Not your average expat

Wild dogs, Chieftain Árpád and train stopping

It was never Alex Stemp’s intention to settle in Hungary. In 1993, feeling jaded with his life in England and curious about the world beyond the recently opened Iron Curtain, Alex found himself sitting in a bar in Prague. He was also somewhat jaded with the food in the Czech Republic; his complaints, however, did not fall on deaf ears and he was soon advised by his fellow Britons in the bar: “If you want good food, you should go to Hungary!” And so, he did.
24. November 2021 15:25

“The first thing that struck me about Hungary was the environment – the Danube Bend – I was set alight,” he says. “My first memory is stepping off the train at Keleti station and being besieged by taxi drivers, grandmas offering accommodation, people offering to take me to nightclubs… and yes, the food lived up to all the hype.”

Alex explored Budapest and managed a short visit to Lake Balaton before returning to Prague. For no fewer than ten years, he was back and forth to Hungary from England, and it was as a result of meeting his wife-to-be, Eszter, that he made the decision to settle in Budapest in 2003.

Alex was at that time a landscape gardener for Cambridge University, tending their parks and college grounds. “When I became acquainted with Hungarian gardens, I thought: wow! This is a lifetime of business,” and thus he began to set up a landscaping firm and start creating English gardens.

“It was all rather precarious,” he says, “it’s such an undervalued profession. It was very difficult to get it going – in Hungary, it’s all about growing fruit and vegetables, which they do extremely well, but after Trianon and communism, garden culture completely fell apart.” Aside from some expats, establishing the business proved much trickier than Alex had anticipated. “It’s money, it’s attitude… people had fruit and vegetable gardens for survival purposes, not aesthetic ones. I did have a few good jobs here and there but much still felt uncertain.”

Meanwhile, Alex and Eszter had married, they had had the first of their children and the situation with his landscape gardening business was stabilising. “But then I had my accident,” he says. “A brick landed on my foot and I had to have metal pins put in it. I wasn’t sure from the physical point of view whether I would be able to continue with the gardening any more. I felt I needed to change my occupation entirely. It was a tough, unpredictable time.”

It was ultimately through Alex’s enjoyment of biking that he was to find his way forward towards a new career. “I was doing a lot of cycling – I went to all the neighbouring countries – Romania, Slovakia, Croatia… everywhere except Ukraine. But I had this wish to go to Vereckei Hágó (Vereckei Pass), the place where Árpád and his conquering Hungarians entered the Carpathian Basin. Very few Hungarians have actually been there, and once visa restrictions were dropped, I set off. I actually stood at the top of the pass where Árpád had stood a thousand years before – that was really exciting!”

Alex continued to return to Ukraine, not just to Vereckei Hágó but the surrounding area, about which he then penned a mini travel guide. This he took to the Ukraine Embassy and Congress Centre in Budapest, which subsequently invited him to give some presentations on the area at Uzhgorod (Ungvár) University.

One thing led to another, and soon Alex found himself asked to write for online sites about this area of Ukraine, as well as making appearances on television programmes and participating in mini tourist-related films, including one about rescued bears. The filming involved travel to Lviv, Kharkiv and Mukachevo (Munkács), Lake Synevyr, Rakhiv and Mount Hoverla. More filming is possibly in the offing for next year.

But Alex’s real break came in 2015 with the arrival of large numbers of refugees at Keleti station. Armed with bags of children’s clothes and toys, he made his way through the scrum of international press to research his own story that he then submitted to The Budapest Times. “That was my first story,” he explains, “and I’ve been there ever since.”

Many articles have involved long cycle rides. “I’ve had a few unexpected experiences on my travels by bike,” says Alex. “I was in the Pécs area one very hot summer’s Sunday morning – there was no traffic, no noise and I was pedalling through some sleepy villages. It was so hot there was a mirage on the road, but not a soul anywhere.

“But then in the distance I could hear the sound of a roaring engine – a bright red Trabant, hooting aggressively, chasing me, it seemed. I decided it would be safest to stop and pulled in by a bus stop as the hooting came ever closer. I was wondering what on earth was going to happen when with screeching brakes and in a cloud of dust, he pulled up beside me and wound down his window. ‘Dinnye?’ he cried, thrusting a watermelon towards me. ‘Dinnye?’

“Clearly, he was desperate enough for a customer to have chased me from the last village! I paid the probably inflated price and then sat at the bus stop chomping on my melon – alone again except for some neighbouring storks.

“Slightly more alarming are my experiences with wild dogs,” continues Alex. “Countless times I’ve been forced to ride full speed on pot-holed roads, pursued by packs of strays, occasionally able to distract them by throwing my sandwiches down for them.

“One time I was in Szeged and late for the last train back to Budapest. I was haring across fields to try and get to a station when I saw the slow Szeged-Budapest train coming along the tracks. I charged towards it, waving frantically in the hope the driver might just stop – and amazingly, he did! He actually stopped and let me get on the train. I don’t know what the other passengers must have thought. Certainly, this would probably not happen today.”

Alex reflects on those aspects of living in Hungary he particularly enjoys: “The pace of life in England is so fast, so hectic,” he begins, “It rains quite a bit too much there, not to mention the headwinds when you’re cycling. I like the countryside here, the atmosphere of the towns – they’re not so commercialised; that appeals to me. And the children are allowed to be more like children. They don’t have the same consumer pressures as in the UK. Family values are more important here, too, the traditions which I think are slowly being abandoned in Western Europe.”

As for the challenges of life here, like many foreigners he states unhesitatingly: “The language. I don’t have much fun with that. And being from York I struggle with the heat in summer. But Hungarians have been kind to me – it may take a while but when you get in with them, once you’re accepted you’ve got friends for life.”


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