Life in Hungary

People always ask me what  I find different in Hungary  compared to what I was used to back in the mid-western part of the United States. Here are some things I have noticed:


Food Related - Click here to read more about this topic and see a lot of  pictures!

*Average life span in Hungary is about 7-8 years less than in the United States. Higher levels of smoking and more alcoholism, as well the  very fat diet are the main reasons.

*Stuff they don't have here:  supplies for quilting (patchwork is a new thing here), and many other things. Also reading materials or movies or tv to watch in English are seldom seen here unless you get something in dvd format where you can choose the language.

At this point I'd like to say a huge THANK YOU to our friend CJ (in Georgia) and Jer's friends Cheryl (in Texas) and Kim (in Indiana) for helping us to have movies and tv shows in English. You guys are the best! Also big thanks to Joyce (in California) for all the "CARE packages" she has sent us, and to all our other mIRC friends who have sent us surprises in the mail. Jer's Aunt Darlene (in Washington state) and  friend Cynthia (in British Columbia) have also been very kind and send her quilting & sewing stuff that she can't get her when she needs it. We love y'all!

*Shopping is a different experience in a post Soviet country where the wants or needs of the customer didn't count for much. Shops still tend to be more specialized and small, and close a bit early in the afternoon and most are not open beyond noon on Saturday. (and banks are not open at all on Saturday!) With the coming of such stores as the UK Based Tesco food stores and most recently their 24-Hour superstores, this is  starting to change. (Józsi can still remember the state run stores of the Soviet era and there being only one brand of most items for sale, so many things have changed in the last decade!) Also, most people still keep the traditional wicker basket for going to the store, carrying them by hand or on their bikes. (we also do this!) One other thing that's odd here, even in a big supermarket you will not usually find any sort of medicines except for vitamins, not even aspirin! We're not sure if this is because of food & drug laws that mean only pharmacies can sell any sort of medicine, or if its just tradition.

fabric lined "kosár"

Jer's "kosár"

fabric lined "kosár"

*Banks don't offer checking accounts, you pay bills with a kind of bill/check at the Post Office. They also sell lottery tickets in the post office! Banks are also not open on Saturdays, and to get a credit account usually requires the equivalent of about 5,000 US Dollars in an account first.

*Mail can't be sent from your house, it has to be mailed from a postal box or post office. They do deliver it to your house.

*No yard sales, flea markets or real thrift stores! There are a few "junk stores" and we do check those out, but nothing like the Goodwill or Salvation Army or Kidney Foundation stores like back in the United States. And no one has yard sales here. People need to keep their yards fenced and locked and the idea of letting a lot of strangers come in and nose around would be unthinkable here. (And no, I won't try to start a trend! It's a different way of life here)

*Names are written with the family name first, for example Simon Nagy would write his name as Nagy Simon. His wife would be written Nagy Simonné. (the tag -né meaning married). If you want to use her name, then you should use her maiden name as well, so if she had been Kovács Rita, it would be Nagyné Kovács Rita. Or it could be Nagy Simonné Kovács Rita. Confused yet? Just takes a bit of getting used to! (just an extra note...nagy generally means big but can mean great....Alexander the Great is here called Nagy Sandor and there are a lot of men with that name!))

(Believe it or not, somebody with the name  Nagyné Kovács Rita actually emailed us with a very rude email demanding we take her name off the webpage because she was "offended to see her name on a webpage as an ODDITY!" The name itself is not  an oddity here as the names Nagy, Kovács and Rita are all very common; but someone taking offense and writing a hate email about it surely is an oddity!)

*Real estate is sold differently. There are real estate agents here, but they don't really co-operate with each other, nor will you see many realtor's "For Sale" signs here. Usually the  "For Sale" signs you see are individuals selling a property and those are generally a sheet of paper taped inside a window.  It makes finding property to buy more difficult than it is in the USA, where realtors co-operate with each other!

*There are many apartment buildings in Hungary, but companies do not own whole buildings and rent apartments are owned by individuals. To rent an apartment, you would rent it from the person who owns it. There are still many of the ugly concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings here, but the newer ones tend to look more Mediterranean, usually with red clay tile roofs.

Click here if you want to see lots of pictures of what different kinds of buildings and stuff look like here. Included are pics of some houses we have lived in, places we often go , and  what kitchens look like here!

*Cemeteries and funerals are a bit different here. The biggest thing I have noticed is that many people didn't buy the plot where their loved one went, it was rented for 20-25 years then it has to be renewed. If no one wants to renew it at that time...THEY TAKE THEM OUT and stack up the stones in a pile at the edge of the cemetery! I still  find those stacks of gravestones to be very upsetting even after living here for so long. Also what is above ground is often a different from back home, they are more like the ones you find in Louisiana  and many of them are like a marker at the back and the front is a big stone open box which is kept full of flowers and plants. Some people still have the traditional Hungarian marker made which is a post carved out of wood, called a "kopjafa". (Joey's paternal grandparents have them, hand carved by Joey's dad, who is a professional woodcarver) On the night of All Saint's (Nov. 1) the cemeteries seem almost magical in appearance with all the candles and flowers that folks have brought. (see "customs" for a picture of All Saints night) They don't have funerals at "funeral homes" here , the "funeral home" arranges the funeral but the funeral is always held with everyone standing outside the tiny funeral chapel in the cemetery. Someone gives a speech, then cemetery employees carry the casket or ashes to the grave and after a few more words, you watch them shovel in the dirt on top. For myself, I still find this a bit upsetting to see but perhaps the way I saw it done back in the U.S. is a bit too sanitized...death is not a "comfortable" thing.


modern cemetery
wooden "kopjafa"


another modern cemetery

*Not so many people own cars in Hungary as in the USA and the ones they do own are smaller. (including police cars!) This is because the price of gasoline is much higher...running around $5 US Dollars per gallon! (with much lower pay and such high gas prices, many people cannot afford to own and operate cars, opting to ride bicycles, buses and trains instead. It also costs more than $500 US Dollars just to get a driver's license, which deters many people.

