Snoel Abroad

Sara is abroad again and this time it is in Hungary! I am here in Hungary (in the small town of Gyöngyös) teaching English at a primary school through CETP- the Central European Teaching Program- Follow along with my crazy adventures in teaching and traveling. Szia!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Bratislava- the capital of Slovakia- is conveniently located on the Danube between Budapest and Vienna, only a 3 hour train ride from Budapest. I hadn’t heard much in the way of praise for Bratislava no one telling me it was a “must see” but I also hadn’t heard anything especially negative either- generally I just hadn’t heard much at all about this Eastern European capital. So when another CETP teacher, Sarah, asked if I wanted to take a quick weekend trip there I figured why not. So Saturday morning we left for Bratislava with literally no expectations other than seeing something new.

I’ve come to believe that a huge amount of a person’s experience, whether it be traveling, seeing a movie or anything at all, comes from expectations. If your expectations are unreasonably high than it doesn’t matter how fantastic a city or a trip or a movie is, it won’t live up to that unreasonable expectation and you will be disappointed. On the other hand if you go into an experience with little, no, or at least reasonable expectations you will more likely enjoy yourself and appreciate the experience for what it is. Thus, by spontaneously deciding to go to Bratislava for 24 hours, not having any expectations about what would happen I was more than pleasantly surprised and delighted by the city- we had a fantastic time! To be fair, I might have had the same reaction even with huge expectations about the city, but I doubt it.

Sarah and I had read up a bit on Bratislava before going, basically we knew that there was a small old town center, a “castle” which while an impressive landmark is actually a 1953 reconstruction- the Soviets had a knack for what we have dubbed “over-restoration” when the historical landmarks and sights are restored so extensively that they become more modern than historical- sometimes, like this castle, they are complete reconstructions, not simple restorations. Basically we knew that there were few cities which could be seen in 24 hours and also had an idea that Bratislava would probably not fill much more than that allotted time- perfect. Our expectations were that we would have an enjoyable time walking old town and maybe see a castle.

What we actually found in Bratislava is hard to describe. It is a lovely town. The old town is full of funky old buildings and meandering cobblestone streets. It is small enough to be manageable and feels- unlike many other small touristy-European cities- like people actually live and work there. The other word that came to Sarah and I to describe the feeling and look of Bratislava is completely unexpected—whimsy. This is not a strange out of place whimsy, it does not feel like the city is putting on an act for the tourists (especially since there were probably 20 tourists in the whole city) it feels like there is a genuine sense of artful whimsy that is there for and by the actual citizens of Bratislava and that we, as tourists, are welcome to stumble upon it. The most outright example of this is a series of statues scattered about the old town. In the Main Square is “the nosy admiral” who is peers over your shoulder as you sit on a bench;

a few streets down, peeking out from behind a corner with a long telephoto lens is the “paparazzo” and the most famous of the statues is Cumil “the peeper” who grins at passersby from a man hole.

There is also a popular and fantastic Slovak artist, Fero Lipták, who appears to be loved by everyone in town. His funky and slightly absurd cartoonish art is found on walls and signs all over town and his posters, calendars as well as felt re-creations of his characters are in more than a few shops.

The other word to describe the city would be random, in a bizarre way. From the whimsical art and statues stuck among historic and crumbling buildings to the castle which had a one room exhibition on coins another on Chinese clothing and a collection of photos from someone’s road trip across America in a 1985 Dodge Caravan with wood paneled sides stuck in a back hallway by the bathrooms. The Castle did offer a fantastic view of the city. From the castle walls you could look out at the Danube river and see the juxtaposition of historic old town on one side of the river and the seemingly endless rows of sullen communist apartment blocks on the other joined but the New Bridge, a horrific eye-sore of communist architecture- a suspension bridge topped with a giant observation deck that looks just like the Starship Enterprise.

