode, sometimes on that. Take the story and turn it into your own. Like with folk music, it’s all about being immersed in it. And then someday you might want to come to Homer for his take on the story.

Maybe that’s how we should introduce children to Homer: tell them the stories, give them a list of epithets and let them retell their favourite bits, making it up as they go along. Like that Budapest folk musician did above when he put the bow in the children’s hands. It’s all part of the folk process, after all.

Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)

In my experience, no one likes Tolstoy. Not ordinary people, at any rate. Some people like Dostoyevsky, and the rest daren’t confess to never having read Crime and Punishment. But Tolstoy, like Homer, is a persona non grata at the average middle class dinner table. If you like Tolstoy or Homer, you’re in the category of a weirdo, or, if you live in England, where they pride themselves on their tolerance, you’re an eccentric.

Continue reading “Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)”