Some Intercultural Shocks

Budapest metro line M3, Hungary

Whenever you set out on a trip, you always have some expectations. And you usually have a few prejudices as well. You know at least a bit about the place you are going to visit, however, there is always something to be surprised by. In fact, that’s why you travel, right? Traveling is indeed about surprises and new experiences.

No matter whether Europe, America, Asia, Africa or Australia, each country has a different culture, habits, landscape, language (or at least its dialect) and the very aspects and their dissimilarities make traveling so interesting. Some differences don’t really surprise you, are not new for you, sometimes, however, you encounterF something you wouldn’t expect. I call such differences “intercultural shocks“, whereas the word “shock” rather represents a worth mentioning, for the local culture specific, fact that may differ from your expectations. And much like I did it in the blog about my 10 months spent in Belgium, also now I’m going to dedicate the first article to my first impressions of the city.

Level of English language

Let’s start with the topic that very often crosses your mind when thinking about going abroad. And especially when thinking about moving abroad. Well, especially when thinking about moving to Hungary 😀

In my case it wasn’t different. Before I came to Hungary I was worried that the Hungarians couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t be willing to speak English. As a matter of fact, that’s what I also heard. So…it is Hungary, right? But at the same time it’s also a capital city. So what would you expect? You know, it’s not yet “Western Europe” where everyone from small kids to retired people speaks great English, the situation in these European countries is after all a little bit different.

Anyway, based on the information gathered from a few friends living in Hungary, there was nothing to be afraid of, since, as they assured me, the young people in Budapest usually speak English as well as most of the people in the center (or at least in tourist places). Well, the truth is that the English language is not so common here. Basically pretty much the same as in our country. Or even less, I would say. You can run into someone who speaks English as well as it’s very likely you meet someone who can’t even say a word.

To be honest, in fact that’s what I actually expected and therefore I shouldn’t call this observation “a cultural shock”, as it didn’t really shock me. What really did surprise me, though, is that they usually don’t even speak English in places where you would sort of expect that. Can you imagine that if you want to open a bank account in an “international bank”, as they present themselves, you need to know Hungarian otherwise you have a big problem? Yes, the most commercial, international, Hungarian bank doesn’t even have ATMs with the English language option. But neither have they English speaking staff.

Because I needed to open a Hungarian account so I would get paid my salary and I didn’t know much about the banks here, their fees or conditions, I opened an account in a bank that had their branch office at my workplace, in the center of international companies, where plenty of foreigners work (which I considered a big advantage). Well no, the lady behind the desk didn’t really speak English but she was at least able to say basic words so I knew what I was required to filled out and it was eventually sufficient for opening the account.

The first surprise followed a bit later when I saw that the account had just been opened and my account balance was already around 4000 HUF (approx. 14 €) below zero because, of course, you have to pay a fee for the card and opening the account. But that’s another story.

After a couple of weeks, I found out that I was paying really too high fees and the bank was charging me for completely everything – for withdrawals, bank transfer, receipts…well, I think I was even kept being charged whenever I touched the payment card or even thought of money. So I decided to change the bank. After my (not really good) experience, in order not to need to bring with me someone who speaks Hungarian, I went to close the account to a bigger branch office, which was located in the very center. So I go in, there is this queue ticketing system with numbers, I don’t know which one to press because it’s in Hungarian only, so I just press a random one. When my number is called up, I go to a woman sitting behind the desk. The first question I ask is if she speaks English. “No….kolléga, kolléga (colleague)…minute”…something like that is the reaction. So I’m sent to another floor to someone that is supposed to speak English and help me. Asking around, after few “my colleague, colleague, kolléga”, somebody is finally able to talk a few words in English with me, I pay 1500 HUF (5€) as a charge for closing the account and the account is finally closed. 

This is an example story to show you how it is actually with the English level in Hungary. So to sum it up, generally speaking, no, they don’t speak English. That’s what you should count on. Trust me, the same will happen to you if you go to the foreign department of the Central Insurance Office, where you will have to use your simple English along with your hands and legs. This is even more ridiculous as in this place they work mostly with foreigners. But indeed there are plenty places, as already mentioned mostly the tourist places, where people can speak at least a basic English.

