love people. take pictures. write things down.

photos and words by Caroline

Month: September, 2013


Getting into Hungary was surprisingly easy. After the relief of realizing that I could fly into a foreign country on a one-way ticket with no work visa or official documentation besides a letter that I could have easily made on Microsoft Paint stating my affiliation with a scarcely heard of teach-abroad program, my first thought was that I could finally use the present tense. I would never again say, “I am moving to Budapest to teach English.” I live here, finally.

 To be honest, I prepared myself relatively little for the trip. I didn’t research techniques for teaching ESL or devote hours to mastering Hungarian. Between in-flight movies, I memorized some survival phrases and studied some basic history on the plane ride, so that I would be able to say ‘thank you’ to people and not offend anyone by clinking beer glasses when saying ‘cheers!’ (The Habsburgs apparently did a lot of toasting when they hanged thirteen Hungarian generals in 1849.) 

 During orientation week, I joined my fellow teachers-to-be for lessons in cultural differences, lead by an middle-aged, spunky, Hungarian woman named Maria. Perhaps more interesting than her explanations of Hungarian culture were her remarks on American culture. She was particularly excited about American skirt categories: pleated skirts, pencil skirts, A-line skirts, etc., as well as the fact that a grocery store in America would have an entire aisle devoted solely to croutons. She teased us, lovingly, about having the right to pursue happiness, when in Hungary, history has taught one to be ready for anything but to expect the worst. Maria explained, “Americans manage their lives. Hungarians live their lives…until they die.” On our Cultural Differences handout, there was no missing the only sentence written in all capitals: NOTHING IS STABLE. YOU CANNOT PLAN. I took this as an affirmation of my lack of preparation for my new life and have decided to welcome all surprises.

 Something that never crossed my mind before coming here was the fact that the English learners would be taught British English. (Duh, England is thousands of miles closer to Hungary than the United States is.)  In order not to confuse my students, I practice saying ‘lift’ instead of ‘elevator’ and ‘rubber’ instead of eraser. In Budapest, I do not live in an apartment, but a flat.

 Some notes on moving into a flat: “Furnished” doesn’t mean that any of the furniture was purchased in the last fifty years. Also, dryers, non-fitted sheets, window-screens and shower curtains are not included or even seen as necessary. Also, a futon is the same thing as a bed. And, a two-bedroom flat means that there is one bedroom and one living room. Bekah, my flat-mate and fellow Calvin alum, sat across from me as we spent the first four hours in our new home sitting at our kitchen table, while four Hungarian women scurried around us, setting up computers and printers to produce multiple copies of contracts (in Hungarian) for us to sign and taking an inventory of the trinkets left in the apartment that we would not be needing. (No, we do not need 16 painted vases. However, we could use a coffee-maker.) Meanwhile, our landlady’s 19-year-old son, Ivan, asked for our phone numbers so that he could help us out with anything we needed. Last week, we texted him at 2:00 am to ask how to close the blinds. He responded immediately.

 Despite some initial confusion and the obvious need for a trip to Ikea, I am incredibly grateful for the hospitality I have been shown since arriving. Bekah and I have already been adopted into a family of colleagues who have insisted on doing our laundry and taking us grocery shopping. Bea, our assigned contact person who told us to think of her as our Hungarian aunt, recently arrived at our door with a coffee-cake like dessert with whole plumbs baked into it. “To have with your tea,” she said.

 Still, what has surprised me the most is my attitude. Before the big move, I saw my decision to go abroad as some huge leap of faith, a great risk that I was slightly crazy to take. But now that I am here and working alongside my Hungarian colleagues, I am humbled by the hard work and responsibility of routine. Without a native speaking English teacher, Hungarian schools lose their bilingual standing, which explains why I was hired with little teaching experience. I make the same salary as a Hungarian teacher (very little) but I do not have a family to support or taxes to pay. It makes one ponder some bigger questions, mainly about why we are born into certain times and places, and what an example of American privilege it is to be able to spend an “adventure year” abroad. Again, I am reminded of Maria’s remarks on American culture, and living a life that is full of choices. “Why are we here on earth?” she once asked, “…surely not for the croutons.”



