Kayla Savage, LE Brazil Alumna, on returning to South America with the Peace Corps

What led you to apply to become an LE volunteer for the summer of 2018?

I have an interest in international development and the Western Hemisphere, and I knew that for my career I needed field experience. I saw flyers around campus for LE, and I decided to meet with the George Washington University Campus Director to learn more. She connected me with my now friend and mentor, Juliette Erath, who was the country director of the Brazil program and encouraged me to apply!

Why did you choose Brazil?

I chose Brazil because I was intrigued by its politics and culture and wanted to learn more Portuguese! I was originally going to apply to Panama to volunteer, but my Spanish at the time wasn’t on par with the requirement. I’m so glad I went to Brazil because I learned a new language and was able to understand a country that is crucial to international affairs in the region.

What was your experience like while you were there?

My experience in Brazil was life changing! I was welcomed into my community with open arms, and I became extremely close with my host mom. Navigating intercultural communication was a huge part of my experience, and the more I learned about and listened to my community, the more I was able to become a more effective volunteer.

What challenges did you face, both expected and unexpected, in your role as an English teacher and/or as member in a foreign community?

Being an English teacher was a wonderful adventure of constantly adapting to the skill level and learning environment I found myself teaching in. I loved the challenge of coming to class every day and improvising even if I had the most perfectly planned out lesson, and having fun with my students.

You were recently offered a position as a Secondary Education English Teacher Trainer in the Peace Corps. Can you tell us what this position entails?

I will serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia in the education sector. Peace Corps Colombia volunteers live with host families in semi-rural communities during service. I was hired for the 27-month position as a Secondary Education English Teacher Trainer, so I will work with Colombian teaching counterparts in public schools to enrich their English teaching curriculum.

How did your experience as a LE volunteer teacher in Brazil help prepare or inform you for this Peace Corps role as an English Teacher Trainer?

My experience as an LE volunteer gave me the skills and qualifications needed to apply for this position, and it helped me figure out that I wanted to work in Latin America for a longer period of time to have a more sustainable impact on my community.

Did you already have an interest in international volunteerism or programs prior to volunteering for LE?

Yes, I did have an interest, but I was always weary of volunteerism programs because of the “voluntourism” trap that so many programs fall into. LE and the Peace Corps are great because they are longer term, require cultural awareness and qualifications, and request zero payment from volunteers. In the case of the Peace Corps, the US government pays volunteers a monthly stipend, as well as covers all healthcare during service. Upon return from service, Peace Corps offers fellowships to pay for graduate school, and they give you a sum of money for resettlement back into the United States.

What would you tell young adults about LE, including those who perhaps don’t currently have a great interest in international volunteerism or programs?

If you like the challenge of getting out of your comfort zone and have an affinity for empowering others in a classroom setting, LE is for you! If you just want to go on a vacation, LE may not be for you. LE is a fun and amazing experience, but your presence in the community is not just as a foreigner or tourist, you are a volunteer who is helping meet the English learning needs of your area, and that needs to be your first priority.

Lindsey Grutchfield, LE Romania Alumna, on becoming an English Education Teacher for the Peace Corps

What led you to apply to become a Learning Enterprises (LE) volunteer for the summer of 2018?

I had a friend who had done LE Poland the year before, and she encouraged me to apply, knowing my interests and passions. She felt like it would be a good fit for me, and it was!

Why did you choose Romania?

I had traveled to Romania once before as a tourist and fell in love with the culture, history, and people there. I especially love the art and architecture in Romania and the beautiful mountains and forests of Transylvania, so it was a natural choice for me.

What was your experience like while you were there?

My experience in Romania was really incredible. I divided my time between two small towns on the outskirts of Oradea in the far west of the country. I also got the opportunity to spend time with the Hungarian minority community in Romania, which was a really interesting and unique experience and one that I never expected to feel as passionately about as I did. The communities in which I was placed were incredibly welcoming and so generous, and I feel tremendously lucky that they opened up their lives and welcomed me into them. Although teaching was challenging and tiring, I always felt compelled to put 100% effort into it because of how supportive and encouraging the community members around me were. I even made some lasting friendships with some great people with whom I still keep in touch.

