Saturday, December 21, 2013

These Little Piggies

Previously, I've written with some fondness for the pigs who live on the other side of my bedroom wall.  On Tuesday morning, two of these pork-loined friends became part of a Hungarian tradition: an annual pig slaughter. 
Why we did this on a Tuesday I don't know.  But I stayed home from the Children's House, my host brother didn't go to school, and my host dad had the day off of work.  This was an all day job.
Our work started at 7:30 in the pig pen.  When the animal started screaming, the estranged brother of the host dad from across the street came running to help; foe became friend and it was a full family affair.
I'll spare you most of the details from that point.  I'm expecting a good spike in blog traffic since I'm sure some groups are trolling the internet for phrases like "pig slaughter".  But really, the process was fascinating and every last piece of the pig was used in some way.  Everyone had a job to do which they pursued with haste and precision.
They say that the two things you never want to see made are laws and sausage.  At this point, I'm not sure I have a problem with either.  I'm not sure what that says about me.
For now, I'll let the pictures do the talking about my first Hungarian pig kill.

 After the pig is dead, the first job is to burn off the hair and prepare the skin.



Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thanksgiving Retreat Pictures

Here's a glimpse of our Thanksgiving and pre-Advent retreat in Bratislava.  It was a great 6 days to take a break from Hungarian, enjoy good food and friends, and recharge before coming back home to Gorogszallas.  And let me say, it did feel good to come home!

 Chelsea and Miriam making pumpkin pies with real pumpkin! (and supplemented by precious cans of pumpkin mailed to Slovakia from the US)

Ursula and me (and our matching coats) at the Bratislava Christmas/Advent Market

YAGM Hungary in the main square of Bratislava's Old Town

American Thanksgiving Dinner with fellow ELCA volunteers from Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving message US Passport

Looking through a current U.S. passport you see a lot of pictures of amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, and yes of course some fruited plains.  Most of the quotes that accompany these pictures speak to some combination of manifest destiny, nationalism, and freedom.  One quote, though, speaks to the natural world that the first pilgrims likely encountered and on which they relied to survive and celebrate that first Thanksgiving.  I'm not saying it's the most profound thing I've ever read about Thanksgiving, but I think it's worth sharing since it's the only quote in the passport that is about giving thanks and the only one to include the people who lived in the US before it was the US.
We send thanks to all the animal life in the world.  They have many things to teach us as people.  We are glad they are still here and we hope it will always be so.   Excerpt from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version

Today didn't feel like Thanksgiving until our group of 5 volunteers encountered an American who is studying in Wales and spending this week in Central Europe.  He heard us speaking English as we boarded our train headed for Bratislava, Slovakia, and greeted us with, "Happy Thanksgiving!"  It was a little bit of a gift that none of today's trains had wi-fi which left us with 6 hours of great scenery and conversation.

In Bratislava we were welcomed Miriam, Jeremy, Ursula, and Esme to begin our Thanksgiving weekend.  Last Thanksgiving I never could have guessed that I'd be here in Bratislava celebrating with my new Central Europe family.  And even though things haven't been smooth for all of us all of the time, there is a lot to be thankful for.  Today presented many moments to be thankful, enjoy the ride, remember past feasts with friends and family (of course this includes the annual Augustana Thanksgiving Dinner), and look forward to Thanksgiving to come!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's in a day?

I was planning to share a picture with you this morning of my temporary residence card for the EU that will allow me to stay here until August.  But, the immigration office is closed for some reason.  So a celebratory picture will be up as soon as I have the card in hand.

My YAGM coordinators Miriam and Jeremy, and their family, recently visited me and my host family in Gorogszallas.  It was great to share small pieces of my daily life with them, and to have some time to catch up with them.  You can see some great pictures from their visit on their blog at

Amidst a lot of travel with the church, some sense of a routine has started to take hold.  That feels good.  An English-speaker I met in Piliscaba last weekend asked me, "so what does a day look like for you?"  Good question. (This will fill in with some color what I could just briefly sketch in black and white in my newsletter.)

