May 2009


Well, it sure happened faster than I thought: my school year is over. I taught my last classes at Pázmány on Tuesday.

And I still haven’t quiet recovered from the sentimental ball of goop I get at goodbyes.

One quality I sometimes worry about having as a teacher is that I like my students too much (which, of course, makes it harder to be hard on them when they do the occasional “oh-really?-the-essays-are-due-today?” kind of things). Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have really great groups everywhere I have taught in my short time thus far in this career, maybe it is part of the nature of teaching writing and literature, where emotions and personal experience tend to come out in the classwork more than, say, they might in algebra, but I have left every class I have taught so far with a feeling of sadness, like I’ve just made some wonderful new friends and now I won’t get to see them regularly anymore.

The experience is compounded at Pázmány firstly because of the distance between Hungary and home, as well as  the fact that the end of Pámány makes it all the clearer that this crazy, lovely, dream-world-like life the Fulbright year has been for me is winding down.  Yet, it also felt even more bittersweet because of how I saw some of my students grow so much — whether it was in their ability to speak more confidently in English, or the real “big success” for me — a student who is using the modern American women writers I taught this year for her thesis.

Then, those darned kids went and made me cry. In a good way. (more…)

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As my time here winds closer and closer to and end (Friday is our going away boat party! And marks exactly ONE month until my own, real going away. Eeek!), I find myself going into premature nostalgia overload. “I need one more of this…and this.. and this… ”  runs through my head about 20 times a day — everything from the sight of the Chain Bridge to the cute little dinging sound the M1/Yellow Line metro makes when arriving at a station is enough to send me into peals of sentiment.

This is not uncommon for me and my many-times-moved self: I did the same thing at the close of college, before I left D.C. to come here, and even before leaving my stint at The Beaver County Times (and trust me, if you can find yourself getting nostalgic and saying “oh, gee, my last Ambridge Council meeting!  Better enjoy the near-fistfight between Mayor Buzzy and whomever comes in to complain about hookers on Merchant Street while I can!” you can count yourself certifiably over-emotional)

But Budapest is so truly wonderful a place to live — and this year has been such a crazily cool experience — that even chores can spark some nostalgia. Yup, today while doing that task known as “running errands” , I realized how much I will miss going grocery shopping in Budapest. Now, I have to say, while I occasionally missed things (or, more often, people) from the States, I never sat back and reminisced about all the great times I had at the Wilson Blvd. Safeway or fighting off G.W. undergrads for a sale on 2-buck Chuck win at the local Trader Joe’s. But grocery shopping, for me, means going to the Central Market.

My Family Loves the Central Market!

My Family Loves the Central Market!

The Central Market is always well-marked in tour books for Budapest — and now that it is tourist time, they are all there, taking pictures of those of us “regular” shoppers who just need our produce. But it attracts the visitors for good reason: it is big, gorgeous building, with high, vauled ceilings that cover row upon row of delicious fresh produce, meat, cheese and, on the second floor, every type of Hungarian kitsch your could ask for (who needs a peasant woman-shaped wine opener? There are plenty There is even both a langos stand and a retes stand — fried dough + pastries under one roof? What else can a girl need for true happiness?

The market also offers a chance to feel like you really get to care about what you put into your body. In America, we tend to be really bad at that — home of fast-food, home of pre-prepared. But when you get to walk from stall to stall, looking for whose asparagus looks the freshest, or feel like you have a relationship with the butcher (or, in my personal case, the all-women manned butcher stall to which I always return) who sells you one fresh chicken breast at a time (not a giant bag os salt-injected, pre-frozen stuff), that feels like a different variety of good food. And, it generally also tastes great.  You see a bunch of just-in-season veggies — right now, it is asparagus — that looks great, and even if it would not make your normal shopping list while at one of the mega-stores, you buy it.

Sure, one can find this experience in the states — certainly, in hip-to-be-healthy big cities like the Washington area. But you can only afford to do that, in most cases, if you’re of the more moneyed type (there is a reason, after all, we all call Whole Foods by its alternate name, Whole Paycheck). Today, at the market, I walked out with a giant bag of fresh veggies, some cheese, this awesome whole-grain bread from one of my newest favorite vendors and some fresh chicken — and I spent maybe the equivalent of $10. Plus, the Central Market is one of the few places in Budapest’s center city where everyone humors my bad Hungarian. I think this might have a great deal to do with the fact that most vendors don’t speak much English.