Our last random and bizarre Bratislava moment came when we decided to have true a Slovak meal for lunch before heading back to Budapest (knowing that traditional Slovak food probably didn’t differ all that much from the Hungarian food we ate everyday) but the less-than adventurous food was irrelevant once we entered the insanity that was the restaurant. Again, no way to truly describe the restaurant but random and all inclusive. The main dining room was downstairs in what I’m guessing was once a wine cellar- the norm for most restaurants in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. What made this one different was what they choose to do with the décor. The walls and ceilings were painted haphazardly in pastels in random places as if there were 5 painters in the room each with their own paint color and a limited supply of paint- each painted a good portion of their own area until they ran out of paint and than stopped. There was an attempt at delineation of a few of these sections with Celtic designs meant to look like stone carvings but were actually Styrofoam sprayed with fake concrete faux paint. The tables and chairs looked normal enough except that the tables had gingham table cloths and the chairs had random bits of animal skins stapled on. The rest of the look can only be explained as: everything. There was a little of everything thrown in here, like a Slovak folk festival/ 1980’s budget prom/ grandma’s basement/ every garage sale ever and to top it all off, Christmas music. Wow. Definitely one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-understand situations. But they served up big portions of Sauerkraut and it was certainly the least boring dining experience I’ve ever had (and that includes Casa Bonita.)

In the end: everything in Bratislava was an unexpected but welcome surprise and I had a fantastic time.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Things currently pissing me off

1. Today I found out that while March 15th is a national holiday that we get off and, being a Thursday, we also get Friday off to make it a lovely 4 day weekend- turns out nothing is that easy- we have to make up that day of work (Friday) and we have to make it up by having school on a Saturday. The Saturday before. March 10, my birthday. Yes, I have to work on a Saturday that is also my birthday.

2. 8a

I did indeed have a wonderful weekend in Bratislava but the write up deserves much more time and will come later. Now I'm just irritated.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

heroin in 7a

Today my 7a class might think I'm a little crazier than usual. I broke down laughing in the middle of lesson because I stopped and listened to myself for a moment. The chapter we are on right now is teaching rules and laws along with indirect/ reported speech by way of talking about the strict laws in Singapore and a random episode in which the main characters of the book (a group of 1985 young adults who are running a travel agency) get caught at customs smuggling heroin. This led to today's lesson of me standing in front of a class repeating over and over "He said they had found heroin in the our van" do you not laugh at the ridiculousness of that?


All this past week (and even the end of last week) the talk around my teachers room was all about the Strike. I’ve picked up on the level of importance of things depending on if and how many people try to explain them to me and this one was explained over and over- plus the word strike in Hungarian is strike, so I knew it was being talked about all the time even if I didn’t know why. The plan was that we- the teachers- were going to strike on Wednesday. Sweet, I first thought, I get a day off. Not so much. Striking meant that we still had to come to school (actually we had to come a half hour early) and then we just weren’t going to teach the first two lessons of the day- just sit in the theacher’s room and ’not teach.’ So I put off my lesson planning for Wednesday morning when I knew I would have nothing to do and internet on the one computer would be a fight against the rest of the staff. Then came Tuesday afternoon. „Oh, Sara, by the way, we aren’t striking anymore” ok...I’ll say it again for the 100th time, the key to life here is to just go with the flow. I must say though, I’m a bit bummed, I was looking forward to getting to experience a teacher’s strike in Hungary- even if it just meant gossiping in the teacher’s room.

School party in Hernad and swimming in the caves.

