Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Blog Cheater

So, since I didn't have very good Internet access in Hungary, I'm transcribing my handwritten journal to the blog slowly but surely, and then I'm making the posting date match the date in my journal. I'm not sure this is legal in the Information Age (writing anything by hand may have been my first offense), but I'm a rebel, Dotty, so I'm doing it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The End

So we had a going-away party with the homeowners. The Spy surprised everyone, by leading the dancing festivities. He moved with skill and grace and inclusion, pulling women on the dance floor to join him, and making them into better dancers by knowing how to move his own body. He and I did a comic dance together, because no amount of skill and grace from my partner will turn me into a good dancer, but I can always be funny.

The Spy Also Dances Posted by Hello

They gave us bottles of wine to take home (which I silently cursed, because my bag is heavy enough) and then they kissed us on the cheeks and wished us safe journeys home.

Part of our hearts were torn, because we knew that another group was coming in a couple of days, and we wondered how much of the going away party was routine for the ones left behind, and how much of the speeches were recycled from group to group. I imagined another American woman in a week, head over heals for Peter, and I decided it didn’t matter. He’s engaged, and I’m not looking for a relationship anyway (much less one in Hungary), so it’s time to relax and let it all slide. It’s water off a duck’s back. That’s the new me. Free and easy.


Besides, even if the homeowners in Csurgo see new groups every two weeks, I still believe that we were special. We worked hard side by side and we played well together. We reached out to each other, and we offered them soccer rematches and dancing invitations and cooperation on the job site. It sounds sappy, but I still say we made good partners for two weeks, and that’s the best we could do.

Farewell to Homeowners Posted by Hello

Monday, June 28, 2004


I don’t know how I got talked into this. There was a rematch of the soccer game from last week. Last week, it was the North Americans vs. the Homeowners, and based on the stories (I went to bed early that night and missed the whole thing), we played soccer the way North Americans do (poorly). I think the score was something like 3 to 20. Anyway, Mike is actually quite good, since, well, not to stereotype or anything, he’s Canadian, so he plays hockey. I think he may have been behind this whole rematch idea.

We matched up against a ragged lot of kids and middle-aged men. Chainsaw Guy (so named because he uses the chainsaw with precision and grace on the job site) was teaching his three kids how to play. Laszlo, the skinny – but surprisingly athletic – director of Habitat in Csurgo, played for the opposition. And another homeowner “played” goal. He actually, quite kindly, simply stepped aside in the rare case that we managed to get the ball anywhere near their goal. This was not the same kind of “stepping aside” that Ben did in our goal, because he was afraid of getting hurt. Nor was it anything like the “stepping aside” that I did after Chainsaw gave me the biggest bruise of my life, when he kicked the ball at my leg.

Peter played goal for us for a while. He seemed unused to our American attitude of playing full-out even though we had no skills and no hope of victory (or even of dignified defeat). We, however, couldn’t help ourselves. Jen threw herself at her opponents, even intimidating poor Chainsaw with flailing limbs and unpredictable moves. Mike subbed in for goal and snatched unstoppable balls before they reached the net. Kate yelled that she was open, and Sam and Ben were all over the field, playing balls they had no right to reach first. I even stopped a small child from advancing a ball down the field at one point. And Kate and I both scored (though it was on our own goal, which caused Peter to shake his head in dismay).

Final score was 6 to 14, an improvement, they said, over last week, but more than that, we amused our Hungarian fans, who really couldn’t believe what they were watching was football.

Before the Defeat Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Marianne and Willoughby

I began flirting with Peter innocently enough. I knew he was engaged, and there’s a language barrier, so I didn’t really expect him to “get” me anyway, and mostly he was the only thing going on in town. Our group – as I’ve said – is too young, except for Mike, and he’s with Kate.

I didn’t expect to become addicted to Peter’s smiles of amusement I didn’t really think I’d catch him looking at me in quiet times, and I didn’t know how much it would affect me when he finally said my name. The problem is that his English is too good – it’s good enough for him to use it in jest – and I’ve discovered that his wit is quick, even in a second language. I feel like a Jane Austen character, only not one of the main ones who winds up happy and married, but one of the sisters who flirts unwisely and is just there as a foil to show how wise and virtuous the main one is…Marianne, perhaps, and Peter is my Willoughby.

