Goodbye Hungary – Traditional Cultures are Disappearing Fast

Hungarian Goulash on an Open Fire

Hungarian Goulash on an Open Fire

Motoko and I have made it to Hungary. Hungary is my father’s home country and I still have a lot of family here. I first visited when I was 5 years old and have returned many times. It really is astonishing how rapidly the country has developed in my lifetime.

Hungary in the Good Old Days

Some thirty plus years ago, Hungary was still in control of the communist U.S.S.R. This meant severe restrictions on everything we take for granted. It was impossible to travel to western countries because passports were only valid for communist block countries.

My father escaped in the 1956 revolution. Even though his escape wasn’t politically motivated, deserters were still viewed as traitors for a long time. It was 18 years before he was able to return to visit his family.

In order to buy a car, you had to pay a sizeable downpayment and apply for a number which indicated your order in the queue. The list of numbers was published in the Sunday newspaper so that everyone could track how long it would take to get a car. My uncle had to wait for six years in order to get his first vehicle. Needless to say, the Sunday newspaper was met with great anticipation. The only available cars were Soviet Ladas and East German Trabants. Until recently, you could see these old vehicles commonly broke down on the side of roads.

There was one small store in my father’s village. Everyday at around 3:00 P.M., the bread truck would arrive from the closest city. There were two choices; brown or white bread. Families would often send a child to wait at the store until the bread truck arrived. Not getting there early enough meant waiting another day for bread.

The only soda pops were Coke and Fanta Orange. When I was a child, the deposit on the bottle was equal to the price of the drink, 3 forints or about 5 cents. It was about 1/12th the Canadian price at the time.

In order to take a hot bath, they had to put hot coals under a water tank to heat it up. It took so much time and work that our entire family used the same bath water.

Most houses had pigs and chickens in the backyard. I still remember the frequent squeal of pigs as they were slaughtered in the mornings at various houses around the village.

Twice daily, cows were walked on the main road through the town to and from their grazing grounds. I loved watching 20 or 30 cows slowly walk through town everyday.

It is Not My Father’s Hungary Anymore.

The last decade in particular has brought huge changes to Hungary. There are the gigantic western supermarkets like Tesco, Auchan and Cora. If you were transported to one of the numerous modern shopping malls, you would probably have difficulty telling which country you were in. Now the coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa are popping up everywhere.

You can really see the affluence everywhere. Five years ago, expensive western cars started really becoming common. Now you won’t have much difficulty spotting a BMW, Volvo or even Porche.

The last three years have seen a massive explosion in high end sporting equipment. It seems like everyone has expensive bicycles and high end sports clothes.

The number of bus and boat tours for out of country visitors also have sky-rocketed. Backpackers can often be seen on every street in downtown Budapest now.

What does Rapid Westernization Really Bring?

I think there are two important lessons to learn from all of this ‘advancement.’ First, we really should appreciate just how comfortable and good life has become. Perhaps you have never seen empty store shelves or had to endure much hardship in your life, but your grandparents or great-grandparents certainly did. I don’t think we really understand how good our lives are now. We live in amazing times.

The second is sad and troubling; authentic traditional cultures around the world are disappearing. The influx of western ideas and goods are crowding out local cultures. Across Europe the most common foods are pizza, hamburgers, french fries and donairs. Over-sized shopping malls all over the world sell the same brands as your own country. Tourists are more likely to visit McDonald’s  than try traditional local food.

It is great that the world is advancing at an increasing pace, but I don’t feel that the ‘advancement’ is always a positive step forward. We are becoming more globalized and interconnected but that also means homogenized and commercial. It is amazing that we can fly across the world for only a week or two of salary, but do we really want to arrive only to eat a Big Mac and buy tourist kitsch? The time to travel is now, because in a decade or so foreign countries won’t be much different than your home town.

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

10 Responses to Goodbye Hungary – Traditional Cultures are Disappearing Fast

  1. Alan says:

    The homogenization of our world is a serious issue.

    I’m worried this will happen to Cuba if the American travel ban is lifted.