This past weekend I took a train (a relatively short trip of 2 hours) to the tiny village of Hernadnemeti. Many would ask, and in fact most of my students and colleagues did ask, why are you going there? What is in the tiny one street town of Hernadnemeti? Well Laura is in Hernad! So Eve, Ben and I made the trek to the village of Hernadnemeti for what is always an interesting time.
On Friday night Laura and I waited around for Eve and Ben’s late train and I got into my first Hungarian car accident. No, I wasn’t driving, in fact I wasn’t even in a car and yet I managed to rear end a mini van! Laura’s friend Janos had given us a ride back from the train station and after we got out he took off driving (pretty fast I must say!) but with my bag still in the back. I started running after him to get his attention but he realised the bag was in the back (but not that I was!) and slammed on his breaks and I smashed into the back of the car. A full on, cartoonish splat- ouch! A bit bruised but laughing the whole time.
What better way to sooth an aching body and be oh-so-Hungarian than to go to one of the many thermal baths that are found all over the country? I’ve visited the famous Turkish style baths in Budapest and the castle baths in Gyula and this time the 4 of us traveled to the northern part of the country among the Bukk hills for the cave baths. This is a complex of baths and pools that run through a cave system. It has been very modernized, the pools are all concrete and tile and roofed in and there are families and kids with inflatable wings running all over so it looses a bit of character but still a pretty cool experience floating through the water under the natural caves.
That night, after a rushed trip back to Laura’s from the cave baths, we went to a party at Laura’s school. This past week there have been parties at most of the schools for what they call Farsang- like carnival. Generally what happens is that each class of students choreographs and performs to a piece of pop music for the school and parents and after this the school turns into a mini Disco for the kids to rock out. Laura’s school in Hernadnemeti had an extra addition to this party, the school-leavers dance. Because her village is small the 8th grade students will have to go to another town next year for high school (usually one where they will board during the week) this means that their departure is extra special. The eighth grade girls all wore amazing white dresses with full skirts (I think they actually were wedding dresses) and the boys wore tuxedos with white bow ties and they did an impressive ballroom dance routine. After this the school did indeed turn into a party with band and the kids all dancing. Meanwhile the teacher’s lounge turned into it’s own party that we went to. There were plenty of snacks and cake and Champagne and wine and the ever present Hungarian Palinka- a wicked shot that Hungarians drink at any and all special occasions and are more than excited to press on their guests. So we partied with the teachers and danced with the kids and when the party closed down at 1am we made our way over to the next village (home of the Borsodi brewery- one of the most common Hungarian beers) for a drink with one of Laura’s co-teachers before eventually making it back across to Laura’s.
The weekend ended as they all do, with a long Sunday of train travel (but not too long this time thanks to the destination finally being somewhat near to me.)
Next up...a quickie to Bratislava- why? Why not!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Missed connections, sardine sleeping arrangements and lost borders.

This past weekend I got back to my usual routine of weekends spent traveling and visiting other American teachers in various towns throughout Hungary. This weekend started out like the rest with a quick sprint to the train station to catch the earliest Friday afternoon train after school and ended with a long Sunday spent exhausted and hungover at train stations as I made the trek home- there was plenty of excitement in between however.

This week’s destination was a three town cluster due south of me near the Romanian border (watch out, that was foreshadowing!) these three towns, Szarvas, Gyula and Mezoberény are the new homes of three of the newest CETPers; Caley, Bridget and Arlo respectively.

On Friday I headed for Szarvas, which, though not all that far from me, turns out to be one of the most difficult towns to get to from Gyöngyös and involved me changing trains 5 times as I zig-zaged across the Great Hungarian Plain. Changing trains 5 times undoubtedly means that you will miss one of those connections- which I did. Normally missing a train late at night in a one road town called Újiszasz would mean trouble, but luckily for me Újiszasz is also home to John and Donna- two wonderful CETPers who took me in for a nice chat so I didn’t have to wait the hour and half in the less than inviting train station. Eventually I did make it to Szarvas and there I was greeted by Arlo, Emily, Caley, Laura, Ben and Eve. We spoke in English and had a few beers and at some point found ourselves as the evening entertainment for a local bar in Szarvas when they started playing ABBA on karaoke. Luckily we had plenty of fun dancing and singing so didn’t mind too much when it was time for bed and all 7 of us had to find a spot in Caley’s tiny single room apartment- just line them up on the floor like sardines!

