I’ve visited Hungary several times and recently moved here with my Hungarian wife. It’s a completely different world compared to Southern California where I grew up.
1. I survived my first disznóvágás (pig slaughter).
It was early morning in September. My father-in-law and his friend, Zoli, had just slaughtered a pig; I thought I was going to puke. Steaming blood spilled across the cracked concrete. Zoli’s scruffy dogs began lapping it up.
This was my first disznóvágás — or pig slaughtering. From dawn to dusk the whole family participated in dismembering the sow: the men hacked and sawed; the women labeled and bagged; I stirred the massive pot of bubbling organs. The pig’s head occasionally floated to the surface. Together we made link after link of kolbász (paprika-rich sausage) and hurka (organ and rice sausage).
It was messy, but that’s the reality of where meat comes from.
2. It seems like everyone smokes.
Statistically, 30% of Hungarians smoke (though I have a hard time believing it). I’ll never forget the day I sat in the car waiting for my wife while she shopped. One person after another passed by, a plume of smoke floating in their wake. Twice someone appeared without a cigarette in their hand, but promptly lit up.
Another time I was in the middle of a dental procedure when the dentist’s phone rang. She answered…then lit up and smoked out the window. Not to complain though: The filling cost $20 and she did a stellar job.
3. Food reigns supreme over anything and everything.
Hungarians are serious eaters. I grew up with Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and microwaved chimichangas. Food was always a quick fix. In Hungary, food is religion. The question is always “Mi lesz az ebéd?” (What’s for lunch?). And lunch is not simply a few crummy sandwiches.
Sunday family lunch here is sacred, and is nearly always a three-course affair: You’ll likely have a soup, perhaps húsleves (clear broth with chicken, turkey and/or pork with vegetables), or maybe gyümölcsleves (chilled fruit soup with cream, cloves and cinnamon). Then a main course like pörkölt (meat stewed in onions, garlic and paprika), usually accompanied by savanyúság (pickles or sauerkraut) and served over nokedli (little egg dumplings).
If your host is the real deal you’ll finish with dessert. Common confections include rétes (strudel), bukta (jam filled buns), diós rácsos (a sort of walnut coffee-cake), and dobos torta (a sponge cake with chocolate buttercream topped with caramel).
4. Not all toilets are created equal.
In Hungary, don’t be surprised if the toilet features a shelf positioned right where your crap makes its debut. I’m guessing this is designed so that you can examine your stool (an indicator of health). Or maybe it’s to minimize splashback. In any case, it’s unsettling to turn around and have your little friend staring right back at you.
5. Learning Hungarian will bring you to your knees.
I’ve been coming to Hungary on a yearly basis for ten years now. Despite this, my Magyar is still elementary at best. I know a plethora of words and can express myself on a basic level. However, once a conversation goes deeper, I’m hopelessly lost. With its complex suffixes and vowel harmony, Hungarian is unlike any other language in the world. In fact, English has more in common with Russian and Sinhala (a Sri Lankan language) than it does with Hungarian.
6. Get used to pessimism, straightforwardness, and the Hungarian temper.
I’m not an expert on the Hungarian psyche, however, I can share what I know. As a whole, history has been unkind to the Magyar people: Relentless invasions and occupations have attempted to suppress Hungarian culture. The Mongols, the Turks, the Habsburgs, the Germans, and the Russians—they’ve all left deep wounds. Being suspicious, overly cautious, and critical are the resulting cultural traits.
In California people ask “How are you?” and the response is generally “I’m good. How are you?” In Hungary this question often elicits a venting response of complaints. Call it pessimism or call it realism, but Hungarians are self-expressed and to-the-point. If someone has the slightest problem with something, they’re going to let you know. They might even come off as rude or blunt, but that’s just the way it is here. Don’t take it personally — tempers flare, decibels rise. Get used to it, bazd meg.
7. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way.
It took me a while to get used to the fact that drivers in Hungary are not going to stop for you. I’ve almost been run over on multiple occasions. Drivers turning left as you’re crossing (with the walk signal) will sometimes come within inches of hitting you—this happened to me recently. Many Hungarians drive fast and aggressively, and in turn have little patience with you. Look both ways before crossing and repeat, repeat, repeat.
8. Pálinka will find you and try to kill you.
This fruit brandy is ubiquitous throughout Hungary — a party isn’t a party without a couple bottles of pálinka. You will be offered shots relentlessly and refusing the first is more or less an insult. Hungarian nagymamák (grandmas) swear by its powers: Have a headache? Pálinka. Menstrual pains? Pálinka. Feeling nervous? Pálinka.
9. Dubbed movies are the law of the land.
Flipping through TV channels you’ll find almost every foreign show or movie is dubbed. Hungarians don’t do subtitles. This, I believe, also goes back to the language; translations won’t cut it. With all the nuances and peculiar expressions in Hungarian, it simply makes sense to dub.
Still, it’s hilarious for me to see Arnold Schwarzenegger on the TV and hear his dubbed Hungarian voice—his trademark Austrian accent noticeably absent. Hungarian dubbing has a long history and its performers are national stars in their own right. Perhaps the most celebrated product of this is the Hungarian Flintstones. Hungarian writer and poet József Romhányi famously translated the English dialogue into a constant rhyming prose. Each episode is full of clever puns. Forget Fred and Barney — in Hungary it’s Frédi és Béni.