  2. Earl says:

    This is perhaps one of the very reasons why I return to India so often. It is a country where I can still spend days, or even weeks, without encountering much of this modernization. Although it is changing there as well of course.

    As people continue to want life to be easier, it seems that they we will gladly accept the individual benefits of modernization without being too concerned about the overall costs involved, which include those cultures that we will eventually miss greatly in the future.

    Perhaps this rise in homogenization will soon flatten out as countries begin to realize the serious reality of the loss involved.

  3. Anil says:

    I had the same thoughts after returning to Turkey a few weeks ago. It had been 3 years since I was home in Ankara and noticed that all of the (once common) corner markets are all closed down. They’ve lost out to the big supermarkets and the entire country is rapidly changing. It made me think if I was longing for old, or maybe just my own past. I do think that cultures modernize in their own ways, but that most are headed toward a common direction. Whether that’s good, bad, or simply inevitable I’m not sure.
    .-= Anil´s last blog ..Add Dollar Signs To Foreign Prices To Trick Your Mind Into Spending Less When Traveling =-.

  4. Audrey says:

    The other day, we were at a farmer’s market in Prague. This is actually a new thing for Prague as it doesn’t have the same market culture as Budapest. Anyway, a Czech woman explained that there used to be markets up to the early 1990s but then people thought it was “modern and western” to shop in supermarkets so the fresh markets closed down. I was really happy to see how the fresh markets had come back and were successful. Unfortunately, I think this example is kind of an anomaly. The more common story is of small, family-run shops getting replaced by big super stores.

    The more we travel, the more we see that big cities especially start to take on a similar look and feel from country to country. People get used to eating hamburgers, pizza and other fast foods instead of seeking out what’s unique to their own country’s cuisine.
    .-= Audrey´s last blog ..7 Tips for Learning Foreign Languages on the Road =-.

  5. John says:

    @Alan

    Homogenization is very scary. It seems travellers don’t really want authentic, they want familiar. That means western food, western brands and western comforts. It really is shocking how quickly this westernization is taking place.

    @Earl
    We have yet to go to India. Hopefully, we will make it before it gets too developed. I am afraid that travel is going to become more like a packaged performance, rather than a traditional experience. There will be theme park like tours where traditions are faked for the right amount of money.

    @Anil
    There are positive aspects to the modernization, such as better access to health care, ubiquitous internet access, higher quality consumer goods, etc. However, travel starts to lose its purpose if everywhere looks the same.

    @Audrey
    I agree, cities are definitely starting to feel the same all over the world. The worst part is that smaller villages are dying because younger people are moving to the bigger cities.

  6. Jim says:

    “Progress” vs. “authentic traditional cultures.” People want both, especially the former; hence they lose the latter.

  7. Timothy says:

    When I look at my history book, and see how beautiful is my country’s culture were, I feel very sad for what I got nowadays. Cultural different in clothing, architecture, and food were once very clear, but now, everything has change, China don’t have new traditional buildings anymore, Every Traditional Skills And Technology Are Gone, Every On Every Country Wears The Same, Eats The Same, People even starts to hate their own culture simply because they think it is “OLD”. And people even started to hate their own country because they think their country is not civilize. However, no one wants to try to change the country and to understand their own culture, what a shame ;(

    • gregory miller says:

      I return to europe once, sometimes twice a year. Usually on foot, by bicycle or train, I stay on the back roads around everyday folks as myself. Why would I travel a great distance to be around my own culture of american products and culture? I lived in Europe as an american serviceman in the 1970’s and loved it. Here at home everyone is the same…whether hispanic, vietnamese, hatian or african american. we all live in the same neighborhoods and work same jobs, etc. That part is great but ethnic differences have disappeared-thats the otherside of so called globalization-all in life is dull and gray with no spice, no difference.

      • John says:

        Thanks for the comment Gregory.

        It’s scary how homogenized the world is becoming. In Chiang Mai, Thailand. About 8 new western style shopping malls have opened in the last 5 years. They look the same as any shopping mall anywhere in the world, including the massive concrete footprint and traffic congestion.

        I really don’t understand why people travel half way around the world to go to Starbucks and McDonald’s.

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