Photo: Dominika Przybyla

The capital with the eye of an expat

Tut-tuts no more at The English Garden

Sam Cartwright arrived in Budapest in 2002 with two small kids and a husband. Fed up with life on the hamster wheel in Liverpool, she didn’t think twice about moving to Hungary when her husband, Andy, got a job at the Central European University (CEU). She promised herself that she’d try it for two years and not complain. Not once. Twenty years later, she’s still here.

The first six weeks were hard. Not speaking the language. Not knowing anyone. Coping with two small kids. Things improved when she landed a job as a teacher in a kindergarten in Buda. She was back in familiar territory, having taught in Liverpool where she also ran the nursery section of a city school.

When the Cartwrights’ third child was born, Sam wanted to get back to work sooner than usual for Hungarian moms. But she couldn’t find a nursery that would take an infant and she was reluctant to hand over her daughter to a nanny. She wasn’t looking for someone to substitute for her as a mother; she wanted a more structured programme of child care in an international environment. In Pest. Not in Buda. In Pest.

Driving her baby around one night to get her to go to sleep, Sam happened upon Tisztviselőtelep, a neighbourhood that has its roots in the late 1800s, when in 1887 the Budapest Civil Servants’ Association built the first apartments there. Tisztviselőtelep translates as Civil Servants Settlement. It’s one of a few hidden gems in the VIIIth kerület that includes the little Basilica of Esztergom,  a smaller version of the famous basilica further along the river.

Anyway, with thoughts akin to why not build it and they will come, the Cartwrights’ decision to open a kindergarten in Tisztviselőtelep was greeted by more than a few tut-tuts from their Hungarian friends for whom the history of the district overshadowed its style. I had a similar experience when I was buying my flat in the Nyócker, an abbreviated form of nyolcadik kerület (the eighth district). Every Hungarian I met (except my estate agent) told me not to buy there. But, as Sam rightly reasoned, her international clients would be more taken by the aesthetics of the neighbourhood than its history. I have no regrets, either.

The doors of The English Garden pre-school opened in a former orphanage in 2008. Seventeen 3- to 6-year-olds, including the youngest Cartwright, enrolled. Today they have 121 (kindergarteners and another 16 babies) on their roll, split 20/80 between Hungarian and international kids from countries such as the USA, the UK, Japan, Korea, China and India, with most of the EU represented, too. All social demographics are catered to. Inherent in its success is the scholarship programme the Cartwrights set up from the start, designed to help change the direction of some of the neighbourhood kids by giving them the opportunity to learn in English and create lasting friendships with an international cohort from an early age.

In 2012 they added a nursery for babies from 20 weeks to toddlers of 3. This year, probably as a result of the government offering married couples the equivalent of about €25,000 if they have three kids or more, the nursery is increasing its capacity from 16 to 32. As a case in point, five of the staff are currently on maternity leave, going for the triple crown.

Also reflected in this increase is the growing number of women who are reluctant to step off their career paths for long periods. Back in 2004, when Sam herself wanted to get back to work five weeks after giving birth, she was by far the exception. Today it’s increasingly the woman’s choice. Regardless, business at The English Garden is booming.

The influx of Ukrainian kids in March, halfway through the school year, was a challenge for the teachers. The kids had little if any English. The temptation was for them to stick to themselves, to form their own little group, speaking with those who understood them. Now, nearly three months later, they’re picking up English and have integrated. “Kids are really open about other kids. They think ‘Great, a new face’,” said Sam.

On the first Saturday of each month from 10 am until 2 pm, The English Garden morphs into The Ukrainian Garden, where Ukrainian mums and their kids come for lunch and to socialise. “We think of them generally as Ukrainians,” Sam said. “But they’re individuals. Individuals who don’t know each other. The mums come along with their kids, and they leave in groups. It works.”

Key to providing structured activities and monitoring health and development is knowing the kids and understanding their stories. “I mentioned to a mum that her son was, let’s say, a little lively in the playground,” Sam said, by way of illustration. “She told me that he’d just spent two weeks in a cellar. We forget that these kids were often woken in the middle of the night, put into a car and driven to Hungary. They had to leave dad behind. They didn’t want to come. There was no notice.”

Looking at the diversity of both students and staff brought to mind a trip to Geneva where I got to visit a host of international organisations and sit in the United Nations when the Human Rights Council was in session. Kids today; world leaders tomorrow. All of them getting along just fine. Makes you think.

“We have famous parents from Hollywood and parents with kids on scholarships. What matters is how they deal with things as a parent, and how I deal with them as a teacher,” Sam told me when I asked about whispers I’d heard about Hollywood A-listers enrolling their kids in The English Garden when they’re in Budapest on location.

What’s clear is that it’s all very much about the kids. Staff must love kids; it’s not enough to be a teacher. And just as the kids stay as long as they can – some do the full six years when their only option to continue an international education is to go to primary school in Buda  – many of the staff have been there for years, too. It’s time that an international primary school opened in Pest. Watch this space.

That Sam loves what she does is obvious. For me, the thought of being surrounded by kids all day every day is the stuff nightmares are made of. But Sam, she was born to this. “No day is ever the same. I’m never bored. I always laugh aloud at least once each day.” But is she in it for the long haul, I wondered? “I’ll stop the day I don’t look forward to going to work,” she said. And judging by the contentment she radiates, that’s not going to be any time soon.

It made me wish I had a kid or three I could send her.

Mary Murphy is a freelance writer, copyeditor, blogger and communications trainer. Read more at |  |

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