On the other hand, the Hungarians tend to be self-critical (too much) and if their answer to your question if they speak English is “a little”, it means that they do enough to understand you and tell you what you need.

Old school trams and super old subways

If you, as a first time visitor, arrive in Budapest, this is usually one of the very first things you notice. There are currently four metro lines in Budapest – one brand new operating since this spring (2014), one more, still quite new, line, the super old blue line and the retro metro line, how I purposely call it.

If you arrive in Budapest at the Keleti station, you get an opportunity to take a ride with the new, quite nice, metro line 2 and you will simply take it for granted. The first shock arises, however, when you change for line M3 and its Soviet, 35-years old metro cars, rather resembling cans. If you are going to use the metro with your friend and are planning to talk with each other during the ride, please be prepared that for that, you will always have only about 20 seconds at each station. Why is that, you are asking? Because once the doors close and the train starts off again, due to big noise it makes, it’s just not possible to hear your own words. So unless you want to take a risk of losing your voice after a few minutes, just keep your words for next station 😀 These types of metro cars are mainly fun to travel on in summer, especially when the temperature exceeds 30°C to 35 – 38 °C. This metro is not equipped with an air-conditioner so you can experience a proper Finnish sauna. The good thing is that you don’t need to pay extra for it, it’s already included in the ticket.

Budapest Retro metro line M1

The retro metro (also called Millennium Underground Railway) is really funny, though, and I would say that rather than very useful, it’s more of a tourist attraction. Anyway it is there on purpose. The Budapest metro is, right after the London one, the second oldest metro in the world, whereas it was introduced first in 1896. So this metro line (or at least a part of it) is now more than 100 hundred years old, thus the cars operating on this line as well as the stylish stations have been kept to remind of the age when none of us was yet alive. 

Tatra Tram Budapest

Aaand now about the trams. There are brand new trams operating in the center, being a very important mean of transport. Nevertheless, the further from the city center you go, the more you go back in time as well. The first time I saw a tram like the one on the picture, I also had a feeling that I found myself 30 years back in time, but what’s more important I returned 30 years back to Czechoslovakia (as 30 years ago the independent state of Czech Republic didn’t yet exist). Yes, these trams were produced in Czechoslovakia somewhere in 80’s ( < Nice 🙂

Number of homeless people

I’ve already been to roughly 20 European countries and the number of visited cities is indeed even higher, but I never saw anything even close to what you face in Budapest. The first time I came to Budapest I was literally shocked. I guess it’s quite normal that the main train stations in bigger cities are occupied by homeless, beggars or, how to put it deliberately, people from the lower social class, let’s say. And you get no different impression when you arrive at the Keleti station, just as I did.

What was really shocking to me, though, was that when I took a metro to move to the center, it became even worse. The underpasses of the main metro line were literally besieged by homeless people! Yes, seriously, this is a very sad situation here in Budapest. There are plenty of people without homes, people living in deep poverty, begging around for a few forints.

When I arrived in Budapest, it was summer in its full swing and each underpass, at least the ones in the center,  was a gathering place for them. At the beginning of November, a law prohibiting the homeless from staying in the districts of the city center came into force. The day after, you could see policemen expelling poor people from subway underpasses and other public places. It is said that the government isn’t really tolerant towards people from low social classes, although there are many. The number of people living in poverty or on its edge is enormous here, but I don’t think trying to get rid of such people this way is the right solution…..