What challenges did you face, both expected and unexpected, in your role as an English teacher and/or as member in a foreign community?

I really wish I had had access to more and better training beforehand, but fortunately, members of my host community were very helpful in getting me up to speed. Additionally, teaching was definitely a little exhausting and overwhelming at times just in terms of the mental effort required. That said, as previously mentioned, I had a wonderful support system in my community, and my students and their kindness and eagerness to learn made it all worth it. I also felt challenged to push myself further because of my wonderful students –to give them the best that I possibly could.

You were recently offered a position as an English Education Teacher for the Peace Corps. Can you tell us what this position entails?

Beginning in June, I will be working in the English Education sector of the Peace Corps in Moldova. I’m very excited, especially since I will once again be teaching English as well as working with English teachers in the community, in a country with many cultural and linguistic similarities to Romania.

How did your experience as a Learning Enterprises volunteer teacher in Romania help prepare or inform you for role as an English Education Teacher?

My experience as an LE volunteer teacher in Romania sparked in me a desire to teach and a desire to integrate into my host community and build relationships there as much as possible. Both of these desires were a large part of why I applied to serve in the Peace Corps in the first place, and I hope to take the many lessons and skills that LE taught me and develop them further in the Peace Corps for a longer term.

I also feel that LE taught me that I was capable of showing up at a train station by myself with just the name of someone to meet, meeting that person, and settling into the community to teach. The knowledge that I’m capable of these things is integral to my belief that I can be a Peace Corps Volunteer and strive to excel in that role.

Did you already have an interest in international volunteerism or programs prior to volunteering for Learning Enterprises?

I had an interest in international work and in volunteerism prior to volunteering for LE, but beyond tutoring and spending some time at cultural-exchange discussion groups, I hadn’t volunteered internationally before. Part of this stemmed from a wariness of “voluntourism” and the desire to make sure that I was serving the community that I was volunteering in rather than the other way around. LE was sort of the first program that I encountered where I felt comfortable volunteering and where I felt that I could volunteer without exploiting my host community for my own gain.

What would you tell young adults about Learning Enterprises, including those who perhaps don’t currently have a great interest in international volunteerism or programs?

On one hand, you really should have an interest in international volunteerism before volunteering abroad in any way; volunteering can be very mentally challenging at times, and if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, you won’t be able to serve your host community the way they deserve, especially given the effort that they put into supporting you.

On the other hand, I didn’t know that I had a great interest in international volunteerism for a very long time, so it’s always worth looking into LE and the incredible work that they do. As a whole, LE was a tremendous, beautiful, exhausting, and empowering experience, and one that I am profoundly grateful for, so I really would encourage any young adult to apply as long as they are willing to be passionate and dedicated.

Katie Flanagan, LE Thailand Alumna, on returning to Thailand with a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship

What led you to apply to become a Learning Enterprises (LE) volunteer for the summer of 2018?

As an International Affairs major, I was eager for an opportunity to learn about a new society through on the ground immersion. I had also been a coach and tutor since middle school. So, when the George Washington University Campus Director talked to me about LE it seemed like the perfect opportunity to engage in cross-cultural exchange while using my teaching skills to serve others.

Why did you choose Thailand?

I wanted to challenge myself by going somewhere that I was unfamiliar with. I had never traveled to or taken classes about Asia, let alone Thailand. So, I thought Thailand would provide the perfect opportunity for me to learn and grow.

What was your experience like while you were there?

I felt so lucky to be there every day. I absolutely fell in love with the country. I lived in an 11-person multi-generation household in a rural town of just over 200 families. My host family was just that: family. We would make dinner together, watch reality game shows, and travel around central Thailand on the weekends. For every cultural difference I experienced in Thailand, I would find seven more shared interests to laugh and smile about. My students were also the most kind, talented, hard-working, and funny individuals I have ever met. They ranged from kindergarten to 9th grade –so I was able to sing Baby Shark with the youngsters, but also facilitate group discussions on movies and sports with the older students. To this day, I still text my students, fellow teachers, and host family weekly (at least).

What challenges did you face, both expected and unexpected, in your role as an English teacher and/or as member in a foreign community?

