Saturday, June 30, 2012

I am doing this all in the wrong order.  I should be telling you about blue blue seas and the brine of sweat and olives; about the ride we hitched with an old man, his grandson, and many water bottles; about the trance chanting.  That was Greece, and I will tell you about it soon.  For now, Italy.

A friend of mine who lives in Rome warned me I would fall in love.  At the very least, I have a little crush.  Rome, you are my type -- gritty and full of heart.  When I walk the streets I am assaulted with the smells of spring, flowers blossoming, pollen ripe; and then, the smell of hot pavement, urine.

My heart opens and closes like the rising and falling chest that contains it.  I see women in head scarves kneeling, hands in prayer position, on the streets.  A boy with quiet eyes wanders the metro with his accordion.  He plays what sounds like 'Get On the Floor' by J-Lo.  I don't give him anything.  Men whistle low and slow as I walk to my hostel in the night.  Ruins are everywhere, sun bursting through the Colosseum.  An Indian man selling a laser light flashes the neon green on the Pantheon.  

I threw a coin into the fountain.  I sat on the Spanish steps.  I have seen far more seagulls than pigeons.  Mountains on gelato dripping down cones.  I paid too much (45 euro too much) to listen to the crackle of our tour guide through my earpiece and shuffle slowly with millions of other sweaty people in the Vatican.  It was the only 'site' I paid for.  I don't like tours.  I don't spend 45 euro on anything, except maybe train tickets.  What was I thinking?

This was a terrible idea.  You can see that now, can't you?  I nearly had a nervous breakdown.  To be fair, most of my life experiences almost result in nervous breakdowns, but this was up there with the skiing incident.

It was worse than Disneyland.  You couldn't enjoy anything.  And, if I am being honest, I can only look at so many naked angel statues and exuberant Jesues, so much God and gold.

In the Sistine Chapel, shoulders and knees are supposed to be covered, people are supposed to be quiet, and no one is supposed to take photos.  It was buzzing with chatter and the quick glare of camera flashes.  I walked through quickly, searching for the exit sign.  Exiting the Vatican was an event in and of itself.  Being outside felt like a breath of fresh air, even if it was 38 celcius.

On the plus side, I now have many creepy, religious, and geometrical photos to show you.

For some travel advice, if the line is several hours long to get into the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel, the line is not what you should worry about.  It is the amount of people that will be inside.  I would seriously reconsider visiting if it is so busy.  It is not a pleasant experience.

Buy a fan from the guys who keep flapping fans in your face.  It feels like harassment, but they are onto something.

Also, the prime time to visit Trevi Fountain?  After a winning soccer match.  Drunken jubilation and street brawls mean the Police shut down parts of the city.

The city was drunk on futbol.  I watched the game from the bridge to Trastevere (the beyond) and Italy was fierce.  Italy won against Germany, and the city went wild.  I ate pasta at an outside cafe as taxis and motos coughed by, the horns incessant; boys arm in arm bouncing sloppily down the street.  The waiter, who stood by the special sign, did not look amused.

The party continued.  There was dancing on buses, flags waved and worn as capes.  Traffic was blocked.  Soccer balls were kicked high from the crowd.  Music blared.  I got a little high off it, so much passion.  I can't wait for Sunday.  If Italy wins, I predict an earthquake.

I made a wish at Trevi Fountain along with a million other people.

As usual, old men are very eager to help me with things (like directions, or buying bus tickets), and just as eager to ask me out for coffee afterwards.

As usual, I have had some misadventures.  I won't get into details, but I have gained a deeper understanding of my own strength.

Rome, I love you dearly and all, but I'm off for a smaller town tomorrow.  Ciao bella.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Trip to the Principal's Office

I was inches from quitting.  

The principal sat at the head of the table, Kathryn on my right, and our contact teacher and translator fidgeted across from us.

It would feel good, I told myself.

This time the room was cooler, air conditioning whirling faster than my mind.  My eyes were red, cheeks as well, and I was mortified that he might think I had been crying on his account.

Many at the school seem to fear the principal, but me?  Nope.  And I get the sense that he can feel this, and it doesn't float his boat, it revs his engine.  I think he expected dissidence, but that's not my thing.  I have spent a long time trying to be small, but not now.  Either way, in my humble (and diplomatic) opinion, he is all growl and no groin, if you catch my drift.

So we are sitting there, and I can't even listen to what he is saying, his words coming through our contact teacher.  I think about quitting.  Two things are circling my head like a caged bird, squawkingly frantic: 'Why would I stay here?  I am not happy.'  It is not my life anymore, it is a movie, and I have dreamed up a new ending for myself: the phone calls to my family, the blog entry, even -- how drastic it would be, to quit.  I am either deeply unhappy or craving some kind of rush.  My mouth waters, I can taste it, the words I could say.  I swallow them, and they push the inside of my throat like small fists.

And then I am pulled back to the smooth table, where my hands probably shouldn't be resting.

We are here, in the principal's office, because of a 'miscommunication.'

Kathryn and I scheduled a trip to Greece for June 17th, two days after school lets out.  The principal found out, and informed our contact teacher that because we extended our contract, we were obligated to stay in Szeged for the first two weeks in June to be on-call, as the other teachers do.  Teachers who are Hungarian and work on exams, I might add.

Was this work obligation mentioned when we signed the contract?  No.  In fact, the words 'There are no changes to the contract' were spoken.  He was apparently offended that we didn't ask him to take vacation time.  We had no idea we needed to ask, as we thought we were free after the 15th.

But there we were.  In a meeting.  Totally unprepared for what was about to come.

Basically, it went like this:

Principal: "How did the kids do this year?"

Me: "Uuuuhhh... it depends on the kid?"

Principal: "You need to substitute 40 hours unpaid throughout the next school year.  We gave you something, you need to give us something in return."

Me: "I don't understand what we would be doing for those 40 hours in June, as we don't work on exams.  What would we be doing?  When would we need to come in?"

Principal: "Nem tudom."  (I don't know)

Me: "Well, this puts us in a difficult situation, because if we had known we needed to stay, we would not have booked our tickets."

Principal: "You need to substitute 40 hours to make up for this time."

Notice there were no lines that went like, "I am sorry we didn't tell you," "We should have told you about this," or "We really should have translated the school's contract into English for you since you don't speak Hungarian."

It was just this: "You need to work the 40 hours."

It seemed pretty unreasonable since, in all likelihood, we would not be needed for those two weeks.  Our duties and capabilities do not go beyond the English classroom.  We are working in a Hungarian school system -- a language and a culture that we are not fluent in.

We went back-and-forth, trying to get information, and then I did something both the principal and I will always remember.

"The CETP [the organization we both work with] contract says that teachers only need to stay if there are exam obligations," I said, placing the contract on the table, "so I am confused about why we need to stay."

Apparently, you never, ever, ever pull out a contract during a meeting with a Hungarian.

What happens?

A phone call to the CETP Hungarian head lady, flailing arms, fire spewing from ears, and a meeting adjourned.  Essentially, we were kicked out of his office.

This is when the crying started.

Amidst many phone calls to our CETP contact person (who informed me that, had I not missed the orientation [due to my late placement], I would have known how better to handle the situation, because you 'can never debate with a Hungarian') and unsolicited advice from other teachers at the school, I stood in front of the window, tears sliding down my cheeks.

I saw one of my co-workers on the park bench, smoking.  The trees were sweet.  I imagined their long branches tenderly dabbing jasmine perfume on the trunks.  The birds sang, oblivious.

I didn't know if I wanted to stay.  I didn't know if I wanted to what was needed in order for me to stay and survive.  Appeasing to the principal?  Adjusting to never knowing what is happening at school, being forgotten, being informed of an extra class 5 minutes before it begins?  I felt pretty sure I was capable of making these changes (I knew I needed to be the one to change instead of expecting the situation to change, since I had tried that for the last few months, and it wasn't working), but here's the thing.  I didn't know if I wanted to make those changes.  How much of myself would I have to sacrifice in order to do this job successfully?

Hearing from another teacher confirmed my suspicions that our positions are, in a way, resented.  She mentioned that the other teachers might feel uncomfortable if they knew we had the time off and they didn't, especially because our flat and the utilities are paid for, we work less than the other teachers, etc.  And I found out that when we have asked the vice principal for time off in the past, other teachers have covered for us, unpaid.  I had no idea this was happening, and it just added to the sour lurch in my stomach.

I felt a little bit wounded about the whole situation.

It seems to be a reoccurring theme: being left in the dark.  Not being aware of something until after the damage is done.

But I also felt a little bit spiky, resentful, self-righteous even.  The nature of our positions are different than other teachers.  We signed different contracts, we have different job descriptions.

We were also reminded (or told; it did seem vaguely threatening) how good we have it in so many ways.  The exceptions that have been made for us (which, in my mind, do not count if we do not know they are exceptions!), the improvements on the flat, the list went on . . .

And this is where it got tricky.

I understand how blessed we are in many ways with this job.  However, the situation we found ourselves in that day?  Not on my list of gratitudes.  For me, one positive thing does not cancel out a negative.

I also think that comparisons between us and other teachers is a bit too apples-and-oranges.

But, I understand the tenderness of these issues from a cultural sensitivity perspective.

So what was I supposed to do?

How much was I supposed to sacrifice for cultural sensitivity's sake?

After speaking with our CETP contact person, we were informed that we needed to work the 40 hours for beaurocratic reasons.  Because we are technically teachers like everyone else (although let me tell you that in reality, this is sooo not the case) we have to work those 40 hours so that the paperwork is on the up-and-up.

Why wasn't this mentioned in the meeting?

The meeting turned sour so quickly, and looking back, I can see many ways it could have been avoided.  Of course, many of them have to do with the principal changing his ways and not me, so already I am a bit suspicious of my own big ego.

This new information is a bit of game changer, and neutralizes the situation, but for me it's already too late.  At this point, I am still crying in the teacher's lounge.  My calendar is double-booked: work crisis and existential crisis.  I need to find a new secretary.

Our contact teacher keeps touches my shoulder gingerly and tells me, "Don't be stressed."  Her eyes are wide and flicking around my face, as if searching for something.

She also breaks the cardinal rule of Having Contact with Someone when They Cry, which is: "Thou shall not hug the crying person AND ask them to stop crying at the same time."  Everyone knows that if someone hugs you when you are upset, you will just cry more.  There are even studies.  Like, all of the times I have studied what happens when people hug me and I am upset.  The statistics are frightening.  I should really make a pie chart.

Trying not to cry in the finance office as we gather paperwork, I realize how ridiculous it is.  My contact teacher tells me not to cry, and I think, "Are you really going to do this your whole life, Jess?  Not have your feelings?"  Damn, I was asking myself good questions.

So this is what I told my contact teacher: "I know it is not a good time or place, but I just need to cry."

Because, as usual, my tears were not really about just one thing.  As usual, the situation found a tender spot in me and started poking at it until the hurt underneath it released.

I am not ready, but we are back inside his cool office.

I can't hear or process anything because the bird is still circling.

Salt is in my mouth, pebbles in my throat.  The idea of quitting coats my tongue.  My eyes sting and my insides buzz.

I told myself I would just come in and see what happened.  If I needed to quit, I would.  If I needed to cry or scream, I would, even though I was really hoping not to.

I think he says something like, "There was a misunderstanding, but you understand now."  It is not even a question.

"Now," Kathryn says in Hungarian, the word rolling its eyes in her mouth.

He keeps speaking, words coming through our contact teacher.  He takes no responsibility for the miscommunication, but he is glad we now understand.

"In Hungary, the verbal agreement is more important than the written agreement.  The problem is when someone gets out the paper."

It is quiet and awkward as a gulp.  You should have seen my face: the very picture of guilt and chagrin.  The principal has just made a dig at me for getting the contract out.

I start to ... explain myself? defend myself? but then I double back and go with "Semmi," it's nothing.  Which it isn't, but I can't think of anything to say that he is willing to hear.

The other thing that is totally hilarious?  There was no verbal agreement (or information, even) about us needing to work in June!

And for the grand finale, he asks us if we will agree to the 40 unpaid hours of substituting.  We say yes.  And then he says: "I do not want to write it on the contract so this will just be a spoken agreement."

Why did I say yes to this?

