Photo: Marion Merrick

Not your average expat

“This is about a lifestyle”

The reasons for leaving an established way of life in your home country and becoming an expat are many: careers and relationships probably heading the list. However, to be in your 50s, where neither of these motivations provide the explanation, whilst relocating to a country you have never so much as visited on holiday and whose language you know not one word of, is rare.
29. September 2021 16:18

Camping enthusiasts Mark and Debs from Leicestershire had plans to travel around Europe for five years in a campervan they had repurposed for the journey. Their initial intention was to spend the summer months in northern Europe and winters in the south. But in late January 2020 a Facebook advertisement listing a campsite for sale in a remote part of the Hungarian countryside caught Debs’ attention, and their curiosity was piqued. A week later Debs and Mark arrived in Budapest.

“We did notice a couple of Chinese people wearing masks in the airport,” says Debs, “but we didn’t think about it – you see that in England too, sometimes, so its significance didn’t register with us.” After hiring a car they drove to the campsite, passing Lake Balaton en route, and into the peaceful rural surrounds on the borders of the counties Fejér and Tolna.

Somewhat surprisingly, the then owners of the campsite were also British but, due to ill health, were finding the work increasingly unmanageable. “It was February 1st  and it was 20 degrees,” says Mark, “all we could hear was the wind in the trees and the insects buzzing away. There was no traffic noise, and we thought: we can do something with this.”

Photo courtesy of Debs and Mark

A price was agreed, with an understanding that the proprietors would stay on to ease Debs and Mark into the first season, along with passing over their website and social media accounts. However, the owners subsequently left the site early and deleted the website; it later also transpired they had fallen foul of both expat and local communities – something that Debs and Mark would have to address if they were to succeed in their venture.

In addition, they had to grapple with changes brought about by Brexit and the blight of Covid, meaning Mark and Debs were unable to return to Hungary until July of 2020. “It was our baby, our project,” says Debs, “we had to come back.” But there were no paying customers, just the massive task of turning the business around: landscaping the enormous plot, sorting out sheds full of junk, trying to get necessary licences and dealing with interminable bureaucracy in an alien language.

“I translate everything that comes through with Google Translate or DeepL,” says Debs airily, anticipating the coming question. “Yes, there’s no challenge too big for Debbie,” Mark puts in. After a summer of intensive activity, they returned to England for the winter to get their vaccinations and to plan a strategy. “Until Covid’s gone, this won’t sustain us,” Debs says. “But buying this place wasn’t about making money – it was about a lifestyle.”

Photo courtesy of Debs and Mark

Alongside the work at the campsite was the task of establishing good relations with the villagers. “It’s about mutual respect at the end of the day,” Debs continues, “like the people in the local shop – we try using a few words of Hungarian but now they speak some English as well. Last time we left they said: thank you very much!

“I wouldn’t say we avoided the expats,” she explains, “but it was important for us to involve ourselves in our village.” Surprisingly, perhaps, the local pub is run by a man from Nottingham, while increasing numbers of Dutch and Germans are buying property in the area.

Such has been their success that they were visited by the local owner of a private lake nearby who voiced the villagers’ wish that Mark and Debs should do well in their venture – he also offered that they and their guests could make free use of his lake to help them.

They support the village mayor in his band when he performs locally, thus cementing a budding friendship; they are invited to birthdays and community events. “We love the country,” says Mark, “the people, the sense of community here – nothing like you’d get in England – well, perhaps fifty-sixty years ago. People say ‘hello’ – in the UK you wouldn’t even know your neighbours. You live and die by your connections here.” The campsite has fifteen pitches, a small guesthouse, a “glampavan”, campfires, a swimming pool and the glamping (glamorous camping) tents with their four-poster beds.

“We were amazed by the stars here because there’s no light pollution,” says Mark. “The stars just seem to pop out of the sky, and we thought we have to get a telescope.” This has become a favourite activity of those who stay.

Koppány Pines Tea House is the current project, where they prepare tisanes from dandelions and the bark of their mulberry tree, alongside bakes and a variety of infusions including sloe gin; they are busy trying to obtain a licence to be able to share the Hungarian traditions they are learning with their guests, and to be able to offer afternoon teas to hikers and cyclists using the Koppány Valley Trails that pass right outside their gate. Most of the vegetables they use in their “garden-to-plate” dishes are from their land or from local producers as they work towards sustainability.

Days are long and full: from an early morning foray to the local bakers to making (English) breakfasts, cleaning, bread baking, gardening, maintenance and renovations, and the endless bureaucracy. “Sometimes I wake up at four o’clock,” says Mark, “and there’s a glow coming from Debbie’s side of the bed, and it’s just her on her phone, researching….” But as she says, “I’m a real problem-solver; it gives me a buzz.”

Photo courtesy of Debs and Mark

Maybe the best illustration of Debs’ indomitable spirit was when they found themselves in Austria in the spring, near the Hungarian border but unable to cross due to incomplete Covid-related paperwork. After alerting the world via Facebook, Debs was sent the vital piece of information she needed: the email of the Head of Border Police in Sopron. Unhesitatingly, and using Google Translate, she wrote to him of their plight, and was astonished that he not only answered but had contacted the border guards to advise of their impending arrival!

Brexit regulations further complicate the situation of how much time they can spend in the country – but they are optimistic. “Our plans keep changing,” says Debs, “Covid has thrown everything out, so now we’ve learnt to live only two months in advance.”

I ask whether they had had any concerns when the campsite was unattended while they were in England during the previous winter and spring, and who had watched over their property. Mark doesn’t hesitate before answering me very simply: the village.

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