I had expected the language barrier, cultural differences, and living conditions to challenge me. But I hadn’t expected that I would end up enjoying these challenges so much. Communicating without words meant that I got to act, dance, and laugh all the time. The cultural differences challenged me to reevaluate my own values. I had incredible conversations about marriage, food, religion, time management, and politics with my family members who spoke English. By the end of the trip, I had even developed an emotional bond with the lizard (Fred) and cockroach (Wallace) who lived in my bathroom.

The only challenge that really caught me off guard was how draining it is to teach every day. You always have to be emitting positive energy while simultaneously altering your lesson in real time to maximize student comprehension, especially when you’re teaching in a language your students don’t have command of. I had to learn how to assess my own energy levels on the spot, and I had to develop new routines for decompressing to ensure I was always the best version of myself in class.

You were recently offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Thailand. Can you tell us what this fellowship entails?

This fellowship means I will be returning to Thailand for a full year as an English teacher and cultural ambassador for the United States.

How did your experience as a Learning Enterprises volunteer teacher in Thailand help prepare or inform you for this English Teaching Assistantship?

LE prepared me perfectly for this fellowship. I feel confident in my ability to teach English, make cross-cultural connections, and adapt to new experiences because I know I’ve already done all those things in Thailand before!

Did you already have an interest in international volunteerism or programs prior to volunteering for Learning Enterprises?

Yes! I was an International Affairs major, so I was always interested in opportunities that would allow me to live and work overseas. LE really stood out to me because it was student run, affordable, and seemed to have really ethical and sustainable connections with its host countries.

What would you tell young adults about Learning Enterprises, including those who perhaps don’t currently have a great interest in international volunteerism or programs?

LE was one of the most influential experiences in my life thus far. You meet the most incredible people! Every day I felt so confident and fulfilled by how I spent my time and energy. If you are adaptable, enjoy working with children, and want an experience that will completely alter your life view, you should volunteer with LE!

A Reflection of a Summer Abroad

Written by volunteer, Danielle Padilla

I wish I had the journal I kept of this summer in front of me, but it’s probably best I don’t. I want this to be a pure reflection of my summer as a student volunteer, not a report of what I thought I felt then. This is a reflection piece about my summer abroad and I want this to be about the now as well. Who am I now because of it? What was the point of it all? Was it worth it? If I knew what was going to happen this summer beforehand would I have still done it? The answer is nem, tu dom. Writing that phrase has made me smile because it is one of the only phrases I remember in Hungarian and means “I don’t know”. That has kind of been the theme of this whole summer to be honest. I didn’t know a lot before I left and – even though I learned A LOT – I feel like I still know nothing as well. So, since I suffer from the Jon Snow paradox, again I say nem tu dom.

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You’re probably thinking: “Wow, this was a waste then if she didn’t learn anything”. But that’s not true. As I stated earlier, I learned a lot. However, this does not mean I know everything. Instead, it helped me realize I know nothing. You’re probably itching for more details so let me explain myself. The lessons I learned are not really something I can write down. I can try to reiterate some of it, but these are lessons I learned with both my heart and my head. Okay, before you turn away this isn’t some lengthy prose about how I found a boy in Budapest, had an epic summer love, and like all summer romances it was extinguished when we both returned to reality and our regular lives. Gosh. I wish my summer was spent like that. That would have made this all so much easier and it would’ve meant I had some game. But sadly I don’t, so I digress.

I was a student as much as I was a teacher. I know that sounds clichéd, but I can’t properly articulate how much this summer taught me. I was like an anthropologist “going native” and immersing myself in a culture so different from my own. I never felt this more than when I lived with my host families and for three weeks was their daughter. They never once made me feel unwelcome and worked tirelessly to make me feel included. I was invited to birthday parties, weekend road trips, and even on occasion to a place the village called the “disco”. I sometimes feel that I’m too much of a cynic, but experiencing the kindness from my host families and communities was astounding. Their generosity and good heartedness is what helped restore a bit of my faith in humanity.

