10 THINGS* I LOVE ABOUT LIVING ABROAD...
and what I’ve found funny, charming, and hard–so far
I’m back after a week starting school, sick kids (mostly better now!), and deadlines, and hoping to find you on the other side of a successful la rentrée, a rather useful French term I just learned (here) for the first weeks in September, when returning to work and school. I hope all of you were able to say goodbye to summer with a peaceful heart, and a handful of life-shaping memories.
We are six weeks into our long stay in Hungary–and even though I’ve been coming to this country every summer for the last 15 years, there are things I’m noticing about living here for real (ie, living, schooling, and working here) that I’ve never picked up on before. Importantly, I’ve always had Andras here with me on most of our stays (which usually lasted from two weeks to a month). Now that he’s back in the U.S. working, I’m truly on my own, learning the ropes in a whole new way.
To be honest, it’s thrilling.
Staying in another country for a long period of time is always a welcome reflection on your normal life–and even if you’ve done it before (I’ve lived in Dublin, Paris, and St. Tropez—all before kids) there are always adjustments and novelties.
Many of you have written to ask about the things you don’t see on Instagram–the practical, the charming, the curious—so I’m taking a short detour from recipes and storytelling to share some of them with you, here below.
But before I do, I want to say an enormous thank you to all of you who have converted to paying subscribers in the last two weeks. It is a vote of confidence and care—one that means a great deal to me. I’m here at my desk, inspired—in honor of you.
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12 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT LIVING ABROAD:
Your children change in charming ways: Children will change and evolve anyway, but how they change in new environments is especially endearing. Matyas has taken to calling me Mother–instead of Anya (Hungarian for mother) or Mommy or Mama (as he calls me back home), has become an extreme animal lover and is constantly firing off questions like “who invented bread?” which lends to fabulous anthropological discussions. And while he is taking to the Hungarian language more slowly than his sister (he always has), he’s developed a quick ear for German–the second language in our village, and his school.
Greta is teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL)—on top of mastering Hungarian more quickly than all of us. She’s also become more confident in her Jr. High school setting than she was in the US, which is fascinating (especially considering she went in knowing no one, and only speaking the basics).
Food, even simple food, just tastes better. Here we can live on peaches and melon, bread and cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, and our favorite creamy, raspberry yogurt (Jogobella!). Of course, there’s so much more on offer, but even the simplest meals feel nourishing and healthful.
Also–food feels like a better value here. In Hungary, food is less gimmicky, less packaged, and less confusing. Most food is also less expensive here than where we live in the US (this isn’t the case everywhere abroad, of course). We can eat out as a family—I’m talking from scratch-cooked meals, with two courses per person—for $40. The same meal that would cost us $100 or more, in New York. And even if I fill my cart to the brim with quality groceries, I still leave with a 30% lower food bill than I generally have at home, week by week.
Everyday outings become an adventure. Even going to the store to get milk can be exciting, when you’re driving a different car, in a different country, in a different language, with a different currency. I love walking the grocery aisle slowly, discovering new (or new-to-me) products, and seeing what’s in other people’s carts. Yesterday I came home with an entirely new pantry which I can’t wait to tell you about, soon.
There’s zero food guilt: The idea of feeling guilty for eating anything rich, sweet, or delicious has absolutely no place in Hungarian culture, and really most European culture. You are meant to fill up and enjoy yourself—it’s a sign of vitality. I love how Emiko Davies writes about this, here–something really important to me because a healthy connection between food and emotions is vital for total human health and a huge part of my personal well-being, and my family’s.
You can get a proper espresso, and much more, almost anywhere: Even basic gas stations have proper espresso machines and a barista making made-to-order cappuccino in a ceramic cup, served on a silver tray no less! I don’t even drink coffee in the US, but I do here, simply because it is always made well and with an air of reverence. Not only that, but most gas stations and rest stops serve grilled Magyar sausages, fresh baguette, homemade soups, and decent pastry, so we almost never need to pack snacks for outings, here.
The children have way more independence, safely. There is at least an hour in every day where I don’t know exactly where my kids are—in a way that’s good for them and me both. My seven-year-old can walk himself to and from school alone, and I regularly send him down to the village market for milk or bread (a practice we started when he was five, and we’ve repeated on travels to Rome, Croatia, Portugal, etc, whenever it feels safe).
Both kids regularly take a backpack full of snacks, and water—plus walkie-talkies—and head behind our house for a hike, to jump on hay bales, or stop at the village playground to play, without me. I’m curious to see how this will translate when we go back home (if my risk tolerance will be strengthened, permanently—or my son’s willingness to hold my hand on busier streets forever be gone), but for now, this feels like a safe learning ground for fostering more independence.
Laundry is…romantic: there’s something fairy tale about hanging clothing on a line in the sunshine against a 300-year-old stone barn. The sound, the light, the breeze. There might be another mundane yet beautiful daily detail you’d adore if you lived abroad in another country (though, I think Instagram can attest that line drying clothing in Italy, Greece or Croatia is equally endearing). This, I will miss.
