Now I Really Live Here


Imagine these three things in a single week: finishing my manuscript before tomorrow (it’s all done except for a final endnote check and a few last touches); administering an English oral exam, from morning to late afternoon, to prospective students; and dealing with a paperwork emergency (a rather ordinary occurrence).

My colleagues, as well as the school’s financial officers, the principal, and the CETP, have been helping me with the paperwork logistics, which, over the past few months, have improved my labyrinthine skills and sensibilities. Despite confusion, runarounds, exclamations of “what?” and “miért?” the sense of absurdity, and what have you, we are making steady progress: I have a bank account, residence permit, tax number, health insurance number, and various other things that took a while and seemed mildly impossible. I am finally getting paid. There have been side benefits too; somehow, through all this, though I don’t know how or where, I learned the word következő.

Most countries have bureaucracy, I suspect, but it’s different in each place. In the U.S., services and offices are streamlined but overloaded; there’s always a number to call, but you might spend an hour on the phone, on repeated occasions, trying to get through to a person (who might be in Singapore). Here in Szolnok (and, from what I gather, in Hungary generally), you can’t resolve much by phone. You must go to the individual offices with all your paperwork, speak with someone, show proof of your existence and legitimacy, learn that you are missing a required form, come back with it the next day, proceed in this manner for a while, finally get everything signed, proclaim your relief over finishing it all–only to be told, out of the blue, weeks or months later, that something from a few months ago never got done, that it’s an emergency now, and that you must go to three different offices to resolve the matter. At first this just seems par for the course; the first three or four (or five or six) forms and office visits don’t rattle you. But after a few months, you finally grasp, with sinking mind, that it is part of the local human condition. Everyone goes through it in some way. Fortunately people help each other; not only at school, but at the offices themselves, I have been treated with goodwill.

Speaking of goodwill, I have been meaning to mention my gift hat. One day, when I was leaving school, one of the receptionists pulled me aside and handed me a hat; she said the other receptionist had brought it in for me. Apparently they had seen me coming in hatless in the cold. Here it is (and here’s the lovely faculty room).

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Buda; I include it here partly for the yellow tape (a distant relative of “red tape“), partly for the pensive couple and hooded crow. The crow was just taking off; you can see the fanned tail and rapid wings.

I can’t say anything about the entrance examination, except that it’s great to participate in them and think that some of these students will enter the ninth grade here next year. We won’t know the admissions decisions until April; the process is centralized and complicated, somewhat like high school admissions in New York City.

There will be more soon, once I am past the crunch. All in all, the days are long and full.

Taking a Walk Without Time

Sometimes when I’m busy, I forget to take walks for enjoyment. It seems that I don’t have time. But time doesn’t always have to be “had”; sometimes you can do without it. It’s even better that way; you’re not wasting it, since you aren’t in a position to dole it out at all, to yourself or anyone else. In this way I managed to take a walk through the wet snowfall of Szolnok. “Új nemzedék” (above) means “new generation”; “zeneiskola” (below), “music school.”


I also passed by the beautiful old synagogue (now a gallery) and crossed halfway over the Tiszavirág híd (Mayfly Bridge). It felt like the first day in Szolnok, only snowy and wet, with more Hungarian whirling around in my mind.

That leads to the point of this post. Teaching all day, and then working on the book in the evening, I have been so steeped in English that my progress in Hungarian has been slow. The language barrier has started to get to me; people are kind and generous with translation, but I know that I will not understand the country, or fully take part in life here, until I can speak the language. To learn the language, I have to immerse myself; to immerse myself, I have to finish the book!

But the book is not just some task to complete; it has been at the center of my life. It was my reason for leaving Columbia Secondary School in June 2016; I needed stretches of time for it. I drew on savings to write it, since my only income was from the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute. Day after day, I put thought, research, work, and afterthought into it. The final revisions can be the most important ones, since the pressure gives the words a healthy scare.

Nor will I be “done” when the book is sent in; there will still be proofreading, indexing, and much more, not to mention the book release party and other readings. But I will have a little more time to take long bike rides, speak and study Hungarian, go to plays and concerts, and get to know people. I have committed to another full year here–except for a month in the summer–so there will be time for these things.

