Wednesday, March 25, 2009

the way to my heart

I have been stressed and worried. I have been wandering around school in a haze all day, except when snapped out of it by outrage at my spring-crazy students.

Sitting in the staff room, I heard Balint suddenly ask one of the other teachers if Saturday would be a work day. She replied that it would. Balint caught my eye, then asked, "Do you know...?"

"Yes." I cut him off with a smile.

A startled blink. "Why don't we just speak Hungarian? Since you understand everything?"

I deferred, and acted modest, and danced a happy I-am-awesome dance to myself.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What happens when your greatest neighborhood draw is a grocery store with a huge parking lot.

How can anyone resist?

A few weeks ago, Lyla and I began seeing signs for a mysterious "Foka es papagaj show" (seal and parrot show) all over our Tesco parking lot. These posters included embracing seals over a sour-faced parrot, a tricycling parrot, and a dancing seal. Clearly, we were intrigued. Soon, a large tent popped up in the side parking lot. Even greater intrigue now plagued our tri-weekly Tesco jaunts.

Finally, we found a time that we could attend, and pranced about Budapest happily informing others that we would be busy on Saturday morning because we were going to a seal and parrot show in a giant tent in the Tesco parking lot. It sounded so ghetto, and so very magyar, that we could not resist. We even delayed our trip to Tata by several hours in order to attend what we figured would be an incredibly interesting spectacle.

So on Saturday we headed over, took our spot amongst the families with small children, and were amazed. There were parrots riding tricycles, singing, and hoisting the Hungarian flag! There was a parrot napping in a baby carriage being pushed by another parrot. There was a 350 kilo sea lion, one that could eat a ball to perform magic tricks, and glorious amounts of ball-balanced-on-nose action. My favorite, though, was a little parrot who hopped into a car and bit a button to make it move forward. When he let go, the car stopped, and he hopped out, looked under the hood, poked around for a bit, and then, having fixed the car, hopped back in and drove it perfectly the rest of the length of the table.

The show seemed, to our best guest, to be organized by an Italian family of seal and parrot trainers. The show began with a slideshow, organized on powerpoint, of the now-giant Sonny the sea lion as he was raised from a baby. The announcer, the wife of the main parrot trainer, was a total ham. She would coo "Amazing!" "What a great mechanic he is!" and "Parrot kiss!" with such fervor that Lyla and I giggled every time.

After a full hour of amazement, the show ended and we tramped outside, to be greeted by the trainers and the discovery that we were running rather late for our train to Tata. But Tata, my friends, must be a whole other entry, both because it is late and I am tired, and because Tata deserves its own entry. So for now I leave you with this...

Papagaj puszi! (That means parrot kiss.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Busy Busy Busy

This week has been straight up insane.

Monday I was at work, my main work, from 730 until 1800. Well, I had a brief foray in the afternoon where I trekked all over, searching for a padded envelope and a post office that would accept it. I also got more Bencelita food, and happily discovered rat-formulated Vitamin C, which was splendid because the poor thing had a cold. After my adventures in mailing-stuff-in-Hungary (which is so much harder and more involved than it should be), I headed back to school for parent teacher conferences. Per normal, one parent popped in and asked how her (very good) child was doing. Balint and I said, "She's good." Otherwise we essentially played pictionary with each other, started with my display of my god-awful "5-second hamster," which was declared amoeba-like. I was offered the use of anything I find in the fortress of solitude, which is impossibly touching when you remember how awkward its owner can be. It was definitely an amusing hour!