A homrless Person in Budapest

The first question, naturally, which crosses your mind when you see it with your own eyes, is how come there are so many of them. It’s said that many of these people (but not all of them) are the result of the mortgage crisis that occurred in Hungary a few years ago. To put the long story short, before the famous global economic crisis broke out, Hungarian households had been borrowing lots of loans. High indebtedness of households as such wouldn’t have been a problem, the problem, however, was that they had been borrowing money from abroad due to high taxes, interest rates and charges on loans of Hungarian banks it was much cheaper. The loans with low interest rate they had been obtaining were mostly from Switzerland, in Swiss francs then. Always if there is a money transaction involving two different currencies, there is also a high currency risk you are undertaking. Risky policy, not very well-managed state economy, along with insufficient financial literacy of people and big currency drop, led to inability for many people to repay the mortgage loans, as the Hungarian Forint had rapidly dropped over night, and thus the loans became for Hungarians suddenly up to 30-50% more expensive.

Even though many people have been struggling to repay such, all of a sudden, expensive loans, which may have resulted in serious financial problems, and consequently left them on the street, I personally think, though, that this is not the main reason and the startling number of people living on the streets results from the bad Hungarian social policy…


Ferenc Puskas Stadium

Here comes a funny thing 😀 And I would never guess that after visiting a football game I would bring in another intercultural shock. Once I went to the stadium to watch a football match between Hungary and the Czech Republic. Yes, to see our national team from a bit different perspective (or let’s just say from a different country). Actually, what I considered there the funny thing is not related to football itself, however, to understand why I was “culturally shocked”, let me explain what it looks like when you go for a football match in our country.

No matter who’s playing against whom, it applies everywhere. For many Czech football fans, there would be no football without a sausage and beer! Without a sausage and beer, indeed, they wouldn’t feel like at the stadium watching football and the game wouldn’t be good (even though sometimes it isn’t even with 5 beers). So during the match you can usually see people drinking beer (quite often lots of beer), very often complemented with – as mentioned – a sausage. In the Czech Republic this is common and absolutely normal.

Now what was different and what really surprised me in Hungary? People at stadiums do not drink beer! They don’t stand in the queue, especially before the match and in half-time break waiting for their favorite golden drink or sausage, like in my country. But instead of that, to calm down the nerves during the game, everyone has….wait for it…. A pack of sunflower or pumpkin seeds! This is incredible. Almost everyone at the stadium was crunching seeds. Well, you won’t find a pile of pet glasses tossed on the ground, or dirty seats from mustard or ketchup, but you will find everywhere piles of seeds instead. 

The young drinking in public places

Now don’t get me wrong! This post is not going to be a lecture about morality of – or for – teenagers. I’m pretty sure people do it anywhere and although I don’t like the fact that the young people indulge in drinking alcohol way too early and too frequently, very often because they are kind of bored and can’t find another entertainment, from certain age I used to do the same. From time to time. The point is, everything has certain standards and limits.

I believe that in many countries drinking in public places is regulated and usually also fully forbidden by the law. Nevertheless, there are also many countries, including the Czech Republic and I guess Hungary as well, where the national law doesn’t regulate it, however, particularly in bigger cities, the municipalities issue a local, municipal ordinance regulating rules within their territory.

And believe it or not, as well as in basically all the bigger cities in my country (including Prague), drinking in all public places in Budapest is officially illegal! I know this may be surprising because in reality, if you walk in Budapest through the streets, parks, stations or get on a tram, it definitely doesn’t seem so. Public drinking is totally ignored here and even though in general  I’m not such a moralist and don’t really care, in Budapest they should absolutely be stricter.

The number of people drinking on public transport is incredibly high and sometimes it feels really crazy. When you go out in the evening (without a bottle), you will get what I mean. When on a tram or bus, you will also notice that you belong to the minority of sober passengers annoyed by bunches of noisy people sharing bottles around the tram. As soon as you get off in the center and walk in the streets, you will have to watch your way not to step on a glass (or glass) tossed on the ground. 

At night hours the Budapest public transport turns into party trams and buses, Budapest streets in one big alcoholic shelter.

