American-ness Abroad


… of Spring Break Reminiscence to bring you breaking news of a rare sighting in Budapest:

Today, at approximately 5:49 p.m., while on my way to catch the train home from a day at Pázmány, I spotted the POPPED COLLAR POLO SHIRT on a Hungarian.

The popped collar, or the collar of one’s polo worn flipped up, was a sad scourge upon my Georgetown education. Yes, despite an excellent education, a kickingly cool faculty (Madeline Albright, anyone?), great alumni network (our best native son, Yes-He-Was-Slutty-But-Still-a-Damn-Good-President-Hey-Remember-That-STRONG-Economy Bill Clinton?), Georgetown, as a wildly expensive school in a wildly expensive city still attracted its fair share of students known, for lack of a more diplomatic term, Over-privileged Tools.  Now, on one level, I appreciate the O.T.’s existence at such schools — hey, you pay full fare so I don’t have to — but somewhere around my sophomore year, the collars started to turn up.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I thought it was a joke, an bit of irony in a throwback to Zach Morris-style preppiness. But no. These kids were serious as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan is about his Terrible Towel: they meant it.

The collar-popping began to creep around, sucking more and more people into its vicious cycle. You’d be talking to a guy in class one day, he’d seem intelligent and interesting — then, come Saturday night, under the influence of Miller Lite and the glisten of the Potomac River viewed from a rooftop party, poof, you’d seem him: collar popped, and your hopes dashed, for he was one of Them. Despite heckling from some pretty harsh critics, the popped collar endemic seems lasting at my beloved alma mater. I once, as a graduate student, even saw one on a student working at my old student-run coffee shop, a place where we once had your respectable, crunch-alt-anti-establishment employees who would have seen a popped collar O.T. and refused him a caffeine fix. (I shed a single tear)

But I though Pázmány was better. European students are so much more sophisticated, on the whole, that us coddled Americans — and, even in a globalized world, I expected them to still have the market cornered on fashion.

So I say this to you, young Hungarians: one popped collar might not seem like a big deal. But it takes just one bad seed to start a cascade of tool-ish dressing. Soon, your hip bars, your grungy-proud Szimplas and unassuming Potkulcs could be filled, not with people dressed in the requisite crumpled black of Euro cool, but in the over-J.Crew-ified world of well-pressed polo shirts.

And need I even warn you about the evil which is soon to follow the popped collar? Yes, even to you, the Critter Pants could emerge.

Let’s not take any chances, shall we? Should you find my rogue collar popper, kindly turn it down for him. Then slap him upside the head.  I — and your country — shall thank you for it.

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While I missed the game over here, I was happy to wake up to such headlines as this Post-Gazette one or this New York Times one.

I like that the Steelers started screwing up a bit and made the game close; in my history as a ‘burgh fan, I have learned they can only win when no one thinks they will. I like that the Times tries to explain the team’s importance to the cit’s people by noting that the Harris’s Immaculate Reception is immortalized in a statue at the Pittsburgh airport, the way other cities do with important politician figures or old war generals. And I love that, according to the Post-Gazette report, President Barack Obama made his first congratulatory call to Steelers chairman Dan Rooney (because in addition to having a great team philosophy, the Rooneys have a great political philosophy and supported Mr. Obama vigorously in the somewhat-hostile territory that Western Pennsylvania was for the candidate)

And I really, really, really love this Post-Gazette picture:

Proof God is a Steelers fan???

Proof God is a Steelers fan???

Someone give that photog a raise. Classic.

Finally, I feel that my blatant attempts to create more Steelers fans in Hungary with my Christmas gifts played a role. The karma can’t hurt, no?

I come from Pittsburgh.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t want to say that, when I had a very Andy Warhol-ian approach to my hometown (for those that don’t know, Mr. Pop Art is from my humble village — and his name was actually Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire…. further proof that Hungary is all over America. But he rarely admitted this, choosing instead to say that he was from New York or a “citizen of the world.” That Pittsburgh turned and both built an awesome museum for his work and named a bridge shows how hard it is to get away from the city. Go on and reject it — Pittsburgh will still claim you back). Like Warhol, I didn’t see being Pittsburghese as an advantage, particularly when I finally left the area and entered Georgetown with a sea of Califorinias, New Yorkers and people from “just outside the city,” Bostonians and other New Englanders.  There was a reason, I thought, why Pittsburgh was the butt of jokes in movies: Auntie Mame is from there to showcase her brashness, when Dr. Teeth and his band need to land somewhere pathetic during The Muppets Take Manhattan they land there, and so on. Mullets and man-jewelry run free there. We even have a less-than-charming local dialect.

