Fulbright


I’ve just returned from my first ever trip to Germany that wasn’t solely based in an airport (I always seem to come through Frankfurt…): a five-day jaunt to Berlin for an conference organized for all the Fulbrighters in Europe. In short, I’m very glad I finally was able to leave the terminal. Berlin is a very cool city — and an extremely large one, after being used to the rather small, centralized city Budapest is. I got to see the gorgeous Rococo gildedness of the Charlottenburg Castle, climb to the top of the Parliament (Reichstag) to gaze at the illuminated city at night, and  see the remains of the Berlin Wall, the fall of which is my first memory of seeing something on the news (my father pulling me out of playing dress-up or whatever I was doing at the age of 7 to plunk me down in front of the T.V. and say “You need to see this. It is important”).

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

But more so that just the city itself, the people we met made the weekend. The conference programming was mostly centered on Fulbrighters to Germany — the German Fulbright program is huge, about 300 people, and they host — but for those of us outside of Germany, especially those of us in less-than-common destinations, the evening receptions and such were really the point: we got to talk about an experience few people can understand. Like the second night, at dinner, when Natalie, Sarah and I met a group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to Slovakia. Immediately, Natalie made a joke about the tense Hungarian-Slovakian relationship (no joking matter, really, with both the historical issue over Hungary’s division following WWII, and the recent bitterness by Hungarians over Slovakia moving to the Euro, whilst Hungary remains on the continually-depreciating forint, but I digress…), which led to a very amusing discussion over dinner of all the “joys” of living in Eastern Europe (i.e. misspeaks in the difficult new languages; the Budapest Kontroll vs. the Slovakian “foreign police”; the never-ending process which is getting a residency permit; etc.) — which, in many ways, only made me happier to be here.

See, while the large mass of students from Germany (and many of the Western European countries) were all very nice and interesting, they still kind of seemed like college kids on study-abroad. Germany has a different culture than the US, no doubt — but it is harder to distinguish that difference after living somewhere in the East. As Margaret, one of the visiting professors to Hungary put it in her presentation, “I know there is a financial crisis here in Germany too, but compared to Hungary, I can’t believe it.”  These places in the East — while still part of the EU, part of globalization, part of all that sphere of cultural melding together — still require a little more work, a little more flexibility, a little more openness to see the frustrations and challenges as something lovable.

One of the Slovakian ETAs, for instance,  in his presentation, referred to his command of Slovak as “I tell my students I am like a dog. I can kind of understand everything you say, I just can’t speak.” Funny, and terribly fitting for my feelings about struggling with my own new language (only I would say I am more like a very slow dog…I need large hand gestures, too).

One of the other bonuses to travel when living somewhere strange? How much more your adopted home becomes home-like when you return. One of the other Slovakian ETAs, Claire, landed on our flight home, and we rode the metro together back into town. My Hungarian is good enough that I could buy her a ticket, and then, on the metro, I suddenly realized I could understand some of the conversations I could overhear. “Oh, that woman said ‘we only had to wait three minutes!’ That one just said ‘I don’t have time today!'” I babbled, surprised that even little things made some sense after a week in German, a language I do not know at all.

Berlin was beautiful; the more-developed West has its advantages. But even though I’m feeling that bit of post-travel let-down, missing new friends and not looking forward to piles of work, I am still feeling happier to have settled in my sometimes-challenging Eastern Europe “home.”  A beauty found in imperfections, I think, is somehow stronger than the clean-and-easy sparkle.

(more Berlin in pictures below)

(more…)

Advertisements

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

(more…)

… but this was too good not to share.

I popped by the Fulbright Office this afternoon to print out my presentation for the HUSSE conference tomorrow in Pécs.

Hey, did you hear the Magyars do it too?

As I walked over to pick it up from our fancy-schmancy new printer, my Hungarian colleague Csanád came running down the hall — to fist bump me while saying “Change has come to America!”

Good to see the ol’ homeland is still setting trends, both politically and stylistically.

As  my US counterparts stumble from their turkey-induced sleepiness into the bright dawn of Black Friday “doorbusters” (ah, the irony: give thanks for what you have. Then, line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m. to get even more! How truly American…), I’m working away at the Fulbright Center, in a country where Thanksgiving is not formally celebrated, but feeling pretty full of thanks myself.

So, in no particular order,  some reasons why I am feeling as full of thanks as I was of food last night. I am thankful:

  • For being here in Hungary, in a beautiful city. This week marks the three-month mark of my time here, and I am still loving it. Certainly as the winter comes, I’m have my ick-down days (major seasonal affective disorder) … and I have my frustrations (the language…which is coming very s-l-o-w-l-y, despite Gabi’s best efforts… the Magyar Posta’s insane tax rates … general slowness of anything bureaucratic) but I’m continually thankful to be here. I can’t believe I was so worried about it, and really grateful I took a chance.
  • For NOVA -Loudoun  holding me a job so I can have this year in Budapest. I ended up in a situation where I was offered my dream job — full-time English teaching at a community college — at the same time as the Fulbright. While most people said it was enviable, I agonized about the options. But my wonderful dean offered me the chance of deferring the job. It is a situation so perfect, I often actually worry about it — as if I might have dreamed it up. How often does one get all that they want? It is rare. And I am grateful for it.
  • For friends here. My Fulbright cohort has fun, smart people who like doing fun, smart things, so I haven’t ever felt lonely here. (I even have yoga buddies, something I found it difficult to find even in the US!) And I got very lucky with my placement at Pázmány, as my colleagues there have turned out to be great friends at well. When the snow first hit earlier this week, for instance, I was feeling mope-y, so my colleague Veronika came to see Mamma Mia! the movie with me.  Colin Firth is always uplifting; Colin Firth dubbed into Hungarian is like cinematic Prozac times ten.
  • For surviving Junior High. I went to help my Fulbright colleague, Annamaria, judge an English pronunciation contest at a Hungarian middle school yesterday. The kids were so sweet (and so nervous!), but as I looked around the room, I realized how middle school/junior high is the same in any culture. I could see all the types: who was popular and pretty, who was the class clown, which boys were the sporty-fratty-get-all-the-girls types, which boy probably writes music and plays guitar and is under-appreciated now but will be every girl’s heartthrob come college for his sensitive soul … even which of the kids fit the  bookish, so-nerdy-my-sister-didn’t-want-people-to-know-we-were-related type that I was. And while this is adorable to watch from a distance, I have to say I’m glad I am past that stage of life! 
  • For U.S. friends. Whenever someone goes for a year abroad, everyone always say “oh, I’ll visit”. But rarely do they actually do it.  I, however, have a full house in through the majority of January! Yay! (and what better way to attack that seasonal-affective issue??) 
  • For family in all its definitions.
  • For Hungarian wines, Hungarian food, Hungarian dessert …

Being a Hungarian Fulbrighter is coolest type of Fulbright-ing for any number of reasons — the wine culture, the fact that we have spas, the crazy language where one word can last four paragraphs, the paprika — but it is especially cool because every month, the Fulbright Commission takes us somewhere for a meeting, where we all get to see each other and catch up. It makes for a nice happy family feel to the whole thing experience. And this month, we spent part of the trip at my very own university, Pázmány Péter, with a tour of the unique design by modern “organic” architect Imre Makovecz (a little like Frank Llyod Wright in philosophy, although the style itself is very different) led by the incomparable Veronika Schandl.

With just two months at the school, I have already developed a pride in it which, if it doesn’t match my Georgetown love, could certainly grow to that level, so I was quite happy to see it shown off to my group here.

Pázmány!

Pázmány!

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

Trees "grow" inside Pázmány's main building

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

My fabulous colleague, Veronika, leads the group

Hungarian Fulbright Group

Hungarian Fulbright Group in Esztergom

Happy Monday!

Although the last post expressed frustration, this has also been a week of some pretty great “highs” — I think I have passed that first-month slump after all. So, in the spirit of “keeping it positive” (a nod to you, Mr. Greg Laski, if you ever un-bury yourself from your Ph.D. studies long enough to check in with your long-lost friend…) a list of little victories that have me smiling this week (oh, and the post title nagy jó jó, literally translates to “big good good” so it basically means very good or great…most commonly used as a declaration, such as a teacher to a student who has done well)

1.  I learned to say such things as nagy jó jó in my Beginner Hungarian class at C.E.U. The teacher is a very sweet woman, and the class is like the U.N. come to life: we have two American students, two Romanians, a Moldovan, a Chinese student, an Austrian student, a Serbian student, a Bulgarian student…and one girl who has lived so many places, from the Ukraine to Dupont Circle in dear old DC, she doesn’t even know how to answer the question “where are you from?”.  It’s wonderful!

2.  My conversation class at Pázmány is really heating up. I started a more student-directed discussion organization, using a rotating schedule for the students to be leaders. As I mentioned before, getting Hungarian students who are used to a lecture-based format to speak is challenging, but they have brought in some great topics, and this week, they talked so much several stayed after to keep it up. Somehow, we even ended up discussing the U.S. financial crisis — which, while this normally wouldn’t be a happy topic, was happy to see in class because it required such complex vocabulary and structure.

3. I got an e-mail from one of my former students from Lord Fairfax Community College, who had been in my English 1 class (i.e. pre-college or remedial writing). I call him my pride and joy because he made such huge strides, and, one year after he struggled with basic writing tasks, is attending a four year college this year. (He worked his butt off, to be sure, and always came for extra help, even after he moved on to another class.) But he sent me an essay he just turned in for a college class at his new school, and it is wonderful — he was always so thoughtful, creative and bright and seeing

Gorky and I go to the Operaház to see the ballet

Gorky and I go to the Operaház to see the ballet

how he has managed to channel that is so amazing. I read it about four times, it made me so happy.

4. Gorky, my colleague from CNDLS came in to run the Budapest Marathon, so we have been having a good time touring around AND he has also been helping me brainstorm teaching ideas. As a former ESL student himself — Gorky arrived in the Bronx from Ecuador at the age of 13, speaking only Spanish — and a very experienced teacher of foreign languages, he’s been very helpful in devising ways to get my most-quiet class (Civil Rights, as mentioned) to get more engaged and talkative.

Gorky finishes marathon, with a time of 5 hours, 7 min.!

Gorky finishes marathon, with a time of 5 hours, 7 min.!

5. I feel I’ve made some great headway with a few students at the Fulbrightcommission who want to study in the U.S., particularly one girl who is working towards her GRE test this November (and I don’t envy any foreign student that task … I hated the GRE and it was in my native language.)

6. My absentee ballot arrived. And I get to vote in that swingy-est of swing states, Pennsylvania!

7. It is warm. In mid-October. After a late September of gray, chilly rain, the fact that Gorky and I had dinner outside last night is worthy of its own nagy jó jó entry.

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.

Next Page »