Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Certain places, such as Tesco and Cora and others whose income is based on shopping, have been promoting Christmas since the last week of October. I kid you not.

About mid-November, Szolnok city began setting up lights along the streets and in the public trees. Tonight was the first time I’ve seen them on. Combined with the preternaturally creepy fog we’ve had for the past 48 hours straight, they were stunning.

My students have also been getting in the mood of the season. Today especially they were exceptionally nice (to me, at least - to each other they were just as bratty and violent as ever). They worked good-naturedly on their assignments and proudly showed me their finished work. They showed off work from other classes and told me about tests that they’d recently aced. They offered me candy and pogacsa. They complimented my hair and clothes. They complimented my lesson (one that wasn’t a game!). They approached me after class, just to chat in stilted phrases about random things. They offered to lend me books and burn me CDs. They walked me part way home en masse.

Is it possible that they’ll continue to be so good for the whole Christmas season? Or is the other shoe about to drop?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Monday night: a comedy in four acts

Last year, when I was traveling almost every weekend, I began the tradition of spending every Monday night home alone, relaxing. Even with significantly less traveling this year, it’s still nice to be able to anticipate one night a week to myself.

Not that I mind breaking the tradition, when a worthwhile event comes along. What happened this Monday night was that four events came along, one after another. Some planned, some unplanned.

Act One: Drinking in the train station. Supporting actors: Attila, random men coming off work, several bums, but this time none of my students. As the level of beer dwindles in our glasses and I cool off from my mad dash to the station, I add layers of clothing: from t-shirt, to shirt, then sweater, and finally jacket. The scene ends with me running to catch my train and ending up all flushed again.

Act Two: Dinner in Újszász. Supporting actors: John and Donna, plus another teacher from their school, Gabi. Good food (of which I wish I could have eaten more), good drinks (of which I wish I could have tasted more), good company (with which I wish I could have spent more time), and good conversation (of which I wish I could remember more). Ends with me carrying a bag of leftover spaghetti and speed-walking to catch my train back.

Act Three: In my flat. Supporting actors: Petra, and the kitten I’ve apparently just adopted. While she makes use of my internet, I pour litter, food, and water into their respective containers and set the kitten up in my spare bedroom. Scene ends with us abandoning the kitten in my flat and going to find a drink.

Act Four: Drinking at Panorama. Supporting actors: Petra and Zoli, a man I’ve met exactly once in my life, the best friend of my then-(now-ex-)boyfriend. With the intention of speeding up an awkward encounter, Petra drinks a beer faster than she ever has in her life. Ends with me home safe in my own bed, alone... except for being smothered by a mewing, needle-clawed little ball of fuzz.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Explanation for the Assignment

So, one weekend, two nights. Both were good. One was kind of boring and ended bitterly; the other was fun like I haven’t had since high school, and it helped some to restore the loss of balance I’ve been feeling recently.

Speaking of losing things.... I promise, my mind is still firmly attached. The first part of the “assignment” post I wrote late at night (and, ahem, a bit bitter). I decided to leave it up, for no other reason that I find it funny. But I had to add the second part. Um... just because.

Normal posts to follow this week.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Your assignment is as follows...

I’m tipsy and pissed and I’ll probably remove this post later. Or not, we’ll see if it still amuses me as much tomorrow morning as it does right now.

I have an assignment for you. The next time you’re out with a group of people, observe the group dynamic as they speak to each other. Specifically note eye contact as distributed by the person speaking.

The second half of the assignment, a bit more difficult: go out with a group of people where your language is not the one spoken by the majority. Observe the same occurrence, i.e. eye contact. At some point, you will observe the following phenomenon: the majority speakers will cease to include you in their conversation, simply by denying you eye contact. This phenomenon is more noticeable in smaller groups.

You may indulge in the following recourse: disassociate. Drift away in the fantasy of your choosing. So long as you sit with a half-smile smirk on your face, as if you were deeply involved in the insipid conversation happening around but not including you, no one is the wiser. In fact, by the end of the evening they will congratulate and admire you for being the wise, all-knowing but silent type. And you will smile your Mona Lisa smile and pretend that you understand them telling you about how well you understand everything.

I’m telling you, it’s fucking amazing.

