Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A long weekend

We had last Monday off work in honor of a so-called Ski Break. Seizing upon the opportunity presented by our friend Tara's school's ball in the small town of Máriapócs, we headed out early on Saturday morning for eastern Hungary. The morning started rather inauspiciously, with the ticket agent at Nyugati totally misunderstanding us and selling Lyla and I three tickets rather than two. Luckily, we managed to argue with her fervently enough that the situation was resolved, even if I think I may have been ripped off a few thousand forint. Oh well. Onto the train and into a nap.

The first stop of our trip was in Nyíregyháza, where we were supposed to change trains. Of course we missed the connection, so we wound up wandering the town for two hours, taking pictures of the colorful buildings and admiring some random, Disney-themed ice sculptures. We headed back to the train station with plenty of time to spare so that we could buy the rest of the tickets for our weekend. Of course, things wound up taking twice as long as they normally do, with the woman disappearing for several minutes with our card and choosing to slowly write the ticket rather than use the computer because "it's nicer this way," and we wound up sprinting for the train, tickets clutched between my teeth.

When we arrived in Máriapócs, Tara was waiting for us with her colleague Ildi, who gave us a lift into town. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a bit of sightseeing. The town is a pilgrimage site for Greek Catholics, and there is a large (naturally yellow) church. We also sat in front of the miracle that is TV, watching music videos and ski jumping. That evening it was across the street (God, how I envy the commutes of the people in the country-side!) for the ball, which started with adorable performances by the children and ended with Unicum. And that's really all I have to say about that, I hope.

The next morning it was up early, and we were ferried to the train station by Tara's school's principal's son's girlfriend. This sort of thing happens in the countryside, and it's fantastic. They waited for us by the snow-covered train stop until the 30-km-per-hour train rumbled up. This time in Nyíregyháza we managed to catch the next train properly, and we were off to Püspökladány. If you can pronounce that correctly, you get a cupcake. There, I forgot my hat on the train (thanks, purple hat, you served me well), and we ate hamburgers in the snow. Finally the train came for Oradea, and we hopped on. Crossing the border, we caused a bit of a ruckus, as one guard mentioned to the other that there were 2 Americans and the other guard answered with an incredulous "Tényleg?!?!" Really?! I do love when that happens. We also had the normal but still startling experience on both the Hungarian and the Romanian side of the guard saying "Moment" and then walking off the train with our passports (I assume to stamp them...?).

Finally we arrived to Oradea (formerly known, and still known to Hungarians, as Nagyvarád). We walked across town to our hostel, only to discover that it was closed. We had booked a room, so we were a bit upset. Luckily, the dude working at the bike shop across the courtyard called the owner for us, and the owner was able to recommend another hostel that he said should be open. So we walked across town again, waited an hour for reception to open, and finally checked in to a hostel that was part of a Hungarian religious cultural center. It was also lovely, more like a hotel, and costing more like one as well.

By this point we were tired and rested for awhile, watching some horrific movie on TV (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387541/ Here is the description, and if you ever have the chance to watch it, don't miss out, because it was bizarre and hysterical all at the same time). Then we headed out for a walk, admiring the city, and some dinner.

The next morning it was up late, with more walking and admiring of city, unfiltered beer, good tea, and almost being eaten by a bear dog next to the old citadel. As standard for Romania, I also fell in love with a friendly street puppy and only resisted bringing him home because I know my landlady would kick me out.

In the late afternoon we headed home, discovering in the train station that the slow ticket agent had sold us the wrong ticket. Luckily, the ticket checker did not seem to care in the slightest, because I had my arguments, incredulous statements, righteous anger, and tears of shock all ready. But it's always good to not have to employ those. We came home rested and relaxed, with another stamp in the passport, a continuing love of Romania and country-side Hungarians, and another city that we've wanted to visit explored. Not a bad three days all together.

18 months in Hungary

Am I more developmentally advanced than 6-month-old Lucas here? Let's find out!

