Posts Tagged ‘Budapest’

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Keleti (Eastern) railway station in Budapest has been much in the news lately thanks to the Hungarian government’s flip-flop position on the passage of refugees (who, having fled homes made unsafe by war, paid smugglers and risked drowning, have lost nearly everything) seeking to find asylum in the European Union. As a portion of the total population of the countries they come from, these crowds are small (most of Syria’s refugees are in other part of Syria or in camps in neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan), but there has been no co-ordinated attempt to process those who have travelled to Europe.

Keleti station was also where I found myself arriving to in 1987 on a train from Vienna Westbahnhof, at the start of what turned out to be an 18 year separation from my country of origin. In my own head, I fancied myself something like the like the narrator in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, and I don’t think flying in to Hungary would have had the same impact. Trains are less generic than planes, and terminus stations inject you in to the heart of the city. On the way they give you sneak previews of back gardens, back bedrooms (and the lives that must go on in them) and the state of people’s fences and side streets forces you to contrast with how they look on the other side of the border.

On a train you inhale the country from behind glass before you step down onto the platform and into the crowd. For me, it was simply exotic to see people going about their daily business. Many in uniform (nearly all Hungarian conscripts, a few Russian officers), others dragging many heavy bags with bags taking “goods” to sell in one of the city’s markets, and a few tourists and visitors, like me. The atmosphere further enhanced by the (to me) by the odd-smelling tobacco smoke and even odder smelling fumes from some of the cheaper motor cars in the streets outside. Plus, of course, the exotic further destinations on offer…. Moscow, Bucharest, Berlin, Athens.

You didn’t have to be in Hungary too long for it to be impressed upon you, with both pride and worry, that Hungary is just one of those countries on transit routes in and out of Europe. Whether Hungary itself was in or out of Europe was never answerable, not completely. The rhetoric from the Hungarian authorities in English toward the EU may fairly be paraphrased as “this is just us imposing the EU’s own regulations on the registration of refugees”. But the script in-country appears to be darker; the language and tone is more about exclusion and the protection of ‘heritage’.

Here are a few recent Orban quotes, just on the topic of immigration (taken from this blog posting on The Orange Files):



“Economic immigration is a bad thing in Europe. It shouldn’t be seen as something that is of any use at all, because it just brings difficulty and danger to the European person. This is why immigration must be stopped. This is the Hungarian viewpoint.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“At the same time, one must make it very definitely clear that we will not permit—at least as long as I am the prime minister and as long is this government exists—it will not happen that Hungary becomes the target of immigrants.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want to see among us significant minorities that possess different cultural characteristics and background than us. We would like to preserve Hungary as Hungary.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want a multicultural society.” February 5, 2015, during interview with the German dailyFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (source in Hungarian).

“We want no more people to come. Those who are here, go home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian).

“This camp must not be developed, but closed and those who live in it sent home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian). 

“We would like it if Europe would continue to belong to the Europeans.” May 19, 2015, speaking during a European Parliament plenary-session debate regarding the Orbán government’s stance on immigration and the death penalty (source in Hungarian).

“Now they are calling us to account because we don’t argue in the questionnaires that you have to like immigrants. After all of this, why should we like them?”  June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no political persecution in either Serbia, Macedonia or Greece. Thus those who arrive here have come from countries where they don’t qualify as refugees. They don’t have to flee from there, thus I would like to make it clear that everybody, regardless of why they left their homeland, is a subsistence immigrant (megélhetési bevándorló) once they arrive in Hungary, because they could have stayed in Serbia as well.” June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no chance, we are going to send you back. This continent will not be your homeland, you have your own homeland, this is our homeland, we built it. We will gladly work together with you, we have our laws, respect them if you want to come here, which also has its own regulations. But it is impossible that you run across our fences and our borders in a way that violates the law.” July 3, 2015, on what to say to migrants who intend to enter Hungary illegally (source in Hungarian).


Today even the Pope spoke out on this issue (Orban makes much of his immigration policy on defending Christian values). The BBC reported Pope Francis urging “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe” to take in a family. The absurdity of the FIDESZ position is brought further into focus by the fact that many Hungarians have themselves had to flee as refugees in the last 100 years, and that the key event in the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall was the presence in makeshift camps in Hungary of thousands of East Germans, who also wanted only to cross the border.


Back in 1987 on my own journey, I was being met by the manager of the language school I had been brought in to teach at, so I spent all of 10 minutes at Keleti, and not down to the huge subterranean concourse area of newspaper sellers, fast-food and pastry shops, and people warily selling all sorts of cheap goods. The type of welcome that the Syrian and Afghan refugees have encountered in recent months and, in particular, days in Budapest has veered from levels of volunteer warmth and empathy on a par with what we are seeing in many German and Austrian cities (locals offering food, water, shelter and care, and government agencies acting compassionately to offer aid) down to rather low, state-condoned purgatory and authoritarian and heavy-handed marshalling.

