Please welcome today’s guest writer, Erin Smith. Erin graduated in 2015 with an English literature major and Dance minor. After bouncing around Budapest for a year, she is back to living in Grand Rapids, working in publishing. She enjoys most things.
After graduating from Calvin College, I moved to a Communist-style block apartment building in northern Budapest, surrounded by neighbors of smoking senior citizens and screeching pigeons.
That move was laughably unoriginal.
Troops of graduates from Calvin have packed their bags and “moved abroad” to fumble with language in all kinds of ways. Personally, I have known many. Significantly, I knew of a particular graduate who lived in the same dorm I did while at Calvin, graduated with the same English degree, moved abroad to the same city, taught English as a Second Language in the same school, and lived in the same apartment. I’m pretty sure I used her old mug every morning for coffee.
(In case you’re wondering, the similarities haven’t diminished – she also writes on this blog.)
The knowledge of my mimicry tempered the multitudes of accolades I received from friends and family for my “adventurism.” They saw my move to Budapest as a daring step into the unknown – which, undeniably, it was in some significant ways. However, when I found my predecessor’s clipboard, book of short stories, and spatula scattered around my room, I was tempted to see my move as a predictable step on an already well-worn path.
The class of seventh graders I taught was the same group of students that she had taught two years ago. On my very first day, when I tried to gather their scattered attention, one girl yelled on my behalf, “Shut up, I mean it!” To my bewilderment, everyone laughed.
“Two years ago,” she explained, “Ms. Caroline used to always yell ‘Shut up, I mean it!’ to get our attention. It was her catchphrase.”
“Oh, okay.” I vowed never to say “Shut up, I mean it.”
But my students said it.
When the chatter became too loud and I clapped my hands or yelled “Hold up, guys!” someone inevitably shouted, “Shut up, I mean it!” It refocused their attention, but the words made me cringe. To me, those words meant: They see me as another version of an old teacher they had in a long line of American girls with American names that revolved in and out through the years. We all had brown hair, weird accents, and a struggling ability to get them to be quiet.
When I heard Ms. Caroline’s “catchphrase” or used her dishware, I was faced with the question: Is this my adventure, or was it hers? Do I work in her job, or did she work in mine? Did she live here, or do I? And whose bedsheets are these, really?
Sometimes, I felt like an imposter. I would remove her old paintings from the walls and replace them with my postcards, hoping that if I decorated like the place was mine, maybe it would be.
But other times, I was able to reconcile myself in the space. The crumbled Roman ruins I passed every day on my way to school reminded me that this entire globe is a well-worn path. It’s littered with rusting structures and ancient engravings. I was living in Ms. Caroline’s old home, but I was also living in Attila the Hungarian’s old home and Augustus the Roman’s old home. Some histories were more recent than others, but my story was layered on top of them all the same.
So my answer to the question about whose life or adventure I lived became simply Yes. Yes, it was a home. Yes, it was a job. And yes, it was an adventure.