December 2008


Just when the sudden decline of the dollar (what’s up Feds?!?!? I was enjoying my 205 forint-to-the dollar rates of last month), the nonstop gray rain of Budapest (not sure I will ever feel properly dry again), or the surge of transit strikes (unfortunately, the Magyar folk take striking a lot more seriously than the Italians, whose regular sciopero generale were always quite short and really seemed more of a way to get a Friday afternoon off ) were threatening to dilute my burgeoning holiday cheer, Christmas-y relief came in the form of impromptu caroling.

Although I have never actually caroled in the States, I have to say my first experience here was exactly what was needed, and I am ready to revive this tradition when I get back. Fellow Fulbrighter Eric, and his girlfriend, Jenny, invited me to their flat for dinner and coquito, the Puerto Rican version of eggnog. Once inside (and one glass of the frosty, delicious stuff later) the two sprang the idea of surprise caroling on me. They had assumed –correctly — that of all the Fulbright group, I’d be most likely not to turn and run at the suggestion (being that I have never shown any aversion to making a fool of myself, a skill I find quite  handy as a teacher.)  So, we plunked a few bottles of coquito in an old T-mobile bag, pulled on hats and umbrellas, and headed to Sarah’s house. The look on her face when three dripping friends sang off-tune “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was more than worth the walk. Then, the four of us headed to do the same for Natalie, who seemed much more happy to laugh at us (and accept a free gift of liquor) than to finish her latest math conquest.

Sure, the gray rain wasn’t as nice as glistening snow and the hookers hanging around Nyugati Pályaudvar metro station weren’t exactly as cute as the cherubic English children normally pictured in cards of carolers. But the point of caroling is to bring warmth and smiles … and that it did!

In other news of good cheer, after much metric conversions (and one tray of burned cookies), I successfully managed to render my Grandma Greenwald’s Christmas butter cookies.

Huzzah! Cookie Time!

Huzzah! Cookie Time!

What you can’t see from this picture is that due to my “snug”  sized studio and small table, I actually had to leave cookies drying on bookshelves as well. Looked weird; smelled heavenly.

Finally, some new holiday traditions I have learned:

  • From Hungary: Santa Claus is called Miklaus and comes on December 6. Good kids get candy and nuts. Bad kids get a bundle of twigs, which the Krampus will take and use to smack them (which seems, to me, a much better way of getting kids to behave. “The Krampus will beat you!” somehow packs more punch than “Santa will put you on the naughty list”)
  • Also from Hungary, St. Luca’s Day. For this occasion, girls s-l-o-w-ly build a stool, from Dec. 13 on up until Christmas Eve. Then, they take the stool to Midnight Mass, stand on it … and can see the witches in the congregation. One then must run out of church to escape said witches, but if you throw poppy seeds on the ground, the witches will stop to collect them (Sarah and my feminist interpretation: perhaps said witches are really just women who live an unconventional lifestyle and happen to be thrifty about spilled poppy seeds…give them a break!
  • – From Baldur, our resident Icelander: Iceland has 13 “Yule Lads,” … which are like a meaner version of Santa. They do leave gifts…but they also play tricks on people, and might also give you to the witch Grýla. They also have Grýla’s cat, the Christmas Cat, who will comes down and will eat kids who don’t have new clothes to wear for Christmas.

Now, I am all for appreciating different cultural traditions, but (A) of all, Icelandic Christmas seems a bit harsh and (B) of all, what with the country being bankrupt, won’t that be one fat cat this year?

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Being one who likes to think of herself as very media literate and rather unaffected by the glut of advertising that urges us to buy-buy-buy — I have bragged, for instance, that my whole apartment’s worth of belongings can be packed in a small Nissan as proof that I don’t need all the “stuff” which weighs us modern folk down — it is a little embarrassing to admit that one of   the tiny, little things I miss about Christmas time back in the states is a commercial.

Pathetic, but true: the holiday commercial for a small chain of Pittsburgh-region diners — Eat N’ Park — gets me misty-eyed and sugary-sappy every year.  I think it has something to do with  Eat N’ Park symbolizing “home,” the comfort of familiarity. The food there isn’t even good (though it is the best diner coffee I have come across in my many journeys into Americana diner-land), but in the small Pittsburgh suburb where I grew up, it was the only thing open past 5 p.m. Indeed, open 24 hours a day, it was the sanctuary for the bored Sewickley teenager. It was where we met for a pump-up breakfast the day of the A.P. calculus exam (I credit said good coffee for the high score); where we dissected every look, move, smile and choice of Green Day t-shirt of  my friends’  junior high school crushes; where I cried and vented and agonized over (and eventually made) my then-controversial (in Dad’s eyes, anyway) college choice. And although my adult life has been spent almost entirely in D.C., the first sighting of the Eat N’ Park Christmas commercial always felt like the sure sign that I was back in the old homeland, that I could relax in a way that is just not the same as in the high-ambition Beltway area.

But thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I can get the warm-fuzzies even while in Budapest. Because, apparently, I am not the only misplaced yinzer (a.k.a. former Pittsburgher) to miss it: several people posted it, and tens of thousands have viewed it.

And, hey, that little star thing huffing and puffing…even if you’re not from Pittsburgh (poor you!), you have to think it is cute.

Ahhh, the question that is always asked of those of us who chose to major in English.

Understandable, indeed. After all, there has never really been a great market in being able to interpret color symbolism in The Great Gatsby or pontificating on post-colonial theory. And, as impressed as I am that my M.A. in English now allows me to say things like “Well, you’re viewing that through a Derridian lens, when really, a Althusserian approach might be more appropriate…” and use “other” as a verb convincingly, the rest of the world has never seemed all that jazzed about paying me loads of money for that. No, it seems capitalism is much more interested in things like “consulting” (whatever that means, bedsides that you have to wear a suit to work. Shudder).

But as I stare down stacks of college entrance essays and job applications — some from friends and some from students — I want to remind all the naysayers (and starry-eyed English majors everywhere) that beyond the intellectual and aesthetic  pleasures of English, there is a whole lot of practical value in knowing how to communicate, think critically and argue convincingly in writing oneself  well . Every year, around the time applications are due, my so-called “soft” option major suddenly become in great demand. (Just like how all the people who poked fun at my dropping the business major freshman year suddenly appeared with resumes and cover letters for editing senior spring… all full of high praise of the English major then)

Over the past 6 days, in addition to the 23 essays I read and offered pages of commentary on for class, I have also read/helped/tutored people to complete:

  • one full application to Harvard Business school
  • 11 different TOEFL practice essays
  • 7 undergraduate application essays
  • 2 C.V.s  for undergraduate admission
  • 4 G.R.E General Test writing section essays
  • 2 essays for a a Ph.D. in astronomy/physics (and I didn’t even know what half the words in that one meant…)
  • one letter of recommendation and one CV. for a post-doc fellowship in Medicine
  • and 2 essays for a Ph.D. qualifying exam (which actually didn’t need much editing, but instead just needed a thumbs up to assuage the fears of from stunningly brilliant yet always-academically-insecure friend)

So it isn’t exactly saving lives … but at least I can help make the world safer from the comma splice or vague adjective or awkward, wordy sentence … and thus help, in some way, people get what they want…one essay at a time.

I’m facing a nice, fat stack of essays for grading and commenting on this weekend. But what is the bigger lesson (to use the positive term here) is the number of essays that came in late … or not at all.

First, in keeping with my spirit of open-mindedness and keeping positive, the good news: the essays that did come in on time look great. My heart is warmed, for instance, to see how many of my Contemporary American Women Writers students chose to write about The Bluest Eye, despite the fact that this tale, in classic Morrisonian style, is dark, difficult and complex (and I’m just as excited to see how one student attempted the same with Beloved … a doozy of a book, to say the least).

But the semester’s end certainly provided some learning opportunities — both in terms of cultural difference and in my own teaching style. I was nagyon frustrated, to say the least, when half of one class showed up without their final essays. I know Hungarian students do not have a culture of essay writing, and thus the 7-page term paper (pretty short, by my American 4-year college measure… my term papers were usually more in the 10-15 page range, and tended to close in on 20 pages as I advanced) seems long.  They do the lecture-oral exam format more, as I have mentioned; the very practice of original thought and research at the heart of U.S. academic writing is not as emphasized here. But keep in mind that I am supposed to be here to offer a different way of learning … and that I had assigned this in October. I had reminded (and re-reminded) about deadlines. I had helped students find secondary sources. I offered significant feedback on outlines. Basically, I assumed I had done all I could do to make the process as easy as possible, while still doing what I should be doing as the visiting Fulbright professor: giving the students a chance to learn in the American style, which includes writing.

But many students still came with no paper.  Several offered this excuse: “Well, we have at least 10 classes, so I had a lot of essays to write.” True. But (A) of all, you had ample time and (B) of all, WHY IN THE WORLD DID YOU THINK IT WAS FINE TO NOT DO MY ESSAY, THEN?

After first storming about the lounge and complaining to Veronika (and asking Zsoli, our student worker, to please spread rumors that I was very frightening, so as to avoid this issue next term) … and then sweating it out a Bikram yoga class, I can see this as more of a learning experience, and, that while it is still frustrating, it is not all bad. Firstly, (more…)