And, unfortunately, even if I could drop money weekly for the Whole Foods or fancy-pants Arlington farmers’ markets back home, I don’t think those vendors will let me practice my budding magyarul skills.

So, if you’re coming this way, definitely go — and understand why running errands will be one of the things I miss most from my beautiful Budapest year.

To top off a year spent hosting visitors of every type, I recently finished hosting the most important group: the family (családom, if my Hungarian is correct…which it likely isn’t, considering a spent the better part of their visit introducing my younger sister as my older brother. Jaj! Hungarian defeats me again!)

I won’t claim it was perfect — my family is as dysfunctional as the next, and I highly recommend against ever trying to share a bathroom with my older sister — but it was certainly special. Namely, what made me excited was getting to see my mother enjoy her first trip abroad.

My mom is, in a word, awesome. It sounds Hallmark-card cheesy, but she is my best friend: caring, loving and 100°% supportive of me, even in situations where many parents might put pressure on one (such as one’s Georgetown freshman child, who is currently sinking the family and herself into debt, calling to say she is dropping out of the business school to pursue the ever-financially unwise field of English literature. Most ‘rents would at least flinch. My mom? I want you to be happy. Simple as that).

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

But my mom and I are also extremely different in many ways, not the least of which is how we have approached our lives as women. Mom, despite coming of age in the hip-to-be-feminist 1960s, could be textbook Traditional Wife and Mother: married high school sweetheart, stayed at home for 12 years raising 3 kids, takes care of house and constantly self-sacrifices, and lives in the same zip code where she grew up.  Whereas Mom was all settled down with Dad by the age of 15, my life has been a bit more…well, un-settled (I suppose that is what you call more than 15 moves in less than ten years). As such, while for me, my greatest ambition in high school was to get a passport and stamps in it, mom’s was the white wedding she got as soon as she graduated college.  So, international jet-setting was sort of out of the question for her. At 57, then, this was her first trip outside the U.S., Niagra Falls notwithstanding.

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

And for me, being able to show her Europe for the first time was wonderful. Seeing the sights I have already become accustomed to — St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Chain Bridge at night, Castle Hill and the Central market — through her eyes made me love them all the more.  her excitement made mine increase tenfold. It also felt like I was able to “explain” myself to my family better. They know, and I know, that I am the black sheep. I always have been, from my decision to spend a high school summer taking extra school for fun to the fact that I am the only one who has not (and will not) settle in Pittsburgh, I stick out; I remain the geeky-bookish-city type in a family of suburban non-nerds.  By taking them through Budapest, showing off the new home in my ever-unstable existence, I feel like I was able to let them in, a little, on what makes me tick.

And, if they left with nothing else, I at least can say with certainty that they, too, are lovers of langós and pálinka.  What else would do for my “cultural ambassador” mission?

… but you should go to İstanbul, at your earliest availability.

(Why yes, I do recognize the shamelessly cheesy They Might Be Giants reference.  But you know you think the same thing when you hear İstanbul. Don’t hide it!).

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

To end the Spring Break touring, Carolyn and I hopped an overnight bus to İstanbul. And it was amazing from the first second. I mean that quite literally: we stepped off of the bus, stiff legged and sleepy, at 5:30 a.m., to be surrounded by the call to prayer — beautiful, echoing strains of Arabic —  coming from mosques all around us.

Good morning, İstanbul!

[NOTE:  Bulgaria is not yet on the Euro. Turkey is not even in the EU. However, should you be an American, on a bus to Turkey from Bulgaria, have 15 Euro with you. Why? Because you have to buy a visa, and pay in Euro. Why? I have no clue. Yet, I assure you, it is better than nearly being stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border whilst your friend finagles a border guard into selling you some Euro for some Bulgaria leva. Trust me. You don’t want to be stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border]

From the towering minarets to the men selling little round loaves of bread from tall stacks on their heads to the sparkly, turquoise Bosphorus to the huge billboards advertising fashionable versions of the traditional Muslim head scarves, İstanbul made me feel like I wished I had more eyes, as if my own two were insufficient to take in all the beauty around me.

