Owen Matthews Owen Matthews

The heady, hedonistic summer in which I became a life-long foreigner

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I have spent almost all my adult life as a foreigner. When I graduated from Oxford I faced a stark choice: work for a living or leave the country. As I did not wish ever to have to get up in the morning, toil in an office or travel on public transport, the path was clear. I moved to Budapest with the intention of opening a bar.

I feature in three novels as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but inept seducer

It was the summer of 1993, and the newly free nations of central Europe had become an irresistible magnet for self-styled bohemians from across the western world. Budapest was cheap. It was fun. My Hungarian friends were furiously hedonistic, manic-depressive, wildly ambitious and creative. My American buddies were aimless, highly educated young slackers like myself. They fancied themselves the heirs of the Hemingway generation who settled in 1920s Paris. Many aspired to write the Great American Novel. Indeed several published their efforts, though these novels ended up being not-so-great. I feature as a character in three of them, painted in unflattering terms as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but tragicomically inept seducer.

‘Little blighter at home made a fake video of me being cute.’

Post-imperial collapse was Budapest’s style. We members of Generation Expat spent hours nursing cheap cappuccinos in some of the grandest cafés of the Habsburg empire – the Muvesz, the New York, Gerbeaud – all plaster putty, dark panelling and the ghosts of Joseph Roth’s elegant and doomed world. We ate budget steak tartare in 1950s Soviet restaurants and pogoed with culturally confused Hungarian punks at a Public Enemy concert at a crumbling House of Culture.

The old world had been broken, the new one not yet built. In the interim, we were content to play in the ruins.

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