“For the first time in my life, I understand that I understand nothing. For the first time in my life, I realize that everything I thought was right is most likely not right. For the first time in my life, I don’t know.”
–Amy Gigi Alexander, “An Innocent Abroad”
The baggage that comes with being a Hungarian on a Hungarian heritage trip who doesn’t speak Hungarian is heavy, albeit primarily self-inflicted. It’s not entirely my fault though, Hungarian is a very challenging language and the resources are not as abundant as they are for languages like Spanish or French. All of my attempts to teach myself have been moderately futile too, partially because it’s unrelated to the languages I do know, but mostly because I lack an attention span entirely. Though I know how to ask for a handful of necessities, once I get a response in Hungarian, I’m totally stuck, rendering all of my Hungarian useless. To be honest, it’s left me feeling like a total ass hole not being able to communicate in my mother (father) tongue.
If you could refer to the above illustration (click to enlarge), you’ll note that Hungarian is way off to the side and is hardly related to any language thus explaining in part why it’s so difficult to learn. Years ago my father commented that while Hungarian is hard at least it’s phonetic, so I set into my lessons with that in mind thinking I had a leg up on my studies. My father was right but he was also wrong (don’t tell him) because Hungarian is only phonetic once you teach yourself that the alphabet you grew up on has been a lie. Dzs= J, J=Y, Y in combination with a consonant= something like the Spanish ñ or LL sound and don’t even ask what happens when combined with G, Sz=S, S=Sh, Zs= the Z in azure, and this list doesn’t even include the vowels and their varying degrees of umlaut sizes.
Now with that in mind, can you figure out what these English words with Hungarian spellings are? Did your brain melt? Good. Now you know what my last few weeks have been like. My only saving grace in all of this is that I’ve been told on numerous occasions that I have great pronunciation. *drops mic*
Week two started with yet another early morning, humid and scorching as always. This day though, we had the opportunity to speak with the deputy prime minister about Hungarian current events. It was interesting getting to hear from someone in office and compare it to what I’d been reading or hearing in the past week. Hungarian news doesn’t appear to be all that prevalent, or maybe I don’t read enough, but being in the country revealed a variety of issues that otherwise would have remained unknown, including issues of immigration that sound all too familiar in the U.S. Every country has their issues so I’m glad this was presented to us as part of the program so we could make informed decisions and opinions about Hungary.
The meeting was followed by a tour of the parliament building, which is a must see if you’re in Budapest. Not only is the architecture intricate and stunning, but it holds a lot of history as well. During WWII, they took out all of the stained glass and stored it so it would survive the bombings and in the very center of this symmetrical building, is the crown of Szent István, Hungary’s first king, another item of folklore. If you’re planning a trip though, book ahead as you can’t just walk in on the day of.
Our meeting was followed by another educational meeting at the Design Center, but only after we were fed three courses that very well could have been for three people each. I’m not complaining because it was delicious, but holy cow I have never eaten so much in my life. I’m going to have to be rolled home at this point but I really can’t help it because it’s all so good.
The Design Center is basically an incubator for various entrepreneurs, whether they’re fashion designers, industrial designers, web designers, they have it all. Several of their previous designers came in to give speeches about what they do and it was great to see firsthand how Budapest design is flourishing. Hungary, like many countries, is experiencing the mass migration of its youth looking for better opportunities abroad. Admittedly, this part is a bit of propaganda, but as far as I can tell I also think it makes sense to have a program like this. Budapest has every right to flourish–it’s a stunning city filled with a millennium of history and a ton of untapped potential so I liked that there’s a center trying to foster the creative future of Hungary. I got the chance to talk with one of the employees over lunch too and she had a lot of positive things to say about what she does.
Our final event of the night was a folk dancing class, which I had been dreading all week on account of my serious lack of coordination. Down in the dimly lit basement of an old pub, we watched our two instructors demonstrate some traditional folk dances, a performance that did nothing to assuage my fears. Fortunately for us, they didn’t teach us anything overly complicated probably because they smelled the fear in us. However, between the live music, the dancing, and the company, this ended up being one of the best nights. Looking back, folk dancing is actually quite fascinating. Because there was no Facebook, no video games, nothing of the sort, this was a form of entertainment and is a deep seated part of any culture. While I don’t think I have a future in Hungarian folk dancing, I definitely gained a greater appreciation for that part of my heritage especially with the music.
