Hungary


I am really, really wishing I could freeze time right now.  It is jumping by in great big gobs — far too fast to hold onto.

I was talking to my fellow Fulbrighter, Sarah, tonight, as we finished planning our Great Balkan Adventure (10 days through Bosnia and Croatia, for which we depart Tuesday morning!) and, as we hung up, she noted: “I can’t believe it’s all ending.” But it is —  she won’t return to Hungary after said G.B.A.; I will but just for about four days. Last Sunday night, over another around in Szimpla, Natalie noted it was our last night as “official” Fulbrighters, as the grant technically ends May 31. We were both shocked into a sad, nostalgic daze by this (which we dealt with the only way we could figure out: lots and lots of pálinka.)

Right now, I feel oddly similar to how I did last August, nervous and jumpy, not able to sleep and constantly feeling that nagging “did-I-forget-something?” feeling” The emotion made sense then: I was off to the most unknown of the unknown, a country and a language and a people I knew nothing about. Now, I’m off to what is very well known: I’ll be back to D.C. (more home than the parental home now), and, even more familiar, I’ll be back to the exact same apartment, with a good, old friend … even the old neighbors have promised a welcome-back beer. So, why do I seem so scared now?

Ring Road at dawn

Ring Road at dawn

Maybe it’s because I am leaving a lot, a dreamworld of sorts. The girl who spent her teen years drooling over National Geographic magazine and wishing for a passport will have been in ten countries and at least twice as many cities this year. Or maybe because I am still leaving a home, albeit one held for a short time.

Just last night, one of my favorite clubs, Gödör Klub, was having its regular Balkan Beats night. This is an awesome, awesome dance party, where bands from both Hungary and around Europe play a crazy, amped-up version of folk music. In short, it’s dance-tastic. (should you ever land here, you must check and see if its on) This month’s lineup was particularly good, with Hungarian band Romano Drom and the German DJ who founded this party. The floor was packed, the huge steps which lead into the club (in the site of an old bus station, so it’s sort of underground) were teeming with Budapestians and backpackers. After a sweaty dance session to Romano Drom’s set, we headed outside for some much-needed fresh air. As we sat in the grass nearby, I looked at the group we made: Natalie and I, the Americans; Patrick, our German friend; Nat’s Icelandic boyfriend, Baldur; and an assortment of two Swedes, a Dane, a Scot, a Brit and two Hungarians. We tipped back Dreher and fröccs, looking at the illuminated dome of Szent István cathedral. Tired, Natalie and I lay down and looked up at the few stars that we could see through the city lights. We watched the light go out on Szent István around 2 a.m. It seemed somehow fitting: a goodnight, a goodbye.

But then Patrick and Baldur pulled us back up to continue dancing. It also seemed somehow fitting: a reminder that there is no such thing as an end to an experience this lovely.

We danced until we were dripping. We walked home through a still-buzzing Király utca at nearly 4 a.m. We called it a beautiful night. We called Budapest in the early summer beautiful. We called life beautiful.

I have just returned from my second trip to the “ocean” of Hungary, Lake Balaton. While I had already visited this lake once, with the whole Fulbright group, this trip had an extra-special element: I got to stay in the hand-built family weekend house of my dearest Hungarian friend, Veronika.

The House Dad Schandl Built!

The House Dad Schandl Built!

I am not exaggerating when I say hand-built either: Veronika’s dad literally did just this, starting the plans back in 1969. First, as a “boat shed” (this was during Communism, and they could not get a permit for a house, but could get one for a boat shed. Party inspectors even came to check that the structure met acceptable boat-shed-ness, Veronika explained,) and then later added on to make a bigger house, it is quite impressive — a cute, snug whitewashed structure that seems to emit a feeling of summery relaxation.

