It’s hard to believe we’ve only been in Hungary for a week, in some ways it feels like it has been months! The predominant feeling I've had since arriving has been an utter and complete contentedness. I struggled to decide where to study abroad, and feeling this at home in Hungary is a huge confirmation that I've made the right decision in coming here. I've never adjusted to a new country so quickly, and life here already feels surprisingly normal and comfortable. That aside, I’m still in complete awe that we get to study, serve, live, and be in such a beautiful city for four months. It feels unreal that this is now “home!”
St. Stephen's Day
Since arriving, we've had a full schedule involving unpacking, cleaning, and moving in; sightseeing; getting oriented to the city; connecting with Hungarian students; starting Hungarian lessons and more! On our third day in the city, August 20th, we celebrated Hungary’s largest national holiday, St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen’s Day commemorates the founding of Hungary and recognizes Stephen I, Hungary’s founder and first king, who was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083 (1).
We started the rainy day admiring the riverside stalls selling beautiful pastries, like the traditional Kürtőskalács (a long, hollow bread), varieties of wine (strawberry seemed to be popular), and other goods. After that we enjoyed a slice of the award-winning cake (every year a competition is held), had a lengthy kávé (coffee) stop, and observed mass at St. Stephen’s cathedral (followed by a procession where they parade St. Stephen’s alleged right hand preserved in a glass box for all to see – yes, you read that right). We ended the day by watching a fireworks show over the Danube.
How Do You Say “Struggle” in Hungarian?
This past week we’ve also begun Hungarian lessons and, boy, what a struggle it has been! Despite using a Roman alphabet, I’m finding Hungarian more difficult to learn than Khmer (which I picked up surprisingly easily in Cambodia). To me, the words look nothing like how they sound, and the sounds are so intangible. The words seem to go in one ear and out the other, leaving nothing but a headache! Yet there are the little moments where it clicks, or I pronounce a word correctly, and it is so rewarding.
The frustration and confusion that comes with learning a new language aside, I think it is our responsibility as travelers to strive to understand and, when reasonable, accommodate to the local culture. Even the limited phrases we learn in a local language is a gesture of respect and kindness. Particularly in a country like Hungary, where to communicate with the outside world you must learn to speak a language not your own.
It is also a good reminder that this frustration, and at times humiliation, is a daily reality for millions of immigrants and refugees around the world. As I bumble through Hungarian, I’m reminded to have extra grace and respect for those struggling to learn English in my own country.
The Warmest of Hospitality
A huge highlight of my time in Hungary so far has been how warmly we’ve been welcomed to Budapest by a small group of Hungarian students. A few of them attend one of the universities we will be studying at this semester, Károli Gáspár, and some even traveled to Calvin for interim this past January. They've gone above and beyond, and so out of their way, to reach out to us and make us feel at home – from meeting us at the airport, to teaching us a Hungarian dance, to planning social outings so we can get to know Budapest better.
One in particular, Lena, even welcomed us to her home in Csobánka, a village north of Budapest, for her sister’s birthday. Imagine inviting twenty loud, foreign strangers into your home! But what a treat it was for us. To be welcomed into a Hungarian home less than a week after our arrival, and to be able to see the countryside, was such a special experience. We had a beautiful evening filled with laughs, MANY cakes and pastries (they sure love their sweets here – not that I’m complaining), new friends, and even a sunset hike.
Savoring Everyday...and Savoring Gelato
As I mentioned, I already feel so at ease, at peace, and at home in Budapest which is an immense blessing. I simply enjoy life here and all of the little, seemingly mundane moments that make up the everyday. I really believe that these are the things that often determine our happiness and that, at the end of our lives, will truly matter; the small moments of beauty and joy and even hardship that shape who we are and how we live.
Already there have been so many lovely little moments here. Enjoying rich gelato so creatively shaped like a rose, riding the tram along the Danube at night as the city lights blur past, sharing a hot chocolate and a conversation, the hilarity of 16 people trying to simultaneously cook in our tiny kitchen, turning a street corner and stumbling upon a hidden café… everyday is full of these moments.
After living the past two years with a fast-paced life where I often don’t stop to notice or appreciate the beauty of the everyday, this is what I want this semester to be about. I want to study and do meaningful work, but I also want to explore, read, have time for people and conversations, invest in my faith, develop interests I've been forced to ignore, and rest. I want to enjoy life and savor every little moment of everyday. So here’s to living a good life full of richness and rest, and to 17 more weeks of adventure in Budapest!