“You never know: you might fall in love and not want to leave.” My academic advisor’s words were laughable before I went to Budapest. She turned out to be right, in a way. But I fell in love with a place, not a person. And I didn’t want to leave. Budapest seduced me. That was the last thing I expected.
I knew very little about Hungary before I lived there. No-one in Ireland really knows anything about it. We don’t even have Hungarian stereotypes. In the two years since I left my adopted country, I’ve tried to act as an informal ambassador for it. That’s helped me understand foreigners’ ideas about the land of pálinka.
No one who studies abroad puts emphasis on studying. I spent my time in Hungary trying to be Hungarian. I drank Unicum, I used paprika at every meal and I even tried to master the forbidding Magyar language. My studies at ELTE introduced me to Hungary’s next generation. They were intelligent, ambitious and fiercely proud to be Hungarian. They were also aware of the problems facing their country and the fact they might have to emigrate to succeed. The situation is the same in Ireland. Our countries are similar in many ways, though most people don’t realise it.
Finding my university stood on a leafy boulevard populated by second-hand bookshops confirmed my suspicions. Budapest is one of Europe’s great cities. It has everything any discerning citizen could want and its comfortable size makes it feel homely for the new arrival. Yet it can also be a daunting place, dripping with history and decorated with intimidating grand architecture. The Italian writer Umberto Eco named it one of his magical cities. For me, it captures everything “old world” that Europe is supposed to be. Words like “charm” and “grandeur” do no justice to this magical place.
For most foreigners, however, Hungary is just another “new” European country. Having joined the EU alongside Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Malta and several others, it’s been difficult for Western Europeans to differentiate Hungary from its neighbours. As every Hungarian knows, their country is unique. Hungarian history, language and culture are something special, which I learned to my delight. This fact doesn’t reach far beyond a select few foreigners who, like me, go looking for it. Too often the greatest things about Hungary are obscured by the negatives. If foreigners read about Hungary at all, it’s about right-wing marches and economic troubles. That’s not the Hungary I know.
There is a vast gap between the real Hungary and foreign ideas about it. Bridging this gap will take more than the Lánchíd. Student exchanges like the one I experienced are part of the solution. Nothing lets you appreciate a culture like being a part of it, however briefly. That’s why programmes like the EU’s Erasmus student exchange are so important. The best ambassadors for Hungary are both young Hungarians who can explain their country and its values to a curious outside world, and foreigners who have genuine experience of the real Hungary with its warts as well as its beauty spots.
A large part of the reason Ireland has a strong international reputation is the spread of the Irish throughout the world. From Canada to India, from the USA to Australia, the Irish have planted deep roots. That’s not to say Hungary hasn’t cast its bread upon the water, or that it shouldn’t continue doing so.
How many people know the prestigious Pulitzer Prize is named after a Hungarian? One of the world’s most prestigious awards wouldn’t exist without the work and generosity of a Hungarian emigrant. For those who look closely at Hungary’s “lost generations”, it becomes clear the contribution this little land in Central Europe has made.
What does Hungary do to promote this exciting fact? Ireland puts great emphasis on its favourite sons and daughters, even those forced to leave during years when our country suffered persecution, isolation and sometimes even famine. When it comes to tragic histories, we Irish can sympathise with Hungary in a way that many other European countries cannot. As the second nation in a vast empire, chafing to achieve some semblance of independence against a domineering neighbour, Hungary and Ireland have suffered very similar national traumas and national transformations.
The recession has dealt both our countries some severe blows. Economic decline and austerity drives have made us question our place in Europe and created a crisis in our national identities. Being European does not mean compromising our national and cultural identity. I’m proud and happy to have lived in Hungary and I hope to return very soon. I may not be Hungarian, but it is a society I identify with more than any other except the one into which I was born.
The similarities are important, but the differences are also great. Budapest and Dublin could be on other planets for all the similarities between them. The Hungarian temperament lacks the cynicism and easy charm of the Irish but the Irish could use some Hungarian level-headedness and sense of civic duty. Those are characteristics that make Hungarians valuable members of the European community.
As a twenty-something and a student of history, I am acutely aware that the future is an uncertain place, an unmapped destination that could bring delights or disasters. Hungary and Ireland both find themselves on the edge of a new reality. As Ireland emerges from the worst economic decline in its history, chastened and nervous, Hungary is now beginning to face its complex history and the divisions that exist in its society. What we can learn from each other is what I have spoken to people about since leaving Budapest.
Hungary taught me that different cultures have immeasurable value and those values can be blended to create better outcomes for everyone. My impressions of Hungary are not rose-tinted but that simply means my positive experiences are genuine. When I return to Hungary, and I suspect that will be soon, I will raise a glass of Tokaji to the improving relationship between Ireland, Hungary and the world.