croutons

by carolinenoelle

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.”

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