Tuesday, October 30, 2007

playing catch up

Hungarian for the day: Meleg vagyok. Literally "I'm warm" but colloquially "I'm gay." I did not know this when trying to explain to my Freshman students the English word "warm" and its uses by using my paltry Hungarian and saying "meleg vagyok." In retrospect this explains the outbreak of pandemonium in a few of my classes.

Well it's been too long since my last update. The first part of October was pretty hum-drum and I didn't update because of a lack of much to say. Life in Szentes maintains its quiet and peaceful stasis. Classes continue to go very well and I still really enjoy working with the kids. Even some of my more problematic students/classes don't get to me anymore and I've witnessed some complete turnarounds in attitudes with a few kids. Other than work, the middle of October was spent just getting more and more into a number of small-town livin' routines. I know my greengrocer and bakery lady pretty well now, and have been busying myself with studying lots of Hungarian and teaching a few of my older students the ins and outs of American indie music and Texas Holdem' poker.

All month was spent looking forward to the end of the month, which brought a number of excellent, fantastic, and wonderful things: two visits from friends, two visits to Budapest, and, that's right, TWO school breaks. I was also looking forward to my first paycheck but that didn't happen. I won't get into that here because it would just ruin this wonderful mood that I'm in now but suffice to say I'm still battling the bureaucracy and my fingers are crossed that I will, one day soon, get a paycheck. At any rate, the school breaks are due to one of Hungary's largest holidays of the year on Oct 23rd and then the standard week long Fall Break this week. For some reason to make up for our breaks (?) we had school for the past two Saturdays, but if that's what it takes to get a few extended periods of time during which I do not have to get up at 6AM then that's fine. Last Saturday was the day I had been waiting for all month, my trip to Budapest to meet Jen and explore the city for the first time. Both Taylor and I were excited all week about getting out of Szentes in favor of going somewhere a bit more thrilling - a place where we wouldn't see our students everywhere we went. Ironically, last week two different students said they saw me from far away in Budapest, and another was on our return bus from Szentes!

We spent Saturday night through Tuesday afternoon in Budapest, so really not a lot of time. To compensate for this we packed each day full of exploration. Most of our time in Budapest was spent just getting to know it by foot. The amount of walking we did left Jen and Taylor absolutely incredulous, while even I, after two months of walking about 5 miles each day just getting around, felt a bit exhausted by it. Still, the amount of stuff we glimpsed in only three days of sightseeing is impressive. For me, knowing that this was Jen's only time in Budapest and my first trip of many to the city, the priority was spending time with my old friend and getting a whirlwind tour of the place. The holiday closed most of the museums for our entire stay in Budapest, which was good because I was more interested in utilizing my 6 days with Jen and comparing notes between our new lives overseas than quietly reading about Hungarian Art History in a museum together. Also, it was a great time to walk around and see the city. October 23rd is a very important day in Hungarian history, and Budapest is at the epicenter of the action. This is the day when Hungarians remember the Revolution of 1956, an idealistic if ill-fated affair that involved Hungarians giving the commies the boot and trying to become a Western style Democracy as Austria had endeavored to do only months before. Well, it didn't go so well, and Soviet troops spilled over the border to ensure Hungary's enthusiastic participation in their Brave New World order for 33 more years of puppet government and oppression. Hungarian holidays in general are a bit less carefree than ours in America. Last year's celebration was a big deal for two reasons: it was the fiftieth anniversary and happened to fall directly after the Hungarian Prime Minister's tapes admitting to a couple of years of vicious lying were released. The celebration-cum-protest shut down Budapest and a number of people were injured and killed. This year many expected a similar situation, with that same Prime Minister still in power after refusing to step down and slated to give a speech. Appropriate to the holiday at hand, one of the first things we did in Budapest was go the the House of Terror, a building that served for years as the HQ of Hungarian secret police under both Nazi and Communist governments and has become a museum of the German and Soviet occupations of Hungary. This gave us some incite into the significance of the current holiday in the Hungarian heart. Then on Oct 22nd we observed some of the most heavily armored cops I have ever seen shutting down most of the cities main gathering points. We met up with some friends of Taylor's who were living in Budapest and spent the evening in an out-of-the-way pub while the Prime Minister's speech at the Opera House a few blocks away inspired the use of some mob violence and Molotov cocktails. One of the girls we were with was a Hungarian native of Budapest so we felt safe under her guidance. Indeed we found her guidance quite agreeable, for each time she hung up the phone with her mother who was glued to the news coming from the unrest she simply remarked "we should probably just order another round." We waited out the evening's violence and walked back to our hostel in a roundabout way. The next day, Oct 23rd itself, brought with it more revolutionary celebration. Walking through a small exhibit about the revolution near Hero's Square we were asked to come along on a "Freedom Ride" around the area. So we boarded an old truck in the '56 freedom fighting style and drove around for a bit with a bunch of Hungarians waving flags and shouting revolutionary slogans.