My day starts with AlJazeera International news at 7:30.  It used to be BBC, then it changed; I'm just glad to have some international news in English.  Then it's time for breakfast and a brisk 5 minute walk to the Children's House.  Dogs aren't really cute, members of the family in Hungary, but rather guard dogs.  All that to say that the dogs in Gorogszallas haven't really warmed to me yet and they all acknowledge my presence on the morning walk.  I adhere to Dr. O'Hara's idea that you should speak to unfamiliar dogs with an affirming voice and refrain from touching them.

some kids come and go, but Levi rarely misses a morning at the Children's House

Children start arriving at the Children's House a little before 9.  By that time we have a fire going in the wood burning stove which is a welcome feeling coming from a cold, damp Hungarian morning.  I definitely feel welcomed there each morning kids who are excited to play and have me be part of that.  Amidst fighting over toys and running noises there's a lot of good that comes from playing and watching them play.  With Advent and St. Nicholas Day just around the corner (December 6), the children and parents and I have been making stockings and other decorations for the Children's House and their homes.

visiting a high school English class in Nyiregyhaza - we spent most of the hour hour and half talking about what they want to do with their futures - they were a very bright group with fascinating interests and plans

By noon, we're cleaning up from 3 hours of intense play and I head home for lunch with my host family.  Mondays and Tuesday I eat quickly and get on a bus headed for Nyirtelek where I help in the schools.  Wednesday-Friday I have the afternoons to myself.  Having this much down-time is weird, especially since I don't have internet.  But it's also been incredibly good.  I can spend time around the house with the host family, study Hungarian, read, roam the village.  There's always interesting work to check out and help with at the greenhouse.  Incidentally, they just finished their heating house which will make it possible to continue their garden work throughout the winter.  This type of tangible progress and literal growth (of seeds and the new building) give an incredible sense of pride to the people there, and rightly so.

Late afternoon I head to the church and community building where I spend time with teenagers as we play foosball and do homework, and with adults who stop in while they're waiting for the school bus to bring their kids to the village or who come to practice the songs for Sunday and have bible study.  I feel lucky that in the course of a day I can interact with such a large span of ages in the village.

I get home around 7 or 8 to have dinner and relax for the night.  There's a reality TV show kind of like the Real World that takes place in Budapest.  The family and I watch this most nights.  Even though the show unfolds very quickly in Hungarian, the drama is pretty transparent and amusing.  I also get compared to one of the show's characters--Lali--for my curly hair.  I promise people that the similarities end with curly hair.

That's a day.  Each day is a little different, and my Hungarian ability is also a little different depending on the day.  

In a few days, I'm on the road again to meet up with the other four YAGM volunteers as we spend Thanksgiving together with Miriam, Jeremy, Ursula, and Esme in Bratislava, Slovakia.  

YAGM Mari (middle), her supervisor Erzebet (right), at the home of Erzebet's mother (left) for lunch.  This elderly women grows lemons in her sun porch, makes her own palinka, grows enough grapes to produce 100 liters of wine, tends to several dozen fruit trees in her yard, grows a huge quantity of vegetables, and raises the 20 or so chickens who roam the yard.  What a great afternoon!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thanksgiving in Gorogszallas

On Friday we celebrated a special kind of Thanksgiving in Gorogszallas.  The European Union in partnership with a Catholic volunteer network delivered 5 tons of food to the village.  The church I work with created packages for each family and distributed them after a Thanksgiving church service.  

This struck me as an interesting and powerful moment because of how I'm used to celebrating Thanksgiving.  Typically, we celebrate by preparing more food than we can possibly eat and give thanks for the abundance in front of us.  There's probably more to say about this, but I'll let it sit for now and think about it until I celebrate American Thanksgiving with my colleagues in a few weeks.

On an unrelated note, snow is in the forecast here and I couldn't more be excited!  I don't think the volunteers from Arizona and Louisiana are as excited...

A few days in Ukraine

 with my host dad, Sandor, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains

I just returned from three days in the Carpathian region of southwestern Ukraine.  A story relayed to me by a Canadian-born Hungarian missionary tells the story of the region well:
An elderly man who lives in the southwest corner of present-day Ukraine recalled the many places he's live in his lifetime: the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kingdom of Hungary, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine.  When someone said to him, "You've moved around quite a bit!" he replied, "No, I never left home."  By this he meant that the same area has been under the control of half a dozen sovereign governments in the last century.  As I've said before, the layers of nationalism and identity in this area are thick and fascinating. 

Our group of 13 included Pastor Misi and his wife, some women from the Nyirtelek church, four of us who live in Gorogszallas, and a Lutheran pastor who lives in Nyiregyhaza.  The objective of the trip was to worship with and learn about Roma outreach activities in the Carpathian region.
one of the impressive greenhouses

We stayed in the town of Nagydobrony at an orphanage operated by the Reformed church, whose historic presence in Ukraine remains strong.  The orphanage is home to 45 girls, many of whom have some physical disability.  In addition to being a place to live and learn, the facility also provides various vocational opportunities for people in Nagydobrony.  On-site they have 10 greenhouses, a bakery, the guesthouses where we stayed, a mechanic shop, and a farm that raises pigs and cows.  

our tour bus/tank

The leader of the institution, Lotsi-bacsi, took us around the region on Tuesday to give us a sense of how people live in Carpathia.  In the 13th century, the Hungarian King Bela IV had a fortress built ever 40 kilometers to defend against invasions from the east.  We explored several of these, some of which lie in ruins while others are preserved and display various pieces of local history which reflect the Hungarian identity still held by many Carpathian people.

an abandoned fort built by Bela IV of Hungary in the 13th Century

The vast majority of people in Carpathia speak Hungarian and go so far as to observe the Hungarian time zone instead of that of Ukraine.  Before the 1940s, 44% of people in the region identified as Jewish; roughly 65% were ethnic Hungarian or German.  The Soviets sent the Jews to work camps and death camps; many of the Hungarians were sent to Siberia and never returned.  Some were forced to work in the immediate area and eventually killed and buried in mass graves. As an outsider, it's impossible to even imagine these atrocities and their lasting effect on the region and its people.  
a memorial for the Hungarians who disappeared under Soviet rule

Wednesday morning we visited a Roma camp on the outskirts of town.  We delivered toys to all of the children in the Children's House after we sang some songs and listened to Misi speak.  The joy in the room was overwhelming when the stuffed animals appeared.  It was a scene I won't soon forget.

The few days away from Gorogszallas provided new material for how I think about the expanse of Hungarian nationalism and the conditions of Roma people in central Europe. For today, it feels good just to be back in Gorogszallas, get back into the routine, and get back to learning Hungarian!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

WSJ's Emerging Europe Blog

Central and Eastern European countries are places of unexplored mystique for many Americans who would rather travel to more iconic European countries.  Germany and France dominate international headlines for their political strength in the EU; the UK continues to be a very visible American partner and hub for international business.  Until a few months ago, I counted myself among the many who just don't know much or follow what's happening in Central and Eastern Europe.  One of the reasons I was interested in the YAGM program in Hungary was what I suspected to be its interesting location on the fringe of stronger European countries and its fascinating history.  

I recently stumbled upon the Wall Street Journal's Emerging Europe blog which provides in-depth and up to date context for what's happening in these emerging countries.  Even if you're not interested, it's worth scrolling through the page to glance at the headlines to note social issues, politics, business, and other things American cable news never mentions.

On this subject, I'll be in Ukraine for the next three days visiting several Roma camps as well as an orphanage and recovery house for people with addictions.  There will be more to come on all of that.  

As always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Newsletter Time

I just sent out my first newsletter for the year in which I talk about where I am, what I'm doing, what I'm thinking, and my first experience at a public bath house.  Shoot me an email if you'd like me to send you the PDF!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Facetime at 94!

