As my students used to say . . . “Kész vagyok!”

I am ready.

I am home in the United States and am ready to move on to the next stage in my life.

One of my Hungarian students recently emailed me and asked, “After living in Hungary, how would you subscribe this year from your point of view? Did you enjoy being here?”

The answer, although not an uncomplicated one, is ultimately, YES.

Living abroad was an important life goal for me.  I didn’t want to just breeze through as a tourist or even volunteer somewhere for just a few weeks.  I wanted to live and work in another country, to immerse myself in another culture, and hoped that that would help me figure out who I am.  Because when you’re separated from almost everyone you know and are far from all that is familiar, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on who you really are.

I considered going to Bangladesh and Africa, but I ended up in Hungary, and I’m glad that I did.

And I’m so glad that Jesse did it with me.  Teaching high school students was decidedly not one of his life goals, but he promised me that we could go abroad after he got his master’s, and teaching English was the best way to do it.  It wasn’t easy, but we now have amazing memories.

Over the course of ten months, I taught over three hundred students.  At least some of them improved their English.

I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at a refugee camp.

I visited seven countries: Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Romania, France, and Italy.  I won’t try to pick a favorite, but I will say that I don’t regret going to Italy three times.  It is a truly bewitching place.

I fell on my chin, visited a Hungarian hospital, and got two stitches.

I did the cha cha with kindergartners.

I brushed my teeth in front of sixth graders.

I rapped for twelfth graders.

I made friends with a puli dog.

I took trains all over Europe, and I never once went in the wrong direction or got off at the wrong stop.

. . . And now I am glad to be home.  We are moving to Syracuse, New York, at the end of July.  We found a cute apartment relatively close to campus (but outside of the dangerous zone inhabited by undergraduates) and we are now the proud owners of a washer and dryer.  One of my college professors once told me that you’re not officially a grownup until you own a washer and dryer.  So, according to that metric, I am a real adult.

Our new home (We are renting the first floor)

This concludes Hungary for Adventure, but for my readers, it doesn’t have to be viszlát (good bye).  I can no longer offer you photos of European destinations, but I will keep taking pictures and hope to be mildly entertaining.  Please visit my new blog, Scribbling Scarlett.

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Reverse Culture Shock

*Okay, I lied.  There will be one more post after this.*

Reverse culture shock is a physical experience.  As we walked through JFK airport, I was tingling and my insides were shaking. The feeling came back several times over the next week or so.  After ten months in Europe, here are the most shocking differences about being back in the U.S. (although they are rather superficial, they are the ones that smacked me in the face.):

1. American English

For the first few days, I couldn’t get over the fact that I could go up to anyone in a store and just speak English.  No fumbling through a greeting in a foreign tongue or trying to establish how much English a store clerk actually understands.

I thought that my brain would default to Hungarian, and that I would freak out the cashier at the grocery store by saying “Köszönöm! Szia!”  But I did not.  I slipped back into American English comfortably, as if I was putting on old tennis shoes after tottering around on heels for months.

2. Customer Service

Everyone is so nice.

For example: When we went to the bank, a manager cheerily greeted us as we came in and asked how we were doing.  The teller smiled and was pleased to help us, even when I explained that I needed a new debit card.  As we left, the manager urged us to take a bottle of water and to stay cool (Ohio was experiencing an intense heat wave).

The bank was offering me FREE WATER?  They wanted to prevent me from getting dehydrated?

Customer service is just not the same in Europe.

3. Menu Choices

Restaurants have too many options.  At Bob Evans (a down-on-the-farm, homestyle-cooking-type-restaurant for those readers who are not Midwesterners) I froze up when I had to choose a salad dressing.  Did I want ranch or wildfire ranch or “Italian”?  And where was honey mustard?  No honey mustard?  You go away for ten months, and everything changes.

The menu at Cheesecake Factory?  It’s obscene. Thirty kinds of cheesecake?  Seriously?  The marketers are apparently trying to empty the wallets of women between the ages of 25 and 50 because everything is “Skinnylicious” and “Glam.”  Even burgers.

As a vegetarian, I just don’t find anything glamorous about eating a huge hunk of meat between pieces of bread.  Tasty, perhaps.  Glamorous, no.

4. Driving

Plenty of people in Europe have cars, but Jesse and I did not.

I love driving, but I don’t love the environmental impact.  Cars are always convenient, but in the U.S. cars are often a necessity.  Many roads don’t have sidewalks or bike lanes, which is just absurd.  We should at least have the option of an alternative form of transportation.  Instead, my country is a spiderweb of highways.

In fact, I am about to get in my personal, air-conditioned box and drive 2.5 hours from Columbus to Cleveland.  I don’t have a practical alternative.  There hasn’t been a train connecting these major Ohio cities in decades (and a bus ride would be lengthy and slightly sketchy).  I will enjoy the quiet thinking time in my car, but I feel like speeding down a highway in my own 1.5 ton vehicle is a ridiculous way for one person to get from A to B.

. . .

It is the weirdest feeling to be surprised about aspects of life in the country in which I grew up.  I do not feel that American culture is superior to European culture–or vice versa.  I love both ways of life.  But after being away for ten months, I appreciate that I am an American, specifically a white Midwesterner.  I can adapt to and love other cultures, but in my heart I will always be an all American girl.  (Which I don’t know if I would have said ten months ago, given how frustrated I am with many aspects of how my country operates.)

After three weeks in the U.S., I am already beginning to feel the faintest pangs of longing for Europe or Asia.  I think I will be a lifelong traveler, and I hope I have the chance to go abroad again soon.

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Rome: Ostia Antica

Probably the first colony of Rome, the ancient port city of Ostia Antica is an easy twenty-five minute train ride from Rome.  Unfortunately, we ended up on a train without air-conditioning, stuffed in with a crowd of beach-goers, but we survived.

We spent most of the day traipsing around the ruins.  There are endless alleys to explore and detours to take from the main road.  Grass and weeds quickly reclaim areas where fewer tourists go, so it is easy to pretend that you are the first one to discover various mosaics and statues.

According to Rick Steves, Ostia is in some ways more interesting than Pompeii, and certainly less touristy.  Ostia was not destroyed/preserved by a volcano like Pompeii, but the Tiber river did change course and Ostia was gradually covered in a layer of silt.

Like the Ara Pacis, