First Impressions


The blog has been quiet all week because my life has been anything BUT quiet, with a whole week of Fulbright orientation (as well as my first departmental meeting as a Pazmany professor!).

Wesley, Sarah, Randall and Nick overlooking the city

Wesley, Sarah, Randall and Nick overlooking the city

First, on Monday, I headed up with three other young, female English professors to the Pazmany campus in Piliscaba. It was every bit as gorgeous as it looked in the pictures online, and it was very exciting to meet with my department — albeit a bit intimidating. Not intimidating because the professors are snobbish or standoffish; on the contrary, everyone I met was overly welcoming. Rather, it is intimidating because my colleagues are inviting me to give guest lectures and treating me as some form of an expert … when in reality, they are so extremely accomplished it makes me feel like a kid just playing dress up. One of my colleagues, Veronika, who is a very young and fun professor, is publishing an academic book this year in English — and that’s like her third or fourth language! Hence, the idea of me — with my last year-and-a-half of focusing on basic writing skills in my community college courses — offering better expertise is daunting, to say the least. (Although, these Pazmany colleagues could certain teach certain American academics … who shall remain nameless … I have encountered something about the value of not being so self-important)

The Fulbright orientation, which lasted the rest of the week was also really great — particularly the wonderfully diverse and interesting folk in this year’s Fulbright group. While I do want to use my time abroad to make as many native Hungarian friends and contacts as possible, I also know that due to both language and culture barriers, I am sure I will depend on my group for both social and practical matters. But I couldn’t have asked for a better core here in Budapest: we have Randall, who sings opera and is studying living composers, among other ideas, and his charming partner, Nick; Sarah, an art historian who is studying the Renaissance connections in Hungary and thus makes for the perfect museum buddy; Natalie, a mathematician who is both hilarious and a rather accomplished speaker of Hungarian (see can both order beer successfully and get directions! and trust me, in this language, that is pretty amazing); Eric, who is researching Roma education, and his girlfriend, Jennifer; Wesley, an astronomer; Max, a cultural historian; and Amy, a high school English teacher, as well as several other really cool teachers and researchers who will be around Pecs and other points around the country.

The orientation itself was very intense, but the best introduction to Hungary you could ask for: the Fulbright brings in professors from local universities who offer background lectures on the history,

Danube at Sunset, Visegrad

Danube at Sunset, Visegrad

economy, culture and other points of Hungarian life — plus some beautiful trips, like to the Danube Bend, and an amazing opening dinner. While the history lecturer, Dr. Laszlo Borhi, was probably the most useful by giving us, oh, a thousand years of history in an hour and a half, I have to admit my favorite was Tamas Daroci Bardos, a composer and conductor who gave the most spirited explanation of Hungarian music — complete with his interpretation of folk-dancing, an accomplishment made even more amusing by the fact that he is a older, rounder gentleman. I also loved our “crash course” language teachers, who were extremely patient, but my Hungarian isn’t getting much past my very short list of words. Something about some of the sounds — like “gy” — just won’t come out right.

Hanging with King Matthias

Hanging with King Matthias

To top off a great week, my weekend has included dancing to crazy Balkan music, my first taste of nationally-loved liquers palinka and Unicum (the first is a pretty good fruit brandy, the second is a herb liqueur, ostensibly, but it tastes more like super-concentrated Nyquil to me), and a trip for fancy cake and coffee (a cultural pastime I could definitely get used to!).  In orientation, we also learned that we get trips every month (yay!) and that we have the opportunity to hit a Fulbright conference in Berlin in March (double yay!), so I’m even more excited than ever about my year.

Even if I can’t exactly say “I’m excited” to any Hungarian who asks.
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At least since I arrived here in Budapest, that is. The past two days — full day 2 and 3 of my sojourn in post-Soviet Europe — have boosted my faith that most people are genuinely good. Now, maybe I shouldn’t jinx myself — should I expect a random mugging or being kicked or something to balance out the day’s warm-fuzzies? — but I can’t believe how generous and nice some Budapest-ians who were complete strangers to me have been.

Hungarian Parliment from Margit Hid

Hungarian Parliment from Margit Hid

First, I went out for coffee with the former boyfriend of a good Georgetown friend who studied in Budapest several years ago. Since I’d gone almost two days without really saying anything to anyone, I talked the poor guy’s ear off (I know, that is soooo hard for anyone to imagine, seeing as how I am normally a shrinking violent, silent and serene….riiiiiight….). But he gave me a list of good places to visit, is trying to help me find a Hungarian tutor, and even taught me the essential words for getting by: thank-you, excuse me (huzzah! no more feeling like the Rude American when smacking into folks on the tram!) …and, of course, beer and wine.  Then, today, a colleague from Pazmany Peter, Kinga, met me for coffee and gave me lots of helpful background on the university, my soon-to-be-students, the English and American Studies Department, and Hungarian education in general. We also had plenty of time to chat about literature, which in and of itself would have been such fun for my book-nerd self, but she also took me to the mall, helped me buy a cell phone — an especially difficult task because you can’t buy one in Hungary unless you are a permanent resident, which means she also had to basically “register” the phone for me — showed me how to get the train to my university and offered me a ride to our department meeting Monday.

Fountain, Margitsziget

Fountain, Margitsziget

I know I haven’t been here this long, but I already feel like it will help me be more patient when I get back to the States.  Washington, whether I like it or not, has rubbed off on me — and, unfortunately, I’ve always had a bit of the rush-rush-rush, I-think-I’m-the-most-important-person-EVER mindset that infects that city. Patience was never my strong suit. Teaching, of course, taught me some of that, but experiencing the other side — the need for patience and compassion — is already making me think about how I act (and how I will act) in new ways. Right now, I am pretty helpless. I need guides and support to do everything. But yet I’ve received it, with all the kindness one could ever expect. Things that could have been frustrating, difficult or scary aren’t when  nice strangers have helped — so I hope one day I can pay that karmic debt back.

Oh, and the pictures are from my jaunt around Margitsziget (Margit Island) this afternoon. With perfect sunny, warm-but-not-hot skies, it seems like Budapest is trying to give the best first impression ever, and it made walking around a park the only sensible option for my afternoon.

 

At the end of my second day — and first FULL day in Budapest — I realized I kept repeating the invaluable advice of Simon & Garfunkel on how to stay “feeling groovy’: slow down.

Coming from the hyper-type-A culture of Washington … and the even more run-run-run mindset that is Washington’s Georgetown … I want to do things fast. Already, I get frustrated by wanting to do thingslearn how to use the subway, figure out how to pronounce the words I see on signs, go see all those pretty things printed in my tour book — right now and simply not being able to because I am in a completely new place where I can’t understand others and they can’t understand me. Today, I got frustrated when I bumped into someone on a tram and I couldn’t even say “excuse me” (although, I did revert to the Italian “scusi” accidentally. Why? I don’t know. I just knew English wouldn’t work so somehow, Italian came out.) I got frustrated when it took me 25 minutes to find salt in the grocery store, because while I looked up the word (it is “so” by the way) I certainly didn’t know how to ask where to find it. I got frustrated every time someone’s cell phone rang because I was jealous I didn’t have one yet.

If there were those little devil-and-angel figures that pop up on the shoulders of cartoons, my devil would be saying “screw this! let’s get out of here!,” but fortunately, the angel one has been reminding me I’ve only been here 32 hours and that I need to calm the heck down. No, I’m not going to understand anyone; yes, everything will take 20 times longer than it did in a place where I knew everything and everyone. That’s the point, isn’t it? The whole purpose of jumping into a new culture? So, while today I slept until nearly noon (guess that power-nap on the plane didn’t suffice), wandered a lot and all I accomplished was visiting the Fulbright Center to meet the staff and finding the cafe-filled Raday Utca (where, blessedly, waiters speak English and I was able to order a large … and much needed … beer), that’s pretty darn good for the day. I’ve got awhile; the rest will come.

It was a day of travel miracles: I took three separate flights to get from the familial home in Pittsburgh to Budapest, and not only did I arrive in the city at the scheduled time, all of my baggage did as well.

I’m taking this as a good omen for the upcoming year 🙂

I had a bit of help settling into my little studio apartment by Nelly, who is not only my landlady but also my colleague at the Fulbright advising center — and getting Internet access right away (thrilling!) — and she also took me on a very brief neighborhood tour. It was very odd to hear all the chattering, though, and not understand a single word. My attempts at self-teaching Hungarian were weak (at best) this summer, so it’s really being thrown into a culture shock. My travel thus far has been limited to Western Europe alone, where, even if I don’t speak much French or any Spanish, I can still make out a general flow from my passable Italian. Hungarian, though, is a different story: a strangely entrancing language, but totally incomprehensible. As I listened to people today, it reminded me again of just how hard a task so many of my Basic English students (and ESL students in any level of my English classes) face. Just a few minutes of that made my head spin, and they’re doing it every day, all day, for every task they must complete — plus, coming to class to have me yap rapidly at them for three hours!

I did, however, have my first triumph in my new culture: I successfully shopped for a few basic groceries. I know this seems underwhelming, but as noted, I don’t speak Hungarian, so it involved me wandering down a street until I found what appeared to be a supermarket, making a few educated guesses at products and prices, and paying with the lovely forints I picked up at Pittsburgh International yesterday afternoon. Seriously, I think I was prouder that I purchased some museli and apples than I have ever been with an “A” term paper or an at-work accolade. That’s actually one of the things I love about travel and living in new cultures: the ordinary event can be elevated to something really happy and exciting, just by the sheer novelty of newness.

Granted, the checkout lady did ask me something in Hungarian, to which I could only respond with a blank stare. I think she was asking for a smaller bill. Or, perhaps, she telling me off.  In which case, that language barrier can be a good thing!