Back When an Időpont Was an Időpont

Doctor’s Office, by Lee Dubin

My experiences with doctors here in Hungary have been mostly good so far. I haven’t been sick or otherwise in need of urgent care, so I’ve been to the doctor just for routine things. Getting the first Pfizer shot on Friday was a perfectly satisfactory experience; the doctors and staff were very organized and on top of things, and I didn’t have to wait long at all, nor did those I saw around me. There were actual appointments, and they were honored. (Granted, getting an appointment for a shot has been a challenge for many; that’s another matter.) Also, my “háziorvos” (general practitioner), whose office is on the same street where I live, has a friendly, accessible style; he and his staff see patients fairly promptly, answer phone calls incessantly, and clearly work hard to give everyone proper care and referrals.

But the system here is far from ideal overall. I have learned, over time, that an “időpont” (appointment) can mean little or nothing. Many doctors’ offices lack any kind of reception staff, so they see patients in order of arrival. In addition, as I learned today, having what seems like an appointment does not mean that the doctor will even be in.

I have an underarm scar, from surgery years ago, that has been acting up. I went to see a dermatologist about it; first she recommended using a prescription cream, then she gave it frozen nitrogen treatment (which brought down the swelling a bit) and referred me to a doctor at the large medical center. The referral said Friday, April 9, at 8 a.m. So I went there early this morning, checked in at the entrance, and was told to go up to the “kiemelt kezelő” department and wait. I went there, sat outside, saw no sign of anyone in the office, but waited. I had cancelled my first class for this appointment and was hoping not to have to cancel my second one too.

About an hour later, I went back down to the receptionist and said that no one was there. She said, “They’re coming, they’re coming, just wait.” So I went back upstairs and waited. And waited. I cancelled my second class (fortunately, my only other class today; my Fridays are light). It was nearly two and a half hours when I went back downstairs and asked the receptionist what was going on. She went into an office, called someone, spent some minutes on the phone, and came back to tell me that I should come back next Friday at the same time, since the doctor wasn’t in today.

Now, I am not going to cancel next week’s classes; I will talk with the referring doctor and find a way to come in later. This kind of situation is not particular to Hungary, by the way. In New York City, when I was working on my second book and had to buy my own health insurance, I first made the mistake of signing up for one of the city plans. It was awful: no real access to doctors, hours of waiting in a crowded clinic filled with poor people who seemed in much more urgent need than I. I switched to Blue Cross, which was substantially more expensive, and magically had access to first-rate doctors, waiting rooms, etc. Here in Hungary, the equivalent would be going to a private doctor in Budapest, or to one of the best hospitals there. I have been warned that medical care in the vidék (provinces) can be subpar.

But anyway, that charmed world of doctors’ appointments and personal attention is really only available at a cost or with good luck, no matter where you are. If you want cheap (or “universal”) health care, you have to put up with the imperfections. This doesn’t mean you can’t get good care, but you need a lot of patience, and you need to know in advance what mistakes not to make. For instance, don’t show up at 8 a.m. when showing up at noon, or not at all, will get you the same result. And don’t assume that an időpont is an időpont, unless it actually is.

Good Within Limitations

One of my hopes over this spring break was to take a day and go somewhere with the bike, maybe bike and train. Given the current constraints, I took a short trip to Tokaj today. As it turned out, I could just as well have gone without the bike. I ended up hiking up some hills and visiting a wine cellar, the Hímesudvar, where I have been before, to get something for a special occasion. It was open, along with many other cellars, as well as ice cream places, restaurants with take-out, etc. Tokaj wasn’t crowded, but you could see a fair number of visitors mulling around.

I wanted to bike up to Sárospatak and back, but there was too great a risk of missing the return train, and along with that, the curfew. Going up to Sárospatak (through Olaszliszka, etc.) would have been entirely possible if I were then to take the 6:08 train back to Szolnok from Tokaj. But that would have brought me back to Szolnok at 8:20, and curfew starts at 8.