It sounds light, and I’m sure in a week, it will be, but for now it feels heavy, because I spent all day yesterday deciding to pull away, and I slipped only in the end, when he asked me with the look of a question mark, what I was knitting, and I told him it was a blanket, and he looked at me in disbelief and said it looked like women’s underwear, and I smiled because I knew what he meant, and his face, which had been somber and tired all day, rearranged itself into dimples and wrinkles, and I wanted more, despite my decision of the day. Later, I looked up and he was taking my picture, so I hid my face, wondering as I did so, whether the fiancĂ©e sees his pictures and hates me as much as I would, and then I vowed for the hundredth time that day that I would stay away, wondering how much of Peter’s heavy looks were the result of a similar vow or – more likely – a hangover, and wishing perversely for the former, because if I’m going to forgo his smiles for his happiness, then at least I want him to miss me.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Don’t Drink the Palinka

We were treated to a wine-tasting event, in the wine cellar down the block from our guest house. It began with shots of the Hungarian fire-water, palinka. Unfortunately, in addition to being powerfully strong alcohol, palinka also has a very pleasant aftertaste. It comes in all sorts of fruit flavors (even, according to Peter, a paprika flavor – although “paprika” in Hungary means any kind of pepper, so it’s hard to tell what that means). We’ve had pear and peach, and I think the stuff at the wine tasting was pear.

We were taught to toast in Hungarian. You say “Egeszsegere”, look your friend in the eyes, and drink your palinka in one swig. It means “to your health”, but there is a way of mispronouncing it, that makes it mean something like “to your ass.” Marta didn’t want to tell us the mispronunciation, because she was afraid we’d learn it the wrong way, which mostly meant that I was afraid I was somehow innately using the wrong pronunciation anyway. Fear that my failure to pronounce something correctly will create an obscene word is only one of many reasons I’m such a language wimp.

So, we practiced our toasting and our pronunciation on five different kinds of wine, getting more and more unruly as the wine tasting continued. It became difficult for us to stand quietly and listen to the Hungarian description of the wine and then wait for Marta’s translation. We were too busy getting ready to toast each others’ health (or ass) with the next kind of wine.

Then, already tipsy, we headed back to the bar attached to the restaurant, and ordered our own bottle of palinka. I had one shot, and then escaped outside to avoid any more, and to talk to Peter, who was smoking. I was enjoying flirting with Peter, who is getting married in late July, so combines unavailability with his other charms of competence and confidence. Yeah, and an easy smile and a willingness to flirt back just a little bit. By that point, my palinka goggles were pretty firmly in place anyway, so I’m sure a little flirting went a long way with me.

Palinka goggles Posted by Hello

The last wall to go up - after I returned to work Posted by Hello

Friday, June 25, 2004

Water World for Adults

Besides the absence of natural thermal springs, I can’t think of any reason why Minnesota can’t have a water park like the one at Zalakoros. Sure, part of the appeal, especially for old, sick people is the healing properties of the hot springs, but they reek of sulpher and the water isn’t quite hot enough for me, and I still found plenty to do there. We started at the hot springs (which, according to my guide book are 92 degrees Fahrenheit, amazing for natural hot springs, but not so hot for a soak), surrounded by silent, soaking, old German couples. I’m spoiled by my mom’s hot tub which is kept at 106, so I couldn’t take much of the tepid water – or the surly, sickly Germans.

Things got better when we left that scene for the wave pool. The wave pool is heated, but not thermal, and at 15 minute intervals, at the sound of the bell, someone turns on a machine that throws the water into big waves, bobbing the occupants of the pool up and down and against walls and each other. The waves didn’t last very long, so we moved on.

Next came the river pool, which has powerful jets that simulate a current and sweep you along around the artificial river’s path. At 15 minute intervals with more bells, the river changed into different kinds of underwater massaging jets and waterfalls. We stayed long enough to learn the pattern of the bells, allowing ourselves to be trained like Pavlov’s dogs, so we could beat the Germans and the Hungarians to the Next Good Thing. Then we had to go – for we were very busy – to the sauna.

