Thursday, September 27, 2007

Happy Anniversary

At 10PM it's far past my teacher bedtime and I am too tired for a substantial post. Only, today while dating my lesson logs I realized that the 27th was my one month anniversary with Hungary and it seems fitting that I write something short here. A month ago today I landed in Budapest, excited and terrified. Living alone in a foreign country is full of ups and downs, but I have to say that if I could have taken a peek at my day to day here in Szentes, I think I would have been much less nervous as that plane landed.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Hungarian for the day: Sajt - cheese. Noted here only because of how it is pronounced, shait, as in the way the Irish say shit. This has provided me endless entertainment and really made me wonder how much more mature I am than my students.

Yesterday (Thursday the 20th) was the big day of truth: a trip to the Hungarian consulate in Serbia to try and obtain a visa. The problem is that I should have obtained all my papers before leaving the states because once you are in Hungary you cannot apply for a visa. That was impossible for both Taylor and I, however, because our schools were being reorganized from two separate schools into one and there was no headmaster over the summer and hence nobody to sign (and stamp) my official documents. Hence we needed to leave the country and go to a Hungarian consulate in a neighboring country to apply for a visa. Since Serbia's consulate in Subotica is by far the nearest one to Szentes, off to Serbia we went.

Gyula (pron Djula), Taylor's boss, happened to be from this Serbian town so he was the logical one to accompany us. Northern Serbia's population is more than half ethnically Hungarian, and Gyula is one of these Hungarians who grew up in Serbia, identifies as Hungarian, and speaks both languages. He picked me up at 7 in the morning and after a brief stop at the Gimnasium (his school) to make sure that our numerous papers were in order we were off. The drive and border crossing went smoothly and took only 2 hours so we arrived in Subotica with plenty of time to make our appointment. Our time at the Hungarian consul was anticlimactic. We turned in our papers, they thought they were really confusing, and said that things looked okay but they would have to spend thirty days thinking about it and forwarding the documents back and forth to Budapest before they could be sure of anything. Sigh. There was one very auspicious development in that Gyula had gone to school with a woman who works at the Hungarian consulate. He described her as "someone I very much wished to be closer with" but said she had sadly aged over 25 years. At any rate, they had a very congenial sounding conversation and at the end he said that she would try her best to make sure things moved along with our applications. Here's hoping!

By the time we were done with our official business it was still only midmorning. I kind of feared we'd turn back around and be back in time for afternoon classes, which I would have been completely unprepared for. My fears were unwarranted because Gyula was eager to show us around his youthful stomping grounds as well as hit up a number of stores and markets to stock up on some of his favorite products from Serbia. We spent a really fun day sightseeing and listening to Gyula talk about his past and what life was like growing up in Serbia. He was quite effusive and generous, treating us to lunch where he assured us we'd get the best pizza in the world (really good but I'm still for the Chicago deep dish) and insisting that we try Serbian palinka. I'm glad that if we're lucky and get our visas we'll have to go back to Serbia with him again for another day of Serbian food and bargain shopping. Much better than playing the name game or trying to convince a room full of disillusioned Hungarian 16 year olds wearing Slip Knot t-shirts to talk about their hobbies in English. For once the Hungarian bureaucracy seems to be working for me!

Subotica's town hall was built by Hungarians before they lost the territory after WWI. It's a stunning building covered in intricate and hand-crafted traditional Hungarian wood and ceramic ornaments.

Gyula explains the history of Subotica to Taylor in the city's main square.

A fountain constructed completely from handmade ceramics

The McDonalds around the world always seem to pick the most conspicuous spots to set up shop. Here is one in the corner of the old town hall pictured above.

After a day in the city Gyula took us to a lake outside of Subotica to walk off a huge lunch. He assured us that all of the Serbians and Hungarians in the area had pictures of themselves in front of this fountain from the good old days of their summer lake vacations. Now we do too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Photos of a quiet Hungarian life

Hungarian for the day: Paul szerint a magyarul nagyon nehez nyelv. "Paul thinks Hungarian is an extremely difficult language."

I can't believe that I have already been here for three weeks. It has certainly flown by. Now I'm already falling into my routines and habits and life here has taken on a fairly pedestrian feel. This is not said as a complaint. I'm happy to be forming routines and getting acclimated to living here - it hasn't always been an easy process. There's one last major step before I really live here: on Friday Taylor and I are headed down to Serbia to the Hungarian consulate there to see if we can become legal, visa-holding aliens. Once that (fingers crossed) goes through it will all be official. Failing that, at least I'll see you all a bit sooner than expected!

