Patience and Pessimism

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Two short sleeved shirts. That’s what I ordered. Obviously I had not learned my lesson. I was once again trying to ply my way through the Hungarian postal system. I was tracking the progress of two summer shirts I had purchased from an outfit in the U.S.

If you are searching for a world-class bureaucracy, the Hungarian Postal System is a worthy model. Sure, some of it is my inability to speak Hungarian. I’m guilty of that. But, ask a Hungarian. You’ll get a wry smile and a handful of personal sagas reeking of frustration and inevitable hopelessness.

The U.S. Postal System circa 1925

The tracking system indicated my shirts had arrived here in Budapest weeks ago. I imagined the package was somewhere in the bowels of a dusty, grey, poorly lit warehouse. I conjured up that last scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the box containing the sacred ancient covenant is being rolled down a corridor in the biggest warehouse in the world, never to be found again–or at least for a thousand years.

The closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark being rolled off into the bowels of the world’s largest, most impenetrable warehouse, likely never to be seen again


After a month, I sought help. A Hungarian friend gave me a link to a contact in the postal system. About a week later came an anonymous request to complete a form. I did, and after assistance with the translation, I sent it back. Another week goes by. I again ask about my package. I receive a request for yet another form. OK, here you go. Another week passes. Can you sense my frustration? I send another email in both Hungarian and English, “Can you please tell me when will I get my shirts?”

Suddenly, I hear a voice from inside the fortress. It’s signed, “Lucia.” “The consignment arrives to the local post office today! Please be patient!”

I loved this. Please be patient.

I turned my chair in the school office where I work and spoke with my colleague, Judit. She has become my sounding board for sharing my experiences here in Hungary. She is clever, thoughtful, kind, and oh so patient. She bears witness to my year of living here in Budapest, asking me questions and challenging my assumptions. When does patience become pessimism?, she asks rhetorically. Hungarians, I think, have learned to be patient in the face of many things.

I decide to hunt down my package–no longer willing to wait–after all, the weather is getting warm here in Budapest, and I’d sure like those two short sleeve shirts. After a day of teaching, I bike over to my neighborhood post office. There, I am told, my package is at another post office about half a mile away. I bike over. I am in line and ask a young woman if I am in the right place.  No, she says, packages are upstairs. I carry my bike with me up the steps. I take a ticket waiting for my number to appear in red numerals on the screen. Finally, I stand before the woman who is the face of the Hungarian postal system. She tells me I am in the wrong part of the building. Go out to the street, turn left, turn left again at the corner, and in 50 meters or so I’ll find the entrance where I can pick up my package. Ah yes, I tell myself, patience.

I have my shirts. There was an exorbitant customs fee to pay. And tacked on, for good measure, something called a “holding fee.” It appears that I was charged an additional fee by the Hungarian postal system because they held my package for 4-weeks.

Patience, we have been told time and time again, is a virtue. But when does that virtue become like a stone, slowly worn down over time? And when should we become more like water, going where we want?





Radios and Rabbits

We’re leaving Budapest this weekend heading south and west to Pecs (pronounced Pay-ch). I’m looking forward to it–about as much as I ever do for an upcoming trip. I’d prefer that a trip sneak up on me, and impress me–as they almost always do. I prepare for these visits in my old, perhaps too comfortable manner: I look at photos of the place on-line, read the Wikipedia entry, in this case, one on Pecs, and then, time permitting, check out the city’s Jewish history.

Each place in Europe has its own particular story regarding its Jewish residents over time. Vilnius in Lithuania, once had so many Jews it was referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North.”  Remarkably, Vilnius once had 106 Jewish Houses of Worship. Today, only one active synagogue remains. Its active congregation consists of 15 members.

