The Return


Now that I’m fully settled back at “home” (or rather, one of my “homes” as beautiful Budapest will always be another), SziaRobyn is still staying up — of course, for “Szia” is hello and goodbye. There might not be any posts for awhile here, but there will be another  szia-which-means hello to Hungary soon. Not soon enough — but I can’t stay away for that long!

Well, a week has passed. My jet-lag is officially over (although I am still trying to use this as an excuse to sleep until noon). I’ve yoga-ed out all the kinks of the 20+ hour flight. I can understand everything people around me say (although I would rather not, often).

I’m back. Weird.

One of my colleagues at Pazmany, who had spent a year in the States, described the experience of returning to the home country after so long a sojourn as the definition of uncanny. Coming from the European bustle of Budapest to land back in my childhood hometown is precisely that. Reverse culture shock is always difficult, but I suppose it is not made any easier by the fact that instead of heading to the place where I live as a “grown-up,” I’m back in a place that was “home” the longest, but hasn’t been home for nearly a decade. Even just walking around town getting coffee, I felt overwhelmed, asking my mom if the buildings had always been so pastel and cookie-cutter perfect. Everything seemed both recognizable and strange.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown in Target — there was just too much stuff, too much English and brightness blasting from the advertisements.

That said, the re-entry into this universe isn’t all bad. Far from it. There is an undeniable comfort to the familiar. Take, for instance, my childhood best friend, who  casually gave me some samples of my favorite perfume that she’d been getting at the mall all year. A tiny gesture, but one that shows how long we have known each other, shows how we know each other as well as we know ourselves.

The year in Hungary was beautiful. But I always knew it had a deadline. Now, it’s back to real life: to deciding on 401k plans and applying for car loans and moving back into my Arlington apartment and setting up an office at my new community college. I miss so much about Budapest — from the wonderful friends I had to the way the city lights up at night to some of my favorite bars and cafes. I keep thinking I hear a word or two in Hungarian, and turn expectantly; I keep mistaking people for my Hungarian friends.

Change can hurt. But most things that are good for us do.

So, this is goodbye for this blog, for this particular account of life. Now, it’s on to the next one.

It’s the last day in Budapest.

At 4:30 a.m., I will be on my way to Ferihegy. At 7 a.m., I will start the first of three flights. At 11 p.m., I will be in Pittsburgh International Airport.

Wow.

It is too soon, too close, too crazy inside me right now to fully accept that this beautiful, beautiful experience is ending. I can’t believe a year went by so fast. I can’t believe Budapest won’t be my city anymore.

The only thing I keep thinking is Hungarian formal version of goodbye — “viszontlátásra” — literally translates to something like “I’ll be seeing you.” And I will. This particular experience — the Fulbright year — might be over. But I know, for many reasons, I will never be able to get over Budapest.

The first event I can remember actually following on the news was the war over the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early to mid-90s. I think, for many Americans of my age, the name of “Bosnia” or “Croatia” conjures up images of bleakness, of war and death and pain.

Visiting these countries with my fellow Fulbright friend, Sarah, today, however, shows a place teeming with life. Yes, there are still remnants of the destruction that raged there. But as I walked down a Sarajevo street around 11 p.m., the idea of “siege” and “sniper” and all those other fearful words which I associate with that city’s names faded as I wove through the packed, cobblestone streets. Like the Italians, the Bosnians like an evening passagiata, a walk simply to see and be seen. Whole familys wandered the main squares, calling out to friends. Music spilled out of bars. People downed Sarajevo Pivo. In the span of one block, lights threw a Catholic church, a mosque, an Orthodox church and a synagogue into beautiful illumination. Far from just being a “war survivor”, the city, to me, seemed to thrive.

Sarajevo

Sarajevo

Of course, I was a one-day visitor there (and elsewhere in my travels in the region), and I know my little taste of such places cannot begin to show all the pain of healing that such places must go through. I know, equally, that the great “cheap” prices an American traveler encounters there means the real residents are struggling economically. But I also want to change the minds that still see the Balkans as a land of crisis only. Part of me wants to tell everyone know to go there, right away. The other (selfish) part of me wants to keep it a secret, to keep everything as perfect as it was for our trip.

And again, coming back from a ten-day onslaught of un-understandable Croatian and Bosnian, arriving back in Ferihegy, where I knew what jo estet meant from passport control, where I knew exactly how to get back from the airport (a route I know better, I must admit, than the road to the airport back in D.C.) Ahh, good to be home, I thought, before the sinking realization that this “home” is only mine until 7 a.m. Tuesday morning.

So for now, I’m off to enjoy one bit more of this home — and I’ll just leave you with the images I know think about when I hear “Balkans”.

Dubrovnik by night

Dubrovnik by night

(more…)

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 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.