RECREATION


After leaving university, I embarked on what I, tongue-ever-in-cheek, called a “portfolio career”. Like a very minor Del Boy, gone legit and working in the glamorous world of provincial PR and marketing (and shilling copy, not cans of best before Spam), I juggled freelance contracts from the extendable table in the corner of our Norwich flat and was paid handsomely, courtesy of government grant or quango funding stream.

At only ten months’ repose, there seems something very anachronistic, very noughties about this way of making a living. It was a very fortuitous means to an end for me, but at the time “going freelance” became more and more attractive to graduates, given the push of a extremely competitive first job market and the pull of the apparently-unlimited opportunities online, accompanied by the kind of aggressive individualism internet culture has fostered.

Since this is a vamp for an anecdote, not a rant, I’ll leave that ellipsis hanging. Suffice to say, it was rather a relief to let those spinning plates fall. Here in Budapest, I earn my daily kenyér as an English teacher (though my beefs about the TEFL industry are a topic for another time too) and I love it. My students are, to a man, both interesting and interested. Moreover, it’s the best cultural education I could have hoped for. When my students finally tire of my provincial bemusement (You mean you really celebrate Christmas on December 6th? and Jesus, you guys really like sour cream, don’t you!), my surest conversational gambit is language teacher fallback: What do you like to do in your freetime?

The Hungarians I’ve met really make the most of it. The social lives of the Zsolts, Attilas and Évas in my charge are a never-ending whirl of wine tastings, horse rising expeditions, hiking trips and family dinners chez anya és apu. In the spirit of “When in Rome…” and in the realisation that hand-wringing and procrastinating probably don’t count as hobbies, we’ve been doing the same.


Last weekend, we went to Lake Balaton, Hungary’s own freshwater riviera; playground of the extremely rich, the chronically active and the exceedingly drunk, and the largest freshwater lake in Europe to boot. Our six-man tent was (due to an ongoing plumbing saga) probably better equipped than our home and I spent a very pleasant weekend cooing menacingly at infants, picking pike bones out from between my teeth and lolling around on a patio chair.


I spent my formative years getting sand up my bum on England’s East Coast (and made a life’s work out of sifting through the great rafts of borrowed nostalgia bestowed on me there ever since), but Joe, from Richmond, North Yorkshire – about as landlocked as we Brits can muster – spent his holidays at the Lakes, and there’s more than a passing resemblance here: low-slung huts selling inflatables gathered around car parks, discount supermarkets stocking nothing edible, tow bars and foreign number plates, all-weather dressing with cheap anoraks and sunglasses, “rustic” wooden restaurant terraces and individually-wrapped sliced cheese.


We went to Lake Balaton in search of Hungarians at play, but unseasonable rain kept them all indoors. The paid-admission beaches (actually the strip of turf hemming the lakeside) were deserted and the ice cream sellers had buggered off home. We strolled around the blue-milk lake in the drizzle, Joe trounced me at csocsó and we watched the Condeferations Cup and sipped sewery beer in a tiki hut on the edge of the great, dark mass of water. Contranians both, we were pleased.

STEP INTO MY OFFICE

Hundreds of column inches are devoted to prodding the mystique of what those that write for a living do all day. I’m thinking particularly of those picturesque writers’ profiles in the Guardian Review, often accompanied by a photograph of the writer’s desk: usually Habitat-level or above( or junk shop and artfully worn), framed by postcards and tasteful, not-too-distracting bits of art, perhaps the odd, intruding piece of domestic detritus. Writing, by these accounts, is comfortably incorporated into the day thus: one rises at seven, and is shuffling papers at her desk by eight, exhales the necessary 500-100 words by lunchtime and has the rest of the day free.

Well, in my experience, its not quite like that. Writing for a living (and a very bitty sort of “living” at that), for me, happens along a daily line of most resistance. Its a myopic, time-shrinking thing, marked only by the irregular peaks of hammering a thought into a just-about-satisfactory expression, a half-decent paragraph. It’s pacing, always overdoing the coffee and always falling asleep to the sound of a book (hopefully paperback) falling on your head. The commercial writing I do (which just-about comprises my actual “living”), however, is a wholly different matter. Its nigglingly riddly, but neat in the end, it grants the rewards of sudden expertise on subjects well outside your usual remit. If you’re pervy that way, you might even get a kick out of it.

Thank God, then, for getting out of the house. In Budapest, it’s quite permissible to move your home office operations (that’s a term I use to describe my yellow laptop, “Bigbird”, my pencil case and my kettle) wholesale to the nearest café. This is Central European café culture for you and, happily, it has granted my working day a welcome semblance of sanity – even productivity – at last. After all, under the scrutiny of twenty others engaged in their own similar pursuits, napping, pacing, growling at the computer screen and systematically splintering your arsenal of freshly-sharpened pencils with your teeth doesn’t seem quite right.

In Budapest’s Golden Era, cafés served a similar purpose to the gentleman’s club. Here’s John Lukács’ description from his very atmospheric Budapest 1900:

One could sit for hours over a cup of coffee, with a glass of water frequently replenished by a boy-waiter, and avail oneself of a variety of local and foreign newspapers and journals hanging on bamboo racks. One could send and receive messages from the coffeehouse. Free paper, pen and ink were available there… At a particular table – their reservation was sacrosanct – this or that group of journalists, playwrights, or sculptors and painters would congregate, usually presided over by one or two leading figures… In those frequented by journalists and writers the headwaiters (some of whom were celebrated for their knowledge of literature) kept sheaves of long white sheets of paper available to any writer who chose to compose his article or essay there. These headwaiters were also the courses of tips of the turf, of useful gossip, an – more useful to writers – of extension of credit as well as occasional loans of petty cash.