Pecs, too, has it own unique Jewish history. Nineteen forty-four was a particularly tragic year for the Jewish citizens of Hungary. Lively discussions are to be had about these matters. There is the side that reminds us that the German army was completely responsible, inserting itself with total control, throughout Europe. Let’s say, the “German accountability perspective.” This view tells us the German army organized and managed the collection, removal and extermination of local Jewish populations. Then there is the story describing local collaboration and the extent of its capitulation with the Nazis. This take is the “let’s not forget the locals’ role in this tragedy” view. Always too, are those who remind us about local citizens who courageously risked their lives to help Jews hide or escape, let’s say, the “things were horrible, but let’s focus on the heroes and heroines” frame of reference. Of course, all were true in turn. But alas, 600,000 Jewish lives were taken during just the last few months of World War II here in Hungary.

Nothing is clearer, or more poignant, than reading the actual day-to-day promulgations of the Pecs authorities during that fateful year of 1944. There’s April 10, when Jews had to report the possession of their radios. Then there is April 27, when officials announced Jews could no longer buy lard. Soon Jews had to relocate to the ghetto. Especially revealing was May 18, when the announcement was “The City of Pécs offers for sale Angora rabbits turned in by the Jews.” This otherwise mundane news symbolized the end of things for the Jewish population in Pecs.

I usually approach my visits to European cities with an open mind and a great deal of curiosity. There’s a 3-4 hour train ride awaiting–almost always a good thing. Invariably, there’s an “Old Town” with cobblestone streets, historic churches, and a river with curves, providing sanctuary to local swans and ducks.  Somewhere, under its layers of history, is the story of how a city treated its Jews. This, is the narrative I seek most. More than dates carved into stone buildings, statues placed in parks, or tales tweaked and reshaped over time, how a city treated its Jews, reveals a great deal about a place.

The Pecs Synagogue (photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)


Budapest Is Smokin’


“Budapest is a world-class city — a joy to behold…but you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.”


Seventy percent, sixty percent, at least fifty-five percent, my students were calling out, one-by-one. “Thirty percent,” I said.  My students smiled skeptically. “No way,” they said in near unison, doubting the statistic I presented, referring to the stat that 30% of Hungarians smoke. I had to agree with their skepticism. It does seem that nearly everyone here in Budapest smokes.

It’s early in the AM when I scoot down the old marble steps from our flat heading off to teach English in a local high school here. I pull open the heavy antique wooden door that leads to the street and my first contact with each Budapest morning is invariably a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. Person after person, seemingly way more than half, are walking by me lit cigarette in hand. I am navigating through their smoke trails before having my second cup of coffee.

By all accounts, Budapest is on the rise. Secret be told, Budapest is a world-class city, far less expensive than Europe’s more well known tourist destinations like Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Prague. Graced by the Danube, awash in picturesque vistas, punctuated by historic buildings, the city is a joy to behold. But you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.

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Butts are everywhere. Here at the base of a city tree

Help me understand this, I implore my students. Like everything else about Hungary, it’s complicated.

In Japan, where over 21% of the population smokes, one rarely, if ever, sees a cigarette butt anywhere. In Japanese culture, largely influenced by its traditional belief system, Shinto, everything has a proper place, its right connection. From perfectly coiffed plants, to famously manicured rock gardens, nothing seems neglected, everything is where it should be. A cigarette butt belongs in its rightful place, hidden in some out-of-view trash container. From the surface, one could conclude, quite mistakenly, that few people in Japan smoke.

Back in Hungary, some people suggest that folks just expect someone else to clean up after them. Others will offer that smokers here are just slobs and lack pride in their city. Either way, it’s a huge turnoff for tourists who, out of necessity, have to dodge second-hand smoke and ignore trash bins overflowing with cigarette butts and public sidewalks strewn with these disgusting little things.

At the entrance to the Millennium, Budapest’s venerable subway line

Smoking, of course, is an international problem. Few countries have escaped its wrath. 6.2 million people die worldwide each year from smoking, and another 1 million die from the effects of second-hand smoke. In Hungary, with a population of less than 10 million people, some 25,000 people die each year from smoking.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that Hungarians will suddenly become Zen-like in their approach to cigarette smoking. But people can and do make surprising behavioral social-shifts when things become compelling enough. Witness the behavior of dog owners who follow their dogs around with little green poop bags. I routinely observe the people who ride public transport here and religiously keep their paid transport passes on their person. They know that transit officials ride those same buses and trams and regularly ask to see their tickets or risk getting handed an annoying fine.

