1) Looking up the canal in Baja as Andi and I walk down toward the Danube on a gorgeous day
Though Baja (pronounced ‘bouy-yah’) is but 150kms south of Budapest, it is worlds away in many respects. Reached by a local bus that takes 4 hours to wind its way through seemingly endless farmers fields and itsy-bitsy villages, you arrive in the town (population some 37,000) at the convergence of the Danube and Segovica rivers. Baja sits on the Great Southern Plain, a stone’s throw away from the Serbian border (it’s actually 30kms) and for the days I spent there was exceptionally hot for mid-September. Temperatures were 30-33C each day with endless sunshine. This is unusual weather for the time of year but I wasn’t complaining. Two years ago one of my staff was visiting the town and had to buy a parka as it was so cold.
2) Hungarians have a proud history of rowing and plenty of folks where out walking the river; 3) here’s Andi with her town in the background
4) more Olympians?; 5) me with the downtown core in the background
6) here’s the Blue Danube; 7) I want his job!
8) where the rivers meet, lovers have professed their love with hundreds of locks; 9) here’s one up close
Baja is old and like Budapest has been a by-way for countless armies through its ages. It’s most recent conquest has been – like in so much of Hungary – the arrival of multinationals. The previous national government, the Hungarian Socialist Party, a party with ties to the communist regime that ruled Hungary with help of the Soviet Union since World War II, was keen to make money and sold much of the country’s assets (telecommunications; finances and natural resources in particular) to the highest bidder. And while you shan’t find any Starbucks or McDonalds in Baja, Ford, Tesco, T-Mobile, Shell have all taken up shop.
(As a side note here, there are but 2 Starbucks in Budapest (the first arriving about 1.5 years ago). At dinner with a friend in Budapest last Monday night, she confessed that while she likes Starbucks, its prices are beyond the reach of most Budapest residents and she can afford to visit but once/month.)
10 & 11) here’s my room in the former Mill turned guest house
12 & 13) city hall sites
About a year and a half ago federal elections produced a right of centre party that is busy undoing the doings of the previous government. My sense – at least within the circles I move with in Hungary – is this is generally a good thing. The country has a long list of challenges but to I’ll briefly note but one that was the topic of every conversation – mortgages.
Home ownership in Hungary is, like everywhere I suspect, a much sought after dream. Under communist rule to achieve this you had to save and – literally – pay cash for your home upfront. Mortgages were unknown. When the communists were dispatched in 1989, there was a surge by citizens of many former Eastern Bloc nations – Hungary included – to embrace the West and buy homes. Banks jumped on this and mortgages were offered either in Hungarian forints or Swiss francs. Banks pushed the Swiss franc option noting it was the European thing to do and that interest rates in francs were cheaper than in forints (which at the time was true). Sadly, since then the franc has continued to soar and many, many Hungarians now carry mortgages completely beyond their means. Essentially, the franc has tripled and homeowners face mortgage payments triple what they planned for. This is certainly tragic and made worse by the fact – and this is the most salient point in this story – that Hungarians as a population have no cultural experience with mortgages. They flew headlong into a banking culture completely foreign to them. Their parents and grandparents never carried mortgages.
The banks, being banks, are playing hardball with homeowners and the current government – to their credit – has stepped in (just last week) to put a moratorium on any bank foreclosing on a family and providing homeowners a grace period to pay back the mortgages by obtaining loans in forints and/or money from family.
Anyhow, here’s a few other thoughts on Hungary….
Uniqum / Palinka
Drinking is an embedded part of Hungarian life and culture and without fail, no matter what the circumstances, a tiny glass of Uniqum will be poured and offered upon your arrival at a family’s home and/or in business situations.
(As an aside, if you ever have the opportunity be invited into a Hungarian family’s home, or to a evening of Hungarian work colleagues’ ‘boy’s nights’, take it! Such invitations are the highest honour and gift a Hungarian can make).
Uniqum means ‘unique’ in Hungarian (one of very few words in Hungarian that kind of seems ‘english’) and is a mixture of some 40 herbs and spices that are then distilled into a digestive aperitif that has potent kick power – 40% or so. That’s fine but my experience has been that as a guest you are never just offered one Uniqum. It is highly, highly offensive to say ‘no’ as 1) you will immediately lose face with your Hungarian hosts; 2) you’ll never be re-invited as a guest, and, 3) your visit will quickly end. This is true as well with business meetings (be forewarned).
