January 25, 2008
Until just last week, every time I ran out of food, I felt as though I were on the brink of facing another primordial struggle for survival. Like a wild hunter-gatherer I would set off in search of something edible, unsure of whether I would return from my trek victorious or defeated (and hungry). The act of procuring food, which I had always taken for granted, became an almost insurmountable task the day that I arrived in Hungary. It’s not that Hungary is a backward country, devoid of grocery stores, fruit stands or deli markets. It’s simply that in Hungary, I am a backward person. I am a foreigner, and I have a hard time getting by, because I do not know much Hungarian. Until very recently, I did not know any, and for the first time in my life I found myself in a country where I did not recognize a single sign or understand a single word of the lingua franca. It was an incredible shock.
Until I came to Budapest, I thought that with a bit of imagination and interpretation, I could figure out the basics in any European country on my own. After all, I’ve seen the good times and the bad times with a number of Indo-European tongues. English and I are a solid couple; Russian was my first (language); French is an old flame; Italian and I have been together since the first semester of college (still going strong); I even had a fling with German (we’re, um, taking a break). I may have a long way to go before I’m ready for an interview with the UN, but I will freely admit that I came to Hungary confident, (Ed: yes, confident) that I would not only get around with ease, but that I would leave for the States in three months’ time with passable, if basic, Hungarian. On my very first excursion around Budapest, I knew that the good days were over, and that I would consider myself lucky if I could just figure out how the accent and the umlauts fit in with the rest of the language, köszönöm szépen (translation: thank you very much).
The very next day, I signed up for a Beginner Hungarian course with an optimistic and charismatic woman named Gabriele. (Now that I think about it, it might be redundant to qualify her as optimistic or charismatic. To teach Hungarian to a bunch of Westerners, the optimism and charisma may well be an implicit given.) As we plowed through our first lesson (Gabriele stops for no one), I couldn’t help but wonder: how could I have been so mistaken? Was it simply hubris that had led me to believe that I could tackle Hungarian with same ease I had picked up Italian or adlibbed my way through the Viennese airport? None of the words looked familiar; the cardinal rules of grammar which had held fast before had disappeared; without a word by word translation, I couldn’t tell a verb from a conjunction. The recognizable Latin alphabet was merely a tease.
Finally I voiced my frustration, and in no time at all, Gabriele was busy explaining the origins of Magyar (it’s how we say “Hungarian” in Hungarian) and nursing my bruised ego. With plenty of wild gesticulations, a few Soviet-era maps and a lot of repetition, Gabriele was doing her best to convey–in pure Hungarian–the story of the Magyars and their language to a classroom of awestruck, wide-eyed and mildly disillusioned college students.
As it turns out, over one thousand years ago, the Magyars took it upon themselves to migrate from the wilderness of Siberia to the Carpathian Basin. They brought their wild and crazy language along, and ever since, they have been confounding their Slavic and Germanic neighbors with a grammar and logic all their own. Or nearly all their own. In linguistic terms, since Hungarian is Finno-Ugric rather than Indo-European (the broadest categories for classifying languages into common groups), Hungarian bears no resemblance to any other European language aside from Estonian and Finnish. In practical terms, this means that Hungarian is about as closely related to English, Russian, French, Italian, or German as Chinese or Swahili. And in personal terms, this means that without a dictionary or a Hungarian by my side, I might as well be trying to crack the Navajo code every time I look at a bus schedule or skim through a menu.
Although incredibly frustrating at times, the language barrier has also proven to be a humbling and eye-opening handicap. These days, when I study the canned goods or scour the shelves of the grocer’s for a particular product, I hardly ever bother to read the label. More than likely, I’ll search for a picture, instead. I have shamelessly peered into jars of preserves for minutes on end, searching for any differences in color or texture that might help me determine the particular jellied fruit or berry. Blue-purple or purple-red? That could be the difference between blueberry and cherry. Or blackberry and blueberry? Currant or plum? It’s always hard to tell. It’s even harder since I’m partially colorblind (outside the preserves aisle and Banana Republic this chink in the armor is usually more amusing than ruinous). The locals stare, but they cannot help me. I have learned this lesson, too. The fact is, when it comes to a simple request or a standard question, there are many Hungarians who speak a bit of English, but only a select few command the language well enough to move beyond the basics. Nonetheless, I couldn’t be more grateful for even the most minimal trace of bilingualism and for the generally friendly and helpful attitude of the Magyars.
Even so, there exist a number of situations where English remains notoriously absent as an option. The divide lies in the type of establishment and situation, and whether the dominant customer base is comprised of tourists or locals. It is as simple as that. While in a taxi, at a restaurant or at a museum I might be lucky enough to encounter some helpful and bilingual staff members, at the grocery store, in the metro or at the flea market (they’re huge here!), I immediately resort to pointing, miming and a creative and liberal use of my limited Hungarian. Essentially, I play charades, and the locals meet me half way by using a calculator as a trouble-free, tried and true way of conveying numbers, prices or sizes. It’s a far cry from simple or easy, but it’s made even the smallest success a real reward. The other day, I asked for Nutella in textbook Hungarian: kerek Nutellat? Last week I helped my friend buy a coat: kicsi, barna és feher?
So my Hungarian is far from passable… and basic would probably be a very strong word to describe my speaking skills at this point, but I have learned a few other things along the way which are equally valuable. My time in Budapest has taught me that with a little creativity and a lot of optimism, even the most foreign and scary of places can become familiar, and even the biggest and most unanticipated chore–like a trip to the deli–can turn into a fun challenge with a little effort and patience. I have also learned to love the bilingual signs at the market or on the street corner, and when I return to the States, I will carry this lesson with me. I used to wonder why the Target in my hometown in the middle of New England displays signs translated into Spanish. It didn’t sit right with me. It seemed so standardized and so insensitive to the local population. Somehow, it even made me a little bit angry. No one speaks Spanish here! I used to think. But that’s just it; that’s the point. Exactly. No one does speak Spanish, and for that one foreigner passing through Keene, New Hampshire, the Target I know and love might seem like an incomprehensible nightmare without that harmless Spanish translation. The next time I see another one of those bilingual billboards, I’ll know better than to take offense. And in the meantime, I’m off to order a sandwich, just as soon as I look up how to say “hold the onion, please”…
At City Park, in Budapest. Proud and beaming about my successful pretzel purchase.