Inertia and aggression: farewell to my adopted hometown

A historian, Gwen Jones, born into a Welsh family living in London looks back on why she left Budapest after 20 years of love.

Photo: CreativeCommons/habeebee

Maybe it was easier for me to leave my first home country because my parents had already left theirs. Granted, they moved within the UK, from south Wales to Essex in south-east England, in the late 1960s. A glut of young Welsh graduates didn’t want to work in local heavy industry, and when it turned out there was a shortage of staff in schools and colleges in and around London, my parents set off for a new town built to house part of the displaced population of East London made homeless during the Blitz. The town centre looks much like all other town centres built on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the early 1950s. Two decades after my parents arrived, by the time of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, the mines in South Wales, the local docks in Tilbury, as well as much the rest of heavy industry and production in Britain, had been closed.

Growing up in monochrome Essex, I was surrounded at home by different voices and sounds, and music. In the 70s and 80s, my brother and I had exotic names, parents with funny foreign accents who worked in further education, and books all around the house. We were immigrants with qualifications. My Mum used Welsh with her siblings, my Dad decided to learn French, and later German. Much earlier, my maternal grandfather had been stationed with the Signals Corps at Maastricht for the coordination of the Normandy Landings. A polyglot Welsh speaker, left-leaning first-generation intellectual, and general man-about-town, he chose to practice his Dutch at the barbers, and was promptly arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Why on earth would a man in British uniform speak anything other than English? It’s still a good question.

When I first heard Hungarian, I thought it was out of this world. Like people speaking backwards somewhere on a Led Zeppelin album, except compelling. I went to Budapest for three months in 1995 to teach English and was never intending to stay until twenty years later, I finally moved on. When I arrived, there was a real appreciation of freedom, creativity and experimentation, at least among the circles I was lucky enough to find myself in. There was an energy that was shared by few in the UK, where we all seemed, in comparison, sick of our boring selves and our boring freedom to run up loads of credit and Tory rule in perpetuity. Over the next two decades, I came to love Budapest, its language and humour. I made great friends, wrote a PhD and two books about the city, stayed up late, went for long walks, planned very little. All of the above was and is a huge privilege, one I hope I did not waste.

Part of moving to a new place, especially when you have to learn the local language, is that you get to reinvent yourself a bit. Nowadays I feel quite at home in the Hungarian language, whose poetry and profanity are truly great, and couldn’t imagine living somewhere without the freedom of movement that speaking the local language brings, eventually. I work at an institution that has intellectual and creative integrity. If you want to have fun in Hungary and have the resources, it’s there waiting for you. Yet I found myself opening the window in my flat for some air during one of this summer’s marathon heat-waves in Budapest, and then closing it again because I couldn’t stand any more of what I was hearing outside: a society falling apart.

I read the news and prefer the satire. 1930s satire and cabaret numbers work pretty well too. And every day one sees stark social inequalities that were mostly unknown or hidden twenty years ago. Everyone looks even more grumpy and frustrated than usual. Fear and aggression and inertia do bad things to people. Billboards advertise cut-price foodstuffs or the government’s latest three-word agitprop trick which in any case was lifted from a 2010 radical Right manifesto. On the street, conflict resolution opportunities over the pettiest of things are rarely taken. The levels of verbal aggression became unbearable. And you can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears, you can’t not hear it.

Feeling foreign, being regarded as foreign, moving elsewhere for a better life, adapting the way you speak so that people listen to what you say and not how you say it, these are questions of scale. Everyone deals with them. I chose to leave my second home country for a third and now live in Berlin, where I’m reminded once again that when you move to a new place, it’s largely down to you to make it matter to your new hometown that you are there. At this precise moment in time, it’s much easier for me to be a Budapest girl in Berlin. This too is a work in progress. And although none of the moves in my life or that of my family were prompted by violence, liberation always entails loss, and these are the things we take with us wherever we go.

Gwen Jones

Gwen Jones

wrote a PhD at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies on early twentieth-century depictions of Budapest in Hungarian literature, and later completed a post-doc on Hungarian and Polish antisemitism at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She is currently web editor for the Yellow-Star Houses project at the Open Society Archives, Central European University in Budapest.