Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fall Break: Germany and Holland

I think my blogging hiatus may have earned me the title of worst blogger ever. My excuses? Since returning to Hungary I really haven't been doing much worth writing about. My increased teaching load and having founded an English club that meets after school means I spend much more time working on school stuff both in and out of the classroom. When I'm not teaching or lesson planning I occupy myself with trying to get into grad school. After years of working up to this moment, now I'm trying to get letters, essays, research samples, and applications in order, a process that has eaten up all my spare time for the past two months. The end is in sight - just a few more weeks and I'll have it all done.

But though life in Szentes has become all business, life abroad still offers exciting travel opportunities and I finally did something worth writing about over late October's fall break. I met my old pal Gayle in Dusseldorf, Germany a couple of weeks ago for a wonderful trip to Holland. Though Gayle and I were both in need of a lot of unwinding from our hectic lives at home, we did manage to do a lot of sightseeing and I think we really got a good look at Holland. We began our trip in Amsterdam, where we took in some great museums, including the Van Gogh Musuem, the Rijksmuseum (the premier collection of Dutch masters) and the Anne Frank House before proceeding to Utrecht for a more authentic feel for Dutch life. Below are some of the best pics from the adventure, but find all of them on my flickr site: Flickr page for Holland/German trip.

Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Townhouse mansions built during the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was one of the world's great mercantile powers, line peaceful canals. Even though the weather was abysmally gray and rainy for most of our trip, we were both overwhelmed by the city's beauty and spent the majority of our time just walking around and taking in the atmosphere:

A boat slowly makes its way down a peaceful canal in one of Amsterdam's surpsingly abundant quiet neighborhoods.

Gayle pauses to smile in front of some beautiful old Amsterdam mansions.

During our 4 days in Amsterdam we had only one day of good weather, and we took advantage of the sunshine with a long day of walking around and enjoying the city sans rain (though there were still a lot of puddles).

The city is full of small architectural gems, like this statue on one of the canal bridges.

The Netherlands is a land of many flowers. Springtime tulips are a particular speciality. Here is a picture taken in Amsterdam's floating flower market. Can you find the Ram hiding in the flowers? He is the mascot of T. Rowe Price, Gayle's employer, and his name is Trusty (personal motto: "Charging with confidence"). The company has an ongoing competition for the best picture of Trusty in an interesting place, so Trusty was our companion throughout our trip.

Say cheese! We both love it, though I must admit that Gayle is more of a cheese gourmand than I. The Netherlands offers inumerable cheese shops, serving up what an American would consider to be hoity-toity gourmet cheeses at prices that clearly indicate that delicious specialty cheese is a staple of the Dutch diet. Gayle even went online to check customs laws on how much cheese she could bring back, and entertained an Utrecht cheesemaker greatly as she went a little crazy in her sampling and spending.

Open windows. There is something very open and accepting about Dutch culture. In a country where soft-drugs and prostitution are legal there is no shortage of strange behavior to be seen on the streets. The locals seem unperturbed, just accepting that people do strange things sometimes. This openness is reflected in the way the broad windows of Amsterdam remain open, letting passersby peer in to people's living spaces. We wandered the streets and observed people's intimate lives with almost unnerving ease. Dutch homes, like so much in the Netherlands, have a very special feeling, both cozy and highly-practical.

Gayle and her new friend Cheeto in the restaurant/cafe of our hotel. We stayed in a budget hotel just a couple minutes from the central Dam sqaure by foot. Though it certainly wasn't the Ritz, the Hotel Belga was convenient and a suiteable place to rest. It also offered a very good free breakfast, complete with the company of Cheeto, the resident feline and Breakfast Quality Assurance Officer.

Me in front of the Rijksmuseum. Though it is currently undergoing major rennovations, the museum still offers a huge collection of really interesting Dutch masters. Unfortunately photography is prohibited in both the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum. Suffice to say, the paintings were pretty awesome.

Amsterdam has some of the world's best people watching. It is the most diverse city in Europe, and when you add its laid back attitude to many things that other societies strictly prohibit, you get a true spectacle to behold. Here we spend our one afternoon of beautiful weather in a park watching people stroll and bike by.

Inspired by the dominance of biking as the local method of transport, Gayle, Trusty and I spent a Sunday morning biking around the city, covering almost all of the downtown area. Unfortunately the weather was cold and rainy, so we got drenched and severely chilled. Nothing that a delicious meal in a cafe afterward didn't fix.
Gayle and one of the towers surrounding the outer canal of the downtown area.

Me and my hog.

Biking around the park.

Gayle bikes towards Westermarkt Church.

Westermarkt Church close up.

On our final morning in Amsterdam we got up early to make it to the Anne Frank House before opening in an attempt to avoid a long wait. This museum, occupying the space where Anne Frank's family hid during the Nazi occupation, was extremely well-done and presented the exhibits plainly but with appropriate gravitas. Anne Frank's diary is also on display - it is such an innocent looking little book bound in a red plaid print.

