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Steve Welsh, Western Hungary

Planning and Moving

My name is Steve Welsh. I am English, 64 years old and I am living – permanently I hope – in a small village in a rural area in Western Hungary. Before moving here I worked in in academia in the UK. A number of factors influenced my decision to move here. Work politics, an undesirable residential area in the UK and the utter impossibility of my owning my own property in the UK. There are other reasons too, but those given were mainly what precipitated my move. What made it possible was having some savings and the possibility of taking early retirement from work with a small pension and a retirement grant. This was in 2007.

I decided that I wanted a place of my own that would also give me a good degree of self-sufficiency. I did some investigating and at first looked at Bulgaria and Romania as possible destinations.I discarded them both. Romania was just too primitive and to buy a property in Bulgaria you had at that time to jump though legal hoops. Although I knew nothing of Hungary I broadened my search to there. Everything fitted. Property was – and still is – cheap. There were no legal restrictions upon buying a property in which to reside, and being in the EU I had right of residence there anyway.

I found a website that acted as an agency for the purchase of property in Hungary. It was an Austrian site (http://www.casa-mia.at), but was available in English. There were lots of suitable properties on this site, and lots more on various Hungarian language sites as well. I decided to take the plunge and fly out and investigate. I had the luck to be introduced shortly before I flew out to a young Hungarian in the UK. He gave me lots of information, including areas in the country where it would be good to buy property.

I had made the prior decision to investigate the area in the west of the country first. I had hoped to get some way down the line on the day of my arrival. I realised that with time ticking away in the afternoon that plan was not to be. I found myself still at Ferihegy airport and with no hotel booked. That was when I first encountered what remains a lasting impression – the helpfulness of the Hungarian people. The young lady at the airport information desk must have spent fifteen minutes on the phone before finding me a hotel room.

To keep it reasonably short, the next day I headed west to the first area that I had been told was good to look for property. I had a hotel room booked in the local town. I touched base with the gentleman that runs the Austrian site via SMS. The next day he spent the whole day driving me from village to village.

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At some point in the journey we ended up in the place where I now live. He showed me a couple of properties. What turned it for me was when he took me a tour around the village. We came across a gathering of children who were helping to drive hens that had escaped from a villager’s yard back where they should be.

We met again the next day. I had decided overnight to buy the property in which I now live. He explained the legal and financial process.

The actual purchase of my property took me by surprise in its simplicity and brevity. The following day we met with his solicitor, and the seller’s solicitor and representatives turned up. We signed an exchange of contracts. All was translated into English for my benefit. I paid a deposit and was left with ensuring that the remainder of the purchase price was paid within ten bank working days. That was in September 2007.

I postponed moving out here until March 2008. I had studied the local weather records and was aware that winters could be harsh. I was simply not geared up for a move to a country where I had but a few words of the language to try and survive a winter on my own.

I had e-mail correspondence from the solicitor indicating that the mayor of the village had given his permission for me to purchase the property and another to tell me that my ownership was registered in the Hungarian Land Registry. It turned out that getting the permission of the mayor was a legal formality. The only reason in law for a mayor to withhold permission would be that it would be “against the public interest”.

As planned I finished work in February 2008, spent a month in preparation and moved here in March 2008. I travelled overland by train with a huge suitcase and a big backpack of belongings which I would need early on. I had booked in at the same hotel where I had stayed before. I was recognised and the room key was on the bar before I could even take off the backpack. It had been an overnight trip and I was exhausted.

I had kept in touch with the agent and he had promised to meet me the next morning. There was, I must say, the feeling that this was where it could all go horribly wrong. It didn’t. He picked me and huge suitcase up and drove me to the house. He handed over the keys and showed me where and how to turn on the services. I begged a lift back to town. I was booked in one more night at the hotel. I asked where I might buy a bicycle and he took me to the cycle shop in town where I negotiated the purchase of a sturdy bike. The bicycle is transport of choice with a good proportion of the villagers, even the ‘old girls’ of whom there are quite a number.

Village Life

The next day I began my life in the village by cycling the ten kilometres from town. Everything was OK on my arrival. I had literally just parked my bike in the yard when white van man pulled up with my dozen boxes of belongings posted overland from the UK. Well, the parcel service worked fine, then. One thing that had surprised me was that the house was fully furnished. I had expected it to be cleared, but it turns out that it is quite common for them to be sold thus.

