I’ve been in Budapest for just over four months, seeing autumn into an unseasonably and certainly unCanadianly mild winter. Though my Hungarian language skills are still lacking, I don’t consume nearly enough pork (i.e. almost none) to manage Hungarian dishes, and my Hungarian travels outside of Budapest number only two, I have been soaking in the ebb and flow of Hungarian life. In these days, I’ve begun to distill a few things that are, to me, uniquely Hungarian.
You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello
But we both mean ‘see you later’. I did a number of double takes as I would leave a shop or a restaurant and say “goodbye” or “viszlát”, and they would reply with “hello!”. In Hungarian, the greeting ‘szia!’ is similar to ciao and aloha in that it can be used for greeting or parting. Hungarians have adopted the most popular English-language greeting ‘hello’ into their own daily language with the same dual use. Though it takes some getting used to, it makes it really easy to pretend I speak Hungarian when entering anywhere in Budapest.
Pretending is about as much as I can say for my Hungarian language skills, though. Unlike most European languages that belong to the Indo-European family, Hungarian arrived in Central Europe via tribal conquest in the late 9th century and is part of the Uralic language group (click the link to see how Hungarian is having a party all on its own). This means that all the grammatical and pronunciation hints that I could gather from neighbouring German, Romanian or Slovak languages are useless. Hungarian stands on its own. It’s an interesting and lively language that I’m slowly learning. Thankfully, Hungarians are equal parts patient and encouraging of people trying to communicate in their unique magyar. I try and return their linguistic kindness with a hearty, if anglicized, “köszönöm!”.
Paprika has flavour. Parsley, too!
Growing up on the east coast of Canada, paprika was found in every kitchen but was rarely used. The spice was added as decorative colouring on potato salad and devilled eggs. It had no other use as the long since dried peppers left the seasoning with little taste. Now, in our little Hungarian kitchen, paprika powder, kreme and whole peppers (which is paprika in Hungarian, of course) are used almost daily. I have learned that there is a whole spectrum of paprika, ranging from the mild ‘special quality’ (különleges) to the spiciest ‘strong’ (erős). Paprika is handy spice that provides a savoury addition to soups, stews and my most favourite recent discovery, scrambled eggs. In Hungary, the national spice is as it should be. Similarly, parsley in east coast Canada did have a little flavour, but it was definitely relegated to the garnish category. Here, parsley is the herb that adds real freshness to your dishes, and is so essential that you can find even at small corner grocers.
Hungarians are Honest
In researching Hungarian life from my Canadian kitchen table, I came upon the generalization that Hungarians are grumpy. Of course, any sweeping generalization must be incorrect (including mine above), but it’s a striking one when you’re heading to a new country to live and work. In my short experience, Hungarians are not grumpy, but honest. Coming from North America, we thrive on the assumption of ‘all’s well.’ When we ask, “How are you?” to a cashier or an acquaintance, we expect an answer along the lines of “fine” at a minimum. It’s not a question seeking an honest answer, but a polite gesture of an extended personal greeting. However, in Hungary, you don’t ask, “hogy vagy?” unless you are after the real response. And you get honest answers. People are fine, people are great, but people are also tired, worried or sick. From a North American viewpoint, this might come across as grumpy, but it’s really just honesty. It’s a refreshing take that you don’t ask the question unless you truly mean it and care about the answer.
Everybody smokes. With the ban of indoor smoking in effect in Nova Scotia since 2006 and the price of cigarettes always on the rise, I had almost forgotten how ubiquitous smoking had been just a decade ago. Coming to Budapest, I was reminded very quickly that smoking is a habit holding on strong. Every adult demographic smokes. I was most surprised to see people a lot younger than I smoke. At home, that is relatively rare as I was coming of age in the height of the anti-smoking era. Thankfully, Hungary banned smoking indoors in 2012, which is a big improvement over neighbouring Austria, which is still has smoking sections next to “non”-smoking sections. But you’ll still come across the rare bar that ignores the regulation and smokers still fill the patios. In the beautiful but close streets of Pest, it can be tough to get a fresh breath.
Eat all the Meat
Meat is a significant part of the Hungarian diet. Pork is king, but all kinds will grace the dinner table. As a flexitarian, I eat very little meat and when I do, it’s usually only on special occasions or when traveling. In Budapest, I’ve been open to trying the local fare as Hungarian cuisine is a point of pride. I became vegetarian at first for animal rights and later it evolved to the key feature or my climate-friendly diet. Part of my aversion to meat is the industrial scale and the waste of meat production. The aspect I most greatly appreciate is how each part of the animal is used. It is an agricultural country with a communist history that values food and has distaste for waste. I was recently served a delicious dish of a tomato-based, dark chicken meat stew over rice. It was hearty and delicious. The chef wasn’t sure of the English translation for the meat type. I ate half the meal happily and then the translation was found. The dish was chicken gizzard stew. In my experience, chicken gizzards are the ‘nasty bits’. I am thankful that I enjoyed the rich dish before finding out its contents. It was tasty, but my mental image might have ruined the effect. The beauty of this dish, beyond its flavour, was the reminder that the gizzard is still valuable meat. Creepy-looking meat, yes, but valuable nonetheless, and so it is used in the kitchen. Waste not, want not.
Though I wouldn’t recommend taking up smoking, there are certain aspects of Hungarian life that can be valuable lessons to a North American lifestyle. Engaging in honest conversations and eating well while wasting less are simple, and often subtle, habits that are pushing me to re-think my normal daily ways.