So where to go, then? Up, up, up. I locked up the bike down below and ascended. It was good to climb the steep hills and feel my heart pumping. Its tourist aspects aside, Tokaj is old and tranquil, and you can take a path where you’re all by yourself, with only the sound of wind and birds around you.

Many of the winery-owners were clearly hoping people would stop by. I overheard a conversation where someone was explaining to someone else, “It’s the virus. That’s why they’re not coming.” I saw a number of “Eladó” (for sale) signs outside of wine cellars; I have seen them before, but there were more now. If I were rich, I wouldn’t buy a wine cellar—I would have no idea what I was doing, and it would be too much of an undertaking and distraction—but I might help someone who was trying to get started, or someone trying to keep an old business going. It must be hard for them right now, but not only right now. Many forces make it difficult for a small business, including a wine business, to survive. Not to mention that it takes knowledge and dedication, over many years.

Anyway, I’m glad I made the trip and that something along these lines was possible. On the train I got to read a bit and saw a herd of deer through the window. Once the restrictions ease up and it’s possible to stay in a hotel again, I intend to go back to Sárospatak, and elsewhere too, over time: back to Esztergom, Baja, Szeged, and to places I haven’t visited yet. But for now, within the limitations, this was good.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me. In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a moment.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

The True Plague for Us

The other day, in my post “Are Hungarians Especially Sad?” I told about how a former student (from Varga, now at university) had asked me what I thought of a Quora comment that Hungarians are the saddest people in Europe. He also wrote (I am quoting this with his permission) that “the true plague for us is this permanent inability to feel contented, without envy and avarice.” In other words, in his view, life in Hungary is not so terrible, relative to life in general, nor is everyone bitter and depressed, but there are many young people who think they could have a better life elsewhere. This is the plague: the thought that other people, other countries have it better, and if I could just whisk myself over into their position, I would be fine.

A certain kind of discontent is necessary for life and for the things we want to do well. I am continually revising my writing, whether for sound, language, meaning, accuracy, or something else. Musicians play and play, even at the highest levels, to come closer to what they imagine and hear. Athletes train and train, and compete and compete. But in all those cases, you are working on something in yourself; you are the locus of improvement.

The dangerous kind of discontent occurs when we want something “over there”: something someone else has, something in another country, something belonging to a particular social group. Surely there are people we admire and would like to emulate—but when we aggressively try to get what they have, or resent them for having it, we make a mess of our lives.

Is this a particularly Hungarian tendency? I doubt it. But it may play out in a particular way in Hungary, especially among young people who tire of the government’s isolationist rhetoric and long to see the world. It’s easy, in that position, to imagine that life in the U.S., Denmark, the Netherlands would be not only more comfortable, but more exciting too, with more of an opening to the world, more opportunity, more of a future. And for some individuals, this might be somewhat true. But beyond that, it’s human error all over again.

First of all, it involves “comparing your insides to other people’s outsides” (as a wise person said to me long ago). New York looks like an incredible, bustling city bursting with talent and all walks of life. And that it is. But if you live there, as I did for fifteen years, you don’t necessarily want to take it in. The work days and commutes are long, and at the end of it all you might want to go home and listen to music in your room. That is, if you have a place that’s quiet enough for that. When I was living in Brooklyn, there were block parties in my neighborhood that boomed so loud that my chair and desk shook. And so many people in NYC live in cramped, crowded spaces and still have to pay exorbitant rent. Don’t get me wrong: the city lives up to its reputation. But living there is different from seeing it from afar.

Second, when you covet something to extremes (when you go beyond mild envy toward action), you start to become ugly inside. You think of others not in terms of who they are, but in terms of what they have. You find ways to put them down in your mind, to level them with you or even bring them below you. I see more of this in the U.S. than in Hungary, but maybe that just comes with familiarity. I imagine it happens all over the world.