Last drags before boarding the tram

Smoking is chill, my students tell me, adding that it reduces their stress. So, if you’re coming to Budapest, and please do come, get ready to dodge the smoke and ignore the ubiquitous butts. Much like the smoker who denies he’s addicted, sadly, people here don’t seem to think there’s much of a problem.







Biking Balaton

If you’re like me, you probably have never heard of the place. Few people outside of Hungary have. My lack of familiarity accompanied me through the spring of 2017, until I was walking along an enchanting path across northern Spain, meandering my way to a city I had never seen, and will never forget, Santiago.

I am describing, of course, the intoxicatingly spiritual adventure that is the Camino de Santiago. It’s a path along which pilgrims from around the world find themselves walking together, sharing space, if only for hours, or even minutes. These encounters could be a glance, a conversation, or a budding friendship. In this instance, I came across a particularly friendly guy with an unfamiliar accent, Csabi (“Chubby”) from Hungary. We exchanged introductions. With a bad knee in tow, I mentioned I was giving up jogging for biking. “Ah,” he said, “You must have heard of Balaton.”

Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake. You’ll find it about 2-hours by train, southwest of Budapest

He described a lake in almost heavenly terms: it was beautiful, he said, large and clean, with unusual blue water, bordered on the northern side by endless vineyards, and lined on its southern shore, in summer, with busy beaches and hotels.

So it went. Sometime in the future, I told myself, I would find my way, accompanied by my folding bike, to the shores of Lake Balaton. I placed it on my proverbial “Bucket-List.”

Fast forward, months, not years. A teaching opportunity ironically took us to Hungary. Balaton beckoned. With Hungary’s Indian summer extending into late October, I grabbed my Brompton, and snuck off for 5-days of solitary biking magic.

Lake Balaton. Pictured here, the waterfront at Balatonfured

Well-marked and well-maintained bike paths surround the entire lake. While it’s true that latex-clad bikers with a penchant for speed, cycle the 150-mile circumference in a day, my choice was to cycle Balaton over 3 full days, with half-days on each end. I started out in Baldatonalmadi in the northeast, mid-day on a Wednesday, and finished in the same town, the following Sunday afternoon. In my case, 5-days of glorious, carefree biking, stopping wherever, and whenever, a whim would land on my shoulder.

The biking lanes were uncharacteristically empty – after all, even the shoulder of the busy Balaton summer season had reached its end. I was accompanied by colorful, cascading leaves, blessed by biking-friendy temps in the 50s and 60s, and treated to views few see without hordes of tourists.

Along Balaton’s northern shore. Rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, if you can get, is a best-kept secret
A colorful porch, early morning, in Keszthely, on Balaton’s western-most shore

Along Balaton’s northern shore there are rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, by the way, should you be able to get some, is a best-kept secret. The lake’s south shore alternated between quiet lanes and mostly deserted towns and villages. They are no doubt filled with people and traffic during the late spring and summer months. The hotels alone, when open, would assuredly attract tons of cars and traffic. I was pleased with my decision to bike Balaton outside of Hungary’s vacation seasons.

Moments after sunrise. Here, a lone fisherman on a pier, in Keszthely, pop. 20,895

Every turn was an introduction to a new scene with a different feel, a new flavor. The palate of colors rotating, the shoreline evolving, the skies overhead changing. My plan was to cover about 35-miles a day, to allow time to observe, reflect, to become familiar, albeit fleetingly, with the places and people I encountered.

Along Balaton’s southern shore. Here looking north, hills and wine country in the distance. In the foreground, pubic parks, places for small boats and the ubiquitous train tracks

There are times, even in late October, such as a Saturday afternoon, when families fill a park or a square. I found these occasions to be welcoming, after all, they were few and far between.

Shorefront park in Siofok. Hungarian families meet up with a few of the many swans of Lake Balaton

All good things eventually come to an end. So too, a bike trip around Balaton. My trip began with a conversation along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It ended with a smile on my face a year later in Baldatonalmadi, Hungary. If you love biking, traveling, exploring, add a loop around Lake Balaton to your list. Balaton beckons you.