I get it, this all sounds too good to be true. However, I swear to whatever god, gods, or no god you have, it is very much a real experience. Living with these families and communities was real. Teaching my students was real. You know it is funny, I say my students, but I’ll admit that my students owned me. They didn’t know any English and I didn’t know any Hungarian, how could I possibly have forged a connection with these kids? Let me tell you, it’s possible. The simple act of playing with these kids made my Grinch-like heart grow three sizes. To this day, if you asked me anything about this summer I will 9 out of 10 times tell you an anecdote about my kids. The times that seemed hard back then are now comical and nostalgic. I can go on and on, but it would be a dissertation paper-length of a read.

I’m realizing now that I cannot just summarize my trip. It wasn’t just something I did one summer. LE Romania is something that still stays with me. It has helped me learn so many things about myself and has made me realize no one is ever really done learning. No matter how many degrees you accumulate, despite how many years you’ve been in school, this doesn’t mean you know everything. Sometimes the greatest teachers are the experiences you live through and sometimes the greatest lessons are taught outside of the classroom.

Poland 2015, A LE Summer

Written by volunteer, Michelle Peters

On one of our walks home from the days lessons, my host-mom took this photo of me, my host sisters, and my host cousins. Since the start, I had been enchanted with my little Polish host-sisters, and life at my host-family’s house only got better when their cousins and aunt arrived from Germany. My Polish-born/German-raised host cousins started attending my English lessons as soon as they arrived, and they quickly joined the ranks with my host-sisters as some of my most loyal and eager students. When we weren’t at the community center for the English lessons, we were in our backyard playing or taking walks around the neighborhood. I also got to spend a great deal of time with my host-aunt. She taught me how to make traditional Polish potato pancakes with the German topping of a tart applesauce. I had gone to Poland hoping to gain an understanding of Polish culture, and by the time I left, I had certainly gained that through my stay with my wonderful Polish host-family, who I still keep in touch with. Much to my surprise, I had even learned a bit about German culture in the process. I think this is a testament to the fact that once you open the door for some cultural exchange there are few limits to what will transpire and what will be gained. I’m immensely grateful to LE for opening that door for me.

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I went to teach for LE in Poland in the summer of 2015. Before arriving, I knew my host-family had a dog as a pet. When I arrived at their house, I was surprised and pleased to see that they also had a chinchilla as a pet. Upon my arrival, my host-sisters came to greet me with hugs and handmade cards. As soon as I had settled in, they promptly brought the chinchilla over so that I could meet it. From then on, we spent a lot of time playing with it both indoors and outdoors. Before arriving at my host-family’s house, I had never seen a chinchilla in person, so I came to associate the novelty of a chinchilla for a pet with Poland. It goes without saying that not all Poles have chinchillas as pets, but given that my host-family did, I couldn’t help but associate the two. The animal displayed on the Polish coat of arms is the white eagle, but the summer spent with my host-family and their peculiar pet has made sure the eagle isn’t the first animal that comes to mind when I think of Poland.

One of my favorite lessons for my class of 4-8 year olds was the one about body parts. We, of course, practiced the vocabulary by singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” I noticed that during our rehearsal of the song some students would point at their eyes and ears at different parts of the song. I wanted to ensure that they were really able to distinguish the body parts, so I included an activity where students would take turns labeling body parts by placing post-its with body part names on a classmate or on me. By the time the students had finished labeling my body parts with post-its, I could barely move without risking the loss of the labels –let alone talk. I felt a bit silly having to move the “mouth” post-it to the side so that I could talk them through the activity. It was completely worth it, though. While some of my students had mistakenly or inadvertently pointed at the wrong body parts during the song, they had all succeeded in labeling the body parts on their classmates as well as me. That day, like many others during my time teaching in Poland, I realized the importance of stepping out on a limb. That was the only way to ensure I was doing everything possible to get things across to my students, and their learning was my first priority. If I were to do it all again now, I’d do the same, even if it meant teaching a lesson while my face and body were covered with post-its.

Summer of 2016 – An Invitation To The Embassy

The summer of 2016 was very special. The adventures of catching a bus, speaking the Panamanian slang, celebrating street festivals, and getting invited to the U.S. Embassy were a few of the adventures LEPanama experienced.   The Panamanians welcomed us; from their homes and their schools, to their communities. 

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It was the first year Learning Enterprises teamed up with the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) to discuss real change on ways for improving the Panamanian education system. 