The Terror House - a fascinating museum that commemorates Hungary's turbulent 20th Century in the building where many of the nastiest bits took place: the former secret police hq.

Taylor, Jen and I spent the eve of the revolution in a very bohemian bar with strange lighting and stranger seating - pictured here sitting in a bathtub.

On the back of the freedom riding truck with lots of zealous Hungarians.

In addition to the celebration of the '56 Revolution, the trip to Budapest will stand out in my memory as my first introduction to a really fantastic place. Budapest is an absolutely gorgeous city with a certain vibrancy to it. We climbed Gellert Hill in Buda one evening to enjoy a bottle of Hungarian wine and the view of the city straddling the Danube as it lit up. We strolled though Margaret Island, a huge park in the middle of the river, eating some delicious and not so healthy Hungarian street food (langos) as we contemplated how very far away from noisy city life the island sanctuary seems. The architecture of Budapest is another really stand out feature of the city, be it the Gothic of the Parliament or the ubiquitous baroque style ornamenting most of the city's buildings. We also did a perfunctory exploration of the city's tumultuous history while on top of Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube. All in all a great introduction to a city that I hope to spend much more time in over the next year or two.

Szecsenyi Bridge all decked out in Hungarian flags for the revolution.

Hero's Square, one of Budapest's most important places

The view of Castle Hill and the Danube from Gellert Hill.

Budapest gets its name from the two cities of Buda and Pest, once separate entities that have merged. Here is the view of flat and bustling Pest at night from the hilly and significantly quieter Buda side of the Danube.

Looking out across the river from Castle Hill

Jen and Budapest just look so good together

The state of Nagy Imre, leader and martyr of the 1956 revolt, gazing contemplatively at Hungary's Parliament on October 23rd, exactly 51 years after the short lived revolution.

By Tuesday afternoon it was time to head back to sleepy Szentes for classes early the next morning. Taylor and I were both a bit bummed out at leaving the fun of tourist and city life for the alarm clock waking us up for a day or work at 6:00 in the morning. Still, as we pulled into Szentes' bus station something unexpected and strange occurred. I felt like I was returning home and was pretty excited to show Jen my little town. She only had a couple of days in Szentes because as a Peace Corps volunteer it's tough for her to stay out of Albania for very long. Still, we packed lots of Szentes into her two days here, though admittedly it's not the kind of destination that takes long to see. Jen spent Wednesday with me at school co-teaching my classes with a letter her students had written from Albania. My students seemed to enjoy meeting her, learning about Albania, and telling Jen what to tell her Albanian students about Hungary. She also taught a few classes with me on Thursday but spent most of the day exploring Szentes on her own. In the evenings Taylor and I prepared two Hungarian specialties, gulyas and paprikas krumpli. Jen was thrilled to have boys cooking for her after 8 months in hyper-patriarchal Albania. It was really great to talk to Jen about her experiences living abroad because we are both from pretty much the same place with very similar backgrounds and the same group of friends, so we bring a lot of the same baggage to the table when it comes to getting by over here. Talking about the similarities between our experiences in two very different countries was pretty profound, and I think I gained a lot from talking to someone who had been getting by over here for 8 months. The days of her visit to Hungary flew by much more rapidly than I ever dreamed days in Hungary could and before I knew it I was walking her to the bus station to bid farewell to her before school.

That day coming home from school I noticed a motorbike and a hooded figure reading "Atlas Shrugged" and realized that my friend Tim must have arrived. Tim is embarking upon a motorcycle trip around Europe and I'd been expecting him for a bit so it was a good surprise. Lucky me, two friends visiting in a row! Tim's visit falls on my Fall Break, so we're planning on spending the next few days looking around Southern Hungary. After a very busy last couple of weeks between travel, visitors, work, and Hungarian bureaucratic sadism, I was ready for a couple of days bumming around and getting my back-burner to do list done. After months on a motorcycle Tim just wanted to do nothing at all, so we've been doing nothing the past few days. After exploring some of this region's charms, we're headed back to Budapest for a couple of days. I've got a meeting with the other teachers from my program (and free lodging and food!) and Tim has never seen the city. I'll try to be more prompt in reporting our journeys over the next few days!


