More and more business people and expats, intellectuals and artists are attracted by Budapest so much that they let a short stay turn into long years of love. Dutch writer Jaap Scholten became enamoured at the beginning of the 1990s and finds inspiration for his literature still today. He speaks about “his Budapest”, the bohemian life, the buildings and their courtyards, the night walks and the rich Hungarian history. Plus his favourite place to drink coffee.
How long have you been living in Budapest?
Permanently since 2003. However, I have been visiting frequently ever since the beginning of the 1990s. My wife is half-Hungarian, who has been raised in Germany and the Netherlands, and I used to come to Budapest to see her back then. Then she got the offer from an English attorney’s office to help establish their Budapest office. In 2002 we sold our house in the Netherlands and we began looking for a house here. Our three children were still small at that time, so it was an adventurous, maybe even irresponsible venture. Finally we found an abandoned house on the Svábhegy, which had been standing empty for more than 60 years. It was built in 1881 and has a rich history, which represents the most recent past in Hungary. As I said though, I have been here quite often ever since the beginning of the 1990s. When I was still a student at Rotterdam Art College, I used to take the train to Budapest, which was a long but very romantic way of travelling.
How was the atmosphere at that time?
This was directly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and this was an exciting time in Hungary; people were full of energy and hope. The city still smelled of brown coal, the facades were black, brown or grey and you could still see the mark of gunshots on the walls. Still, you could feel the hope that life is going to turn better. As I came here to visit quite often, I met a wild clique of many artists who ran away from their home countries to move here. In addition to that there was a group of young aristocrats who moved back to Hungary from all around the world. We met them on Fridays or Saturdays at the Piaf Bar and we drunk ourselves senseless. After all, you could buy here a bottle of champagne for only a few guldens, when I converted the price. At home I was just a poor student but here I was king. We had a wonderful time in Budapest back at the beginning of the 1990s.
Did you already fall in love with the city back then?
First I fell in love with my wife, then with Budapest and then with whole Hungary. This here has always been a completely different, wild and free world for me.
But you do come from the Netherlands, so from a country that is known for its openness and its liberal way of living. Why do you say that Hungary is freer?
But the Dutch have another side too: society can be really strict. Everyone knows everything about the others. In reality this is like a hidden class society, and we always try to pretend that this is not the case. But it is. My Dutch friends at home have always been much more reserved than the people here. Here I have many different kinds of friends. As a foreigner it’s maybe even easier to make friendship with very different people. I like this side of being an expat. Actually, maybe we would need to use the term “expat” in a more differentiated form. For me, an expat is someone who is sent to another location by his company for a couple of years. I see myself in a different way: I am here because I want to be here and I want to stay here for a long time. At least now I am not planning on returning.
Then we can say that you have created your roots in Hungary?
Yes, I certainly have. The town is like a map of memories for me. All the different layers and eras are melting into one. When I walk through the city there are so many places that I have a personal memory about or one that I know the history of. A house, for example, where I know that something has happened there. And this is what makes me feel connected to a city. I know many stories about many cities. I know which people have lived there or I know that there used to be a club there or a hidden pathway to an old bordello. And having all this knowledge, right here in Budapest, connects me with the city. And I love walking through the city.
Is there any specific area that you like most?
No, not really. There is just this special feeling when I am walking through the city. Budapest is wonderful and you feel so safe. When I meet my friends for a drink in the evening, the best thing about it is when I am walking home at night. Maybe the meeting with my friends is just an excuse so that I can walk home. In Budapest it’s really special to walk through these beautiful bridges. There are three elements that can make a city really beautiful: a river, a hill or the sea. And Budapest has two of these three. The hill and the broad river give the city a feeling of real spaciousness.
You mentioned your impressions about the times after the political turn and the special atmosphere that you experienced. Is there a recognisable difference between those times and today in terms of society and the general atmosphere in Hungary?
Considering society, I do believe that a lot has changed. The optimistic attitude that everything is going to be all right, that Hungary is going to belong to Western Europe fully again, that the life standards are going to get higher. The fact that all of this did not happen is a great deal of disappointment for this society. Some people might have had too large expectations. Many people feel that they were rejected by Europe, so they are looking for new ideas they can believe in. Many of those ideas are stupid, of course. Those things were not so conscious for me back then, I was only in my 20s and I was not doing a lot of thinking about it. But by today I think that Hungary clearly belongs to the West. The Byzantine Empire begins behind the Carpathian Mountains. I wrote a book about Transylvania and its aristocrats titled “Comrade Baron”. This book was a really interesting experience for me, since when I arrived in Hungary in 2003, I was also an arrogant person from the West who thought Hungarians are doing everything so ineffectively. While I was doing my research for the book I realised what really happened in these countries: Hungary, Romania and the rest of the former countries in the Eastern Bloc. This realisation made me more understanding and empathetic. Towards the Hungarians but also towards the Romanians, who have lived under Soviet dictatorship for such a long time. This ruined so many things in the society, because I believe that trust is one of the basic things in life, and the trust of people has been shaken. For someone like me, who grew up in the undisturbed Holland, in peace and in a multicultural society, it was not always easy to understand what it could have meant for a Hungarian to grow up with such restrictions.
