November 2008


As  my US counterparts stumble from their turkey-induced sleepiness into the bright dawn of Black Friday “doorbusters” (ah, the irony: give thanks for what you have. Then, line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m. to get even more! How truly American…), I’m working away at the Fulbright Center, in a country where Thanksgiving is not formally celebrated, but feeling pretty full of thanks myself.

So, in no particular order,  some reasons why I am feeling as full of thanks as I was of food last night. I am thankful:

  • For being here in Hungary, in a beautiful city. This week marks the three-month mark of my time here, and I am still loving it. Certainly as the winter comes, I’m have my ick-down days (major seasonal affective disorder) … and I have my frustrations (the language…which is coming very s-l-o-w-l-y, despite Gabi’s best efforts… the Magyar Posta’s insane tax rates … general slowness of anything bureaucratic) but I’m continually thankful to be here. I can’t believe I was so worried about it, and really grateful I took a chance.
  • For NOVA -Loudoun  holding me a job so I can have this year in Budapest. I ended up in a situation where I was offered my dream job — full-time English teaching at a community college — at the same time as the Fulbright. While most people said it was enviable, I agonized about the options. But my wonderful dean offered me the chance of deferring the job. It is a situation so perfect, I often actually worry about it — as if I might have dreamed it up. How often does one get all that they want? It is rare. And I am grateful for it.
  • For friends here. My Fulbright cohort has fun, smart people who like doing fun, smart things, so I haven’t ever felt lonely here. (I even have yoga buddies, something I found it difficult to find even in the US!) And I got very lucky with my placement at Pázmány, as my colleagues there have turned out to be great friends at well. When the snow first hit earlier this week, for instance, I was feeling mope-y, so my colleague Veronika came to see Mamma Mia! the movie with me.  Colin Firth is always uplifting; Colin Firth dubbed into Hungarian is like cinematic Prozac times ten.
  • For surviving Junior High. I went to help my Fulbright colleague, Annamaria, judge an English pronunciation contest at a Hungarian middle school yesterday. The kids were so sweet (and so nervous!), but as I looked around the room, I realized how middle school/junior high is the same in any culture. I could see all the types: who was popular and pretty, who was the class clown, which boys were the sporty-fratty-get-all-the-girls types, which boy probably writes music and plays guitar and is under-appreciated now but will be every girl’s heartthrob come college for his sensitive soul … even which of the kids fit the  bookish, so-nerdy-my-sister-didn’t-want-people-to-know-we-were-related type that I was. And while this is adorable to watch from a distance, I have to say I’m glad I am past that stage of life! 
  • For U.S. friends. Whenever someone goes for a year abroad, everyone always say “oh, I’ll visit”. But rarely do they actually do it.  I, however, have a full house in through the majority of January! Yay! (and what better way to attack that seasonal-affective issue??) 
  • For family in all its definitions.
  • For Hungarian wines, Hungarian food, Hungarian dessert …

…or the power of Toni Morrison.

The last time I posted about teaching, I had been very worried about how I was going to approach The Bluest Eye.  Because it’s subject matter is so difficult. Because it is hard to “get” Morrison without a good base in American race relations. Because my students here are more conservative with regards to feminism than I am used to. Because…well,a  lot of reasons. It is a great book. But it is not an easy one.

Yet, the students came through. Overall, they loved it. Several plan to write on Morrison for their final, and they were more talkative during the discussion session than I have seen them so far.  I wish I could take credit for this myself, but I think that belongs to Morrison — her magical prose, I believe, was what got them excited. No one writes quite like her. Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably compelling. 

Perhaps, however, it can be seen as lesson for the teacher: don’t underestimate the student.  If anything, the class proved it is better to assign the hard book that is rich and deep than to assign a “easier” text that doesn’t have all the layers.  This isn’t to say the students didn’t struggle with The Bluest Eye — how, for instance, can they understand the typology of the “assimilationist” black woman Geraldine without understanding the whole history of the “race question” in the United States? But the struggle proves useful, if the writing is compelling: it seems to create the natural drive to “figure it out”. So “hard” or “difficult”, then, is not always a bad thing.

It’s official: I’m getting old. After a quick overnight trip Saturday and Sunday in Eger, a wine-growing region in the northern hills of Hungary, I am dead tired and I know I’ll be dragging myself back to the coffee stand at Pázmány multiple times to keep my pep level appropriate for teaching toady. But a little sleepiness is a fine price to pay for the fun of seeing a new place.  Eger was simply charming, and the bonus of traveling in late November was the “low season” atmosphere which made our tramping through vineyards and exploring the underground tunnels of the Bishops massive wine cellar (it was good to be in the church back then, judging by the size of his wine rooms) and enjoying the gorgeous pastel-colored buildings lining the streets even better, as we weren’t surrounded by any tourist hordes.

