Interview: Miklós Molnár, Fungarian’s expert Budapest tour guide
Photo : Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
5/24/2017, 3:24 PM●12-minute article
Anyone who watches Miklós Molnár walk from his Rákóczi Square apartment building to the nearby red-brick market hall may easily think that he’s a celebrity – almost every passerby offers warm greetings, or stops him to ask a question. Although Miklós was prominently featured in a recent episode of Britain’s popular “Travel Man” TV series with host Richard Ayoade, this isn’t the cause for his renown; Miklós has been an established member of the District VIII community for decades, yet his unique career has taken him around the world, and brought thousands of people from around the world to him.
As the director of Fungarian – an idiosyncratic Budapest agency offering one-of-a-kind city tours and humorous Hungarian-language crash courses – Miklós Molnár can boast more experience than most; he has been a licensed Budapest tour guide since 1973, and having led countless excursions of Hungarian tour groups to far-flung regions ranging from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Central Africa and beyond, Miklós is also an intercultural communications expert with an uncanny ability to bridge diverse societies. Nonetheless, Miklós (known to his multifarious friends as “Miki”) remains an integral character of his Rákóczi Square community, and he is watching with amusement as his longtime neighborhood – regarded as a no-go zone by many Budapest residents for generations – is quickly becoming one of Budapest’s hippest districts, as more and more trendy boutiques and snazzy nightspots keep popping up nearby.
“I find it funny that people find Rákóczi Square so fancy-fancy these days,” Miki said in his library-like office, made colorful by varied artifacts from his global travels and the sunlight shining through stained-glass windows created by Magyar applied-arts master Miksa Róth, portraying tropical foliage and parrots. “Even just a few years ago, if you took a taxi with the destination of Rákóczi Square, the driver gave you a look and sized you up to determine whether you were going there to work or as a client.”
Though he is very much at home here, Miki is not a Budapest native – his family roots stretch back to a humble tanya (“farmstead”) in the eastern Hungarian countryside, where he frequently returns to visit his many brothers and sisters. However, even during his hardscrabble rural upbringing, Miki was always fascinated by languages, leading him to learn English and Russian to fluency levels at a young age, and inspiring him to move to Hungary’s capital to complete his education and become a qualified teacher and interpreter. Here he settled into the then-notorious Rákóczi Square (at the time best known for its innumerable ladies of the night), and earned his tourism license during Hungary’s communist heyday, which gave him a rare ticket to ride beyond the country’s restrictive borders.
“During communist times, I took workers on tours throughout the Soviet Union when they were rewarded with trips for their dedicated labors,” Miki says, chuckling about untold memories of these vodka-soaked excursions behind the Iron Curtain, often entailing multiple-day train journeys. Along with leading these expeditions and guiding similar groups from other Soviet Bloc nations here in Budapest, Miki continued his education to become a teacher of Hungarian as a second language; all of these experiences made him uniquely qualified to welcome the world to Budapest after Hungary’s regime change in 1989.
Since then, Miki’s intercultural work took him even further, as travel agencies began hiring him to take groups of newly liberated Magyar vacationers to varied points around the world, from Thailand to Yemen to Ethiopia and far beyond. Meanwhile, as international travelers flooded into Budapest after the Iron Curtain’s fall, Miki showed countless visitors around town – an endeavor that continues to this day through his Fungarian agency, providing lighthearted single-session Hungarian-language classes and creatively informative guided city excursions like the “Public Transport Tour”, the “Life Under Communism Tour”, and the “Momentous Selfies Tour”.
Late last year, that latter “selfie” tour intrigued the producers of “Travel Man” – the popular British TV show starring Richard Ayoade, best known as Maurice Moss from “The IT Crowd” – and they contacted Miki to appear on the show for a spring 2017 episode when Ayoade would visit Budapest along with Irish comedienne Aisling Bea. “People ask if I have special contacts or paid a bribe to be on the show,” Miki said while rolling his eyes. “I simply got an e-mail and answered back within an hour.”
After Miki agreed to provide Ayoade and Bea with an on-camera Fungarian course and to take them on the Budapest selfie tour, he more or less forgot about this engagement while tending to his usual busy schedule; it wasn’t until the night before the TV shoot that a friend excitedly let Miki know that as a star of “The IT Crowd”, RichardAyoade is almost a household name in Britain, while AislingBea is one of the hottest up-and-coming comedy doyennes of this decade. Still, when Miki showed up the next day for the first segment of the shoot at downtown Pest’s Lavender Circus hostel, he remained quite unsure what the fuss was all about.
