Last week I had the unexpected but none the less pleasurable chance to spend a week in Budapest with the full-time MBA group, who were undertaking the first of their three foreign study trips during their one-year programme.
Having lived there for so long, and having acquired the language, I was in the strange position of knowing some of the background history (and background chat). We visited four companies while there, and during the final presentations it was fascinating to see impressions drawn through fresh pairs of eyes. This was also a very friendly, lively and impeccably behaved group, which helped.
Much of what I knew from my time living and working there remains. The sweep of the river as it runs through one of the great city views of Europe is tremendous, and there are plenty of signs that on many levels Budapest is thriving.
Yet for all that Budapest has now gained the trappings of a European Union capital city, there is something I miss of the dilapidated and mysterious city I encountered in 1987, stepping off the train at the Eastern Railway station. I was a refugee from the dwindling anarchic freedom of Margaret Thatcher's England, and Budapest was a totally foreign experience. Materially things were simple because there was no outlet for them to be ostentatious. Manners were strictly observed and part of another era. But austere necessity seemed to have also forced all the creativity and self expression underground, and I soon discovered that there were many networks of like-minded (and some broad-minded) people. The system was absolute, but everyone absolutely knew how to get around it. As a visitor, you were taken from unlikely place to unlikely place in the city. Everything was available, but you had to know where, and who.
Remnants of that mindset were sometimes hinted at during the study tour, though the back-drop now seems completely inappropriate. Where the ability to circumvent the rules, the determination to look after number one, and the insulation of "being Hungarian" were once necessary survival mechanisms, the same attributes leave the country in danger of being passed by. Reforms don't work, the political elite excel in a mix of corruption and bigotry, and there is a cultural inwardness that refuses to reach out to neighbour and takes little or no interest outside the world of the magyar.
The sad thing is that they would have so much going for them. They are proud, independent and very clever. But like many formerly powerful European nations, you are left with the feeling that Hungary (even after all these years since their starring role in the downfall of the Berlin Wall) hasn't quite got the point.