I decided to come to Hungary in December of 2007. Much planning and many surprises later, I came here almost exactly nine months after I had first conceived the idea. Saturday was my 18 month anniversary in Hungary. If my life here in Hungary were a child... well, let's ask the internets, shall we?


  • likes to imitate parents' actions... well, not parents, but I do get around pretty much via imitation
  • begins to show signs of independence; says "no"... much to the chagrin of my colleagues
  • finds it difficult to wait and wants things right now!... language, results, understanding...
  • gets angry sometimes and has temper tantrums... yes
  • acts shy around strangers... I spoke to a colleague for the first time today. The first time.
  • comforts a distressed friend or parent... Today I had to correct a few things on a test Balint wrote. I felt like I was shooting him in the heart. I left a cheer-up note.
  • refers to self by name... "So Ms Lauren.... do I have an s?"
  • uses the words "me" and "mine"... and in Hungarian, being that there are about a dozen different forms of "me," confuses them!
  • enjoys looking at picture books... called the free newspaper
  • tries to do many things by herself... wind up calling someone for help often. Occasionally I succeed.
  • enjoys adult attention... successfully talked to a colleague on the bus, glowed all day
  • enjoys simple pretend play like wearing hats and talking on phone... God, if I could talk on the phone without going into shakes...
  • enjoys exploring, gets into everything, and requires constant supervision... yes. This one.
  • generally unable to remember rules... which side do I kiss? Say "jó étvagyat!" when I see someone eating. Use the formal you...
  • shows affection by returning a hug or kiss... on the wrong side
  • may become attached to a toy or blanket... or a phrase. "Intenszív hávazás!"
  • has a vocabulary of several hundred words, including names of toys... and all food items
  • uses 2-3 word sentences... ha! I beat the 18-month olds there!
  • echoes single words that are spoken by someone else... and then walk around mumbling them to myself all day long...
  • talks to self and "jabbers" expressively... Na. Mit kell csinálni...?
  • likes to choose between two objects... or just choose
  • hums or tries to sing... Petőfi radio, the strangest radio ever
  • listens to short rhymes or fingerplays... and therefore remembers in what order the colors are in the Hungarian flag.
  • points to eyes, ears, or nose when asked... and most other things. "That. I want... that."
  • uses the words "please" and "thank you" if prompted... and, especially, sorry/excuse me
Yes. It seems that I am pretty much exactly an 18 month old child. And I think that maybe I'm ok with that. To celebrate our birthday, Lyla and threw a little party at a bar. Some colleagues came, some friends, some private students, our friend's baby... it was lovely. We chatted, acted a bit irresponsibly, and played fuzball. Foozball? Eh, whatever... csó-csó!

Friday, February 12, 2010

On love and friendship

Sunday is Valentine's Day, which I was blissfully forgetful about until my mom's package arrived, chock-full of goodies. Looking through them, I thought: sweet. I have a totally legit excuse to give the kids candy. Then today I logged onto facebook to put up some over-due photos, and everyone has the "Valentines Day meme" going on in their profiles. And that got me thinking about love, and friendship, and all these strange interactions we have with the people around us.

I've been single for over a year now. I'm not particularly concerned about it, however. I've had several successful dates over the past months. It's just that I find myself detached. On the rare occasion that a man actually interests me, it is because he is like me. Which means that he is also detached, or one of us goes on a long trip, or we're both too busy, or neither of us are quite willing to commit to another foreigner in a foreign country. And all of that makes perfect sense to me right now. My world is huge, and I see no reason to limit it. Besides, my plans for the near future make anything too serious rather unappealing at the moment... I've done the distance thing already and don't really care to do so again.

That's actually not the kind of love I'm talking about, or even thinking about. I just think it's remarkable to recognize that what I viewed as such a black and white thing in the past is dissolving, like most other things, into puddles of gray as I age. I'm amazed at the different kinds of love I see and feel every day, at the different ways people manifest friendship and respect. I wonder how much of this is age, how much is living away from home, how much of it is my mind projecting what I hope to see. Still, it all seems very real to me.

