Sunday, 17 January 2010

Launching the Budapest blog

Before I set off for Budapest I decided that I would try to maintain a blog about what happens on this unexpected adventure. I know that being in foreign lands throws up all sorts of new experiences that challenge assumptions, and that this might provide me with some sort of creative stimulus. So here we go.

Today, Sunday the 17th, marks two weeks here. Time has gone by both very quickly and very slowly as sometimes it feels that I have been here for a very long time but that things have also happened rapidly. I have started work in my new office, met my new colleagues and moved into a new apartment. Lots of new's.

It feels as if my life has been divided up into two new and mysterious elements. One element is having a proper job. I've been self-employed for so long that I've found the practice of going into an office five days a week and having a regular set of colleagues very strange but also exciting. There are 35 of us, most of whom started work here in June of last year, so everyone is in the position of trying to work out what they are supposed to do. I am in a unit of nine people, and our responsibility is to provide support of different types to the others, who all have specific areas of operational responsibility. I have a little sub-unit of three people including myself, and we provide advice on training design and delivery. I am the head of this little group and have line management responsibility for one of them, and have suddenly found out that by the end of January I need to have completed their performance appraisals. Good grief. How do you do that? I haven't done that since the last century, when I had two underlings back in my ACT days. Mind you, Janet and Julia both seems to have turned out okay and were not permanently damaged by my management style...

Most of the staff, and mainly the younger, less senior people are Hungarian. The rest are a mix, a few Americans, some Canadians, French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Togolese, Palestinian and me, the token Brit. The first half-hour every day in an international office is a fascinating aural melange of greetings as everyone seems to go around saying hello in different languages, shaking hands and kissing. I did use to stroke my cat when I first walked into my office, but Harry was never much of a conversationalist in the morning, so this is all quite new.

As I half expected, nobody really knew what to do with me when I arrived, as the head of the Centre was still on holiday. So I decided that the best thing to do was to get to know everybody and have been working around the offices inviting people down to our cafeteria for coffee and conversation, finding out about where they come from, what they do, what they have done and the like. When I was working as a consultant and was being paid by the day I never had the chance to do any of this 'teambuilding' and socialising, as I had to be performing from Hour 1, so just sitting around drinking lattes and talking about what we've done and where we've been seems really strange. However, several of my colleagues have said that this has been exactly the right thing to do. Corporate life. Teambuilding activities also include building snowmen and snowball fighting in the back garden of the office after one night of heavy snow.

It's been particularly interesting talking to the Hungarian staff and learning something about their culture and lives. Most of them are in their early 30s, I guess, so they were still children before 1989. But clearly the lives they are leading are vastly different to those their parents led. They say how when they were children their lives were very simple, they had very few clothes and everyone dressed in the same way. However, life had a stability and predictability and they knew that, for example, they would have some holiday because their parents' state employers would give them something. Lots of factory workers all went off to Lake Balaton to stay in state-provided accommodation where they would enjoy their holiday, and they knew that this would happen each year. But since 1989 things have not been so clear. Certainly they have more political freedoms and can travel abroad if they wish, but the uncertainties of the capitalist economy have meant that nothing is a given any more, and I sense that there is quite a lot of ambivalence about whether or not things are 'better' now. They say how pre-1989 there were never any homeless people, and I have noticed how every evening that I walk around the streets in the city centre there are lots of people huddled up in doorways under blankets trying to get some shelter from the freezing nights. I read just last week how as northern Europe froze how hundreds of homeless people were dying in Poland, where nighttime temperatures were dropping down to the minus 30s.

