Something that struck us immediately upon our arrival to Hungary, and which was reinforced by the contrast of recent trips to Spain and Italy, is how supportive this country seems to be toward young children.
An elderly gentleman who lives in the lower level of our building appears to cast profuse blessings over our family whenever we meet (at least that’s what we think he’s doing, in Hungarian, of course). Another man in our building, on the first day we met him, offered the boys some cold refreshment as they sat on the stoop in the sun. And every single day we’re offered congratulations and beaming grins by elderly Hungarian women for our collection of three boys.
No, you sit!
As Brittany says, we come and go like a tornado. When we scramble aboard the bus, tram or subway, we’re all arms and legs and backpacks and yelling at the kids to stop darting in front of others. And through it all, Our Boys Make Noise*.
*The other day at Mechwart liget, an excellent park on the 4-6 tram line in Buda, Brittany chatted with a Spanish woman whose opinion is that all Hungarian children are quiet. Perhaps that’s why we’re having trouble passing ourselves off as natives. Although, it’s also possible our boys would rank as exceptionally noisy on every continent.
But perhaps the largest herald of our family’s arrival on any mode of public transportation is the rapid seat-vacating among the elderly Hungarians, who forcefully insist (if it’s possible to kindly forcibly insist) that we all take their seats. And if we board a tram via the stroller door, where there’s a large, open area for standing, someone inevitably will come find us and half-cajole, half-drag us to a newly empty collection of chairs they’ve found for us.
I was also told on the metro once that Job’s head was banging against a nearby grab pole (it was merely resting on it, in my opinion). And just the other day, an elderly woman ― having sprung from her seat so Job could sit down ― stood guard over him for 15 minutes, periodically adjusting his coat, lifting his cap from his eyes and gently stroking his cheek. (Yes, we were also standing right there, but clearly her opinion of what was needed was different from ours.)
Once, while riding the tram home from school, I witnessed a near-fight between an elderly woman and a young man with a baby strapped to his chest. They were standing on opposite sides of the last empty seat on the train, shouting “Tessék!”* at each other and taking turns looking scandalized when the other wouldn’t sit.
*”Tessék” is a Hungarian word with many uses, most of which I still don’t understand. In this case, though, the meaning was clearly “go ahead.” Or maybe “I said ‘go ahead,’ doggone it.”
Clothing not optional
And then there are the reactions that complete strangers have to the way our kids are dressed at the playground. Now, we come from the “if it’s not wildly inappropriate for the weather, then let him wear what he wants” school of parenting. Let him learn for himself the value of mittens, we reason. We’re also Pacific Northwesterners, a strange breed of creatures who pride ourselves on not using umbrellas even in the face of routine rainy weather.
But here, oh no, that won’t fly. Swaddling kids is serious business. If the temperature is anything close to freezing, we’ll get chided for any amount of exposed skin on the kids. Only to save ourselves from daily tongue-lashings, we’ve gotten to bundling our kids in sweatshirts, winter coats, thick mittens, wool hats and boots whenever we leave the house.
This past fall, on a somewhat rainy (but warm) day, I had Job strapped to my back for a quick walk to the grocery store. I was about halfway home when a woman who looked to be in her 70s came running ― literally running ― up from behind to tell me that the hood on Job’s coat had partially slipped off. I didn’t understand most of her harangue, but I assume it included several variations of “he could catch his death,” possibly with some curse words.
Playgrounds: where your child is my child
Budapest is also abundantly sprinkled with playgrounds. We can walk to about half a dozen in just five minutes, and five minutes on public transportation opens up at least a dozen more.*
This is important, because in the city, we can’t just kick our kids outside to run the willies out. To survive their rambunctious moods, we need to plan a playground pit-stop into every errand we run or adventure we take.
*If you’re interested, here’s a Google map we created showing many of the playgrounds in the city.
We recently returned from short holidays to Madrid, Barcelona and Venice. In those cities playgrounds were hardly findable, much less plentiful. In roughly 15 days abroad, we found two small playgrounds in Madrid, one in Barcelona and two in Venice. Here in Budapest, you can’t walk two blocks without stumbling on some previously unconquered play set.
Parenting is a much more communal endeavor here in Budapest than in the states, where, at least in the region we hail from, everyone’s carefully hands-off when it comes to other people’s kids. Brittany and I can’t even count the number of times strangers have walked up to our boys on the playground ― presumably without a care of whether or not we’re nearby and paying attention, because they usually don’t even check ― to adjust our kids’ clothes, help them with their shoes, stop them from dumping sand onto their brothers, etc.
Hungary wants more babies
The Hungarian government also has instituted some policies in recent years designed to increase the number of children in the country. For example, in 2015 Hungary launched a new program that pays 10 million forint (roughly $34,300) to families who pledge to have at least three children in the next decade. The money is a non-repayable grant for the purpose of buying a home in Hungary.
And at three years, Hungary has the longest paid maternity leave in Europe. Yes, three years, paid. For the first 168 days, the state pays mothers 70 percent of their original salary. For the remainder of the three years, mothers get €100 per month per child.
Hungary has a culture of caring for youngest children at home, rather than in daycare. The numbers state that only 20 percent of children enrolled in nurseries in 2013 were younger than 2, and just 8 percent of children younger than 3 nationwide were cared for daily in nurseries, according to Population Europe Resource Finder & Archive. This mindset goes back to the 1960s, according to PERFAR, when childcare allowances were first introduced in Hungary.
Bonus: A little Hungarian parenting vocab
- Gyere: Come! We use this often when leaving the tram, leaving the store, leaving the playground, leaving church… You get the picture.
- Csak egy megálló: Just one stop. When the hordes of kind, elderly Hungarians offer us their seats on the bus, we often try to politely refuse by telling them that we are getting off at the next stop.
- Semmi baj: It doesn’t matter. Oliver, especially, loves this phrase. Last week in the drugstore, he accidentally knocked a product off the conveyor belt at the checkout stand. And then he loudly proclaimed in his sweet Oliver voice: “Semmi baj.”
- Bocsánat: I’m sorry. We parents say this often to strangers when the boys bump them getting on and off the tram.
- Most nem: Not now. Elijah: “Dad, can we ride the kék busz (blue bus)?” Me: “Most nem.” Elijah, two minutes later: “Dad, can we ride the kék busz?” Me: “Most nem.”
- Köszönöm szépen: Thank you very much. Our standard response to the kind Hungarian ladies who tell us gratulálok (congratulations) for our három fiú (three boys).
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