Natalie, Sarah and Baldur explore the vineyard

Natalie, Sarah and Baldur explore the vineyard

In the city center

In the city center

While Saturday was bright and sunny and mild (perhaps, alas, the last of such weather this year…we could have snow by Wednesday), Sunday dawned with such a thick fog it was like walking through a surreal dream. Yet, in a town which still has castles and towers, this soupy air actually made touring even more interesting, as it was all the easier to imagine we were living in Eger’s past … one could almost expect a knight to come charging out of the mist.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

My latest Hungarian language class revealed something very interesting about the language … and made me happier that we’ve now moved on to verbs (honestly, if you saw the …umm…”interesting” ways of conjugating, you might better understand why after two months of lessons, I am still stuck on a vocabulary that consists of various polite greetings and ways of ordering wine, beer, and coffee — the essentials, of course!):  there are but two letters separate the verb for “teach”, which is tanit and “learn” which is tanul.

I am no linguist, so I can’t use that discipline to explain the short space which separates these two functions. But I do find it very fitting that the language makes these actions so closely related. As a relatively young teacher, who often the “newest” to the classroom of all my colleagues, I often feel like I’m rushing to keep up.  Sometimes, I look at a student taking a note about something I have said or scribbling down a question I have asked and I worry a bit…“what if I was wrong? ”   Of course, I try to make my teaching discussion-based so that there are multiple voices and opinions, and I strive to never make it seem as if I am truly professing “answers” to any literary or cultural project but rather prodding inquiry. But I still find myself sometimes doubting, wondering do I really know enough to be here?  For instance, I just assigned Toni Morrison’s  novel The Bluest Eye for my Contemporary American Women Writers class, and I am a bit nervous about it. Morrison won the Nobel for a reason: in addition to her amazing lyricism of language and her incomparable ability to dissect the mythos of American society, Morrison shies away from no “ugly” part of the human experience … particularly, when that experience is lived under oppression. The Bluest Eye contains, in my opinion, the best analysis of racialized beauty standards in the U.S., as well as pointed and timeless critique on class and gender — but it also contains poverty, rape and incest. It is an important book, but it is a tough book. As such, I worry about doing the great Ms. Morrison justice. My students, more used to the “canon” of English literature than the modern American things I teach, might not be used to such subjects…and I worry they will shy away. In preparation for the discussion, I wanted to assign a scholarly article that helped illuminate some of the major themes in the book, but I couldn’t think of one on my own. I sent out a call to friends in Ph.D. programs and from graduate school, and got a few good ones back…including several I had never read. But the abstract of one of the new articles sounded perfect. I assigned it.

And then I got that bit of nagging Am I a fraud at this professor business?  feeling. Wouldn’t a “real” professor have already known that? Sure, I know I am exaggerating the ideal that every literature professor has read every article they assign multiple times, but I still feel a little like I am rushing to keep up. Perhaps it is a feeling exacerbated by the fact that I do not have a Ph.D. I don’t plan on getting one any time soon, either — give me students over a dissertation any day — but I do know those extra six years of graduate school would have given me a six-years-longer list of read works … and then, of course, the pricks of inadequacy come.

But Gabi’s Hungarian lesson on the closeness of tanit/tanul was a good reminder that just because “teach” and “learn” are so different in English, it does not mean they are necessarily such different positions. The true teacher must always learn, after all: how can you effectively teach a true discussion if you already have your mind closed to a new “answer”? Then you are not really posing questions at all, but merely leashing your students along. Indeed, my course design style, in all of my classes, has included a fair bit of selecting all those “things I meant to read” texts. Sometimes I worried that such an approach would seem haphazard; but, oftener, I felt that my learning alongside the students could be quite beneficial, as it not only enriches me as a teacher overall but also helps me better understand and aid their struggles as I grapple with new work. My learning something new about The Bluest Eye, then, might indeed be the best way to teach it to a new group.

And maybe my students, although they might not be comfortable with the material, at first, can help me bring new eyes to a novel and writer I, as the teacher, think I know so well. Tanit/Tanul: atfer all, the space between us is not so wide.

Being a Hungarian Fulbrighter is coolest type of Fulbright-ing for any number of reasons — the wine culture, the fact that we have spas, the crazy language where one word can last four paragraphs, the paprika — but it is especially cool because every month, the Fulbright Commission takes us somewhere for a meeting, where we all get to see each other and catch up. It makes for a nice happy family feel to the whole thing experience. And this month, we spent part of the trip at my very own university, Pázmány Péter, with a tour of the unique design by modern “organic” architect Imre Makovecz (a little like Frank Llyod Wright in philosophy, although the style itself is very different) led by the incomparable Veronika Schandl.

