March 2009

In the battle of Me vs. Magyarul, it seems magyarul (Hungarian language) is once again winning. As much as I loved meeting a bunch of American Fulbrighters to Italy at the Berlin Conference, the fact that I spent a few nights showing off my (still bad, but far superior to Hungarian) Italian has only increased my Itali-garian problem, where I try to start a sentence in Hungarian and it comes out partially in Italian. This is only compounded by all the words that sound the same in the two languages but mean completely different things — like io (Italian for “I”) and (Hungarian for “good”), both of which sound like the English “yo!”.

Over the past two weeks of Hungarian class, I have continued my role as comic relief by doing the following:

– I attempted to be amusing during a skit and have a line where I asked for a “handsome Hungarian man’s telephone number. Instead, I asked for his telephone bill.

– While describing my trip to Berlin, I said I saw the city’s cathedral. Instead of calling it “very big,” I somehow said it was “very church-y”. When Gabi, the teacher, tried to correct my, I, frustrated, insisted that it was actually quite church-y, saying There was a whole lot of Jesus! Many Jesuses everywhere! until poor Gabi was laughing so hard she relented and agreed that a church could be church-y.

and, my personal favorite…

– we learned the word emlék which means “remembrance”. I was very excited because the word sounded familiar, so I said, in my bad broken Hungarian that I say many signs that had a similar word on historic buildings. When I tried to pronounce the word, I said something like “moo-mel-ake”. Which made Gabi start laughing like crazy. I got flustered and insisted, “No, no — they’re all over Castle Hill! Yes there are lots of them by the castle!”

Apparently, I was trying to say műemlék, which does indeed indicate that a building is of historic importance. But instead I said, műmellek.

Which means “fake breasts.”



I’ve just returned from my first ever trip to Germany that wasn’t solely based in an airport (I always seem to come through Frankfurt…): a five-day jaunt to Berlin for an conference organized for all the Fulbrighters in Europe. In short, I’m very glad I finally was able to leave the terminal. Berlin is a very cool city — and an extremely large one, after being used to the rather small, centralized city Budapest is. I got to see the gorgeous Rococo gildedness of the Charlottenburg Castle, climb to the top of the Parliament (Reichstag) to gaze at the illuminated city at night, and  see the remains of the Berlin Wall, the fall of which is my first memory of seeing something on the news (my father pulling me out of playing dress-up or whatever I was doing at the age of 7 to plunk me down in front of the T.V. and say “You need to see this. It is important”).

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

But more so that just the city itself, the people we met made the weekend. The conference programming was mostly centered on Fulbrighters to Germany — the German Fulbright program is huge, about 300 people, and they host — but for those of us outside of Germany, especially those of us in less-than-common destinations, the evening receptions and such were really the point: we got to talk about an experience few people can understand. Like the second night, at dinner, when Natalie, Sarah and I met a group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to Slovakia. Immediately, Natalie made a joke about the tense Hungarian-Slovakian relationship (no joking matter, really, with both the historical issue over Hungary’s division following WWII, and the recent bitterness by Hungarians over Slovakia moving to the Euro, whilst Hungary remains on the continually-depreciating forint, but I digress…), which led to a very amusing discussion over dinner of all the “joys” of living in Eastern Europe (i.e. misspeaks in the difficult new languages; the Budapest Kontroll vs. the Slovakian “foreign police”; the never-ending process which is getting a residency permit; etc.) — which, in many ways, only made me happier to be here.

See, while the large mass of students from Germany (and many of the Western European countries) were all very nice and interesting, they still kind of seemed like college kids on study-abroad. Germany has a different culture than the US, no doubt — but it is harder to distinguish that difference after living somewhere in the East. As Margaret, one of the visiting professors to Hungary put it in her presentation, “I know there is a financial crisis here in Germany too, but compared to Hungary, I can’t believe it.”  These places in the East — while still part of the EU, part of globalization, part of all that sphere of cultural melding together — still require a little more work, a little more flexibility, a little more openness to see the frustrations and challenges as something lovable.

One of the Slovakian ETAs, for instance,  in his presentation, referred to his command of Slovak as “I tell my students I am like a dog. I can kind of understand everything you say, I just can’t speak.” Funny, and terribly fitting for my feelings about struggling with my own new language (only I would say I am more like a very slow dog…I need large hand gestures, too).

