Expat Tales: Hungary

DAISY COLES
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2014
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CHRISTMAS-CARD LANDSCAPE: Daisy Coles with one of her two daughters in Mecser, Hungary.

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Daisy Coles lives in the tiny village of Mecser (population 600) which sounds like something out of a storybook. It's near where her husband grew up in Hungary, close to the Austrian and Slovakian borders.

Why did you move there? My Hungarian husband and I have had trouble deciding which country to live in ever since we met ten years ago. Currently we're based in Hungary, but we spend a few months in New Zealand every year. Four years ago we fell in love with the end-of-the-road feel of a little village close to the one my husband grew up in. We spent a ridiculously small sum on a house there, across the road from the Mosoni-Duna - a branch of the Danube.

Now we're bringing up our two little daughters there.

What do you do there? I'm a freelance editor. I do work for various New Zealand authors, publishers and government departments.

What do you like/dislike about it? I love the way of life in the village. Most people I know here grow veges, keep hens and pigs, or make their own wine and (lethal) fruit schnapps as a matter of course. It's what their families have done for centuries. It feels right to me, and a healthy way to live. If I have an issue with Hungarian culture, it's that life here is very monocultural. That's not helped by the inaccessibility and all-pervasiveness of the language, which has an isolating influence on the country. People's thinking tends to be very black and white, which I sometimes find frustrating.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand? Life here is much cheaper - our grocery, power and internet bills are easily half what they are at home.

What do you do on weekends? In the summer we go biking, swimming or boating with friends and family and we often go camping. As the days get colder I tend to spend my days brewing good coffee and reading good books, and my evenings watching TV while trying to do something mildly productive (last year I shelled a bumper crop of walnuts).

What do you think of the food / what's your favourite thing to eat there? Hungarian food is essentially pork, sour cream and paprika in various combinations. Put together by a dab hand (like my mother-in-law), it is bland-coloured, salty, stodgy . . . and absolutely delicious. Soup is a staple, right through the year. I love the abundance of fruit in season - Hungary's quite a fruit bowl for the European Union. There's an amazing tradition of cakes, strudels and creamy slices - delicious from a commercial baker, but even better from somebody's grandmother's kitchen.

What's the best way to get around? A bike and the public transport system will get you wherever you need to go. Even in our little village, the Hungarian buses are so prompt you can set your watch by them.

What's the shopping like? In terms of new things, I much prefer to shop online when I'm here. But I'm also an obsessive op-shopper, and I love Hungarian op-shops. They're run commercially, and import shiploads of second-hand clothes in from England then sell them back to Hungarians by the kilo. Rummaging through binfuls of last season's Top Shop and Marks and Spencer is a lot of fun.

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What's the nightlife like? Nightlife in our little village is strictly for the bats and the owls. With young children, it's not really something that's on our radar any more anyway.

What is your favourite part of the country? My favourite parts of Hungary are the fertile stretches between villages, where there are fields of corn and sunflowers, leafy elderflower-scented lanes and overgrown paths down to the river to explore.

What time of year is best to visit and why? Each season has something going for it. There's a lot to be said for the hot, hazy Hungarian summertime - but there's something magical about the winter too, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas when there are sparkly wee Christmas markets in the towns and cities.

What's your must-do thing for visitors? My go-to fine-weather experience for Kiwis staying with us is a bike tour around the region, with plenty of beer or icecream stops along the way. In winter, skiing, ice-skating and train journeys to nearby cities (Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna are all day trips for us) are possibilities.

What are your top tips for tourists? Be prepared for the most extreme seasonal weather for the time of year you're travelling: pack mozzie repellent in the summer and your warmest thermals in the winter. Cash up (you won't need much) - the shops in smaller centres are invariably less hooked up to electronic systems than we're used to. Learn one or two words of the language, even if you consistently mangle them - Hungarians truly appreciate it.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand? We're not close to a major airport, so we usually end up going through somewhere like London or Frankfurt on our way home. That being over and done with, it's the straightforward Europe-Auckland hop we Kiwis are well used to.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Expat in the subject line.

- Sunday Star Times

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