Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Karácsony

Hungarian for the day: Kellemes karácsonyi ünnepeket és boldog új évet! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

As December progressed the weather proceeded to get even colder and we finally got our first substantial snow. I have been waiting for this glorious event for a couple of months now, partly because I like snow but mostly because it makes the cold a little more bearable and is much better than the freezing rain wintry mix we've been stuck with for so many weeks. We got the snow last weekend while I was down in Szeged visiting a couple of friends there. I completely forgot to bring my camera which is a shame because the falling snow in Szeged was absolutely beautiful. On Saturday night I went to a dinner party with a couple of my Hungarian friends that I made through couchsurfers and then on Sunday I spent a few hours walking around Szeged's winter markets as the snow fell. Alas, pictures of Szentes will have to suffice.

The snowy view from my balcony

Szentes' main square with its tiny Christmas market

Szentes has pretty much nothing in the way of good sledding hills. The best the kids can hope for are river banks. I think the more hard-core sledders opt for the much larger flood banks of the Tisza river which runs around the Western edge of town, but these kids seem to be having a good time by the more convenient Kurca.

Ducks on the Kurca

I took this picture on my way to school Friday morning. Does it give you an idea of how freezing it is here?

It's been a lot of fun seeing the Christmas season take off in Hungary. I've enjoyed bringing Christmas into the classroom, something that's quite easy to do in the foreign language instruction field. In classes we read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," dreamed up wish lists, discussed Christmas celebrations around the world, or even sang Christmas carols. Some of my classes were even lucky enough to learn about Christmas in New Zealand when a friend of a friend visiting from Down Under came to my classes and described a holiday in the middle of the summer centered around beaches and barbecues. During two weeks of Christmas centric lessons I learned a lot about the Christmas traditions of Hungarians, some of which I think might be of interest. For the most part Hungarians celebrate Christmas like we do in America. The first major difference is that in Hungary Santa does not come on Christmas Eve. The Hungarian Santa Clause, aka Mikulash, brings his gifts December 5th late at night. When the kids wake up on December 6th they find their boots filled with candy. Mikulash isn't responsible for bringing the big Christmas gifts here in Hungary, for that is the charge of the baby Jesus, or Jezuska (Ye-zush-kuh), who places them under the Christmas tree. Hungarians open their gifts on Christmas Eve, which seems to be the bigger day of celebrating. Then the 25th and the 26th, both considered Christmas Days, are spend relaxing and maybe visiting more family if they live far from you (rare in Hungary, or at least down here in Szentes). The traditional dinner is roast turkey or Hungarian stuffed cabbage and the traditional drink is forralt bor, delicious warm wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves and available all over the place here during the cold weather. I've been working on perfecting my own forralt bor recipe with impressive success if I do say so myself.

The last week of school was a bit rocky because the students were beyond finished with sitting still. It's bad when you can't even get them to listen to "Jingle Bells." On Friday we didn't have classes and instead had a Christmas party, complete with more performances by the students that amounted to pretty much the same thing from last post's ball except that the ballroom dances were replaced by Christmas carols. A faculty lunch followed, and I had a lot of fun mingling with everyone, especially now that I have finally breached the level of making sentences so I can kind of, sort of, talk to the staff members that don't speak English. Hungarian is complex and involves incredible amounts of subtlety and precision to get across even basic ideas, so communicating involves a lot more than putting together nouns and verbs. Therefore I assume I sound sound something like "Indeed, weather cold very indeed. And spending you how the holiday? Me Turkey to travel will." You have to start somewhere. Yesterday, for my first day of the break, I traveled with Taylor and his visiting friend Stacy to the beautiful city of Eger in northern Hungary. Taylor has rented a car because he and Stacy are going to spend the break traveling around Central Europe, so we were able to drive up. Eger is in one of Hungary's major wine producing regions and is probably the second largest tourist attraction in Hungary after Budapest. It's a city rich in history with a medieval atmosphere and a castle where one of the most famous battles of Hungarian history took place. In the 1500s the Hungarians were (unsuccessfully) fighting the Turks and at Eger castle 3,000 Hungarians fended off over 40,000 Ottoman invaders in a heroic effort still celebrated today. Of course soon after that the Ottomans returned, defeated the resisters, and slaughtered pretty much everybody, but the Hungarians celebrate whatever victories they can. We had a nice time up in Eger, though the weather was unbearably frigid and I was quite peeved to discover that all of my pictures from the day look blurry because of how misty the air was. I will certainly return to this city one day when it's warmer out but it was a good experience to go there yesterday when the city was free from the tourists that descend upon it during the warm weather. We spent the afternoon and evening at the castle, walking around the streets adorned with Christmas lights, and hiding from the cold in a nice restaurant and then a little cafe.

Taylor and Stacy atop the castle ramparts from which a small Hungarian force defeated a massive horde of Ottomans almost five hundred years ago. Unfortunately the Turks would return and subjugate Hungary for over 150 years.

