Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I Love my Life

Because look!

How cute is Tomi and his Valentine's card?

And look at how snowy Szeged is!  This is the most snow Szeged has had for years.  Kathryn and I were walking home from the market.

Then, today it decided to be spring.  The birds started their singing, like some great conductor cued them, like they had been waiting, shivering in the cold and tapping their tenderly clawed feet like impatient human thumbs.

And tonight we went to karaoke with the yoga club.

Seeing my yoga tribe singing (and occasionally rapping) to Creedence Clearwater, Alanis Morissette, and even "I'm too Sexy"? This was priceless.  One of the yoga teachers (a sober man) put his glasses on so he could sing a Hungarian rap with the guys, and he bounced up on his feet like his legs were springs.

I love my life and I'm staying in Szeged.

Szep Szeged.  City of Sunshine.

Another year of charades.  More bike rides and duct-taped conversations.  What I imagine will amount to gallons of guylash.  Deeper yoga practice.  Deeper relationships.  I can't even imagine the amount of sour cream I will consume.  The paprika paste.  Langos.  And homeopathic stomachache pills.  Szeged, I love you.  Bring it on.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cry Me Down the Mountain

Tears juiced out behind my ski goggles, little plump beads of salty warm water sliding down the pinks of my cheeks.  I was sitting shivering on top of a mountain, terrified and nauseated. The blue-black of mountain crests and ridges and the rich green trees painted with snow surrounded me.  It was so beautiful, but also so expansive that I couldn't breathe.  I sat there, trying to cry quietly and wiping my nose with a tissue too old and stiff to be very useful.  How did I get there?

I was so scared, and I was so ashamed of feeling scared, and then I was ashamed that I felt ashamed.  You can imagine how the crying, it just continued.  It kept up like a rain that never stops.  My voice went quiet as the snow, and I wanted to go to the end of the mountain and wail earthly womanly wails into the valley, but these other skiers kept zipping by in their flashy snow pants and orange-tinged glasses and besides I didn't trust myself not to fall off of said mountain.  So I sat crying quietly, my ski glasses fogging and throat tightening as tears were dug up and spilled over.

So how did I get there?  Snotty and shivering in the snow, toes numb in boots too tight, layers of fiber, knits and fleece cutting off my circulation . . . up-high-induced-nausea which quit my breathing and started feelings of puking . . . ?

It's simple.

Last week, I learned how to ski.

Or, more accurately, I tried.

Last week, Kathryn and I went on a school ski trip to Slovakia.  In typical Hungarian style, there were lots of details about the trip that were not communicated to us.  For instance, no one told us that only one other student would be going on the ski trip.  I expected at least a couple other students from the high school to be on the trip, but instead it was the vice president, Zoli, and his teenage kids and wife, as well as their friends, and the biology teacher, Sandor, our driver, Laci, and one student, Daniel.  

Day 1.
In Which Skiing 101 Begins

We arrive at Tale and Zoli was my ski teacher.  A sweet man who is perpetually grinning and giggling (the best adjective for him is "jolly"), Zoli speaks around 100 words in English.  How I didn't realize this might be a problem is beyond me.  Not only do I not speak Hungarian, but I have never skiid before.  Needless to say our ski lesson that first morning was a challenge.  It ended with me crying into Kathryn's shoulder, telling her quietly, "Don't let go yet," as the Hungarians clucked while I cried.  It started with Zoli telling me about my "hill leg" and "rally leg" which later I learned was meant to be "valley leg."  He spoke to me in garbled English "Must.. kilos.. hill leg." and sometimes Hungarian, which I didn't understand.  I couldn't tell him I didn't understand, and I couldn't ask any questions, because he wasn't able to answer them.  He etched diagrams in the snow with his ski sticks, and I fought back the urge to say "igen" and "jol" ('yes' and 'good').  I couldn't fake understanding as I often do to get by in Hungarian conversations.  My life was at stake here.  As soon as I was on those skis, all bets were off.

It is a scary thing to feel so out of control.  I didn't know how to stop on the skis.  I was like a fish flailing up in the sky, or a bird in an underbelly of ocean, hacking on saltwater, feather-heavy.  Or, I was like a human who has never skiid before, skiing.  Take your pick.

