Monday, April 16, 2012

DVK Students Visit Seattle

It finally happened. Kata, my wonderful mentor from Dráva Völgye Középiskola, and two exceptional students, Detti and Nándor arrived at the beginning of the month for a two week visit funded by a Fulbright alumnus grant. It's been an intense and very full two weeks, involving four host families including our own, a large high school, two important religious holidays, a dozen tours, Hungarian apple pie served to perhaps 800 kids, and a debilitating influenza snaking through our ranks. I have so much I'd like to report here, and I'm hoping somehow I'll remember interesting parts -- like reactions to American routines and services (peanut butter, root beer, and classroom decorum) -- but if I start from the beginning and move through the parts I remember, maybe those will emerge in turn. Frankly, Stephanie experienced more of this visit than I, giving tours of things like the aquarium or Boeing factory or Experience Music Project, even when she was so out of it with disease to remember much of it; but the slices I present here are a picture worth portraying.

They arrived after a one-stop flight through Amsterdam. I had spent the preceding weeks in contact with our visitors and their host families and was very excited about the arrival, unsure how it would all play  out. Using a Google document, I tried to coordinate a schedule, but the balance of activities was so theoretical; and while I knew the host sisters and brother, and e-mails from their parents seemed so enthusiastic and warm, I didn't really know their families or how this would all turn out.

What a delight, then, when Kata, Nándi and Detti arrived, to see their excitement and feel my own; what a relief and unexpected joy to meet Nándor's host family, including my student -- Camas -- and Paige, Ross and the younger brother, Silas; and to meet both of Detti's families, and feel so at home with them as well: Ani and her parents, Lisa and Josh, and their two sons, Jeremy and Sam; and Charlotte's parents, Mary and Ralph. The energy was so full of welcome and love, and I felt so at home with them all. And I was happy to spend time with them, let alone entrust our young visitors to their homes. Ani's younger brothers, though, spent two hours silently on the couch while my own daughters hid in another room, falling down in their own responsibilities.

Ani and Detti
We ate fish and Kata's excellent paprikás csirke (paprika chicken); we toasted; and so suddenly I felt like my family was very big.

Kata's Stars and Stripes
Kata had come equipped with numerous gifts for us, like a bottle of Tokaji Aszú and a parchment of the national anthem, and for my principal too -- including a full size Hungarian flag and a softly lit framed portrait of the Holy Crown of Hungary. Additionally, she brought three European handballs, an entire set of laminated displays about Hungarian history and culture, folkdancing dresses and more. Her application for the journey included six pages of single-spaced proposals for things she might do while visiting Roosevelt, plans that both guaranteed her spot but also made me nervous because they were too much to ask for from students and the operations of a full-speed-ahead comprehensive high school the size of Roosevelt. But in the end, here's the part that amazes me still: she planned a handball tournament, a Hungarian dance house, a singing and drama demonstration, a film festival, Hungarian culinary samplers during lunch, and cultural and historical lessons, and she accomplished much more of this than I could have expected. The Hungarians left their mark on Roosevelt.

Detti and Nándor also prepared more than they were asked to deliver, including weeks of rehearsed folk dancing and several musical pieces involving a recorder and the piano. They had hand-transcribed notes onto paper, and as I stared at the scripted notes, I marveled again at the preciousness of paper in Hungary. They played the piece below in their first hours in Seattle.

Before the welcoming banquet, I drove with our girls to Snoqualmie Pass. Amelia's teacher was taking his kids tubing and it was time for Sophie to give up the skis she'd rented for the season. We'd invited Kata up to the mountains but she stayed home and made the chicken.

The next day was the first day of school. All of the visitors showed up in my sixth period class, Camas's class, which is three quarters boy, big energetic boy, and ultimately saw a debate from my students about the role of religion in politics. One of the boys came in late wearing a hat and a wire hanging out of one of his ears. I was totally ashamed. In the end, the class succeeded in demonstrating some of the best and the worst of American habits, including an overflowing exuberance and also organization of personal thoughts towards critical argument. Detti noted that the kind of thing that happened in the debate, students articulating so many of their own informed thoughts in a back-and-forth conversation, is the kind of thing that might occur to some extent in a foreign language class in Hungary, but it would not approach what she saw there. 

But these were recurring observations. American students show a shocking lack of respect, and also an impressive level of initiative and originality. American teachers are genuinely interested in their students' opinions, and in some degree, they actively teach students how to develop valid opinions.

