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.

“Hold on there, Evangeline”


This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

Singing in Szolnok

I begin with these pictures of mist because this is how the day began. I walked along the frosted bank of the Zagyva and kept stopping to look at the inscrutable river. I think that set the stage, so to speak, for some good listening.

The day proceeded with rehearsals, lessons, a movie (I showed my students Citizen Kane), and cheer. Then we had a Christmas concert in the evening–mostly by students, but also involving faculty. It was a profoundly lovely performance, with joyous musicians (mainly students, but also teachers in two of the pieces); music ranging from classical and sacred pieces to Hungarian folk songs to modern compositions; and a hushed and eager audience, some leaning over the balcony for better sight and sound.

Eight teachers (including our director and our accompanist) performed “Hymne à la nuit.” A kind colleague made a video. My solo begins just after the two-minute mark. I’ll eventually figure out how to fix the rotation of that later part; to see the whole video rotated, go here.

It was beautiful to be in this concert with colleagues and students–to have so much to listen to while being part of two songs. (The other one we sang was Pachelbel’s Canon; there we joined the students.) I have many more thoughts but am in need of sleep, so I’ll let silence have a turn. Here’s a photo I took during dress rehearsal.


Update: Here’s a closer view and recording of the same performance.

“But not to call me back or say good-bye”

My nighttime pictures rarely come out well, but here are three that I like. The first one shows the branches’ reflections and brings to mind Robert Frost’s poem, which I have read many times but now reread (“re-reed” and “re-red,” present and immediate past) in awe. Hence the title of this post.

The second is mostly shadow, but it led me somehow to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am not sure how that happened, but I’m glad.


The third, taken on Klauzál utca in Budapest, brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song,” or maybe it’s just that I want to remember that song (and Cohen, who died just over a year ago).


These are not exact matches, just associations; the night is limber in that way, bringing things together with ease and by surprise. It has been a full and rich weekend, with Hanukkah, songs, celebration, services, Torah, and more, so today I reveled in a bit of slowness, worked on the book, and took an evening walk. That led to photos, which led to poems and songs, which led to evening daydreams, which in turn will lead to sleep.

Bikes, Rivers, and Challenges

bike ride to school

Bikes and rivers have this in common: they are both good for the soul. Put the two together, and you have a tonic for any time of day. I took this picture last week during a bike ride to school; it takes me only five minutes to get there (or back home), but during those five minutes, I get to see the sunrise (or whatever the skies might hold) while zipping along the Zagyva promenade. A quieting and thrilling commute.

The first month in a new country may hold sunsets and paperwork, but whether it’s dreamy, signature-laden, or both, it’s just the first stage. I am here not for a lark, an extended vacation, a nap in a hammock (see the bear below), or even a sabbatical, but for something more substantial. That means challenges. For instance, I try every day to apply my basic Hungarian to a new situation, but it will take much more practice, study, and experience–and many more mistakes–to learn the language well. It doesn’t happen overnight, overweek, or overmonth; but over time the structures and words will take hold. I look forward to this.

bear in hammock

I took both photos here in Szolnok.

A Meaning of Performance


On Saturday night I attended the Senior Ball, along with colleagues, parents, students, and, of course, the seniors themselves. Expecting something like a prom, I was in for a big surprise. First, there was a pinning ceremony, where the seniors, dressed in suits and color-coordinated blouses, walked out hand in hand, with their homeroom teacher at one end, stood before the audience, had ribbons pinned to their chests, and filed out again, hand in hand. From there, they reappeared in their dancing costumes and performed in sequence; each of the four senior classes performed one ballroom dance and one modern dance. (They had separate costumes for each one.) With the help of a dance instructor (whom they had specially hired), they had been preparing these dances since September. Here’s a fifteen-second clip.