Today I got to facetime with my Grandma and wish her a happy 94th birthday!  Life is pretty good to her at 94, and good to life and everyone around her.  Cheers to another trip around the sun!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Meet Misi (pronounced Me-she)

Every journey has characters, and this is an important one.  Meet Misi.  Of course, this is only a nickname, which every good Hungarian has.  Györfi Mihály (surname, then given name) is the pastor of the Filidelfia Lutheran Church in Nyirtelek, and is also my site supervisor for the year.  Most people attach the suffix "bacsi" to his name which is a sign of respect.
breakfast before church with Misi and his grandson

His mind is a steal trap and he can recall stories from his own past for any given scenario.  One of these stories is of a young Misi and his sister and parents biking 12km each way to the thermal bath near their house every Sunday afternoon.  Bath houses are still extremely popular in Hungary and are a regular part of many people's exercise routine.  So for a few hours last Sunday our crew went to a large bath house with hot mineral water and Misi told stories about life under Communism.  I also heard great stories about how a nice girl helped him tie his shoe when he was in kindergarten, and he married her 18 years later.  

Misi's daughter, Judit, tells me that after 25 years of knowing him she's still astounded by the new stories she hears.  I'm trying to get the most out of one year of his stories, and maybe make some new stories along the way.

the stearn look is just a fascade - Misi guiding us through the streets of Piran, Slovenia


A week ago Friday I left my YAGM colleagues and joined a group from the Nyirtelek church on their roadtrip to Slovenia.  The purpose of the trip was to perform a short drama in the church were Misi's daughter, Judit, works.  We also did some sightseeing along the way, and ate extremely good food i.e. reindeer.  
approaching the Adriatic Sea

part of the crew at the boardwalk in Piran, Slovenia

Misi and Judit trying to make a Coke ad

Lake Bled, Slovenia

the island in the middle of Lake Bled

Sitting around the kitchen table

One of the things we take for granted in our mother tongue is the power of good conversation.  Almost two weeks ago, our group of 5 gathered in Budapest to listen and share stories.  We also spent time with people who work closely with Roma issues in a variety of capacities in Hungary and around Europe.

Our first stop in Budapest was the home and office of Tamas Fabiny, Bishop of the Northeast Diocese for the Hungarian Lutheran Church.  His work also focuses on the social outreach programs of the church and its international and ecumenical relations.  Needless to say, he's a busy guy.  So when most of our afternoon with him was devoted to him listening to our individual backgrounds and stories and reflections on our work and host families we were all pleasantly surprised.   

I've written previously about the many ways that identity issues manifest themselves in present day Central Europe.  Similarly, churches in Hungary are still dealing with what Fabiny calls the church's "forty years of wandering" under Communism.  He shared how the Lutheran church, and others, were actually allowed to continue their outreach ministries to the disabled and elderly offering assistance and care where Communism did not.

 Meredith, Thad, Bishop Fabiny, Chelsea, Mari, Ole, Miriam

After our meeting with the Bishop we spent some much needed time catching with each other and our supervisors, Miriam and Jeremy, and playing with their kids.  The natural gathering place for our group of American and Canadian Lutherans (and a Methodist, and a Baptist) who live in Slovakia and Hungary was at a Mexican restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.  From the moment we all met that afternoon we started exchanging stories of our placement sites and our host families and all of the complexities of entering a new place in a new language.  At times it seems like we're living in entirely different countries, but having five different perspectives on the same place and the same church proved extremely useful when it came to addressing Roma conditions in Hungary.

Jeremy and Esme and a glimpse of fall in Budapest

On Wednesday and Thursday we met at the home of Dick and Carolyn Otterness.  Dick and Carolyn have lived in Budapest for 7 years where Dick carries out his call through the Reformed Church as a pastor and missionary, and Carolyn, a retired nurse, works alongside her husband on Roma dialogue.  