Tuesday I went to work, then to Hungarian lesson. I had a small crisis while learning the imperative tense when I confidently answered what I figured was "dry your hands," only to discover that Hungarian has different words for dry depending on if you air dry or towel dry. This led me to declare that I was quitting Hungarian (don't worry, I'm not). Then I headed to H&M and purchased myself a lovely new bag and spring-weight coat. They are adorable. I headed home to drop off some stuff before going out to celebrate St. Patrick's day at a Mexican restaurant. As I approached my door, I reached for my keys, and discovered they were not there. Panic. Frantic emptying of my bag. No keys. Call Lyla, who was luckily at home. Called my Hungarian teacher, then texted Balint to ask if he would check if he was still at work. Headed back to H&M, no keys. In full-blown panic by now, imagining the 17-day long process that it will surely take to replace my set of keys. Nevermind my emotionally priceless Moose and Zim keychains! Get to dinner, and get a text from Balint (at 1915... dude works too much)... no keys. Heart explodes. One minute later get second text... keys found on the attendance book! Dancing in the restaurant.

Yesterday head into work, give oral exams and threaten children to be quiet all day long. Then it's off to Wille and Katerina's, where I am fed delicious cabbage salad and pasta, then force Wille to think deeply about short stories and annotate poems with Katerina. Satu, the mom, gave me giant bottle of sweet chili sauce as I left. They are the sweetest family ever. Leave, and discover that the beautiful spring day has turned into SNOW. Damning spring-weight coat and formal-shorts-with-tights outfit, run the km down the hill to the bus, getting laughed at by everyone I pass. Then it was out for my new weekly expat gathering, and home again to eat dip for a late dinner.

Today I finished work at 1245. I had my Hungarian lesson at 3 PM. Inbetween, I went from Obuda to southern Pest (a long way!), picked up my Avicenna paycheck, graded some exams, showed my boss that the key was in error, bought a sandwich, and made it back to central Buda (Batthany ter, for those in the know) in time to walk calmly to my lesson. I am awesome. My private lesson tonight was cancelled due to illness, so I even got to come home and write to all of you before I head to the lovely Hanna's for dinner.

The oral exams are killing me. The kids are doing very well, but they are taking about... four times as long to complete as I thought they would. It's awful. In the meantime, I have the children creating "extended nametags," basically their names in bubble letters with all their favorite things written and drawn inside. Again, I am amazed at their creativity and cleverness. Grading them, I have had to correct the spelling of things that I never thought I would, mostly relating to Star Wars characters. I can't help but laugh as I fix errors such as "Csubacka" and "Dedt Star." The girls give some pretty adorable favorites as well. One's favorite is "being kut" (cute). Another likes "all preddy (yes, my American accent is ruining their spelling) dings." Their tests are yielding some very interesting comments as well. For a picture of a boy asking a crying girl a question, one replied "What is your problem?... Cut it out, Boti!" For a picture of a boy with a cat on his shoulder, "The cat is dancing rock and roll on Benny's head!" For someone asking directions, "I go to supermarket now? What you want me do about it?" And most randomly of all, for two children clearly celebrating something, "Basket. Basket! BASKET NOW!!"

Tomorrow is a very short day since Avicenna is on holiday. Saturday, Lyla and I are going to the impossibly ghetto-seeming "Seal and Parrot Show" that has popped up in the Tesco parking lot across the street, mostly because it just seems so strange. Plus, Lyla can't resist parrots on tricycles. Who can, really? Then we are heading out to Tata to visit our friend Carla. It should be pretty cool, all together. I'll let you know Sunday.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15th

Spring is in the air, ladies and gentlemen. The sun has been spotted peeking out from behind the clouds, I broke out the spring jacket today to run to the movies, the flowers are blooming, and you can smell the earth waking up. This springtime has come into my flat as well, in the form of stargazer lilies, St. Patrick's Day decorations, and a thorough cleaning.

gorgeous lilies

shamrock decorations on our window

The start of Springtime in Hungary is marked, unofficially, with the March 15th national holiday. This signifies the anniversary of a revolution against the Hapsburgs in 1848, when the Hungarians rebelled and created a free and democratic government that lasted for... a year or so, eventually resulting in a crushing Hungarian defeat at the hands of the Austrians. You can read more about it here, if you so choose:

So, I walk into work on Friday, coincidentally in a nice skirt and top, coincidentally in black. I discover that all my coworkers are dressed in the traditional Hungarian black-and-white, wearing giant Hungarian cockettes on their shirts, and acting quite somber. I shoot a quick thanks to whatever little sprite whispered in my ear to wear a nice black outfit that day, because I had almost come to work in jeans, and that would have been super awkward. All of the children (literally, every child in the school) are dressed in formal black and white, proudly sporting a cockade. In fact, during my later travels during the day, I discovered that a solid 80% of the city is dressed the same. Literally everyone I saw today was wearing a cockade.

the cockade

So, besides formal dress, how do Hungarians celebrate a national holiday? With a very formal ceremony, of course. During fourth lesson, I leaned awkwardly against the wall with a British colleague (the two of us being the only people in the entire school not adorned with Hungarian colors) and watched as an upper-grades class read Petofi Sandor poems, played Franz Liszt songs, and spoke about the revolution's ideals of freedom, unity, and brotherhood.

The ceremony opened with the Hungarian Hymn (They do not have an anthem, they have a hymn, and it is more like a dirge. The first verse essentially ends with "God, cut us a break, because we have suffered enough for our past and future sins." You can listen to it, and see some photos of Hungary as well, here:, which everyone sang along to very solemnly, and ended with the children lighting candles, using a giant open flame, to celebrate each of the 13 Hungarian generals hung at the end of their revolution. Random trivia: as these generals were hung, the Austrian generals supposedly toasted each other with glasses of beer. Until about ten years ago, it was considered very rude here to toast with beer. You should still avoid it with the elderly.

I was surprised to see/hear that at the end of the ceremony, the children clapped for several minutes without falling into the Hungarian synchro-clap. I wonder, do they just start it at an older age, or is the synchro-clap a dying breed? As creepy as it can be, that would make me sad. It's such a unique thing, and such a surprise to notice it the first time.

Anyway, the ceremony got me thinking, yet again, about how very different things are here. Our national ceremonies, even the most solemn ones, are still rather optimistic. I mean, look at our songs, all singing essentially about how awesome and beautiful our country is. My friends and I tried to come up with a depressing American song and couldn't. I understand that our country is still a baby, age-wise, and hasn't had the time to really suffer. But I think this inherent optimism we have is a good thing, mostly. It makes us naturally open, friendly, and full of crazy dreams. Not that the Hungarian pessimism is all bad. It makes them loyal, family-oriented, and hard-working. It also makes them closed-off, just like our optimism can make us rather obnoxious at times. It is continually fascinating to me to watch stereotypes come to life, to realize these things about myself and my country only from the outside, and to ponder what people, and myself, would be like if the simple fact of birth had been slightly different.

As for the rest of my weekend, I spent Friday eating dinner with Briggi's sister and her silent boyfriend. Saturday was a bath day. I also decided to get a massage for the first time there, which was a beautiful, relaxing experience beyond my masseuse demanding "Towel there. Suit off. Lay!" as I entered the cabin. We simmered ourselves for several hours, and I managed to somehow get a sunburn on my nose. Then we came home, cleaned house, and made a pot of vegetable curry. It was delicious! Last night we attempted to go out, only to find most places closed and the people everywhere quite somber, due to the holiday. We wound up catching a taxi home and poking each other to stay awake in the back seat. Today we went to see Coraline at the fancy theater in Buda that plays movies in the original language. It is a spectacular movie, especially for a children's movie, but just original, entertaining, and beautifully done in stop-motion animation. Then we ate pizza, and now it is lazy Sunday evening time, watching movies and doing brainless work for school.