The village has a shop, open from five thirty in the morning until late morning and open again for an hour in the evening. There is a pub which is open from six thirty in the morning until ten minutes after the telly goes off which is a bit of a movable feast. There is a consensus amongst the regulars – they know when it is time to leave and just drink up and go. Quite unlike the UK. The Hungarians score very highly on the alcohol drinking front – fourth in the world league table, and I suspect that that does not include home grown wine and home distilled pálinka (Hungarian schnapps). Other services in the village are many. A wide range of tradesmen delivering all kinds of goods visit the village regularly – meat, bread, pet food, gardening materials, etc. The postman calls daily Monday to Friday and operates a mobile banking service for paying bills and obtaining cash. Letters and parcels for posting are picked up at the house. The village hall offers Internet access, photocopying, sending faxes and a small library. The doctor sets up surgery there two mornings a week. Also in the village are two furniture makers, a fabricator (blacksmith-type), an egg producer and a chicken (meat) producer.

The local town offers a wide range of trades. Familiar names like Tesco, Lidl and Spar can be found. One thing that did surprise me was that with many shops the only clue to what they sold was in the shop name. No window displays.

When I first arrived I think that many of the villagers were just curious about me. They were always friendly. It is the sort of place where everybody greets everybody anyway – the normal daily civilities that cost nothing. There were those that thought that I might just stick it for six months and leave. The turning point was definitely when I got the goats. Everyone was interested, and the doubters got the message that I was here for the long haul. I am now greeted with genuine friendship by all those with whom I have regular contact.

There is a wide spectrum within the village of poverty and affluence with the whole range between. There are people living without mains water and electricity and existing hand to mouth, right the way to those with good incomes and fine houses. Many of the villagers live as I do. Working the land to grow as much of their own stuff as possible but with an income, be it from farming or whatever, to pay bills and so on. House heating is mainly by wood. It is a heavily wooded area and the forests are managed in a sustainable way.

There are two other British expats in the village. One is a Welshman who came to live here some months after I did, and living a similar lifestyle. The other is an Englishman with a Hungarian partner who has a business based here and who has been here many years. It is, I have to say, an unlikely destination for expats.

The Hungarians have a flair for food. Everyone knows of Hungarian goulash of course. Goulash has what I might call a first cousin called pörkölt made with pork, chicken, wild game or beans. Quite delicious. And what the Hungarians can do with a humble cabbage is quite astonishing. Very creative.

The Hungarian language is – err – remote. It has a very distant cousin in Finnish but is otherwise quite unlike any other. I thought there might be a little German spoken here because of the proximity with Austria, but to your average Hungarian that might as well be in another universe. They are extremely forgiving of my mangling of their language, however. To quote from some random website somewhere “If you make the slightest attempt to speak their language they will take you to their hearts” – and they do.

Criticism of Hungary? Only one. The fragility of the infrastructure. As I write, in the middle of the Hungarian winter, I have no water to the house (again). Every year I have had a disaster with the water supply. This year it has simply frozen up. The electricity supply is also inclined to power cuts. Three times I have been without Internet because of faults on the phone line or problems at the exchange.

Another thing that I like about living here is the climate. Winters are hard, which I actually like, but in this area never with too much snow. Spring comes with a suddenness that still takes me by surprise. Some time in March within about three days it goes from being definitely winter to being definitely spring. After that it just gets warmer and by the end of April it is summer. Summer goes on until September, usually with a thunderstorm season. Autumn is wonderful. It can go on right up to the end of November and many times I have been doing my outdoor work in November wearing only jeans and teeshirt.

To sum it up, what is my life like here? Physically hard, but idyllic. I had British visitors once come to look at the goats. I was asked why I like it so much here. I looked up at the sky. A clear azure blue with not a cloud in sight. I cupped my hand to my ear. Not a sound to be heard except the birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog. I extended my hand and indicated my bit of garden with my stuff coming along nicely, the fruit and nut trees showing signs of a good harvest and the goats nearby, munching contentedly. Not a word was needed. The Good Life? You bet!

Steve shares more stories about the "Good Life" in Hungary through his blog The Halogy Project

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