The next morning we got up (relatively) early and ran to catch our bus to Gyula where we met up with Bridget. Bridget wasn’t our only reason for heading to Gyula however. That weekend Gyula and it’s famous castle were hosting the Hungarian Renaissance Festival! This festival was a lot like other festivals in Hungary, lots of tents selling beer and sausage and a stage where people play music and dance. This festival, however, was different in that people were also running around in full suits of armour! There were also fencing and whip demonstrations which some of us took part it (yes, in Hungary after they give you beer they give you a giant sword and tell you to hit your friends with it!) All in all a great festival- the highlight being a group of guys wearing tall brown furry hats with horns coming out the sides (á la the Flintstones) when we commented on how cool they were the men stopped to chat and it turned out one was even from my town! This only got more bizarre when they starting shouting-proudly- in English „We Republicans- we love Pat Buchanan!” so with a reluctant wave to the republicans int he Flintsone hats we moved on from the festival.

This is about when we realized that Gyula actually sits right on the Hungarian-Romanian border, in fact, we could probably walk there! These seemed like such a fantastic idea that Emily, Caley, Arlo and I took a look at the map (apparently not a great look!) and headed off to Romania! An hour or so later, after walking along the side of the highway through muddy fields and seeing no sign of anything, especially a border crossing, we gave up and found a bus back to Gyula only to have another look at the map which proved that, oops! We had actually taken the completely wrong road and walked in completely the wrong direction taking us halfway to Sarkad! So much for that (you wouldn’t think that it would be so difficult to find a national border on foot, and yet I seem to have failed at this twice now in the past few months! The other being the ordeal of crossing back into Slovenia from Italy.) Oh well, the plan for this weekend includes a possible trip to Aggtelek from Laura’s which sits on the Slovakian border- maybe we can give that one a go.

After we had re-grouped in Gyula (without a Romanian passport stamp for Caley) we started on our way to town number 3- Mezobereny, Arlo’s place. After arriving at the train station and finding a bar right out front we decided we should stop for a drink and a dance- all ignoring Arlo’s plea that we had a WAYS to go and we would never make it if we stopped at every bar- but we did eventually make it- after getting lost, taking the long way around and even getting pizza. Back at Arlo’s we again piled in to the tiny flat- sardine style (just be sure to get agreement from the other 4 people in bed if you want to turn over!) The next morning we all headed back to our own towns- exhausted and bruised from sword fights but pleased with another adventurous weekend.

For a more fantastical version of these events and other adventures of the CEPTERS check out Laura’s blog!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Two Steps Forward, One Step students

Two Steps Forward, One Step students.

More than a few people have been asking me about my day to day life in class with my students. What do I teach them? What are they like? What do I do with my 45 minutes twice a week with these kids?

Well, as this past week has been such a roller coaster with my students (more so than usual even) I decided that it was a good time to talk about my classroom life. I teach 11 groups of kids- usually twice a week; three groups of 5th graders (who I teach only once a week), 2 groups of 6th graders, three groups of 7th graders (one of which I have 3 times a week) and 3 groups of 8th graders. All of these kids are in “specialized” English which means that they have English 5 days a week—as opposed to the standard 3—the extra two lessons a week that make them “specialized” are the lessons they have with me and the rest of the week is with one of the four other Hungarian English teachers.

I am “lucky” by CETP standards (my friends call it lucky, I maintain that it can be a bit of a pain) because I have a curriculum and corresponding textbooks. For each grade level I have a prescribed plan for what topic, page numbers, and exercises I am supposed to do each day. This means—theoretically—that even though the students have two teachers teaching them the same class from the same book we will maintain a flow. The idea being that on Tuesday I can plan to teach lesson 95 which will cover page 42 exercises 4-6 with the assumption that the other teacher has spent Monday going over exercises 1-3. However, more often than my sanity can take, I go into class on Tuesday and the students either have no idea what I’m talking about because haven’t looked at page 42 before and certainly haven’t done the first 3 exercises or they have already finished the exercises and entire lesson that I had planned to do with them that day (I’m starting to dread the words “but Sara this is finished, we did it with Erike-neni yesterday” this of course is only ever revealed after I have spent the first 10 minutes of class introducing the topic.) So yes, maybe I am “lucky” to get a bit of a curriculum, but usually it just ends up pissing me off. I’ve learned to be flexible with this however, and now I know that I just have to be sure to prepare 3 lessons ahead and always start the class by asking if they did the previous days task and go from there.