The house is located in a smaller town on the lake, called Balatonmáriafürdő, one that is not super-heavy on the German pensioners that so love Lake Balaton. Veronika and I also were lucky to have a fabulous chauffeur and chef, in the forms of the Dávids (no, they’re not some Hungarian band or something — just two great guys, both named Dávid). The Hungarians, I soon discovered, would get along very well with my mom and dad, for they both take the same approach to spending a weekend at the lake: pack enough food for at least three weeks. (Seriously, Veronika had a whole duffel. And the feast one Dávid cooked us for lunch Saturday was similar in size to the meals of My Crazy Great Aunts, little Italian ladies famed for feeding). (more…)

Maybe the New York Times is reading my posts about being too down on Hungary, because the front page, around 11 a.m. Hungarian time, today, had this upbeat story “Hungary’s Spirits Are Back Up, on a Horse,”

The writer here tries to draw a parallel between America’s Seabiscuit and a Hungarian winner called Overdose.  It is too simple a comparison, to be sure, but it is an interesting story.

And it even brings up Trianon and the loss of Greater Hungary. Of course. Because I haven’t heard about that enough in my 7+ months here …

As I’ve probably mentioned before, this semester I am teaching a class on Journalism History — it is an attempt to teach American history through journalism, as well as try to explain what about American journalism is unique/ how journalism makes America unique. While I was, once upon a time, a journalist, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a historian. Truth be told, the last U.S. History class I took was in high school — AP with Mr. Andrews, a lovable mullet-ed tattooed type (this was Pittsburgh, after all) prone to snapping a plastic model of a toilet in the face of a students who offered (his words) “crappy answers.”  Hence, in my search for creative pedagogical techniques, I hit upon using what I know: specifically, journalists. I’ve been interviewing some journalist friends of mine and using Skype to record the calls, making for guest lectures that don’t require the physical presence of said guest. I started with my former roommate, Amanda, who works for the washingtonpost.com as a Senior Producer.  Although she is now in Arts & Living, and more likely to follow, say, movie stars than international issues, she started on the night news desk and was able to give a lot

Anyway, one of the questions my students had was “How does the paper decide which foreign countries to cover”. And, specifically, why does Hungary get in the news (or, as is more likely, not get in the US news?)

We looked at the homepages of several US papers in class, trying to figure out what their layout had to say about American concerns yesterday. No Hungary to be found, I asked why the students through this was. After all, the country is currently in a weird flux limbo state: their Prime Minister resigned, then said he didn’t really mean it, then resigned and appointed another guy, to the screams of the other party. I mean, in my opinion, a Prime-Minister-less country is headline worthy. So why no news love? One student had an answer It isn’t sensationalist enough yet, he said. Someone needs to do something crazier, or things need to get worse.

And today, it looks like he might be right.  When I logged on for my daily morning scan of the New York Times, I was greeted with the front-and-center story being on Hungary: “Politics Add to Turmoil in Hungary.” Complete, as you will see by clicking on the link, with the saddest-looking shot of an old Magyar lady you could imagine.  (she’s even got the babushka on, just in case you weren’t sure if she was “other” enough).

Now, Hungary is in bad straits, yes. The country has problems. Big ones. Another student, hearing my protests that I do really like Budapest and I am not just saying it to be polite, reminded me that Foreign people always love Hungary. That’s because they aren’t from here.  It was a statement that jarred me, but that I also know is true. I am living in Hungary, but not as a Hungarian. I have one “job” with the Fulbright, and it pays me enough to live quite comfortably on. I have another job to count on back in the U.S. I know who my president is.  I am a lucky little being, to be sure.

But, at the same time, I have to cringe a bit when I see Sad Magyar Lady gloaming out from the Times front page. Because if this is all your average American sees, then they do get this negative impression of the country. That is not to say this isn’t a fair or good article, or that it isn’t needed: Americans, mired in our own economic crisis, need to understand how much worse it can get elsewhere, as well as how our actions reverberate (because, indeed, the troubles of Europe our intimately tied to the grandiose screwups of our own greedy moguls and bad policies). But (and there is always a but), part of me still itches to add a paragraph reminding the US reader that Hungary isn’t a gray, backwater place, and that today, even with the resigned PM and low forint exchange rate, the sun is shining, people are out, enjoying the warmth in the cafés (some even … gasp …smiling!) and I just finished talking with a very happy student who succeed in getting into a medical school in New York. So good things happen here, too.

And, just to prove that point, the # 5 most e-mailed story on the New York Times at 1:35 p.m. Hungarian time is a happier Hungarian tale: the resurgence of the Mangalitsa pig (written by our Fulbright exchange teacher, Amy’s, husband!). 

