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Budapest, Day 4: Sources of Confusion … Language and Money

September 14th, 2017 · No Comments · Budapest, Prague, tourism, Travel

We liked Budapest. Quite a bit. We wish we were staying longer.

But a couple of basic issues pertaining to Hungary and its capital city threatened to trip us up every time we left the apartment.

Talking about money … and talking about talk.Hungary is part of the European Union, but it does not use the euro as its currency, unlike the whole of western Europe, aside from Britain and Norway.

Hungary’s unit of currency is? (Take a few seconds to come up with the answer …)

Give up? It’s the forint! Of course it is.

The forint is based on the Hungarian word for the city of Florence, which was minting gold coins, centuries back, when Hungary was thinking about monetary issues.

Five hundred years later, Hungarians are spending forints.

Which is a smallish problem, if all it entailed was buying some forints with your euros or dollars. But the forint, like the former Italian lira of a generation ago, has a high rate of exchange, compared to the dollar.

One dollar is worth 258 forints. So, buying even something small and insignificant, on the streets of Budapest, called for a lot of mental arithmetic. Item X is 10,000 forints. Is that a good deal? You do the math. And hurry up — the merchant/waiter is getting annoyed.

To be sure, most of eastern Europe has not embraced the euro. We were spending korunas in the Czech Republic, and they go 21 per U.S. dollar. Again, more math at the cash register.

(Poland also does not use the euro, preferring to stick with zlotys.)

In simplest terms, these countries are not yet ready to turn over control of the cash flow to the Euro zone. They are happy to be part of the European Union and Nato, but the euro … just a little bit of creep factor there. (Britain can relate, having kept the pound sterling throughout its soon-to-end stay in the EU.)

We could sometimes do a work-around, in Budapest, with a credit card, but the smaller establishments often do not take credit cards and demand cash which, in Hungary, made for purchases that killed a 10,000-forint bill, no problem.

Another hurdle for the tourist to overcome is communication. If the Czech Republic is difficult because the natives speak a Slavic language, the Hungarian language is even tougher because it pretty much has no related languages — not in the past thousand years anyway, when it moved away from Finnish, which is the other Finno-Ugric language in Europe.

Thankfully, Hungarians recognize their language is quite distinct, and hardly anyone gets annoyed when visitors just walk up, say “hello” and start yapping at them in English. The man who rented us our apartment said he had no problem with that. “Everyone should know two languages, and one should be English,” he said. I said, “and maybe one more?” And he said, “No, because a third language will just confuse you.”

(Understanding Czech also is a huge problem, for westerners. Being there, and then in Hungary, leaves tourists embarrassed/guilty — or should — that they cannot summon up even the polite terms, like “please” and “thank you”.)

We could have written down those niceties on “cheat sheets” and stuffed the paper in our pockets, for easy access, but much of the time the cheat sheets we consulted pertained to currency, given that forints felt a bit and looked a little like “Monopoly money” and the chance of a major financial error was real.

Living or touring in France, Spain, Italy, Germany … westerners can figure out a fair bit of language fairly quickly, and all of those countries are using euros, which are within 80 to 120 percent of the U.S. dollar at nearly all times, on a 1-to-1 basis.

Going further east, into Slavic/Magyar lands … things get trickier. You spend mental energy trying to make sure you are about to spend the equivalent of $20 … and not $200.

The issues of money and language never made us feel like “we won’t come back because of this”, but it is something to think about, for sure.

So, tomorrow, we will sell the rest of our forints in exchange for euros as we head for Austria. We will get about 150 euros in return. Or maybe it is 15.



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