But back to the original quote from my former student: if this kind of envy or dissatisfaction is “the true plague,” then it goes beyond the individual. It spreads from person to person; it becomes a worldview. That’s the worst aspect of it; by indulging in that kind of discontent, you affect others too. You show them, through your attitude and actions, that simple joys in life are to be scorned, that the only valid happiness is “over there,” wherever “there” may be. People start believing that they are unworthy if they don’t have a house, or make a certain amount of money, or have a beautiful boyfriend or girlfriend, or look lovely and skinny themselves.

I believe that this is universal but multifarious; different cultures exhibit it in different ways. Many Hungarians I have met attach importance to material attainments. Some do not, but overall it seems to be assumed that you’re doing well if you have a house and car. (This exists in the U.S. too, but there are many countertendencies.) On the other hand, people here are not enraptured, generally, with hype and fame; quality comes first. In the U.S., hype is a way of life. Kids learn to promote themselves before they learn to make something worth promoting.

How do you go about combating this plague? First, see it for what it is, in yourself and others, and then turn the attention to things that matter: doing things well, treating others decently, contributing something to the world. But this requires a lot of strength and vigilance. It’s not for nothing that at least five of the Ten Commandments (the number depends on how you interpret them) forbid envy or its consequences; envy is all around us and can tear a person, a relationship, a society apart.

Sometimes happiness does exist “over there.” Sometimes it does make sense to move to another city, country, apartment, or whatever the case may be. It isn’t all delusion, which makes the matter more complicated. But the delusion is always close at hand, and oh so tempting because of the shortcuts it dangles before us: not only shortcuts to wealth or success, but an exit from ourselves and those around us.

Art credit: James Ward, Ignorance, Envy and Jealousy (oil on canvas, 1837).

Wishing You Warmth, Light, and Water

Often, when we say, “I wish you warmth and light,” we mean it partly figuratively, but right now the literal comes first. The storms and outages across the U.S.—from Oregon to Texas to Tennessee to New York—have left millions without heat, electricity, or safe drinking water. I hope that this emergency ends soon and that there will be much better protection against future ones.

Here in Hungary, the weather is mild again (9 degrees Celsius in Szolnok at the moment); the coldest it is supposed to get in the coming week is zero (tonight). The snow has melted, and the Tisza is swollen.

This looks like it will be a quiet weekend at home, a rare one without any pressing deadlines around the corner, a chance to catch up with things, read, rest, play cello, get ready for next week, and go out on the bike. I am enjoying the beautiful poncho that my sister crocheted for me. And grateful for the warmth, light, and water.

Getting Up and Settling Down

It really snowed last night, so as soon as I got up, I went on a walk: westwards toward the old railroad buildings and then back again. The cats were in a state of excitement too: everything out the window was moving, moving! It snowed all morning.

I taught my British Civilization class–today’s lesson was about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare, so we didn’t have nearly enough time for everything. But I am glad that the students, now in twelfth grade, have read two Shakespeare plays while at Varga.

Then I taught my American Civilization classes. We have been reading and listening to American speeches, and the students are about to write their own. For an exercise, I asked them to write a short speech welcoming new students to Varga. Their speeches were delightful; I chose ten to be read aloud in class. A particularly funny and sophisticated speech was written by a student whose microphone wasn’t working today, so he nominated another student to read it. Somewhere in the middle, the doorbell rang, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I asked them to wait just a second, and I went to the door. It was the postman with an official letter. To receive it, I had to show my ID, which I did. I felt the envelope; it had a card inside it. I was opening it on my way back to the computer. So the reading resumed; at the end, I commented on the speech and then told the students what had happened: I had just received my permanent residence permit. Then we went on to hear seven more students’ speeches, and then, with five minutes of class left, I read them Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm,” which I quote in full here, because how could I not?

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

After that, I headed off to the school, with hopes of finding the financial officer, who would want to photocopy the permit for the school’s records. On the way there and back, I took photos right and left. The sun had come out, and unfortunately the snow was melting–but there was still quite a bit.