But I got older. I took a hiatus from D.C. for a year-and-half long stint as a reporter in the Pittsburgh suburbs. I rediscovered the city. I wised up to the fact that all those fancy-pants Georgetown kids who were “from just outside the city” were really just from Jersey after all.

I still went back — and will go back — to D.C.  In the end, I do fit in there far better than I do in Pittsburgh. Yet, when it comes to where I am from, it is still Pittsburgh. Which is why I will miss the city tomorrow, when that great symbol of Pittsburgh — the Pittsburgh Steelers football team — will attempt to win its sixth Superbowl.

Taking my Fulbright role as “cultural ambassador” seriously, I attempted to endear my new Hungarian friends to my homes by giving away Steelers and Hoyas gear for Christmas gifts. This may have worked: yesterday, the head of my university department, András, e-mailed me this Newsweek story, where Howard Fineman speaks about the Steelers fandom as an imagined community, as a tribe that serves to makes us feel part of a group even when the traditional notions of “neighborhood” and conceptions of “place” and “home” break down in an increasingly transient society that America is.

da' burgh ahn' at

da' burgh ahn' at

In many ways, I have to agree. The Steelers, after all, just aren’t about football. Indeed, no sports team is: in grad-school speak, the sporting event is the liminal moment, more about the ritual than the outcome. But I believe that, more so than in the newer and brighter and shinier cities, the Steelers have had to stand in for hope in a city that lost so much when the industry for which the team is named — steel — fell in the 1980s.  People had to leave, an economy had to restructure. Some parts of the city have improved; others haven’t.  But in any case, Pittsburgh now has a diaspora —  people who have full lives in some other city, but still have the sense of from Pittsburgh.

Like girls who live in Washington for nearly 8 years, but would never, ever cheer the Redskins (and not just because of the shamefully racist name). (more…)

As if my next job — teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College —  wasn’t AWESOME enough already, my dear friend, Amanda, who with her journalistic prowess at washingtonpost.com gets all the juicy D.C. area news first thing, sends me this wonderful bit which must have come across the newswires very recently:

Jill Biden to Teach at Northern Virginia Community College

! ! !

Besides the fact that I am still a little (oh, OK, a lot…) starstruck with the new administration, I am just bubbling over with joy about this one because the fact that the second lady (is that an official term? nem tudom… ) is taking this job is a huge, huge bonus for NOVA and for all community colleges.

Most people in academia know that the community college does not get enough love from the general public. It finds itself the butt of jokes in mainstream movies.  It doesn’t get the same money from many states’ governments. Even a few of of my “liberal” and “progressive” and “social activist” professors, who would balk at the merest suggestion of any race or ethnic slur, actually were disparaging when I said, no, I am not going for the Ph.D. right now because I had picked the two-year track. But you could be an excellent scholar, sniffed one, look at this paper…  you could get into a doctoral program … ”

Could, yes. (And still might — but later, when I have some more classroom experience to make it really worthwhile, and definitely in a more teaching-related genre of English, like composition and rhetoric). But why would I want to leave the classroom now, when, after two weeks into my first adjunct job teaching developmental English, I already knew that teaching at community college was the best job ever. To put things into perspective, the adjunct job paid so little I actually basically broke even after gas, and I took it on as my third job, in addition to being a full-time master’s student — and I still couldn’t wait to get there every week. Sure, I loved a lot of my grad school classes; but I loved rolling up to English 1 or English 111 classes even more.

You know how most girls talk about the happiest day of their life being their wedding day? Well, my happiest day thus far occurred when I was teaching at Lord Fairfax Community College:  a student, who had quite nearly failed out of English 1 (a.k.a developmental English, the course before freshman composition) and was ready to quit the course came in to say goodbye because he was heading off — with scholarship — to the four-year school he had dreamed of.  He was beaming; I burst into tears. You just can’t find that type of joy at every job.  (And forget the white dress and veil, for methinks said incident will always be displacing wedding day on the Great Day list … with all due respect to My Mysterious Future Husband, Wherever He May Be).