With just two months at the school, I have already developed a pride in it which, if it doesn’t match my Georgetown love, could certainly grow to that level, so I was quite happy to see it shown off to my group here.

Pázmány!

Pázmány!

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

Hungarian Fulbright Group

Hungarian Fulbright Group in Esztergom

Happy Monday!

OK, OK: I really will start putting up more posts that are actually about Hungary and teaching and get off of my political spree, but my happiness hangover hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Hungarian free commuter paper. Headline reads "The President"

Hungarian free commuter paper. Headline read: "The President".

Yesterday, all the Fulbrighters had our monthly meeting. We visited my school, Pázmány Péter University, then crossed the border for a nice group lunch in a village in Slovakia, where the head of the Fulbright Commission in Hungary, Dr. Huba Bruckner, delivered a very short — but touching — speech to toast President-elect Obama. He noted, as so many people here have, that the change marks an era of hope not just for America, but for his country and for everyone.  A Hungarian man addressing a bunch of Americans from all over the country (we literally span from New York to California, hitting everywhere from Kentucky to Pennsylvania in between) while standing withing the borders of Slovakia, and all were happy about the same thing: a wide-reaching sense of hope indeed.

Oh and one more note: I will be traveling with the Commission and several Fulbrighters to Veszprém, a smaller city in Hungary, where we will discuss American education and our own projects here in Hungary … and, where we will visit the American Corner to talk about the elections. Then head of this office, Judit, e-mailed me and asked if I thought I’d be able to talk about the topic. Able to talk? I asked. The bigger problem is able to shut up about it — they’re going to need one of those big canes from vaudeville days to pull me offstage…

I know I once mentioned that I was going to try to avoid being all politic-y on this blog … my attempt to distance myself from spending 7+ years — nearly all of my adult life — in Washington, D.C. and fearing I was developing a Beltway-bounded,constantly caffienated, Hill-jargon peppered mindset.

But I can’t help it. I woke up this morning like a kid on Christmas: happy but too groggy to figure out why at first, then remembering why and leaping out of bed (or Ikea futon, as the case may be) even happier. It’s like a happiness hangover… the excitement of watching that map turn blue, of seeing places Ohio (OHIO?!?!) and Indiana, where my one of my favorite DCists has been living for more than a year, working on getting that state to go blue for the first time in god knows when (YAY Ian! Wonderful work!).

My usual Wednesday schoolwork-day was spent instead glued to my computer, inhaling news (lesson plans? eh, they can be done on the weekend. Even I can’t concentrate on feminist literature right now.) I’ve watched the acceptance speech on replay, crying several times, and then watched all the New York Times and Washington Post videos. One of my favorites shows the celebrations on U Street in D.C., one of the historically black neighborhoods in the city, which has experienced rapid gentrification, leading to a sometimes tense mix of old residents with young white urbanites looking to be “hip” and buying up overpriced lofts. But they all looked pretty happy and loose here.  Sure, I get it: this doesn’t dissolve the racial tensions America still has or the inequality it still has or fix the fact that most places … and the capital city of Washington, certainly among them … are divided sharply on color lines; yet, it is still a moment, however fleeting, of living up to the ideals. It makes me miss D.C. a bit — I know I would have been dancing on down to the White House as well — and I do find it ironic to be away from D.C. now, after living there through the last two elections (the only other two during which I was old enough to vote), since there will finally be an inauguration where I would go to celebrate, not protest. 

But it is also very cool to be abroad at this historic moment: I was thinking about how some of the last people left at 4 a.m. Hungarian time at our election party actually weren’t even American. A group of Brits (or Aussies? I can’t always distinguish the accent) cheered as loud as we did as the blue swept through Pennsylvania and a table of young Hungarians covered themselves with Obama stickers in the lead up to the calling of Ohio. Yesterday, in line at the post office, a Hungarian woman saw “USA” address written on my postcards and gave me a thumbs-up. This morning, my colleague at the Fulbright office, Csanád, walked in and hugged me, all teary-eyed as he explained how much the Obama win meant for his country as well.  Students who came to my afternoon writing workshop literally bubbled over with excitment, with two saying they stayed up all night, as I did, to see Obama win, which one said might “…help all of us with ending prejudice.”  As the New York Times puts it, despite all the troubles my country still faces, “…from far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens. Never, in my lifetime, have I seen this reaction to politics, to the country I come from — I’m fine with letting the happiness hang over a bit longer before coming back to reality.

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