The financial officer had left, but I found some colleagues, including Csilla Vágóné, who kindly took a photo of me. (The photo below is a different one, though, which I took at home. Csilla took a lovely photo, but the fluorescent light made me look a little pasty-faced. This one, with the warm lighting, suits the occasion better.)

The permanent residence permit means many things. First of all, there’s a symbolic significance. It means that I live here; I’m not just visiting. In that regard it reflects my reality and wishes. Second, I have to renew it only every five years; to renew it, I just pay a fee–there’s nothing elaborate involved. This in turn simplifies all my other paperwork; for instance, my health insurance card can have a longer validity term as well. Third, it means that I can get an address card, which is an essential item here but which temporary residents do not receive (instead, they receive a temporary document). Fourth, it simplifies travel; I have essentially the same travel rights as Hungarian citizens. Especially now, during Covid, this helps; if it turns out that I can go to the U.S. this summer, I won’t risk a situation where I can’t come back here. Permanent residents have other rights similar to those of citizens: they can travel freely within the EU, work anywhere in the EU, etc. So a time could come in the future when I wanted to spend a summer in France or the Netherlands, for instance, and this would be possible.

But there’s something more than all these things I’ve listed, even the first. I consider Szolnok home. I teach at a wonderful school, with great students and colleagues and all sorts of possibilities; outside of work, I can bike and walk around, attend literary and other events (once Covid is behind us), take part in my synagogue and serve as its cantor, and enjoy my sweet apartment. The Hungarian word for a permanent residence permit is “letelepedési engedély.” “Engedély” means “permit” or “permission”; “letelepedés” means “settling, settlement, establishing (oneself somewhere), establishment, homemaking.” The prefix “le-” means “down,” so essentially this is a settling down.

Afternoon Walk

These days have been so busy—with teaching, the translation manuscript, Szim Salom, Folyosó, and the Orwell project—that I barely get outside, except to do basic shopping and, last night, to rescue Sziszi. But today I had to go to school to sign a document, so I made a walk of it, peering into an abandoned building on the way.

After signing the document, I went to Arabica Kávézó, now my favorite café in Szolnok. I love looking around the place, and I bought some jewelry and coffee.

After going grocery shopping, I headed down Szapáry utca and admired the overhanging tree.

Right by the Merci restaurant, I took another picture of rooftops and walls, rooster and moon.

Then came one of the best parts: the Mayfly Bridge (pictured at the top) and the sunset over the Tisza (below). On a walk like this, the loss of time becomes the point of it all. If time were not being lost, walks would be drab, and productivity drabber still.

The Sziszi Scare

This evening, Dominó came to me meowing and meowing, something he just doesn’t do. He was quite persistent about it. I thought he might be sick or something, but then I noticed that Sziszi was strangely silent. I got up from my desk, and Dominó immediately led me to the bedroom, where I saw the window slightly ajar. Last night I had opened it to air out the room, with the cats shut out of the room; I had closed it again, but not securely enough. Sziszi had jumped out, maybe minutes ago; I had fed her just a little earlier.

I closed the window tight, ran outside, and saw several tomcats wandering around, waiting for their food. One of my upstairs neighbors feeds them. I thought maybe they had scared Sziszi away. But then I saw Sziszi running to the door, then away again, then to the window ledge, trying to leap up onto it. It was too high for her; she kept missing. Poor thing, she wanted so badly to come back home, but didn’t realize I had come out to help her. Then she disappeared under a parked car.

The neighbor who feeds the tomcats came outside; I explained to her what was going on, and we located the car where Sziszi was hiding. She had gone up into the engine. I was scared that she would get hurt in there. Another neighbor heard the commotion and came out onto her balcony in her bathrobe. We explained the situation. Then the first neighbor, the one who feeds the toms, said she’d leave me alone with Sziszi in case the kitty was afraid of so many people around.