“At the beginning I introduced myself to Richard in the corridor,” Miki recalls. “I asked Richard, ‘So, why are you famous?’ And he said, ‘I’m on TV.’ I told him, ‘Oh. The problem is, I don’t have a TV and I don’t watch TV.’” Despite this less-than-effusive introduction, Miki and Ayoade – an actor famous for his uptight sardonicism – were soon getting along very well. “I think he’s trapped in his own role, and he cannot relax … but he treated me respectfully – he was absolutely kind, and he enjoyed my pulling his leg.”
To begin the shoot, Miki provided a basic Fungarian one-hour Hungarian-language course to Ayoade and Bea, and the good chemistry extended to his interactions with both actors, despite the production’s loose structure. “There was no script, they just told me, ‘Be silly,’” Miki said. “At the beginning they said, ‘Be yourself’, and I said, ‘OK, but you don’t want that.’ … So, I did what I normally do with any client.”
After dispensing with his characteristic self-effacement and forgetting about the shining limelight, Miki set about teaching Ayoade and Bea some Hungarian basics, which went extraordinarily well; Miki especially enjoyed telling Ayoade that in Hungarian, “Richard” is pronounced “Ree-hard”, causing Ayoade to exclaim in disbelief, “I’ve been saying it wrong my whole life?!”
Next, the trio headed out into the streets of Budapest for the “selfie” tour. Although it took a little time to get adjusted to providing his tour with a professional camera crew and entourage in tow, Miki soon disregarded the extraordinary circumstances of this excursion and established a playful rapport with Ayoade and Bea. While shooting a segment by the Parliament, Miki even witnessed a quick glimpse of tenderness behind Ayoade’s mask of affectation. “At Kossuth Square, some fans noticed him, and then he put on a happy face. He was very, very nice,” Miki recalls.
Soon after this heartwarming moment, Miki led Ayoade and Bea to one of his favorite Budapest monuments – Kossuth Square’s statue of Attila József overlooking the Danube, where the veteran tour guide was pleased to highlight the works of this early-20th-century Budapest-born poet. “While we were walking through Kossuth Square, I told them about Attila József and his poems, and they understood his significance immediately,” Miki said, and he was overjoyed that this part of the excursion was included in the “Travel Man” segment; as seen in the show, Bea kissed the statue on camera after Miki translated József’s masterpiece work, “By the Danube”.
Perhaps the only regret Miki has about appearing on “Travel Man” is the way his presentation about the equestrian statue of legendary hussar András Hadik was portrayed on the show. While he suggested bringing Ayoade and Bea there with full knowledge of the monument’s humorous tradition – generations of engineering students have believed it would bring them good luck to rub the family jewels of Hadik’s horse on the morning of exams – Miki hoped that at least a little of the hussar’s lore would make it into the program. “They were nasty. I told them the story of Hadik, and then I told them about how the students are touching… this,” Miki recalls, expressing disappointment that the producers chose to only focus on the cheap joke without including anything about how Hadik and his men successfully besieged Berlin. “This is the thing I hate, the typical tourist-guide sensationalism.”
Nonetheless, Miki is delighted by the way his appearance of the show ended up, and was honored by the response he received from the “Travel Man” crew and viewers. “I feared that it would be much worse, that I would make a fool of myself, but so far I’ve had no negative feedback,” Miki beams. “Aisling asked me if I’d done a lot of filming, and when I told her it was my first time on a TV show, she replied that I have an open ticket to Hollywood.”
And this may not be the last time we see Miki on TV – recently he has been in talks with Animal Planet to possibly appear on a program with “extreme angler” Jeremy Wade, to present the intricacies of Hungarian fish soup. However, Miki remains content to focus on his life in and around Rákóczi Square, relishing his role in the community while continually welcoming guests from all over the globe to discover the charms of Budapest that he himself cherishes, and share “what you can’t find on Google.”
“I just want to make visitors happy, and tell them something that they wouldn’t learn otherwise,” he said with a smile, while raising a shot of pálinka to his lips and surveying the lively Rákóczi Square scene from a terrace table at his favorite corner eatery, where he often greets old friends and clients alike. To learn more about Miki’s many tours and lessons, check out the official Fungarian website or Facebook page.