You mentioned your book titled “Comrade Baron”, which is about the Transylvanian aristocracy. How was it received?
Interesting, but I thought that this is going to be a book that is not going to attract a lot of people. It all began as a very personal project, but in the meantime it was translated into a lot of languages: into Romanian, French, Hungarian and English. And they will soon publish a new, bound edition of the book in the USA. I am very happy that I have received very good reviews both in England and in the USA. The book was also received in a positive way in the Netherlands too by the majority, even if partly a little bit in a political way. However, it was a bestseller for a long time with over 30,000 copies sold, which is very rare and unusual for a historic book.
How was the book accepted in Romania? After all, the former regime there almost meant the destruction of the Transylvanian nobility.
It was pretty amazing, since I gave a lot of interviews in Romania and even some literary TV shows mentioned the book in a very positive context. Romanian intellectuals were touched by it and they meant it was very important for this history to be told. It’s interesting that it was not dealt with in Hungary at all, although it sold over 3500 copies, which counts as very good in Hungary.
Do you think, that you, as a writer, have a different impression of Budapest than other people?
As a writer, you always live a little bit further from reality, since you are on the side of society, looking at the others. I have my own view on reality and I am using my eyes really intensively, maybe even more intensively than others.
When you are not sitting at your desk writing, what are the things you enjoy doing the most in this city?
I love those buildings here that are not renovated. They are beautiful, since you can project your dreams into them. It’s the same thing that I loved about the city back in 1991/2 too; it offered so many possibilities for dreaming. Budapest was like a raw diamond. When I simply walk around the city I always look into the inner courtyards if the gate is open. These inner courtyards are very sad here, they are the optical evidence of the missing trust. Nobody trusts the other one or joins the other ones in order to restore these inner courtyards into their former glory. Budapest is a very beautiful city for me, especially in the evenings when all the lights are on. Hungarians have a good sense for drama and setting scenes. You can see that when you cross the Chain Bridge in the night. It’s a sight that takes your breath away.
Which are your favourite places?
I really like the Brody Studio, it’s an excellent club and I believe that the operators have done a great job there. I really like the atmosphere, you can project out your dreams there very well. I already liked exposed buildings when I was a child, and the Brody Studio and its whole concept was done very well. It’s an important institution in Budapest, a place where artists meet each other. Many more artists should come to Budapest, since it’s such a liveable and lively city. And also a creative city, where renting a room or an apartment is still very cheap for artists. In Amsterdam all the bars are closed by 2am, which is not the situation in Budapest at all.
Where can we find you when you go out to drink your coffee?
I like to go to Massolit, a small café and book store in District VII. (30 Nagy Diófa utca). That’s by far my favourite place for drinking a coffee and to read. For drinks I go to the Csendes (Csendes Vintage Bar & Café, District V, 5 Ferenczy István utca). I like to drink my wine spritz there, in the summer even outside.
Do you have a favourite restaurant?
When we were still living at Svábhegy, we often went to Déryné Bistro (District I, 3 Krisztina tér). I also like the Gerlóczy (District V, 1 Gerlóczy utca) and when I have been studying at the Central European University, the Café Kör (District V, 17 Sas utca) used to be my favourite. The places I like right now are the Kiosk (District V, 4 Március 15 tér). I am kind of practical when it comes to picking restaurants and I am looking for the ones that are closest. However, ever since we moved to Pest a year ago, we can walk almost everywhere.
Why did you move from Svábhegy to the city centre?
We used to live at the Writer´s Villa, which has been transformed into a hotel now, led by the Brody operators. I especially enjoyed living in the house in the summer, since it had a wonderful terrace. We renovated the house 13 years ago in several phases and worked about four years on restoring it to its original state. We were able to reconstruct it very much in detail as the original, thanks to the work of the architect Bálint Medgyesy. The house was built for receiving guests. It has the traditional three large rooms next to each other: one for drinks, one for dinner and one for smoking. There are seven bedrooms, which means that up to 14 people can spend the night. Furthermore there is a wonderful winter garden with windows made by the glass artist Miksa Roth. He made the windows at the Parliament and the Gresham Palota too. We have lived at this house for 13 years and when our sons moved away it became simply too big. My wife and I travel a lot, so we decided to move out from the villa and find something smaller in the city. Living here in Pest gives me a lot of inspiration. I am currently working on a book about the Osman, and I just found out recently that there has been a huge mosque and a minaret close to my apartment.
