Thursday, July 10, 2014

Murphy's Law

I left the house for 24 hours and decided to leave the rain jacket home. Since leaving home, the chance for rain in all areas of Hungary has gone from 10% to 70% today.  This once again reaffirms that when I take a little extra space in by backpack for the jacket the weather will stay dry as a bone and sunny. And when the jacket sits at home...

BUT, today the rain will be a small thing--a drop in the bucket--when I go to the Budapest airport to meet up with my parents!

Meet Tamás

Meet Tamás!  A few weeks ago when I gave a presentation in Nyïregyhaza about the U.S. and the "American Dream" I met Tamás.  In August he'll leave Hungary and spend one year in the U.S. as an AFS exchange student.  Where in the U.S.? He doesn't know yet, but finds out soon. 

This last Tuesday we met again and I helped him prepare his scholarship paperwork.  His English is pretty good--definitely better than by Hungarian.  It's amazing how quickly you pick up on new words and grammar once you have a good foundation.  For me, this foundation didn't feel solid until February or March. Tamás is in for a great year, and I think he's especially brave to leave home for 12 months at age 16.

Talking and meeting with such a motivated student was a highlight of my week and I'm happy to share it on here!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The 4th from afar

YAGM Hungary meeting with the Phiren Amenca coordination team
The 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays. I’ve always been particularly glad that the founding fathers declared independence in mid-summer, and I’m equally happy that it’s usually a big family holiday for me.  
Of course, this year was different. On the morning of the 4th I took a 4:30am bus that would connect me to a 5:15am train to get into Budapest for a 10am meeting.  I’ve written before about Phiren Amenca—a dialogue, education, and voluntary service network that connects Roma and non-Roma.  Phiren Amenca and its people have been an important part of this year for me in terms of understanding my community seeing it within the broader context of Roma in Hungary, Roma in Europe, and ongoing human rights activism.  What I’ve learned through Phiren Amenca undoubtedly has applications with marginalized peoples at home, but that’s a discussion for another time.
So we were happy to have this final meeting with Phiren Amenca to share stories and approach the question of “what do we do with this?”  As I said to the group that gathered, often times the moments that test our ability to truly dialogue with others are when people disagree and don't equally acknowledge the reality or complexity of pluralism. I would argue those types of dialogues are more important, albeit difficult. But there is also something energizing and hopeful about talking with others who, although we don’t agree on everything, are willing to approach pluralism and and social justice with openness and eagerness.

                      YAGM Hungary meeting with the Phiren Amenca coordination team

As chance would have it, we were able to join a group of young volunteers and activists who were attending a student session at Budapest's European Youth Center on the role of religious communities in Roma and anti-discrimination work.  Around the table were representatives from the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Cyprus, Bangladesh, Romania, Hungary, France, Germany.  
The conversation was especially rich because we could share stories, and then others could respond with questions and reactions from their perspective. Some of what came out of the meeting will appear in my newsletter (coming soon!), but I want to share one particular point here.  The convener, Richard Otterness, said that he hopes addressing hate, poverty, discrimination, and violence aren’t specialties of any one person, or one organization.  In other words, we need to be alert and intentional about safeguarding and advocating for others in all realms of life. To do this, as we discussed, relationships have to come before “projects” that fight injustices.  And we need to work with others, and not merely do things for them.  It sounds simple—maybe too simple—but it demands time and emotional energy that, I think inevitably, we lead to all of us learning from and serving each other.
A participant from Ireland had a great call to action as it relates to the role of churches in social justice: too often, people, churches, organizations, governments provide tangible and sometimes immediate aid to people in need.  While we’re called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it seems that there is also a call to address underlying reasons why people are hungry or naked in the first place.
In the evening, Ole and I joined Meredith, her American family, and her Hungarian host families for a typical 4th of July BBQ.  It was great to share this holiday with so many new people.  So many things about the celebration were so typically American—fireworks, s’mores, potato salad, obnoxious red white and blue decorations—while other things were so typically Hungarian—palinka, soccer match on TV, folk music and dancing.
Here’s to a great 4th of July in Hungary, and a word of thanks for people in uniform who are also away from home, perhaps in dangerous places, who keep us safe and allow us to wander this world as free people free to love and serve each other.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Visiting other YAGMs

In late May and early June I was able to spend time with the three other Hungary YAGMs. In total, we’ve probably spent less than a month of our lives together, but we’ve become good friends and I’m glad to have people here to share this experience with! Life is great with great people!
Throughout the year we’ve heard stories from each others' lives in our different towns.  Each of our sites is so unique to its area of Hungary, and of course each of our jobs and routines come with its own sets of people and places.  So it was especially good to meet some of the characters and see the setting for the narrative of this YAGM year in different sites.  

