Another kitchen sunrise in a land of bread but no bagels. The morning light through my eastern-facing flat and the smell of the bakeries on every street corner are motivation enough to wake early. My students eat breakfast between first and second period, when they have fifteen minutes to gnaw on small loaves of bread, accompanied occasionally by chocolate or cheese. Most mornings, I try to “be healthy” and eat Honey Nut Cheerios—and although they taste comfortingly American, I know I will stop by the bakery at some point for a kakaós csiga.* I have yet to see a bagel.
It is Monday morning and I have been teaching English to Hungarians for two weeks. I tell myself that this will be the week that I will finally memorize and correctly pronounce all of my students’ names. As I eat my Cheerios, I look over my class notes, where I have written things like: “remember that Zsombor goes by Zsombi — pronounced ZSHOMbie and not ZOMbie.” Calling one of your students a zombie does nothing to calm a group of already energetic eight year olds.
My blackboard handwriting is terrible, and my students are loud, especially second grade. At this age, they only want to play four corners, a game which allows them to race to all corners of the room, each of which are given labels that correspond to the vocabulary words we are learning. Today, the four corners of the classroom will be “potatoes, onions, cucumbers and carrots.” Cucumbers is a very humorous word for this class because “Cucu” is the nickname of one of my students. (Yes, they all have nicknames. ALL OF THEM.) It is pronounced “Tsu-Tsu.” Therefore, cucumbers will forever be “tsu-tsumbers.”
It is Thursday and I have my favorite group of fourth graders. We are studying animals, and no one knows the English word for “sloth.” Nandi and Zalán repeat the Hungarian word over and over while turning side-ways in their chairs, leaning backwards, and dangling their feet and arms in the air. When I say “sloth?” the entire class erupts in joyful comprehension.
It is Saturday and all of the students at Aquincum Primary School and their families are in the schoolyard by 8:30 a.m. for the Szüreti fesztivál. Everyone is busy building small fires over which to cook goulash in bogrács, which are basically cauldrons. Because I teach several different classes, I visit all of my students’ stations, most of which offer me chocolate cakes, which I gratefully accept. My first graders often forget that I cannot understand their native language. Some of their parents know limited English and try to translate for me. This is how I find out that Atina has told me, “I wish you were my mother.” I give my student’s real mother a nervous and surprised look, but she is laughing, so I give my Atina a hug (a universal language) and say “nem anya.” The surprise of me uttering two Hungarian words is exciting enough to distract her from the fact the translation is “not mother,” and she begins expectantly chattering away to me in more Hungarian. I smile and eat my cake.
My students who aren’t monitoring their bogrács fires or offering me cakes or wishing that I gave birth to them are crushing grapes to make wine. Several Hungarian parents in attendance ask me what the English translation for this activity is, and I can’t think of anything to say besides, “making wine,”—sometimes adding the unnecessary qualifier—“from grapes.” One of my colleagues gives me a recycled Nestea bottle that she has filled with the pressed grape juice. I have never been a lover of not-yet-fermented fruit juices, but this tastes delicious, even at room temperature and with the occasional seed. I keep the bottle in my fridge for a week, taking one sip a day in order to make it last.
While I wait for the goulash to be ready, I watch the girls perform traditional Hungarian folk dances in brightly colored skirts. It completely throws me off guard when an American father pauses his tape recorder between dances and begins speaking to me. I forget that English is my first language and struggle to form more complex sentences than, “I love Budapest” and “I teach English.”
As the morning continues, more vegetables, beans, sausage and potatoes are added to the soups. There are over twenty bogrács, including an enormous one in the center of the schoolyard with a bean goulash in it. I can tell this is a special soup because it is being prepared by a man who is wearing what seems to be a real chef’s uniform (sans hat). It is also the only goulash served in glass bowls and not plastic.
I am a teacher, so I am offered the special bean goulash, which I eat at a table with my principal and the special bean soup goulash chef, and though neither of them know a word of English, speaking is unnecessary in front of such culinary success. To be on the safe side, I give the chef a thumbs up and a big smile and say, “It is very good.” I finish my enormous bowl of soup to make sure he understood.
Pregnant with at least two Hungarian food babies and sticky from receiving hugs from at least twenty chocolate-fingered seven year olds, I walk home instead of taking the tram.
Three days later, my fall coat still smells of woodsmoke and paprika.
*Kakaós Csiga -a chocolate twist. the direct translation is actually “chocolate snail.” http://www.napsutode.hu/termekek/edespek/kakaoscsiga640.jpg
Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.