Over the years , Learning enterprises has become well known in Panama , and in 2016 LEPanama was invited to the U.S Embassy where they were personally thanked by the U.S ambassador for sparking a great change in the Panamanian education system.This experience has by far been the biggest in LEPanama history. 

About The Author

Jasmine is a UC Berkeley alumni and was a teacher volunteer for the Panama program in the summer of 2015. She returned as program director for the summer of 2016.

Final Week With My Host Family in Szalard

Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/final-week-with-my-host-family-in-szalard/

Going into my home-stay experience, I was unsure of what to expect, and needless to say, I was terrified: a family of strangers, a  foreign language, and a town in a far away country that I’d never been to before. What was I getting myself into?

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After three weeks, it is safe to say that I’m just as sad to leave my host family as I was nervous to meet them. For three weeks, this Hungarian family, their neighbors, and friends, took me in as one of their own. I was not only brought in as a member of the family but as a member of the community as I taught English in the little Transylvanian village.

My last week in Szalard kicked off with a weekend festival known in the town as “Village Days,” a  unique mix of a neighborhood block party and a state fair. The event blended the classics—bumper cars, cotton candy, and plenty of drinks— with a small neighborhood atmosphere:  you couldn’t turn around without seeing someone else that you knew. For me, this included some of my 50 students who shyly smiled and waved and also the older kids in town with whom I spent most of the weekends.

During the day, the festival featured dance performances, but by nightfall, a DJ and live bands took the stage and played a variety of popular Romanian, Hungarian, and American songs. On Saturday night, the music blasted until after 3:00 am, with many of the older kids, including myself, staying out until the sun rose around 5:00 am.

Sunday was decidedly tamer than Saturday with most people preparing for work on Monday. In the morning, there was also a joint religious service held that in the morning, which unfortunately I did not wake up for, between the village’s

main religious groups, including the Catholics and Protestants. The festivities continued that evening with a  fireworks display held just before midnight.

As my final days in the classroom rolled around on Monday, I decided to teach my older group a classic American gym class game: Capture the Flag. After pushing through the language barrier and resolving any hesitation about the rules, they quickly picked up on how to play. The game reminded me so much of gym class at home—one hero sprinting across the field as the rest of his or her teammates cheered wildly for them to bring back the flag to their side and win the game. Each day after that first game,  I was always asked the same question: “can we play capture the flag today?”

For my last night with my host family, my host sister, host brother, and I sat down and watched a movie together. It reminded me of sitting down with my family at home to watch movies and also that in just three short weeks, I felt like I had become a part of this family.

My final week with them went by very quickly, as did the entire three-week stay. When the time came to finally leave, we all found ourselves saying how quickly the time had gone. However, we also reminded each other that the next location I will be staying in is only about a 10-minute drive away. I will definitely miss waking up every morning to a table of bread and jam with cottage cheese on the side, and it will be completely different not having my host mother tell me to “have some more!” every time I have an empty plate on the table. After three weeks, I definitely learned a lot with my host family about the culture and myself, and I am excited to see what the next three weeks in my new village will bring.

Transportation, Food, and Foreign Languages

Written by volunteer Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/on-transportation-food-and-foreign-languages/

Each day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my host family and I formally sit down and eat together. At one of the dinners this week, my host sister had a friend visiting her family, and he asked me what struck me most about Romania as different from my life back in the United States. So, here are the three things I find most different about life in Romania in the Transylvanian region:

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1. One afternoon, my host family decided to take me to their wine cellar on the property they own in another town, and they asked me how I wanted to get there: by car or by cart. Horse-drawn cart, that is. I chose the cart, and soon enough I was climbing into the back of a cart pulled by two large, brown horses. As we rode through the streets, a man driving a Mercedes pulled up behind us and patiently waited until there was enough room on the side of the road for him to pass us.  This is not uncommon, either. Each day I leave the house, I always see many people riding in horse-drawn carts and people driving cars, waiting to get around them so that they can pass. This contrast of old and new, using horse carts for transportation instead of cars, as well as potentially a stark contrast in income, really struck me as interesting and different from home.