Superlative Syndrome


note: originally published on August 7, 2013 at

I am regularly teased for using too many superlative phrases. “This is the best,” I will often proclaim. Another one of my favorites is, “This is all I have ever wanted,” which I have been known to use in a situation as daily and simple as reading a well-worn book with a warm cup of coffee. I realize that I can’t keep telling multiple people, “You are my favorite person!” and I should probably stop referring to certain vacations, or even fun-filled weekend excursions, as “the best trip ever!” A friend once told me that I couldn’t keep telling people that swimming out to the sand bar at the beach was “SO much fun” because then, what will I say when we actually do something that is extraordinary?

But the truth is, it was so much fun, and all of my friends are my favorite in their own way. Sleeping in is my favorite. Waking up early is my favorite. Cooking healthy food is my favorite. Eating mac and cheese for days? Also my favorite.

Can’t we love it all?

I am comforted by the fact that I am not the only one who has been faced with this problem. Kerouac, for one, was puzzled by the fact that he had too many ideas and passions. “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another til I drop,” he writes in On the Road. It is in this book that he also writes, “the only people for me are the mad ones…desirous of everything at the same time. ”

I hate making decisions. Put me in front of a Redbox and I will be there for upwards of twenty minutes.  I prefer to order last when eating at a restaurant, in hopes that the pressure of everyone turning to me, the waiter’s hand outstretched to retrieve my menu, will force me into finally choosing between the vegetable pad thai and the fish tacos.

Do I embrace new adventures joyfully because I can’t make decisions? Because I need a change? Or because there is a good chance that I will love it?

In early July, I spent a week in Alberta, where my best friend and former roommate, Emily, had grown up. Ultimately, I was there to be a bridesmaid in her wedding.

The wedding was at her dairy farm, and everything about the experience was beautifully rustic. Remembering the way Emily had thrown herself into my family’s New York life when she visited my my hometown (despite the “I’m the only blonde person on the subway!” comment), I was excited to experience everything about the dairy farm where my best friend grew up.

So I let baby calves with rough tongues suck on my fingers before I unpacked and followed Emily up a dangerously rickety staircase to a hayloft. I listened eagerly to every detail about how Holsteins are bred and how often the government milk truck comes and when and how the oldest son of the family is going to inherit the farm — all while riding around muddy roads in the John Deere Gator.

I stopped caring about whether or not I was getting dust on my white shorts or cow manure on my shoes. I jumped at the opportunity to drive Emily’s father’s farm truck to pick up more wedding attendees and friends from the airport. After driving around the nearby downtown area with them for a while, to purchase wedding gifts and such, I jokingly commented, “This city driving is exhausting! I need to get back to the farm!” A good friend called me out, “Caroline. You grew up twenty minutes from New York City. Stop pretending to be a farm girl.”

I surprised myself with my genuine love for the country life. I could see the appeal of growing up in a place where you are sometimes awakened by your father getting up at 5:30 am to milk the cows, sometimes spend your afternoons running through fields and around your mother’s vegetable garden, and sometimes spend evenings swinging on big wooden swings that your grandfather built.

I loved the way the wedding party and relatives from afar congregated and camped on the farm, dozens of people arriving days before the wedding to contribute their hands and hearts. During the day, groomsmen climbed trees and hung twinkle lights and constructed the dance floor, while aunts and cousins set tables and folded place-cards. At night someone inevitably built a campfire which was then encircled by everyone from small children to grandparents, us kids in our twenties being the last to linger over the smoking embers. It grew amazingly cold (we could see our breath) and one night the northern lights were just visible enough for the out-of-towners to stand in awe only to hear the locals say, “This is nothing.”

After watching an incredible sunset from the end of Emily’s gravel driveway, I was ready to buy a piece of land, raise a family down the road, and never look back. As I considered my options and prayed a two-word prayer I read once in a book by Annie Dillard (“Last forever!”), the photographer in me came once again to believe that everything and everyone is beautiful in the right lighting. But this–right now–is my favorite.