Anyway, back to the students and my week, a week is a bit much, let’s just look at Friday. I began Friday with my 5th graders- an adorable group of kids, I love my 5th graders, they are small and sweet and always sit in their seats and when I ask “how are you?” at the start of each lesson they respond in a chorus of “I’m fine thanks, and you?” leftover training from a past teacher that I’m trying to break a bit but reluctantly since it is such a relief from the blank and indifferent stares I get from the older students. The 5th graders don’t understand very much so I usually grasp at anything I can get and go with it as long as we’re having some degree of English conversation. This week I started by asking each of the students what they were planning for the weekend and after one student said she was going to the zoo I asked what her favorite animal to see at the zoo was (she likes the penguins), not knowing the word for penguin in English she described it and I wrote penguin on the chalk board and drew and (laughable) penguin cartoon next to the word. The next thing I knew I was drawing every zoo animal these kids could come up with on the board, I had a bit of trouble with the walrus- Akos always throws me curveballs. So the lesson went with the flow of what the kids wanted to talk about and in the end that’s really all I’m supposed to be doing is practicing conversation with them. Eventually I had them each draw a picture of their favorite animal and then write a story about the animal- which was, in fact, the original lesson plan, to practice story writing so it all works out in the end.
Next I had class 8. Class 8 is my nightmare. I actually don’t mind 8b, there are some very nice kids, a few troublemakers but generally a great group of kids. 8a however, is a different story. I have two groups of 8a- all of my classes are actually just half a regular class, 15 instead of 30. Even only having 15 8a students at a time is still the worst part of my day. In Hungary the students have to apply for secondary schools which means that a second semester 8th grader is no different then a second semester senior in high school- serious senioritis- they are the oldest in school and too cool for everything and have already applied for secondary school so nothing they do this semester affects what school they get in to. In this class I usually spend a large amount of my time trying to get the kids to get out their books, open their books, find a pencil, take their headphones out (those little iPod buds are my new nemesis) or put away their cell phones. It has come to the point where when the students are mocking me, doing impressions of me, they just point, look pissed of and say “put it away!” These are just the routine behavioral problems with 8a, there is the star of 8a, Csaba, who has done a lot to improving my Hungarian when it comes to obscenities and when he really wants to prove how cool he is he takes out his boot polish, throws his big Soviet army boots up on his desk and polishes them! Csaba has, of course, a sidekick, Istvan who last week jumped out the window with the excuse that Petra (the class flirt) had thrown his pen outside. So this is 8a. Proof that 14 year olds are 14 year olds no matter what language they speak. What made this week special however was that one of the other English teachers was out sick so all week I had both groups of 8a, all 30 of them at once, everyday! The climax came on Friday when their form master (home room teacher) had to come in and sit in the back of the room with her grade book so that they would behave. A plus because they did actually sit still and do their work but a negative for me because I now have confirmation on what I had speculated all along but have been in denial about- the students really are just hat bad for me- it’s not them it is, in fact, me.
But the nightmare of 8a was quickly wiped away when I entered my class 7. I have 3 groups of seventh graders and they are all fantastic! They’re enthusiastic and like to participate and they’re smart and understand that some days we have to do boring book work and learn grammar rules but that if we get through them we get to learn Beatles’ songs and play games. Class 7 fights for turns to tell me about their weekend, about their swim meet or how they won the table tennis tournament or how they’re now ranked 5th in the nation in Snooker- for adults- at age 12! Class 7 got major props for Friday’s lesson which involved reading a long and complicated text about the family history of Mary Queen of Scots and the royal lineage involving her and Henry VIII all in order to practice non-defining relative clauses such as “James V, who was Mary’s father, died when Mary was only one week old.” Not only did class 7 do the assignment without complaining but the understood it and managed to complete the family tree that explains why Lady Jane Grey was briefly Queen- these kids are clever! (well the family tree was mostly Zsofia and Zsu Zsi- give credit where credit is due!)
This week 7b even asked if I would stay after school with them because they wanted to practice their dance routine (for some upcoming school event) and needed a teacher to supervise them in the classroom after school hours. The fact that they asked me might just mean that they know I am one of the only ones who doesn’t have to go home and cook dinner for my kids but I prefer to see it as them considering me a teacher- no different from the other teachers at the school, with equal authority and responsibility (but cool enough to help them learn the words to Thriller). On top of this Vera, one of my best students from 7a invited me to go bowling with her and a few friends and her visiting cousin who wanted to practice his English.

