August 2008

At least since I arrived here in Budapest, that is. The past two days — full day 2 and 3 of my sojourn in post-Soviet Europe — have boosted my faith that most people are genuinely good. Now, maybe I shouldn’t jinx myself — should I expect a random mugging or being kicked or something to balance out the day’s warm-fuzzies? — but I can’t believe how generous and nice some Budapest-ians who were complete strangers to me have been.

Hungarian Parliment from Margit Hid

Hungarian Parliment from Margit Hid

First, I went out for coffee with the former boyfriend of a good Georgetown friend who studied in Budapest several years ago. Since I’d gone almost two days without really saying anything to anyone, I talked the poor guy’s ear off (I know, that is soooo hard for anyone to imagine, seeing as how I am normally a shrinking violent, silent and serene….riiiiiight….). But he gave me a list of good places to visit, is trying to help me find a Hungarian tutor, and even taught me the essential words for getting by: thank-you, excuse me (huzzah! no more feeling like the Rude American when smacking into folks on the tram!) …and, of course, beer and wine.  Then, today, a colleague from Pazmany Peter, Kinga, met me for coffee and gave me lots of helpful background on the university, my soon-to-be-students, the English and American Studies Department, and Hungarian education in general. We also had plenty of time to chat about literature, which in and of itself would have been such fun for my book-nerd self, but she also took me to the mall, helped me buy a cell phone — an especially difficult task because you can’t buy one in Hungary unless you are a permanent resident, which means she also had to basically “register” the phone for me — showed me how to get the train to my university and offered me a ride to our department meeting Monday.

Fountain, Margitsziget

Fountain, Margitsziget

I know I haven’t been here this long, but I already feel like it will help me be more patient when I get back to the States.  Washington, whether I like it or not, has rubbed off on me — and, unfortunately, I’ve always had a bit of the rush-rush-rush, I-think-I’m-the-most-important-person-EVER mindset that infects that city. Patience was never my strong suit. Teaching, of course, taught me some of that, but experiencing the other side — the need for patience and compassion — is already making me think about how I act (and how I will act) in new ways. Right now, I am pretty helpless. I need guides and support to do everything. But yet I’ve received it, with all the kindness one could ever expect. Things that could have been frustrating, difficult or scary aren’t when  nice strangers have helped — so I hope one day I can pay that karmic debt back.

Oh, and the pictures are from my jaunt around Margitsziget (Margit Island) this afternoon. With perfect sunny, warm-but-not-hot skies, it seems like Budapest is trying to give the best first impression ever, and it made walking around a park the only sensible option for my afternoon.



At the end of my second day — and first FULL day in Budapest — I realized I kept repeating the invaluable advice of Simon & Garfunkel on how to stay “feeling groovy’: slow down.

Coming from the hyper-type-A culture of Washington … and the even more run-run-run mindset that is Washington’s Georgetown … I want to do things fast. Already, I get frustrated by wanting to do thingslearn how to use the subway, figure out how to pronounce the words I see on signs, go see all those pretty things printed in my tour book — right now and simply not being able to because I am in a completely new place where I can’t understand others and they can’t understand me. Today, I got frustrated when I bumped into someone on a tram and I couldn’t even say “excuse me” (although, I did revert to the Italian “scusi” accidentally. Why? I don’t know. I just knew English wouldn’t work so somehow, Italian came out.) I got frustrated when it took me 25 minutes to find salt in the grocery store, because while I looked up the word (it is “so” by the way) I certainly didn’t know how to ask where to find it. I got frustrated every time someone’s cell phone rang because I was jealous I didn’t have one yet.

If there were those little devil-and-angel figures that pop up on the shoulders of cartoons, my devil would be saying “screw this! let’s get out of here!,” but fortunately, the angel one has been reminding me I’ve only been here 32 hours and that I need to calm the heck down. No, I’m not going to understand anyone; yes, everything will take 20 times longer than it did in a place where I knew everything and everyone. That’s the point, isn’t it? The whole purpose of jumping into a new culture? So, while today I slept until nearly noon (guess that power-nap on the plane didn’t suffice), wandered a lot and all I accomplished was visiting the Fulbright Center to meet the staff and finding the cafe-filled Raday Utca (where, blessedly, waiters speak English and I was able to order a large … and much needed … beer), that’s pretty darn good for the day. I’ve got awhile; the rest will come.

It was a day of travel miracles: I took three separate flights to get from the familial home in Pittsburgh to Budapest, and not only did I arrive in the city at the scheduled time, all of my baggage did as well.

I’m taking this as a good omen for the upcoming year 🙂

I had a bit of help settling into my little studio apartment by Nelly, who is not only my landlady but also my colleague at the Fulbright advising center — and getting Internet access right away (thrilling!) — and she also took me on a very brief neighborhood tour. It was very odd to hear all the chattering, though, and not understand a single word. My attempts at self-teaching Hungarian were weak (at best) this summer, so it’s really being thrown into a culture shock. My travel thus far has been limited to Western Europe alone, where, even if I don’t speak much French or any Spanish, I can still make out a general flow from my passable Italian. Hungarian, though, is a different story: a strangely entrancing language, but totally incomprehensible. As I listened to people today, it reminded me again of just how hard a task so many of my Basic English students (and ESL students in any level of my English classes) face. Just a few minutes of that made my head spin, and they’re doing it every day, all day, for every task they must complete — plus, coming to class to have me yap rapidly at them for three hours!