Drivers are too nice (but don’t really use indicators)

If you ask a Hungarian what they think about the drivers in Hungary, I don’t think you will get a positive opinion. Well, above all, they never lived in the Czech Republic, where the drivers are probably the most inconsiderate in Europe (perhaps in the world). Even though that in some article, blog or whatever it was about Budapest and its typical characteristics, someone wrote that the drivers here don’t stop when they see someone crossing a street even on a zebra pad, I highly disagree with this theory. Simply because it’s not true. Not only in my opinion they do stop too much! It happens to me every day, actually multiple times per day, that a driver stops for me even when I don’t really want to. When they see I’m about to cross the road, in most cases they just stop to let me cross over, also out of crosswalks. Once the same happened when I was with a friend going to cross a road. With one voice we agreed that this was something we were not used to from our countries, where the drivers very often don’t feel like stopping even in front of a crosswalk where you, as a pedestrian, have the priority, in fact.

This gesture may seem nice indeed, but it’s not always necessary and sometimes rather inconvenient or kind of dangerous. Why? You have to keep in mind that it’s quite a big city so the traffic especially in some parts of Budapest is pretty big, therefore by stopping a car for a random lazy pedestrian you may be restraining other cars and supporting traffic jams. In addition to that, people in Budapest are all the time in rush so as you stop in the middle of nowhere, for your nice gesture you may be worthily punished by another driver honking at you or crashing into you.

And yes, another thing I’ve noticed about the drivers and have to share with you – they don’t care about using indicators when changing direction, which is definitely dangerous as such. I really love the feeling when you are standing close to an intersection to walk over, waiting till the coming car passes, but then all of a sudden the car just turns to a different direction without indicating….

People addicted to cell phones

Yes, we live in the age of mobile phones, laptops, tablets and other devices. It’s pretty normal that almost everybody has Internet in their phone and stays online, well, basically nonstop. I’m not going to discuss if it’s good or not, anyway it’s usual in my country, too. It also is common that people stare at their screens, whatever device it is, when traveling on the subway (as you don’t really have anything better to do anyway). But I’ve got an impression that what you see in Hungary is just a bit too much 😀 When you get on a metro, observe people around you. There is a very high chance that at least half of the people will be watching their phones/tablets, out of which two thirds will be checking Facebook.

It’s fine, I know. I do the same sometimes. It’s a way to kill the boring time on the metro. And as a matter of fact also quite effectively because you don’t waste your time by surfing Facebook later. But what I want to point out is that here (maybe in other countries too) so many people do it all the time, not only during the ride, but also when getting off, getting on, while walking in the streets, and this is, apart from the addiction, also dangerous. It’s not rare that someone bumps into you as they are walking towards you with their head down.

Well, this is the age we live in, I’m pretty sure for many of you it’s very hard to imagine leaving your home, not to mention living, without your phone. The mobile internet can be useful in cases when you need to check a transport timetable, you want to know opening hours of the place you want to visit or you need a map. But honestly…isn’t it sometimes a bit boring, missing the real adventure? 🙂 In my opinion it is. I personally prefer to stay offline, watch my way, observe things and people around and not to be distracted by the illusive Facebook world. 

Too many traffic lights, too few crosswalks.

Budapest is a capital city with nearly 2 mil. people (including tourists, foreigners etc), so you can naturally find places which are quite crowded. Also, as it is normal for bigger cities, there is, especially in some parts, roads or streets of Budapest, very high traffic and, particularly when you get to a place where something is being built, restored or dug (which happens basically all the time), the life here may feel very chaotic to you (well, in fact it actually is).

What I’ve noticed here and feel like sharing with you is the disproportion between the number of traffic lights and crosswalks around Budapest. I’ve never driven a car in Budapest, so I can’t really judge the situation from a car driver point of view, however, I can tell you how it looks like in many places around the city when walking or riding a bicycle…..

So what I mean by many traffic lights is that in some parts of Budapest you bump into a traffic light even in a place where you wouldn’t expect it. What I mean by too few crosswalks is that in some parts of Budapest you occur in a place where you want to cross a road/street and you have trouble because there is no crosswalk, as you would sort of expect it.