I didn't trust my own feet.  I didn't trust Zoli's hands pulling the tips of my skis.  I fell over and over and sometimes I would lie there like a dead person, defeated in the crunchy snow.  I drank hot cocoa with rum in the lodge and then got back on the skis.  Eventually, Sandor, another teacher who speaks English, was called in for back-up.

"Fall!"  He instructed me.
Seriously?  I was thinking.  Haven't I done enough falling today?
"Now, move your body!  More, more.  More, turn it.  You need to avoid the great abyss," he draws an abyss in the snow with his ski stick.
"Sandor.  I don't even know how to stand on my skiis.  Isn't this a bit advanced?"
He didn't listen.  Typical Hungarian.

Sandor tells me that I am having trouble stopping because my legs are spread too wide, a common problem for women, apparently.  "Americans especially," I joke.

"All women," Sandor says matter-of-factly.

He tells me to sit down on my skis and fall backwards onto my back.  He demonstrates, his body pre-creased and folding in three places.

"Sandor," I tell him, "I don't have the abs for that."

"That is not a problem.  Your arms will get a good work-out."

Oh boy.

You can imagine how the rest of the lesson went.  Which is to say, it didn't last long and by the end of it (flat on my back, eyes closed and skis splayed out, Sandor asking, "Shall we call it a day?") I still didn't know how to ski.

Back at the hotel Kathryn and I sat at "Zoli's table" in the hotel restaurant ("He could have joined us," I say.  Bitter much?), didn't show up to the van on time (it might have helped if someone told us when we were leaving), and generally felt like the odd ones out.  Our (modified) theme song?  "Two of these things are not like the others..."

Day 2.
In Which Not Much Skiing Happens

The next morning I was spent.  Exhausted from trying to ski, exhausted from feeling fringy on this ski trip, I took the morning to drink tea in the lodge and write in my journal.  I dumped salt instead of sugar into my black tea.  It was just that kind of day.  Mid-morning, Zoli met me on the little hill for another ski lesson.  We practiced pizza position, skiing and stopping; our conversation was as awkward as my skiing.  In a singsong voice, he said "Come come!" and, pulling the tips of my skis together, he pulled me in "pizza" down the baby slope.  I shrieked, tumbling forward onto his back.  Up the slope I went again, to be told about hill leg and valley leg, "Must ... hill leg ... garbled Hungarian ..." [diagram in snow].

We drive back to the hostel and hole up in our room before dinner.  Because we chose "Zoli's table" at breakfast that morning, Kathryn and I survey the tables.  After some agonizing, we choose a different table for dinner.  When Zoli walks in, he is shaking his head and laughing.  "Zoli says you should choose a table and stick to it," Sandor says.

I chug my wine, shake my head.  I should have seen this coming.


Day 3.  
In which I decide, F skiing.

I couldn't do it.  I was too stressed out to learn how to ski on this icy snow.  It also didn't help that when I asked about signing up for a ski lesson and asked if there was a teacher who spoke English, the woman said dryly, "I hope so."  Tension from not trusting my body and not feeling comfortable on the trip seeped into my cold bones.  Dread heavied me the way it does before a break-up, or before any instance where you have to say what you want or don't want even though you know the other person will probably be disappointed.  I told Sandor that it just wasn't working out for me.  He told Zoli, who started to speak in fast-fast Hungarian, words that came to me through Sandor.  "First problem.  You have paid for your boots for one week."

"But this is not your problem.  It's okay."

Then I am told for the millionth time where I need to put my weight.  Zoli makes Vs with his hands, and I am sure he is critiquing my pizza position.

The disappointment is clear.

I feel like the odd one out, not skiing, but let's face it: skiing or not, I'd feel like the odd one out anyway.

Back at the hotel, Kathryn and I order two glasses of wine, as had become our dinner-time ritual.

Adam, Zoli's son, laughs as he walks by our table.  "Girls?  Wine again?"

"It's not funny," My voice is quiet, clipped, I am close to snarling.

Day 4.
In Which I thank god for a ski teacher who speaks English

We leave Tale for Mito, and I decide to sign up for a ski lesson.  I ski in an enclosed space with wooden bunnies, mushrooms, and other forest animals.  Luca is a gentle and encouraging ski teacher with sparkling eyes and appled cheeks.  I ski past the animals (skiing around them comes next lesson) and stop successfully a few times.  I feel more comfortable on the skis and in the snow, and my confidence grows, even though there are hundreds of toddlers who could out-ski me, hands down.