The last few days of teaching last week went very well. I was a bit stressed by the impending mountain of paperwork I was supposed to be doing, but classes themselves were productive and I think more and more I'm going to have a good year with most of my students. Two different colleagues came up to me on Friday and said they had had students compliment my class, so I'm happy because I thought a lot of them disliked me for actually making them do stuff. Well I'm sure some of them do, but at least some of them are happy to learn. Also nice was that when I just didn't turn in all my work on Friday nobody batted an eye. I suppose that deadlines here really don't mean too much either, so I gave myself an extension. Last Thursday brought an exciting new development, my first couchsurfer. Couchsurfing is a site where you sign up to host/be hosted all around the world. Basically it amounts to staying with a stranger that you meet over the internet, which sounds extremely sketchy but it's actually a really great way to travel. Having had a friend recommend it to us, Alina and I used a similar site ( out West on our road trip and had a few great experiences with it. My first couchsuring experience was also very positive. A Frenchman named Philippe stayed with me on Thursday and Friday nights. He is biking all the way from Paris to Istanbul, so he had a lot of really interesting stories to share. He was very friendly and even stocked my kitchen with more than I had in it (bread) and did the dishes in the sink (a coffee percolator and a mug for each day of the week...). On Friday night he and I joined Taylor at Chicago, the local American themed restaurant cum billiards club and bowling alley. Yeah, it's as awesome as it sounds. We played a few pool games and then ate a whole lot of pizza, which felt just great after nearly a month of purely Hungarian food. Not that Hungarian food is bad, it just lacks variety and ethnic food hasn't exactly caught on here in Szentes. It's pretty sad the shameful things I would probably do for some good Thai or Mexican food. At any rate, the rest of the night was spent hanging out with a few of Taylor's older students at a local pub and then going to a big palinka and wine festival in the main square. It was a lot of fun and I actually picked up a few new Hungarian phrases.

Philippe observes as Taylor lines up a shot in Chicago's billiards room

From the billiards room we got to watch our hoodlums, I mean, students doing some bike tricks. Look carefully for the midair blur there and you might make out one of my freshman.

The rest of my weekend was much less eventful, though it did include things that excited me immensely such as time to sleep 12 hours in a row, a run to Tesco where I bought a few essentials for my apartment, and enough sunshine to do and dry all of my laundry which becomes a pretty big deal when living without a drier. Other than that I did a lot of work for school and was therefore kind of peeved when in discussing the past weekend with students I discovered that they generally don't have any homework over the weekends. Then why do I? Oh well, I ostensibly planned every class I'll have for the rest of the year and all of my syllabuses are off to be stamped and dropped off in some basement. It's good to feel like you're working for a cause. At any rate, I leave you now with some pictures of my town and apartment:

I took this on my walk to school. My commute is quite a trek at about a mile each way, but it's nearly entirely along the river and it's so beautiful that it always puts me in a good mood. Well, as long as it isn't raining.

Nothing says Eastern Europe like the juxtaposition of Old World charm and concrete.

Szentes is a biking town and there are probably more bikes than cars or pedestrians. Once I know I'll be here for the long term (post visa) I'll be in the market for a bike myself.
My apartment building. The two windows on the left on the second floor are mine.The view from my balcony is very peaceful, all weeping willows and kids at the playground. I live in the "Garden City" part of Szentes, remote but very safe, easy going, and friendly.

My apartment, where 70s style is still alive and well!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fight The (Hungarian) Man!

Hungarian for the day -
Mi ujsag? (mee uy-shaag) - What's new? Used like "how are you doing?"
Kepzeld.... (Kape-zeld) - Imagine that..... and you tell them what's new in your life.

Well I'm back from excursion number two to Szeged's Office of Immigration and once again no dice. While last week the official had assured us that we didn't need to get our visa before applying for our residence permits and that new stamps were what we'd need (and my paperwork is stamped like nobody's business), this official was of a different opinion. We need to go to the Hungarian consulate in Serbia to get our visas before we can even think of residence permits. While I'm bummed that I've spent the last two weeks on a fool's errand for something I can't even apply for, on some level I'm actually happy because now at least my school knows I will need a visa and will hopefully help me accquire one. "Hopefully" is the key word there.