A self-portrait taken after exiting the Anne Frank House.

Gayle to Trusty: "Work it baby. Oh yeah, just like that. Pouty face, that's it. The camera loves you."

After a great time in Amsterdam, we made our way to Utrecht, which is a university town with a charming canal-lined old town that dates back to medieval times. Though we were unable to find couchsurfing hosts in Amsterdam (it's always a challenge to get a place to stay in a big touristy city where the hosts are bombarded with requests every day, plus Amsterdam's hosts are justifiably wary of the multitude of foreigners who descend upon their beautiful city in search of drugs and sex), we were successful in arranging hosts for our time in Utrecht. We had two different hosts, the first was a charming girl named Everarda, a student at a musical conservatory studying the organ. We also stayed with a guy named Lars, who took us out on the town to a number of really nice pubs and loaned us bikes so we could explore the town and its environs in a more traditionally Dutch fashion.

The view from our host, Everarda's, window, which looks towards the medieval downtown and its awe-inspiring cathedral.

A peaceful scene walking along the canal that surrounds the downtown area.

Up close and personal with Utrecht's cathedral. I am always so impressed by these cathedrals, their spires reaching towards the sky and really giving the feeling of a divine presence.

Inside the cathedral.

In downtown Utrecht, where apartments line the canals.

Downtown Urecht by night.

Trusty sampling some delicious beers from neighboring Belgium.

Though we pretty much avoided the touristy, crowded, and supremely sketchy Red Light District in Amsterdam, when our second host Lars told us there is one in Utrecht that is more normal and, almost charmingly, consists completely of house boats, and offered to take us on a bike ride past it we couldn't resist. Taking pictures of the working ladies is strictly prohibited, but here are a couple clandestine shots we snapped biking by at night and then the next morning:

Our last morning in the Netherlands was the highlight for both Gayle and I. Though our host Lars had to work, he offered us the loan of his two bikes so we could tour the city and some of the surrounding countryside. We had a great time biking around Utrecht and then the beautiful natural preserves and villages surrounding it.
Gayle biking into Utrecht's downtown, where we had delicious apple tarts for breakfast before biking outside of the city.

I check to see if we are still on the path recommended to us by Lars. He said that the areas to the north of the city were really beautiful places to bike and he was certainly right.

Getting off the beaten track.

The Netherlands is such an impressively well-maintained country. Even out here in the country the cobblestone paths are in perfect shape.

Dutch country scene.

Gayle captures the scenery and watches a swan in the canal.

Very happy travelers in the Dutch countryside

After our bikeride we returned to Lars's house to return the loaned bikes and pick up our stuff before sadly leaving Holland behind. We caught a bus to Dusseldorf, where Gayle's flight would leave early in the morning back to Baltimore (via Amsterdam, ironically, though flights to Amsterdam were 300 Euros more expensive...). We checked into a hostel in Dusseldorf, and enjoyed one last night out together, dining on Mexican food and spending a few hours in a bar trying to squeeze in a year's worth of conversations.

Early the next morning I waved goodbye to Gayle as one of those famed and efficient German trains took her to the airport.

After Gayle's departure I had a full day in Germany to bum around alone. I mainly just walked around and took in the sights. Here are a couple of shots of Dusseldorf:

After a few hours of walking around Dusseldorf I found the coolest bookstore I've ever been in - 6 stories!!! I enjoyed a coffee and a chance to record the trip in my journal in the bookstore's cafe.

After a few hours walking around Dusseldorf I had to make my way back to Cologne. This trip marked a new height to my travel thrift. I flew in and out of Frankfurt at very inopportune times (hey, my round trip flight cost under 50 Euros! who needs sleep!?) and had to take a bus to Cologne and then a train to Dusseldorf to meet Gayle. Though I didn't really see Frankfurt at all I did spend two nights in Cologne walking around, and I was very impressed by what I saw.

My point of arrival, Cologne's enormous central station.

Cologne's cathedral is one of the most gradiose in the world. Here it is along with the Rhine Riverfront.

The juxtaposition of ancient and very modern is something that Europe does so well. Here the southmost point of Cologne's medieval city walls stands surrounded by modern office buildings.

Cologne was founded 2000 years ago by Romans, and the region's main Roman road ran right through this old gate.

Well, back to grad school paperwork for me, but I will surely post more after I get all of this work done. I hope you are all having a wonderful Autumn! Sziasztok!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The kind of teacher I am

It's 6pm on Friday and I just learned while IMing a friend that today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I am devastated because this would have made today's classes not just good, not great, but some unparalleled level of awesome. Sigh.