In preparing, they learned at least two dances together; that was the most beautiful part of it all. They had not only a ball, not only an evening in their honor, but an accomplishment together. Maybe that’s one meaning of performance: learning a particular form, which then becomes yours. (I wouldn’t call it the meaning of performance, since performance is full of meanings and mystery. Sometimes it’s sheer play, sometimes it has its own language, sometimes it can’t be pinned down, and sometimes its meanings come much later, mixed in with time.)

In contrast, I had a slightly formless (but lovely) day today–taking this direction and that, like the Tisza. I prepared for the week, practiced for next Shabbat (more about that later), and went on a long bike ride, first on the promenade along the Tisza, and then on the continuation of the bike path. Here’s a little terrier running on the promenade, and here’s the Szent István Bridge.

I enjoy the grey November weather, with its rain, wind, and mist; some may find it dreary, but it suits me well. Much lies ahead in the coming weeks, including a move to an apartment near the Zagyva–where I will have not only more space, but a wifi connection. That will come welcome; I need the internet not only for email but for research, lesson preparation, and more. In the meantime, having finished my second latte at Cafe Frei, I sign off, since I have much to do before tomorrow.

The Mist and the Mistake


This photo, maybe my favorite that I have taken of Szolnok so far, marked the end of a vivacious day and week. On Friday the whole school assembled at the Szolnok stadium, across the Tisza, to see the ninth-grade classes compete against each other (through performance, mostly dance) and undergo their grand and humorous initiation. I had heard that we would all be walking over the bridge together; I looked forward to joining this procession of six hundred or so.

Earlier that morning, we dispersed for various activities: music, drama, art, and more. I went with a colleague to see the drama workshop, led by the drama teacher, who also directs the school’s Thespis Teatrum Drama Club. Held in an elegant hall across the street, the lesson focused on improvisational exercises, which brought out wit and laughter.

When the class ended, I went back to the school to get some things done before the historic bridge crossing. After a while, the building went silent; I realized everyone had left. I rushed to catch up with them–down Kossuth Lajos Street, around the corner at Szapáry, and then south toward the bridge. As my feet began clattering on the planks, I saw just two people ahead. I soon realized they were students from the school; after catching up with them, I asked them where the event was. They pointed me to the stadium, and I rushed ahead, only to find a locked door. They then motioned me to the side of the building and held the doors for me. Only then did It occur to me that most of the students and teachers must have taken the other bridge, the one right near the school. Of course! Why would they walk all the way to the Mayfly Bridge, when there’s one right across the street? I could have realized this earlier–but I had the one bridge so firm in my mind that good sense could not replace it.

Then came the performances. I took many pictures, but from too far away. This picture of my ninth-grade students conveys the idea, though. They didn’t win the competition, but they danced with spirit and skill.


After the event, I walked back—over the correct bridge—to the school.


I saw birds circling over the river, flying around and around, over and over again. I shot a video with bells ringing in the background (since it was noon). I don’t try to make videos when the bells are ringing; it has just worked out that way.

People went home from there; we had no afternoon classes, since it was a special day. Earlier in the week, the ninth-graders dressed up in various costumes, held marches and rallies, performed stunts, and covered the walls with flyers. These are my two ninth-grade sections, one of them in 90s costumes, and the other (the next day) in recycling gear or something like that. They are great kids; I thoroughly enjoy teachibg them.

I leave off with a photo from Thursday evening, after a long day at school. (I left around 6 p.m. because I was grading tests.) When I exited the building, I saw misty streets and lights. That is my bike in the foreground. I unlocked the lock, climbed on, and rode away.


With all the dancing, singing, and campaigning, all the memorable markers of the week and year, I think I will also remember the mist and the mistake: taking the wrong bridge, having it all work out anyway, and taking the right bridge back. Was one bridge really wrong, though, and the other right? Only in terms of what I had set out to do; otherwise, each bridge has its share of rightness.

Note: The school photos are posted with permission of the students and in keeping with school policy.

“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:


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

cafe frei