Cast Iron Love

note: This was originally published on July 7, 2013 at

Talia entered my life exactly when I needed her. Before meeting, we messaged each other a couple of times via Facebook, asking the necessary questions: What kind of kitchen utensils do you have? Where can I get my key to the place? What is our zip code?

 A few weeks ago, people began asking me about the girl with whom I was living for the summer. “Her Facebook profile picture is her canoeing into the sunset,” I would respond, “So I’m assuming she’s pretty cool.”

Really, I all I knew about Talia was that she was moving to Grand Rapids from California to work on an organic farm. For me, moving to our shared home was only a six-mile journey, in an attempt to live as closer to my friends in Eastown before leaving the country in August to spend a year abroad. Since everyone I knew already had a living arrangement, I moved in with a girl I had never met.

Is it really that strange to move in with a stranger? I suppose it’s odd to know someone for twenty-four hours and then find yourself yelling from the bathroom: “IF I’M IN THE SHOWER AND YOU NEED TO GET IN HERE TO BRUSH YOUR TEETH OR SOMETHING DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT JUST WALK ON IN BECAUSE I NEVER CARE.” After the fact, I realized that I don’t know which makes for a better first impression: being the kind of girl who locks off the entire bathroom when she takes showers or the girl who doesn’t wear pants until after she has had her morning coffee. Five years ago, when filling out the necessary housing survey prior to entering college, I checked the box that indicated that I was “very messy” although I am actually fairly neat — thinking that the housing gods would then pair me with someone messy and subsequently more interesting.

Talia and I became friends by sitting on the porch together every evening. Sometimes, we invite people I know over. “Bring out the vices,” Talia will say, and I’ll bring out a bottle of wine and a bag of chocolate chips—cold from being in the refrigerator, a preventative measure against melting in our old house that lacks air-conditioning. Together, we watch our neighbors across the street like a late-night TV show. They have a grill on their roof and use it daily. One night, we listened to the couple next door plan their wedding, laughing silently to ourselves when the bride-to-be repeatedly struck down her husband’s ideas with a playful but forceful, “Honey…just no.” One night we watched in horror as a baby chipmunk fell from a tree branch, only to see him scamper off happily along the sidewalk. In the afternoons, we see young men biking home from work, pausing to put a foot on our curb and a cigarette to their mouth. There are fireflies every evening.

I like Talia because she has a bumper sticker that proclaims, “The Day of Non-Judgement is Near” and she buys all her clothes from a thrift store. I once told her that I still found someone who once broke my heart irresistibly attractive. She told me, “There is nothing wrong with seeing beauty where it is.”

We feel strong because we stay up late and talk about God. We feel spiritual because we go to yoga in the park on Sunday evenings and our tattooed instructor tells us to “come as you are and breathe through it.” We feel dangerous because have a couch on the porch, which happens to be illegal in the city of Grand Rapids. The couch was a Craigslist find. We got it for free and covered it with a bright purple duvet cover. We are unashamed.

This life is simple and beautiful and temporary; we are only summer sub-leasers. The house is furnished with dressers and uneven tables we found in the garage, and late at night we eat forgotten boxes of macaroni and cheese which we found in the cupboard and cover it with Talia’s Mexican with hot sauce. Talia cooks everything in a cast iron skillet, which I love. I love her because she is here and I am here and we are together. To stumble upon such a true, unexpected, companionship is a blessing, especially after what had been a lonely post-grad year in terms of true, female companionship. That is what college does to you. It gives you amazing friends and then scatters them.

Author Leah Stewart writes, “Adult friendship doesn’t grant you an exclusive—isn’t meant to be ranked above romance and family. I couldn’t imagine ever living that moment again when you say with a shy and hopeful pride, ‘You’re my best friend.’ The other person says it back and there you have chosen each other out of everyone else in the world.”

Talia has lead to me to a renewed appreciated of having a truly good friend. I recently overheard someone say, “Caroline and Talia became really fast friends.” How lovely it is to have a fast friend and a summer day. So I spend another evening on an illegal purple couch, opening my whole heart to a girl I met two weeks ago.