A few people have asked me whether I might tutor them or someone else in English (for pay). It’s supposedly lucrative work, but not appealing right now. The more time I spend speaking English, the less I will hear Hungarian. Even a tutoring exchange (English and Hungarian) would not be satisfying for me, since I am not asking for a tutor. I do not do well with excessively structured time; I need some time for exploring and thinking.

This brings me back to the subject of time: needing certain kinds of time, not “having” time, making do without time. Sometimes when we speak of time, we really refer to form; “not having time” for something really means excluding it from our form. Sometimes the form breaks open, and suddenly that thing for which there was no time ends up in time, a thing taken up and done, a person met.

I end with Robert Frost’s sonnet “Meeting and Passing“:

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met, and you what I had passed.



Life here in Szolnok gives me lots to ponder. For example, I pass by the word gépkölcsönző and ask myself, what could that mean? I look it up and find out that it means “tool rental shop”–a place to remember, as I might need a drill one day.

I learned today that a possible Hungarian word for “contrariwise” (congratulations again to the international contest winners!) is ellenkezőleg. This came from a visit to the bookstore, where I found and purchased a Hungarian translation of Through the Looking-Glass. This means a translation not only of “contrariwise,” but of “Jabberwocky“!

Nézsonra járt, nyalkás brigyók,
Turboltak, purrtak a zepén,
Nyamlongott mind a pirityók,
Bröftyent a mamsi plény….

I started reading and could not resist skipping ahead to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Subidam és Subidu), the White Knight (a Fehér Huszár), and other favorite characters and parts. I look forward to reading it in and out of sequence.

I started writing an quasi-absurdist mini-play in faltering Hungarian (something to do when you don’t know much of the language), but haven’t gotten too far yet, since I have so much else to do. Here’s the opening dialogue. The characters’ names,  inspired by various travels, are Vasútállomás and Pályaudvar (Train Station and Railway Station).

Vasútállomás: Tovább?
Pályaudvar: Tovább.
Vasútállomás: Kártya van?
Pályaudvar: Van.
Vasútállomás: Egy ember azt mondta, hogy…
Pályaudvar: Mit?
Vasútállomás: Valami csengő. Nem tudok semmit.
Pályaudvar: Győződjön meg arról.

Vasútállomás: Természetesen. De nincs időm.
Pályaudvar: Vár a buszra?
Vasútállomás: A busz gyakran megáll itt. De ez nem bizonyít semmit.
Pályaudvar: Miért ne?
Vasútállomás: A bizonytalanság kissé boldoggá tesz.
Pályaudvar: A boldogság néha kissé boldoggá tesz.
Vasútállomás: Az igaz. Viszontlátásra!
Pályaudvar: Miért viszlát?
Vasútállomás: Nem tudok annyit magyarul folytatni ezen a ponton.
Pályaudvar: Ó, már értem. Viszontlátásra.
Vasútállomás: Úgy beszélsz, mint egy igazi pályaudvar.


“For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!”


All weekend I had been working on my book and meeting other deadlines; by afternoon today, I thought of staying home and continuing, instead of going to Budapest to see The Glass Menagerie (Üvegfigurák in Hungarian) at the Radnóti Színház. In the beginning of January, a colleague had told me about this production, and I had reserved a ticket, but now it seemed I couldn’t afford the time.

Then I thought: “What are you thinking? This is one of your favorite plays, you’ve been looking forward to it for a month, so go!”

I rushed out the door, got to the train just on time, and went to the play, the first play I have seen in Hungary. I have attended an opera and about six concerts, but no play until tonight. My expectations were high and low at once; I had never seen a production of The Glass Menagerie that I liked. I had read the play many times, from my early teenage years onward; I had imagined it on stage; yet actual performances (stage and film) had  disappointed me. They tried too hard; they forced the play into something it wasn’t. The dreamy, melancholic quality got lost. I liked John Malkovich as Tom, but that was it.

Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie is, in Tom’s words, a memory play, and the play itself is memory; the stage descriptions are as important (and at times as lyrical) as the lines. The plot seems simple: an impoverished and broken family contends with dreams. Amanda wishes for a gentleman caller for her daughter, Laura, who lives in her own world of glass animals and the Victrola. Tom, Laura’s brother, longs to escape from the trap of home. But the play has longer action, through Tom’s recollections.

This performance not only hit the right notes but surprised me. Tom (Ádám Porogi) was superb from the start; he came out onto the fire escape, spoke directly to us, and took us into the first scene. The stage set was the way I had imagined it, more or less, with screens that Tom opened and closed, and a semicircular cord curtain surrounding the dining room. The glass menagerie was in a glass case, and when Laura took her animals out, you could see them glitter in the light.

Tom was often on the sidelines, saying Amanda’s (and sometimes Laura’s) words just before she said them. This is not in the written play, but it worked perfectly. Sometimes it seemed like mockery, sometimes like old knowledge (he had heard his mother say these things so many times), sometimes like memory.

Rozi Lovas’s interpretation of Laura was the subtlest, funniest, and quirkiest I had seen. This wasn’t the Laura I had imagined over the years, but I loved her. When playing with her glass animals, she made squeaky voices; when not caught in her mother’s gaze, she flounced awkwardly before the mirror. This made her romantic disappointment all the more heartbreaking; she had shown more than usual to him, even sang with him for a few seconds (in a delightful duet), only to be let down and left behind.

Amanda (Adél Kováts) was frail, expressive, and magnificent, not the towering belle I had seen in productions before. She lived in fantasy, small to others but large to herself. She kept trying to gather up her dignity, kept losing it, kept gathering it again. I loved how she would throw things now and then at the portrait of her husband, the one who had fallen “in love with long distance.” She spoke quickly but melodically; she commandeered but knew her own defeat.

Jim (Dániel Viktor Nagy) was just right–ordinary, a bit carried away with himself, not a terrible person, but not capable of seeing what he had brought about.

The light was beautiful–dim light, bright light, green light, candlelight, changing and turning like the records in the Victrola.

But there was nothing like the catharsis at the end. I had not understood the final scene in this way until tonight. Down comes the rain; Tom gets drenched, and then he speaks from a later time, looking back. His mask has come off; throughout the play, he had tried to distance himself from his sister and mother and from the action; now he admitted that he could not leave Laura behind, that no matter where he went, he saw her. Ádám Porogi brought such rawness into this that it became, for me, the play’s recognition and reversal.

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger–anything that can blow your candles out.

[Laura bends over the candles.]

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura–and so goodbye. …

[She blows the candles out.]

All of this was in Hungarian, but I could follow it; Tom’s final admission broke everything open, like the broken unicorn. I left full of the play, not only as I had read it, but as it was performed tonight. I am glad that this was my first play here; I don’t think I will forget it easily. Thanks to the Radnóti Színház for this exceptional performance.


I added a paragraph and photo to this piece after posting it; later I corrected the quoted text.

“Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.”

My ninth- and tenth-grade classes at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, respectively. This week, the ninth graders read Act 3, Scene 1; the tenth graders, Act 1, Scene 3. (It’s the only time we’ll have this symmetry, I think.) In preparation for Bottom’s “translation,” I visited Maszka in Budapest, where I found a simple donkey mask (not the rooster mask shown below).

For Midsummer, the students not only read the parts but act them out, moving around the room; the action brings meaning to the words. We discuss the text briefly as well. For Hamlet, students read the parts dramatically and also spend time with specific passages. Eventually the two approaches will converge; if everything works out, we will give some kind of Shakespeare presentation toward the end of the year.

Here below, to the left, Snout speaks to Bottom; to the right, Titania wakes up.

The next two pictures show a different cast. To the left, Bottom returns to his rehearsal, with Puck following behind. To the right, Titania wakes up.

Every time I teach these plays, I find them “translated”; no two readings or discussions are identical. Here in Szolnok, there has been insight after insight, surprise after surprise.


I took all of the photos; the classroom photos are posted with the students’ permission.