2. While the food eaten in Romania is definitely different from what I usually eat at home (stuffed cabbage, anyone?), where the food comes from is also very different: the backyard. It seems like every meal, my host family is telling me that we are eating something that they grew themselves or got from one of their animals. Whether it’s the raspberries that we picked together from the raspberry bushes on the side of the house, the peaches from the peach trees in the backyard, or the cottage cheese from the cow, almost everything is prepared straight from homegrown produce. The wine we’re drinking is from the grapes in the vineyard. The honey, we get from the bees that the family keeps. The only food I know they have not made themselves is the bread we eat with every meal and the pizza we ordered for lunch on Friday. Even today, my host mother was turning some of the berries she gathered into jams so that she can put them in the freezer and save them for the winter.

3. Finally, the foreign languages present on the radio, marked on products, and on signs stood out to me. While Spanish is becoming a major language in the US, you will rarely ever see it used outside of a classroom, at least in Baltimore where I live. In this part of Romania, I am living with a Hungarian-speaking population. However, all government buildings (police, schools, etc.) use Romanian on signs and official notices, as it is the official language of Romania. When I walk into the grocery store, many of the products are in English, with no Hungarian or Romanian on the wrapping at all, as far as I could tell – something that would never happen in the US. Finally, the radio plays many popular American songs, but I haven’t heard any songs in Hungarian or Romanian. Besides Despacito, the only songs on the radio in the US are in English.

So, there you have it: the three things I find most different about Romania after one week of living with my host family.

Egészségére!

21 Days in Hungary

Written by volunteer Sarah Sheets, originally published on her blog https://21daysinhungary.tumblr.com/

Teaching and the Students

I came to love the civil center where we worked. I could not think of Hungary without Szilvia and Anniko coming to mind. They were both such friendly faces to see in the office every morning. They were always smiling– they smiled when I unsuccessfully tried to use their coffee maker and spilled coffee grinds everywhere, and they smiled when we got ourselves even more confused when trying to understand why the English language is the way it is. I looked forward to eating lunch with them every day, and one of my favorite memories with them was watching the Hungary vs. Portugal game in the pub above the office (which was a prime location, might I add), drinking cheap wine and beer that we bought in the corner store, and laughing at different people’s game-day attire.

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I also can’t forget to mention my adult students. Finishing my last lesson at Papita, I held back a few tears. It was incredible to compare my first and last conversations with them, because of how much they had improved. I will always look back on those warm afternoons thinking only of happiness. 

The last thing I wanted to mention was the incredible tolerance I found in the civil center. I’d prepared myself for lots of prejudice against gypsies, or “colored” people (I found it interesting that the same term was used as in America for two very different groups of people who face undue discrimination), and instead found myself teaching gypsy foster children in an incredibly caring and supportive environment. I know this kind of thinking is not representative of Hungary as a whole, but it was a wonderful thing to see where some progress is being made, and how the relationship between economic and social class that has for so long proved impossible to separate is slowly, but surely, being unbound.

Volunteering has ironically not been the theme of my three weeks in Hungary– it was instead the incredible generosity of the Hungarian people I met, and all that they showed me. Reflecting on my experiences in Hungary can be put very simply. It exceeded any and all expectations, and I feel both incredibly privileged and incredibly proud to have been able to see all that I saw and do all that I did. Saying “Szia” to Hungary is a very bittersweet thing.

Host Family

Bubu and Gyorgy seem to have a very simple life. Every morning, they eat bread and homemade apricot marmalade. Sometimes they drink coffee, other days tea. They go to work– Gyorgy takes the car to various construction projects, and Bubu takes the bus into the city. At 5, they return to the house, throw off their shoes, and relax. Laundry is hung to dry in the warm Hungarian breeze, cherries are picked from the garden, dinner is cooked, the lights are turned off. Their cat sleeps on the porch. A typical family. But like the cover of your favorite book, the surface only relays a fraction of the stories beneath.

     Dinner is full of teasing. The most commonly heard words from Bubu’s mouth were, “Gyorgy…. very stupid.” I don’t think there was a dinner where we weren’t brought to tears laughing at something. Just last night, it happened to be about google’s translation of “suitcases” in english, to “kindergarten teacher” in hungarian. Of course, we ate zero vegetables, lots of cheese, and finished with some cookies and wine. 

