Hungarians enjoy attending sporting matches and watching them on TV as much as they do participating. The most popular spectator sports are football and water polo, though motor racing, horse racing – both trotting and flat racing – and even sakk (competitive chess) have their fans.
Football is far and away the nation’s favourite sport, and people still talk about the "match of the century" at Wembley in 1953 when the Magic Magyars beat England six goals to three – the first time England lost a home match.
There are a dozen premier league football teams in Hungary, with four of them based in the capital, including the ever-popular Ferencváros.
In water polo, Hungary has dominated the European Championships (12 times) and Olympic Games (eight times) for decades so it’s worthwhile catching a professional or amateur match of this exciting seven-a-side sport (if for no other reason than to watch a bunch of guys in skimpy bathing suits horsing around).
In general, dress is very casual in Budapest – in summer, daringly brief, even by Continental European standards – and many people attend even the opera in denim. Men needn’t bother bringing a necktie; it will be seldom – if ever – used.
Like everywhere, Budapest has its own fashion boutiques and home-grown designers.
Judging from what’s on offer in some of the used or "second-generation" clothing shops such as Iguana and Ciánkáli, the über-trend on the street is for retro (1950s to 70s) and fetishist (leather, military) foundation pieces and accessories.
What the masses are going for is another matter. The high-street favourite C&A has launched three new stores in Budapest and Spanish fashion chain Zara, much beloved by the braces-and-bubblegum brigade, has opened a 2400-sq-metre outlet on Váci utca.
In general Hungarians – and people from Budapest in particular – are not uninhibited like the extroverted Romanians or sentimental Slavs who laugh or cry at the drop of a hat (or drink). They are reserved, somewhat formal people.
Forget the impassioned, devil-maycare, Gypsy-fiddling stereotype – it doesn’t exist and probably never did. The national anthem calls Hungarians "a people torn by fate" and the overall mood is one of honfibú (literally "patriotic sorrow", but really a penchant for the blues with a sufficient amount of hope to keep most people going). This mood certainly predates what Hungarians call "az átkos 40 év" (the accursed 40 years) of communism.
To illustrate what she saw as the "dark streak in the Hungarian temperament", the late US foreign correspondent Flora Lewis recounted a story in Europe: A Tapestry of Nations that was the talk of Europe in the early 1930s. "It was said," she wrote, "that a song called “Gloomy Sunday ” so deeply moved otherwise normal people in Budapest that whenever it was played, they would rush to commit suicide by jumping off a Danube bridge." The song has been covered in English by many artists, including Billie Holiday, Sinéad O’Connor and Björk, and is the subject of German film director Rolf Schübel’s eponymous romantic drama.
Hungarians are almost always extremely polite in social interaction, and the language can be very courtly – even when doing business with the butcher or having your hair cut.
The standard greeting for a man to a woman (or youngsters to their elders, regardless of the sex) is Csókolom ("I kiss it" – "it" being the hand, of course).
People of all ages – even close friends – shake hands profusely when meeting up.
But while all this gentility certainly oils the wheels that turn a sometimes difficult society, it can be used to keep "outsiders" (foreigners and other Hungarians) at a distance. Perhaps as an extension of this desire to keep everything running as smoothly as possible, Hungarians are always extremely helpful in an emergency – be it an accident, a pick-pocketing or simply helping someone who’s lost their way.
Like Spaniards, Poles and many other people with a Catholic background, Hungarians celebrate névnap ("name days") rather than (or as well as) birthdays. Name days are usually the Catholic feast day of their patron saint, but less holy names have a date too. Most calendars in Hungary list them, and it’s traditional for men to give women – colleagues, classmates and neighbours as well as spouses and family members – at least a single blossom. See an interesting post about names used in Hungary here.
The gay and (less so) lesbian communities are quite active in Budapest but keep a relatively low profile compared with Western European capitals. Both groups can enter into domestic partnerships in Hungary, but such arrangements carry very few legal rights. The government is considering introducing partnership legislation similar to that of the UK. By and large Hungarians tend to meet their friends and entertain outside at cafés and restaurants.