8a: one step back
Bowling with 7a: one step forward
Helping 7b with Thriller dance: one step forward
(I’m still coming out ahead)

Friday, February 02, 2007

half way

I haven't been writing much lately, I know. I think it's because I haven't been having that many crazy adventures- I few trips to Budapest (not so exciting now that I know the bus schedule, and how to get almost everywhere in the city by Metro and bus from where my bus drops me) I meet the same people when I go- other CETPers and the occasional ex-Pat who they have met. We go to the same places- Andrew's favourite restaurant where I can get a GREEN salad with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes (going to Budapest is like a little trip home to the US) and then we go to Szimpla and drink beer or hot wine and I over-hear more English then I have heard in weeks. There isn't anything wrong with this routine- I enjoy it, it's just not as exciting to write about as walking for hours because you can't find the Italy-Slovenia border.
School is also falling into a routine, I no longer have to ask where room 14 is (although I do sometimes find myself opening the door to a class only to find there is another teacher teaching a different class in there- but that has much more to do with the spontaneous room changes that occur so seamlessly that every student knows it happened and yet no one manages to tell me.) I know all of my student's names now (although I still mix up Ádam and Erik at least twice a lesson.) Generally I have found myself to be falling into everything quite comfortably lately.

One of the reasons I started thinking about this- reflecting a bit if you will- has to do with my most recent trip to Budapest. The first semester is over and the second is beginning and while that mostly means that I have new room assignments and a wicked long Thursday, it also means that the CETP teachers that were only signed on for a semester have left. My good friend Becky (star of so many blog entries including the adventures of Slovenia) took her last torturous 3 hour bus ride to Budapest and flew home to Baltimore. This also means that a whole new crop of fresh American teachers flew in so Ian, Eve, Laura and Emily and I did the friendly thing and went to the city to meet them (actually we just wanted to scope out the new blood!) I was going to write about the new teachers but there is no way I can compete with Laura's excellent story so you'll just have to head to her blog for that one.

Mostly the departure of the first semester teachers and the arrival of the newbies gave me a chance to step back and look at where I was in my time line of Hungary- right smack in the middle. I listened to Becky reminisce about her time here and how she will miss her students (even if they can be little monsters) and I got to talk to the newbies, fresh and excited and eager to know how to say "thank you" in Hungarian and jump into teaching. I needed this. It reminded me how excited I was when I first got here and how even the little things- doing laundry, going grocery shopping and eating lunch were adventures and not just the routine chores that I tend to think of them as now. The teachers who left also helped me to realize that no matter how much I want to scream at and throw text books at my monster students, when I have to leave, I'll miss them- even Csaba (well that's wishful thinking...but maybe.)

So I may not be having a traveling adventure this weekend but I do have some dishes to do which has it's own "Hungarian quirks" (I have to run the bathtub to get hot water to come out of the kitchen sink.)