Judit Anna Majtényi: When you and I started to exchange e-mails in 2009, you told me I remind you of your 18-year-old self as you did the same after finishing high school: you went to the US to try your luck and did babysitting there. Was this the first time you visited the States?
Krisztina Bombera: Yes, and the big difference between my time there and your time there is that I was a child of communism. I went there in ‘91, I had hairy legs, and I had no idea about pop culture, have never seen any part of the free world before, so that was a shocking cultural difference for me as opposed to you, being a global citizen in 2009 when you came to visit me… and also, they were just burning down Los Angeles when I showed up. It was right after the Rodney King beating. He is a black man who was beaten up by the white poice and that was captured in video. So that was a culture shock as well.
JAM: Did you go into the crowd or mingle with them anyhow?
KB: No, actually there was a curfew, and I was already in school for two weeks then, and we were separated from black children by the police, so it was like “White kids go this way!” and “Black kids go that way!”
JAM: From 2007 until 2009 you were the correspondent of the Hungarian Television in New York City. I know that New York is not like other parts of the US and that Budapest is also different from the rural regions and the smaller cities, so I’m not asking you to compare the cultural gap between Hunagrians and Americans in general, but as for New York and Budapest… do you think there are things in which residents of Budapest are better and others in which New Yorkers are, and can they maybe learn from each other?
KB: I think it was actually a good idea to narrow down your focus onto multicultural, urban environments, because I believe that the difference between Budapest and New York is a lot less than between New Jersey and New York. Jersey is just like 50 kilometres away from New York, but it’s a rural, mainly conservative and white area. Anyway, multiculturalism is something we can elaborate a bit more on, because we, Hungarians do have it, we are not a homogeneous society. If you just go to the Roma districts in summer nights, and people are sitting outside, playing the guitar… ad still, we do not take as much pride in it as Americans do. The US was built on a heterogenous society and their slogan is “the more colorful we are, the more powerful we are.” As for us, we would say we are proud of our roots, our history and we do not really appreciate how colorful we are which I think is not really the strength of us, but this is a matter of taste. So that’s one part, and the other is… a lot of people would think that New York is too big or you can feel lonely or lost in it, but it is on the contrary. They very much keep their local habits and connections and they can live totally fine next to each other… the Pakistani community with the Israeli on the other side. They have nothing in common, they don’t mingle, but they still respect each other, and they still think that they are New Yorkers, and that’s what keeps them together. One thing that does not really work is the social differences. The poor and the rich do not really contact with each other apart from the subway. If you get on the subway, you do see every part of society sitting next to each other. The rabbi next to the broker, or the mayor of New York next to the homeless. The station they get off does determines where they come from and where they are going. They never get off at the same station, and it’s very telling.
JAM: I think what you mentioned is a very nice metaphor, and it also hints the concept of the melting pot. How completely different people can live next to each other peacefully. They did keep their traditions, they are proud of their ancestors, but also, they feel American, and this is what helps them to relate to each other.
KB: They did change the metaphor a couple of decades ago, it is now salad ball: you don’t want to melt in, you want to be part of a big thing and still, keep your stems.
JAM: Do you think that living in New York changed you anyhow?
KB: It did, definitely for my benefit in so many senses. Like being more flexible and considerate to your environment for mutual benefits… and the most important thing I learnt was the volunteer system. First I experienced it in the aftermath of the 9/11 events and from time to time later on. There were teachers who lost their jobs and they taught Maths for poor children who could not afford a good school. What they thought was “I do what I love to do, I don’t get money anyway, so why wouldn’t I help the needy?” It’s just a matter of attitude. I get back to it again, but this is part of their history. The puritans who arrived there on the Mayflower did keep their religion and had to keep together because of the lack of the social state. On the continent, we are trained to be patronized by the welfare state we live in, it is an active state contrary to the US, where it is rather passive. So in the US the locals have to co-operate a lot in order not to fall apart. In Hungary, it also the communist era that determined our attitude. It destroyed all trust-based connections between people.
JAM: You did not only have the chance to appear daily in the Hungarian news with your short reports, but you also made longer interviews and reports. Is there any you would like to highlight because you found it especially interesting?
KB: The interviews that touched me the most were civil interviews, not high profile interviews. For example, the one I made with brokers about their team building session. They had to volunteer at a company helping homeless people to reintegrate into the work force. Once on of the homeless finally got a job opportunity, they would prepare him or her for the job interview: buy a suit, tell how to behave, make their CV, etc. So there were a bunch of millionaires actually ironing shirts and giving advice to disadvantaged people on how to appear in front of the board… it was priceless.
JAM: It is linked closely to something you mentioned before, that the biggest problem is the differences between the social classes. It is so great that they spotted the existence of this problem and try to reduce it.
KB: Yes. It teaches sensibility towards people you have never met and you have no idea how they live. It definitely narrows the gap between those classes.
JAM: When it comes to doing interviews, who do you think are more open to the public? American or Hungarian public personalities?
KB: No question that Americans, and both public and private people. Public people know that it’s an obligation to give interviews: they think that once you are famous, you have to be transparent and can’t refuse getting cross-examined by the press.
JAM: This is a really light and personal question. What are your favourite locations in New York?
KB: I love Brooklyn, I so much prefer it to Manhattan. I have lived in Brooklyn for three different periods in my life, I know that neighborhood quite well. And of course Central Park is always Central Park. I really appreciate it, especially with the children. I also like Coney Island. It is a 100% Russian place and the ocean is so beautiful there. It is really old-fashioned, with the wooden docks… just like in the films. I wish I knew Harlem more. Last time I was there was with you on the day when Michael Jackson died. That was history.
JAM: Yes, that was my first experience in the US. It was a culture shock as well. Here comes my final question. Is there any kind of advice you can give to young people in the field of media? There are dozens of us and one should be extremely talented and lucky to find a great job in the mass media. So is there a receipt to be successful?
KB: I think media is a matter of luck a lot more than normal fields. For example when I started, commercial television business just opened in Hungary. When I graduated from ELTE, that was the year when they opened and they were literally hunting for people. I didn’t even apply, they looked me up. Of course I didn’t receive money, I was an intern and I had to work like hell for years without being paid, but is was an investment, I feel it was totally worth it. What I personally always knew in my professional life was what I did not want to do. You have to navigate through your chances and be flexible, but you should alway know what you do not want to be and that’s good enough, because it helps in framing your chances. For instance, I have always known that I’m not interested in entertainment, I couldn’t care less about show business.
JAM: Even if a really tempting opportunity came, you would say no if you felt you couldn’t identify yourself with it?
KB: Yes. I turned those down, and I never regretted it for a moment. I knew I wouldn’t be good at it and I didn’t like it and I would be just pretending to enjoy it. So that was personally my guidance through this business. So I think you shouldn’t accept everything that comes to your way. That does keep your integrity and keeps you on the track. There are so many things you cannot frame the way you like it, but I think it is important to keep this factor under control.