One of the other bonuses to travel when living somewhere strange? How much more your adopted home becomes home-like when you return. One of the other Slovakian ETAs, Claire, landed on our flight home, and we rode the metro together back into town. My Hungarian is good enough that I could buy her a ticket, and then, on the metro, I suddenly realized I could understand some of the conversations I could overhear. “Oh, that woman said ‘we only had to wait three minutes!’ That one just said ‘I don’t have time today!'” I babbled, surprised that even little things made some sense after a week in German, a language I do not know at all.

Berlin was beautiful; the more-developed West has its advantages. But even though I’m feeling that bit of post-travel let-down, missing new friends and not looking forward to piles of work, I am still feeling happier to have settled in my sometimes-challenging Eastern Europe “home.”  A beauty found in imperfections, I think, is somehow stronger than the clean-and-easy sparkle.

(more Berlin in pictures below)


The great Toni Morrison, in the dedication to her novel Sula, wrote: “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

With just about three months left (three?!? where did it all go?) in my Hungarian/European adventures  — being due back in the U.S. by late June for my “second job” … professional bridesmaid — I am feeling that way, only about a city, not a person. I am nostaglic for Budapest before I have even left it.

Last night, I met an old friend of mine, Marynia, a Polish-Canadian-American girl I met some ten years ago while at Governor’s School. Three years ago, Marynia took leave of her New York life to begin working as a correspondent for Reuters in Warsaw, and was coming through Budapest with her boyfriend, a Dutch radio correspondent covering Eastern Europe. As we sat in Szimpla, rhapsodizing on our love of Eastern Europe,  how much fun we were having and how happy we were not to be lawyers (a path taken by so many of our friends, it seems), Marynia asked me if I was ready to go back to the States.

No, I emphatically said. She asked why I didn’t think of staying more, and I explained how I do have a dream job awaiting at home and how as much as I love teaching here, I know that the terribly low salaries a Hungarian English teacher makes mean I couldn’t really feasibly make this move permanent.

But I’m still feeling a premature ache of missing Budapest. How is it that nearly seven months have passed since I landed? How has the 4/6 villamos become as familar as the Orange Line metro? And how is it that I have somehow felt more like myself here, where I barely understand a word, where I have no ties of culture or heiritage, than I have in many years? As Marynia and I discussed over száraz vörös bor last night, there is something immensely beneficial in moving out of the norm you have established for yourself.  We talked about the “crossroads”  feeling you face in your 20s — not sure where to go, and worrying about wrong turns. I certainly felt that before I left last August … and I worried I had somehow turned the “wrong” way a lot.  Now, I’m remembering there are a lot of ways to be happy, a lot of shapes for a life.

I caught a glimpse of the Chain Bridge last night on my way home from Hungarian class, and, all lit up over the Duna, it almost made me cry. I’ll miss you, I thought, staring at it. I’ll miss this, I thought the day before, wandering the Central Market stalls.  It’s hard to grapple with.

But if Morrison is right, that is the true beauty and blessing: to have been somewhere so wonderful, lived something so lovely that it already hurts me to think of leaving makes me quite lucky indeed.

Nagyon szép

Nagyon szép

As my spring fills up with more and more school work and exciting travels, I know I have been lax on blog updates, but this week’s Fulbright meeting trip, to the small town of Kecskemét, deserves a few minutes time.

We had a new Fulbrighter, Meredith Morten, join us in the spring. A ceramics artist and sculptor,  she works at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét.  Her colleagues there described the studio as a “cloister of clay,” and it really did feel that way: it was so peaceful and calm there, you couldn’t help but feel a bit of a creative itch when you walked in.

And adding to this nice day was a long-lost friend: the sun. Yes, after week upon week of gray and snow, the sun — and not-so-cold temperatures — have returned to Hungary. We even managed to sit outside at a pub Friday night!

So, enjoy some pictures of lovely art and a lovely day:

Courtyard at the International Ceramics Studio

Courtyard at the International Ceramics Studio

Detail of sculpture in courtyard

Detail of sculpture in courtyard


I ….