All of this fun, warmth, and laughter, appeals to children, certainly, but mostly it’s used by adults. You could look over as the river current swept you along and see someone twice your age, laughing and enjoying the same sensations. It’s Water World for adults, and we’d all be happier if we’d build one in Minnesota.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Circus Circus

Last night, we attended the circus, which had come to town complete with knife throwers, jugglers, and snake tamers. It was held in a big top tent in the town park. Mike began the festivities by breaking the homemade bench we were sitting on, and landing on his back, but he was OK. We were the only ones there without children (unless you count Sam, who is really so mature for a 15 year old, I don’t even mind anymore that he’s the age of my students). At one point, the children all volunteered to go on stage to be part of a clown act, and then the performers outnumbered the audience.

The circus had the World’s Worst dog act – two poodles, one of which could do very little, and the other could do even less. On the other hand, it also had one of the best clown acts. It was just repetitive enough – the clown shouted “hoo hoo” and waved at they kids, and they repeated it. He said “Maestro music” and the band didn’t play. He got a frustrated look on his face, waved his hand in front of his body, and yelled “cha cha” and the band did start to play. After five minutes, the kids knew his lines better than he appeared to, and they shouted them with glee. The best part of his act was that he responded to them with just the right amount of surprise and delight, breaking into infectious laughter and smiles whenever they got to “cha cha” before he did.

My Favorite Clown Posted by Hello

We’ve worked two days on the job site, framing walls which goes quickly and makes everyone feel useful. Everyone’s hammering has improved in two days – and everyone has more room to improve.

Later today, we’re off the thermal bath and touring a castle. It’s a sleeping-in day, which means it’s 8:15, I’ve been up since 6:00, and I can’t eat for another 15 minutes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A Word About the Work and the Metric System

We’re framing the downstairs of a four-plex. It’s built on-slab (which means no basement), but unfortunately the slab, which was poured by professionals, is 10 cm off level. Water collects in the low spots when it rains, and before we got to town, the local team (the site supervisor, Peter, and the future homeowners) had to shim up the blocks that will hold the walls. Because of their work, when we place the walls, their tops will be more level than the slab is. They will fill in the gaps at floor level with insulation and more shims. It’s a messy problem, which will probably haunt them a little bit throughout the construction. For the second house, Peter oversaw the pouring of the slab himself with volunteer labor, and that slab is level.

We started with building pillars out of four two by fours. I’m not sure what two by fours are called here, since all units are metric. After we’d had some hammering practice building our pillars, Peter started laying out walls and letting us pound in the studs. The work was going well, and I was only having mild irritation with men on the job site trying to “help” me by finishing my crooked nails for me. We worked alongside the future homeowners, who spoke no English, so I couldn’t protest when they did, but I tried to show my dissatisfaction by walking away.

The Second Wall Goes Up Posted by Hello

When you first build a wall with congruent top and bottom plates, and studs that are all the same length, it could either be a perfect rectangle (unlikely) or a parallelogram. Before you put the wall up, you want it to be a perfect rectangle, so what you do is you measure the diagonals of the wall. Since the diagonals of a rectangle are congruent, and the diagonals of a nonrectangular parallelogram are not, you can tell whether your wall is a rectangle by comparing the diagonals. In fact, with the help of a persuader (sledge hammer), you can convince the corners of your wall to move, forcing the diagonals to be congruent and the angles to be 90 degrees, which is good for such things as sheetrock and wallpaper.

Well, anyway, tape measures were in short supply on the job site, but there was one lying around that had obviously been left by an American, because it was labeled in inches. It was available, because the Hungarians regarded it with distain and suspicion, so I grabbed it to check the diagonals of a wall I was working on. The wall had been built metrically, but all I cared about was congruence, so inches would work. The wall was 6 inches off of being a rectangle (quite significant for that size wall). Kate and I worked together for 20 minutes to try to pound our corners into submission. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t changing enough, so we yelled for Peter. By that time, our wall was 3 inches out of square. I told him we were three inches off, and he shrugged and gave one corner a couple of small taps. I felt mildly insulted, but measured again, to humor him. It was barely changed. I repeated myself. “Three inches,” I said only this time I held up my fingers to show him what three inches meant. He raised his eyebrows, looked at my tape measure, glared at it, and tossed it aside. “I don’t know inches,” he said, pulling out a metric tape. Then, eventually, he had us tear apart the entire wall, because something was wack about it (I think the top plate was too long), so I guess mostly it wasn’t just an inches problem.