Inside the Harem

Inside the Harem

We walked into mosques, such as the famous Blue Mosque, which were covered with the most intricate tilework, shining with deep, rich colors and swirls of Arabic lettering in gold. We stared in awe at the cavernous Hagia Sophia, where the sun streaming through the windows onto the ancient tile was enough to make you forget what year it was. We took boats across the Bosphorus, watching the blue water stream by the steep shores where sun-bleached houses seemed to sprout out of one another. We ate fresh fish, flash-grilled along the shoreline. We pondered whether it really would have been that bad to be a courtesan when we saw the harem at the Topkapı Palace. We smoked too much nargileh, or flavored tobacco in a water pipe,  for two girls who do not smoke at all.  We emptied our pockets on the wide array of glittery goodness at the Grand Bazaar, even managing a hand at bargaining while sipping apple tea, and bought our weight in Turkish Delight (that stuff they sell in most US stores and call Turkish Delight? Not even close!) at the Spice Bazaar.  We drank numerous cups of the dark, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.

Beyoğlu at Sunset

Beyoğlu at Sunset

But I think the aspect I loved about  İstanbul most was not a view or a dish or a museum, but an attitude, how it seemed to literally teem with life. Like walking into Times Square on a warm spring evening, going to the neighborhood called Beyoğlu (a steeper-than-steeply hilly ‘hood, directly across the Bosphorus from all the “big” tourist sites) meant walking into a crowd.  Sometimes, I hate crowds — like August in Washington, when the number of belt-pack-wearing Midwestern tourists (who always refuse to stand on the right side of the Metro escalator, so those of us D.C.-ians in a rush can pass on the left!) is enough to make me want to strangle them with their recently purchased “You Don’t Know Me: FBI Witness Protection Program” (why, oh why, do those keep selling?!?) or “God Bless America” T-shirts.  But at other times, when you find a city just hitting its evening, work’s-done-fun-get-together time stride, the crowd can be electric and energizing. It pulses; it makes you want to get out and join it. It makes you want to be part of the action. İstanbul’s got that kind of vibe. The streets are so crowded around 7 p.m. that you almost feel pushed by the swell of people behind you — and yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of push you want, to start your own fun night.  (more…)

The Hotel de Russo — also known as my 32 sq. m. studio — has been very busy lately, hence a long interruption in updates. But before spring totally fades, I want to add in my last bits of reminiscence about a spring break now far gone.

After tackling the joys of Sofia, my dear friend and guide to all things Bulgarian — the incomparable Carolyn — agreed to one of my main requests for the journey, which was to see some “real” Bulgaria. And by “real” Bulgaria, I mean all those things the average American, Lonley-Planet-clutching/Rick-Steve’s-Reading folk can’t find.

And Carolyn didn’t disappoint: we headed for an overnight in Kazanlak, (in Bulgarian- Казанлък, thank YOU Wikipedia!), a small town in the central region of Bulgaria.  The town lies in the famous “Valley of the Roses” — that’s where all those pieces of tourist kitsch, the wooden dolls filled with Rose Perfume, hail from this region.

Carolyn LOVES history!

Carolyn LOVES history!

But the big draw here is the Thracian Tomb, which was built in the 4th century BC, near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis. The tomb — which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 — is best summed up by Carolyn’s comment: I can’t believe we are standing somewhere so ancient, and just looking at it. Indeed. I can’t post pictures because you cannot take them inside, obviously, as it would destroy the fine paintings, but it is amazing. The tomb itself is small — Carolyn and I filled the space pretty well together — but the paintings preserved inside are amazing, depicting an ancient wedding feast. To stand there, my international cell phone in my pocket, in my mass-produced jeans and T-shirt did certainly invoke that feeling of insignificance — but in a good way. We are but blips on the radar; our time here is small compared to the great spector of history.

And, it is just freakin’ cool, period. Even without the philosophical blather.

And, crazier still: the tomb was found accidentally, by soldiers during the second World War. Could you imagine? Whoops, what is that hard surface? Egads, it happens to be a FREAKING FOURTH CENTURY TOMB! No, I have to say, of all the interesting things I have dug up helping my dad with his garden, 4th century tombs, unfortunately, do not make the list.

Overlooking Shipka

Overlooking Shipka

We followed the trip into the ancient world with a stopover in nearby Shipka, a tiny town about a 20 minute bus ride aways you can see from the picture, Shipka, as viewed from the hills around it, is postcard-perfect: small, red-roofed houses, teeny-tiny twisting lanes, even donkey carts roaming the streets.

We then scaled the hill to what was my favorite sight in Bulgaria: the Shipka Monastery. This Monastery sits high above the town, so that as you approach it, the huge, gold onion-shaped domes leap out at you from the moutainside. It is impressive from a distance, but even more so close up, where you can see the gorgeous colors and rich, warm gold accents. (more…)