They told us that part of their ministry is hospitality, which for us meant getting to have American bacon, and drip coffee, and oatmeal, and all sorts of other food that tastes like home.  But their hospitality also meant having a kitchen table where we could sit for hours and speak among friends about challenges we face in our sites.  It was humbling to consider what a luxury and freedom and was to even to be able to leave our communities for a few days and sit and talk about issues that have no clear resolution, but are still worthy of discussion.  

 a rainy walk through Varosliget (City Park), Budapest

While this was more of a narrative of what happened, maybe later there will be some reflection about Roma stereotypes and their relationship with other ethnic groups.  I'll also have more to say soon about all of the negative press Roma have been getting lately with stories in France, Greece, and Ireland creating a snowball effect of Roma people in the international spotlight. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Stuck in Traffic

Here's a picture of my bike ride from Nyirtelek to Gorogszallas.  It takes about 30 minutes and has great scenery along the way.  Last Friday, however, the scenery was a little different than usual.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nobel Week!

For a few moments each day this week, the world will turn its attention to Scandinavian for the announcements of the 2013 Nobel Awards.  The Swedes have already announced the award for medicine, with literature, economics, physics, and chemistry remaining. 

I'm sure each of these awards attract fair attention and disagreement in their respective fields.  But the Peace Prize, announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, typically receives the most scrutiny across the globe.  Jay Nordlinger writes a powerful book, Peace, They Say, which is both a study of the subjective nature of the prize, and a chronicle of every Peace Prize given and some of the politics and other contenders surrounding each decision.  

The will of Alfred Nobel gives pretty narrow parameters for who should receive the prize.  These have arguably been broadened with some of the more recent prizes.  

I've read that Vladmir Putin has been nominated this year.  Maybe it will be another celebrity victory.  Maybe it will be an entirely new name and face who is recognized for their impact in a neglected part of the world.  

This is worth paying attention to because it highlights different types of conflicts and different types of real action that can be taken.  Hopefully it inspires more people to act.  

Getting Settled

Life here in the village of Gorogszallas has not been especially easy, but I can say that things are starting to feel more "normal."  Here's a very scattered update on a variety of topics:
  • I have a bike!  Hungarians bike everywhere and I'm trying to fit in.  A bike is especially liberating in a village that has infrequent bus service and very few people with cars to offer you a ride.  The short cut road between Gorogszallas and Nyirtelek is a dirt path that has finally shown me some of the birch trees I wrote about earlier, as well as other great views of nearby villages, corn fields, and small wooded areas.  (Incidentally, I think the common use of bicycles here is an interesting commentary on the pace of life here and also on their consumer culture.  But that is for another post.) 
  • My work at the Children's House each morning has been a challenge for someone who doesn't do well with unconstructed time.  But I'm beginning to get to know the kids better and am trying to acquire the right Hungarian vocabulary for that context: "play nicely" "share the toy" "wash your hands" "throw the ball!"  
My new friend, working and playing hard
  • A few times a week I get to come to the nearby town of Nyirtelek where I help with English classes in the high school.  It's a nice arrangement where I get to be the good cop and work on their English conversation, and the teacher sits in the room and gets to do most of the classroom management.  She tells me that the students are better when I'm there.  I'm not quite sure what that means for when I'm not there.
  • On the backside of one of my bedroom walls is where my family's pigs live.  Yesterday, I went with my host dad and brother to load and exchange 6 of their smaller pigs for one large pig.  Most of the night I could hear it on the other side of the wall.  I couldn't help but think about it's first night there and how I felt similarly out of place and uncomfortable on my first night.  But then life got better, and life is taking on a new routine.  I'm quite sure that life will not turn out quite as well for the pig and that's probably as far as I should the metaphor, but we shared a common bond of newness for a short time last night.  
  • I traveled with the Nyirtelek church to a small conference of Lutheran churches in the village of Lucfalva.  The speakers were all very good, and a Hungarian women was fluent English was kind enough to translate for me.  She spent some of her growing up years in Sweden and we had a long talk over lunch about Swedish society.  For those who don't know, this was the subject of my honors thesis this spring and was happy to get some first person perspective on the modern welfare state.
A glimpse of the lush village of Lucfalva
  • This last Friday and Saturday the Gorogszallas and Nyirtelek church sent three vans to a weekend retreat of competitions/games between different churches - soccer, ping pong, foosball, chess.  My foray back into the worlds of soccer and chess came with limited success, but not as much embarassment as I anticipated.  The main speaker was an member of the Hungarian Paralympic Swim Team in 2012.  She had qualified for the Olympic games in London, but was passed over by the Hungarian Olympic Committee when it came to final selections of athletes.  Her new dream is to go to America.  She has a friend in LA and told me that she hopes to go next summer.  On behalf of the whole country, I told her I hope she does.  