Roman mosaics along the Amber Road

In May I visited Chelsea in Szombathely - a city of 80,000 in western Hungary, just 10 kilometers from the Austrian border. We explored Roman ruins from the first century AD along what used to be the Amber Road trade route from northern to southern Europe. Fascinating. 

Soviet-era public art perched above the city of Szombathely 

We went on a long walk with an old women Chelsea has befriended this year. Actually, I think Chelsea would say they befriended each other.  The women fled Hungary in 1956 during what turned out to be a failed uprising against the Soviet occupiers.  She then spent the next 56 years living in the United States where she earned a PhD in piano performance.  She spent time living and teaching in Bemidji, MN.  “Minnesotans are just good wholesome folks; they come from good Scandinavian stock,” she told me.
I also spent time at Chelsea’s school meeting her students.

 Visiting Chelsea's students; here we're most likely working on the "th" sound 
En route back across Hungary I went to Budapest where all four of us had a final meeting with Bishop Fabiny of the Hungarian Lutheran Church. He and his team have been very attentive to us this year and we appreciate it.
The second weekend of June I journeyed to Szarvas to visit Ole, my favorite Canadian. He and I conquered the town by bicycles making stops at the county museum, canoeing on the Körös River, visiting an independent Roma congregation, having ice cream with his boss and pizza with his host brother, shopping at an outdoor market, taking a selfie (more on that), eating fruit right out of his co-teacher’s garden, and playing soccer with some of his students.  It was a great weekend at Camp Ole!

Selfie with Ole at the geographic center of the former Kingdom of Hungary

A plaque at the historic geographic center that says quite a bit about Hungarian nationalism:
Hungarian Creed:
I believe in God
I believe in a homeland
I believe in a divine eternal truth
I believe in the resurrection Hungary

About that selfie: Ole had recently learned about a historic site along the river marking the geographic center of the former Kingdom of Hungary.  Before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost 70% of its territory, the Kingdom existed as a behemoth of a state between east and west. Remember that Hungary was founded in 896, so the place we visited stood at the center for over a millennium.  

Where is the historic center now? Go 76 miles northwest of Szarvas and you’ll be in the small town of Puszavacs. Drop that factoid at parties and impress you friends!

Meredith making some new friends at the Görögszállás Children's House

Finally, in mid-June, Meredith from Piliscsaba outside of Budapest came to visit me!  We did the 50 minute walk between my house and the train station 3 times (one way three times) so we had plenty of time to talk and take in the village life. We also caught some great sunsets.  Saturday we went to Nyiregyhaza, the nearby city, in hope of catching some sun at an outdoor pool and thermal bath.  Friday evening we sat outside and had a long talk with both of my host parents.  Given out language skills, we definitely couldn’t have had that conversation in the first half of the year, and maybe not even in February or March. Progress!

In such a new place I find that I’m always trying to build context by connecting the people and ideas I find in different places. Hungary is a fascinating place to do this. And it’s great to do this with friends spread out throughout the country!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014



That’s the Hungarian word for graduation.  Last week, one of the families in the village invited me to attend their son’s preschool graduation.  A dozen other Görögszállás families and I made our way to Belegrad, the village next door, on bicycles. The kids had a quick program that was probably as smooth as any preschool program.  
After 9 months here I’m still picking up on all of the ways that people in Gorogszallas are related. The Gorogszallas kids had whole cheering sections for them with cousins, aunts, uncles, godparents, grandparents, great grandparents.
After the ceremony we made our way back to Gorogszallas—a 10 minute ride—where the family who invited me had prepared a feast for lunch. The mom apologized to me saying that she knew it probably wasn’t as good as what I eat at my host family’s house, but she hoped I would like it. It was amazing to see the happiness and celebration in this family’s home. Life is hard for them; the lows are pretty low and the highs are few and far between.  It was incredibly humbling to be invited to break bread and celebrate with them on one of their highs! 