     Some nights, we would go to the lake (Orfu) to swim and relax before dinner. The drive was half the reason to go– a small, winding road that twisted through green forests and golden fields, the sun setting over the lake. Other nights, neighbors would come over for dinner, or we would all go grab drinks in the city. 

     But night time was the only time for relaxing. Every day, Bubu has something planned. She frequently went to villages to learn more about their local culture, and help with ‘programs’ that were planned there. The true definition of a grass-roots organizer, this woman has the most energy of anyone I have ever met. We often listened to her talk for half an hour without skipping a beat. I think that without the language barrier, we might have been able to listen to Bubu for the rest of our lives. And we would enjoy every minute of it. These are all signs of a person whose ultimate motivator is a deep fascination with the fullest experience of life itself.

    Bubu and Gyorgy showed me a life that is a balancing act between optimism and realism which they perform so effortlessly. I will never be able to express how grateful I feel for their generosity in welcoming us into their home with such easygoing happiness. I know we will stay in touch, and I hope they know that if Bubu and Gyorgy ever want to come to California, they have a place to stay (though I can’t promise food of the same delicious quality as was provided to me). I have only good, great, and greater things to say about them, and the memories I have made in Hungary are some I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

Zsolnay Cultural Quarter

This week, I was fortunate enough to be given a short tour of the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter of the town by a woman who has lived her whole life here.

Judit certainly talks a lot. We must have had over 50 “very nice old buildings” pointed out to us. But the Zsolnay quarter was the birthplace of the most quintessential Pécsi material– Eozin. The Zsolnay family built the factory that produced the coveted blue, green, or even purple and pink material that has become a symbol of Pécs.

I asked Judit about her experiences growing up near the working factory. She reminisced about touring the bustling factory as a child, with a big smile on her face. It turns out she was a classmate of Matyasovsky Zsolnay Zsofia, the granddaughter of the man who ran the factory, Miklos Zsolnay. Judit mentioned that during her lifetime, she saw the factory taken under control by the state. I naturally asked Judit how different life was under socialism, but her answers were milder and less definite than the ways I had been taught to think of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Judit was an interpreter for the Russian officials when they visited Pécs, and she often led them around the factory. In Judit’s grandmother’s garden, there were lots of pieces made in this factory. Interestingly enough, in Hungary, socialism did not hit city families too harshly. While farmers were pressed by increased quotas and business owners were targeted, factory worker wages remained as high as before in Pécs, even as people worked with less productivity, according to Judit. She called this “gulash socialism” because most people still had plenty to eat.

However, she did mention to me that when the factory was nationalized in the late forties, the Zsolnays were taken in to custody to be questioned, as they were part of the bourgeois class that was targeted in the regime change. Zsofia, her classmate, went to an orphanage. But Judit mentioned that the workers in the factory had loved the Zsolnays, because they had treated their workers fairly and paid them a good wage. The proof in this was that the workers helped smuggle food into the cell where Zsofia’s parents were kept.

After the fall of the iron curtain, when the factory was privatized again, Judit explained that due to lots of arguments over ownership rights, the factory was never restored to its former glory. Today, only one small part of one of the buildings is used to make small ceramics, and it was obvious that Judit thought it shameful, compared with what it used to be.

This is just one of a few stories I have been told that I wanted to record, both for myself, and for especially my host-mother, who cares so much about the preservation and spread of Hungary’s different local cultures.

The Lake

The inevitably disappearing ripples in the water let fascination play on my face. It never ceases to hypnotize; it never ceases. The shadows grow and shrink over my bronzing skin, approaching just to recede once more. Water resists limb and I resist reality. Shame, anxiety, vanity are carried away with each ripple and every shadow, until nothing but the ever-changing mirror that surrounds me remains. Words mean nothing here– here, we only understand the sounds of laughter and the heat of a relentless Hungarian sun. I shed myself. I search for and cannot find the words to mean being here and nowhere else. For the first time in a long while, I am nothing and need nobody. It leaves an indescribable trace, a blank stare on my face and a heart that beats to feel just once more the blissful and ignorant peace of the lake. 