  • Was told by a Hungarian that he could tell I was from “Pittsburgh or somewhere like it” by my accent.

Now, it is actually true that I have a somewhat Pittsburgh-y accent. Certainly, I don’t use the full dialect, and I don’t use “yinz” unless I am joking, but when I arrived at Georgetown, I learned for the first time that I do carry some of the Midwest or mid-Atlantic or Rust Belt or whatever region you call places that aren’t on the coast but aren’t smack-dab in the middle when new roommates and friends pointed out my pronunciation on certain words (like my sort of “a” sound instead of a true “i” in the word “milk.”) But I was very impressed by a student in the new GRE workshop I have organized for the Fulbright Center who was able to pick it out. It made more sense when I learned he has a long-term girlfriend in North Carolina, and hence has been exposed to the many variants of that Southern accent, so he’s interested in

Perhaps somewhat ironically, later this weekend, a fellow Fulbrighter who hails from Kentucky told me I speak far too East Coast (re: FAST!)  — to the point where he feels his “English-as-a-second-language” speed which he uses all day with colleagues can barely pick it up. I blame 8 years of Washington, where if you don’t smoosh your words between someone else’s, you’ll never get them out at all.

  • Went African dancing with three Hungarian girls

My colleague at the Fulbright Center, Krisztina, is really into dancing and, as I have reported before, has been kind enough to take me Csángó (folk) dancing. This Friday, however, she brought me along to her newest hobby, West African dance classes.  Firstly, this dancing would be tons of fun in any language — lots of spinning, arm-throwing, stomping and no real worries about messing up the steps (as the teacher said, it is all about “dancing with the heart”) But what made it even more interesting was a room full of Hungarian girls, some Francophone African drummers and a she-would-have-done-well-at-Woodstock-looking multi-lingual teacher. Talk about a cultural mashup.

  • Got on the “director’s list” at a cool play’s performance

One of the nicest things about helping students at the Fulbright Center is how kind and thankful they are when you help them. Much of my work — helping to edit C.V.s or cover letters, explaining how to write application essays — is the type of thing I do for friends and family all the time in the US. What I can figure out in 10 or 20 minutes, however, seems to make the Hungarian students I work with very grateful. And I’m grateful too: I love to feel useful, and, to be honest, being really good at English writing doesn’t always make you feel all that effective in the States. But I thought one student I had helped was especially sweet in his thanks:  he invited me play he was directing as a thank-you.

I love, love, love live theater, but have to admit I don’t get to see nearly enough of it since graduating. I think the reason I originally loved journalism so much was that I started at my college paper as a theater reviewer, and continued as the entertainment section editor, which meant free plays every week. My student’s show, held at Siraly (an awesome alternative arts space/bar) was great. The play, called Wise of of the World, was based on a Gypsy folktale, a story that jumped all over the place in a sort of magical-realism-y whimsy.  The actors were amazing (particularly their ability to change characters so well by throwing their voices/changing their voices), and my student’s direction was really awesome: he used the space well, planting actors in the audience, staging it so they wandered through the crowd, and the simple set and costumes were creative and engaging. Even though we had to read the projected subtitles,which might normally disrupt that whole suspension of belief thing, I was completely pulled in.

But the evening was fun from the beginning, when I discovered I was on the “director’s list” of guests. I felt a little like a celebrity … or at least, less like the “random stranger in a strange place” that life abroad often is.

  • Got a potential fiancé

As more friends’ weddings come and go, I get older and my skills at actually dating get worse, my plan of a marriage of convenience seems all the more attractive — particularly one that would give me dual EU citizenship (because I really want to buy a nice apartment on Kiraly utca or somewhere nearby, and I know this would be easier with said citizenship … as would my new plan to teach at NoVA all school year, and summer in Europe). Well, my new friend Christian — a lovely young German boy who Natalie and Sarah met during an intensive Hungarian class in Pécs — could also use some U.S. citizenship (for the ease of getting into PhD programs and for his desire to live for awhile in a big American city like New York). Now, most people go for white dresses and romance and all that … but this arrangement seems a bit more logical for me.

(note to concerned Mother/US Immigration authorities: I’m just kidding.)

Kind of.