So, Hungarian life can be hard. But delicious too.

In the battle of Me vs. Magyarul, it seems magyarul (Hungarian language) is once again winning. As much as I loved meeting a bunch of American Fulbrighters to Italy at the Berlin Conference, the fact that I spent a few nights showing off my (still bad, but far superior to Hungarian) Italian has only increased my Itali-garian problem, where I try to start a sentence in Hungarian and it comes out partially in Italian. This is only compounded by all the words that sound the same in the two languages but mean completely different things — like io (Italian for “I”) and (Hungarian for “good”), both of which sound like the English “yo!”.

Over the past two weeks of Hungarian class, I have continued my role as comic relief by doing the following:

– I attempted to be amusing during a skit and have a line where I asked for a “handsome Hungarian man’s telephone number. Instead, I asked for his telephone bill.

– While describing my trip to Berlin, I said I saw the city’s cathedral. Instead of calling it “very big,” I somehow said it was “very church-y”. When Gabi, the teacher, tried to correct my, I, frustrated, insisted that it was actually quite church-y, saying There was a whole lot of Jesus! Many Jesuses everywhere! until poor Gabi was laughing so hard she relented and agreed that a church could be church-y.

and, my personal favorite…

– we learned the word emlék which means “remembrance”. I was very excited because the word sounded familiar, so I said, in my bad broken Hungarian that I say many signs that had a similar word on historic buildings. When I tried to pronounce the word, I said something like “moo-mel-ake”. Which made Gabi start laughing like crazy. I got flustered and insisted, “No, no — they’re all over Castle Hill! Yes there are lots of them by the castle!”

Apparently, I was trying to say műemlék, which does indeed indicate that a building is of historic importance. But instead I said, műmellek.

Which means “fake breasts.”

Jaj!

The great Toni Morrison, in the dedication to her novel Sula, wrote: “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

With just about three months left (three?!? where did it all go?) in my Hungarian/European adventures  — being due back in the U.S. by late June for my “second job” … professional bridesmaid — I am feeling that way, only about a city, not a person. I am nostaglic for Budapest before I have even left it.

Last night, I met an old friend of mine, Marynia, a Polish-Canadian-American girl I met some ten years ago while at Governor’s School. Three years ago, Marynia took leave of her New York life to begin working as a correspondent for Reuters in Warsaw, and was coming through Budapest with her boyfriend, a Dutch radio correspondent covering Eastern Europe. As we sat in Szimpla, rhapsodizing on our love of Eastern Europe,  how much fun we were having and how happy we were not to be lawyers (a path taken by so many of our friends, it seems), Marynia asked me if I was ready to go back to the States.

No, I emphatically said. She asked why I didn’t think of staying more, and I explained how I do have a dream job awaiting at home and how as much as I love teaching here, I know that the terribly low salaries a Hungarian English teacher makes mean I couldn’t really feasibly make this move permanent.

But I’m still feeling a premature ache of missing Budapest. How is it that nearly seven months have passed since I landed? How has the 4/6 villamos become as familar as the Orange Line metro? And how is it that I have somehow felt more like myself here, where I barely understand a word, where I have no ties of culture or heiritage, than I have in many years? As Marynia and I discussed over száraz vörös bor last night, there is something immensely beneficial in moving out of the norm you have established for yourself.  We talked about the “crossroads”  feeling you face in your 20s — not sure where to go, and worrying about wrong turns. I certainly felt that before I left last August … and I worried I had somehow turned the “wrong” way a lot.  Now, I’m remembering there are a lot of ways to be happy, a lot of shapes for a life.

I caught a glimpse of the Chain Bridge last night on my way home from Hungarian class, and, all lit up over the Duna, it almost made me cry. I’ll miss you, I thought, staring at it. I’ll miss this, I thought the day before, wandering the Central Market stalls.  It’s hard to grapple with.

But if Morrison is right, that is the true beauty and blessing: to have been somewhere so wonderful, lived something so lovely that it already hurts me to think of leaving makes me quite lucky indeed.

Nagyon szép

Nagyon szép

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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