Lyla is currently grading tests. The question is "Who cheers for a team at a game?" One student's answer... clown doctor. To the question "Why are you supposed to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables?" another one wrote "Because you are what you eat." That's right. We are making a HUGE impact here. Tomorrow I am starting oral exams with my second graders. I am nervous, but excited. I think they will rock them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Balls, pizzas, and rides home

I went to a ball! It was a sort of interesting experience, full of alcohol that I did not drink, raffle prizes that I did not win, and delicious food that I most definitely did eat. It also contained the lovely Zsuzsi, who chattered my ear off all night and demanded a "real answer" as to why I would possibly ever end up in Hungary. Sadly, I think she was left unsatisfied. Old couples danced old dances together, and the raffle went on for forty-five minutes. They also served not one but TWO dinners, both made up exclusively of meats, noodles, mayonaisse, and cake, and sent 14-year-olds around with giant trays of shots. An American school's fundraising event it most definitely was not!

At the start of the ball, in front of the strange "tree of life" in Briggi's school.

Tenth graders doing traditional dancing. If I ever watch a traditional dance and don't jump four feet in the air when one girl suddenly shrieks, come kidnap me. It will mean I will have been in Hungary for far too long.

The four "P"s of Hungary: palinka (whisky/moonshine), pogacsa (salty cheese rolls), pickles (um, that's English!), and pezsgo (champagne).

Briggi was slightly embarrassed after sending her tenth grade students to sneak our table some more champagne.

Upon arriving home on Sunday, Lyla and I trucked over to the Tesco where we found, miracle of miracles... vegetables! So we made a lovely ruccola and sheep's cheese pizza, and filled our fridge with delicious colorful leafy things. On the subject of vegetables, I have discovered that, at least here in Hungary... I like tomatoes. In fact, my lunch today was a tomato and mozzarella sandwich. I do sort of squeeze most of the seeds out... but the things are like candy here. So delicious. Tonight... tacos!

Yesterday I was walking from school to the tram, in the rain and without an umbrella as usual. One of my colleagues drove by, and waved. Then, suddenly, she stopped her car, and offered me a ride. She wound up taking me halfway across town and cutting my commute in half. It was splendid. Thanks Klari!

I end the post on a funny little note... I live with an unabashed theif. Lucky she's cute!

Friday, March 6, 2009

International Women's Day

Today, after I finished teaching 1B a horrible song about pink elephants standing on their heads, I walked over to their main classroom from the fortress of solitude to do an end-of-the-week check in with Edit. As my poor abused voice rasped about the tribulations of teaching first graders ridiculously fast songs about acrobatic zoo critters, I felt something tugging on my shirt behind me.

I turned, and found Alex and Balazs, weilding a very long stemmed rose and a small box of chocolates, which were thrust into my arms. The boys climbed on chairs to give me the two cheek kisses, as I sputtered, "But... what is this?"

"It is because you are girl, Loren!"
"Noooo! Not girl, but woman!"
"How do you say woman in English?"
"I dunno! Woah-man?"

Please note that the italics mean Hungarian.

I looked to Edit for explanation. Smiling, and laughing slightly at the bewildered American, she replied, "It is International Women's Day. Do you not do this in America?" I shook my head, and smiled.

Further research has revealed to me that Women's Day was some sort of international communist conspiracy (I have always wanted to use that in a sentence!) to recognize the positive impacts of women and help with the whole comrade-ness thing.

Today, though, it has meant that I got flowers and chocolate. All day, I have watched men presenting women with flowers, small boys giving small girls food, infinite cheek kisses, old men smiling at me and patting my shoulders, and salesgirls being called beautiful by strangers. Mostly, though, it has meant a city full of flowers. All the flower shops were exploding with beautiful spring blooms, and virtually every female was carrying at least one. That it was a lovely warm day, with occasional rays of sun falling on my cheecks, only added to the festive atmosphere.

With my single rose clutched in my hand, I felt connected to these women. To the older ladies, faces lined and bodies bent by age and a hard life, to the mothers tugging along overly-bundled children, to the teenage girls with their skinny jeans and blinged belt buckles. Our eyes met, and we recognized each other.

