September 2008


While I was not particularly pleased to have to crawl out of bed last Saturday to help proctor the TOEFL exam at the Fulbright center — I’m hoping this is the last one till spring — I did at least get one of the best chance meetings I have had so far in Budapest. I was talking to a test-taker, while he waited for my colleague Vera to sign him in. I did the standard chit-chat: don’t be nervous, this is when you will get your scores, and ….

ME: Why are you taking the test?

TEST-TAKER GUY: Well, I want to study at a university in the United States.

ME: Oh, wonderful, any idea which one?

TTG: It is a long reach, of course, but my dream is Georgetown University.

Georgetown!!!!! Of course, that inspired a rush of Hoya-pride from me, with me gushing about how wonderful it is, how I had the best times of my life there, how Washington is a beautiful city, and so on. He responded with his own excitement to find a Hoya in Budapest, something he thought “would never happen”. I offered to read and assist on any of his essays (which is of course my job anyway at the Fulbright center, but I felt extra-ready to help in this case). As he turned to go in for his TOEFL, he turned to me with a big smile and said: ” So, wow, someone from Georgetown in Budapest. I think this is a sign for both of us, no?”

And being one who likes to believe in signs that the universe does make sense and all will be well, I had to agree.

Kinga and I

Kinga and I

An interesting tidbit I learned from my fabulous Pazmany colleagues King and Veronika, who, in addition to being very accomplished academically, are also a very good time: we were out at a very cool Budapest bar — which I would have never found without their native knowledge, hidden as it was behind a very non-descript looking courtyard door on an otherwise quiet street — and when Veronika arrived from the bar bearing two glasses of beer and one of wine, I tried one of my few Hungarian words — Egészségedre — proudly. After we clinked glasses, however, they explained that until a few years ago, you never said Egészségedre with beer, because while wine is a more native, historical drink for Hungarians — they are, most justifiably, very proud of their many wonderful wines and wine regions — beer was seen as a drink of the Austrians. Hence, beer doesn’t deserve the “to your health” toast that wine does.

Cool, huh? This is the stuff you just won’t get from guidebooks or hanging with other ex-pats, which is why I’m happy I landed at an institution with such friendly colleagues: it makes getting to know Hungarian people much easier, particularly when, as aforementioned, I don’t speak Hungarian. (Well, at least not yet…I will start classes at Central European University Tuesday, which, while it adds to my very busy schedule, is still very exciting because I look forward to being able to communicate, even just a little bit, with more Hungarians).

During our discussions of things more academic, however, we talked about the way American pst-graduate work in the humanities seems so isolating, to the point where both they and other Hungarian colleagues visiting the states suffered a sort of loneliness that goes beyond regular culture shock. Because the U.S.Ph.D. system is usually set up so the student is funded (albeit on a rather small stipend) they are encouraged…in many cases, required, whether formally or via peer pressure … to make the program their whole life. However, as Kinga and Veronika pointed out, almost all Hungarians continue to work, whether teaching or translating or something else, during their Ph.D. programs.  Work is balanced with academic work, which is also balanced with some time for family and friends. So, arriving at some U.S. university only to find one’s cohort locked in library cubicles all day (Veronika described such a case while she bravely studied through a Notre Dame winter … shudder … I don’t envy anyone a winter in South Bend) is jarring, and not in a particularly useful or good way. (more…)

So, the Soviet-esque weather (i.e. gray and dreay) is enough to dampen my spirits already, but Thursday’s work at the Fulbright office had me feeling a little more down. I worked with two students, one of whom is blind — and needs a full scholarship to study in the States — and one of whom is a Kurdish Iranian refugee in Hungary who is also in need of a full scholarship to the U.S.

Both of these people are terribly accomplished, and I’m not saying that their hopes couldn’t come true, but with the current state of American finance — where we nationalize banks, but nationalized healthcare or higher ed is “socialist” — full scholarships are going to be even fewer and more far between than ever (particularly for those people who carry Iranian passports, I suspect). I worked with each student, of course, being as encouraging as I could. They do each have a chance, and I was able to, using my highly-honed Googling skills, find information for each.  But, still, I left the office feeling pretty damn ineffectual. What is one girl with a computer really going to do?

Fortunately, fellow grantee Natalie willingly listened to me vent a bit, and so I was in a better mood by the time I came in today to lead my first TOEFL prep workshop. Perhaps it is just the familiarity of being behind a powerpoint presentation and holding a stack of handouts, but at least I felt useful today: people wanted information, and I could provide it; they had a question, and I had the answer.

I suppose the negative vibe is to be expected, however: this marks exactly one month since my arrival in Hungary, and my former boss/professor/mentor Randy, a two-time Fulbrighter, told me the one-month mark normally brings a small downward blip in mood due to the end of the “honeymoon” period and the start of real work. Thus, weekend plans to visit the spa seem necessary, now, don’t they?

