At first sight Hungary will look similar to most Central European countries. But the more time you spend here, you will realize that Hungary is a completely different world compared to... pretty much anything else.
1. Everyone smokes.
Statistically, 30% of Hungarians smoke. I myself did for some months, mostly not to stand out of the crowd and to socialize, but after seeing its effect on my health I quickly quit smoking. I’ll never forget the day when after several months of hiatus I returned to Hungary, and while I sat in the car waiting for my wife while she shopped, one person after another passed by, a plume of smoke floating in their wake. Twice someone appeared without a cigarette in their hand, but promptly lit up.
2. Food is the king.
Hungarians are serious eaters. If you grew up with Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and microwaved junk food, this will be a real shock for you. In Hungary, food is religion. The question is always “Mi lesz az ebéd?” (What’s for lunch?). And lunch is not simply a few crummy sandwiches.
Sunday family lunch here is sacred, and is nearly always a three-course affair: You’ll likely have a soup, perhaps húsleves (clear broth with chicken, turkey and/or pork with vegetables), or maybe gyümölcsleves (chilled fruit soup with cream, cloves and cinnamon). Then a main course like pörkölt (meat stewed in onions, garlic and paprika), usually accompanied by savanyúság (pickles or sauerkraut) and served over nokedli (little egg dumplings).
If your host is the real deal you’ll finish with dessert. Common confections include rétes (strudel), bukta (jam filled buns), diós rácsos (a sort of walnut coffee-cake), and dobos torta (a sponge cake with chocolate buttercream topped with caramel).
What is most interesting, just some years ago restaurants in Hungary were quite... let's say, mediocre. Today Hungarians are talking about a gastronomical revolution, since in the last decade gastronomy blogs skyrocketed, and a Hungarian restaurant received the first Michelin star of the country just a couple of years ago, followed by several more stars shortly afterwards. Looks like what was a cultural tradition finally found its way into high end restaurants.
3. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way.
It will took you a while to get used to the fact that drivers in Hungary are not going to stop for you. Be aware or you will be run over. Drivers turning left as you’re crossing (with the walk signal) will sometimes come within inches of hitting you. Many Hungarians drive fast and aggressively, and in turn have little patience with you. Look both ways before crossing and repeat, repeat, repeat. The situation is slowly improving, or at least now I am not totally surprised if someone gives me the right of way when I approach the pedestrian crossing, but since I have only one life I always look around carefully.
4. Pálinka will find you and try to kill you.
This fruit brandy is ubiquitous throughout Hungary — a party isn’t a party without a couple bottles of pálinka. You will be offered shots relentlessly and refusing the first is more or less an insult. Hungarian nagymamák (grandmas) swear by its powers: Have a headache? Pálinka. Menstrual pains? Pálinka. Feeling nervous? Pálinka.
Pálinka is traditionally a home-brewed brandy, even if in the past it was illegal to distill pálinka at home, even for your own consumption. They say that the current ruling party won the elections by promising the legalization of pálinka distillation - and since that it is fighting against the European Union to keep it legal, communicating this effort to the public as the Hungarian fight for freedom - crazy, isn't it?
5. Dubbed movies are the law of the land.
Flipping through TV channels you’ll find almost every foreign show or movie is dubbed. Hungarians don’t do subtitles. This also goes back to the language; translations won’t cut it. With all the nuances and peculiar expressions in Hungarian, it simply makes sense to dub.
Hungarian dubbing has a long history and its performers are national stars in their own right.
Perhaps the most celebrated product of this is the Hungarian Flintstones. Hungarian writer and poet József Romhányi famously translated the English dialogue into a constant rhyming prose. Each episode is full of clever puns. Forget Fred and Barney — in Hungary it’s Frédi és Béni. They say they were considering translating back the Flinstones from Hungarian into English, which did not happen only because they realized that there is impossible to convey that message into English.
There are many movies which gained moderate success anywhere else, but became extremely popular in the country thanks to the superior Hungarian dubbing, like the Torrente movies, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, or any Bud Spencer & Terence Hill movies.
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