Besides the bureaucrats and their lies life is going well. I've had a great two days of teaching, and I think that the kids and I will get on quite well this year. This is not to say that every day does not bring its struggles. For example, yesterday I could not figure out where room 3 was. I hadn't checked where it was because I had already taught in room 5, which was on the ground floor, and I assumed that 3 would just be two doors down. When I finally found an English speaking colleague to ask she replied "Oh that's in the other building." Nobody told me there was another building. Life lesson: always ask if there is another building. This other building contains rooms 3, 4, 18a, 22, and F - it's all so logical! Also, I must remember in future similar situations to ask up front for all the paperwork I will need to fill out. Today I learned that I need to have a syllabus for each of my 16 classes that plans out each of my 21 lessons for the next 36 weeks. And I haven't met 7 of the groups still because of random scheduling pandamonium. And it's due Friday. The good thing about working within such an obtuse and bizzare structure is that bull shitting is standard. When I told my colleague I would have to completely fabricate the documents and would probably never stick to them she acted like that was a given. So why do it in the first place? You can be sure the answer involves stamps - probably of many different drab colors with those cute little lines for paper pushers to sign.

The best thing I did this week was introduce a tongue twiser some of my more advanced (read: breezed through my lesson plan) students. I'm learning that teaching is a lot like leading a bunch of wolves, and that you have got to be the top dog if you are going to get anywhere. The tongue twister nicely leveled their egos and, because I practiced it pretty extensively before hand, I nearly got a standing ovation. Just call me Mr. Alpha Dog. I give this to you in case you ever need to impress a room full of Hungarian 17 year olds:

Betty Botter bought some butter
"But," she said "this butter's bitter.
If I bake this bitter butter
it will make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter
that would make my batter better."
So she bought a bit of butter
better than her bitter butter,
and she put it in her batter
and the batter was not bitter.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
bought a bit of better butter.

Of course with my crafty class I had to promise that if three of them could perfect the whole thing I'd do a Hungarian tongue twister. Three of them did, and they got quite a kick out of my , er...awesome Hungarian skills.

Monday, September 10, 2007

I am that teacher who is always covered in chalk dust

Hungarian for the day: Kerek sor - Beer please!

My first week of being a Hungarian teacher is behind me and I'm feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Monday I showed up for the opening ceremonies, which seemed very nice although they were in Hungarian so I really have no idea what they were talking about. At one point I got elbowed in the side by one of the English teachers sitting next to me and I had to stand up and be recognized. The mayor was there and he came up to me and gave me a friendly handshake and bantered on in Hungarian for a while. After the ceremony I spent all day doing paperwork and sitting around while the other teachers in my school ran around like lunatics. I didn't have any classes, and I didn't realize that here if you don't have classes then you don't have any reason to be at school, so I pretty much sat around awkwardly all day. Tuesday was my first day in the classroom, and my very first class was one that I had been warned about as having behavioral problems. They were fine, a few of the boys were problematic but since it's a group of students who have already graduated and are there pretty much so they can pass an English business certification exam given by the EU, I told them I had no problem kicking them out if they didn't want to be there. So now we're all friends! For some reason I didn't have many classes last week, but I did have this one class twice every day so now I feel like I know them pretty well and we get along nicely.

My teaching load is very strange. They try and expose the native English speaker to as many students as possible, so I will meet most of my classes only once a week. I have 21 classes a week, with 16 different groups of students. At about 15 students per class, that makes somewhere in the vicinity of 240 different students. That is a terrifying number of Hungarian names to learn, but the good news is that there really aren't that many different Hungarian names. Some of them are pretty awesome, like Zoltan, an extremely common name which sounds to me like someone who should be wearing a helmet with horns coming out of it and is the Hungarian word for king. I still haven't met about half of my students because of random beginning of the year disorder like state placement exams and retreats for new students, but I'm feeling pretty good about the students I have met. Of course, when you're dealing with a couple hundred high school students there are bound to be some evil little turds. For the most part, however, my students seem good natured and willing to work with me. I have been very surprised by the huge number of Hungarian adolescents who seem to really go for that goth look, but then again we're pretty close to Transylvania here in Szentes. The only real problem I see with students is that, though most have been in English classes for 7 to 11 years, most of them have really weak English abilities. At the same time, they don't really seem to think of the native English speaker's conversation classes as real classes - they said last year they mostly watched Friends and Prison Break. I'm kind of torn with this, because many of these students really need a swift kick in the ass if they want to get anywhere with their English, which they obviously do not desire or think they need. Some of my favorite sentences I've received on the little index cards I had them write for me about themselves are along the lines of "I am been studying the English for 10 years ago 'cause it easy language." Is it, now? It would be way easier for me to just watch TV every class, but I'd really like to try and help these kids. So I'll try my best to give them so good practice for their English orals and then let them watch Ice Age or play hangman when they seem like they've reached a breaking point.