After Day 1 of Work Posted by Hello

Monday, June 21, 2004

Train Lovers

It's 5:00, so I'm up. I can't help myself. Roosters (somewhere) are crowing, birds are chirping, and nearby a dog barks occasionally, probably at the rooster. Besides I have the coming work day to worry about. What if I've forgotten how to hammer? What if I cut off a finger? How much more free time would I have if I gave up worrying as my hobby?

Yesterday on the train, we split into two groups. Eight of our crew sat together in one car, and four of us sat in the other. I volunteered for the small group out of frustration with the indecision of the group. Besides, I figured in the smaller group it would be less rude to whip out my Jane Austen and find out what happens next to Marianne and Eleanor. Anyway, I rode with Neal and Sam (father and son from California) and Marta (71-year-old Hungarian, who's been living in the US since the 1940s). We made a pleasant group, and Neal and Sam slept and Marta seemed content to look around, so I was free to read my book.

Behind Neal and Sam, sat a good-looking couple, who, at the beginning of the trip, kissed each other sweetly and often, and I caught glances of them when I talked to Sam and Neal. It was so affectionate, that I even began to rethink my opposition to public displays of affection. Just as I was wondering if my opposition was denying myself some part of happiness when I'm in a relationship, the couple seemed to grow more open in their displays of affection. Their kisses lasted so long, and their giggles were so intimate, that I began to talk to Sam and Neal, without removing my eyes from the scenery outside. The couple, meanwhile seemed to dare us to watch as they ran their tongues down each other's necks. I decided that the couple belonged in the bedroom, but it seemed harmless enough, until most of the Hungarians left the car.

The two lovers were left alone in the car, except for us, a group of tourists they cared nothing about, and a family several seats away. It wasn't long before I heard Marta draw in her breath disapprovingly. I didn't want to look, but I did, and the man was making motions that can only be described as masturbatory, and the woman seemed eager to assist. The laughter and noise that accompanied their performance were proof that they considered us no obstacle to their pleasure.

So we had no choice. We left the car to stand in the little hallway next to the bathroom with all our bags.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Meet the Group

I met the group yesterday. First I met Murphy, the trip leader, a math professor from Simpson college in Iowa. She seemed eager to tuck me away in a room in the guesthouse and prepare herself for the trip, so I introduced myself to Jean, the grandmother and peace-degreed psychotherapist – Jean is a writer, and she approached me kindly when I was walking to dinner alone, so I’m prepared to love her. I’m much too easy. Jean rooms with Christine, a recent math graduate from Harvard, who is going on the MIT in the fall. She has a touch of that young, brilliant, self-contained intellectualism that I recognize from my own past.

Next I met Jen, whose luggage was lost, but who is handling the inconvenience well, and who has the nicest smile I have seen in a while. She’s a social worker (except she’s not yet employed after graduating) from New York City. She has sparkling eyes – as Jane Austen would say. She also has the voice of my old baby-sitter Claire. Occasionally, you run into people who look like someone you know, and that’s weird, but the resemblance fades as you get to know the new doppelganger and their personality starts to show through the eyes and ears and nose of the old friend. The voice resemblance seems more lasting. Jason Zimmerman has the voice of my old best friend’s father. It took me a year before I could think much else about Jason.

Next to arrive were the Canadians, Kate and Mike. Kate’s a doctor (I think, if I understood her Canadian) and Mike is studying brain research. I like them. They are closest to my own age, and Kate has the small wrinkles around her eyes that show that she’s lived 30 years with expressions, and I can trust someone who wears old smiles on her face.

Jim arrived next. He’s had a history in foreign service. He’s also a rapid-fire questioner, and I almost suspect he’s a spy, infiltrating our group to keep an eye on our un-American activities.

Then came Neil and Sam, the father and son from the Bay Area. Neil tried to talk to me in the dining room, which, yes, endeared him to me, but after a day of traveling alone I ran out of things to say very quickly. Sam is a high school junior, which did not endear him to me, but that’s not his fault.

Marta, the Hungarian, arrived next. She fled Hungary hours before the Soviets arrived in 1945, and now she comes back to visit relatives and build houses. Jim focused most of his intense questioning on her.

