I just want you to know that I know I didn’t wrap things up.
Not that I assume you’ve been waiting a year to find out how things turned out. Even if you had been, there wasn’t much suspense involved. Just a handful of days, a collection of belongings. A plane ticket with an abstractly immovable date and a concretely immovable destination: home.
I fully intended to sum it all up. I’m a sucker for symmetry, for circular paths and, since life is often so gloriously off-kilter and contradictory, at least a little balance in the re-telling. It all began looking forward; why not close looking back?
The longer I look for an ending, the more unsatisfying the candidates become. Did this year abroad end when I packed up my room and locked my door for the last time? Or was it when I was overpowered by the deluge of pure American that assaulted me from all sides upon landing at the Philadelphia airport? Was it the first time I had to look up words that had been coiled, at the ready, for months? The first day back with my family? My first day at Lewis & Clark in the fall?
A year out, the answer is yes. And no.
I often hear, “Not a year in your life, but your life in a year” as a way to think about the complicated relationships that develop during a year abroad. As much as I enjoy (and empathize with) the image of former exchange students repeating “Life in a year, life in a year” as they wrestle with reconciling themselves to the breadth of their experiences, I can’t bring myself to subscribe to it as a useful—or truthful—sentiment. Goodbyes will always be difficult, but if Europe has taught me anything, it’s that we carry our histories with us. Life is really so much longer than one year, and the real, important parts of the German life I was so lucky to live for a time are the ones I carried back across the ocean with me. From one home to another, and onward still.
Well, yes. A month, and I will have somehow managed to pack up my room (crossing my fingers on that one… I’m always amazed by how much stuff I accumulate in a year), say my goodbyes, and return home. It’s something I can’t help but to dwell on, but also something that I think is silly to be thinking too much about. Four weeks on paper looks like an instant, but if I measure it in more than days, if I measure it in people I still need to meet up with, class presentations I still have to research and write handouts for, choir songs to memorize, grammar and vocabulary left to master, soccer games to watch (Germany’s through the group stage in the European Cup, guys! Yeah!), books to read, then it looks like forever. I started this blog with the thought that frames of reference are anything but immutable; I stand by my original conclusion.
My frame of reference has definitely changed in relation to my ability to speak German. In September, I would have been seriously impressed with myself if I’d managed to come up with some of the sentences that are second nature now, but now just as back then, I can feel that nagging gap between that what I currently know and how much more of German there is in the world in general that I have yet to get to. Getting through that gap seems more complicated now than it was ten months ago; since my German-speaking, hearing, and writing world has opened up, I have a lot more strategies to simply circumvent the things I don’t know instead of facing them head-on. Then again, I have a lot more strategies. Period. I guess the key thing is just to keep going, even if this sneaky departure date keeps feeling like a deadline to learn all the things. My favorite words of wisdom on this came from my German 101 teacher, who simply said something to the effect of “You know, this doesn’t have to be your last time in Germany,” when I rambled something similar to her.
(Side note: the German in my brain has decided that since sentences can be as long as can possibly be imagined in German, English sentences should be too. All of the English teachers I have ever had, I apologize for my German-induced refusal to follow your advice and only write sentences I can read out loud in one breath.)
Speaking German feels a little like pedaling up a hill; if I start off with determination and a good warm-up, I can work my way to the top and then coast for a while, trading stories and having good, real conversations with German friends. If, for whatever reason, my linguistic cogs are clicking slower than normal, it takes longer to get to the point where the German feels like it falls into place. And sometimes it still slips out from under me and I feel like I make little if any sense.
Mostly, however, I’m still in love with the fact of language and I’m really happy with how much I’ve learned this year and that I’ve become as skilled with German as I have.
When I was in Hungary in March, the most rewarding thing was getting to use Hungarian as a real language again with my amazing host family. Even after four years with only tenuous contact, it felt like I had only left for a summer and like sitting in their kitchen again was the most natural thing in the world. My ability stumbled once or twice, but after a couple days, I relaxed right back into the distinctly different rhythm of my first second language (and the secondary challenge of translating between my Hungarian family and my American family, though they were both incredibly understanding and patient). When I speak Hungarian in class or to myself, it’s in the context of practicing, not in the context of actual communication, a break from reality instead of a continuation of it. Breaking through the barrier of “I need to say this perfectly to this person before I return to real life,” to “I have this idea to get across to this person, and then we’ll see what happens!” was not something I had expected I would have to do, but the difference is astounding. Language is meant for communication, and having the opportunity to truly communicate in Hungarian again was unbelievable.