Indeed, when, after several semesters of this adjunct work, NOVA interviewed and offered me a full-time job at the Loudoun campus, I felt like Christmas, my birthday, the Steelers winning the Superbowl, the Hoyas winning the NCAA tournament and the Strand’s $1 book sidewalk sale had all come at once. In my mind, all I could think was I get to do this … AND get paid actual money for it? It was so much, I needed to lay down in the grass outside my apartment to compose myself (apologies, once again, downstairs neighbors, for freaking you out). It was too amazing, too wonderful for words.

It still is, to be honest.

So, while it is rather unlikely that Mrs. Biden would be picking my slightly-further off campus to teach at, or that her two adjunct courses would overlap with mine (so, no Amanda, I probably won’t be “picking up her Secret Service guards,”), her “star” power does wonderful things for all of us that believe in community colleges and the very important work they do.  As she said in her statement about the job:

“I am thrilled to return to the classroom to continue working with community college students, whom I greatly admire and enjoy teaching.”

Agreed. When I see what my C.C. students deal with in their regular life, the fact that they all try so hard to make it through and to class is enough of a kick every morning to make sure I’m doing my job at 110% all the time. I have always learned every bit as much from them as they have from me. Biden has also made previous statements about how she finds community college teaching to be so vital to the country’s success as a whole (ditto, Professor Biden. After all, with 50% of all college students in the U.S. being community college students, we have to give the two-year system much respect). Additionally, Professor Biden holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. degree as well, further demolishing the myth bandied about on many a Chronicle of Higher Education forum or frantic M.L.A. conference that the people who teach at a community college are somehow lesser than four-year instructors. One need only look at the bios of the English professors at my campus of NOVA to see that: these people are dynamos, times ten.

I once joked that the community college is like the Hufflepuff of higher education — if my memory serves me correctly, somewhere in the Harry Potter series, there was a song with a line like “Said Hufflepuff I’ll take the lot. And teach them just the same”. Well, that is what we do: we take people where they are, and we get them where they need to be. That’s not just a job that’s “as good” as a four-year school — in my opinion, it’s better. Those of us who have taught at a community college know this. I just think it’s fabulous that now we have a big-name pubic figure who knows the same.

I just got back to my little pad on Liliom utca, after watching the inauguration at Central European University with a few fellow Fulbrighters. Similar to the day after the election, I have that kid-on-the-day-after-Christmas feel: surprised the “big moment” has passed, but still glowing with happiness.

I teared up a little … but not when I expected it. I thought the waterworks might turn on when I saw Obama take the oath of office… but the little bit of fumble he made while repeating from Chief Justice Roberts got a chuckle. And then, like that, it was over. It kind of reminded me of the first time I went to a Protestant wedding (hey, with a last name like “Russo” and more cousins that I can count, is it any surprise that any wedding I was dragged to as a child was Catholic?): a bunch of lead-up for something that passes so quickly. A few words, and eight years of political embarrassment ended. What did make my throat catch was the sweeping shots of the streets of Washington, as the motorcade passed. I didn’t realize how well I knew them until I saw them blown-up on the screen — I could see my home, all decked out and packed up with people. I saw the places I used to walk, used to take runs, flash by. Then, the shots of the Mall, so vast and crowded with people waving flags and jumping up and down that it looked like one massive pile of confetti. Don’t let Fox News tell you differently: it did NOT look a thing like that at either Bush inauguration. This was bigger, and happier than anything I had ever seen … and watching it, six time zones and thousands of miles away from the familiar scene, well, that was enough to get me.

Alice Walker reminded people that we “elected a president, not a magician,” and Obama’s speech today — which I found less heartstring-tugging, but more serious and true than his happy concert speech Sunday — made the issues America faces clear time and time again. And though the words “tolerance” and “unity” and “peace” flew through the air with abandon, one need only cross into Anacostia — so close from the shining white Capitol building, so far away in equality — to know that today wasn’t a cure all. Certainly, I had an interesting reminder that tolerance and love are at danger internationally as well: on my way to C.E.U., I saw a huge table set up, with young Hungarians (who looked not so different than the type of go-getter college kids who campaigned in “hope” and “change” T-shirts for Obama) handing out infomation on the far-right Jobbik party, a political organization that might, perhaps, represent the furthest thing from tolerance and inclusion (these people protest Hanukah. Yup. Even tried to do it once in front of the Dohany Street syangogue.)