Finally Ben arrived. He’s a recent graduate (undergrad) of architecture. He is handsome, with long eyelashes, but too young for me, which means that the only unattached males (Sam and Ben) are too young. Oh, well. I guess I’m now officially in it for the low-income housing.

Hoarding My Change In Budapest

Eastern Europeans hate making change. No one wants to be the one to break the big bills from the cash machine, of course, but even with the small ones, cashiers ask the customer impatiently for exact change. I keep thinking, “You’re the one with the cash register, honey. Open it up and give me my change, already.” The result is a shortage mentality about change. I hoard my coins – coins that back home would go unloved into a jar on my dresser – are carefully counted and recounted, and kept close at hand in a pocket. Do I have change? Yes, I do, but it’s mine, all mine.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Escaping the Grid

From above European cities look as different from American cities as they do from the ground. In the air even before you land you can see the respect Europeans have for space. Their towns are densley packed areas of populations, houses right up against on another, stopping abruptly directly up against the edge of a field. Americans never learned to respect space in this way. We have too much of it. When we reach our fields, we keep building, pusing the fields further out, giving ourselves more room to fill with houses and strip malls.

After owning our own homes, the second Great American Dream is to disappear from our neighbors. We long for solitude, not, of course, the crazy loner solitude of Ted Kaczinski, but the isolation of being just off the grid. Problem is, as soon as we get away from the grid, it comes to us, bringing good things like sewers and electricity and high-speed Internet, but also bad things like neighbors we can actually see. From above you can see this cat-and-mouse game acted out by millions of Americans all the time. We're so busy running away from the sight of our neighbors, we don't resalize that we're chasing down the isolationist ahead of us. This is how Best Buys and Wal-Marts get out to former corn fields. They follow the Great American Neighbor chase.

European cities look different from the ground, too. Apparently, Europeans escape the grid not by running away from it, but by refusing to implement it. They lose sight of their neighbors down winding allwys and narrow cobblestone street that meet each other at odd angles (like 63 degrees or pi over 3 radians). They hide within courtyards, away from the prying eyes of the neighborhoods. Same dream, different result.

Today I wandered the streets of Budapest for an hour, losing myself a little bit more with every turn. This is not the land where three rights make a left. Instead three rights could make a right or a straight line and doesn't that kiosk look familiar and if I stop to look at my map one more time I will draw the attention of the neighborhood pick pocket or rapist, but if I don't I will still be wandering the streets when it gets dark and the rapist or mugger will find me two blocks from my hostel and no closer than I ever was because it would take me three dozen wrong turns to get there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Packing Procrastinator

I bought a backpack yesterday, and started to set things near it to bring with me. I'm a wretched packer, and so I put it off until the last possible moment. We may have reached the last possible moment today, but, as you can see, I am still procrastinating.

I had people over for a barbeque last night, and that made it seem more real that I was really leaving soon, so after I finish writing this post, I probably will start to tackle filling my pack...but first I have to do the dishes, and clean the bathroom. See? Procrastinating until the end. This way I'll have an excuse when I realize that I didn't bring any socks. ("How could I remember socks? I didn't pack until midnight on Wednesday.") This same philosophy got me through college. ("I got a B on that Hamlet paper, but just imagine how well I could have done if I'd given myself more than six hours to write the thing...")

I'm also realizing as I pack, that never in my life before now, would it occur to me to bring my running shoes, but I'm really trying to make room for them this time. I ran about three miles yesterday and another three today. I'm even thinking of increasing my mileage. You have to realize that I spent 30 years earning my resting pulse of 105 to understand how amazing this paragraph is.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Preparing for Hungary

This is the first Saturday of summer vacation of my first year as a teacher. Everybody says how hard that first year of teaching is, and now that I've completed the year, all I can say is believe it. Around Christmas time, I seriously considered quitting my job. At the change in semester in January, I was getting all new students, and my rationale was that I could leave without deserting any kids. Besides, I was throwing up every morning, and tossing and turning every night. I was losing weight, losing sleep, and feeling like a constant failure.

At the advice of Anne Marie, who survived her first year as a teacher, I weathered that rough spot by reserving a space on a Habitat for Humanity International trip to Csurgo, Hungary. Anne Marie said I had to promise myself a reward when I got to the end.

So, here it is. I survived. I am a seasoned teacher, and, as a special bonus, I get to go to Hungary. I leave on Thursday.