International Women's Day... a communist conspiracy to get behind.

My rose, and some other flowers I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Now, I have mentioned many times here on this blog, on the phone with some of you, and adnauseum with my friends here in Hungary how very cold Hungarians can be. It's not that they are unkind, it's just that they are very often just not kind, especially here in Budapest. I know that a lot of this comes from being in the city, and that the rest is just a cultural difference that should be viewed as nothing more than an interesting phenomenon. However, day after day of nobody smiling back when you smile at them, nobody asking you how you are, nobody ever complimenting you or your work, and being scowled at by salesclerks, waiters, and fellow-transit riders can become emotionally exhausting. As I once explained it, I know this experience is making my emotional self stronger, but just like any muscle... the training can leave it sore and tired.

However, living in a somewhat gray world, literally due to the depressing winter sky and figuratively due to the scowls, only serves to make flashes of sun through the clouds all the more warm and bright. So here, ladies and gentlemen, are my sunspots.

Dinner parties. More than ever here, I will spend hours cooking and invite everyone I know to come eat the food I've prepared for them. Usually only a small fraction of the people invited actually show up, and we all crowd into my living room, usually sitting on the floor, and eat, drink, talk, and laugh. Expats tend to cling to each other for companionship and understanding, and that is especially true when the locals are less than inviting. So we pass around plates of dessert, complain about scowling metro nenis, smile widely, laugh loudly, and pat each other on the arms and shoulders. And then I send everyone home with leftovers (with any luck), and Lyla and I tidy up and head to bed, happy and feeling connected to the world around us.

Bencelita. I know she is just a rat. I know. But when I come home and she is standing in the corner of her cage, holding onto the bars with her little front paws, then runs over to the door when she sees me... it melts my heart. Her neurotic behavior and food-thieving activities are also highly entertaining.

My private lessons. One is with a pair of Finnish siblings, who are sweet and conscientious, and who have the most adorable mother in the world. I am given sweets and sodas, and quite generously overpaid. Most amazingly, they compliment my work and tell me that they are happy they found me because now both of their children are being more successful at school. It's amazing how much a simple "thank you for your help" can ring in your ears. Another is with a group of Hungarian cousins in their late twenties. Basically, I can't believe that I get paid to just hang out with these people and occasionally correct their grammar or suggest a different turn of phrase. The last one is with Akos, the art teacher at my school, and we essentially play with different types of art and talk about what we're doing. I'm really impossibly lucky to have stumbled into these situations and very often feel like I learn a lot more than I teach in these lessons.

Magda, the porter at my school. Every day, Magdi neni asks me if I am doing ok, and pats me somewhere on my body. She compliments my clothing, and then dramatically reveals new necklaces or earrings of her own for me to coo over. Every so often she will pull me into her little room, shut the door, and then show me photos of her family, pointing out the people in them. She also listens to my Hungarian without becoming frustrated or bored, and usually understands what I am trying to say. Magda was the victim of the famous "water chicken" being used to say "duck" back in the fall, and she understood it! And she smiles.

The sound of gas escaping as I open a bottle of coke lite or fizzy water, always a special little treat for myself. The first sip, as the little chemical bubbles sizzle on my tongue and down my throat.

Ethnic food. While Budapest is disadvantaged from the countryside in friendliness, it wins with Mexican, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Indian, and- my new discovery- Uzbeki food. All of it delicious, and spicy, and full of vegetables. Last night Lyla and I went to the Uzbeki restaurant and ate spinach stewed in garlic and yogurt, a salad of apples, cucumbers, green onions, and tomatoes in pomegranate dressing, a spinach and feta tart, and lamb stewed with various vegetables. It was all delicious, and simple, and amazing.

Eger, and the sometimes beautiful, but always interesting and mouthy wines it makes.

