“What’s There to Do in Szolnok?”

So I have been asked. The question puzzles me; aren’t there things to do regardless of place? I don’t remember being anywhere and thinking, “there’s nothing to do here.” That said, Szolnok has many interesting places: a theatre, an art cinema (neither of which I have visited yet), and much more. Last week alone, thanks to the invitations of colleagues, I attended a professional basketball game (lots of fun—and Szolnok won!), visited the beer museum, and sat in the cockpit of a a MiG-21UM, a Soviet-made jet-propelled fighter plane. Here’s proof of each:

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The brilliant Kendrick Perry (Szolnok team) has the ball. He was a joy to watch. The whole team played fantastically (and their opponents gave them a good challenge).

imageHere’s the outside of the Sörárium, the beer museum. The inside is cavernous and engaging, with a historical exhibition, a zestful video presentation, a game room, a restaurant, and long echoing halls.

And here’s a photo of one of my favorite displays at the Szolnoki Repülőmúzeum (the Aviation Museum). I would have included the photo of me in the cockpit of the fighter jet, but it’s too Dr. Strangelove-like for my comfort. This one shows a replica of a plane built in 1911, I believe.

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I have shown (and learned) just a fraction of the things to do in Szolnok (besides biking and other frequent topics of this blog). But I must go now; it is Monday morning, and I have much to do!

Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.

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But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)

 

Slow Impressions

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Top secret: I love life and teaching in Szolnok so far. I have been holding back praise because I’m so new here; praise implies knowledge, which I do not yet have. People have been helpful and welcoming, and the rhythm of life suits me well. But there is much to learn. There’s the language, among many other things; each day I try to say something new in Hungarian, but that’s minuscule in relation to the language as a whole.

The street above is right near where I live; the shed below, right across the street from me, as soon as I exit the gate.

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Szolnok seems a little like New Haven (without Yale, but with excellent public schools; with a different culture, history, language, architecture, geography, layout, and cuisine; with bike paths everywhere and bakeries on every corner, neither of which New Haven has–granted, New Haven has the pizza–and with a full but unfrantic way of life, which is what they seem to share).

But even these are just surface impressions; as I form the words, they split into questions and qualifications, which split into others, and I look at the clock and realize that Cafe Frei will close soon, and with it, my internet connection. So I end with a photo of the cafe.

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Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsisziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsisziget (or maybe biked through both towns). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

Pictures from the First Day

varga katalin 1A happy first day at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium–I am delighted to be here.

Here are a few pictures: of one of the stairways, of a nearby bakery (where I picked up coffee and a pastry during one of my breaks), and of the school from the side.

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I don’t generally blog about the classroom, but once in a while I might reflect on something that took place there. It takes time to know just when and how to do this, so I’m taking the time. In the meantime, these pictures hold something of the day.

The Zagyva passes right behind the school; it isn’t visible in the photo above, but if you continue down this street, pass by the school, and turn left, you see it.

I look forward to tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s a view from the top floor of the school.

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That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

bridge over tisza

 

Beauty to Make You Cry Your Heart Out

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I start with sadness and distant grief over the lives lost and wounded in the terrorist attack in New York City. I think of the Argentine men in the middle of a joyous 30-year high school reunion, in a city of their dreams, their lives suddenly taken or permanently injured. My grief is distant because I don’t know them, but distant things have their own reality, not always blurred or dim.

We sometimes get alerted to beautiful actions (reunion plans, acts of generosity, etc.) only when they are cut short; we do not know much of what exists around us, especially the good. Maybe certain kinds of beauty and goodness (not identical, but overlapping and intersecting) escape our notice because they seem ordinary. A reunion of high school classmates? A trip to New York City? Nothing there to call our attention until we see the spirit and heart that went into the planning. Granted, their trip would have been their own business, not a public matter, if it hadn’t been ruined; there would have been no reason for anyone but their family and friends (and possibly a few strangers) to know about it. But even when we know about such things, we may fail to see them.

Szolnok has its own history of grief, spread over many centuries. It isn’t known as the most beautiful of cities, but explore just a little, and you find beauty to make you cry your heart out. Here are just a few photos from the past two days, some taken on foot, others on bike. My internet connection will be slow for a while (probably until December), but if I get to a cafe today, I’ll add a few explanations and descriptions. The photo at the top (which I took on bike) is of swans in the Zagyva and a man walking along the bank. There was a dog too, but he didn’t make it into this photo. I think the slow upload (which took over an hour in all) brought me closer to these photos; I didn’t want to leave any of them out. I will welcome a faster connection, for many practical reasons, but I find something good in the slowness.

P.S. A trip to the bookstore this afternoon yielded some lovely leaves, including Hungarian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and The Tempest.

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I made a few changes to this piece after posting it (and added the P.S.).

Beginnings and a Bike

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I woke up to the sound of cats batting their toys in a new country. Yesterday, after going for lunch with Hajni and Emily, who welcomed me, took me to my preliminary apartment, helped me get set up, and took me grocery shopping, I lost no time in exploring the city and purchasing a bike. I found a little bike shop, stepped inside, and knew immediately which one I wanted. The shop owner tuned it up for me, told me it was a Hungarian bike, and explained many other things I didn’t understand. I rode away into the uncomprehended.

There are more photos from yesterday, but given the slow internet connection, they will have to wait, as will any longer blog pieces. Also, sleep calls again, so brevity comes in handy.

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P.S. This took place in Szolnok, Hungary, where I now live and where I will be teaching as of Monday, November 6. The bike shop is Sprint Kerékpár.

Departure

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I took the photo this morning in Fort Tryon Park, less than two hours before departure. Could it have been more fitting? I have no way of knowing. In any case, it seems right–and it’s a lovely last glimpse of the park (last for the time being, anyway, and probably lasting too).

 

I changed “image” to “glimpse”; “glimpse” is more fitting, as is its etymology.

On Human Harm and “Isms”

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Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.