Detti in my 9th grade class
Kata was in my room one Friday when the day began, and she was startled by how few students greeted me. It was the same morning that a small group of ninth graders crowded around me before class to share various things or experiences -- an event from the day before, a book someone was interested in reading, a rabbit pelt a student had tanned herself; but it was true: some students came in and sat down without looking up, or dropped off bags and left again without saying boo. I thought two things about this: One, I thought, that's true, I don't think much about that kind of acknowledgement; two, I think I encourage that kind of distance in the morning, because I'm usually typing furiously or doing something at my desk and I don't look up to give anyone the chance to interrupt one of the few moments during the day I can prepare and answer e-mails. In Hungary, teachers go to their students' classrooms. In America, students come to us, not only to our teaching spaces but our office spaces, and perhaps that is a difference.

For two months leading up to the visit, I had been trying to correspond with the student government at Roosevelt and getting increasingly nervous as responses were few. But what I discovered is that, while I wasn't hearing anything, the government was organizing around the e-mails I was sending anyway, and in the end, they really helped make things happen. This included daily announcements and signs reminding all Roosevelt students about dancing with our visitors, a day of handball, and also a notice on the readerboard outside school welcoming our visitors. Kata also joined with the culinary arts instructor, teaching the class how to make Hungarian apple pie and then single-handedly serving over a dozen giant trays of it to students, teachers and administrators during both lunches. I watched some of the distribution, students holding still, skeptical, because who gives out free food in a school?, and then delightedly taking part.

As for the folkdancing, my history partner and I brought our 57 ninth graders to learn some of the dances from Somogy county, really looking forward to doing something active with a class that is quiet with each other in the best of times. The boys, outnumbered by the girls in this group, huddled together, only to find that they had to hold hands with each other in a giant ring and rhythmically step to each other's moving feet. I stood next to a student who was able to maintain his masculine sense of self by countering every left with a right and nearly taking my arm out at every measure. Below is a video of the circle dancing.

But I'll treasure the next moment even more for its awkwardness. At a certain moment, Detti and Nándor  demonstrated a little partner dancing together, and then suddenly split off to join the ninth graders, in their horror, in pairs. While I danced with Kristi, my history partner, and Lauren, my girls' music teacher, who had come to get in the rhythm before performing Kodály and Brahms' Hungarian Dances the next weekend -- and not daring to dance with students, as I comfortably would in Hungary -- we adults enjoyed watching the boys squirm with a choice of humiliations: dancing with another boy, or dancing with a girl. Video below.

The next day after school was the open-school folkdancing event, advertised in announcements and flyers. That morning I started receiving frantic e-mails from a couple local Hungarian societies offended that they hadn't heard earlier because now they could send only one member and did we have microphones and soundsystems. The first Wednesday, our visitors got together with Maria and her husband, two members of the Seattle-Pécs Sister City Association, and had first a very fun time with the Ducks tour -- in which an outrageous and obnoxious tour guide drives an amphibious vehicle on land and sea -- and then had an intellectually full discussion with Maria and her husband, both Hungarian ex-pats who'd left in 1956. Kata ultimately decided the ones who stayed in Hungary were the brave ones, but Maria's story is one of terror and courage. In any event,  a professional dancer showed up and led instruction in a somber, near-whispering voice to which we'd become accustomed the year before on Hungarian news stations and classrooms. My own family came and joined in the dancing. Paige was there and watched as well. By this time, she was crashing with the disease that had taken out Stephanie, Kata and Amelia the week before.

Kata was back in it two days later, teaching handball for five straight periods. There were at least two classes showing up in the big gym every period, which we accommodated by lowering the curtain through the middle, then integrating classes and separating the sexes. Kata did a great job of explaining the rules to all; usually, she'd stay with the girls while the boys ended up playing a version of basketball that ended with lobbing a ball as hard as they could at a mat that stood in for a goal while a keeper tried not to get creamed. The girls' side, meanwhile, was organized by multiple rules and whistle shrieks as Kata instructed them in the finer points of offense and handball defense. In either case, any students brought to the gym had a great time and wanted to be able to play again.

In addition to visiting classes and touring with Stephanie to various places, and getting out with host brothers and sisters (Nándor was able to visit the Seattle Art Museum and Jazz Alley with Camas; Detti went to a party with Ani and the Tulalip reservation with Charlotte), and all of them trying frozen yogurt for the first time -- and other things I don't know too much about -- they spent a day or two with Roosevelt's Hand for a Bridge, an organization devoted to crossing cultures. HFB was hosting over a dozen students and teachers from Northern Ireland, and our visitors joined theirs in a visit to Seattle's International District and the Wing Luke Museum, debriefing the event the next day. Nándor and Kata and I also joined this group for their farewell dinner. Irish bravado is very different from Hungarian.