Eta's langos weekend this past weekend. Eta, Briggi's colleague, invited a pile of Americans she barely knows to come to her house to learn how to make langos, a savory fried bread topped with garlic, sour cream, and cheese. She also filled us with wine and sauerkraut-and-sausage soup, and she and her lovely daughter Szandi then orchestrated a massive board game evening, where we laughed and insulted each other and made up the rules as we went. It was remarkable, and enlightening, and I left feeling full, tipsy, and in love with the people around me and the world in general. Being invited into someone's home for the only the second time since arriving in this country moved me no less than it did the first time, back in September. In fact, it probably moved me even more. Thank goodness for generously-spirited individuals and human kindness.

My colleague Bill, who took excellent care of me when I first arrived in Hungary, continues to do so whenever I need him, and grants me at least one massive belly laugh per day.

The cashier at my breakfast pastry stand, who smiles, talks to me when there is no line, and always wishes me a beautiful day.

Balint, and his insane-workaholic-running-around ways, and his awkward attempts at kindness and helpfulness. And the funny face he makes whenever the loud and talkative American blows into his room and overwhelms him... at least twice a day.

My bed, which may actually be a settee, but which is impossibly comfortable and welcoming after a long day on my feet.

Contact from home. Whether it be comments here, my mom's daily emails, new photos on facebook, or an actual phone call or letter (though those are definitely the best! hint, hint ;)), they all make me feel happy and loved and unforgotten over here across the ocean.

Lyla and my fits of rage at absolutely nothing, and fits of giggles over even less. Spritzer evenings watching esoteric television programming and kevetching.


Actual, literal, brief glimpses of sun, either through the clouds or on the rare afternoons when it decides to actual come out and play.

My recently purchased tickets to Athens and Istanbul.

CETP weekends, where we all get together in some town, consume unreasonable amounts of food and drink, laugh, dance, share teacher stories, and fall asleep on top of each other.

Cheesily uplifting songs in Spanish coming on my Ipod during my commute.

My students. Levi complaining about moving to the front row (he can't pay attention elsewhere) and then grabbing my hand to keep me even closer to him during the lesson, or running up to the board to show me his creation of a spider with cat ears and dog tail (while we're studying furniture words), or explaining his ideas in the most ridiculous Hunglish imaginable. Lili, Satci, Fanni, and Csenge demanding at least three handshakes from me before they can eat their breakfast. 1B Gergo dancing around in the hallway, rather innappropriately, while shooting me finger guns and winking. Fifi squeaking "I'm angry because there are no ponies!" in her tiny Fifi voice. Kriszti's "HunnnGARian apple is.... ALMA!" every day. Liza resting her head on my shoulder during tutorials, and then demanding I help her jump. Tobi's declaration that you go to church to avoid doom. Csongor's very serious statement that "Hungry bear not want eat tiny Gere." Going out to the school yard to fetch children in from recess to have tutorials, and them all running up, begging to come (though I suspect the sticker they receive at the end of tutorials might have something to do with it). Benedek's daily, rather psychotic "Good MORNing!" Balazs blushingly showing me his battle cards. The stack of drawings in my box of ponies, rainbows, and hearts. Lilu putting her hands on her hips and "hmph"ing when she doesn't get her way. Dorina screeching. Choruses of "Beautiful Lauren" and "Lessunk a par!" (Let's be partners, ie. hold hands for walking between classes.) The fact that every single one of the boys' skits must end with a machine gun battle and both of them dead on the floor after a very dramatic fall, regardless of the topic at hand. Bach Botond's continual reference to himself in the third person. Bori regularly managing to hide behind me for a minute or more before I notice. Atilla yelling "rock and roll!" and head banging at the sound of any sort of music. Meeting around 47 stuffed animals a day, and being offered, often by the animal, tiny bits of food. Most of all: how smart, creative, funny, and generally good sported about their teacher not understanding a good 50% of their blabbering they are.

Oh! One more... you!