Over the weekend, we visited the Tokaj wine region of eastern Hungary with an American work colleague and his mostly American friends. This friend and his wife have developed a life in Budapest which revolves around their children and their American school. Naturally, the school and the relationships they have built there dictate their activities. We have been there and done that. Many of our closest friendships were forged through our children.
Pat and I are living in Budapest alone. Perhaps this adds heft to the argument we should join an expat group. After all, we can’t use our children as bait to catch friends. Yet we have avoided expat groups in the nearly three years we have lived in Central Europe. In Bratislava, the US expat community was small, and it took some level of research and planning to integrate into the events. We stumbled upon our friends in the community as we went about our day to day lives. That’s how we met Igor, eventually his wife Vlasta, and finally their family and friends. These relationships morphed from a serendipitous visit to Igor’s music shop. Our Slovak friendships remain the best part of our time abroad. Had we immersed ourselves into expat events, we very well may have missed this.
Budapest is a different type of city; a major city buzzing with tourists and busy people. Many Hungarians grew up here and aren’t seeking friends. Others moved here from a village which they return to frequently, escaping the crush of city life. Most middle class Hungarians live outside the city center, including most of my work colleagues. Bottom line, it is as hard to crack the local culture as it would be in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. As a result, we haven’t integrated into a local life the way we did in Bratislava. This is balanced by the fact that the city is bursting with events, festivals, concerts, and operas each and every weekend. While we have been happy here and we love the city, it is a different kind of happiness and a different rhythm to life.
The bus trip was a nice diversion. We conversed at a native English speaker’s warp speed and played games which involved knowledge of slang and innuendo. Everyone laughed at the jokes, groaned at the double entendres and nodded sympathetically right on queue. We sang old songs and overall had a blast. Looking out the bus window, we might have been in rural Pennsylvania or upstate New York. As the vineyards came into view, one woman laughed, “Hey look, we’re in Napa Valley!”
But we weren’t.
So while one side of me crawled into bed that night wondering why we haven’t fostered more American friendships, a much bigger part of me realized, at least for us, we have made the right decision. The entire day could have been a page from our American life. But I’m trying to write a new book, with pages from a Hungarian life, a Slovak life.
I am not looking for home. Our home was perfect, we don’t need to replicate it overseas. Living with locals provides a glimpse into local life; what are the Slovak traditions, what does it mean to be a Hungarian, how do people celebrate births and honor the dead. Eventually, I hope to learn a bit about life as a Macedonian, Albanian, Pole, Estonian. Should the country settle down, I would love to understand what Ukrainians are thinking about Russia and the west. I do not want our time here to be swaddled in bubble wrap. I want the full contact experience.
Pat is beginning to foster some friendships in Hungary; a photo shooting buddy who he sees now and again, a man he met at a concert who emailed him a time or two and wants to catch up. Pat plans to invite him to lunch. He returns to Bratislava once or twice a month. This weekend, we will celebrate Vlasta’s 50th birthday at a party with all our Slovak friends. If anyone can make local friends, it’s Pat. He is my secret weapon.
Bottom line, we will continue to live an expat free life. If an American friend happens to venture in, we will welcome them. But I don’t plan to join the local Budapest expat club to seek them out. Our friends and family from home have visits peppered across the next several months. Their presence will fill the American void we sometimes feel.
We will continue to seek new friendships amongst the local people. We know now that local friends are hard to find, and their friendships are even harder to cultivate. Yet we have learned from experience, when the friendship blossoms, it is something supremely unique, something we treasure.