These days, sadly the fringe benefits have gone, but the spirit’s still there. In fact, I’m pecking away at my keyboard here in Szoda, just around the corner from my apartment in the VIIth. Though the music policy might be called questionable, its a damned sight better than sixth form smokers corner at Café Nero in Norwich.

If, by some mischance, you’ve stumbled upon this post looking for useful information, here are my picks for if you’re toting a decent book, writing your memoirs or have to edit a 10,000 word business report “by close of play today” (yeuch!):

Sirály
Király utca 50.
This place positively invites repurposing into an office, ersatz HQ or a classroom. In the sea of tables upstairs I’ve seen English lessons conducted and regular meetings of what looks (and sounds) like some particularly fiery and well-subscribed Students Union society.

Jelen
Blaha Lujza tér 1-2,
Big and barn-ish, there are nice, big tables here to liberally sprinkle the contents of your bag over.

Ibolya Presszo
Ferenciek tere 5.
Where ELTE students, squirreling away at the library opposite, go for their tea break. Also, strange cushioned around out the back, if you need a lie down.

Muzeum Cukrászda
Muzeum körút 10
And finally, a good bet for afternoons when you’re full of good intentions but know that, in fact, all routes inevitably lead to egy korsó sor, kerem. That is, this place serves coffee, but also booze, cake and is open 24 hours.

By no means feel restricted by this list, however. I’ve seen people, four pints in, whip out their laptops to deal with some urgent correspondence in the middle of a heaving Saturday night out at Szimplakert.


WRITER FOR HIRE

File under: Shameless self-promotion

When I’m not griping about the state of the novel in Britain or poking my camera lens into places it shouldn’t be, I’m a freelance writer, researcher and editor, believe it or not. What’s more I’m currently (ta-da!) available for commission! In a multitude of guises I’ve done lots of web development, web consultancy work and specialist research for business, alongside the usual copy writing, web writing and editing.

You can look at my CV here, or get in touch here.

J

P.S. Edit, link fixed!

Countdown

Appleby Horse Fair, Dave Thomas

… and hello from my desk, a corner of our front room that’s currently pretending to my office, and where I can be found – intermittently – ploughing through research assignments, attempting to summon a PhD proposal from the depths of my psyche and half-heartedly making peace with the city of Norwich (Fine City, I love you, but you’re bringing me down) as my final days here rattle through at a pace that’s something like fast-slow-fast-fast-fast-slow.

Appleby Horse Fair, Dave Thomas

I’m peering above the parapet to direct you to photographer Simon Robert’s response to my look at his work-in-progress We English. That is, if you’re interested in two Englishness pervs hashing out the finer points of the concept of nostalgia. And to urge you to look at the archive of Northeastern film and photography collective Amber who are pretty much too wonderful to write about (although I’ll give it a go in the next few days, no doubt). Go look!

Scheming

So, regular readers (scratch that, regular IRL listeners to my one glass of wine fantasy-ramblings) will know that in a matter of mere weeks myself and J will be transplanting the J&J Roadshow from dearest Norwich to Budapest, Hungary! As a subscriber to the fail-safe strategy of “talk about it enough and you’ll have to do it” I’ve not been able to shut up about it. In fact, if you’ve been within a five metre radius of me these past six months, you won’t have missed:

  • Optimistic proclamations of the relative cost of living, UK vs. Hungary (it’s half! I’ve calculated! Well, sort of…)
  • Incoherent plans to become an internet millionaire/professional photographer/all-round good guy/actual grown-up before our projected lift-off date of late (very late) October
  • Rapturous descriptions of the elegant balconnied, high-ceilinged, two-bedroomed apartment that will (hypothetically) be Chez Jenny come aforementioned date
  • Foot-in-mouth attempts at transcultural understanding
  • Graphic descriptions of the dental work I need before I go
  • Tedious and unrealistic in-depth budgetary calculations

And, of course, its been a hive of careful preparation this end. J has the small matter of a PhD to put to bed, of course, whilst I’ve been scouting down the back of every available sofa for money to put into the emigrating kitty. On Friday, I passed my first leaving town landmark: I left the job where I’ve been reluctantly shilling my “general office skills” for the past six months, and as of today I’m fully freelance and fancy-free.

I’m spending Saturday afternoon tip-tapping away at my keyboard catching up on a spot of freelancing work. I’ve a bit of a kink for this sort of thing; I’m helping a London university reorganise some of their webpages, and it’s exactly the kind of nitpicking, data-efficient zealotry that I love. Joe is listening to some ambient noise in the next room that more befits a floatation tank than a sweaty desk occupied by one mighty close to finishing his PhD.

This morning, on a tipoff from a friend, we went to find breakfast at a newly-opened bakery at the end of Gloucester Street. Rounding the corner, we cased the joint: called Dozen: Artisan Bakery, white facade, tiny amounts of produce displayed on slate tiles, artful bread and so on. The counter was manned by Aussies. My next sentence we still pre-verbal as Joe shot me the “here we go again” look: ‘I suppose you wanted twee confectioner ladies’. Well actually no, I thought, that’s not the kind of authentic I was after this particular morning.