Not your average expat

‘All I wanted to do is make a difference’

A foray beyond the environs of Budapest to one of the lesser-visited cities in Hungary offers a glimpse of small-town life that has elsewhere been obscured by urbanisation and a faster pace of living. On leaving the M5 motorway, the bumpy country roads conjure up reminders of life decades ago: Wartburgs, Ladas and Trabants chug past locals pedalling their old black bicycles, with no helmet or lycra shorts in sight, while the tranquil atmosphere exuded under the trees of Csongrád’s main thoroughfare is redolent of a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Ian and Edina Davies bade farewell to bustling Watford in London three years ago, and with their two young children, James and Sofie, moved to Edina’s hometown of Csongrád, which lies on the river Tisza. In the secluded garden of her grandmother’s house, they relate how their lives have taken a completely unexpected turn and how this now defines their days.

Ian always enjoyed kayaking along the broad Tisza but became increasingly disturbed by the rubbish he found floating alongside him. He began fishing it out, putting it in his kayak and disposing of it once he was back on dry land. Flooding further upstream had caused large quantities of refuse from dumps on higher land to be swept down the river and caught up among the trees and reeds on the banks. As the Davies’ home is just metres from the grassy dyke that separates their street from the Tisza, the family was faced with this sight on their daily walks and decided they would embark on trying to clear the water.

Soon Ian, Edina and their children became a familiar sight, hauling the primarily plastic waste onto the riverbank and stuffing it into bin bags. Neighbours and passers-by started shouting encouragement and thanks, leading Ian to set up the Tisza Tidy Up group on Facebook to enthuse locals to participate.

“It’s primarily single-use plastic we fish out,” says Ian, “it could be carried all the way to Serbia, then Romania, and eventually end up in the Black Sea. When we started up, we left the rubbish bags we’d collected for the council to collect, but as the group of local volunteers grew and we gathered more, we were approached by PET Kupa – they’re a large environmental NGO which recycles and repurposes plastic waste. They taught us to separate the different plastics, and they’ve offered to come and collect it once we have enough stored in our shed here,” he adds, pointing to an outhouse in the garden.

The Facebook group now numbers 250, and for those taking part in a weekend tidy-up, Ian and Edina hold competitions for the most unusual item dredged up, or for the most beautiful shoe: “We find so many shoes,” says Edina, “but never a pair. And then there are toys, plastic dolls’ legs, Lego…”

“And we’ve found some truly extraordinary things,” continues Ian. “Once we fished out the back bumper of a Dacia car and there was also a large wheelie bin which we’re using at our new house.”

“Oh yes, and we found a holdall in the mud with a mobile phone and ID inside,” says Edina. “Using Facebook we managed to trace its very surprised owner and return it – he’d lost it years previously!”

They wonder now whether they should have kept some of their finds and created a small local museum to show what “treasures” come down the river, or they may organise a photo exhibition of the group’s work and discoveries. Edina has plans to approach local schools to introduce more environmental awareness to the children. In their own children’s school, the recently-made videos about the group were shown, resulting in much positive feedback from the youngsters and their parents.

Like many foreigners in Hungary, Ian is still grappling with the language, something that can make it difficult to integrate and feel at home. Yet, when asked about this he says: “It makes me emotional to say so but our group has become a real community now; even people who don’t take part know who we are and encourage us in what we’re doing. We are tremendously grateful to everyone who’s joined us and worked so enthusiastically with us.

“But people are so friendly here anyway – when we first arrived, our neighbours organised a street party just to welcome us. In fact, I was also given an honorary Hungarian name in a fun ceremony at the pub (Fodor Jani). And the children love our peaceful life by the river with nature all around us, and they’re proud of our work.”

Affixed to the wall of an outbuilding in the garden is a fisherman’s net with a number of bones hanging on it. “My grandfather and my father were both fishermen,” explains Edina. “Those are horse’s bones used to weigh the net down. The Tisza is very important to people in Csongrád, and in cleaning the river and looking after it I feel I am continuing my family’s connection with it. However small the actions we take as individuals, if everyone just does something we can make a valuable contribution to protecting the environment.”

Ian agrees: “It’s not a question of whose ‘fault’ all the rubbish is. It’s up to us all to do what we can. I never planned to do this when I came here but this area and the river are so beautiful – all I wanted to do is make a difference.”

There was a time before 1989 when many Hungarians sought to start new lives in “the West”, and when the very idea of an expat community in Hungary was an as-yet unimagined concept. In 1982, when I arrived, there were fewer than a dozen British people living in the country. In this series of articles I’ll be looking at those who have come to Hungary to pursue much more “local” Hungarian lives than the usual expat working in the capital for an international concern, and finding out what brought them – and what’s keeping them here…



Click here to visit the Facebook page of the Tisza Tidy Up group

Vodafone video:

Telex video about the group:

Balázs Tanka video:



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