Snapshot of a day

Today is a normal day for me in Görögszállás.  Some things have been routine, some things have been unexpected i.e. a 20 minute wait at a railroad crossing where I was waiting with my bicycle.  Still, in a way, this type of unexpected waiting is also something I’ve come to expect this year.  

Today I also did something that felt familiar, but did in it an unfamiliar place. We have lots of zucchini in the house right now, so I emailed my parents for their zucchini bread recipe. As I’m mentioned before, Hungary’s gastronomy tends to be fairly flavorful but also fairly repetitive week in and week out.  So the idea of using shredded zucchini to make sweet bread got some funny looks when I first mentioned it here at the house.  

There were the expected things—like the taste of the batter with all of its cinnamon and vanilla that made me think “do I actually need to bake this?” And there was the shredder (is that what you call it) that still reminds of when I was small and kept grinding a carrot until I realized I ran out of carrot and started in on my finger.  These were the expected, or familiar, things.

And then there was the unexpected.  Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius only to discover that there’s no temperature gauge on the oven.  I told my host mom I wanted 175 Celsius and she seemed to know just where to turn to the knob.  There was also the grocery shopping trip to buy walnuts, raisins, and vanilla extract in which I wandered the aisles looking for the items and carried my iPhone with its Hungarian/English dictionary app so I could ask people for these items.

The bread tastes great, but only lasts a short time. The smell in the house is great too, and lasts longer!

I just opened an email from a family friend who lives in Iowa and happened upon my blog last week.  She read all of it, which was both great for sharing this experience, and also provoking in terms of what role the blog plays at this point in the year.

Lately, as time winds down here, I’m feeling more self-induced pressure to come up with conclusions on the experience so far, or at least articulate on-going questions. 

But the blog isn’t the place for those.  For now, I’m sharing this slice of a typical day filled with both the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and unfamiliar.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Brotherly cook-off

As I was typing in "" I was thinking it had been a while since I posted.  Yes, actually it's been a month to the day.  Life has been happening here, and I should probably be sharing more of life's moments.  Take yesterday, for example:

Cooking/baking is not a strong skill of mine.  I can help in the kitchen, I can do the basics, but my experience is lacking. When I'm at home in the US I have two parents who are great and adventurous cooks, uncles who are great grill masters, aunts who are also fantastic cooks, and a grandma who, in her earlier years, could whip out 4 dozen cookies, a hot dish and 4 side dishes, and some caramel rolls in her sleep. When I was in college, I was usually too stingy to buy good ingredients and too "busy" to spend time cooking. The point is, cooking/baking is not something I usually do.

Here in Göröszállás, my host mom is the kitchen engineer and darn good one.  Cooking and baking here are simpler. In some ways its healthier because many of the ingredients are basic and don't include processed, high fructose corn syrup additives. While household incomes in Hungary are significantly lower than the US, food prices are comparable. Add the fact that the village doesn't have a store, and the spectrum of ingredients and food in the pantry because more limited. 

While I've helped my host-mom in the kitchen at various times throughout the year, I didn't really get the itch to cook anything on my own until a colleague came to visit in early May.  We cooked hamburger patties made with beef, which is not overly common in Hungary.  They were a success! My host dad and brother especially enjoyed them.

Hungarians make darn good pancakes--called palacsintas (pawl-aw-chintas). We've made them in the village a few times and I'm tried them at other markets and festivals.  They're like a crepe and similarly filled with jam, nutella, or other sweet filling.  

Last night I decided to make "American" pancakes which are unique to Hungarians because they're much thicker and more substantive.  I checked with my host mom to make sure they had the ingredients in the house.  No oil! No butter! I assumed we had these things, and usually they do. But for the time being, we had a vat of pig fat. Maybe some of you foodies would shrug and say this is the same thing as oil or butter. To me, the idea of it seems like it would have a different taste and be more...fatty. But, because it's not everyday I get to cook with pig fat I decided to forge on.  And the pancakes turned out to be a smash hit! I didn't make very many because I didn't know how they would go over.  Also, cooking with gas was a new experience.

I think my host brother still had room in his stomach afterwards. He said, "now (9:30pm) we make Hungarian pancakes."  

This turned out to be one of the best nights of brotherly bonding we've had all year.  We made a huge stack of palacsintas taking turns at the griddle and spreading jam and nutella on the steaming cakes.  We spoke in our usual Hunglish and had a fascinating conversation about life in the village and his plans for the future. 

In the end, it was a great night, and I'm glad I said yes to cooking with pig fat.