I did, however, have my first triumph in my new culture: I successfully shopped for a few basic groceries. I know this seems underwhelming, but as noted, I don’t speak Hungarian, so it involved me wandering down a street until I found what appeared to be a supermarket, making a few educated guesses at products and prices, and paying with the lovely forints I picked up at Pittsburgh International yesterday afternoon. Seriously, I think I was prouder that I purchased some museli and apples than I have ever been with an “A” term paper or an at-work accolade. That’s actually one of the things I love about travel and living in new cultures: the ordinary event can be elevated to something really happy and exciting, just by the sheer novelty of newness.

Granted, the checkout lady did ask me something in Hungarian, to which I could only respond with a blank stare. I think she was asking for a smaller bill. Or, perhaps, she telling me off.  In which case, that language barrier can be a good thing!

Just about two hours before I head to the airport for a marathon 18-hours of flying! I’m all packed … actually, overpacked, probably — methinks one of my suitcases is overweight, but I’ll just have to pay the charge ( I know, I know…bad carbon-footprint karma, but oh well). I thought I was so good, at first, in cutting down what to bring, but over the past two days, I have kept sneaking extras in. And at least 1/3 of the stuff is books and Xeroxes (still haven’t made final decisions on the reading for my courses).

Right now, I’m not sure whether I’m going to cry or run around happily in circles like a kid given too much cake. I’m SO excited to get there … and I’m also SO nervous. Maybe the third coffee wasn’t a good idea, after all.

But it’s here now, nerves or not. Next stop: Budapest (well, after Dulles…then Frankfurt…) Szia till then!

So, in an attempt to begin the fall semester “calm and prepared” (side note: HA! Since when has teaching ever been a calm job?), I’ve been trying to get my syllabi planned before I leave. The conversation part is pretty easy, since I want to use a lot of debate of current events. But my Contemporary American Women Writers class is like trying to choose between friends. Even after talking to the head of the Literature department at Pazmany, who was all for a two-semester offering of Women Writers (allowing more in, YAY!), I still can’t seem to decide who to put in.

And I thought packing clothes would be hard. But who cares about choosing between skirts? Right now, I am trying to choose between books and stories, which is much much MUCH harder because literature is clearly much more fun than clothes (and, literature doesn’t stop fitting you after too much chocolate. But I digress). Everytime I narrow down the list, I remember five more writers or stories I want to get in. My sense of being squeezed doesn’t get any better from the fact that I am also doing this in my childhood bedroom, which is — literally — the size of a closet. I am considering strewing my photocopies in the yard for organizing if it is nice tomorrow … which may only continue to exacerbate my neighbor’s concerns about my normalcy.

Oh, and to my former professors out there, fear not from the post title: Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Tillie Olsen are not competing for the syllabi list and will all clearly be making the journey with me.

Now, if I have to leave, say, all my pants behind to fit them in … well, who needs pants, anyway?

As I’m nearing the one-week-till-departure line (it’s 8 days away now!), I’ve hit the usual slew of “lasts,” which always leaves me in a conflicted mood. On one hand, I do love movement, the excitement of some form of change. Thomas Wolfe once wrote: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement” — a sentiment which certainly holds true for me. I’m very happy when boarding a train, buying a plane ticket, even when I hop on the Turnpike and begin the very familiar journey back to my childhood home in Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the sadness of lasts, either. Particularly at what people are calling “quarterlife” now — those years in the 20s when you are definitely no longer a kid but haven’t yet donned a mantle spouse-house-kids  — where so many things are changing all at once, meeting all the “lasts” felt bittersweet this time around.

First, I had the last day of class with my students at Lord Fairfax Community College,where I have worked as an adjunct since August 2007. As a few stragglers stayed behind to thank me, I kept insisting it was the other way around: I owed the thanks. The LFCC students, combined with my wonderfully supportive department head (who makes sure her adjuncts are spared all the horror stories The Chronicle of Higher Education offers on that life) made for such a wonderful three semesters of teaching, and showed me to a career I love. I also had my last day teaching with (more…)

My very good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Carolyn — or, Karolinka, as she is re-named in her new country — is leaving today for Sofia, Bulgaria today. She’ll be an English Teaching Assistant as well, working with students to improve their speaking and writing skills. We toasted her last weekend in D.C. on Saturday with a “Stoop-A-Q” or an evening of BBQ-ing on the stoop of her large, lovable and eclectically-inhabited group house in the U Street neighborhood. Friends, food, a stoop, and a rare-for-a-Washingtonian-summer, warm-but-not-overly-hot evening made for a perfect goodbye. (she’s the lovely blonde lady in the lovely Obama tee in this photo).

In addition to the many other fine qualities that make Carolyn such a good friend, she is also responsible for my own soon-to-be adventure in Budapest: she was the Fellowship Secretary at Georgetown, so she helped me with my essays and other application materials (and she helped students win dozens of other fellowships at Georgetown this year, because she’s just that good at her job!)
But beyond her formal, professional role in the Fulbright process, Carolyn also served as a constant source of personal encouragement for me over the past year — and without her help, I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to go.

I’m so excited for Carolyn’s adventure to begin, and I can’t wait to visit her in Sofia later this year! It’s exactly 3 weeks to my own departure date now, so we’ll both be on European soil soon. Good luck and bon voyage, friend!

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