It's been snowing a lot, and the crosswalk at our tram stop got a small hill of snow thrown into it when the plows came by. Every morning there is a little old lady who walks with two canes at the stop, and she struggles across slowly and painfully but confidently. Lyla saw her last Tuesday on her way to work (I get to sleep in on Tuesdays) and mentioned that she had had even more trouble than usual due to this snow hill. The next day, sure enough, there she was. Lyla and I helped her over the snow pile and continued on our way to catch the bus. The thought of her having to be lifted over that pile of snow morning after morning until spring came killed me, though, so I did the only decent thing I could think of to do and that evening stood in line at the ticket booth to talk to the lady behind the counter. I explained the situation to her, and asked her in my best Hungarian (which still involved me using the word for pretzel sticks since I didn't remember the word for crutch) if she could please tell whoever it was that needed to be told to take care of the situation.

"What a loving little foreigner you are! I'll take care of it," was her response. And I was struck by her words. Loving? Surely not. I was just being decent. But I just smiled, embarrassed, and headed on home. But sure enough, the next morning when I found the crosswalk cleaned of snow and the little old lady striding across on her canes, I felt such an outpouring of love for that ticket agent, and whoever had actually shoveled the walk, that I could scarcely believe it. Love for a BKV employee? Never! And yet, there it was (along with a healthy amount of HAHA! pride at finally having been successful in something in Hungary at the first try). Love at the universe just working out for good.

"Miss Lauren. I love you Miss Lauren." I received this note from a second grade girl this week, on a little card cut sort of into a heart shape and decorated with flowers. She pointed at the flowers. "I draw them. With a pen!" Then she kissed my cheek and ran away.

Lying on the couch watching tv, I regularly snuggle my feet under Lyla's thighs to keep them warm. She sighs, but doesn't swat at me.

I'm having a fight of sorts with a friend. He insulted me, pretty much due to fun and awesome Cultural Differences ™. And now we're writing each other long emails, trying to explain our feelings, trying to explain our cultural imprints and natural reactions to the other, trying to make the other understand us at least.

A colleague today was visibly tired and stressed. I offered to take the class together so that she could go rest or get some work done. She didn't take me up on my offer. We smiled at each other and got to teaching. Having a friend that you can just lock eyes with, and smile at. Who has figured out which side to approach you from so that you don't jump into the air, startled. Whose opinions you can predict with uncanny accuracy. Making each other laugh with quiet ease, a few dead-panned words, or a facial expression.

Being comfortable enough with a relatively new friend to admit you will miss her while she goes skiing for a week. A colleague closing a door on your face, and then jumping up when you open it to apologize for not having seen you, rubbing your arm and staring you in the eyes. A furry little monster licking your whole face, and then falling asleep in your pocket. Talking to a friend from home on chat. Friends from home helping you even when you're in Hungary.

Forgiving people even when they don't ask you to. Forgiving people for not forgiving you. Forgiving people for not being exactly how you wish they would be, or for not being able to read your mind, or for not acting in a way that makes sense to your experience. Forgiving others and yourself for Cultural Differences™.

Emails with strange photo attachments of hamsters incorporated into the text. A card from my sister.

I have Monday off work, so I'm getting out of Budapest for a few days. Tomorrow night will be Tara's school ball in Mariapocs, and we'll be attending because country balls are awesome, and because we've meant for over a year now to get out to visit Tara. Then we will be heading to Oradea for Sunday night, a cute town we've passed through before but haven't had the opportunity to really visit. Should be a great long weekend for me.

I always read that I should tell someone every day that I love them. So here's today's. I love you!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I traveled a few weekends ago up to Visegrad, less than an hour away, where I had heard there is a nice castle on top of a hill. Our friend Anna, who is Hungarian and therefore something of an expert, was a bit confused when we told her our plans, but agreed to come along for the day anyway. This should have been the first sign, because when the Hungarian in charge makes a confused face, something is bound to go at least slightly awry.