Who knows, but keep reading, and maybe you will find out.  Hopefully I will too.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Meeting the Neighbors

Would you like to meet your neighbors, but you don't quite know how to make it happen?  It's true that we are beyond the days of bringing house plants, and sometimes banana bread seems too pushy, not to mention the possibilities of nut allergies.  Well.  I have just the thing for you.  Flood the bathroom.  It is just as effective as bringing a casserole, with no worries about gluten sensitivities or getting your pan back.

Didn't get enough of a feel for them, or just craving more human interaction?  Simply flood the bathroom again.

It takes almost zero effort, especially if your washing machine is like ours -- shitty.


Back in January, our bathroom flooded.  Kathryn was the first to discover it.

In our apartment, we have what I fondly call Bathroom Part 1 and Bathroom Part 2.  

Part 1 is a "water closet" which houses this funky toilet that was probably installed during the Communist era.  

Part 2 is home to our shower, peeling paint (from said shower, because the head is shifty, like a ninja, or a hyperactive child, and wildly sprays water pretty much everywhere but on your body), and a washing machine.  

The washing machine drains into the tub.  Or, it is supposed to.  On this night, an inch of water covered the floor, sloshing around like a living, breathing liquid lint monster. 

"There is probably a drain in the floor," Kathryn says to me.  "Knowing our apartment, there is probably a hole..." we are cackling madly at this point.


No one is laughing at 11 p.m.when the doorbell rings.  I am mildly terrified, thinking of Worst Case Scenarios (one of which includes an Eötvös gimnazium student alumni/stalker at our door to deliver more drawings of cats, but that's another story) as I peek out through the chain latch.

"Szia?" (Hello)  I ask into the dark hallway.

Three guys our age stand outside in pajama bottoms and sweatshirts.  Hair is ruffled and eyes look tired.  "Hallo," someone says to me, "Angolul?"

"Igen," I say, sliding the chain lock off the door and opening it wider.  "Sziasztok," I say to all of them.

"We live... downstairs."

"Oh!  Visz!!  (water)  Sajnálom, sajnálom, sajnálom!"  I say with a hand over my mouth -- sorry, sorry, sorry.

The boys seem mildly concerned.  They are the definition of mildly concerned.  With gentle English and soft voices, we talk about the water that is dripping from our bathroom to theirs.

The boy with stubble and a black Szeged University sweatshirt that fits tightly over his chubby belly asks, "Can you fix it?"  His eyes dart from me to the bathroom.  "When can you fix it?"

"I will fix it now," I assure them.

With leggings rolled up above my knees, and I am hoping this gives me handywoman street cred.  

I am so relieved these three sweet and disheveled boys are at our door, and not the other possibilities.  An angry old Hungarian incapable of smiling and speaking English but capable of yelling in Hungarian?  Our cat-obsessed stalker?  The rendőrség (police)?

I go back to the flood, and try my hand at different un-flooding techniques.  Sweeping the water into a dustpan with a hand-held broom is more successful than mopping.  

You know.  Just in case you would like to use this great neighbor-meeting strategy.


So.  Fast-forward to today, June 9th.

There is another ring at the door, and you guessed it, the washer flooded again.  Unbeknownst to me, as I was sleeping.

This time the downstairs neighbor spoke zero English.  This is the gist of our conversation, thanks to

szerelő hivni már -- mechanic hivni already
ask -- kérdez
talk to -- beszélgetés
before laundryhose in tub.  -- mosoda előtt, harisnya kádban.
after, hose falls out of tub? -- a tömlő kiesik kádból?
lakótárs -- housemate
nincsek itt -- she's not here
waterfall -- vízesés

After many sajnáloms from me, and many clicking noises from him, he leaves, and I get out mop and dustpan and get to work.

When the bathroom is back to normal, I take a shower and crawl back into bed.  


Not an hour later, I hear a doorbell, but it sounds faint, and I figure it's not ours.  When I hear keys in the door, I am sure Kathryn is home.  I get out of bed and find a pair of pants.

This is the moment that I see an older man peeking through the crack of my door.  

"Pardon, pardon!"  

Who is this French dude in my apartment?

He keeps saying "Pardon" but he doesn't move.  

"Egy perc!" One minute! I say, pulling my pants on and shaking my head.

I go into the hallway and an older man with white hair is standing with his son, who is about 15 years old.    He looks relatively unscarred, considering.  Who knows what he saw.

