Migration has been making the headlines in Central and Eastern Europe for years now, but these stories are primarily about people traveling West in search of economic well-being or those who are simply passing through, for similar or other reasons. But we don’t hear much about those who decide to move to Eastern Europe with the belief that there is more to life than efficiency, well-functioning cities and factory-like workplaces. Such disturbing accessories of the Western-world can rarely be found here, after all.
According to the Embassy of the Netherlands in Budapest, approximately two thousand Dutch citizens live in Hungary, but some estimates suggest there could be ten thousand permanent or remote residents in the counties of Baranya, Somogy and Nógrád. However, a small settlement in Nógrád recently found itself in the public eye as Elroy Thümmler, one of the promoters of Sziget Fesztivál, acquired a whole village – with the exception of just two buildings.
Having become a celebrity here, Elroy’s story is all over the internet and I assume he’s been visited by a series of newspapers: “Not many, just three of them; the others only copied the original texts. It is strange. It doesn’t work like that in Holland; journalists try to [contribute] some of their own work to the story.” This is how we begin our session spent comparing the numerous similarities and differences between Western and Eastern Europe.
Elroy fell in love with Hungary in an era of transition. During the late 80s, Kecskemét was his favorite place to be because the people were full of hope, the police were soft, and the parties were hard. At the time, parties (or as he calls them: ‘Tanyabuli’), were organized on farms in Kecskemét with the main stage arranged inside a barn and the DJ often playing out of a pigsty.
He was so fond of the city that he bought his first shack in a nearby forest, even forgoing electricity and water. After a few years, he wanted something more comfortable and entered into an agreement with friends to purchase properties in a small zsákfalu (dead-end village) called Bedepuszta near Hollókő. Soon, Elroy discovered he was alone with the project and began buying buildings on his own, investing a total of around 480 million HUF in the village.
He didn’t have this amount of money at first and instead amassed it slowly by continuously saving his paychecks from big festivals like Sziget, Balaton Sound, and the Serbian Exit. Elroy isn’t completely confident that his investment is going to be returned, but he whole-heartedly believes he has the ability to make a living and difference not just for himself, but for tourism in the region as well. After all, this isn’t a business venture, but a passion project that he describes as a lifework. In the village, he also plans to create a festival – though not one on the same scale as Sziget. He wants to organize weddings that attendees will actually remember instead of adding to an already too long list of assembly-line like celebrations. The village plans to lure people with Slow Food, an alternative to fast food that strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine. A special festival without bands will be organized next spring, as well. Musicians will be invited to improvise, facilitating a unique atmosphere. The festival is anticipated to be an exciting mixture of Hungarian cuisine, rural lifestyle and Dutch culture. Elroy also expressed hope of someday connecting his village to the national hiking and bicycle routes.
But what makes Hungary so interesting to Western-Europeans? He must know, having brought close to 200,000 of them to the country on behalf of several large festival corporations. I asked him for advice on how Hungary can focus on attracting tourists of quality rather than quantity. He believes the process has already begun, pointing out that many middle-aged, high earning Western-Europeans visit the country solely because of its natural endowments: “In Holland, you cannot walk in the forest [without] running [into] others; having enough space around you is becoming more valuable.” Naturally, Hungary’s rich beverage history cannot be overlooked, “And of course the alcohol industry as a whole can be captivating to gourmets. Hungarians can produce any kind of beverage, including traditional brands of wine and palinka. Really good craftsman brewing companies have started emerging, too. Not to mention, the new wave of Hungarian restaurant culture has become very popular among high profile tourists.”
He thinks Hungary is approaching a crossroads and will soon need to choose between the two types of tourism. Crowds could discourage people who want to experience something more intimate and valuable. In the past, Budapest was more balanced in this sense, but in recent years, the city has shifted noticeably towards being a popular destination for stag parties. “Budapest also has become less safe,” he suggests. I point out that statistics show the opposite and that the government has taken a strict approach to crime. Elroy counters, clarifying, “I don’t mean that it is [unsafe] because of the locals. You don’t want to walk on a street with your wife or children when half-naked, drunk young males [are] partying without control. Sometimes, I feel Central Europeans are more civilized in many ways.”
This is a sentence you don’t expect to hear in a village that lacked asphalt roads until just a few years ago. With Hungary having had a century-long goal of becoming more Western-European, I ask whether he truly believes these efforts to be in vain: “Do whatever you want, but don’t become too efficient. In the Western world, everything is about efficiency, and while they may produce more material value, they also lose the spirit of life.” While pointing to the recently built road next to us, he explains, “Efficiency could be useful. If this road were just straight to the main highway, it probably would be faster to get to the city, but it would lose its picturesque nature and [sustain] damage to its environment.” I mention that Hungary’s politicians often argue that Dutch workers produce twice as much as their Hungarian peers, in the same amount of time. Elroy, however, disagrees with this perspective and believes that Hungarians are a hardworking people, “I know there are stereotypes about builders and how one will work while the rest of the group just watches, but on the other hand, the carpenters who renovated the roof of my building showed incredible craftsmanship. They just looked at the buildings and knew how to construct them without sophisticated machines. Work, much like other aspects of life, is more organic here.”
With there being more and more depopulated areas in Central and Eastern Europe – predominantly due to the high level of emigration to Western Countries – I’m curious if Elroy can imagine a trend where more people like himself wish to live simpler lives, “I hope so; I think [Eastern Europeans] are seeking a life [Western Europeans] have already attained, and now we wish to go back to our roots.”
Written by Gábor Sarnyai
Images by Péter Csákvári