We arrived to Nyugati in time for our very nice intercity train, and I purchased my ticket. The woman behind the desk sold me the ticket without a comment. Then Anna started to buy her ticket from the booth next to mine. "You can't take the train to Visegrad," her clerk replied. "What?" asked Anna. "What?!?" I asked. The clerk replied that we had to take the train to the town across the Danube from Visegrad, and then take the ferry across. Oh, ok. So we hop on the train and head north.

We get off the train, and this is the view from across the river. Yes, that is the hill we are planning to climb. Have I mentioned that it's quite snowy? Oh well. First we have a nice ferry ride ahead of us, crossing the beautiful Danube.

The ferry, naturally, is a wooden plank maneuvered around by a tugboat. I finagle a teacher discount. After a few brief moments, we're in Visegrad and walking to the bottom of the trail to go up the hill. Visegrad seems like a cute little town, and I'm excited to see another castle, and learn more about Hungarian history from Anna, who is a PhD candidate in history. It's shaping up to be a great day.

When we arrive to the trail, things start going slightly awry indeed. The trail is steep and covered in snow and ice. The two km hike up the hill that should take about 15 minutes instead takes about an hour, with the very real threat that at any moment Lyla will snap out from the stress and kill us all, or footballer Anna will run circles around us and we'll just die of shame. Finally, though, we reach the top. Sure enough: a castle.

Lyla and I pretending to be royalty. We took a snooty shot first, but this is the one where we totally lost it.
One of the old crests of some noble family. I just like how the cow's neck skin suddenly turns into a cape.
The view of the Danube was beautiful from the top of the hill, full of twists and curves... indeed, bends. It's amazing that such untouched nature can be so close to Budapest. After visiting the castle and learning our history, we started sliding back down the hill, at one point being stopped by a family of boar crashing across the path a few yards ahead of us.

We also found a church built into the cliff wall, with stations of the cross leading up from the town. I plan to go back in the spring.

It was a bit steep. We all fell at least once on the way down, and finally Lyla just sort of slid down the last little bit.
And at the end we were very tired, and cold, and ate dinner at a Godfather-themed restaurant in town.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Last winter here in Budapest, I was thoroughly unimpressed. "This is central European winter?!" I scoffed to myself. Sure, the gray skies brought down my spirits a bit, but the weather was overall... almost warm. We barely got any snow, and the sky mostly dumped "wintry mix" upon us from a 35 degree sky.

This year is, well, different. Because it is cold, very cold, and it seems like it can't stop snowing. As soon as a bit of the snow melts away, inches more arrive. It's beautiful for sure, but also makes getting to work a bit difficult as the sidewalks are rarely shoveled. I commented to Bill that the snow is strange to me, as the texture is almost like sand. It doesn't seem to want to pack, but it isn't slushy either. Bill the science guy (whose last name is unfortunately not Ny) explained to me that this is the snow that falls when it is already very cold. Apparently the snow in Alaska is the same.

I have mentioned before that every day I learn something new here. This week, all of my knowledge has been about snow. I've learned how to conjugate the verb that means "to snow," how to build a Hungarian snowman (some reference to something vaguely illicit is apparently a necessity), and that snow can be considered a sign of either good or bad luck, depending on who you ask... and whatever kind of shoes they happen to be wearing. The amount of snow has finally caused me to give in to the the Hungarian practice of "indoor shoes" for school, simply because my boots are too wet for me to wear inside without feeling guilty about the puddles. According to my colleagues, this means I have crossed a cultural barrier.

When it gets cold enough, the snow makes a desert of white sand. I feel like I am back in high school looking at it, despite the fact that I am thousands of miles away, both literally and in spirit. I watch the ice floes crashing into each other in the Danube, and wonder how far they have traveled to arrive here and smash into pieces against the Margaret bridge. Snow falls softly on my hair and then melts, a new curl springing up, encouraged by the moisture of the flake. Before it melts, I marvel at its size and intricacy. How do these enormous beautiful crystals turn into these tiny specks of frozen sand?

Luckily, the bus normally arrives at this point, saving me from pointless reverie. I climb up into the warmth of tired bodies on the way to work, and ponder other thoughts.