When I posted this woeful news in my Gchat status bar I realized I wasn't the only one who was taken by surprise by this unsung holiday:

Kim: Is it really talk like a pirate day?!
Paul: Yes!
Kim: Oh shit
Paul: I know!!

Maybe that I do so much stuff like this in class is the reason why I laughed so hard when I saw this. It's funny because it's true. I've thought about how a combination of being kind of outside the culture already while occupying a teaching position as flexible as conversation practice instructor has encouraged me to be really zany with the students. I've also thought about how maybe I'm just one of those weird teachers.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Take two

After a spectacular whirlwind of a summer, I'm back in Szentes. The summer flew by so fast that I kind of feel like I was just gone for a quick vacation - I can't believe it was really a full two months. Seeing you all this summer was absolutely incredible!

The trip back to Szentes was an arduous one. After a last American meal of a delicious reuben at Sully's my parents dropped me off at Dulles at 2 in the afternoon. After a flight into London Heathrow, an entire day in London walking around, a flight from Luton to Budapest, a train ride to Szentes, and the 3o minute walk from the station dragging my luggage, I arrived here at about 9am two days later. I promptly slept for another two days, but then it was Monday and time to start school! Getting things organized for the school year has pretty much dominated the last two weeks since I arrived. This year I'm teaching 28 lessons a week instead of last years 21, plus I agreed to start an English club. It's certainly a lot of work but the silver lining is that I had great luck with the groups that I have been assigned. I will be spending a lot more time with students that I really like and a couple of my problem groups from last year aren't my problem this year.

This year is going extremely well at school thusfar and it's great to be back with the kids. I found that, while I was too happy to be home this summer to think much about Szentes, I actually did miss being in the classroom with the students. The contrast to where I am now and where I was a year ago is huge - returning and knowing everybody's names already and understanding the ropes has been a nice experience. Colleagues and students alike treat me with much more respect, like a real teacher instead of a random American who wandered into the classroom. Even the Hungarian government is more managable this year, as I already have my residence permit locked in with the government! It's all coming up roses, except of course for the evil old washing machine, which has already flooded my bathroom. Twice.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How time flies

Hungarian lesson: Szalad az idő "Time runs"

Late June already?! Here it is, the end of my first year of living abroad. I suppose it's only fitting that I write something here in my sorely neglected blog about my overall experience, my new perspectives, and how this year in Hungary has changed me. On the other hand, I don't really know where to begin. Suffice to say, looking back over the past 10 or so months I'd say my experience has been a lot about learning about another culture, but more about learning how to be on my own.

I've been happy here, but very much looking forward to going home for so long that now that my departure is upon me (just next Monday) I feel more disbelief than anything else. I'm beyond excited about this summer and so many of the things coming up. I can't wait to see friends and family, and to revel in so many of the little things about American life I've missed (read: Thai and Mexican food, plus a washing machine that doesn't hate me and want me dead). I've heard from friends who have returned home after acclimating themselves to living in a foreign country that reverse culture shock can be even more shocking than the real thing. We'll see. Actually, one of the things I'm most looking forward to is looking back on Hungary from an American environment. I'd like to think I'll have the time for all of that introspection, but this summer promises to be a hectic one. Life in Szentes moves quite slowly, so I'm a bit anxious about tackling this summer's formidable to-do list: get grad school applications in line (take the GRE's, write a good research sample, contact a long list of prospective programs), earn as much money as possible, attend weddings, show a visiting Hungarian friend around, and get in all of the quality time I can with those I've missed so much for so long. It's certainly exciting.

Over the last few weeks here life has been wrapping up nicely. School ended last Friday (the 13th!) with little ceremony, something that surprised me greatly after becoming so used to the Hungarian tendency to have some sort of tradition-laden program for every occasion. This place is just full of traditions and rituals signifying all manner of things. For example, I just found out that the reason the main church's bell rings for a ridiculously long time every day at noon is to commemorate a victorious (though pretty minor in the scope of things) battle nearly 500 years ago. Well, nevertheless, the only going away ceremony was a small teacher's appreciation day, which I really appreciated because it made my longest day (Wednesday) fly right by due to shortened lessons. It was a nice little presentation by students and then a small banquet, which was a good chance to talk to a lot of my colleagues. Oh, and as always, there were poetry readings as well. Other than that it was a quiet week during which I just let my students play whatever game they wanted. I am getting ridiculously good at taboo. I did get some good news from colleagues who had given an anonymous student satisfaction survey to all the 9th graders and gave my classes a some really positive feedback. Also, the English specialization group of the 9th graders took the first of their state English exams and all of them passed the spoken portion that we had been working on in my classes. All good news. Other than school, last week I tagged along with Taylor and his visiting parents as he showed them some of the cool things in the region.

