I have spent almost all my adult life as a foreigner. When I graduated from Oxford I faced a stark choice: work for a living or leave the country. As I did not wish ever to have to get up in the morning, toil in an office or travel on public transport, the path was clear. I moved to Budapest with the intention of opening a bar.
I feature in three novels as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but inept seducer
It was the summer of 1993 and the newly free nations of Central Europe had become an irresistible magnet for self-styled bohemians from across the western world. Budapest was cheap. It was fun. My Hungarian friends were furiously hedonistic, manic-depressive, wildly ambitious and creative. My American buddies were aimless, highly educated young slackers like myself. They fancied themselves the heirs of the Hemingway generation who settled in 1920s Paris. Many aspired to write the Great American Novel. Indeed several published their efforts, though these novels ended up being not-so-great. I feature as a character in three of them, painted in unflattering terms as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but tragicomically inept seducer.
Post-imperial collapse was Budapest’s style. We members of Generation Expat spent hours nursing cheap cappuccinos in some of the grandest cafés of the Habsburg Empire — the Muvesz, the New York, Gerbeaud — all plaster putty, dark panelling and the ghosts of Joseph Roth’s elegant and doomed world. We ate budget steak tartare in 1950s Soviet restaurants and pogoed with culturally confused Hungarian punks at a Public Enemy concert at a crumbling House of Culture.
The old world had been broken, the new one not yet built. In the interim, we were content to play in the ruins. Rules of any kind had been abandoned as an atavistic Soviet relic. Nobody I knew paid taxes, or even their phone or electricity bills. Enterprise was easy. My chum Tibor had somehow acquired a stack of blank Magyar Railways tickets, complete with covers, stamps and carbon paper, and for $20 would make you out a ticket to anywhere you wanted. A couple of art student friends from the Budapest Academy made it as far as Beijing for their honeymoon. I went back and forth to London (change at Paris, boat-train from Calais) at least eight times.
A few of my foreigner friends actually had day jobs, pedaling fast-moving consumer goods to the deodorant-deprived locals or providing management-consulting services to the new class of Hungarian entrepreneurs. But the role of these tragic wage slaves was to pick up the bar bills and make their palatial apartments available to their bohemian mates, the spiritual kings of the hill.
For some young Hungarians, the galaxy of opportunity suddenly offered by the collapse of communism was paralyzing. For others, it sowed a limitless and occasionally maniacal optimism. Gabor, a former astrophysicist, founded a model agency because he owned a fancy Hasselblad camera and wanted to meet pretty girls. Then he started an advertising agency, which he sold to Ogilvy for $1 million. Nope, he had no real idea how all this had happened either. But he was touchingly willing to divide the spoils among a large crowd of foreign hangers-on.
Perhaps the most striking difference between today’s world and that of newly post-Soviet Europe was that back then, the young ruled. Now, Europe is a gerontocracy where every public policy is made for the old. But to my teeny-one-year-old self, freshly arrived in Budapest, the middle-aged were very clearly the losers of history, the elderly its victims. These tragic oldsters had emerged, blinking, confused and badly dressed, from the wreckage of the world they had expected to inherit to find themselves rudely dispossessed. Every belief they had ever held, every compromise they had ever made, had been tossed onto the scrapheap of history. Even the senior generations of Hungary’s dissidents, picking their way through piles of books in cat-reeking apartments in ugly suburban buildings, seemed irrelevant and lost in the new world they had spent their lives dreaming of.
In the spirit of the age, the up-and-coming political party was Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democrats, then a center-left and liberal activist movement. I had lunch with its leader, a lean and plucky young fellow named Viktor Orbán in a comically bad and cheap restaurant near parliament. The lesson Orbán took from those days, I am sure, is that, unlike his parents’ generation, he would never lose control of the future. And for Orbán the way to avoid becoming the flotsam of history has been to become a faithful mirror to voters’ worst instincts and basest fears.
I did not end up opening a bar. Instead I became a freelance journalist, eventually ending up in besieged Sarajevo, the first of my nine wars. But I did become a lifelong foreigner. The high-low freedom of the outsider, the constant newness of the world (charming or irritating as it may be), the daily feeling of living in a story or fable or perhaps a farce, is constantly exhilarating. And this has been the life of my choice: a foreigner, forever.