On Thursday I had a meeting with a director of Bacs-Kiskun Megyei Onkormanyzat Specialis Kozoktatasi (which probably means nothing to you as Hungarian is a viciously and notoriously difficult langugage – more on that later, but if you want proof visit their website here). BKMO is a thoroughly unique school for children with intellectual and motor disabilities I was keen to visit and is doing some truly remarkable things for these children, teens and young adults. It draws children from the surrounding countryside and prepares them to be as independent as possible and works to develop workforce skills, including carpentry; the trades; hotel/service industry and farming. Upon my arrival I was ushered into the school to a meal prepared by teens in their hotel service division and sure enough, at but 1PM, out came the Uniqum.
That evening, I went for dinner at a dear friend’s home in Baja. Andi and I worked together some years ago and have remained in touch since then working to continue to develop links between what I do in neurorehab and some of the cutting edge things happening in Hungary. Yes, Hungary is far, far ahead of the curve with both education and rehabilitation. Hungarians are a brilliant, if rather deep and thoroughly paranoid people.
14) the uniqum comes out at Andi’s; 15) Csaba and Ferenc pose for me
16) Andi’s wonderful goulash; 17) the entrance to the school
(As an aside, you have Hungarians to thank for the Rubic Cube, the ball-point pen, the dynamo, the carburetor, the lunar roving machine, the telephone exchange, the transformer, holography and ‘flow’ psychology)
I enjoyed an evening with Andi and her wonderful husband, Ferenc (“Ferry”), son Csaba (“Chubby”) and daughter Hanna. Uniqum was served immediately upon my arrival, followed by beer and then the creation of every Hungarian household, home made palinka – a traditional fruit brandy that runs, oh, in the 50-70% alcohol range. Ferry’s brew was made from walnuts and apples and when I asked what percentage he thought it might be, the conversation turned to politics. Go figure.
Friday I met with the director of Bajai Szent Rokus Korhaz. Saint Rokus is the main hospital for the region and I was delighted to get the full tour of all the wards, starting with neurology and working down to a Parkinson’s ward, a stroke ward, out patient services and physiotherapy. You’d be very amazed at the conditions here with open windows throughout, very limited technology (as we’d understand it), far less pharmaceutical use, and an alternative and holistic approach that works. Much could be learned for “western” medicine here. The local press was out in full form complete with radio, television and print and I was the belle of the ball, so to speak. An official press conference was followed by lunch down on the river – the classic and famous Baja fish soup – with Uniqum to start followed by much rose wine amid our discussions of joint work together. We’ll have to see!
18) here’s where we had lunch on Friday; 19) and the entrance to the hospital
20) here’s our soup cooking outside; we called ahead so the chef could prepare this as it takes time – it contains two types of freshwater fish (one that is VERY bony) and is served with a long egg pasta
Friday night, I was taken back to the school to meet the head director, Istvan, who was not available on Thursday when I visited. This visit happened at 8PM in the school and was essentially a boy’s night out to celebrate Istvan’s “Name Day”. Hungarians celebrate their birthdays and name days. The entire contingent of male staff was on site, including Ferry, with an amazing feast on spread, and more booze would be practicable let alone legal in a school at any time. It was a fun night.
Breakfast in Hungary consists of fresh bread served unfailingly with a selection of salamis, cheeses and peppers and usually, yogurt. A cup of fabulous Turkish-inspired coffee is without fail its accompaniment and orange juice (though more often) apple juice can be added. It is a satisfying start to one’s day I have found though, truth be told, I do miss my Corn Flakes.
21) breakfast is served
As to the language, Hungarian is unique and is actually not related whatsoever to the many Indo-European languages we know – French, English, Italian, Spanish and etc. In fact, Hungarian is a Uralic language and part of the Urgic group that includes Mansi and Khanty – essentially meaning waaay back Hungarians were Siberians who travelled west from the Ural Mountains. In Europe, Finish is probably its closest relative (and another impossibly challenging language to get any grounding in). Because it is so unrelated to Indo-European languages and has so (very) few words that sort of/kind of similar in English or French, it is incredibly difficult to understand let alone master.
But a few examples, should you ever visit, include:
Szia (see-yah) Hello
Igen (ee-ghen) Yes
Nem (nhm) No
Koszonom (kus-suh-num) Thank you
Sajnalom (shoy na lohm) I’m sorry (if you bump into someone, say)
For a break from all things Hungarian, I flew to Birmingham, England on Saturday to visit friends, touch base with a couple of my staff who are going to school there, and – yes – work. It was a good time – complete with a visit to Wales (more on that later) – and I just have returned to Budapest tonight in preparation (Air Canada strike aside) to fly back home to Toronto tomorrow … I hope!