I'd like to be able to say more about the many things they all did together without me, which included several visits downtown and a visit to tidal pools and also an outing to Everett for the Boeing tour. The only reason I emphasize this more than other interesting experiences they had without me is because I have a picture, which I display here too because of the contrast of expressions in this given moment, which I also think is very funny. Nándor, what are you doing? Maybe this is also the time to say that Kata says that root beer tastes like toothpaste and Nándor finds peanut-butter and jelly as well as turkey and cranberry very odd combinations for a sandwich. Kata also notes that we must have hated the service in Hungary, marvelling in restaurants at the number of people catering a table and checking up on our welfare and pouring fresh water.

Camas, Charlotte, Detti, Nándor and Kata

Kata leaving her mark at the Pike Place Market gum wall.
I do want to say one last thing about the visits to school, which is about Nándor and Detti's gathering on the last Friday with my ninth grade block. We gathered all 57 in the one classroom; and after I conducted some regular business with them, we gathered and asked questions of our visitors, in turn getting questions back, and finally warming up the group. Students wanted to know what Detti and Nándor thought of our food, our schools, our people. Fat cowboys? Detti has never seen so many people outside running. Classrooms? Don't teachers think it's rude when you eat there? Favorite English expressions? "Elusive" and "clumsy." Drink and weed in Hungary? Yes. Government? Conservative. After going back and forth with each other for well over an hour, we pulled out board games and played for the final twenty minutes. Because we finally took the time to appreciate the exchange with thoughtful and slow questions, and because our students lived up to the opportunity so fully and because Detti and Nándor represented Hungarian teens so well, it felt like the classroom event I most wanted to have with our visitors, and I was very happy.

No more about school.

The second weekend together was Passover and Easter. Easter had the advantage of being a holiday well-observed in Hungary, which is largely a Catholic nation; however, Kata, Detti and Nándor may well be pretty typical Hungarian Catholics, or maybe not, I don't actually know, in that they're not very observant. During one of the conversations about religion in my American Conversations class, I tried to suggest that the Soviet era let out a lot of the religious steam of the country, as it had done in other places. Kata insisted this was not so, and said levels of religiosity remained about the same throughout. Stephanie pointed out that in a book we'd both read recently, The Invisible Bridge, a compelling book about a couple of Hungarian Jewish families during WWII, a book, by the way, that mentions Barcs ("Horthy had decided to let Hitler invade Yugoslavia from Hungarian soil--Yugoslavia, with whom Hungary had signed an agreement of peace and friendship a year before. Nazi troops had gathered at Barcs and swarmed across the Dráva River while Luftwaffe bombers decimated Belgrade" (449)), Stephanie pointed out that the pre-Soviet Hungarians in the book weren't that religious. The Jews described were largely assimilated. Religion isn't intense in Hungary the way it is in much of the U.S.

Devout or not, religious events are great moments to swap cultural practices, and we were able to do so.

All our visitors were invited to my father's Passover seder at my sister's house. Not only were we able to introduce Lauren and Jeff's family to our visitors, but we were able to share one of the great Jewish traditions with people who'd never experienced them ever before. 

I was proud to read and sing in Hebrew, in part to dispel the monolingual reputation of Americans, but also because they'd all lived with me for a year and probably knew very little about a side of me that much of Hungary no longer knows much about. During the seder, I talked to Detti about the Barcs railroad station and how there was a Jewish encampment in 1944 there until officials were ready to put the Jews all on the trains and send them to Auschwitz. Detti didn't know this, or of the plaque on the railway station commemorating the event, despite the fact that her class had visited Auschwitz earlier in the year. I also told her the story of the Kremsier-kastély in Barcs, owned by a Jewish family, the patriarch of which killed himself rather than get taken by the Nazis in 1944, something I discuss more extensively in this old blog entry.

Lauren: First plague rocks out.
I'm also very proud of the story of liberation, and how seriously my father takes it, a tale he always makes very personal and relevant, in a world where poverty makes our dependencies to each other so much more important and so many of our desires and routines so much less. He speaks every year of the things that lead us into bondage, the things that bring us together and make us free.

Of course, he also uses an orthodox haggadah, whose brutality and thirst for blood and vengeance, from the Israelites but also God Himself, are prominent. Every year, Dad successfully contextualizes such brutality. But I'm starting to think maybe it's time to ditch the Orthodox book -- and I couldn't help but feel itchy as I thought about the fact that this was first contact with Judaism for our visitors. Even without our guests, I don't always want to have to remember why it's okay that we ritualize lines that translate into asking God to pour out His wrath upon other nations.

Spending time with family was enlivening, and I was so proud. And Maude lit up the room, as always.

Detti went to Ani's seder the next night, and we brought Kata to Louise's. There were many more little children there and the energy was less formal and more social because of it. Kata noted that once we ate dinner, we never returned to the seder, as we'd done the night before. But at Louise's, those last few rituals don't mean much. The celebration of family and the tradition of defiant activism is what stands at the fore.

