Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Travel Tuesdays- Living and Teaching in Budapest

In this series, I am going to be telling some of my own stories as well as giving you guys the opportunity to share yours and read about people other than myself (novel concept!). But, I'm kicking off with some general musings about my life in Budapest. Most of this is inspired by an interview my friend Melissa did with me for her blog Go, Be Still. Here are a few of my reminisces and thoughts (I will definitely discuss specific interactions and stories about Hungary and other countries at a later date).

 In 2009, I decided to go on an adventure after having caught the travel bug a few years earlier. Fresh-ish from a break-up, I decided I wanted to go and live somewhere I had never been. In order to finance this adventure, I settled on teaching English abroad. 

Why did you choose to teach in Hungary? 
Originally, I was looking to teach in Poland. I think CETP (the program I taught with) used to place teachers in Poland and that’s how I found them. I couldn’t find any comparable programs in Poland and the Peace Corps no longer goes to either Poland or Hungary and there are really no other programs….so it seemed like a logical choice.

What will you need if you want to teach in Hungary?
You have to have a BA (in any discipline), but otherwise I think Hungary is very desperate for English teachers (at least that was the feeling I got at the time). The Peace Corps program there closed in 1997 and it has left a considerable void in available native English speaking teachers—especially in rural Hungary.

 Where were you placed (and how much say did you have in where you were assigned to teach)?
I was placed in a pretty famous Hungarian school (most Hungarians have heard of it). It was the first bilingual school in the country after the fall of communism, so kids used to go there from all over Hungary. Now that there are others in the country, kids mostly just come to it from all over Budapest. The school itself is in the outskirts of Budapest. I was placed there for a number of reasons: 1) I applied early and Budapest is the first choice for most people. 2) At the time, being active in Jewish life was important to me and that is one of the few places that has an active Jewish population (aside from a few towns that host a lot of Israeli medical students). 3) I have lupus SLE and if I got really sick, that would be my best bet for treatment. 4) I have a degree from NYU and the school I taught at has had alumni attend NYU. There were three of us placed at that school and all of us had degrees from schools their alums have attended.

Budapest from Buda Castle...Before learning my way around a DSLR.

 How much free time did you have/how did you use it? Were you able to travel?
  I was very sick during my time in Hungary and ended up having to leave the program to have surgery in the USA. But we did seem to have a lot of free time (and if you are healthy, you’d have a lot more!) and I used it to travel to different parts of Hungary to visit other teachers (which is something most American tourists don’t really experience). I also went to France to visit a friend teaching there. Budapest is only 3 hours from Vienna on the train, so I took a weekend trip there as well.

Releasing lanterns in Hajdúszoboszló (Eastern Hungary, nearish to the Romanian border).

What was the pay like/did you feel it was on par with the average local salaries/did it allow you to cover your daily expenses?
 I was told I was paid the same as the local teachers. It isn’t much, but I was also doing some online writing to supplement and save a bit on the side. We didn’t have to pay for housing, electricity, WiFi, etc. and we got I think $60 worth of coupons to use in restaurants each month (which goes a helluva long way in non-touristy locations—even in Budapest). Then we got our salary. I only really seemed to buy food and cultural things (museums, movies, etc.)…I am a huge clothes horse in the US and UK, but I didn’t feel much of a need to buy more clothes when I was there. It was really interesting. Not that there isn’t some good shopping, it just didn’t top my list of priorities. I think that says something about the cultural climate.

How did you handle the language? Were you able to learn Hungarian while you were there? 
There was a severe case of third culture in Hungary. Many Hungarians are monolingual because their language is so freaking difficult. Learning Hungarian is also really challenging, so I didn’t even try (which, in retrospect isn’t great as I could have actually used it in an academic setting). I was able to meet Hungarians by joining a group for young Jews and the majority of them were bilingual and helped me out a great deal. But things like calling a cab, etc. were almost impossible, as most people even a few years older than myself don’t speak English. I ended up learning a few basic words and phrases out of necessity. Even though they big it up as a very difficult language to learn, it is probably the best environment to learn a foreign language because you have to dive in at the deep end.

Budapest by night

 What were your students like (what was their English level/any discipline problems, etc)?
 My students were fantastic and I still speak to some of them to this day. I know other teachers didn’t feel so great about their students, but mine were generally eager to learn as the school I taught at hand selects students. There were very few discipline problems, which I am really happy about, because I am both very bad at handling that and there were really no regulations in place. The school didn’t have detention or anything and you weren’t allowed to kick out students, so that could prove a challenge. I think the hardest was a kid who clearly had severe ADHD, but was very intelligent. When he was challenged by an assignment, he excelled, but when he wasn’t, he was annoying and disruptive. I ended up meeting his mother and telling her about it and she was surprised to hear that a teacher thought her son was smart, which I thought was interesting (as in Hungary, they are very quick to point out negative aspects of students’ personalities and don’t really dwell on the positive). I asked someone on staff if he had ever been evaluated for ADHD and I was told they weren’t really interested in taking psychotropic drugs and at the time (in 2009) most Hungarians would be against it. I think it was kind of a shame. You have the US where kids are overmedicated and here where they just refuse it altogether. There could be a happy medium!

Their English level was generally good, except for my beginners, but we still bonded pretty well. It is interesting because physical touch between teacher and student (i.e. hugs….not anything nefarious!) is not discouraged. Students would often come up and hug me and we were told to hug them back as this isn’t seen as creepy or weird. In a way, that is kind of nice because you can have a more personal and human interaction with them, but you need to find other ways to establish boundaries. I had my students call me Miss Scanlon even though some teachers would allow students to call them by their first names because of the boundary issues and because I also look quite young (and looked even younger in 2009).

 With my students on the last day of my teaching....which exemplifies the lack of boundaries in Hungarian schools....though I do love these kids!

 What would life be like for a minority living in Hungary? 
 (Please note, this is MY observance as an invisible minority living in Hungary. You are welcome to share counter experiences and this is not intended to offend, but to inform.)

I'd say that to be honest, I was surprised to find there are Jews and am really wondering why they stay there. A lot of Jews are "secret" Jews, which is a common phenomenon in Poland where people find out that they are Jewish as adults and reconnect with their identity then (usually their grandparents "quit" being Jewish and decided to stay in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust). Hungarians are not very accepting of any minorities and hardly any live there. A black person or an Asian person sticks out like a sore thumb and they still complained about how many of them were there.

 I never admitted I was Jewish to my kids until the very last day. I wouldn't say it is unsafe to be Jewish, but it isn't something you should go around telling people....especially any supporters of the Jobbik party. The Holocaust Museum is hidden on purpose (even though Hungarian Jews suffered terribly)...I'm not exactly sure the reasoning, but I know the museum was placed on a backstreet and made difficult to find intentionally. Homosexuality is also a pretty big no-no and I can't really figure out why. Hungary isn't religious like Poland or Ireland (though there is a history of Catholicism), but we were advised never to go to the gay pride parades as they often just hurl abuse (and sometimes urine and nails) at those marching in it. I had a few gay friends there and they did not feel comfortable expressing their sexuality in public (as in holding hands or being open)--but there seems to be a pretty big underground scene if you're on the lookout for it.

 The gypsy issue is huge, but I don't know that I feel qualified to address it in any way as I don't personally know any Roma and/or Sinti people.


  1. Wow, so much information here! This is so helpful! I'm not a teacher, but its really interesting to hear about your experience. thanks for sharing!

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