Midnight train to Budapest (and our nation’s financial meltdown)

Long ago, I was riding in a cold overnight train to Budapest. With a certain degree of trepidation, two dear friends and I were traveling into the unknown.

We had heard some scary stories of Americans traveling in Hungary. There were tales about Americans not having a mysterious passport stamp and, in the middle of cold winter nights, being thrown from trains at the country’s border. There were stories about the black market overtaking what looked to be legitimate places to change money and creating trouble for Americans. And stories about taxi drivers flipping a mystery switch on their meters to quadruple the fares of Americans.

As the train rambled along, I was reading about our destination in a travel guide. Even with all the uncertainty, in my mind at that point (and this is the scary part), life couldn’t have been better.

“There’s a saying in Budapest,” the travel guide read. “If only we could afford to live as well as we live, how well we would live.”

After a day in Budapest, I understood the spirit of the saying. Even as it dusted Communism off its once and future self, the city was magical. Its food was heavenly. The streets seemed enchanted. The views breath-taking. The music divine. Things like Ferris wheels would just appear as we rounded corners. Children would start singing as we crossed streets. Free concerts would spring to life in front of us. Crazy, but entertaining, taxi drivers would take us on hurly-burly tours of the city they loved. While I’m sure a re-visit could never live up to my memories, of this I am certain: My friends and I spent one of the most memorable weekends of my life uncovering one miraculous adventure after another.

In the last two weeks, I’ve thought a lot about Budapest.

Sadly, I haven’t been thinking of the wonders of the city. I’ve been thinking about that saying in the guidebook. The Hungarian city divided by the Danube may have started it, but we Americans have taken living beyond our means to new heights.

And, at this point, no one I know knows what to do about our predicament.

Economic experts say the American economy has turned a corner and entered a new era. Ultimately, they tell us, our economy has toppled because of subprime loans – mortgages offered above the prime interest rate to folks with below average credit ratings. Apparently, the below average credit rating could be due to a number of factors – the borrower’s poor credit status, his or her income and job history or the income to mortgage payment ratio.

In interest of full-disclosure, you should know that I had one semester of economics when I was a senior in high school.

In the last decade, I’ve thought what Mrs. Sue Minter taught our economics class about creating personal budgets made me feel sort of like my own children might feel reading a textbook about “one day we may put a man on the moon.” My vast knowledge of economics, largely based on Mrs. Minter’s early 1980’s thinking, was so out-dated.

“Plan to use between 30 and 40 percent of your income to rent your home,” she said in class one day. “And when you get ready to buy a home, you should have saved at least 20 percent of the price of the home you want to buy to use as a down payment.”

She went on to say that it’s a good rule of thumb to buy a house valued at “about twice your annual income.”

That silly Mrs. Minter and her old-fashioned common sense.

Just think where our country would be had we listened to our high-school economics teachers. We’d likely be living in and owning more of lesser homes, and our country’s banking industry would not be struggling.

Much like the train ride my friends and I took to Budapest, we as a country are headed into the unknown. For more than a generation, we’ve lived lives beyond plenty. Maybe this change in our country’s economic status is the only way our general population can re-focus priorities. The trick here is understanding that doing with less doesn’t mean life isn’t as fun or exciting. The trick here is looking deeper into those moments when we and those we love are actually happy. From there, this is a chance to be resourceful, revisit old decisions and make different choices about how we spend our money and time.

Who knows? This time of uncertainty could lead to new places and adventures – and a way of life as different and magical as that weekend my friends and I spent in Budapest long ago.

Jan Risher is a working mother and writer living in Lafayette. Her column appears in The Daily Advertiser every Sunday. E-mail her at jan@janrisher.com

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