Other than lots of work as I meet throngs of students, life here is becoming more routine. I'm figuring little things out and my Hungarian language abilities, while still paltry, get me by in stores and the most common situations that occur around town. I have a really bling new cell phone, or "mobile" as they say here, and I figured out that my water is not toxic but from the thermal wells under the city and therefore smells and tastes like sulfur. Apparently it's good for the joints, which sounds all well and good but I'm still not drinking it because it tastes like what I'd imagine skunk spray tastes like. I got legitimate internet hooked up in my apartment and even appeared in the paper from the lecso festival. Unfortunately the paper doesn't publish many articles online so I can't show off my fame, but that's okay becuase it's not the most flattering picture anyway. Also, my school has started moving on the legal front, not that there's been any real progress yet. My boss relegated the task of getting my papers in order to the youngest faculty member, a very kind and pretty woman named Evelin who is definitely doing her best to be helpful but is as perplexed by the Hungarian bureaucracy as I am. Last Wednesday she took Taylor and I to Szeged, the nearest major city, to the immigration office to get our residence permits. Well, naturally we didn't have one of the forms stamped, and though the same exact stamp was already on two of our application forms and we had obviously visited the school official needed for said stamp, there was one form quite outrageously devoid of any official looking stampage. So we were sent back. Hungarian bureaucracy, you see, hasn't evolved all that much since five decades of communism, and stamps are very, very important. The good news is that said stamp was easily procured and that the woman said everything else looked in good order so things should fall into place when we go back there this Wednesday. The next hurdle will be my visa, which is going to be tough because nobody at my school thinks I need one. That will be a fun conversation "No, really you have got to drive me to Belgrade to apply for this so that I don't get stranded here/thrown into Hungarian jail." I'm really looking forward to that one, but for now it's one step at a time.

Well I've got a lot of lesson planning to do and eventually I'd like to even go forging for food. Sorry about the shortage of pics thus far, I really need to walk around town with a camera or, better yet, do something worth taking pictures of. More soon, viszlat!

Monday, September 3, 2007

This weekend I ate at least a pig

Hungarian for the day: Hello - used to say goodbye. I suppose they assume that our hello is like their szia. It takes some getting used to.

Monday morning and in 20 minutes I'm off to the first day of school! I'm nervous but also excited. Today is opening ceremonies and then classes with "form teachers." I don't know what a form teacher is but I'm not one, so I'll be observing my colleague Judit's English lessons. Then tomorrow I start my own teaching.

I enjoyed my first weekend in Hungary immensely but I don't think that my arteries did. Saturday Gabi, a colleague of Taylor's who has taken both of us under her wing, took us with some of her friends to a lesco (pron lay - cho ) festival. Two streets were blocked off and everyone had big cauldrons over open fires boiling with different types of lesco, which is a traditional Hungarian stew that, like most Hungarian food, consists of a lot of lard, onions, pork, paprika, and a few vegetables. We were given bowls and walked from lecso to lecso trying the different family recipes. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, which I really regret because with over 200 lecso entries, a big stage replete with traditional dances, gypsie songs, and Bon Jovie covers, and an entire town of drunken Hungarians wandering around gorging themselves, it was really something to see. One of Gabi's friends is a journalist here in Szentes who was there covering the festival and she had her photographer take a bunch of pics of Taylor and I being served our first lecso. She said here in Szentes Americans eating lecso might just be front page news. Yesterday also brought with it a Hungarian dining experience that left me feeling more blimp than human. Gabi's family had us over for lunch, which was one of the biggest feasts I've ever seen. Her family didn't speak English but they were exceptionally friendly towards us and seemed emphatic that if we ever had questions or problems we should go directly to them. Touched and slightly worried about our stomachs splitting, we spent the rest of the day enjoying the perfect weather and walking around the town, contemplating our impending first days as real teachers.

That's all for now - I need to get pretty for my debut to 400 Hungarian high school students. Szia!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Stranger in a strange land

Hungarian for the day: Szia (see-ya): Hello/goodbye; basically a Hungarian aloha.

Well, here I am. As I write this first post it's a beautiful and sunny Saturday afternoon in this quirky little Hungarian town. I can't believe I have only been here since Monday - it's been a whirlwind of events since then. The few days before my departure were incredibly special, thanks to those of you who were able to make time to see me before my emigration, it was really wonderful. It all made me just that much sadder on Sunday afternoon as I boarded my flight to Munich. The trip was long but smooth and most of the way I tried to read a bit about Hungary or get into The Iliad but I was feeling too homesick and nervous to do much but listen to my fellow travelers snoring and wonder what the hell I was doing. Upon landing in Budapest, however, I was too tired to feel much at all, and made my way with my enormous luggage to the Education Ministry's guest house, and, upon finding I was the first one to arrive, went to my room and passed out. From Monday night to Wednesday all my time was spent getting to know the other teachers serving here in Hungary with SOL (Sharing One Language, which has an unfortunate acronym so we SOL people say it like soul). It's a small but diverse group, surprisingly heavy on the Americans. The organizers, Grenville and Kati, are really kind and we all had a nice time getting to know one another. I think the new teachers really benefited from the anecdotal wisdom of the organizers and the veteran teachers - it looks like there are some very interesting adventures on the horizon. The biggest problem seems to be dealing with the Hungarian bureaucracy, which I am terrified of. My school and the SOL staff do not seem to be too concerned, but I'm quite nervous that I'll never get a visa. It keeps me on my toes I guess, so that's good.