Update to the assignment, Sunday: Upon the successful completion of the preceding experiment, you are permitted to move on to Experiment Two. X2 embodies the search for the inverse situation as the one described above.

Proceed as follows: gather a group of people who, like in the first round, are speakers of a language other than your own. Excluding oneself, the group should be made up of no more than one of the same people from the first experiment's group. It is vital that the group dynamic be different from the first round. Because if so, you will observe the in X2 the opposite of X1: that is, the minority speaker will be included in the conversation. The group will interact well and equally, a good time will be had, and the world will be slightly more harmonious.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Leaving school one afternoon, I was cornered by two six-grade girls. Apparently, outside the school fence I become a fair target, because after the standard “Hello-Emily-how-are-you?” “I’m-fine-thanks-and-you” they proceeded to berate me in rapid-fire Hungarian: Why are your lessons so hard? Why don’t we play more games? Is it this cold in Minnesota? Where did you buy your coat? Don’t you think so-and-so is ugly/stupid/silly? Why aren’t your clothes more colorful? Are you wearing socks or tights? Why? Why are your shoes so ugly? Why are you like Mr Bean?

To which I could only look puzzled. I’m like Mr Bean? How?
Because, Emily, you always walk around and look like la-la-la (waving hand in front of face, mindless expression on face.)

Hm. Very astute for a sixth grader. I suppose I could have tried to explain how in a foreign place, where one doesn’t speak the language, it’s just too easy to escape into your own head and ignore the outside world.

Instead I went home and found my trusty copy of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s “Guests of the Sheik” (which should be required reading for anyone living in a foreign culture). In one of my favorite passages, she talks about how it was only after many months of living in El Nahra that she began to have enough linguistic skills to participate in conversations:

Many months later Laila told a visiting Iraqi friend of mine that in the early stages of my residence in El Nahra the women had wondered whether I was deaf and dumb, or just not quite bright, because I smiled but often did not seem to hear what was said to me. Afterward, reported Laila, I had come to life and my company had improved immensely.

Sometimes when I’m walking with a Hungarian friend, I look at them and wonder enviously what it’s like to understand the world around you, and when I’ll be able to. I always took it for granted before.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Imagine this scene from school yesterday: I’m with the 7ab, who despite being made up of 3 girls and 11 boys is still a pretty good class, both in behavior and skills. They’re finishing up their assignment and I’m sitting at a student desk in the middle of the room correcting and marking their work. As they finish, they cluster around me, standing. It’s a bit claustrophobic, but not unpleasantly so.

The bell rings. In some classes, this is the cue to disperse like dandelion fluff in the wind, but this class actually stops talking and looks at me for instruction.

“Okay, if you got a mark, you can go. If you’re finished, leave your notebooks here for me; if you’re not finished then it’s homework. Goodbye.” I hastily continue correcting the notebook in front of me as they pack their things and lay their uncorrected notebooks on the table next to me.

Suddenly a notebook comes down directly in front of me. Not in the way they normally are, slapped down sideways held carelessly by one corner. This boy stood directly behind me, held his notebook open with both hands, and brought it down over my head, his arms around my shoulders. Like a hug from behind.

For a second, half a second, half a split microsecond, it was cozy. Then reality struck, my shoulders hunched in, the boy dropped his notebook on the pile, a couple students snickered, and they all ran away to their next class.

The best part? I don’t know who it was. I had a vivid memory of two skinny arms clad in a dark blue long-sleeve tee - but no face to go with them. Eeeeccchhh. I feel all warm and fuzzy and dirty.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why I don’t speak Hungarian, the simplified version

At least once a week, I have the following conversation (or some variant) with a student:

Student: Emily, beszélsz magyarul? (Do you speak Hungarian?)
Alternatively: Emily, érted? Érted magyarul? Érted amit mondok? (Do you understand? Do you understand Hungarian? Do you understand what I’m saying?)
Me, always: Yes.
Student, always: Akkor miért nem beszélsz magyarul velünk? (So why don’t you speak Hungarian with us?)

I never have a good answer, at least not one that I could explain to them (“Well, children, I do understand about 90% of what you say, because my listening comprehension is about a 5th or 6th grade level. My speaking abilities, however, are closer to 1st or 2nd grade, if not kindergarten. I think it stems from lack of confidence...”)