Again, the room was packed. I don't know how Louise found room for us all, but I'm so glad she did, and glad too that Kata could experience times two the kind of welcome that comes from what is either or both a Jewish tradition or an American one.

Maisie squinches her eyes as the afikomen is hidden.
One of my favorite days this whole trip was going to meet with Charlotte's extended family at their compound on Hood Canal. Charlotte's grandparents live in a house with space for other branches to stay, and the place is a wonder. One side of their house is an estuary, a natural bird sanctuary, and it all opens up to the canal and its dramatic backdrop of the Olympic mountains. The day was calm and blue and the mountains cut sharp lines across the horizon. I was very full once again with this place in which we live.

Stephanie has noted the number of times I've pointed to the mountains in the last two weeks. Look at the mountains! I've said it repeatedly to Kata. Look at Mr. Rainier! No one ever seemed as excited as I was. That's why the picture on the left, taken right after I'd said, Look at Mt. Rainier! and stopped the car, captures a little of all that. Stop. Look. Stop. I don't think I was ever able to convey how special these mountains are to Seattlites, as rare as a sunny day, and as sparkling and soul-lifting.

But on this day, on Hood Canal, I think it all became clear.

The vistas were thrilling, but the company was good too. I have become very fond of Charlotte and her family. They were always warm and welcoming. At a certain point too, they sat me down to tell them about my year in Hungary; their questions were smart and engaging, and soon, most of us were sitting in a circle by the shucked oysters in the blinding falling light, juggling questions and answers between Kata, Detti, Stephanie and myself, taken in as warmly as Charlotte had taken in Detti.

And that was another thing. Watching the blossoming friendship between Detti and Charlotte. I didn't have occasion to see what took place with Ani, but I saw Detti with Charlotte several mornings in my class, dancing second period and later after school, playing handball together, all day this Easter Sunday, and later at a Mariners game, and the chemistry was terrific. They called themselves twins, and there was much to this label. They are both very outgoing, throwing themselves into events with reckless joy; they're both very engaging and ready to talk and ask questions and appreciate the opportunities presented in the company of others; and they love to laugh, and seemed to make each other do so every other second. The picture at left gets it: the mirroring, the air from each melding into a giant bubble between them.

Below are pictures from the afternoon on Hood Canal, including walks across the oyster beds and preparations for a 200 egg Easter egg hunt, before which, Mary removed all of Ralph's lame layings to make the search more of a challenge, and during which, kids ages 4-18 flooded the area with Easter hoots.

As we neared the very end of the time together, we brought our visitors to their first baseball game, a new experience for them all. It was the Mariners' home opener, and so it was in some respects a first for me too. It included the first time I'd been to a sold-out game (46,000), and the first time I'd experienced the panic of a crowd crush. I had become separated from Stephanie and was stuck between three young women, which might have been thrilling but instead was terrifying. I wanted them off me. It turns out we were all stuck because several yards away someone was handing out free t-shirts.

The game itself featured a stolen base, a home-run, some good pitching, walks, and other things I was happy to explain to our Nándor on my right. But nine innings, nine losing innings, is a lot of innings. Hungarians typically have a much longer attention span than Americans, but I don't know how much fun it was for them. 

Charlotte and Detti painted their faces beforehand and talked the whole time, about Epiladies and hair removal, I believe, and so they were happy enough.

Nándor's biggest entertainment was the crowd itself. One tier above us, two men dressed in full-on Star Wars regalia were launching a strange, repetitive war cry over and over, throughout the whole game.

Nándor was also befuddled by some of the crowd's enthusiasms. Behold the puzzlement slash contempt in the picture below, taken after three animated hydroplanes raced for first place on the Jumbotron while masses of fans yelled their predictions and then triumph or disgust in the conclusion. After I took Nándor's picture, we all laughed at what we saw there. Here's to you, Nándor.

There's so much still to say about this visit, in the small details and in the larger fulfillments. I know I'm not up to the task. But I will say this. Bringing a little Barcs to Seattle hurt. It made me remember and miss so much, and to long for people and feelings. And yet it was such a gift to share our world back, after Hungary had given us so much, and to bring so concretely the gifts of our experience last year to students and teachers here at Roosevelt. And to do all this with such good people, the Hungarians as well as the host families I feel so fortunate to have come to know better: it was as good as ever I hoped. When every sharing was an act of generosity and affection and curiosity, the world became for those moments a kind and enthralling place, and for that, I am thankful again.

Thank you, Fulbright. Thank you, Kata, and you, Detti, and you, Nándor. And thank you Camas, Ani and Charlotte, and your wonderful families. This is a gift that will last far longer than the two weeks in which we spent it.

Yesterday morning we said our goodbyes in front of our house. Then Charlotte came with us to the airport. 

I miss you all.