Culture


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.

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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

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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.

…because it looks like the gas isn’t coming towards Europe today as expected.

As the BBC reports here, Russia claims it has turned the gas back on, but that the Ukraine has not opened pipelines. The EU monitors placed along the pipeline — a move Russia demanded as part of the agreement, saying it worried the Ukraine was siphoning off gas — say that while gas is flowing, the levels are very low. As the BBC reporter puts it, there is “no trust” between the two countries, a very troubling relationship for two countries so close together.

And, of course, the story is already off the New York Times and Washington Post main pages. You can find it if you search, but there are other interests there: Israel and Gaza (understandably), whatever Clinton has to say about her job as Secretary of State (hey, Hils, here’s a message from the Bulgarians: they are cold), and what Sasha and Malia Obama wore on their first day of school (yeah, I love the Obamas, but seriously news media. Now is not the time to comment on any seven-year old’s backpack keychain. Actually, NEVER is the time to put that in the media. Leave the child alone — it isn’t like there isn’t enough real news to be had).  So, many parts of East Europe shiver, many more are at risk for going cold, too, but the American mind will already be closed to that “other” across the sea.

My parents can talk about the Cold War, but all that is to someone of my 20-something generation is a brief memory of practicing air-raid drills in the elementary school basement (tuck and cover your heads). Indeed, my first memory of seeing anything on the news is my dad pulling me out of my bedroom to see the Berlin wall fall. But this latest snafu over here  — and, especially, the potentially explosive friction between the Ukraine and Russia — is again a reminder that foreign policy has to be more than the Mideast. If Russia or the Ukraine … or, more likely, both Russia and the Ukraine … blows up, it’s going to be one big worldwide mess.  Too bad that might be the only way it will get attention.

Wow, I just signed on to my main blog dashboard today — to begin making blogs for two of my courses at Pázmány Péter in the spring — and realized I haven’t posted in almost a month!

Mostly, my holiday abscence can be blamed upon an American invasion of sorts: I’ve been either playing hostess or traveling since the 19th of December, so this is my first week without a house filled with excited (if jet-lagged) American friends.

While having visitors can certainly be stressful, I’m glad so many of my friends made it over here (and I have three more coming next week! Hostel de Russo, indeed!) because I find it hard to accurately describe Budapest to people who have not been here. I know, it is a shameful admission for a once-professional writer and a current writing teacher to admit an inability to use her adjectives well enough to conjure up a city in the minds of far-flung friends. But Budapest is, simply put, one stunning whirlwind of contradiction. Travel guides, travel writers, the best and brightest of foreign correspondents … and yours truly … never get it fully right. It has to be seen to be known.  Having people from my “old life” visit me during my adventure makes me feel that I can more fully share a new place I have grown to love.

I also feel really lucky that so many were (and are) willing to trek to Eastern Europe in the dead of winter. Despite growing up in the most solid, stable, born-and-raised-in -the-same-house lifestyle, my adult life has been one giant streak of transience. (the move here was the 14th move in 9 years; the move back to D.C. area in July or August will make 15).  When there is no set “home” in the physical sense, friends become home in the metaphorical.

So, to make up for the writing abscence over the past three weeks, a little pictoral evidence of holidays and a new year in Budapest and beyond.

 

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

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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?

Ever since the program orientation back in September, my colleague at the Fulbright office, Krisztina, and I have been scheming to get a group of us together to go try folk dancing. Well, we finally made it this Friday … and I am pretty sure we didn’t do anything to improve America’s battered reputation abroad. I personally may have broken the toes of at least 3 different Hungarians.

But that said, it was amazingly fun. Krisztina had warned us we would sweat; we assumed this meant a small bottle of water would suffice. But after the first circle dance, we were already sweating enough to need new shirts. We were actually dancing the Csángó, a type of folk dance that from the region that is now Moldova (Wikipedia tries to explain here, but be forewarned that the page has been marked as “biased’). It felt a bit like an extremely boisterous version of being in a Jane Austen movie: a recorder, little drum and lute making the music, men bowing to women, a room of people dancing with the same steps … only instead of the staid English steps, there was a lot of kicking and ample smack-your-foot-against-the-floor-really-loudly steps. ( I did discover one internal problem to being a great csángó dancer, though: more than one of my partners for the paired dances pointed out that I was attempting to lead. What can I say? — that whole independent woman thing must come through even in my dancing shoes… sort of like how I kept offering my arm to the groomsman instead of the other way around during the last wedding I was in. )

What was most amazing to me, however, was how many younger people were there. Voluntarily. On a Friday night. Growing up in love-thy-ethnicity Pittsburgh, it was common enough for kids to be involved in the Tamburitzans or to have to learn enough of the tarentella to make it through Italian family weddings (usually held at the Economy Borough Fire Hall or similar venue, complete with foil-wrapped trays of baked ziti… but I digress), yet it was seen more as a duty, something to please mom or keep you in a great aunt’s will. But at the dance hall where Krisztina took us, there were plenty of teenagers and 20-somethings, eagerly learning the steps and dancing with pensioners with as much enthusiasm as with their dates.

Perhaps I am just a bit goggle-eyed at this because I came of dancing age during the early to mid-1990s. Which meant my choices for Friday-night shakin’ it included

(a) angry head-banging while looking all angry and grumpy in your layered flannel shirts, thanks to the grunge/alt movement, or
(b) the “charming” practice known as “grinding,” or merely rubbing against one’s dance partner in an unimpressive way for as long as it took for Vice Principal Cathy Good to pull you apart and remind you of the school-board-mandated inches that should remain between students at all times.

Needless to say, my teenage dancing years were unimpressive at best, and often shudder-worthy. So I suppose it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was a little jealous to see a hip-looking teenage Hungarian boy sweep a 20-something girl onto the floor and lead her through a set of intricate foot kicks, boot stomps, and super-fast spins. No offense meant to all my memories of the gym of Quaker Valley Junior High, but I’m feeling really ripped off in terms of dance culture. What made the night even better was the teacher: an extremely hyper young Transylvanian guy, who somehow managed to make sense in telling us all the steps despite the fact that first of all, none of us spoke much Hungarian (besides Krisztina) and second of all, even if we did, he was apparently speaking a Transylvanian dialect of Hungarian, which Krisztina later explained was quite beautiful to listen to but much different that what one hears on the street… she likened it to someone walking up to an American and speaking Shakespearean English — we’d understand, but it would sound as if the person was speaking in poems.

And he also bore a striking resemblance to Justin Timberlake.

It’s hard to describe without seeing him, but he had very Timberlake-y sideburns and a Justin-worthy ability to boogie…as well as a pretty styling fedora (often used creatively to keep time during the dance, with little hat tips) He began the night bouncy and full of energy; after a palinka break, he was jumping around like some Transylvanian version of a leprechaun, feet moving far too fast for us befuddled Americans to do anything but stare in wonder as he leaped and twirled gracefully around the room.

Actually, maybe calling him Timberlake doesn’t do him justice — JT’s last big dance scene with Madonna, for instance, was all well and good, but had nothing on our fearless dance leader’s moves with a random dance-house goer. And, despite the toes I crushed, I have a feeling I’ll be following Transylvanian Timberlake around the csango steps a few more times during my adventures.

That is, if poor Krisztina wasn’t embarassed by us too much…

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