The Gorogszallas crew 

 My host dad (center) and host brother (left) in the team huddle

 Borno (center) and other Gorogszallas fans.  My supervisor, Mishi, is on the far right.

Meeting Bishop Ough

Yes, here I am after what has been a two week hiatus from writing.  A lot has happened in those two weeks, including feeling somewhat settled in this new place. 

Good morning, Budapest!

I took a day trip a week ago and traveled to Budapest where I met my United Methodist Bishop, Bruce Ough.  He was attending a Council of Bishop's meeting at St. Stephen's University just outside of the city and I was glad to meet with him and learn more about the work of the Methodist Church in the area.  One of the things that I mentioned to him was that people here always say, "yes, [Thad]'s working with our church but he grew up in the  Methodist church."  I always add that I went to a Lutheran college to show my ecumenical stripes I suppose.  But I have to say that I don't consider myself to be well versed in the theological differences between the two, so I therefore don't feel the need to make Methodist or Lutheran important in my identity, especially when I introduce myself.  In any case, Bishop Ough made the very good point that identity is very precious thing in this part of Europe.  Today's adult generation in Hungary still remembers when identities were suppressed under communism, giving identity an even greater value today, whether that is expressed by language, religion, nationality, or citizenship.  

We also talked about the language of "conversion" that is used quite a bit in the Lutheran Church of Hungary, or at least in the area I live.  This past weekend, I met a Lutheran pastor who studied for a year in America; his plain spoken comments on this culture of conversion are very insightful.  In America, he says, Christianity is a very natural thing.  Here, people look at you and wonder why you think the way you do and why you do things like go to church.  His comment may not be representative of all of Hungary, but it makes a good point.  The work of the church is not a natural part of communities in many parts of the world.  

Bishop Ough was able to meet with a Gypsy congregation in Budapest and see how the church is making a difference in their lives.  In a country of small villages and few skyscrapers, churches are usually the tallest buildings on the horizon.  Some are old and neglected, others are old but alive and flourishing.  There are exciting things happening in churches across Hungary and I'm glad to have a few glimpses at this work so far.

St. Stephen's University in Godollo, outside of Budapest

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thad becomes Ted

A little over a year ago, I was driving a group of Augie international students to the movie theater and said that one of their options was a movie called Ted.  Seemab Hassan, a student from Pakistan, said, "It is a movie about you! Ted!"  

As usual, the "th" sound in English is tricky in other languages.  So once again, I am Ted.

Nations, States, and Borders

A Reformed Pastor living in Budapest, Dick Otterness, shared this video on facebook and I thought it worth sharing on here as well.  I like what this map is able to show for several reasons:
  •  Hungary, and really all of central Europe, are situated as they should be, in the center.  Too often we think of Hungary and other central European neighbors as being situated much further east.  There's good reason for this, part of which stems from lumping these countries and their politics into the Eastern Bloc countries and thus adopting a strictly west/east mindset.  We also like to separate more developed, powerful western European countries from the rest in our minds.  
  • Despite fewer "colors," or nations of people as they are, that exist on today's map of Europe, many of these national identities are alive and well among inhabitants of each colored area today.  
  • Building on the last point, this shows how many histories, economic systems, ethnic groups, and historic feuds have been put together in the European Union.  With 28 member states, their motto is, "United in diversity."  One big happy family, right?
  • Speaking more specifically to Hungary, the boundaries of the Hungarian empire show very few changes for most of the last millenium.  And then suddenly the sovereign borders shrink during WWI.  Know that Hungarian people and Hungarian nationalism continue to exist outside of the borders of the state which contributes to this feeling that they are still a mighty kingdom, just living in a smaller space.  Hungarians are very aware of their powerful history in Central Europe and how that changed in the early 19th century.  
  • Last, I like that the map shows constant changes in borders.  It's hard to imagine the conversation in the U.S. when we acquired Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.  Where will our borders change next?  How will borders in Europe change?  There's always talk in Scotland and in Catalonia of separatist movements, to name just two.
Food for thought.  