If you are invited to a Hungarian home, bring a bunch of flowers (available in profusion all year and very inexpensive) or a bottle of good local wine. You can talk about anything under the sun – from religion and politics to whether the Hungarian language really is more difficult than Japanese and Arabic – but money is a touchy subject. Traditionally, the discussion of wealth – or even wearing flashy jewellery and clothing – was considered to be gauche in Hungary. Do not expect (or ask for) a tour of the house or apartment; that is just not done in Hungary.
Although it’s almost impossible to calculate (with the "black economy" being so wide spread and important), the average monthly salary in Hungary nowadays 246,000/157,000Ft gross/net (or €780/498). The minimum wage is currently set at gross. 105,000Ft (€333) per month, depending on educational achievement.
Hungarians as a whole are extremely fond of animals and Budapest has scores of állat-, díszhal bolt, pet shops selling everything from puppies and hamsters to tropical fish. Budapesters are especially fond of dogs (you can’t miss breeds indigenous to Hungary – the moplike puli herding dog, the sleek vizsla or the giant white komondor sheepdog) – and people of all ages go gaga over a particularly friendly or attractive one.
Hungarians let down their hair in warm weather, and you’ll see more public displays of affection on the streets than perhaps anywhere else in the world. It’s all very romantic, but beware: in the remoter corners of Budapest’s parks and on Margaret Island you may stumble upon more passionate displays.
With some 1.85 million inhabitants, Budapest is home to almost a fifth of the national population. The overwhelming majority are Magyars, an Asiatic people of obscure origins who do not speak an Indo-European language and make up the vast majority of Hungary’s 10.083 million people.
The population density of Budapest is 3333 people per sq km against a national average of 109 per sq km. No exact breakdown exists, but the ethnic make-up in the capital reflects the national one. According to the census just over 92% of the population is ethnically Magyar. Minorities include Germans (2.6%), Serbs and other South Slavs (2%), Slovaks (0.8%) and Romanians (0.7%). The number of Roma is officially put at 1.9% of the population (or 193,800 people), though in some sources the figure is twice as high.
Life expectancy is very low by European standards: just over 68 years for men and almost 77 for women. The nation also has one of Europe’s lowest rates of natural population increase – 9.76 per 1000 people, with a population growth of -0.26%. Sadly, it also has one of the highest rates of suicide.
Currently 57% of all Hungarian marriages end in divorce.
Hungary is a highly cultured and educated society with a literacy rate of over 99% among those 15 years and over. School is compulsory for 10 years until the age of 16. About 65% of the population have completed secondary-school and 10% are university graduates, a quarter of which are in engineering and economics.
There are currently 19 universities and the most prestigious ones are largely based in Budapest, including the Loránd Eötvös Science University (ELTE; www.elte.hu), which was founded in 1635 and moved to Budapest in 1777 from what is now Trnava (Hungarian: Nagyszombat) in Slovakia; the 200-year-old Semmelweis University of Medicine (SOTE; www.semmelweis.hu); the Budapest Technical and Economic Sciences University (BME; www.bme.hu), established in 1782; and the Budapest University of Economic Sciences (known as ‘Közgáz’; www.bke.hu). Budapest-based and English-language Central European University (CEU; www.ceu.hu), founded in 1991 by philanthropist George Soros, has gained an international reputation in just over a decade.
Throughout history, religion has often been a question of expediency in Hungary. Under King Stephen I, Catholicism won the battle for dominance over Orthodoxy and, while the majority of Hungarians were quite happily Protestant by the end of the 16th century, many donned a new mantle during the Catholic Counter-Reformation under the Habsburgs.
During the Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of Hungarians converted to Islam – though not always willingly. As a result, Hungarians tend to have a more pragmatic approach to religion than most of their neighbours, and little of the bigotry. It has even been suggested that this generally sceptical view of matters of faith has led to Hungarians’ high rate of success in science and mathematics.
You’ll never see Christian churches in Budapest full, even on import ant holy days.
The Jewish community in Budapest, on the other hand, has seen a great revitalisation in recent years though mostly due to the influx of Orthodox Jews. Of those Hungarians declaring religious affiliation in the census, about 52% said they were Roman Catholic, 16% Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant and nearly 3% Evangelical (Lutheran) Protestant. There are also small Greek Catholic (2.5%) and Orthodox and other Christian (1%) congregations. Hungary’s Jews (though not always religious) number about 80,000, down from a prewar population of nearly 10 times that through wartime executions, deportations and emigration, with almost 90% living in Budapest.