*Salaries here average one fourth to one fifth of what they would in the USA for the same job, and most people get paid one time per month, usually around the first of the month. The cost of living is lower here, but not by the same percentage...just about half. For this reason, people from other richer countries often retire and live here as their pension is still more than most working people here earn. (this is good for the foreigners, but it drives house prices up so many Hungarians now can't afford to buy a house)

*People don't live "in the country", they live either in cities or villages the same as they did in medieval times. Farmers live in the village, and drive out to their farmlands which are outside of the village. There is always  bus service at least, and sometimes also train service, to every city and village in Hungary so cars are not absolutely necessary. In many villages there are STORKS there in the summer months, just like in the old fairytales.

*There are  more holidays in Hungary than in the USA, many of which are Catholic ones and many are related to events in their history. May Day is celebrated here as "Labour Day" but there remain some remnants of the old May Day celebrations from the middle ages to be seen in fairs etc. Christmas and Easter are both 2 day holidays in Hungary. (see the "customs" section for more about this) They don't celebrate Halloween on October 31 but rather All Saints Day on November 1. This is a day when they remember all their deceased relatives and visit the cemeteries to put candles and flowers. This may sound a bit morbid , but it really is a very moving experience in reality. Jer loves this holiday and we visit the graves of Józsi's family in the two cemeteries here in our city at this time every year and leave candles.

*Most people in Hungary do not speak English. In the Soviet era everyone had to take Russian at school so many still know basic Russian, and at schools students can learn German or English. In most places you won't find much in the way of reading material in English, nor many tv channels in English. In our case, we have digital satellite so we can at least choose the English option for a number of channels we like such as Discovery, National Geographic etc. We also get CNN International and British Sky News and BBC News. Most of the channels are in either German or Hungarian although on the upper end of our channels list we get channels from many countries in many languages, even Al-Jazeera!

*As in most of the world, local telephone calls are not free so internet use with a dialup modem is not only slow but expensive if you are online very much. Since we live in a city, we have dsl internet which gives us fast speed as well as unlimited online time per month. Many people in Hungary use cell phones as they tend to be more convenient and not much more expensive here than a land line for many people, especially if most of their contacts use the same company that they do. We have a land line phone, and Joey has a cell phone so Jer can always keep in touch with him.

*Forced-air heating is unknown here. Heating is done either by the old method of ceramic tile stoves (which we love!) or else by radiant heat via coal or wood fired boilers, or the newer natural gas boilers. This means that central air conditioning is impossible, and only recently are air conditioner units starting to be used much here. (the type of windows people have here won't accommodate a "window air conditioner" and that kind of air conditioner  has to have a hole put in the wall in order to be used) They are starting to have a sort of free standing type of air conditioner but this is still fairly expensive for  Hungarian budget so not many people have them yet.

Click here to see pictures of the different kinds of ceramic tile stoves you see here!

*Home appliances are smaller since most apartments and houses have small kitchens and bathrooms. Stoves, refrigerators and automatic washers are all what in the US would be called "apartment size." No roasting of a whole turkey possible here! Also, automatic clothes dryers are just starting to make an appearance here...almost everyone still hangs up their wash on wire racks or clotheslines.  (and in winter, radiators or tile stoves are put to good use)

*No laundromats! If you don't own some sort of washer, you'll be washing clothes out by hand in the sink or tub like I did for almost 4 years.

*Windows here are not "double hung" type, that is, moving up and down inside their casings. The windows here either swing inwards, or outwards, and the newer ones are double hinged so they can swing in a little from the top, or open all the way in from one side. One real "down side" to these kind of windows is that it makes curtain choices very limited! Many types of curtains can only be used if the window isn't ever going to be opened. And with a very large window, swinging it inside a small room really takes up a lot of space.

*Hungary uses the metric system. Getting used to Celsius instead of Fahrenheit and kilos instead of pounds takes some adjustment! Also the sizes they use for things like shoes and things like underwear are not the same as in the USA.

*Houses in the US are made of different materials and different styles but where I came from most were made of wood. In Hungary, buildings are made from brick or concrete blocks with stucco exteriors, and with clay tile roofs. This process takes longer but the houses are less likely to have a fire and limited as to what can burn, and easier & cheaper to do repairs yourself. Recently, we are seeing some American style wood frame houses going up and more use of asphalt shingles.

*Something different but very cool are what I like to call "windows on the past" which are common here in a country where many cities and even villages have been in existence for 800 years or even much longer. Many cities are like the one where we live...with a real castle (ours is now used as part of the Agricultural University here). Or May Day shows that have the same kind of characters on stilts and puppet shows that might have been seen at a fair in the middle ages with very little changed! (see "customs" for some pictures of those shows taken here in town on May 1) In cities like Mosonmagyaróvár, you can still see remnants of the Roman encampment that was here two thousand years ago! For a person coming from a "young" country like the USA, it all seems pretty amazing sometimes and always very very cool!