It made me miss the way I learned Hungarian, too. I go back and forth about which way I like best: simple immersion or classes? A mixture of both is ideal, I think (and exactly what this program I’m on is about). In some ways I speak better German than Hungarian–for one, reading in German is far easier than reading in Hungarian, and it’s really hard for me to understand Hungarian in lecture-type situations whereas when I focus I can get by in German–but socially it’s a different story. There are so many social cues in conversation that I can easily recognize and respond to in Hungarian but where my understanding in German lagged for far longer.
At the same time, my relationship with German is so much more intellectual and logic-based, which I really enjoy; literary analysis in Hungarian, for example, is way beyond my ability. I met up with a German exchange student friend who I had known in Hungary this weekend and we both felt the same way about Hungarian: it’s a language tied up emotionally for us, while German (for me) and English (for him) just don’t have the same resonance. Maybe it boils down to two questions: attempt communication and then learn the correct structures later? Or learn the structures and then attempt communication?
I don’t have a satisfying answer; at any rate, the ability and position to compare these two experiences and cultures and languages (and how all of those things intersect with English and the US, of course!) is an ever-evolving, pretty awesome thing. And the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction because of that date of departure in the distance (“D-Day,” in AFS-USA parlance, and apparently “Safari” to AFS-Germany) is familiar this time around. There’s still much to do and a confusing amount of time to do it in.
And somehow, all that can be and needs to be done, will be done. My room will fit itself into boxes and suitcases, my goodbyes will be said with the caveat that I know I’ll be back, and in a month I’ll be on a plane headed home. It’s probably going to be a little more complicated than that, but that’s okay. I can live with that.
This weekend it was about 89 degrees (approximately 31 for any of you that happen to be Celsius-inclined) and the good weather has only continued! Katy and I took our lunches into the Englischer Garten today, sat by the Eisbach, and enjoyed the lovely shade of these trees before heading off to our afternoon classes.
Taken at the Frühlingsfest (Spring Festival), called the “younger sister of Oktoberfest.” The weather was brilliant and this ride? So fun!!!!
(AND I’m trying something new! Each week for the rest of my time here, I’m going to upload a photo I’ve taken during the past week. Well, that’s the plan at least!)
Second week into the semester and now I have exciting things like class and homework (I realize that sounds a little sarcastic in print, but believe me, my enthusiasm is nerdtastically genuine!) and LC buddies visiting and a steadily warming climate to talk about, but I promise I’ll get there. For now, pretend it’s about a month ago, the sun has finally come out and I’ve just returned in a cloud of linguistic confusion from beautiful, complicated Hungary with pictures to share and stories to tell:
I’ve been putting off writing about my trip to Hungary because I’ve felt like I won’t be able to express my thoughts and experiences with the depth and complexity they deserve. This has been the first trip so far that’s been about more than mere exploration, and as such my expectations and my experience were significantly different. For those of you who don’t know, I spent my junior year of high school in the little Hungarian town of Gyula, living with a truly wonderful host family and muddling my way through a gorgeous, complicated language that finally made some sense to me by the time I left.
This trip was the first time in almost four years that I’d been back to the place that had left its mark on not only who I am, but how I perceive the world around me. Throughout those four years I’ve tried to keep up the language and hold ties with the country and the history I was grateful to take part in during that year abroad, but it is very true that it changed me. What was funny-strange this time was seeing how much I’ve changed since I was last there.
I’ve spent a lot of time since I came back missing not only the place and my Hungarian family, but also the person that I was while I was there. Not that that person was radically different from who I am now, but a year of speaking a different language, operating in a different set of expectations and being invited by the sheer nature of the experience to reflect on those differences means that I used language and related to the people around me in a different way. The AFS motto is “Not better, not worse, just different.” And I’m pretty sure “different” is going to be the most overused word this post.
As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the introspection came Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube itself!!!
