No Proof of Petra Necessary
We ate chicken soup with long, thin noodles, then turned to the main courses of wedding potatoes and beer-friend chicken. It was new to me, back home we only know how to beer-batter fish on Friday nights. Then Petra and I excused ourselves so that our two-party conversation, playfully uninhibited around the ears of non-English speakers, wouldn’t feel as awkward.
Things have progressed with Petra to the point where I actually know to say her name now. I must admit I still make mistakes, though, when I forget to concentrate. It’s "pet-tra," as opposed to the "pay-tra" that I had been saying for so long. Start out saying the word "pet," as if you were talking about a dog or cat, but then chop downwards with a rolled "r" and an almost-aspirated "a." No word yet, though, on whether the ending should be most exactly a "tra," "chtra" or "chra" sound. I figure just nailing the beginning syllable is battle enough.
We see each other once a week, sometimes twice. Our conversations have a relaxed comfort in them, but also a flirtatious energy. In a flash of domestication that makes me panic in retrospect, we opted to watch Dances with Wolves on TV Saturday night instead of going to the disco.
And truth be told, we also take pleasure in the warmth of the human kiss. We wondered and wandered, but it didn’t take us too long to realize that we are not exactly soul mates. Not much compatibility beyond language. Petra is like this whole damn country, in most regards. For example, she likes to discriminate more than she likes to recycle. I’m content to be the opposite. This one girl showcases the complete opposition I feel to Hungarian inclination big chunks of the time.
An example from just today. My neighbor Erika, a history teacher and the washer of my dirty laundry, yelled at me for filling up the garbage can. Over the weekend, I felt a primordial spring-time urge to clean up the litter on Deak Ferenc utca, the street I walk down every day in front of our house. It’s some sort of an answer to a divine discontent, a tangible way I can feel good about making the world a better place, if only for a moment. These Hungarians look at such altruism differently: it’s somebody else’s trash.
The little two-block stretch around my house yielded two bags of trash, which meant that Erika and the other gal who I share a wall with weren’t able to cram their garbage in. I delighted in the unfortunate humor that this complaint was filed by someone who mindlessly tosses recyclable plastic (big liter jugs!) into the trash can without a moment’s hesitation. That’s what’s filling the can up! The recyclables crying out desperately to be reduced, reused, recycled! Unfortunately, it turns out that Petra doesn’t recycle, either.
You crave another example, beyond environmentalism? A story. We were in Tokaj two weekends ago. Over a dozen American teachers crammed into a tiny wine cellar to sample the delightful whites of one of the world’s foremost stretches of vineyard. Kings, nobles, and poets have raved about the joys of Tokaj’s best for centuries, and here it was, in our little plastic cups. We had brought so many people into the wine cellar that they had run out of glass stemware.
The weekend that surrounded the wine was good, too. Jenna and Yerik are delightful hosts in Nyiregyhaza, just a short train ride from the hills of Tokaj.
Thanksgiving Elli lives in Nyiregyhaza, too, and she was in desperate need of some American friendship in her study-abroad-world. I was only too happy to provide that. It was fun to talk again and meet her host brother and Hungarian boyfriend. She confided that as much as her smile and friendship had meant to me at Thanksgiving -- the epicenter of my most difficult stage in Hungary -- that evening of introduction and intrigue was just as important to her. She was disappointed that I hadn’t asked for her number right then and there.
But 18-year-olds have curfews, and the rest of us went out when Elli went home. One girl met a Hungarian boy, one fended another off, and the rest of us went home after an uneventful evening. But on that walk home, we came across a drunk, a man-boy we had first met at the train station hours and hours ago.
His name was Szabolcs, he re-greeted us like long lost friends. In truth, we had been quite relieved when lost him and his friends at the train station. They were obnoxiously drunk, and their overly-friendly demeanor quickly turned harassing, even under the late afternoon sun.
Now, well past midnight, he was still somehow upright. He chased after us when we tried to covertly walk past. No such luck. He started to strike up a mumbled conversation, until he noticed my coat.
A left-over from March 15th, I still was wearing a red-white-and-green tricolor ribbon on my coat, the great common-denominator of all those celebrating Hungary’s history and patriotism two weeks previous. Etelka had given it to me. She and everyone else smiled when they saw that I was still wearing it, they would boast that I am more Hungarian than even the Hungarians.
Szabolcs, though, would have none of it. He grabbed it with his fingers, pulling at my coat. "No," he shrieked, in a jumbling combination of languages. "You’re a foreigner, you can’t wear that," I understood him to say.
Everyone else kept walking, but I was ready to argue the point. "I know what it means," I said, then offered a brief outline of Hungary’s 1848 history, hoping to impress the lad with a regurgitation of big English words. And yeah, I am proud of Hungary’s revolutions from afar. It’s not an easy thing to do, to stand up and die for your freedom from the rule of others.
He was sticking to his corporate line, though, whining "You not Hungarian!" That point is hard to argue. And as the confrontation progressed, he slowly slid into a desperation. He was like a confused bear, half crying and half nearly violent over a ribbon.
After debate, I tried walking. After walking, I tried running. He was still there. The issue wouldn’t solve itself. It wasn’t worth it, I handed him the ribbon. Who would want to boast Hungarian pride if this is what it looked like?
There are about 20 Americans that came to Hungary with me. We all have shared much of the same experience, but we all have our own take on it. Many, certainly more than I would have originally expected, have signed on with great gusto in the past month for year number two. I think my own personal truth is that Hungary and I aren’t permanently compatible. We look at the world differently, but it sure has been fun being here this year. I learned a lot, I felt new feelings, I was inspired to write, yada yada yada. Petra is Hungary. We aren’t compatible except in the shortest of time frames, we’re just different. But it’s fun sharing spring with someone. I learn a lot, I feel feelings, I write. The usual.