Suddenly, "learning how to ski" is back on my bucket list.

Hopes are revived.

Yadda yadda.

Maybe this is why the final day of the ski trip hit me so hard.

Maybe this is why I was so floored to be way high up on that mountain, sobbing.

Remember the beginning of this story, when I was on the mountain, having a breakdown?  Remember how I was going to tell you how I got there?

Well it all began with a ski lift.


Day 5.
In Which I got there

"You should come train with us this morning," Kathryn says.  "It's so beautiful up there.  You can ride up with Zoli's lift ticket and then come back down."

It's decided.  I pay for another ski lesson for that afternoon, and then we're off.

Ok, before I go any further, there is something you should know.

I am not afraid of spiders or snakes or needles or clowns, but I am afraid of a couple of other things.  Maybe this will sound weird to you, but I have a balloon phobia.  It's not that I object to the idea of balloons, but they could go off at any time.  I don't like that.  My future children, should I end up having any, are going to have really boring birthday parties.  I also don't like New Years Eve poppers, or the anticipation of the pop! of a champagne bottle opening.  Just writing about it is making me anxious.

Another fear?  Oh, you know, ferris wheels.  Certain mono-rails.  Anything that goes up high and doesn't feel contained.  Sometimes, when I am feeling especially anxious, driving across bridges.  And most definitely ski-lifts.

So I went up a ski-lift, which creaked and slid higher up the mountain.  I tried to be chill and failed.  Here was my routine: breathe, make-small-conversation, try not to move.  When we passed a cable and it was especially shuddery, I stopped breathing all-together.  Sandor coached me about getting off the ski lift, but of course when I did, I fell on top of him.  I wanted to cry.

There I was, toppled on top of the mountain.  Immediately my trust was gone, and even if the ground wasn't shaky, I was.  I took off my skis and walked over to warm up with Sandor, Kathryn, and Daniel.  They left me to practice my skiing while they did a run.  I was paralyzed, sitting in the sun, simultaneously crying and suffocating.  Everything was too big and slippery.  My feelings were red as my cheeks, raw and wind-bitten.  There was this layer of me, all ice, that tried its damnedest to protect the mush underneath that burped to the surface.

This is the layer that is always saying "Yes" to questions like "Are you okay?"  Liar, protector, defense mechanism, call it what you will.  This layer is ski glasses covering crying eyes, and it was in full-swing as Sandor and Kate came by to see how I was doing.

After at least an hour of nausea on the mountain, after at least an hour of anxiety about a ride down alone on the ski lift, an hour of rehearsing and crying and nose-blowing and feeling-my-feelings-kind-of, I tell Sandor I have a favor.  "Will you ride down with me on the lift?"

I am small.  I do not want to be small.  I want to be Ski Warrior.  I want to be Strength and Confidence and things rolling off my back, off my strong shoulders.  But remember where I am, on top of this mountain, scared shitless (or snot-less).  I am not feeling like any of those things, so I ask, and Sandor says yes.

The problem, as it turns out, is that the lift operator says no.  There is a language barrier as he and Sandor speak.

"It is not possible," Sandor tells me.  "You will have to walk with your skiis down the mountain."

Have I mentioned that the mountain is over 850 meters high?

Have I mentioned that I don't know how to ski?

That I am in the middle of trying to have a nervous breakdown?

I am laughing that laugh, you know the one -- it is more of a tremble than a laugh, it is the edge that comes before tears.  It is the laugh that could put me away.  I am maniacal.  I should be skiid to the nearest insane asylum, or at least a day spa.

"Great," I tell Sandor.

What else can I say?

The idealist in me knows there is a way.  Injured people have to get down the mountain somehow.  But my fate seems sealed.  I have to walk down the mountain.  Sandor takes my ski sticks, and skis down the mountain.

I am taking small, slow trudges when Daniel, the one Eotvos student, skis beside me with some of Zoli's family.  "What's up, chick?" he asks, all smiles.

I explain my situation.

"Come with us!  We will help you!" Daniel says.

"Daniel.  Have you seen me ski?  I cannot ski down the mountain."  (Also, I have no ski sticks.)

"You can do it!  You just have to believe!"

Uhhhhhh... "There is no way I am skiing down that mountain."

I am insistent, and they ski away, leaving me to my long walk to the lodge.

