A priest once told me that I would have to spend 10 years in Purgatory for my sins. Time’s up. After a decade with The Budapest Times (I have been here since Issue 2 back in September 2003) I have written my last sarcastic headline, mangled my last metaphor.
As I sit typing my send-off column, the team that is taking over the newspaper is huddled around a monitor, chattering in Hungarian as they redesign it and its sister paper, Budapester Zeitung. I am not sticking my nose in. Let them learn from their own mistakes, I figure. It feels akin to a plastic surgery team discussing how to best rearrange your face.
The Times has been an interesting gig, the longest post I have every held (aside from being married). Yes, relationships, especially big ones, are work. But if you approach the task with wanting to understand the other party, make a sincere effort, admit mistakes, forgive and make adjustments, any relationship can flourish… depending upon the willingness of the other part to make the same effort.
Lady Hungary is who she is
Then there is Lady Hungary. Although a little worse for wear, she still has a beauty about her and she has so many stories to tell. But as exotic and intriguing as Lady Hungary is, she doesn’t work on relationships. She’s stubborn. She is unyielding. She is depressed. She is jealous. She is hurt. She is broke. And yet she knows best – the Hungarian way.
Getting in on the way up
I was warned all about her traits before dragging my young family over here from Canada. ‘Don’t go there. You will never succeed. You don’t have any connections’, Hungarians who had settled in Canada warned me.
But it was 2003. Mankind had just entered a new millennium and Hungary was soon to join the European Union. I had hope and was young enough for adventure. I was going to move to a country that was on its way up. Surely joining the EU would break the shackles of bureaucracy that were holding Hungary back. A little western capitalism and good governance was all that Hungary needed. If I put in the same effort I did back home I could prosper, I figured. Plus if the whole plan turned sour I could return to Canada at any time and restart. It’s that kind of country. For some people. A lot of the time.
So much to do that was worth doing
The plan worked for a while. I went from English teaching (the first profession for every wet-behind-the-ears expat who landed here without a job) back to journalism in a period of months. A couple years later, I was sitting in the big chair. Hard work rewarded. The job was never dull: so much scandal, so much intrigue, so many lies, so much corruption and oh so much red tape. There were huge piles of dirt for journalists to shovel, exposing the truth and uncovering misinformation.
What difference does it make?
But shovel as I may, no good is coming out of it. It’s starting to feel like working in one of those jobs during the full employment days of communism where you did not necessarily need to accomplish anything, just show up and do your job.
Despite all the BS and rot that have been exposed in this paper and other media, Lady Hungary has not been moved to change. My shovelling, my earnestness, matters not. It is a land without consequences; lots of noise is made about wrongs but rarely does the punishment – if there is any at all – suit the crime. Nor is anything effectively done to change it from happening again… let’s just tie a new brand of red tape around it. See. We did something.
Writing on the wall
I could stay. I have a garden. I have a fireplace. I live next to a forest. If worse comes to worse I can find a way to survive.
But I will never thrive. Five years of economic crisis have taught me that. I doubt I will have any Hungarian pension to count on either after a few more decades of labour.
I need to look out for my family. My kids, bordering on teenagers now, need to be assured of a future; the idea of them speaking three languages and working in a call centre does not appeal to me. I guess I should only say two languages. Their native level English doesn’t count. They don’t have a Hungarian certificate that says it does.
I want my clan to be indoctrinated with a lot more “Why can’t you do it!” than “Why you can’t do it.”
A leap of faith
I am not alone on this path leading beyond the borders. I know people – expats and Hungarians – who are relocating their whole families. Others are commuting to jobs abroad, coming home on weekends or when they can. Others are quitting their jobs here in order to search for a better job outside Hungary – not having a local address when applying for a job is the quickest way to get your resume in the recycle bin, recruiters tell me.
These men have been trudging on for years, yet the light at the end of the tunnel seems dimmer, further away.
So I am throwing my hat in with those who are throwing their hands up in desperation. I will return to Canada and try my luck. Maybe I will end up in the oil patch. Or the tar sands. Or something really dirty like PR.
A lesson no one else can learn for you
Hungary will always have a place in my heart, like that girl that everyone told you not to date because she would break your heart, your bank account, or worse. You may have been blind to her faults or thought you could help her overcome them. But in the end, she was who she was and no amount of coaxing or goodwill was going to change her.
Lady Hungary – she is fun to visit, but damn near impossible to live with. And I guess it’s obvious that I am taking part of her with me.
The Budapest Times