Being Twenty in Budapest

30 Dec 2017 | Working out for a stronger Europe | by Marion Duboquet

There is no more beautiful a place than Deák Ferenc Ter to spend the warm evenings of our youth’. I was actually not 20 when I wrote these words, but 25 years old. It was several months after I moved to Budapest in 2014. Deák is an esplanade in the heart of the city, where young people like to meet up at night. The setting: a few lanterns, a lawn, and a water fountain in which the drunkest sometimes try to paddle. I remember how I enjoyed watching those young people laughing, talking, flirting, drinking — I wondered what their dreams were…

Enikõ, 23, has always lived in Budapest and wouldn’t consider living anywhere else. When I asked her to tell me about Hungarian youth, she directly mentioned the Deák square: if you don’t have enough money to go to concerts, you canjust go to Deák. When the weather is nice, every evening is like a festival. In Hungary, people are very keen on festivals!’Volt, Ozora, Balaton Sound and of course the most known, Sziget, which had 441,000 visitors in 2015. Indeed, festivals are widespread.

As far as Sziget is concerned, Enikõ insists, ‘Hungarians know that Sziget festival is not for them.’ 

It is quite difficult to contradict her on this, knowing that the average salary in Hungary is 540 EUR and the price of the ticket for one week at Sziget costs 289 EUR. Besides the festivals, Hungarians go out a lot. Márton, 26, has a history-related reason for this: ‘under the socialist era (n.b.: Hungary was under a communist regime from 1949 to 1989) people didn’t watch TV because they knew they would only see lies and propaganda. Hence, at night, they preferred to meet in bars, have a drink, play csocsó (table football in Hungarian, extremely popular in cafes and bars); and despite the rise of the Internet, the tradition has survived here.’

Dianá, 22, is also from Budapest. She studied several months in Szeged, in Southern Hungary, a few kilometres away from the Romanian and Serbian borders, but she very quickly moved back to the capital. ‘There is a huge difference between Budapest and the province. There are many more opportunities and activities in Budapest, even though Szeged is also very interesting from a cultural point of view.’ According to Dianá, for Hungarian youth, the strength lies in education: ‘Hungary offers a relatively high level of education. We have very good teachers and a lot of foreign students come to study in our universities.’ Indeed, in 2013-2014, the country welcomed 4,764 foreign students. Moreover, the Hungarian government decided to launch an Erasmus cooperation programme with the Carpathian basin in September 2016.

Education, cultural and nightlife in Budapest however, are not always enough for young Hungarians. Since Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, it has become much easier to go abroad to study or work. That was the choice Erika, 22, made. She moved to Scotland with a diploma in tourism.

‘It is difficult for me to consider a future in Hungary. People are very pessimistic, and it is only getting worse under the current government. Young people do not invest enough in political life. Most students have a parallel job, but this is often not enough, neither to pay for rent nor to have any savings. There are huge disparities with our European neighbours.’

Young people are not engaged enough politically. Erika’s words resonate in my head; they remind me of my French journalist friends’ first reactions when I told them I was moving to Hungary. Worried about Viktor Orbán’s government and the rise of the far right party Jobbik, my friends had asked me what I found so attractive in Magyar. There were also other clichés: as with the British and their legendary phlegm, Hungarians are often perceived as the champions of pessimism. From Austrian domination, the Treaty of Trianon, to Soviet occupation, one must confess that history has not spared the Hungarians. And what if Erika was right? It would mean to forget that being 20 in Hungary today is to be born after the cataclysms of Hungarian history. It is to have grown in a country that recently joined the European Union. But of course, it is also to have benefited from the advice of prudent parents and grandparents, thinly confident in the future of a country having suffered so much already. Being 20 in Hungary means a craving for being able to embrace life to the fullest and partying, while at the same time safeguarding your future: study, save money, and work, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. See you in ten years time. In the meantime, let’s go back to Deák.