Everything feels more simple: Our house here is simpler and more streamlined than our home in the U.S., in many ways. For starters, it’s less precious (stone walls, tile floors—rather than plaster and wood), so many of my hard-and-fast rules from home don’t apply here, much to my children’s delight. Also we only brought what we could pack in one large suitcase, each. This means we only have a few pieces of clothing for any given weather, a few shoe options, and a handful of toys (all of which fit into one basket in the kids' rooms!). And, though we have family and Andras’ many lifelong friends here–the kids and I don’t have many of our own friends, yet–which yields a simplicity to our social lives that I’m enjoying, at least for now. Who are we and what do we spend our time doing when we aren’t influenced by the choices, requests, or demands of others? We’re finding out.
Children are welcome here—everywhere: There’s a children’s play area nearly everywhere we go–making it easier to get things done with kids in tow (which is, almost always). The post office, the town hall, and even a faucet or tile store have a small table and chairs with a handful of toys. Many grocery stores have giant play places (think: obstacle courses, ball pits, hoverboards) and will happily watch your children for a small fee while you shop. There’s not a system of babysitters or nannies, here; kids are either at school, with their parents, or with grandparents—so the whole country expects you to have your children with you often, and not only tolerates but welcomes them.
There’s almost zero school drama: Overall, I find there’s a zero-drama vibe around every aspect of school. Examples: When my son was sick, I kept him home, without calling the school or sending a note. When we returned the next morning, no one batted an eye. “He was sick yesterday,” I offered the teacher (in Hungarian), out of instinct. “Igen (yes),” his teacher nodded and smiled. She gestured to blow her nose–as if to say, I could see that he had a cold. And also: you’re his mother, we trust you.
I could walk my son right into his classroom every morning if I wish or kiss him goodbye instead at our door. I can engage in his life and learning, readily find my daughter in the hallway of her larger school if she forgot her morning snack, and visit the office any time without buzzing or signing in. I realize to many a teacher reading here this would seem chaotic, but it actually feels like the most peaceful environment I’ve ever seen. It goes without saying, this is because there is very little threat of school violence. School here feels like a safe, nurturing place where parents and teachers are partners in raising healthy little people. Truly a gift.
Chocolate is a way of life*: Even though chocolate is not made in Hungary (nor is cacao grown anywhere near here) high-quality chocolate is commonplace and affordable here. Basic grocery-store cocoa is Dutched, and delicious. Kakoa or hot cocoa is a way of life here (my husband drank it every morning of his childhood, even in summer). You’ll find cocoa powder rolled into palacsinta (Hungarian crepes), Csiga (snail-shaped yeasted bread), and beigli (stuffed, sweet holiday bread)—all of which is eaten regularly and with gusto—and there are plenty of chocolate bars with every possible filling—from crunchy puffed rice to hazelnuts to forest fruits and almonds—in nearly every store.
Ok, this is a cheat—eleven things!
I could go on and on. It’s fair to acknowledge we’re still in the honeymoon phase—everything is still relatively new and romantic, but perhaps we’ll do a Vol. 2 when we’ve been here a bit longer.
Of course, there are hard and quirky things—all of which are turning me into an infinitely more patient person. Here are a few:
A lot of my time is spent problem-solving things that my children could do independently if we were back home–gathering envelopes and the right combination of stamps to help a letter get to my daughter’s dear friend, for example, or explaining our urgent needs to others, and being confident we’ve been understood. This challenges me more on some days than others, but mostly our distress tolerance is all on the rise, for the better.
Sometimes, a simple errand can be a two-hour affair. We live far from any major cities, and in our village, only Hungarian and often German are spoken. When I can’t think of a Hungarian word, and I’m out of range of Google Translate (like at the tiny post office, the village over), it can take a half hour to explain that I just need to buy a stack of envelopes–not just one or two–or that I’m happy to over-pay for stamps to the USA just in case, because no, I didn’t weigh the letter and I don’t have it with me so maybe a few extra stamps will do the trick.
Hungary still has many small, single-subject stores: a store that sells only picture frames and albums, another for shoes, a tiny flower shop, and another for just lamps and light bulbs. Inside these stores are single-subject experts who tend to take their work quite seriously. To wit: the owner at the lamp store who, rather than allow you to pick out your own lightbulbs, will encourage you to test three different light bulbs to examine the warmth of each before he sells you one. It’s either charming or painful, depending on how much time you have (picture the sloth scene in Zootopia; I’ve now lived it).
OK, your turn! This will be way more fun if you chime in below about what you’re curious about, what questions I can answer, and what curiosities or delights you’ve experienced when traveling, studying or living abroad.
Photos for this post are favorites from our previous trips to Hungary, summer by summer—taken in our village, home or our favorite little city, Zirc.
Sarah, I have read all the way you story love it. I am Liz Sandra sister . I happy to read you felt safe in hungary but everything is different than before. Food kakaos csiga my favorite and palacsinta as well . Small village giving you more different life who actually leaves in big city(Budapest). Many people don’t know Hungarian language is very hard to learn our language is very unique and our culture as well. I am happy to see you giving your kids (Matyas and Greta ) to learn Hungarian language and can speak . Freedom is there a little different bc you are staying village area . Yes food is taste better bc all ingredients is much better ( missing )
Enjoy your stay and explore you area much as you can .❤️
Sarah, so wonderful to read all the way . Love it everything you telling about Hungary. I am Hungarian and kakaos csiga and palacsinta and many pastry is good and taste much better bc of the ingredients. So many American thinking to move to Europe many of reason of course. Thank you for sharing ❤️