"Pardon, pardon!"  the older man keeps saying.  Is this all he says?

"Semmi.. mindégy.." I stumble.  It's nothing, don't worry about it...

He thrusts an identity card at me.  "Hadju Géza," he says.

Oh.  Not a Frenchman.  My landlord.  


And now I've met everyone. I hope.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Grief and Cinnamon

1. Two people I know and love died this week, and I keep smelling cinnamon on the walk to work.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver

2. Van Gogh got grief right:

Sorrowing Old Man (at Eternity's Gate)

Although, I might revise the pose to a fetal position under heavy, twisted blankets.  And I see he forgot to paint tissues scattered on the floor.  Tsk, tsk.

3. I don't know how to teach anymore.

Can I just write this on the board and tell the kids to meditate on it?

That might require a little bit of teaching, but it should be fairly simple.  To elicit the word 'meditate', I will just start doing it.

Okay, maybe not so simple.

And is it possible this question is in the accusative?  Or is it just me a) trying desperately to get it to relate to grammar and ESL in some way, or b) feeling a bit touchy because I lack direction?

4. This happened in class today: 


My tenth graders and I were talking and learning about dreams.  The kind you have at night.

Laci - What if your whole life was actually a dream and you woke up like a baby?
Me - Ooooh. Maybe this is a dream. Maybe we're dreaming right now...
Gabor - This dream sucks.


5. In summary, that is a good word/sound/feeling for my current state: ouch.

Last night the sky split open in fists of thunder and shards of lightning and today the air is gray and thick.  I don't even have to come up with my own metaphors.

I keep thinking I am done crying, and then I'm not.

I have decided to 'joyfully participate in life's sorrows' and grieve, which is fine and everything, but after about 5 minutes of it I can't really tell the difference between Jessica In Grief and Jessica the Rest of the Time.  

Should I be concerned?


6. Woody Allen said it best: "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

That's reasonable, right?



7. Maybe it's a little bit like this:


I sure hope so.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hídi Vásár - Bridge Festival

Last weekend was the Bridge Festival, or Hídi Vásár.  The bridge was bustling with people and vendors.  

Reason #1352 I am a Bad Blogger: I have no pictures of said vendors.

However, I did get a picture of the view from the bridge, and the Tisza was beautiful as ever.  Just look at those show-off clouds.

Fun fact: the yellow building in the background is the Pick salami factory.

At Borfest, the wine festival that has been going on for two weeks in Széchenyi Ter, we tried wine from the many wine regions in Hungary and saw some incredible (and not so incredible) live music.  

This guy was in the incredible category.  You could tell he was thinking of nothing else.  I am craving more activities that pull me into the present moment completely.  I want to spend more minutes of my life losing my mind, and music is better than drugs.

Kathryn and I met our contact teacher at the wine festival, and we smooshed our way through many drunk and chatty people in Dom Ter.  A crowd gathered to hear Quimby, a popular alternative Hungarian band.

Dom Ter

A cluster of Hungarian high school students growled like wild animals and bounced to the music.  Drinks sloshed, and their giggly rasps and roars, though reminiscent of dinosaurs or wild beasts, were puppy-dog infectious.

"Do you feel like you are back at the high school?" I asked my contact teacher.  She gave me a wry smile.

Just as Quimby was growing on me, I felt a warm hand sliding up and down my back.

"Sziiiiia!" (hello) I heard a male voice cry out.  He was one of the growly boys.
"Szia," I said noncomitally, without turning around.
"Attila vagyok! [and then something in Hungarian I don't recall/didn't understand.  Was this due to my lack of Hungarian language, or the growly, slap-happy nature of this 'conversation'?]"
"Besélek kicsit Magyarul," I told him: I speak a little Hungarian.
"Kicsit Magyarul?" he asked.  "Eeeeenglish??"
"Oh-k!"  He is chipper, he sounds game.  I can almost hear him rubbing his hands together and taking a deep breath.  "Hello my name is Attila!"
It comes out all at once.
"Jess vagyok." I say.
"Jess!!" he cries out.
And then, there is nothing to say.  
He goes back to growling, and I go back to swaying to the cheesy Hungarian beat.

And that was the Bridge Festival.