Further proof that I am one walking, talking definition for middle-child syndrome (a.k.a. the type of person who thrives a wee bit too much on the compliments of others … this is always dangerous when Significant Others … or Insignificant Others, as the case often is for me… or students find this out, as it makes it way too easy to get out of trouble with me):

I am totally happy right now because a random Hungarian complimented my accent. Usually, such a small accomplishment in the day would go unnoticed, but I have been feeling like my language skills are actually getting worse, despite my efforts. And I know this is mostly my fault, because I don’t practice enough — I don’t need much Hungarian to get through my daily tasks and my Hungarian friends are mostly English professors, who can converse in my native tongue as well (if not better) than me. Still, after struggling through a class on the difference between the direct and indirect form of “I like” in Hungarian that left poor Gabi perplexed at how to better explain it, I was feeling a bit frustrated. That, plus the fact that, inexplicably, my old Italian skills have started to rear up when speaking Hungarian, so I come up with nicely hybridized phrases like jó napot kívánok, mi chiamo Robyn és tanítok amerikai litteratura. Mi piace molto means I’ve been feeling a bit down about my ability to make any real headway into the culture. (and no, that sentence does not make any sense. In any language).

But this afternoon, I was helping a visitor to the Fulbright Center after the TOEFL workshop by giving him feedback on his speaking section of the practice test. Not to overgeneralize a population, but he was using what might be called the “typical” Hungarian negativity: Oh, I speak English so poorly. I did awfully on this part. I will likely fail… (and yes, I note my own cultural bias here. I call “negative” what another culture might call “humble” or “cautious” because my brash American self is used to the land of the bragging. What we call “optimism” or “confidence” could indeed really be more like “big-headedness.” I get this. However, I do occasionally want to pump Prozac into the water supply. You know, just a little…)

I, of course, spring into the one part of teaching I think I have perfected: cheerleader-ing. Oh no, you spoke very well! Look, I understood eveything perfectly! You used great transitions! Here, how wonderful — you proved how well you understood the passage! And so on.  I also pointed out how great it is that Hungarian students can converse so freely in any foreign language, pointing out Americans sad, sad lack in this area. To prove my point, I jumped into my own broken Hungarian, telling him that  “Tanulok magyarul, de egy kiscit beszélek magyarul. Magyarul nagyon nehéz.” (Which, I believe, is some poor, childlike version of “I am studying Hungarian, but I only speak a little bit of Hungarian. Hungarian is very difficult.” Yup. The Colin-Firth-Speaking-Portuguese style again)

The kind student laughed, but then he told me that, even if I didn’t know all the words, I had a perfect accent, so people would still be pleased when I tried.

Sure, he was probably trying to be nice. But, you know, I like nice.

And I also like learning new things. Even when I am bad at them (just check the college transcripts, and you’ll note that that beloved Italian language got me the worst grades of my Georgetown career. But I couldn’t give it up!)

So, with a big köszönöm to my new Hungarian buddy (and hopes that he does well on his TOEFL tomorrow!), I’m going to finish my syllabi while listening to some Hungarian radio.


I’ve been working at the Fulbright Advising Center all day — but I’m getting as much of an education as I am giving. Annamaria, the wonderful program coordinator for us American Fulbrighters in Hungary, brought her 6-year-old daughter Petra to work today.

Petra, noticing my lack of Hungarian skills, has taken it upon herself to help me improve.  My kisci magyar tanár is quite excited, and does not seem to be concerned that I only vaguely understand her. First, she patiently explained, in slow Hungarian, that since I am an American, I speak English, but since she is a Hungarian, she can teach me Hungarian.

Nagyon jó! I said, “very good.”  And this was all the encouragement she needed. She drew me a few pictures, and reviewed the colors with me (and seemed disappointed — but willing to help — when I knew the word for “red” but not “purple”.)

Petra is also beginning her own multi-lingual adventures: she can count to ten in English. This discovery has led us to a fun new game, which I call “Robyn and Petra Count.” Petra counts to ten in English, then I follow with my egy, kettő, három …

Once Petra approved of my basic numbers, however, she began a bit more demanding, and insisted I count by tens, which involved several attempts until she was pleased with me pronouncing the word negyven or 40.  Next, she made me a paper fan, which involved many tries before I could say this word to her liking (…and, don’t tell the teacher, but I have already forgotten this one!)

I must run now. My tanár just made me a paper butterfly and she is very unimpressed with my pronunciation of its Hungarian name — pillangó —  so we need to go practice some more.

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.

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?