Traffic lights at Corvin-Negyed

I’m gonna give you just a short example. The building I live in is located next to a big road (Üllői út) with 6 lanes in total, so you can perhaps imagine that most of the day the road is very busy and not easy to cross. When I want to take a tram,  I need to walk 600 m along the road to a big intersection. On the way to the intersection there are four small perpendicular streets, thus four small intersections. Except for the last one, which is not even really a street, there is always a traffic light. All three small streets that I need to pass are so narrow that it’s almost one big step for me to cross it (two bigger ones for normal people :-)), but yet I always have to wait for green. I mean I should.

Now let me use the same street as an example for the other extreme. As I already said, the road is quite big and very busy for most of the time, so it doesn’t happen very often that you can cross it to the other side from anywhere you want. Usually you will have to use a zebra pad. And the problem is that on the way from my place to the mentioned tram there are only two. Imagine, you are heading to a place just a few meters across the road, but to actually get there you have to walk another 100 m to a crosswalk and then wait sometimes 3-4 minutes for green to get to the other side…..

Hungarians don’t know how to use a sauna

SaunaWell, I don’t really know where to place this topic, but I’ll include it under Intercultural Shocks since it’s something different from what you usually experience in the Czech Republic. I don’t know how about you, but I go to the sauna to relax. To relax my muscles, mind, to relax and recharge my whole body. A sauna, as far as I know, is supposed to be a place where you come to relax not only your physical body, but also your mind. Thus, I’ve always thought the sauna was a good relaxing place. But I guess relaxation means something different to everybody. Sitting in 90°C and sweating all the s* out, I don’t really feel like talking, do you? Well, the Hungarians do. They do love talking in the sauna! And it pisses me off! 😀 I got a feeling that sauna is for them like their favorite spot to have an after-work chat (like they didn’t have a whole day to do it before). You should know that also sauning has certain rules. And one of them is that you should stay quiet. I can’t think of many other things now that would bother me more than people babbling in the sauna. The whole “sauna glamour” is then just lost…

And the other thing (you don’t wanna know about 😀 ) is the hygiene. Oh boy, that’s an issue here. I don’t think this has so much to do with rules, I think this is something rather natural. I believe that if you are (at least partly) a human, it’s natural that you take a shower and wash all the dirt/sweat you have been carrying all day out, before you enter a swimming pool or a sauna and spread it all around you so everybody else can “enjoy” it as well. I personally find this disgusting, especially when I see the water is turning grey later afrenoon.

Last but not least, the Hungarians visit saunas in swimsuits/shorts. Well, okay, I’ve heard from someone that us Czechs are kind of known for, how to say it….for not having a big problem with exposing themselves, but we do it for a good reason, you know. I’m not gonna give you a lesson on how to sauna, but I can’t forbear a few little notes. You should be nude, you have a towel with you to cover anything you want to cover. The reason si simple. Actually, there are two reasons.

First of them is health. The whole point of sauning (one of them) is to sweat salt and possibly bad toxins out of your body. If you keep your swimsuit, the substances are exuded…guess where (also hygienic aspect). It’s really great when you move you sweaty butt to another sauna or pool. And do the same there again, too. Secondly, if you sit in the sauna in a wet swimsuit, the water starts to evaporate in the air turning the sauna into a steam cabin with high temperature, plus, if you come to the sauna from a swimming pool, not only the water but also chloride will evaporate and you begin to inhale toxic gasses. So if you, for any reason, need to/want to keep your swimsuit, it needs to be dry!

From the the hygienic point of view, wearing a swimsuit in the sauna simply doesn’t make any sense. Do you normally sunbathe in a jacket? Then why do you wanna sweat in 50-100°C in impermeable clothes? If you stay clothed, you also bring all the crap kept in it with you into the sauna and spread it on the wood. You should be swimsuit-free, however, with your towel underneath, indeed, so the sweat doesn’t drop on the wood/floor.

Well, in Budapest, however, in most places it’s even not allowed to go without, hmm…


Just to add a small icing on the cake to this topic, would you believe that in Hungary you can still see Trabants from time to time? You know, those prehistoric cars, if you still remember them…. 😀