The Danube flowing through Budapest

During orientation in Budapest I did get one piece of very auspicious news, I am not alone in Szentes. SOL places another volunteer at the Gymnasium (college prep high school). Taylor, my Szentes counterpart, is from Seattle, is also 23, and is also here partly to boost his chances of getting into a Ph.d program studying Eastern Europe. I guess I'm not that unique after all. On Wednesday his contact from the Gymnasium drove up to Budapest and picked both of us up. Gyula, an English teacher at Taylor's school, drove us to Szentes Wednesday afternoon and filled us in on what to expect in Szentes and at the schools, where he claims the students are extremely smart and will walk all over a diffident teacher. Good advice, but after a year as a bar manager dealing with cops, drunks, and dealers I'm not feeling too intimidated by a group of small-town Hungarian high school students. That said, I'm sure there will be struggling.

Gyula dropped me off at my apartment and took Taylor to his, and I was happy to find a very nice flat in a very nice neighborhood. Like any new apartment, there some problems. For instance, the tap water smells so bad that after a shower I smell like sulfur, iron, and swamp. Also, try as I might to fiddle with the settings, if my little mini fridge is plugged in, everything in it freezes with impressive swiftness. My apartment is in the very north of town, about a 25 minute walk to the downtown area. Taylor really lucked out with his apartment, on the tenth floor right in the middle of town, huge, and newly redone. Also his water seems significantly less caustic. I'm still quite happy with my first apartment to myself and didn't expect anything this nice. Plus, the walk to the city center is really beautiful and I don't have to make the choice between the sketchy elevator or 10 flights of stairs every time I go out like Taylor does.

Szentes itself seems like it is going to be a great place to live. It's population of about 35,000 seems quite friendly and active, and the town is very safe, clean, and beautiful. Though the population is certainly small by American standards, Hungarian towns of this size have much more to offer than a town this size in America because people don't drive as much and therefore you can walk to most everything that you might need. I'm particularly happy to live just a block from the little river, the Kurca (which smells way better than my tap water and is pronounced "kurtsa"). There is a path down the river that leads to the city center and is a perfect jogging/walking/biking trail. My favorite feature of the town is the big park right in the middle, which is stunningly beautiful and has tennis courts, playgrounds, pools, and endless peaceful green spots. I've spent my time so far mostly trying to get my little life in order before school starts on Monday. Lots of trips to markets, Tesco, cleaning my apartment, and trying to get even the most basic handle on this beguiling language. I never thought I'd miss Russian. Go figure. I am going to try some extreme self discipline in learning the language, so we'll see how that goes.

I did go to my school, which is quite impressive and seems like a great environment. The staff I have met so far have been extremely friendly, although my school is merging with the Gymnasium (a long story I am sure to complain about later) so everyone there is having little melt downs and both Taylor and I feel a bit like it's going to make getting into the loop more difficult. With all the confusion and stress, the native English teachers are afterthoughts - I'm particularly anxious about the visa situation, which nobody at SOL or my school seems to really appreciate. Oh well, I'm no doormat and I'll get it sooner or later. I went to my boss's house for dinner last night and had a very nice time with her and her family. She is the contact for the English "lektor" (that's me!) and, with the school merger that has left my school with no headmaster, has been promoted to el capitan of my school. It sounds like it will be a pretty good place to work and she seems like a good boss, just very stressed out and overworked. I think we'll get along fine - after a few palinkas (very, very strong Hungarian brandy made from plums) we even bantered about in Russian. The staff at the Gymnasium has made more of an effort to reach out to Taylor, which I have benefited from because one of the young English teachers there, Gabi, has invited me to come along to tours of Szentes and even out drinking, which was weird because there were so many kids there that I knew I'd see in class next week.

Well, there is a Hungarian food festival on today so I'm off to shower and go eat lots of free Hungarian cuisine! Szia!

The main square in Szentes

The Kurca running through Szentes' beautiful park

Taylor's 10th floor flat offers incredible views of the entire town.