Last night, I attended a stranger’s wedding in a small Hungarian town. Three nights before that, I went swing dancing at a local club where, when I asked her in Hungarian if she spoke English, the woman at the front desk answered me in Spanish. Academic classes haven’t even started yet, and I’ve already learned how to navigate the public transportation, identified which Hungarian streets were disguised as London, Paris, and Rome in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” and deduced that Hungarian food is delicious but will probably kill me.
Last semester, I decided to study abroad through the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM). I had never been to Eastern Europe before, I could not speak a word of Hungarian, and I was not even technically a math major, since I’m still just a sophomore. Up until about two days before I enrolled in the program, I was actually convinced I wasn’t going to go at all. It was the realization that this was likely the only time in my life that I would have a chance to live in, or maybe even visit, Hungary, that pushed me to come.
I arrived about three weeks before beginning the eighty-hour intensive “Survival Hungarian” language course. I’m not sure how hard I expected learning the language (which is related only to Finnish and Estonian) to be, but it’s definitely been one of the most challenging undertakings I’ve embarked on in a while. Fortunately, nearly everyone in Budapest speaks English, so learning the language has been more of a fun challenge than a desperate necessity.
If you’ll excuse the linguistic aside, though, I do think it is a really neat language. You never have to ask someone’s preferred gender pronouns, because there is only one third-person pronoun (ő). You can also turn nearly any noun into a verb by adding the ending “zik” to it, creating the grammatically correct equivalent of telling someone that you are busy “interneting” (“internetezik”) or “breakfasting” (“reggelizik”). Their slang also rivals America’s for how little sense it makes. For example, instead of using “cool,” “sweet,” or “awesome,” they say “zsír,” “király,” or “tök jó,” which mean “fat,” “king,” and “pumpkin good,” respectively.
Aside from struggling to learn new pronunciations and how to order food, I’ve kept myself busy by visiting Budapest’s legendary “ruin pubs” (old Soviet buildings that have been turned into eclectically decorated bars), hiking up into the Buda hills, and relaxing in the naturally heated Széchenyi baths. This past weekend, I went on an overnight trip to a neighboring city called Eger, where I witnessed the aforementioned wedding and visited what is probably the third castle I’ve seen since I’ve been here.
These first three weeks have sort of been like freshman orientation all over again. BSM consists entirely of non-Hungarian (and mostly American) students. We were all desperate to become friends with each other as soon as we arrived, and, for the first week, we had trouble finding restaurants large enough to accommodate the packs in which we travelled. I was worried at first that going to a program that didn’t integrate us into a local student body would somehow make me feel less included in Hungarian life, but it’s been wonderful to be surrounded by people going through the same experience as I am, people who also want to travel and at times act like tourists. There will be loads of time for me to practice my Hungarian with the servers at restaurants and the little old lady who owns the cake shop across from my apartment.
I probably can’t end an article about studying abroad in Eastern Europe without including a few of the less than stellar things about it, but I want to be clear right off the bat that none of these things even begins to outweigh the amazing time I’ve been having here. But here we go. One, the showers are weird. You have to hold them while you’re using them, and if someone is washing the dishes with hot water in the other room, your shower is going to be cold. Two, there are no clothes dryers. When we tried to ask our Hungarian language teacher why this was, she had no idea what we were talking about, and we were forced to give up. Three, you can’t be super picky about food, since it’s really hard to find anything here that is exactly the same as it is at home. But really, it took me a long time to come up with that last one, because Budapest is amazing.
Viszontlátásra! (“Vees-on-law-taw-shrah!”—it means goodbye!)