1. Looking down on Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Many of us might deny it, but the average German does think he is better than your average Eastern European. We don’t do that intentionally — it’s just how most of us grew up. And it still is what media shows us with all its scare-mongering about the poor, uneducated Eastern Europeans who plan to overrun rich, Western Europe in order to take advantage of its social security system and to bring general doom to us all.
And while I am well aware that Budapest is in Central Europe and not Eastern Europe nor in the Balkans, it is undeniably a melting pot between east and west.
During my time in Budapest, I’ve gotten to know the unique culture and the spirit of these countries with the help of many wonderful new friends. I’ve been eating Ukrainian borscht and Romanian sarmale, drinking Croatian wine and Serbian slivovic, and I’ve been dancing to traditional Polish music and celebrating Russian Easter.
Yes, maybe Western Europe should be afraid of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Europe should be afraid of a new generation, proud of their heritage, exceptionally smart, well-educated, and willing to work their ass off to improve the conditions in their home country. A generation who has suffered war and the consequences of communism and dictatorship and yet are still some of the most friendly, helpful, and humorous people you could wish for as friends.
Europe should be afraid of the young political scientist with two international PhDs who is fighting for equal rights not only in her home Ukraine, but in the whole world.
It should be afraid of the Russian woman who speaks 6 languages and lands a leading position in the foreign branch of a big company before she is 30.
Europe should be afraid of the Romanian history student who is passionate enough to one day rewrite European history.
And maybe Europe should be afraid of people who don’t care about EU hygiene regulations and just keep producing awesome ham, sausage, and wine at home and keep selling it per mouth to mouth propaganda to a few lucky ones.
Europe could be afraid. Or Europe could just welcome them, collaborate with their talents, their knowledge and their rebellious spirit to create a better future for all of us.
2. Having a tense relationship with time.
It might be an understatement to say that in Germany we take time quite seriously. My Budapestian friends, though, take pride in proving Einstein’s theory of its relativity. When you meet up with a friend in Germany at 19:00 for a drink, it is expected that both of you arrive at the very latest at 18.55. If you meet up with a friend in Budapest at 19:00 for a drink, you can say that things went well if you finally find each other at 21.30, both already a few drinks in, and far away from the bar you had planned to meet at.
Now, even I, with my strong German heritage, have perfected the art of unpunctuality to the point that even Balkans friends start complaining about me being late. One German habit I didn’t lose: if we do something, we do it properly!
3. Taking things for granted.
Full sick pay? Nope, just 70%. Months or even years of unemployment benefits? Ha! Good one. Still rolling on the floor laughing. Pavements without holes in it? Maybe in some areas. A government which respects the freedom of speech and freedom of press, which is not openly corrupt or negatively biased towards certain ethnical groups? Definitely have to look somewhere else for that.
4. Equating high salary with quality of living.
Wages in Budapest are about half of the wages in Germany. Sure, rent, public transport and eating/going out are way cheaper, but on the other side groceries and clothes (at least the ones from well-known international brands) are not. When you work in Budapest, you can’t afford holidays in a fancy all-inclusive resort twice a year, you can’t afford to follow every single new fashion trend, and most people don’t even think about a private pension plan.
But still it feels like I can afford more. I can afford to go out more often. I can afford budget travel to other cheap, Eastern European countries. I might not be able to afford a big flat with a high-tech interior, but having gas heating that looks like it could explode at any moment makes life so much more exciting anyway. And I can’t weigh up in gold the value of the people I have met here. I don’t need much money, as long as I have Budapest.
5. Dressing up at night.
Fancy high heels, new silk tights, and your shortest, most uncomfortable dress for going out? Tons of makeup and a hairstyle that took an hour to create, but will be ruined within 30 minutes anyway? To be honest, I was not so into that kind of dressing up even in Germany, yet from time to time I yielded to peer pressure.
Admittedly, the scene in Budapest is divided. There are places where the majority of girls are wearing shoes in which I could not take two steps without breaking my ankle under normal conditions, even less could I survive with them on Budapest’s mix of cobblestone streets and uneven concrete pavements. But there are places with old, broken furniture that might tear your pretty dress and will definitely rip your silk tights apart, with dirty walls and sometimes without a roof, which forces you to wear a coat inside half of the year, anyway — Budapest’s famous ruin bars. Places where it is not a rebellious act to get drunk in comfortable clothes and sneakers, with uncombed hair and your natural skin tone. And, I tell you, the girls there are much sexier than any cheap Paris Hilton copy ever could be!
6. Being ashamed of listening to traditional folk music.
Even though listening to traditional music in Bavaria is becoming more and more acceptable among the young generation for certain occasions (usually involving large amounts of beer), it is in general quite frowned upon. If you go to a club or bar, you’ll hear the same English mainstream rubbish — hits, I mean — like you would hear in a dozen other countries.
While you will find these establishments in Budapest as well, they are actually outnumbered by the places that play at least once or twice a week traditional music, be it live or from tape, be it Hungarian, Serbian, or Polish. Also folk music themes are incorporated by local bands in heavy metal, rock and pop music, with some pretty impressive results. You just can’t escape Hungary and Eastern Europe’s musical heritage while you are in Budapest. Trust me when I say that no matter how deep your passion for R’n’B may run, it will not make for such a wild party like spinning the whole night to Balkan beats!
7. Asking about someone’s profession right away.
One of the first things that comes up in German small talk is a person’s profession, as many Germans define themselves and their value through their jobs. But Hungarians and people who come to Budapest work for a living and don’t live for working.
If you waste your time asking for a person’s profession and while having the usual “Aha. Well, that’s interesting, but actually I don’t really care”-talk, then you might miss out on the most amazing, sad, funny and touching stories. You will never know how the little 9-year-old boy felt while he was watching his hometown Belgrade being bombed by the Nato. You will never know how Hungarian parents secretly smuggled their children across the border during the communist era to make sure that they would grow up under better conditions. And you will never know how the girl whose parents live in a city that just got annexed by Russia feels. I never ask for the profession anymore. I ask for people’s stories.
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