But matters of the heart, as they say, have consequences. And Friday night somebody not-named-Jeremy got a little carried away. I wasn’t worried at the time. And Saturday it was rather funny to have to wear a scarf sitting next to her at her family’s dinner table. But Sunday, though, when the necklace of note hadn’t begun to fade, I was a little more worried and a little more disgruntled.
At Camp Nan-A-Bo-Sho, I had the same problem once, the same reminder of a night well-spent on the side of my neck. At camp, as a general rule of thumb, problems are easier to solve. It took only a few minutes of brainstorming. I quickly declared that Sunday to be the start of Western week, donning a well-placed bandana over my neck and a bucket hat pulled lower over my eyes. There was a twinkle in Sara’s eye as we escaped the hot seat. The staff giggled all week, the kids were none the wiser, and we all managed to have good fun with cowboys that week.
But now I’m a teacher in a town of 10,000 folks. The young rock-star American who everyone in the town knows by first name And first name only, strangely enough. Elvis. Madonna. Jeremy. And here comes that guy, sauntering into school on Monday with, ahem, multiple deep-red marks, like a gaudy necklace strung haphazardly around my neck. Vörös, not piros. And bad, not good.
I went through multiple outfits Monday morning, trying to find anything that would offer a trace of cover for my debauchery. I refused to wear the scarf again and I plum forgot all my turtlenecks in childhood drawers back home. I settled on three vaguely collared shirts, all the collars propped at various angles skyward. Not well hidden, I marched off to school uncertain of how well my conceal and carry plan would work.
Within a minute of stepping into the school, I had my answer. It would not work at all. The pointing and starring, snide comments in a foreign tongue, began immediately. I had set myself up for possibly the worst day of teaching, the most embarrassing point, in my illustrious career.
I avoided any and all eye contact in the teachers’ office before the first lesson, then dashed off to the first class. A group of German-speaking ninth-graders. I was hopeful, trusting in their youthful innocence, but that faith was misplaced. Their jaws hit the floor immediately. I grimaced. But I managed to smile through the grimace.
After scrawling the word "hickey" on the board, I began to tell the kids a story. I told that same story to four other groups of kids that Monday, in whichever language they study. "I was thinking about you guys this weekend," I start, just as soon as I could get their attention.
"And I know that (insert the appropriate language here) lesson isn’t always that excited." They nod like they’ve never nodded before. "So I took to wondering, how can I make class more exciting for you guys this week?"
With a flourish, I present my idea: "I realized that if I got a hickey this weekend, you all would be tremendously fascinated, even captivated, and have something to talk about." That’s when I whip out the scarlet letters branded onto the sides of my neck. They gasp.
For a minute they bounce up and down in their seats, regardless of age, shouting "Ki?! Ki?! Ki?!" louder than Kat in a quiet Greek restaurant. It’s the question "who?" repeated over and over in Hungarian. It takes a while to simmer them to the point where I can give instructions over the sound of their voices.
"Take out a piece of paper and write two stories about how I wound up with red marks on my neck this weekend. Only one can involve a girl," I demand. For some reason, they listen this week. They’re mesmerized, whipping out paper and writing utensils like a grade depended on it.
For 20 minutes they create thoughts in English or German, pausing only to ask the past participle form of "suck" or if the present continuous form of "bite" has an "e" in it. Then, to giggles, they read their stories out loud.
As the last student closes the last syllable on their story, they all spin towards me and hush in eager anticipation. "I was reading a book this weekend," I begin, the same speed and tone I would use around a campfire. As if to prove the point, I show them the book in my hand. I had picked it off the shelf five minutes earlier. The title? The Throat.
"But you know that I’m not perfect in English, I don’t know every single word," I admit, to both English and German classes. "And I was confused by the title of the book, The Throat. I wasn’t sure what it meant." The kids look at me a little confused. Most of them know what throat means.
"So I got on my cell phone and called the best English student in the school, a girl named Gitta and asked her what throat means. She said she didn’t know, it was too hard of a word. She said I should call Bencsik Peter." Peter’s the most native of the non-native English teachers at our school.
"So I called Peter and asked him about the word throat," I continue. Most are still interested in the story, but I lose some in each class. "He said he’d never seen the word before, said he couldn’t be sure what it meant. He told me to call some Americans and ask."
"So I dialed up some American teachers here in Hungary. But none of them were any help, no one knew what the word throat meant. I was sad all weekend."
"When I came into school this morning, I was still sad. But your English teacher, (insert her name here), came up to me and asked why I was sad," I say. Whether their regular English teacher is the 50-year-old Etelka, the 40-year-old Kati, or the 30-year-old Csilla, the looming punchline still works to the children’s delight.
"I looked at your teacher and told her that I’m sad because I couldn’t figure out one silly English word, it was driving me crazy. The word throat." I tell the kids.
"Oh, that’s an easy word, your teacher told me," I say to the kids, building the joke to where it needs to be. "And that’s when she said I can teach it to you! And guys, that’s when she leaned into my neck and planted two long kisses on my neck and starts sucking my throat!"
The smart ones gasp, mortified. I don’t start to laugh and smack the book against the table in mock humor until after they’ve mostly finished the Hungarian translation for the slower kids. And that’s when I start to say "April Fools! April Fools!" I must say I’ve been lucky, almost all the time the bell has rung right on that cue.
And the other times? Well, I still consider myself lucky, getting away with hickeys as a lesson plan, woven so closely alongside April Fools day mayhem that most of the kids are left wondering if I just painted to red splotches on my neck for the fun of it. An April Fools joke on my neck.
And I guess that’ll leave you wondering if all of Petra, the whole damn story, is just an April Fools joke in my head.