Sziszi continued to meow. I went under the car, getting all dirty but not caring, and saw her little face peeking down from the engine area. I reached for her paw and pulled her a little, then grapped her scruff and helped her all the way out. I took her in my arms, waved goodbye to the neighbor on the balcony, and carried Sziszi home. A few minutes later, the tomcat-feeding neighbor knocked on my door to see if Sziszi was with me. I had good news, and Sziszi showed up at the door to confirm it.

You never want that kind of thing to happen. What if I hadn’t been home? What if Sziszi had been out there for hours, and what if, instead of a quiet evening, she had encountered traffic or bad weather? The street is quiet in general, but she might have gotten scared, run out to one of the larger streets, and lost her way back. We were extremely lucky. But it was Dominó who told me what was going on. He knew that he had to get my help. How he knew this, and what he knew, I don’t know.

Song of the Sea

Next Shabbat, during the Torah reading, I will chant the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, pictured to the left. It brings back happy memories of cantillation class at JTS; this was one of the special things we were required to learn, in addition to the six trope systems. Preparing the Torah cantillation is one of my favorite parts of my role at Szim Salom; it keeps me on my toes, since I always have to prepare, even if I am familiar with the verses. I prepare in general as well–it’s always good to go over the liturgy, since something will through in a new way–but the Torah portion assures the preparation.

The Song of the Sea is often chanted responsively, but this time, over Zoom, that would be too cacophonous. I will just have to encourage people to sing along, while muted, at the appropriate parts.

It has now been nearly eight years since I began attending synagogue in general, and over three years since I assumed Szim Salom’s cantorial role. I hesitate to call myself the synagogue’s cantor, even though that’s my role; cantors are on a completely different level in my mind. When I think of the word “cantor,” I imagine not only the legendary cantors, but the ones known mainly to their own synagogues, who have brought the language and liturgy into people’s lives, year after year, generation after generation, with wisdom and feeling that can be conveyed only through the doing. But it’s also a responsibility, and it has been mine now for three years. I love the responsibility; sometimes I feel flat-out exhausted when the weekend arrives, but then when it comes time to lead the service, the language, rhythms, melodies, and togetherness take over.

It is exciting to see Szim Salom, after almost thirty years of existence, becoming accepted in Hungary’s larger Jewish worship community. For many years, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) did not recognize Szim Salom or our sister congregation, Bét Orim, because as progressive (European Reform) congregations, we diverged too far from what they considered halakhic. To date, our rabbi is the only female rabbi in Hungary, as far as I know. But through the extensive, big-hearted efforts of individuals including Péter Árvai from our community and members of Neolog communities, we not only gained official recognition (In February 2020, the Mazhihisz officially welcomed Szim Salom and Bét Orim as associate members), but received gestures of extraordinary goodwill. Gábor Fináli, the rabbi of the beautiful Ohél Ávráhám on Hunyadi tér, has decided to invite us and Bét Orim to hold services there about once a month (once it is possible to hold services in person again). Over the years, we have had no real place of worship; in my three years here, we met in three different locations. So this gesture meets an urgent need and opens up possibilities of friendship and learning.

As I have often thought before, it’s essential to have different levels and forms of observance within Judaism, as within any religion. This opens up the possibilities, not only for individuals, but for long-term traditions. It also allows for resilience. People change over time in their relation to religion, worship, sacred texts, and so on. When the traditions grow too rigid or forbidding, any personal change can lead to a break. But when they do not, or at least when many varieties exist, a person can “hang in there,” so to speak. I find it important and exciting to hang in there. In the beginning of my Jewish life, I was intense with enthusiasm and commitment–not so much to the laws of observance as to the learning of texts and melodies. Hours and hours went into study and listening, evening after evening. Later, things slowed down a bit, but the commitment did not go away. I have started to find my own way, which is not anyone else’s, but which is not isolated either.

The returns remind me how much there is to come. Chanting the Song of the Sea and feeling the joy of it all over again—the image and sound of the sea parting, the phrases that bring up so many memories—I know that not only does the text endure, not only do I in some way, despite aging and mortality, but person and text come together, again and again, around the world, as time roars and crashes around us.

Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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