What's in a name

The nearby city of Nyíregyháza, and the even closer town of Nyírtelek, both share the same prefix Nyír.  After looking at at map of the area, several other villages share this word in their name as well. 
Uncle Tim asked what this means, so here's the answer: birch tree.

I have yet to see thick birch groves, but apparently it's an historic part of the area.

So while I have a hard time remembering my days of the week and different words for foods, I am making progress on Hungary's vegetation.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A few words on books

Both as a way of taking some time to decompress, and to read some things in English, I'm working through three different books, all of which offer something of relevance to this experience and beyond.  

Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.  The book is both a first hand account of the author's travels amongst various groups of Roma, as well as a thoroughly researched report on modern gypsies, their past, and their lives in a post-Communist Europe.  Fonseca's writing is complex and enjoyable.  Her own observations from years of research and listening and questioning are helping to affirm some of the things I'm discovering in my new home.  150 pages in, I can safely say that I can relate to 80% of what she writes about.
A note on the word gypsy: A had previously understood the word "gypsy" to be a derogatory term for this complex ethnic group.  As Fonseca and I have both discovered, the two terms are used interchangeably among many Roma and non-Roma.  Some prefer one term over the other.  I have not yet encountered anyone who is offended by one term or the other, but that day will probably come.

Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria.  Considering my roots in South Dakota, I'm not sure that I could be reading a better book alongside Fonseca's account of modern gypsies.  Deloria's account of a young Sioux Indian women gives a similar account of an ethnic group that has faced harsh persecution and injustice in every sense.  I didn't know that this book existed until a few months ago when my boss recommended it as a book that significantly influenced her thinking when she was in college and led her to pursue improved assistance and access for Indian people in South Dakota.  

And Grace Will Lead Me Home by Rev. Dr. Paul Rohde 
Paul first gave me an unpublished copy of this book when I went to Norway a few summers ago.  Norway was (and is) a plush oasis compared to eastern Hungary, and I didn't fully appreciate the meaning of the book in 2011.  But now, after turning to the book for some inspiration and some guidance on journaling this experience, I can say that I have felt the full range of emotions and reactions that Paul anticipates most pilgrims will encounter.  Thanks, Paul.

Also, a shout out to Jake Bury for sharing with me his top 5 articles of the summer, which I might have more to say about on here later. 

"Wherever you are, be there"

In some ways it seems strange that it’s already September 21st.  Ever since August 1st, when I was done working in Sioux Falls, I’ve been on the move.  Settling permanently into a new place takes some time, and some growing pains.  I haven’t done that since...well, since I started at Augie 4 years ago.  And for as much discomfort that that transition brought, I’d say things turned out alright.  In addition to hearing from family members, nothing makes the day better than hearing from friends back at Augie and at home. 

In another way, it seems hard to believe I've only been in my new home for less than two full weeks. Each day has brought new people to meet, new places to go, and new challenges.  
As Pastor Paul relays in his book "And Grace Will Lead Me Home", Augustana Professor Richard Swanson says, "Plan carefully, and plan for your plans to change."  I had previously thought I'd be living in the small town of Nyirtelek and working each day in the predominantly Roma village of Gorogszallas.  As it turns out, I'm living in Gorogszallas with a Roma host family who has been extremely welcoming.  They have a modest home and have graciously given up their living room and made it my room.  On the back side of the living wall is a small fenced-in area with a few pigs, sheep, chickens, and ducks.  I felt pretty out of my element at first, but I'm beginning to feel more at home.  My host Mom, Agi, is a great cook and seems to be constantly preparing for the next meal.  The father, Sandor "Sani", drives the transit van for the church in Nyirtelek.  Their son, Sandor "Little Sani", is 19 and has been similarly welcoming - and he's eager to practice his English!
Language: Other than a handful of school children who have had minimal English in the Hungarian schools, no one in my village of Gorogszallas speaks any English.  This complicates simple things like arranging transportation or setting a meeting time, and more complex things like trying to establish a relationship with my host family and their neighbors.  My Hungarian is coming alongslowly but surely.  Each complete sentence that is both spoken and understood is small victory!
Ruth Grinager, a family friend, tells her classes "wherever you are, be there."  For the last two weeks I've been focusing on being present in the village and trying to get a feel for the "new normal."  I continue to find new ways to engage with the people around me.  As it turns out, everyone wants to know English and so far I've been able to teach one beginner lesson in Gorogszallas, as well as help a few students with their English homework.  That looks to expand in the next few weeks with more opportunities in Nyirtelek.  My work at the Children's House in the morning has been a bit slow, but still a good change of pace.  
My access to internet in the village is not quite what I'm used to at home, which is also somewhat refreshing.  This makes staying in touch somewhat difficult.  As this is a blog and open to all, it does come with a filter.  If you have questions about anything in particular--perhaps something I could blog about later--drop me an email:
Take care, and thanks for reading!    