Tuesday started with a tour of the Terror Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of the eastern bloc, situated in the former headquarters of the secret police. The aesthetics of it are well planned out, which add to the experience so it’s well worth visiting albeit the heavy subject matter. I found this particular exhibit to be important to the program because it seemed like a lot of participants were the progeny of families that escaped during the ’56 revolution. Most people’s families left during WWII or the revolution so we all grew up hearing odds and ends about ’56, but this museum gave us more insight into what was happening behind the iron curtain. While this trip has been a lot of fun, like any other country with a millennium of history, the story isn’t always good. I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of what happened because the past informs your future and also helps so history doesn’t repeat itself, the ever important goal of humanity.
From there we shuttled outside of Budapest to a biofarm in Zsambok. As important as cuisine is to Hungary, it was great to see a working farm that provides a variety of types of produce while also actively being eco friendly. We got the story of the farm and what they do there, then were given a walking tour of all of their facilities. We also got a chance to explore the sprawling fields on our own. Both farm and the town are so picturesque and quaint. It was lovely being outside of the city for once. We got to pick and eat carrots straight out of the ground, something virtually unheard of for a city girl like me, and then made us a veggie goulash with ingredients from the farm.
Though today was another business day, it was my favorite business day of the whole trip. After caffeine/carbo-loading, we got to sit in on a panel from various Hungarian intellectuals and professionals about the current state of Hungary and what they feel is in Hungary’s future. I know this sounds super nerdy, but this was one of my favorite activities and I think only because I’m in the older half of the group so I have context and have developed opinions on the treatment of minorities, education, and general human welfare. The panelists were from a variety of backgrounds too: an ex-pat American who’d been here for decades, a man of Roma descent who dedicates his life to Roma studies and aiding the community, an economist, someone in higher education. Hungary tends to stay out of the American news limelight, so I knew very little about their current state of affairs. It was extremely enlightening getting to hear such a diverse set of opinions from people all respected in their fields.
We didn’t have a lot of time for questions, but the panel did join us for lunch afterwards and we were able to sit with them to further our discussions. I c̶o̶r̶n̶e̶r̶e̶d̶ sat next to the woman from the education department and discussed their higher education system vs ours. As I stated in a previous post, I think an education is one of the most important things a person can have and also something everyone should have access too. The current system in the U.S. is falling apart especially because more often than not it puts you in a lifetime of debt by the time you’re done. Because of all that it’s been at the forefront of a lot of my political decisions. Hungary faces its own problems in trying to provide education but also to provide job opportunities so its citizens will stay. Their higher education used to be free, but they recently implemented a law where you can get your education for free but work for Hungary to pay it back or pay the fees. Of course this didn’t go over so well since it used to just be free, but for us Americans it sounds like the greatest deal ever. It was fascinating hearing such an alien approach to higher education since ours is a bit of a mess right now.
Every country faces its own problems and while a lot of it seems specific, the general pictures are the same. It was interesting that halfway around the world, I was hearing about issues that plague the U.S. as well but just in a different form. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but I think there’s quite a bit to be learned if you look beyond your borders, outside the box if you will, to seek your solutions.
With another delicious meal under our ever tightening belts, we were released to the city for some free time before dinner. My friend and I headed straight for the national museum for some desperately needed air conditioning and valuable information. Admittedly, after a while the museums, churches, and palaces all start to bleed into one another, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it because each one is as grand and breathtaking in their own way. I love seeing artifacts and imagining them being used several hundred years ago. My favorite thing to see is the clothing because it’s the easiest way to imagine the person who once inhabited those clothes and the time period. The national museum has all of that displayed under magnificent architecture.
Our final event for the day was a dinner with current ex-pats living in Hungary, accompanied with great wine made by one of the ex-pats. This was the first time I got to see some of my family too, as one of my cousins who grew up near me moved to Budapest. Though I’m not ready to sign a lease on a place in Budapest just yet, I could definitely see myself living overseas again so it was reassuring hearing the stories of various ex-pats. It was also a lovely way to say goodbye to group 1.