Sniffling and shuffling through the snow, a medic skis up to me.  He asks me questions in Slovakian, and all I can make out is "Are you injured?"  I tell him no, but I am a "Si baba" (ski baby), that I can't ski and want to take the lift down, but the lift operator said no.  I have no idea how much of this he understands, but he takes my skis and motions for me to follow him to the ski lift.  He speaks with the operator, and after a minute, I am ushered into the small room and offered a seat.

It smells like B.O. and burndt heater.  I am wrecked, an absolute mess, frozen and exhausted and stressed out.  I am also a tiny bit amused.  A small piece of me is able to watch with good humor while the rest of me is going through the wringer.

Another man comes in, and the two of them talk.  I hear "Amerikai" and see glances in my direction.  One of the guys makes a call.  I just sit quietly, wiggling my toes and waiting, not sure exactly what is happening or what I'm waiting for.  I am motioned, again, to the ski lift, and this burly man in a fuzzy Russian-style hat rides the lift down with me.  My left knee touches his leg slightly and I am comforted by the contact.

I breathe, descending through trees and white-white snow.  I breathe, coming down from being so high up.  I am thankful not to be walking down the mountain.  I am thankful not to be riding the lift alone.  Up on the lift, in that moment, I am especially thankful for what awaits me down below: solid ground.  It is snowy and icy ground, but after cracking open up there, after self-consciously losing my shit on the mountain, I am in no position to be choosy.  So I sit, and I breathe, and I finally (thank god) come down.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

This is what a break between classes at Kossuth Lajos sounds like.

Remember when I wished you could hear the music in the hallways at the primary school where I teach on Fridays?

Well, now you can.


In the Classroom: Friends

The last couple of weeks I've been doing lessons on "Friends" with my 6th and 7th graders.  We start by talking about describing words, and then we move one to describe people in the classroom.  Csabi is silly, Molli has beautiful blue eyes.  I wrote a short paragraph describing my friend Megan, and then I ask them to write several sentences describing on of their friends.

Here are a few of my favorite bits:

Molli and Nori wrote about each other.

As a warm-up for this class (and because I am tired of asking "How are you doing?" and hearing "Thanks!" or "I am fine thanks.") we talked about different ways to answer "How are you?"  One of the options I gave was "super-duper."  It is so gratifying when my students use vocabulary I teach them.  Especially in such a cute way.

It breaks my heart to correct sentences like "We hang together always."

A wonderful piece by Benjamin about his "favorite friend", Barni.

"160 centimeters?" I asked Benjamin jokingly, surprised by the accuracy.  He shrugged and made that non-committal "eh-uh-eh" sound.  I guess it was a guess.  :)

We also played "Guess who" with people in the classroom.  I wrote all of our names on little pieces of paper, and one student came up to the front of the room and I gave them a name of a classmate.  Other classmates would ask yes or no questions (hopefully something like "Does she have curly hair?" although sometimes they asked "Is it Bence?") until we guessed who the person was.  

In one class, my name was up.  A student asked, "Is she nice?"  Dominic, who was at the front of the class, bobbed his head back and forth and made a really long squiggly thinking noise: "Mmmmmyes."  Right answer, Dominic.  That was a close one.

As a follow-up to this lesson, we reviewed is and has as well as the describing words, and then I gave them what I call 'sentence strips' -- a sentence that has been cut up word by word.  Working in teams of two, they had to solve as many as they could.  I used the target vocabulary, and made lots of silly sentences.

One group of girls called me over with squeals.  They were working on the sentence "Jessica is a little bit chubby and very, very silly."  They waved a yellow card that said "chubby" toward me.  "Don't chubby!  Don't chubby!"  "Eh..." I said, but they wouldn't budge.  This made the sentence very difficult to complete, but they refused to call me chubby.

What was meant to be "Giraffes have incredibly long necks but people do not" turned into "Giraffes have long necks but incredibly people do not"  -- hah!

Tomi and Lotti built sentences with such enthusiasm.

Robi and Daniel.

 Dora and Reka.  I never expected these two to get so into a lesson.

They started to mix the sentences to create new sentences, and even added words of their own!

It's great to have an ESL lesson that is so successful.  I am planning to modify this by making "parts of speech" sentence strips, which will be color-coded by nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. and students will have new challenges.  We can practice verb tenses, making lists (when to use commas, when to use 'and'), the order of describing things (like long blond hair), or even competitions to make the longest, silliest, or most alliterative sentence.

Yay teaching!