Photo: I Am Ming
1. Living in a not-so-good district and not giving a shit about walking home alone at night
The houses are badly maintained, the plaster is crumbling, youth gangs are gathering in front of the supermarket to spread terror after they ate their Turo Rudi and the fashion choices of many inhabitants lead you to think pimp or prostitute. Neighbors yell death threats at each other and the old men you pass by ooze beer at all hours of the day.
Welcome to Budapest’s infamous 8th district, my home for almost two years.
While the smell of urine on the streets (there are just too darn many dogs in this city) and the sight of homeless people even in the better districts of Budapest are not a rare thing, it is not a characteristic of a district’s quality. But there is one district that many consider the “slum” of Budapest’s center: Józsefváros, the 8th district, one of the poorest districts in the center, with supposedly high unemployment and crime rate.
Nevertheless I chose this district as my home. It was the only one where I could afford a two-room flat, which I desperately needed to keep the peace between me and my cat.
And all I have ever experienced in this area are friendly people who put more effort in striking up a morning conversation in the elevator, as limited as their English might have been, than the ones when I was living in one of the “posh” districts. I never had any problems or felt unsafe while walking home alone in the middle of the night. Nobody ever harassed me on the street.
Maybe they just thought that I am one of them, poor and unemployed, with no perspective for a better life. And there is no point in robbing someone who has nothing in the first place. Call me naïve, but I’d rather like to think that we should all reconsider our prejudices about the less privileged fellow citizens in our cities.
So if I’ll be ever in need of a home in Budapest, I’ll opt again for the 8th district without any hesitation.
2. Starting political discussions with ultra-right-wing nationalists
I had listened to explanations why Hungary should immediately be given back all the territories it had lost 100 years ago, why immigration needs to be fought by all available means and that all gays will go to hell when I decided to step in.
“But you said your father is Serbian, your mother is half Romanian and your grandparents have also German, Czech, and Italian blood. How can you be a Hungarian nationalist, when you are not even Hungarian?”
He looked at me, confused, as he had never considered this before, searching for an explanation in his beer-numbed mind.
“I am a very tolerant person,” he suddenly tried to change the subject. “I am Catholic, and I have no problems with Protestants at all.”
“Oh, there is a difference? I thought that’s just all the same.”
I looked at him with a bright, innocent smile and an undeniable hint of mockery in my eyes.
The whole table shook when he crushed his beer down on it.
“No, it is not!”
“It is for me. Anyway, accepting other religions that are only marginally different to your own is not a sign of tolerance.”
Still staring at me, he gripped onto the bottle so tight till his knuckles went white. His whole body was dangerously tense.
He looked around and finally relaxed, remembering that we were in a busy bar in Budapest’s famous party district, surrounded by the usual Friday-evening crowd — luckily not the right place for a hulk to be aggressive toward a woman two heads smaller than him.
I gave him a last smile, bid my farewell and quickly grabbed my friend, explaining to her that we had to leave because I hadn’t been able to hold my tongue. Again.
3. Ignoring the smell of leaking gas
I don’t like gas heaters. I don’t trust them. In my native Germany, gas heaters are not used as frequently as in Budapest; at least not the kind of gas heating that’s been outdated since the Communist era over 20 years ago. It’s the type of heating where a slight smell of gas lingers around constantly; they are all over Budapest.
Once I called the handyman, since the flame in the living room heating kept dying. Ny ‘handyman’ I mean the old Hungarian living two blocks away, with the smell of pálinka in his breath and more than 70 years’ experience in fixing things.
Waiting in the kitchen, there was nothing but silence on the other side of the door, interrupted only by an occasional mumbled “Baszd meg.” Not a good sign at all.
When the door finally opened again, he wildly gestured at me to not turn on the heater. With my very limited Hungarian I understood after a while that he needed a spare part and would come back in a few days. Once again he gestured not to turn on the heater under any circumstances, because otherwise: “Boooom!” Walking out of the door, laughing, he left me alone with the choice to move out immediately or just to accept that living in Budapest carries some risks.
I did not move out. And the heater did not go “Boooom!” Otherwise, I could not tell you this story. I still don’t like gas heaters, but since I’ve slept in one apartment with a ticking time bomb, they don’t scare me any more.