Lake Balaton beckons

Accepting Acceptance: Why Do Hungarians Lean Toward Pessimism?

Expats, after landing in a specific country, tend to get asked the same questions over and over again. Years ago while teaching in South Korea, I was fascinated that my students asked me the same four or five questions as if they were pulling a cord from the back of a doll. “How old are you?” “Where is your hometown?” “Where did you graduate from college?” “What was your major?” Most Korean students were shocked that I majored in American History. After all, American History was only about two-hundred years old. How could that possibly be a major? On the other hand, Korean history was five-thousand years old. Now, that’s a major!

Here in Hungary the Q & A goes something like this: “So, you moved to Hungary? But why?” I usually say something about Hungary’s great central location in Europe, and the fact that I’ve never been to Hungary. Next comes the “work question.” “What are you doing here?” I respond that I’m teaching English at a high school here in Budapest. “Really? Teaching? The school’s are horrible here. Why would you ever teach here?”

For the moment, allow me to side-step complaints about the education system. I’d rather direct your attention to another surprising phenomenon–the nearly universal sense of pessimism, sullenness and self-deprecation one finds here in Hungary. There are both historic and contemporary dynamics causing this general sense of malaise.

Hungarians, it is often pointed out on tours here, have lost almost every military action undertaken in their history. Most notably perhaps, is the loss of about 70% of their territory as a result of being on the losing side after the first World War.  Hungarians have come to accept defeat as almost preordained.

Then there is the very real brain-drain that has been bleeding the country for some time.  With salaries roughly a third of what counterparts are earning in other countries, doctors, scientists and other professionals, have been leaving Hungary for the UK, western Europe and more locally, Austria and Germany. Anna Gat, for example, a young playwright and political activist, claims she moved to London not only to advance her career, but also to escape Hungary’s oppressive and politically suffocating atmosphere. Well more than 100,000 of Hungary’s 10 million people have left for better paying jobs in Western Europe. This dynamic has negative ramifications for Hungary’s economic growth, its competitiveness and its appeal to investors.

You wouldn’t know it from walking through Budapest’s hip, vibrant Jewish District on a Friday or Saturday evening–or any evening for that matter–with its endless assortment of pulsating bars and restaurants. The air, filled with music and cigarette smoke, gyrates, fueled by the unlimited energy of people in their twenties and thirties. But behind this seemingly intoxicating state-of-affairs, is a country that currently ranks 69th of 157 countries on the U.N. sponsored World Happiness Index. Let it be noted here that Hungary has made significant inroads in the last several years, having improved from a ranking of 91, just 3-years ago.

Hungarians have witnessed a recent re-writing of their constitution. According to most observers, these changes help ensure that the current folks in charge can more easily maintain their grip on power. They note with regularity that the country is building a number of giant sports complexes, while modern, well-equipped hospitals are the kind of investments that are really needed. These trends are cause for concern and tend to dampen any hope people might otherwise have for the future here.

Hungarians seem to hunker down and accept this state of affairs fatalistically. They’ve learned to accept corruption and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy here, as givens, as much to protect their sense of sanity, as to recognize the Herculean effort it would take to change them.

I’ve noticed that there are no buttons here on street crossings. One simply waits patiently for the lights to work through their unintelligible machinations.  Conversely, on a recent trip to Prague in the Czech Republic, I found crossing buttons everywhere. One has a sense of control: I press the button and I can stop the flow of cars. I can influence my evening in a small way. I mentioned this almost metaphorically to a Hungarian friend, who assured me that the crossing buttons have almost no effect anywhere in the world. They are, in fact, called “placebo buttons” in the trade. You push a button thinking you have control, when in fact, you don’t.  But the analogy was not lost on him. No crossing buttons in Hungary. Not even feigned control. He later confided that perhaps as a spirited English teacher here in Budapest, I can provide students  “button to press,” not a placebo version, but a button for real control in their lives. We’ll see.