Coming from a country that has had centuries of political stability, and where regime change does not really mean a great deal in terms of political alignments (particularly at the moment) it's hard to grasp what it means where accepted orthodoxies can change so dramatically as the years go by. I've been fascinated by a book I am reading about Budapest's cultural history, where in one chapter the author talks about one of the city's main attractions, Heroes' Square, a vast public space containing lots of different monumental statues. The problem for Hungary has been deciding who are the current heroes. In the early part of the 19th century the Austrian King was the big banana so had an appropriately gigantic statue, but in the second half of the century he was distinctly out of favour and so was remodelled so that he didn't look like a king. Then during the fascist years between the wars heroes with social consciences were taken down, only to be replaced during the post-war iron curtain years. Of course, they were replaced by the social realist likes of Marx, Trotsky, Stalin, etc. But since 1989 they are now out of favour and so have been dispatched to what sounds like a fascinating place to visit on the outskirts of the city called Memento Park, which contains lots of the enormous statues dedicated to the workers and the Red Army. I guess I should visit that before they come back in favour and are shipped back to Heroes' Square...

Another reason for the last two weeks feeling busy was that I spent quite a few afternoons travelling around the city with Daniella, a delightful estate agent (there are some) who showed me quite a few different apartments. I eventually decided on one in a street just off the square where the Houses of Parliament are located. It's a bit like having an apartment on Whitehall in London, as it is right in the heart of the government district, yet there are ordinary residential properties here. One of the photographs shows the exterior of the building, and another shows the view from my roof terrace.

It was being a top floor property with plenty of windows and light that sold it to me. I'm not sure if I will have much opportunity to enjoy the roof terrace as I will only be here until the end of April, at which point Helen will have joined me and we will be looking for somewhere a bit larger. However, it is good to be able to go out, breathe in the freezing air and take photographs of the dome of the parliament building. It's also only 100 yards or so to the river, and on Friday morning, my first day here, I really enjoyed the walk along the river embankment to my office, about 20 minutes. It's a truly beautiful city from this angle, and I felt very blessed to be able to enjoy this as a daily commute.

The other element is about having a life outside of work. Living on your own in a strange city and country brings challenges. I've never felt very comfortable about going out and walking into bars or going to the cinema on my own, as my own insecurities make me feel that this is the sign of a sad individual. But here, where I don't know anyone and haven't really got any social life going my choice is either to stay at home all the time and be a sad individual or go out on my own and look like a sad individual. So last night I chose to go out, reassuring myself that while I might look sad I am not really and do have friends. I looked in various listings magazines to see where might be suitable places for someone like myself and ended up heading for a bar in District VI, arundown but rather 'hip' part of the city.

One of the things that Budapest is famous for are its 'kert' bars, which are establishments that have been set up in semi-derelict properties that are awaiting refurbishment (of which there are quite a few). The one that enjoyed my presence last night was the Potkulcs, which is only known by an address and does not have any visible sign outside suggesting that there is a bar within. It was snowing gently as I walked down this dark, narrow, empty and somewhat forbidding street looking for 65, and as described there was a rusting iron gate. I walked backwards and forwards wondering whether or not this was a good move but decided that I needed to be less sad and pushing the gate open walked in. Somewhere down the end of a dark courtyard I could see lights and when I opened the door to that I suddenly found myself in this bustling, smoky, noisy bar, full of mainly twentysomethings, a bit hippyish, bohemian (whatever that means) and the like. I ordered a beer and found myself a seat, looking extremely sad, as everyone else was in groups and chatting animatedly or playing table football. However, it all proved very entertaining, as someone was enjoying a birthday party there and was serenaded karaoke-style by a friend singing "Can't take my eyes off of you" in a mixture of English and Hungarian. So I sat there for a little while enjoying the subsequent wacky blend of soul, Gypsy folk and Euro-rock music until a couple came up to ask me what I was doing there on my own. They had noticed that I was sitting and looking around watching what was going on and not talking to anyone, and were just curious to meet me. So we had a chat and I explained that I had just come to live in the city, didn't know anyone or where to go and was just enjoying the atmosphere. Anyway, they exhorted me to stay so I hung on a little while longer before making my apologies and leaving.