Eger's city center, full of old churches and a Christmas market where we staved off the cold with spiced hot wine.

Now I have two days to unwind and prepare for my upcoming Christmas break trip to Turkey. It's strange and somewhat depressing to be so far from home at Christmas time, but I'm happy to be in Istanbul soon with a couple of old friends. It's a great opportunity to see a fascinating new place as well as to keep the homesickness of missing the holiday with family and friends at bay. I'm getting quite excited, though it will be an unconventional Christmas morning getting up at 5:30 to catch the earliest bus to Budapest in order to make my flight. Memorable at least. At any rate, I have lots of research to do if I'm going to make the most of my trip to Turkey, so I'd better get going on that. I hope that you all have a safe and wonderful Christmas and New Years!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Let's have a ball

Hungarian for the day: nagyszerű (nadj-ser-oo)- great/wonderful!

After a couple of very quite weeks of Szentes livin', this past Friday night brought with it a bit of excitement as it was my school's annual ball. Nobody had told me anything about what to expect (naturally) and I was told only that it was a special winter dance for the seniors and that I should be there at 7 with a tie on. So I showed up at 7 to Szentes' sports recreation center expecting something akin to the cheesy High School dances that I remember from my adolescence. This was nothing like that, however. Instead it seemed that the whole town was packed into the building for a very solemn ceremony. The seniors walked into the center of the room to receive ribbons indicating that they would be completing school this year. I felt bad for them because over an hour of speeches followed and they were not permitted to sit. It reminded me of a graduation ceremony, with practically everyone the school could muster delivering congratulatory and inspirational addresses while friends and family in the stands snapped endless photos. Blowing things slightly out of proportion is a theme I've noticed a lot here, and this was a perfect example as my colleagues have assured me that the graduation in June will involve pretty much the same people saying the same things except it will be even longer and even more formal.

The rest of the evening, however, was the biggest surprise. Before the real disco type dance began for the students they performed a number of different acts for the crowd. Over two hours of impressive talent followed the speeches. The senior classes each put on a fun dance and had a power point presentation with lots of photos from their time at Boros. It must be quite emotional for them to leave behind their classmates because the classes here are sorted in the ninth grade and then students proceed to have the same classmates in every lesson for the next four years so they become quite close-knit. The seniors also put on an extremely formal choreographed ballroom dance. It was all quite impressive, and I watched slack-jawed as some of my shyest students sang solos and did provocative dances in front of everybody. Some highlights from the evening included 12b's line dance to Cotton Eyed Joe, 12c's swing dance to the Jailhouse Rock, the capoeira demonstration, the hip-hop dance troupe and the performance by Szilver, Szentes' award-winning dance troupe. I took some videos with my camera and here are a few of the evening's coolest moments.

The ballroom dance to Strauss
including almost all of the seniors.

The hip-hop dance troupe. Three of these girls are
in my classes and they are some of my favorite students.
Excuse the shaking camera, there was some shifting going on around me.

Here one of my shyest students turns out not to be so shy. Niki really
impressed the crowd with a few solo performances. Here the group Szilver
dances as she sings. Szilver is a local dance troupe that has won a number of awards
in international dance competitions. Apparently they are 9th in the world and
a few of my students are among their most impressive dancers:

All in all it was an extremely enjoyable evening, though clocking in at over 3 hours it was longer than I was prepared for. Today in class I talked to my students about it and they seemed rightfully pleased with how the whole thing went and extremely relieved to have the two months of intense rehearsals behind them. Indeed, late the night after the ball I was in a pub playing poker and I saw a number of seniors who were very, very celebratory. I think it's really great that they have a event like this here where parents can come to be proud of not only their students success at getting through school but also that young Attila can kind of swing dance on top of his academic abilities. I must admit, though, it seems like a lot for the students to have what we in the US would consider a graduation ceremony, talent show, and Prom thrown together in one night. It really sucks to have the flu on that day. The next day was Taylor's school's ball and I felt somewhat obligated to come and keep him company because he had done so for me. Despite apprehensions as to whether my ass could survive another entire evening on an unforgivingly hard chair, I was looking forward to it because his school is known throughout the country for its drama program so I had high hopes. Honestly neither Taylor or I were quite as impressed with his school's ball. This is probably because though there were some great acts it was also even longer and became quite repetitive. I don't think we were the only people present to feel that way and indeed it was quite comical to see half of the Hungarians running for the door to sneak in a quick cigarette between acts after three hours in the auditorium. The lengthy ceremonies gave me time to ponder upon the fact that by deciding to be a teacher I was signing myself up for a lifetime of really long ceremonies. The things I'll do to get summers off.

Well that's about all that's worth mentioning in Szentes. I hope the weather where you all are is better than the permanent wintry mix that we've been living in over here. Hellostok!