You mentioned the Brody Studio, a private club, which is very popular among the international people in Budapest. Are you the member of any other communities? Are your friends mostly international or are there Hungarians among them?
I founded the “Budapest Culture Club” about ten years ago, a club that has a meeting about four times a year, with readings and concerts. This is an international club but there are many Hungarians too, who on the other hand have been internationally influenced. Many of my friends are members of the club, but I also have a circle of Dutch friends whom I meet frequently. Additionally I have a lot of creative friends in the Netherlands, in England and in Hungary too. I also have some Hungarians in the circle of my friends. There are so many different circles of friends actually.
How does it feel for you to be a foreigner in Hungary?
Very well, since the country is very hospitable. For a Dutch man it’s very easy, since I can communicate in English almost everywhere. Furthermore, people are much friendlier to me when I speak in English than if I would speak in a very bad Hungarian. I have tried to learn the language but I only got to the beginner level. Hungary is a wonderful country, of course. Hungarians have this “szomorú” (sad) thing and the special mentality which results in many Hungarians preferring to use the back door. This is a big difference as compared to the Netherlands, where such things as in Hungary, especially in terms of corruption, are not accepted by the public – also when it’s about talking facts and figures. During the centuries when Hungary has been occupied, first by the Habsburgs and then by the Soviets, the Hungarians got to be flexible about the truth. Even if they are doing it in a polite way.
Is that related to the high amount of bureaucracy in the country?
Yes, I think that’s part of the system. An autocratic government wants its citizens to be so busy with their everyday life and problems that they do not have much time to think too much. Life is made very hard for them, and there are so many laws made that it becomes almost impossible to act against them. So you’re like always breaking the law so your position is getting weaker and weaker and opposing the government. So they can hold up the law book all the time and blackmail people with it. It is an integral part of an authoritarian state to make the life of the citizens as hard as possible. In contrast to that, a democratic government is trying, in the best case, when everything is working well, to make the life of the citizens as easy as possible.
Being a foreigner, can you also feel these everyday hardships?
No, not really, but I think that the reason why I cannot feel them is because I am very lucky. In general, I think that life for Hungarians is many times much harder than for us foreigners. I really love to live here. I can only suggest other Dutch and even Germans to live here, many more of them should come to live here. I think in general that Dutch people and Germans make a very good match with Hungarians, and that they are all able to learn from each other. Hungarians are too focused on the problems, for example, while the Dutch focus very much on the solution of the problems. We are a little bit more superficial than the Hungarians but we are solving problems faster. Then there is one strength of the Hungarians that they can talk for a long, a far too long, time about a problem, but when they have finally found a solution, then usually it’s a very good solution, since all the possibilities that could have gone wrong have already been calculated in during working on the solution.
What else have you noticed about Hungarians?
I think that they are very kind-hearted. This is my experience but I am living a really curious life. On one side I was always surrounded by construction workers, since I have built and renovated a lot – on the other side I was surrounded by intellectuals, creative people and aristocrats. This is already a kind of unusual combination of people who have surrounded me. So I can say that I really like the Hungarians. Of course, there is a sad side that is not always easy to handle. And many times they do not have a sense for service. But I have learned not to take that so seriously. As a writer I am living so much in my own world that I am able to separate myself from that.
If you would ever move away, what would you miss the most?
Interesting question. For me, Hungary is very rich in stories, it has such a dramatic history full of events. In order to be able to understand this country as a foreigner, I have read much literature and historic books. I know Hungarian history already better than Dutch history. This richness, this versatility of historic events, I would really miss that. I am trying to understand the different layers of a country, its history and its society. All that from the perspective of a foreigner, since I am a foreigner here. I really love this feeling of being an outsider. Although I have already lived in Hungary for a long time that I would be an outsider in the Netherlands as well. Sometimes, when I am looking out of the airplane’s window at the Dutch landscape, this organised and structured country, I would like to simply turn around. I am in a privileged position of course, since I am selling my books inthe Netherlands. I am living in two worlds at the same time. The thing I like so much about Hungary is that there is still so much space here – as compared to the Netherlands. Even in the cities there is much more space than in Dutch cities, except for Rotterdam.
You mentioned your three sons, who grew up in Hungary. What is their attitude on Hungarian identity?
Well yes, they are one quarter Hungarians but they were raised in the Dutch way. For me it was very important to strengthen their Dutch identity. We decided on that together with my wife before we moved to Hungary. I am convinced that in the world today we have to be very international, but it’s also important to have a feeling of belonging somewhere at the same time. The Dutch pragmatic and freedom-loving spirit is very well suited for that. At the weekends we are always watching the games of the Dutch national football championship, except for the last football world championship when we cheered for Hungary – but only because the Netherlands did not make it into the games. And Hungary played fabulously, so ambitiously and bravely, just the same as Dutch football used to be.