The ‘Million Dollar Question’: The Village

On the second Monday of our stay in Pecs, Bubu arranged to travel with some volunteers to a few villages quite close to the Hungary/Croatia border. After about an hour-long journey in the morning rain, we arrived in Tesenfa at a small house with a large yard with some tables, covered by white tents, with an eclectic group of volunteers sitting beneath them. Volunteers from all different parts of the region (mostly Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary) were taking part in a kind of volunteer exchange. As I understood it, the volunteers got food and accommodation while they helped traditional Hungarian families on different projects and operations. Some were helping to build a greenhouse on a small farming plot. Others were learning how to make clay ‘ornaments’ in the traditional village style. Others still were cleaning shingles for fixing a roof. 

Our group simply watched this taking place. Most of the homes were small. Few had cars– bikes seemed to be the preferred method of transport. Water ran cold from the spickets; dogs and cats roamed from house to house. Small children played soccer in the shade. Broken, rusty objects were strewn about in many grassy yards. 

We ended our tour with the village’s reformist church. A short, wrinkled, smiling woman walked up to us; her round glasses showed the pride in her eyes as she spoke about the church. It was built in the mid-1800′s. Decades ago, the church was a center of the village, with over 160 regularly attending. Today, she said it was lucky to see 5 or 6. She continued to explain how the younger people of the villages never stay around, anymore– they leap at the first chance to escape to the bigger cities like Pecs or Budapest, or even leave Hungary behind entirely. Emigration from both rural Hungary and Hungary in general seemed to be troubling for many of the volunteers. It was deemed the ‘million dollar question’: in the face of urbanization– which draws younger generations towards it like flies to honey– how does a village retain both its culture and its youth? Can it have both? 

At lunchtime, we returned to the volunteer meeting place. Food was served in no shortage– lentils, cold vegetable salad, and plenty of fresh bread. Laughter only briefly interrupted the constant sound of conversation I have come to expect from Hungarians. We finished eating, washed our dishes, and said our goodbyes as the volunteers returned to their posts, the sun, as always, beating down on everything below. 

These small villages are truly rich centers for the past. A rural lifestyle may be a bit more dusty than one in the city, but all in all, I didn’t see poverty in the same way it is known in the United States. The inhabitants are proud of their products, whether it be textiles with well-known Hungarian sayings on them or ceramics with their village’s coat of arms. The biggest question is whether this can be a lifestyle that younger generations will see the value of, instead of just a cultural sight for tourists like me to pass through.

A Day at the Lake

Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/a-day-at-the-lake/

An aging tower sits in the middle of a field in Transylvania.

Near the little town of Szalard located in Transylvania, my  home for the last two weeks, is a manmade lake that the locals frequently use for swimming, fishing, and hanging out. My host family and I originally planned on being at the lake on Saturday, but a fast-moving thunderstorm interrupted our plans just as we arrived at the lake on our bikes. So, we headed home in the rain in order to  regroup and formulate a new plan to head back to the lake on Sunday. Thankfully, the weather on Sunday was a lot nicer and perfect for swimming, so my host brother, a neighbor, and I headed to the lake for a relaxing afternoon.

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The lake is about 20 minutes away by bike through open fields and farms, affording us to experience the land and the city’s culture. On our way,  we took a short detour to see an aging tower in one of the fields. The tower is hundreds of years old and belonged to an old Hungarian King. Beyond the aged tower was a new tower being built at the top of a hill as a lookout point over the whole valley. While not finished yet, we still climbed to the top and looked across the horizon.

In the same trip, we also stopped at a fountain bubbling with mineral water. The water tasted a bit like copper, but our neighbor joked that it cured any hangover as he filled his water bottle to the top.

A panoramic view of the Transylvanian countryside from the top of a lookout tower.

Finally, we arrived at the lake and met up with some of our neighbor’s friends on a dock overlooking the lake. The lake sits at the top of a hill with beautiful panoramic views of the valley. Around the lake are benches and docks with a snack shack run by some of the villagers. As we sat on one of the docks, American pop music started blaring over someone’s speaker, and we moved a mini-trampoline to the edge of the dock. Soon enough, everyone was doing flips and dives into the water off the trampoline. As the sun began to set around 9:00 p.m., someone passed around a bottle of wine to share as we enjoyed the view.

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