It was never Alex Stemp’s intention to move to Hungary. In 1993, feeling jaded by his life in England and curious about the world beyond the recently opened Iron Curtain, Alex found himself sitting in a bar in Prague. He was also a bit jaded by food in the Czech Republic; his complaints, however, did not fall on deaf ears and he was soon advised by his fellow Britons at the bar: “If you want good food you should go to Hungary!” And so, he did.
“The first thing that struck me in Hungary was the environment – the Danube bend – I was set on fire,” he says. “My first memory is getting off the train at Keleti station and being besieged by taxi drivers, grandmothers offering accommodation, people offering to take me to nightclubs … and yes, the food lived up to all the hype. “
Alex explored Budapest and managed a short visit to Lake Balaton before returning to Prague. For no less than ten years, he traveled back and forth to Hungary from England, and it was following his meeting with his future wife, Eszter, that he made the decision to settle in Budapest in 2003.
Alex was at the time a landscape gardener for the University of Cambridge, looking after their parks and university grounds. “When I got acquainted with the Hungarian gardens, I said to myself: wow! It’s a lifetime of business ”, and that’s how he started to set up a landscaping business and create English gardens.
“Everything was pretty precarious,” he says, “it’s such an underestimated profession. It was very difficult to start – in Hungary everything revolves around the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, which they do extremely well, but after Trianon and Communism, market gardening completely collapsed. Aside from a few expats, setting up the business turned out to be much trickier than Alex had anticipated. “It’s money, it’s an attitude… people had fruit and vegetable gardens for survival purposes, not for cosmetic purposes. I had a few good jobs here and there, but a lot was still uncertain. “
In the meantime, Alex and Eszter had married, had had the first of their children, and her gardening business was stabilizing. “But then I had my accident,” he says. “A brick landed on my foot and I had to put metal pins in it. I was not physically sure if I could continue gardening. I felt that I had to completely change my profession. It was a difficult and unpredictable time.
It was ultimately thanks to Alex’s pleasure in cycling that he would find his way to a new career. “I cycled a lot – I went to all the neighboring countries – Romania, Slovakia, Croatia… everywhere except Ukraine. But I had this wish to go to Vereckei Hágó (Vereckei Pass), the place where Árpád and his Hungarian conquerors entered the Carpathian basin. Very few Hungarians actually went, and once the visa restrictions were lifted, I left. I was actually standing at the top of the pass where Árpád had stood a thousand years ago – it was really exciting!
Alex continued to return to Ukraine, not only to Vereckei Hágó but to the surrounding areas, about which he then wrote a mini travel guide. He brought it to the Ukrainian Embassy and Congress Center in Budapest, which then invited him to give presentations on the region at the University of Uzhgorod (Ungvár).
Little by little, Alex soon found himself invited to write for online sites about this part of Ukraine, to appear in television programs and to take part in tourist mini-films, including one about bears. saved. The filming involved a trip to Lviv, Kharkiv and Mukachevo (Munkács), Lake Synevyr, Rakhiv and Mount Hoverla. Other shoots may be planned for next year.
But Alex’s real breakup came in 2015 with the arrival of large numbers of refugees at Keleti station. Armed with bags of children’s clothing and toys, he made his way through the international press to research his own story which he later submitted to the Budapest Times. “It was my first story,” he explains, “and I’ve been there ever since. “
Many articles have involved long bike rides. “I had a few unexpected experiences on my bike trips,” says Alex. “I was in the Pécs region on a very hot summer Sunday morning – there was no traffic, no noise and I was cycling through sleepy villages. It was so hot that there was a mirage in the road, but not a soul anywhere.
“But in the distance, I could hear the sound of a roaring engine – a bright red Trabant, hooting aggressively, chasing me, it seemed. I decided it would be safer to pull over and pulled over to a bus stop as the boos got closer and closer. I wondered what was going to happen when, with a screech of brakes and a cloud of dust, he stopped next to me and rolled down his window. “Dinny? He cried, pushing a watermelon towards me. “Dinny? “
“Obviously, he was desperate enough that a customer would chase me out of the last village!” I paid the probably inflated price and then sat at the bus stop chewing on my melon – alone again except for a few nearby storks.
“My experiences with feral dogs are a bit more alarming,” continues Alex. “Countless times I have been forced to speed down rough roads, chased by packs of stray dogs, sometimes able to distract them by throwing my sandwiches at them.
“Once I was in Szeged and late for the last train back to Budapest. I was crossing fields trying to get to a station when I saw the slow Szeged-Budapest train coming along the tracks. I charged towards her, waving frantically in hopes the driver could stop – and surprisingly, he did! He actually stopped and let me get on the train. I don’t know what the other passengers must have thought. Granted, that probably wouldn’t happen today.
Alex reflects on those aspects of life in Hungary that he particularly appreciates: “The pace of life in England is so fast, so hectic,” he begins, “It’s raining a little too much there, not to mention headwinds when you are cycling. I love the countryside here, the atmosphere of the cities – they are not that commercial; that appeals to me. And children are allowed to be more like children. They don’t have the same consumer pressures as in the UK. Family values are more important here too, traditions which I think are slowly being abandoned in Western Europe. “
As for the challenges of life here, like many foreigners, he says without hesitation: “The language. I don’t have much fun with it. And being from York, I struggle with the heat in the summer. But the Hungarians have been nice to me – it might take a while, but when you walk in with them, once you get accepted you have lifelong friends.