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Budapest: the Paris of the East

The Hungarian capital is a most lively and thrilling place to be; a city which makes a student's heart beat faster. In Budapest you can choose between plenty of universities, some teaching in Hungarian, some in German and, as is the case at the Central European University, in English. I made my choice very quickly and clearly – it had to be the CEU. Several professors had recommended this academic institution to me, which is very renowned throughout Eastern Europe, especially in the field of social science.

It is a remarkable moment when you walk into the main hall of CEU for the first time, as if you were stepping onto a totally independent island in the middle of Budapest

One has to know that CEU is a private institution founded by an intellectual consortium lead by George Soros, a Hungarian-American financial investor. When Soros founded the CEU in 1991 he not only had an educational purpose in mind but also strived to promote a clear political mandate. Only two years before the founding of the university, a democratic revolution swept across Central and Eastern Europe. Soros dreamt of contributing to this shift, wanting to open up society and democratise it. The official mission statement on the CEU homepage declares its commitment "to bringing together students from the 30 Eastern European countries and from the West in order to nurture respect for diverse cultures and opinions, human rights, constitutional government, and the rule of law."

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Photo: Lea Steinruecke
Felix on a cold Hungarian night

CEU today is a uniquely global institution, with more than 1500 students from 100 countries and 300 faculty members from more than 30. It is a remarkable moment when you walk into the main hall of CEU for the first time, as if you were stepping onto a totally independent island in the middle of Budapest. Although Budapest is an international metropolis, the CEU constitutes a little academic global village in itself. Leaving the background sounds of Hungarian outside, you have to switch to the working and teaching language of English immediately. You will hardly meet Hungarian students at the CEU. Most come from all over the world and bring different previous academic knowledge with them. Despite this international character of the CEU, it is amusing to observe how people from the same country always end up huddling up together, thereby creating special national meeting zones within the university.

You might have been lucky enough to study at a central campus university, where seminar rooms are easy to reach. Compared to the CEU these institutions are still large distance campuses. The vast majority of the CEU's departments and faculties are located in one huge main building (with ten storeys!), in the heart of Budapest, within walking distance from St. Stephen's Cathedral and the Danube river banks. Most faculties have their own academic floor and within five minutes you can reach the other side of the spacious building, as long as you have succeeded in coping with the maze, which, I have to admit, took me almost half of my stay. The CEU is like a little town; you can find nearly everything a student's heart could possibly long for: a meditation and chill out room with couches, a cafeteria in the basement, a canteen for students, professors and staff, computers and an internet area, a university cinema, a Japanese garden (no kidding), proprietary sports facilities on the other side of the street and for those who actually want to study, you will find one of the best equipped academic libraries in Europe on the first floor.

As the CEU is a private university there are not many Hungarians who can afford to pay the tuition fees. This, and its closed, 'village-like structure' that I described above, have the effect of creating a rather isolated and tight community of international students who tend to forget where they are actually studying. So better be careful in this respect!

Budapest combines the grand air of a gentlewoman and the vitality of a budding indie rock band

Courses are given in small, intimate groups and led by competent and motivated teaching staff in an inspiring and competitive study atmosphere. Every day you have the choice to attend at least two conferences, thematic seminars or panel discussions in the auditorium or you can participate in student initiatives and associations. In the evening the CEU offers a wide range of free language courses which I used to improve my Spanish.

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Photo Source: ANNA ÜÜÜ; www.youthmedia.eu; CC-License(by-nc)
Szimpla, a café in Budapest

Every need that is not covered by the Central European University itself can be found in Hungary's capital Budapest, which is not without cause called the Paris of the East or the Pearl of the Danube. It combines the grand air of a gentlewoman who has already lived her best years, and the vitality of a budding indie rock band. The stucco crumbles from former glorious buildings. But there is a vibrant artistic scene in the underground (literally) as many semi-illegal bars open in the basement of abandoned houses, ready to be dismantled if they are discovered by the police; only to move away and occupy the next ruin. One such pub is only accessible if you possess one of the 300 keys which are distributed all over town and are very sought after.

Living costs in Budapest have risen to comparable standards to those you would encounter in a Western European city such as Berlin. You can easily count on spending 250 euros to rent a room in a shared student flat. For Hungarians, who usually earn very little, costs are skyrocketing, and they often share a room (and even a double bed) to save money. However, going out at night is quite affordable if you choose to go to one of those hidden bars where locals and artists meet and where drinks are cheap; a perfectly student-friendly place.

Teaser Photo: Lea Steinruecke

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