Last week, one of the students finally answered for me:

Student 1: Emily, érted amit mondok?
Me: Yes, just like last week.
Student 1: Akkor miért nem beszélsz magyarul?
Student 2 (in Hungarian, of course): Because, stupid, she’s not allowed to! She has to speak English because the school pays her to teach English!

Apparently, this explanation spread around the school at the speed of light, because I’ve heard it now several times in the past week. And the incessant questioning of why I don’t speak Hungarian has tapered off. Well, slightly.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Lazy, so lazy...

The new DVD player and microwave seem to have exponentially increased my already innate laziness. If I get any more sloth-like, I... um.... I won’t be able to finish simple sentences. Eh, oh well.

I’ve got a new goal. Although I’m too late to join in the awesomeness of NaBloPoMo, I’m declaring myself an unofficial member. Meaning daily posts for the remainder of November. Um, starting tomorrow. And excluding weekends. Some other terms and conditions may apply.

In the meantime, here’s a list of topics which I’ve been too lazy to write full posts about in the past week:
- I discovered that several of the teachers at my school speak English. And they discovered that I speak (or at least understand) Hungarian. This miracle of modern communication came about from the students getting lectured about drugs, which led to scheduling nightmares, which led to many a frantic conversation about who was teaching which group when and where. Fun!

- I found out that I’m getting a digital camera for Christmas. A nice one, almost as nice as Gaines’, and instead of coming from a grandma who only shows love by buying things, it’s coming from my parents (who love me, in addition to occasionally buying me things).

- In a second camera-related story, I successfully (so far) translated between John and Camera Shop Lady both the purchase of a new lens and the repair of the camera’s switch. My favorite part was when I went into the shop the second time and the lady called into the back room, “Zoli, the lady I told you about is here, the one who speaks Hungarian rendesen (properly), not like the gentleman (i.e. John).” So if I can just find some beginner to preceed me everywhere, my Hungarian will always look spectacular by comparison. Hm...

- In an attempt at culture (ha! it must go along with my new sense of respectability (the comments thread)), I spent consecutive evenings last weekend at an art show in Újszász and a play in Szolnok’s Szigligeti Színház. Both were interesting, and I wouldn’t mind repeat performances of either. Don’t worry, both events were followed by boozing it up in a way no one would call cultured.

I guess it’s always good to end with booze, culture, or some combination thereof. More to come tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What happened on my holiday, part II

About midweek, I lost my ambition of getting cleaned, dressed, and out of the house every day. I managed to rack up the following Accomplishments:

- Monday night, I did make carrot cake. It was awesome. I might make it again this week; I need to start building a layer of fat for winter anyway.

- Tuesday I went up to Budapest for the afternoon, just because I could.

- Wednesday I stayed inside, watched random things on TV, and frequently looked outside and thought how thankful I was to not to be Hungarian and have to go tramp around a cemetery honoring dead relatives in such grim weather.

- Thursday I... did nothing. Well, that’s not completely true, I made coffee cake. And watched the MTV Europe Music Awards, which were no where near as entertaining as last year. Although this year, I was missing Laura, Mariah, jug wine and Varda drinks.

- Friday I’m sure I did something... if I can’t remember, it was either something really good or really bad. I’m not feeling any sort of regret, so it must have been something good.

- Saturday I got up early (not by choice, but rather because someone was poking and singing at me) and went to Budapest. I can’t decide which part of the trip was better: A) running into my students as we were boozing it up in the train station at 10 am; or B) the fact that we went to Budapest and spent the day no more than 500 meters away from the train station.

- And Sunday: since it was the last day of break, I devoted the entire morning and part of the afternoon to some serious lazing around (after all, I won’t get another chance until... next weekend). And in the evening, following a trip to MediaMarkt, I watched DVDs on my new DVD player while eating microwave popcorn fresh from my new microwave (which together, including cables and wiring, cost 18,000 Ft, or about a fifth what I would have spent on a traveling vacation).

All in all, it was in no way the vacation I would have planned. But I wouldn’t have changed anything (except to make it longer, that’s a given).