Our last night in Balaton before heading to Gorogszallas

Monday, September 2, 2013

A few words on Seamus Heaney, and other news

Late last week, a Nobel laureate and artist of words Seamus Heaney passed away.  I vividly remember reading and writing about his work in Dr. Looney's class, particularly his poem "Digging".  More on Heaney, and "Digging" here.  

Heaney once remarked, "I always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written." These words resonated with me again on Friday and over the weekend as I thought about how I'm sharing my experience through written words.  There's a lot to be said and shared right now, and I haven't done a very good job yet.  But gradually I'll write what I can--descriptions, reflections, other musings.

So here's a very brief update of several notable things thus far:

Hungarian Lessons:
Vagyok Thad.  Beszelek Angolul es egy kis Magyarol.  or My name is Thad.  I speak English and a little Hungarian.

 Late at night, studying Magyarol

Learning a new language with 3 hours of instruction each day is challenging but fun.  It makes me realize how much I miss being in school, but also how much I don't miss homework.  Ironically, all of my high school español is coming back to me now and confusing the whole process.  Hungarian is easy when it comes to tenses; there is a simple way to express past, a simple form for future.  Other forms of grammar are delivered through suffixes to the original word instead of many separate words.  With 4 days to go, we should have the tools to help us continue building vocabulary and listening for more complex forms of speech.


Bratislava skyline - St. Martin's on the left

Hungary is actually our third country so far.  We landed in Vienna, hiked along the Danube in Hainburg, Austria, and continued to Bratislava where we spent four days with our coordinators, Miriam and Jeremy, and their family.  Miriam is the pastor at the Bratislava International Church which we attended on Sunday morning.  The congregation looks different every Sunday.  Some expats from around the world attend to hear a service in English; some travelers seek out the church on their way through Bratislava.  The eclectic mix of people and stories made for a great fellowship hour at a cafe next to the the church.  

Bratislava is one of Europe's smallest capital cities with just half a million people.  We stayed within a small pocket of the city--albeit the most beautiful and historic pocket of the city.  For centuries, Bratislava was an important city for Central European politics.  11 Austrian and Hungarian rulers (for a time joined as the Austro-Hungarian Empire) were coronated at St. Martin's Cathedral in the heart of Bratislava's Old City.  Across the Danube, we could see well over a dozen communist-era apartment blocks which have since been painted to conceal their dreary gray color and gloomy history.

In Bratislava, we met up with about 20 English teachers who are now scattered across Central Europe and also work through the Lutheran church.  Several of the teachers living in Bratislava share an apartment with an incredible view!

 Sharing a meal with Lutheran English teachers from one of the best rooftops in Bratislava

Lake Balaton:
During our language training, we're staying at a Lutheran conference center on the north shore of Lake Balaton.  The lake is 147 miles in circumference, and is the largest fresh water lake in Central Europe.  It also happens to be a beautiful place to spend two weeks before we head off to our work sites.

View of Révfülöp, a small village on Lake Balaton

Day trip to Balatonfüred