In fact, this was the second time that this had happened since my arrival. Last week I went walkabout one evening and ended up in a bar near my hotel. This was a more sober place, again comfortably full of people sitting chatting while I sat there with my Hungarian phrasebook trying to work out what was on the menu. Eventually a bloke sitting next to me with his girlfriend leaned over and asked me if I was English and how I was enjoying Budapest. He worked for a graphic design company here and was very keen to make sure that I liked the city. He gave me his business card and said that I should contact him once he gets back from a business trip so that we can meet and he can tell me about Budapest life. As that was the first time it had happened, my cynical English mind made me wonder what his ulterior motives might be, even though I really wanted to think that he was just being friendly and welcoming. Now that it has happened a second time I realise that it might be true: people here are really just friendly! Wow.

Contradictions. Dark empty streets and warm friendly bars. Fascist villains and Communist heroes (or is it the other way around today?) Dereliction and astonishingly beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. Muffled people hurrying through the freezing streets but smiles and laughter. Dolce & Gabbana shops with people sleeping in their doorways. Will I ever make sense of it all? Perhaps you might like to join my attempts to do so within this blog?


  1. Hi Bryan
    Glad to hear you are settling into your new job by drinking latte and having chats with colleagues and indulging in building snow men. This paid employment must seem a doddle.
    Also pleased you have found instant ways to get approached in bars by strangers – must be a skill a bit like riding a bike.
    I am however a little dismayed that you feel going to bars or the cinema on your own is indicative of a sad individual - I’ve preferred to consider it a sign of independence but will now have to review how other people are regarding me!
    Memento Park definitely sounds a good place to visit – suspect you will have a little time before the statues are shipped back to Heroes Square. Indeed there may not be an opportunity once your own statuary is erected as surely it is destined to be once your talents are recognised.
    Location of accommodation sounds really convenient – bet Helen won’t want to move to a bigger place........
    Take care
    Rob H

  2. Great blog Bryan. Wow! You are my hero!
    James Fenimore Cooper, Karl Baedeker, John Steinbeck, Peter Mayle, Paul Theroux, Tom Miller, Vikram Seth, Bill Bryson, Bryan Hopkins.

    Does one feel a book coming on?


  3. Yeah i think your creative flair is coming through. It sounds like you've settled in well. Do u think they'd hire me to sit and drink lattes. I would say I'm pretty skilled at it and might have the edge on you.
    Why don't they have more ars like that in Southampton, full of quirky young uns...and t goes to show with a beer in mind you can never fly solo.
    Love Lucy

  4. Corporate life in Budapest sounds nothing like corporate life in America . . .unless you are the very big "cheese"! Otherwise you are the one doing all the work while your boss sits around and chats!

    Glad to hear that you have settled in. As a previous female manager use to traveling alone, the most amazing things happen when you venture out on your own. So enjoy!


  5. good one, thanks for the update, perhaps we should think of you as our foreign correspondent, sent to farflung places to crack open the shell of an alien culture. With you on the regrets for the former state socialist past, I read somewhere that the majority of Hungarians would rather go back to the old certainties - it would have been better if the old regime had been changed purely as a result of internat forces rather than turbo charged by external capitalist pressure eager to get in there, start privatising everything throwing people out of their jobs & houses too by the sound of it.
    Anyway you are definitely being scrupulously honest about the emotional pressures, which I am sure will go once you get inside the skin of the place - I see scruffy bookshp cum coffee bars as the way to go, and avoid the new yuppie class, do they have any there?

  6. Sounds cool, Bryan. We hope to come out and visit you and Helen later in the year. Love from Caroline

  7. Just back from a week in Manchester ----Great blog - keep at it! Gives a really vivid sense of the life there and your sudden immersion in it.

    The life of the international civil servant sounds definately far more fun than life as a British civil servant - I don't remember any lattes or snowball fights in my induction..... come to think of it I don't remember any induction!

    I suspect that this UNHCR story could just be a wheeze and that if truth were known you are an under cover international hitman on a top secret mission. But I'll keep that thought under wraps and to myself.... Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. : Lots of love Helen xxx

  8. nice blog...hope you'll keep updating it :)