This week without class before I leave is divided between three objectives. The first is to clean the apartment and get all my ducks in a row before heading back. The second is the unpleasant business of lining up all of my paperwork for next year. If all goes well I'll have all my official business taken care of before I leave for the summer but I'm just not that optimistic about it as this process inevitably involves the Hungarian bureaucracy and, well, I don't have many good things to say about that inept dinosaur. The third objective is way cooler than the first two: showing a friend around Hungary! My friend Victoria arrives in Budapest early tomorrow morning and we'll spend the last 5 days of my time in Hungary together. I can't wait to see her (first time in almost exactly a year) and catch up on what has been the first year of teaching for both of us. Victoria has spent that last year teaching third grade with Teach For America in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, so I'm sure she has some great stories.

Well, that's about it for now. I'll probably post next from the States. Maybe returning home will give me more things to say about this year, so stay tuned. I absolutely can't wait to see you all!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Blog envy

Hungarian for the day: A rest kétszer fárad. - A lazy man works twice.

Having spent all afternoon reading other people's funny and interesting blogs I reflected upon how very long it's been since my last post in my own neglected blog. What can I say, it's a quiet town I live in. Plus I'm lazy.

New developments in Szentes:

1. New fountains in the river-

2. My washing machine is evil and has been broken for nearly a month. There must be some balance between the stereotypical American attitude towards malfunctioning machines (throw it away, buy a new one) and the Hungarian attitude (fix and fix until you've spent more on surly repairmen than a new appliance costs). Am I being unreasonable thinking this thing needs to be replaced? Take a look and decide for yourself -

3. I finally got a bike! One of my colleague's lent me her bike from her adolescence and it's in need of a paint job but it's a faithful means of conveyance -

On a side note, only 19 days until I'm back in the States for the summer!

Friday, May 9, 2008

End of the year ceremonies

Hungarian for the day: Sok sikert a jövőben. "Good luck (lit. much success) in the future"

It's that special time of the school year. As the temperature rises and the days grow longer, flowers bloom and all semblance of law and order in classrooms across the Northern Hemisphere breaks down. Yes, we are now approximately one month away from the precious last school day of the year and students and teachers alike spend most of class looking out the window onto the beautiful May weather and urging June 13th to come faster.

Hungary is a place of great formality and many traditions. As I learned last week, this tendency towards quirky ritual manifests itself in the school-leaving process. First of all, the system for finishing school here is quite different. Seniors stop taking classes over a month before the end of the year so they can concentate on taking the all-important Érettségi exams. These are similar to the A-levels in the British system I suppose - a test that culminates 4 years of education and will be the main indicator of the students proficiency in a given subject. They must choose a number of subjects to take and for each test they receive a certain number of points. To go to a university program you need a lot of points in various topics depending on the program. It's a big deal, hence their exemption from classes while they prepare for and take the exams in May and June. Last week was the last day of classes for the 12th graders and this meant a few ceremonies had to occur. The first, and my personal favorite, is Serenade. This is just what the name sounds like, the classes go around to various teachers' houses and sing to them from the street. It's a big partying event and the students imbibe greatly to get into the musical mood. Some of the teachers got together at the school to give the students a little snack before they started spreading the jolly noise of Hungarian folk songs around the town. The students thanked us with a few songs:

One of my classes serenading my colleagues and I from the street below the school

After Serenade on Tuesday, Saturday was Ballagás, the Hungarian graduation ceremony. This is a uniqe little affair where the students walk around the entire school in a line and go into each classroom. Each class (students are grouped into the same 30 or so student classes all four years of high school here) had a classroom which they decorate and then stand in, waiting for the seniors to come by so they can give them flowers. The teachers did the same thing with the teachers' work room. The students came in, received flowers, and gave each teacher who taught them a little card with all of their pictures on it and signatures on the back. In addition, the students also receive a small gift bag with a little Hungarian scone, some wine, and a 5 forint piece (about 2 US cents) to symbolize success.

My colleagues rush around our work room decorating and waiting for the seniors to come through on their walkabout around the school.

At the end of the walk all of the students (a class of about 80 students I'd wager) gather in the gym with the teachers for a few words of goodbye.

The students leaving the gym for the big ceremony. "Wait!" you exclaim, "Those in the back don't look like 18 year olds." How very astute of you. The class that graduated 50 years ago is also invited, and they receive the same little gift bags as the graduating seniors, walk with them around the school, and elect one of their own to address the crowd at the larger ceremony.

After that is the main ceremony in the school's garden. It was, for a Hungarian, surprisingly brief clocking in at about an hour. Because the students have not yet passed their big school-leaving exams they do not receive diplomas, which is a great advantage over an American ceremony. After a few congratulatory speeches and the obligatory poetry readings (there must be some law here that no ceremony may have fewer than five of them) we were out.

A couple of my favorite colleagues, English teachers Evelin and Kati, wait for the ceremony to begin.

The senior class that I taught this year walks out of the graduation ceremony and on towards whatever they will do with their futures.