Saturday, October 6, 2007

Good news, then a hazing

First for the good news: On Thursday I got a call saying I'd been approved for a visa. This is excellent because now I'll be here legally and even get paid! It's also great because on Wednesday, by far my toughest day of teaching, I'll instead be on a little field trip to Serbia with Gyula and Taylor to slap that visa into my passport, buy a winter coat at the market, and then apply for a residency permit back in Szeged.

Life here is going well, particularly with my job. One of the major reasons I came here was to see if I was cut out to be a teacher. The life plan is to try and get a Ph.d. and teach in a college, but I didn't want to devote myself to at least 5 (and probably 6 or 7) more years of schooling only to finally get that doctorate and then find out that I hate teaching. What would I do then? With my estimated time of getting a doctorate at 31 or 32, I'd already be approaching that time of vulnerability for a mid-life crisis. It would probably lead me to the bottle. Well I don't think I have to worry, at least about the teaching part. I'm really enjoying it, and my job teaching here is the best job I've ever had. Sure it's very tiring and comes full of struggles, but overall I'm having a great time with my students and I think they've warmed up to me. My favorite groups are my ninth graders because they're not disillusioned yet and they are full of enthusiasm. Three times I've walked into the room with different ninth grade groups to find "WE LOVE PAUL" written on the board. They'll probably all get pretty good grades in my class... It really is great to have a job that I love. Indeed, a few of those quiet weekends alone in the apartment have found me on Sunday night just itching to get back to school.

Where the magic happens, my school: Boros Samuel Szakkisepiskola

Also good news is that I'm (finally finally finally) getting to know a lot more Hungarians. After the excitement of moving here wore off and I fell into my routines I endured a pretty lonely stretch there. This is the first time I've lived alone, and in a foreign country with no human contact on the horizon many nights drove me to really reconsider this whole willingly exiling myself in small-town Hungary thing I'm doing. But last weekend brought with it good things, not one but two party invites! Agi, one of my favorite colleagues, had a big dinner party at her house last Friday night and invited a bunch of colleagues, her older students, and Szentes' three foreigners: Taylor, myself, and Sara, the very charming French lecturer. That party was really fun and I found out that some of my colleagues actually speak English, and with my limited Hungarian (and a few beverages) we were able to break that language barrier. It felt pretty great to come to work on Monday and have more than 3 people say hello to me all day. Then on Saturday one of my favorite students, Peter, who is in one of my older classes (my school is kind of like a community college in a way, and he is 19) invited me to the birthday party of one of his brother's friends. It turns out his brother's friend is another one of my colleagues. He had us to his place and it was another really great night of meeting Hungarians, learning lots of new words, and witnessing how much they truly love their palinka.

It's not all roses over here though. Last night brought with it something truly horrifying: my hazing. Hungarian schools have a very proud tradition of thoroughly embarrassing their new teachers and students. All of the ninth grade students wear ridiculous costumes with a definite cross-dressing theme and have to perform embarrassing acts in front of their peers. As if being 14 isn't a rough enough. Well, the new teachers also get theirs. Two weeks ago Taylor had his turn, he had to say a couple of tongue twisters in front of the entire school. Embarrassing, yes, but it only took all of 20 seconds. Last night was my school's festival of cruelty. Two of my colleagues (new teachers) had to write a Hungarian story using a lot of very strange phrases, phrases difficult for a native Hungarian to pronounce. Then last night I got to read the story to the entire school! It wouldn't have been so bad if not for the handwriting - I couldn't read a damn word on the page. And so I stood there, brow soaked in sweat and stammering and really doing my best not to say some very naughty English words over the PA system that the entire school and various Szentes celebrities were listening to. I think I did let an "Oh, Christ" out. It was a painful 5 minutes, but hey, at least I didn't have to cross dress like my students. After the cruelty there was a faculty dinner, which was a great time, and a dance for the students, which I stood around for a bit just to get a few laughs in. Sara and I then chose to make our escape and meet Taylor, Peter, and a bunch of Peter's friends in a nearby pub for a few drinks that by then I desperately needed.

Today my big plan is to make a new pile of Hungarian flash cards and go on a long walk. I leave you with pictures of the circus. Unfortunately I didn't get pictures of the really cruel pranks because they either took place outside of the gathering (like sending cross-dressed kids into bars to beg for money) or everyone clamored around them and I didn't want to add to the humiliation with my camera.

Struggling hard core.

Two of my well-dressed students in a card house competition.

Which class can use the least number of feet?

Taylor's hazing.