Interview with Péter Pölczman

Péter Pölczman first caught Rick's attention as a local guide in Budapest, where he would lead morning walking tours for our Best of Eastern Europe and Prague–Budapest tour groups. Now he leads many of those multi-day tours from start to finish. He loves our tour members' enthusiasm and willingness to learn about Eastern Europe (and Hungary in particular). Péter's favorite city is Budapest, of course, which he calls home. He is honored to turn our tour members into temporary locals whenever they visit.

Was it grim growing up under communism in Hungary?

When I was a child, Hungary enjoyed "Gulash Communism" (a relatively liberal strain of communism), therefore I did not experience a lot of oppression personally. I sang cheerful communist songs, yes. I wore the Pioneers' red bandana, too. But at the same time I watched Tom & Jerry, Magilla Gorilla, and other Western cartoons. I started to hate the Soviets only when a Communist Party bigwig died in Moscow and our TV station pre-empted my beloved cartoons to broadcast his funeral service from Red Square! So I grew up with no (or little) harm done and lived happily in a dictatorial system, which is difficult to understand for someone who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

How has Hungary changed since the fall of communism?

Hungary has changed completely since the fall of communism in 1989: Monuments have been renovated, the highway system expanded, and everybody drives Western cars. If you walk around in downtown Budapest it is hard to imagine this place was ever part of the Eastern Bloc. Kids watch Hannah Montana, teenagers use Facebook, and 20-somethings fall in love with Tinder. Soon after the fall, we suddenly had to learn how to use credit cards, run businesses, and file our own tax reports. I was a teenager in 1989, which was a great advantage, because I had a chance to learn languages, use computers, and grow up with a mindset that was harder for older people to adopt.

How did you become involved as a Rick Steves guide?

In 2001 the Hungarian Tourist Board sent me on an assignment to assist Rick Steves when he was doing research in Budapest. Rick liked my enthusiasm for the city and put me in his Eastern Europe book as a local guide. Later the company's Best of Eastern Europe tour groups arrived, and I was hired to take them on walking tours of Budapest. These tourists seemed refreshingly different to me. I liked their travel philosophy, their eagerness to learn, and their fun-loving approach to travel, so I decided to join them. I have been on the bandwagon since 2007 leading Best of Eastern Europe and PragueBudapest tours from beginning to end.

What is your favorite destination on the Rick Steves Eastern Europe Tour?

It is easy to fall in love with Prague, Kraków is charming, and Plitvice Lakes National Park takes your breath away. But there is nothing like home! Teaching tour members about Budapest — and turning them into temporary locals in a metropolitan city — is a challenge and privilege at the same time. When I see they are comfortable using public transport, they know all about 1896, and they are happily floating in Széchenyi Baths — all this reassures me that Budapest was, is and will always be my favorite city on the Eastern Europe tour.

How do you see your mission as a tour guide?

In true Rick Steves fashion I like to challenge my tour members' vision of "Eastern Europe." This is an area that most people know by its communist past, which leads to several misunderstandings and false conclusions. To start with: I like to tell my tour members they are not even in eastern Europe! (We prefer "central Europe," or, even better, "the heart of Europe.") I teach them what we had to endure under the Nazis and the Soviets, which helps people realize the importance of democracy and how we cannot take it for granted. But the best part is when I talk about what an average Hungarian can expect from the government: three years of maternity leave, paid day care for kids, elementary school, high school, and universities for free…some of my tour members want to switch passports right away! So when I see old preconceptions melt away, people being transformed by their experience, and when I see my tour members are having the time of their lives in the heart of Europe, where they never thought they would ever laugh…well, that makes my day.