My traveling partner this time around was the lovely Nora, who’s keeping a hilarious if sporadic blog of her year here. After the very kind teachers at the Finnougristic Languages Department at our university here in Munich gave us travel brochures and maps and recommendations, we planned out our exploration of the city! Even just revisiting places that had faded in my memory was so wonderful. Favorite stops of mine were the light-filled Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok), discovering the beautiful roof of the National Archives (Országos Levéltár), the proud splendor of Heroes’ Square (Hősök Tere), enjoying the Szechényi baths, an afternoon spent reading in the sun on Margitsziget (the island-park in the middle of the Danube), an organ concert inside the St. István Bazilika and eating all of the excellent, excellent, excellent Hungarian food to be found.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in my post without talking about food yet. At the drop of anything, hat-shaped or otherwise, I will wax rhapsodic about the joys of Hungarian cuisine. It’s amazing. It’s hearty food not for anyone looking for fat-free or vegetarian (it sounds like a silly joke, but one time I asked my host family what we were having for dinner and they literally said “Meat!”) and is absolutely delicious. Goulash (gulyás) is, of course, the recognizable staple, but there are so many other wonderful things like pickled cabbage stuffed with meat, every sausage ever made in Hungary, smoked homemade cheeses, stews and soups of all imaginable sorts, little biscuity things called pogácsa, pastries and bread and EVERYTHING! And LÁNGOS!!! (Watch me title my post about something and then almost entirely forget to talk about it). Nora and I took the advantage of a relatively well-priced lángos stand near our apartment and ate so much fried garlic-and-cheese goodness!!
It was amazing and weird and wonderful to be back. As cool as Budapest was, though, it’s an international city; I didn’t really feel like I was in Hungary proper until the next leg of our Hungarian exploration. That was also the most exciting part of this trip, when my family and I drove down to my host town and my American and my Hungarian family met for the first time. But that’s a story for another time.
(As always, click on the pictures for a larger view and rest assured, more pictures coming soon!)
As we speak (write? read? whatever. At this moment in time, at any rate), I’m currently back in München after a whirlwind of Hungary, family visiting, and general starting-to-get-prepared for this next semester. But all in good time. I thought perhaps I should go in chronological order, so here’s Semesterferien Adventures Part I: Orff, Elgar, and a Surreal Return to the English-Speaking World.
I know I’ve gushed about UniChor before, so prepare yourselves: it’s going to get worse. And by that I mean more fantastic for me, because at the beginning of this enormous break we had an incredible two concerts. We’d been working all semester on Orff’s Carmina Burana and Elgar’s Songs from the Bavarian Highlands and let me tell you, there are few feelings more amazing than singing in a choir of two hundred with a full orchestra at absolute full blast. I was unfortunately pretty sick at the time, but what with consuming my weight in tea every day and trying not to talk at all before rehearsal, I managed to save my voice enough to be proud of how I (and we, of course) did!
Our first concert was at the Gasteig (which also gets referred to as the Philharmonie), the biggest concert hall in München. It was intimidating, to say the least:
The second concert was in the Große Aula, an auditorium in the main building of my university here. Though a much smaller venue, it was an audience full of our friends and family, which was really awesome:
The next week I was off to London to visit my best friend as well as pretty much all of the theatre juniors and a good chunk of the music juniors from LC. These are people I normally see all the time at school, and seeing them again was so lovely, even if it also reminded me how much I miss our theatre department and the irreplaceable atmosphere that comes with a group of engaged people out to experience and process the world through their own creativity.
I’m a pretty hardcore Anglophile as well (or should I say “avid consumer of British entertainment from the 18th century until contemporary times”), and so I was kind of jumping out of my skin, I was so excited to be in London for the first time. And London was amazing, but it was also hard for me to get a grasp on the city. Just like my reconciling of preconception and reality when I went to Paris, it took me time to adjust, but unlike Paris, I could read all of the street signs. I could ask anyone in the street for directions. Before this, my perception of the “foreignness” of a foreign country was inextricably tied to my unfamiliarity with the language spoken there (sorry, Canada, but you’re just so close!), but London was at once completely foreign and also linguistically completely decipherable to me. It was a strange feeling.
Of course, the one day the sun shone my camera was out of battery (who forgot that Great Britain doesn’t have continental sockets? this one!), but I still had a great time tromping all over the place, having such adventures as listening to Evensong at Westminster Abbey, delighting in the funniest art history lecture I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend at the Tate Modern, ginger beer and sushi (at separate times, I promise) with good friends and good conversation, breakfast with a cousin I get to see very rarely but always love talking with, ogling Stradivarius violins (Stradivariuses? Stradivarii?) and letters from Franz Liszt/Liszt Ferenc, picking through books at the Southbank Book Market and turning up with a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto with a copyright from 1911, trying to understand the clearly misguided artistic direction of Rusalka at the Royal Opera House and giving up in favor of just listening to the music, celebrating a dear friend’s 21st birthday, and enjoying the challenge of figuring such an important, sprawling, interesting city out.
Tune in next time for Semesterferien Part II: Lángos and the Danube’s Pearl! Bis dann!