Interview with Jennifer Deborah Walker: Nuclear Physicist Turned Budapest Savant

Interview with Jennifer Deborah Walker: Nuclear Physicist Turned Budapest Savant


Jennifer Walker is an ex-physicist turned freelance writer specialising in art, travel and culture, with a focus on Budapest, Hungary. Originally from the UK, Jennifer comes from a mixed background of British and Hungarian heritage. Born in Epsom, Surrey, Jennifer grew up between East Sussex and Budapest, infusing her with a wanderlust and a fascination for other cultures.

In 2005, she graduated with an MPhys in Physics with Satellite Technology with a First Class with Honours from the University of Surrey, and conducted her masters research at GSI (Institute for Heavy Ion Research) in Darmstadt, Germany for a year before moving to Madrid, Spain to undertake her postgraduate studies. She has a Masters of Advanced Studies in Nuclear Physics from the Universidad Compluntense de Madrid and finished her PhD in Physics (Summa Cum Laude) at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in 2011.

After completing her studies, Jennifer threw caution – and physics – to the wind to pursue her true passion: writing. She has been working as a professional writer since graduation and her work has been published in a variety of print and online publications across the globe. She lived in Madrid, Spain for seven years before she moved to Tbilisi, Georgia for a few months in 2012 to work for the national English language newspaper Georgia Today. In 2013, she decided to move again and returned to her Hungarian roots in Budapest.  She has written  for: DK Travel (Penguin books), National GeographicLonely PlanetCondé Nast Traveler, The IndependentBBC TravelThe GuardianCNN TravelVICE News and many others. (intro from Jennifer’s website)

What brought you to Budapest and how long have you lived here?

My mother is Hungarian and I spent a part of my childhood here. I went to a Hungarian primary school in Budapest where I learned the language, but I returned to the UK to finish my education there. I came back about 4 years ago as I wanted to reconnect with my Hungarian roots and work on getting my Hungarian back. I was living in Spain for 7 years before and needed a change, but I didn’t want to return to the UK and Budapest seemed like a logical move for me at the time.

Is there any other Hungarian city you’d consider living in?

I really like Pécs and Eger, but I really love Budapest so I’m not sure I can see myself moving to a smaller city.

I know you lived in Madrid, Spain for a bit. How does it compare to the Hungarian capital?

It’s a very different culture. Everyone is out late – it’s normal to have dinner at 10pm or even 11, and you’ll still hear kids playing the playground outside late in the evening. They weather obviously is much better and the evenings are longer (probably because it’s more south and west, so you get longer hours of daylight in the summer) so things are more outdoors. I really miss the art scene in Madrid, as well as that laid back feeling you get there.

Someone is considering moving to Hungary. What are three pieces of advice you’d give them?

I’m kind of an odd case since I’m a Hungarian citizen who does speak Hungarian, so my experience won’t be the same as everyone, but here are a few things I learned:

One. Do your research when it comes to anything like flats – especially if you eventually look to buy. There are a lot of little things that crop up from the quality of the building, the common costs of the building, etc. I was lucky because my landlady is a family friend, but I’ve seen everything as my mother has been looking to buy a property that you simply wouldn’t believe. If you’re looking to rent, maybe get a Hungarian friend to help you or someone who speaks Hungarian as some landlords take advantage of foreigners. There is a common scam going around where someone rents a flat and pretends to be the owner and runs off with the deposit, where you come back and find the real owner there with no idea about what you’re talking about (hasn’t happened to me personally, but I know some people this has happened to).

Two. I would join a few Facebook groups for foreigners. These are great for getting information on legal issues, immigration issues and they’re even a good place to meet new people. I find Budapest at least (not sure about the rest of Hungary) a really easy place to make friends, even if you don’t speak Hungarian.

Three. Do try to learn a bit of the language. I know it’s easier said than done, but outside Budapest and the main cities and tourist friendly areas, you might not find many English speakers (although you probably have more experience in this than me, Colm). A little does go a long way, and if people see you’re making an effort they will appreciate it. I’ve definitely been privileged to speak the language (although at the level of an 11-year-old, but that’s another story).

In your opinion, what makes Hungary special when compared to other countries you’ve been in?

I love how it’s such a crossroads of cultures. Spain feels quite far out of the way from so many places, especially when 8 hours on the bus will get you from Madrid to Barcelona, but 3-5 hours on the train can take you to other cities in other countries. Hungary is unique and complex, I love the creativity people have and the innovation to think outside the box. Even behind the pessimism, there is a love for life and it’s a country where there is always something new to discover.

Let’s talk Hungarian wine: Red or white? Favorite varietals and wineries?

While I am a red wine person, I really love dry Furmints. There are some great new dry wines coming out of Tokaj that I am glad to see are getting attention now. But the spicy reds from Villany are always welcome.

Friends are visiting Hungary for a week. Which cities or places can they not miss?

You can spend a week in Budapest and still not scratch the surface, but if people are looking to get outside the capital, then Balaton is a must – especially the north part around Tihany and Badacsony. Pécs and Eger are also magical, as is the Danube Bend. I still need to explore Hungary more, too. Szeged is next on my list.

Favorite place for dinner in Budapest?

I really love Zeller, it’s a really good farm to table restaurant, but I do have a soft spot for street food – Paneer, a new wave fried cheese place is my guilty pleasure if I’m looking for fast food. I actually think the area around Kolosy tér in Óbuda is also great for eating out – you’ve got a wide range of choices here.

Best place for drinks in Budapest?

The IX District is great if you love craft beer, like Eleszto and smaller beer places, and Kadarka on Király utca is great for wine, or nearby Café Zsivago for quiet drinks with friends in general. Maybe cause I’m biased cause I live around there, but Bartok Bela Avenue has some great hangouts. My favourite is a tiny Polish place called Gdansk, it has about 4 tables, maybe 5 if you count the one on the street and they bring in wonderful Polish beers. Then you have Szatyor and Kelet nearby, and some awesome third-wave coffee houses, such as Addicted to Caffeine. Of course, I have my VII District favourites, like Kisuzem, and the new Absinthe place that opened on Dob utca.

Craziest palinka story?

I went on a wine tour of Transylvania with some of my mum’s childhood friends from her hometown, starting from Ózd. Everyone bought their homemade pálinka with them and we were doing shots at 6 am as the bus drove out of town. I think I was already drunk when I crossed the border, which is not a good start when you have a wine tasting at lunchtime! Someone even fell off the bus when we stopped at a petrol station in Miskolc en route.

You seem to be quite the maven of culture. What are your favorite places for art, live music and coffee in Budapest?

Unfortunately, Budapest doesn’t have the art scene Madrid has, especially since the Museum of Fine Arts closed for renovations. But the Hungarian National Gallery has some great exhibitions going on. I think the best places in terms of art are the small collectives for contemporary artists, like Budapest Art Factory, which has a really amazing space. Live music – I really like A38, which is a former Ukrainian stone-carrier ship and has really interesting concerts and events. It’s a unique venue. Coffee is a harder question to answer – like I mentioned before there are some great ones around where I live, but in town, I like some of the new wave places, like Fekete, or Lumen where they have their own roastery.

Summer travel plans (besides the Balaton of course)?

No idea yet. I would love to take advantage of the new cheap WizzAir flights and go to Macedonia or Albania but haven’t made any plans yet.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for posting your experiences…mine are similar. My retired husband and I live in a smaller Hungarian-speaking city in north Serbia, near Szeged. I highly recommend Szeged, by the way! It is so very interesting to experience the differing culture, even as I struggle with the Hungarian language.