You just might have decided to go try Bikram yoga (joga in Hungarian) at a studio where you don’t speak the language. Last Sunday, fellow Fulbrighter, Randall, his partner, Nick, and I headed to our first Bikram class in a studio near our houses (we all live in the IX District…. or real Budapest, as we like to call it.) Despite the fact that (1) the class is entirely in Hungarian and (2) even in English, the practice of pulling your leg up over your head in a 95-degree-heated studio is hard, we had a great time, and have been goig regularly over the past week. We’ve even convinced yoga-newbie Fulbrighter Natalie to join us, and have her addicted to the crazy pleasure of sweating your brains out while twisting your body around. (If you ever need a class in Budapest, I can highly reccommend the studio — the teachers are beautiful, sweet girls who speak  enough English for signing you in and Bikram is like a Catholic mass: it’s the same moves in any language. )

After the first time we went, I remember thinking how weird it was to something so like my Washingtonian life — Sunday morning yoga followed by coffee was my favorite routine, when not chained to the thesis or grading.  I wondered if I wasn’t being culturally “authentic” enough — why come to Budapest, after all, if I end doing the some of the same things I did back in the States? It reminds me of my attitude when I was in Italy during college: I always wanted to speak as much Italian as possible, eat at “authentic”, not tourist places, see the “authentic” culture, and so on.

But now I’m thinking that when we strive for “authentic”  experiences so hard,  as travelers, what we get is actually just the opposite. I think for Americans, with our short history,  are so wrapped up in getting this supposed “untouched” or “real” experience that we end missing what a culture truly is  for some manufactured idea of what is should be.  Or, put another way, we forget that — so like our own culture — the culture of any foreign country is complex and layered and ever-changing.  We tend to essentialize, simplify … or, to use a very nice grad-school word, we “other” these cultures.

So, for instance, bikram yoga is not a Budapest-bred activity, nor does it have any Hungarian ties. But it is being practiced in a busy studio in Budapest, full of Hungarian people, because this is a big city with continually moving and expanding culture. (more…)

Oh, and I neglected to mention the most interesting lesson I got from my student Kristoff: we were discussing wine, and he was explaining where the best wine comes from. 

Kristoff: Do you want some tips on what to buy?

Me: Of course!

Kristoff: Well, looking for Villányi wines is a good idea. They make the best wine in Villány. Also, if you are in the store, the wines that are under 500 forint are not so good.

Me: (doing quick math) Um, I think that is only like three US dollars, Kristoff. (Jokingly) Are you trying to say I look like I’d just buy the cheapest?

Kristoff: Well, you are an American, so I would say no, first. But then, you did study literature. And I have heard that, even in the States, this is not the best way to get rich, no?

I neglected to mention in my last post a very interesting conversation I had with one of my students. Kristoff is in my conversation class, and claims he is “awful” at speaking English (as do all the students … they are so negative about their abilities!), despite the fact that he sounds fairly indistinguishable from a native speaker, albeit with a light British accent. But Kristoff and I were sitting next to each other on the train home from Pázmány after class, and he was availing himself of my presence to practice speaking.  He is such a hard worker — all my students are, really — and he is so eager to practice English. He said he even spent the summer cruising Ráday utca, a street near my apartment with many tourist-friendly spots, in search of practice: “I just look for people looking confused and trying to communicate in English, then I go help them so they’ll talk to me,” he explained.

But then he said something which every teacher longs to hear:

“I’m very glad to be in your class, because you are willing to talk to us after school. You are very easy to talk with,”

Huzzah! I have established rapport — what all teachers (or good teachers, anyway) want with their students. But the next thing Kristoff shared wasn’t so cheerful.

“Most teachers here, they don’t seem to care about the students at all.”

Surely, he could be showing the typical student apathy to professors, but I think he is probably speaking…to an extent … the truth. Most teachers probably don’t have time to sit on the train and gab about FoX News or what the bars in Georgetown are like or the difference in Hungarian wine varieties with their students. I teach 3 classes at one university; some of them, just to make a living, teach 10, 12 or even 15 classes at a variety of schools. My favorite colleague there holds down three jobs and she is getting a book published in English (and, amazingly, she is the sweetest, most helpful person I could hope to meet. Anyone who saw me during my three+ jobs, plus thesis, last year, knows that wasn’t the case with me, so her attitude alone is awe-inspiring. She smiles; I was so grumbly I scared the downstairs neighbors into asking my roomie Amanda to “get me out” more) (more…)

… I am legally a resident of the Republic of Hungary, until July 31! I went to get my residence permit today — thankfully with my Hungarian-speaking landlady — and it was a mess. They just changed the rules on how to get on Jan. 1, and it seems the country hasn’t recovered from it yet.  I already spent a good number of my Fridays at CNDLS this summer (hey, sorry CNDLS folk… I swear I did most of it while entering stuff on Excel sheets! … )on the phone with the Hungarian Embassy, waiting for answers about Visas versus residence permits and what I needed (and more often than not, just waiting for someone to answer the phone, as the Consulate staff in D.C. seems to consist of one person).  Everyone at the Embassy gave me different answers. Everyone at the Fulbright Office gave me different answers. Even today, everyone at the Immigration office had different requirements. Which meant more than two hours just waiting, in a tiny, Soviet-looking room filled with exchange students from everywhere.

Well, everywhere but America it seems. There were Brits, Russians, Moroccans, Moldavians, several from India, even a Georgian (who, it should be noted, seemed to be keeping distance from the Russian who was pontificating loudly to two Czech girls about why Russia was in the right during this latest attack). Due to the latest machinations of the G.O.P and their Sarah-I-Can-See-Russia-from-my-fishingboat-hence-that-counts-as-“Foreign Policy Experience”-oh-P.S.-I-think-Jesus-rode-a-dinosaur-Palin, I kept finding myself covering my exposed passport cover with my hand, lest anyone see the USA embossed on it and mistake me for one of that side. I’d go further…but I’m trying to stop my Washingtonian-rant impulses, now that I live quite solidly out of the Beltway.

I did, however, get to meet another sort of political figure this weekend: a knight. No really, I did. (more…)

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