I’ll be completely honest: When it comes to hypothetical homes for African Americans who are considering a post-Trump “blaxodus,” Eastern Europe was way off my radar. Like many former Soviet-bloc states, Hungary is a place that grapples with unemployment and poverty while its leaders hoard taxpayer funds to line their own pockets.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the man Donald Trump would have been if Trump had ever been a revolutionary figure before he became a walking, tweeting Cheeto, has evolved into one of the most nepotistic figures of modern-day Europe. He openly opposes refugees and silences (ahem) journalists and recently made brazen efforts to pass legislsation to close Central European University, one of the most progressive institutions on the continent.
But I’m ready to admit something else: Budapest surprised me. Centuries of expanding and contracting border lines, nomadic ethnic groups like the Roma and 150 years of Turkish occupation have turned Budapest into a unique archetype relative to the rest of the region. This is reflected in the architecture, the music and, unlike Germany—a country where emulsified pork fat spread on toast is considered a delicacy—the food, which is slap-somebody good.
In case my bougie card is showing, allow me to pull my blackness back to center for a moment: Budapest is also cheap. A one-bedroom apartment in the city’s center—between buses, subways and assorted high-end, affordable restaurants, and in a renovated building that’s two centuries old—will cost you approximately US$320 per month. It’s safe. It’s aesthetically stunning. It’s a living, breathing nucleus of youth, culture and vibrancy all deep-fried into a plate of lángos.
But be warned—while the food is exquisite, those of us who are lactose intolerant (which, if you’re black, should technically include you) need to strap on a seat belt in the toilet between plates. Between the dollops of cream, spicy paprika and bottomless shots of pálinka, Hungarian food, much like the incomprehensible language, will bring you to your knees.
And be prepared to be gawked at while you’re enjoying it. In fact, while perusing the world-famous Budapest food market, a place crawling with tourists, I encountered two notable figures: a fellow black traveler who commented on how uncomfortable she felt walking down the street because of how people stared at her; and an old man who called me Angela Davis while flashing a thumbs-up.
While lack of exposure has generated curiosity and, yes, ignorance, unlike life in Berlin, which is punctuated by routine run-ins with Nazis on public transport, none of it was hostile. Rather, people went out of their way to be friendly, but there’s a big difference between being a black tourist for two weeks and living in Budapest while black.
Though small, the black community there is also a diverse mix of people from different countries, cultures and ethnic backgrounds—from West Africa to Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil and beyond.
For George Abasiute Jr., it’s home. The 21-year-old son of a Nigerian father and a Hungarian mother moved to Budapest one year ago from his hometown of Szolnok to study business at Budapest Business School, or BGE.
“The city is beautiful and the people are friendly,” he says. “There are a lot of young people; it’s safe and it’s fun.”
Szolnok is a town approximately 100 kilometers outside of Budapest, with a population of around 73,000 people. Budapest has a population of 1.77 million, and the biggest ethnic-minority group by far is still the Roma, at around 1.17 percent of the total population. After Germans, Slovaks, Croats and Romanians, black people fall into the tiny sliver of people classified as “other.”
Abasiute is a member of an online community for black people living in Hungary, and he says that one of the biggest grievances he hears from black people coming from abroad is constantly having to dodge locals trying to cheat or lie to them.
“It can be dangerous, but [compared to life for] African Americans, I don’t think it’s that dangerous,” he says.
Because Abasiute was born and raised in Hungary, he has the advantage of being able to speak the language, no small feat. The words are long, difficult to pronounce and riddled with consonants that no self-respecting English word would put side by side (I’m looking at “sz” combinations, y’all—why??)
He says that speaking Hungarian gives him the power to challenge people, who mistake him for a foreigner, throwing racist epithets at him in Hungarian, while smiling to his face and being polite in English.
“They use vulgar words like ‘monkey,’ but then I ask them in Hungarian why they do that and they apologize and [walk away] … man, it happens all the time.”
But that doesn’t daunt Abasiute at all; he says that he enjoys calling people out. “I want to know the people … I want to see their real side.”
Abasiute’s insight as a black Hungarian man is an interesting contrast to life for Abigail*, who moved to Budapest nearly 10 years ago from Senegal to be with her now husband.
“It’s good because I want my daughter to have access to Europe … to be exposed [to] broader opportunities, but God, I miss my people,” she tells me in a Facebook video chat. “People stare at me and my family, and I’ve gotten used to it, but I wish I didn’t have to be.”
Though Abigail, a former nurse and current stay-at-home mom, agrees that Budapest is a beautiful place and the people are generally quite friendly, she notes that Hungarian people are frustrated, paranoid and cynical, making it difficult for her to experience joy at times.
“Some people are still living behind the [Iron] Curtain. Sometimes I worry about my daughter growing up here with that attitude, because I want her to see life for what is possible … not for what isn’t,” she says. In that regard, she and Abasiute agree that America still holds some promise, despite its recent political shenanigans.
Abasiute is considering a move to the U.S. to start a business, and Abigail hopes that her daughter will consider an American university education before ultimately moving back to Senegal, saying, “I want her to know both worlds—where her race is seen as an ‘interesting’ point, and where her race isn’t interesting at all.” It’s a comment that makes her laugh to herself in a lighthearted way.
“I know it sounds strange, but I miss not being so interesting to everyone I meet because of the color of my skin,” she adds.
Having been the subject of racist remarks in recent months, as xenophobia sweeps Europe with frightening speed, Abigail says that she’s now more aware of her blackness than ever before, and she agrees with Abasiute. If people want to move to Budapest, come—it’s a great city—but do the legwork. Learn the language. Knowing the language has equipped her with the tools to manage people’s comments, and it’s made a huge difference to her psychological adjustment.
“I’ve been here for 10 years,” she says. “I know the slang, and I read the papers. People better watch their backs if they talk about me.”
“Including Viktor Orbán?” I ask her jokingly.
“Especially that idiot,” she says.
* Name has been changed at subject’s request.