But, then, on the way home, I met a (rather wine-sodden) old German man, who randomly hugged me (before needing propped up on the wall so I could explain how he could get to Moskva ter). There is hate in the world. But there is also the love Obama spoke about. Thus far, the course of human history has shown that the majority of the time, when life is difficult — financially, politically — human beings have a tendency to show our worst side. Thus far, suffering and intolerance and inequality have engendered more of the same instead of compassion.  Obama asked this of us … and by “us,” I do mean not just Americans, but everyone:

“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back.”

Thus far, history has show that such an outcome is unlikely. But, as someone — and who would it be? — once said, … in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” Unlikely, yes. But possible, too.

Today, I find myself truly missing my homes for the first time since I arrived here.

I say “homes” because I do consider myself having two: Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C (cities just 5 hours of interstate apart, but in such decidedly different cultures, I often feel I ought to have a passport to go between them).

Pittsburgh is missed because the lovely Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, and hence will go on to play in the Superbowl. The last time this happened, in 2006, I was working as a reporter at The Beaver County Times … and I can’t say I’ll miss having my workday being 100% dedicated to every (and any) possible way of saying something about Steelers and Steeler love. I literally had to write stories about Ben Roethlisberger’s beard. No, I am not kidding. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I wrote another one. Yup — two stories, taking up valuable news space. About facial hair. (Perhaps you recall my earlier annoyance at the American press’s general neglect of the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis? Well, Russia and the Ukraine could both be wiped off the map and it likely wouldn’t even merit an inch of newsprint in a Pittsburgh region paper until after the Superbowl.) But, now that it isn’t my job to come up with the newest approach to Terrible Towel use, I will certainly miss the excitement and the way sports victory can briefly throw otherwise unrelated people together in one happy ball of Pittsburgh-love (Perhaps nobody has explained this feeling better than fellow former-‘burgher/now DC-ist Howard Fineman in a 2005 MSNBC column, although his account came after a playoff loss.)

Yet, of course, far more missed by this ex-pat today is the festivities blooming on the National Mall for the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States!!!!.

For eight years, I have grown more and more weary of a President who appeared to care about neither the interests of other countries, nor those in his own country who didn’t fit his strict ideals of “real” Americans (which must have meant rich, white, straight, male and so on, judging by the policy he made). For my entire adult voting life, I have listened to the word “intellectual” be used as a slur, and watched the leader of the free world bumble through the English language, basking in his own stupidity as a badge of what made him “real” (and, if to be like him was to be a real American, what does that mean he is saying about us as a country?) For my past trips and time abroad, I have hidden my nationality — “Si, sono olandese” I responded to many an Italian’s query back in 2002, because, since our reputation was so low abroad the Italians seemed to believe anyone who spoke Italian (even bad Italian) couldn’t be from that exceptionalist America, and they picked Dutch as the most likely place for my paler-faced self.

But today, I’m going out to do my errands and take my Hungarian classes and sit in my new favorite cafe wearing an Obama shirt, boldly addressing postcards with “U.S.A” as the last address line.

Because today … YES WE CAN!

And, so, today, I am missing the great big party that is erupting in my home of Washington, D.C. It’s ironic, to say the least, that I suffered the limo-clogged streets and back Metro service through two inaugurations of Mr. Bush, “celebrations” that, for me, felt more like times to mourn.

Whoa. I do love to watch that man speak. Throughout the election, both detractors and supporters worried over his eloquence. What if he is just a bunch of pretty words? they asked, seeming to be frightened of a politician who dared to treat his constituents as if they might have a reading comprehension level above the 5th grade … as if they might possibly understand complex issues. Words are not everything, no. But take it from an English teacher: words matter. Stories can be the beginning of something that changes lives (ask the female abolitionist writers of 19th century America, whose poems began a freedom movement, or anyone who was around hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) I just wish I could see him say them in person … and, since Bono and Springsteen were in my old backyard, to walk down to see them, too.

I think if I was back there, I’d be so giddy on it all, I might even be nice to the tourists who stand on the left of the Metro escalator.

Yes, I miss D.C. today. One of the things that annoyed me the most during the past campaign season — and this came from both colors, Red and Blue — was the demonizing of urban life in Washington and New York. We suddenly became cities that weren’t “real America.”  We became the scapegoat for everyone else’s frustrations. Every politico and his or her supporters used rhetoric making of Washington into some sort of devil’s den (and even those areas which touched Washington, like my last residence, Northern Virginia, which was forever touted as not being “real Virginia” … and, hence, not “real America.”) Well,

(more…)

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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