You never know what’s going on in a person…

How well do we know others’ motives, or even our own? Zsolt Bajnai’s play A Hagyaték (“the legacy,” “the inheritance”), which I saw last night in a moving production by the Híd Színház, directed by József Rigó, raises this question (implicitly) within the opening minutes. We find out that the wife, Erzsébet, has invited a woman over for dinner, without informing her husband beforehand. Does she know that something happened between this woman and her husband twenty years ago? And if so, why has she chosen to invite her over? The play starts at a high pitch of intensity and builds from there. I won’t give any spoilers; all I’ll say is that it kept surprising me while also coming together in a unity. A beautiful progression, a passionate performance (by Erzsébet Déri, Sándor Ulviczki, and Anna Kertmari), and an ending that makes you rethink and relive the whole. I’m going back tonight (for the last performance, at least for now; it was a three-night run, and I missed the first one).

The Híd Színház (Bridge Theatre), directed by József Rigó, is a terrific amateur theatrical company of senior citizens. When they performed as the witches of Macbeth at the Shakespeare Festival last spring, I was taken by their verve and fearlessness. When I am a bit older, I would love to audition for a role.

The audience was seated in a semicircle around them, close to the action. You could feel so much happening, not only on the stage, but behind the scenes too, whenever a character walked off or the phone rang. Once in a while, an actor forgot a line, but the stage assistant (Éva Márki) instantly gave a prompt, and things moved seamlessly from there. Somehow that added to the full effect; I was reminded that these were real people.

But yes, back to the subject of this post: we do not fully know why people do what they do and what is going on with them.

At least once a week, even to this day, I get asked why I came to Hungary. I tell the simplest version of the story: that I visited Istanbul for two weeks as a guest teacher, then came to Hungary for the first time and bicycled around in Zemplén. And that my great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew, and that during this visit I went to the village where he and his large family had lived before coming to the U.S.

All of that is true, but it’s only a fraction of why I came. There were other reasons, and reasons I wasn’t even aware of. Something about the Hungarian ways of life (multiple ways) resonated with me, as did the language. Not because of some mystical connection with my roots (which are multiple and multifarious) but perhaps (partly) because of the combination of cultural richness and modesty, the quiet wit that I felt around me. Not only that; from early on, I saw that I had reasons for being here: teaching, translating, absorbing the language, going to performances, going on long bike rides, leading Szim Salom services. Reasons came into being, in other words.

Last night I understood almost every word of the play. There were a few words here and there that I didn’t know, but I understood the dialogue and action from moment to moment. It was thrilling.

I may seem snobbish or antisocial when I turn down or ignore social occasions with Americans here in Hungary. But my reasons and motives have nothing to do with snobbery or antisocialness. I have American friends in the U.S. and stay in touch with them. I am planning a big trip to the U.S. in October. I love my country and know that I will never be a Hungarian in the full sense. But I never would have reached the point of understanding last night’s play if I hadn’t immersed myself in Hungarian day after day. I do not want to live in an English-speaking bubble (as many foreigners here do). The moment you start speaking English, people assume you can’t speak Hungarian, and everything is lost. The Hungarian I know at this point, still far from true fluency, was hard earned, and I am not about to give it up.

The other part is that I don’t usually like socializing for socializing’s sake. Getting together with friends, yes. But when it comes to meeting new people, I prefer to do this through the things that interest me. (And it happens continually.) Sometimes I disappoint people because they would like me to look up such-and-such an American in Budapest, maybe a friend of theirs. But why on earth should I? I have a full life and busy schedule, and if I met someone new, it would be just that, a meeting, probably not to be continued. Felesleges. (Unnecessary.) If I were lonely, isolated, or bored, that would be a different story. But no. If anything, I need a little more downtime, where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything.

This weekend, the little bit of rest led to a beautiful result, beyond the conquering of exhaustion. There was an annual large trash collection—you could put your unwanted furniture and other large items out on the curbside, and it would be taken away early the next morning. It was actually quite a ritual. Some people were out in their vans or on foot, scouring the neighborhoods for usable items. A family took two chairs that I brought out on Friday afternoon; I was happy to see them go to use. But yes, I got rid of three chairs, one of which was broken, and the other two unsightly and a source of clutter. With that, I saw that I could rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. With just a few minutes of shuffling, it became a sweet, cozy room (it had been a little unwieldy before). I almost took out the cat tree that was in there, the older of two. It is a bit ragged from all the scratching that it has endured. But when I carried it into the hallway, Dominó started crying. I brought it back. Now the cats love the room as much as I do.

And so yes, even in intervals of rest, there’s more going on than we know. In the minds of cats too.

Top photo by István Csabai. For more of his photos of A Hagyaték, go here.

Bottom photo by me.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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