All the while Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, seems have been using the opportunity to make himself politically popular at home by adopting Donald Trumpian levels of political incorrectness abroad.

The test of democracy is not whether you can vote someone like this in, but whether you can vote them out. If not, then plenty of normal and decent Hungarians may also start voting with their feet.


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As this picture taken this weekend in Budapest shows, when you have enough people available, taking down scaffolding from a seven storey building becomes a team-building exercise…


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We spend a lot of our adult lives engaged with projects that singly we call work and that cumulatively we call career. Most of us, I guess, do this as a part of an organisation and at some more or less clear level within a hierarchy. Hierarchies require leaders and most of us would, I think, like to be able to look up to our bosses. Usually we find that we can’t.

My own experience is that the majority of those people in the organisations I have worked for have not made much of an impression. Those in my experience have sometimes been pleasant people who have just made little impact on anything at all (including on me). Some I found have gone some way to leaving behind a bigger mess than the one they had so many grand intentions on changing for the better when they were put in charge, and have shown regard only for themselves or their “legacy”. I don’t know why this is so. Perhaps you reach a certain level of title or responsibility you simply remain there, being moved forever along by the impetus of rejection from your old organisation, which though happy to see the back of you would damage its own reputation were it to reveal all your shortcomings.

Exceptions to this pattern of poor senior management exist, of course. I’ve even met a few. I think Bruce Kent at CND was an exceptional person, and he inspired confidence in those around him. I wanted to make the second of my four significant people the man who was Dean of the Budapest-based business school (IMC) where I worked for in the 1990s, Peter Bartha.

The School had been going through a series of crises. Not only was it never sure that there would be sponsorship and funding for the following year’s work (although, when it came to it, there always was), the original set of exchange and co-operation agreements with the Canadian and US business schools which had got the Hungarian institution going were coming to their natural end. The original Dean returned to her original post in Calgary and there then was a succession of odd-ball, temporary Deans, each one more inconsequential and inappropriate than the last.

Peter was born in Hungary but left when he was 18, in the 1950s. He ended up in Toronto, where he had a career in journalism and then a career in business/management and (latterly) in academia. When he applied for the Deanship, the faculty and senior staff at IMC were given some time to interview him and the other shortlisted candidates. Where the others were vague and mining us for information, Peter was informed, and where they were anxious to sell themselves, Peter was listening. In fact, he interviewed us, but in a way that left you feeling you had something valuable to say.

Peter showed me my potential. He had high expectations of you, but they were always . He could write well, and he could speak well (without notes), and he was as at ease guiding IMC’s Founder, George Soros, toward his own vision of how to grow the school as he was making the students feel that he knew them all by name (I believe he did). He could focus on a topic with incredible intensity, and he would find the fault in your argument with unnerving speed, and he had a genuine interest in your world. In short, he made you want to be doing not just a good job, but your best. It was Peter who encouraged me to enrol on the Henley MBA and to accept the inevitable knocks and challenges along the way with grace. For that alone, I am grateful.

He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, or to be working for. He had an ego, and sometimes a quick temper, but he also had the good grace to admit candidly when he had been in the wrong (not that often).  He combined energy with a strategic eye for the world around him, and always knew when to apply the human touch.

So few of those people at the top of organisations I have worked for have been inspirational characters, so I allow Peter’s voice to be the one that reminds me quietly from time to time whenever the occasion call for it.

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The group made their short presentations yesterday. A lot of work had gone in to them, as is generally the case on these trips, and perhaps a few blind alleys explored, more than a few coffees consumed and opinions frankly but fairly exchanged. The result? Pretty good, I thought.

It’s tempting to fall into several traps on an elective study trip such as this. One of them is to react to the mix of nationalities present within the group on the level of national stereotypes, and this group investigated those rather than adopted them. Another is to get so much into the “view” of the organisation being visited that you never come back out and see the wider business environment – or that you never see it from any other than the mindset of the company you visit. What follows then is just a Strategic Direction analysis and this invariably falls short because in the time available no-one in the group can become expert in the internal environment of the company. What made the three presentations stronger was a conscious effort to ask the question “in what business environment does this organisation work?”, before asking “what is the strategy of this organisation?”.

As for Budapest and Hungary, I think everyone learned something new – even those who had visited here before. They’ll be reflecting on that for a few weeks before the assignments are due in.

I am now better informed on the macro-economic realities for Hungary, particularly the way that the National Bank is pretty much at the mercy of the FX market (interest rate setting only has impact insofar as it limits movement vis-a-vis the Euro) for managing inflation.  I also learned that a crazy number of Hungarians have loans in CHF and EUR, though it turns out that they’d be even crazier to have them in HUF.

On a personal note, it has been great to see family and friends and to catch up.  And, for those of you who have done the ‘tourist’ thing here and would like some tips on a different way to explore, check this out on YouTube.

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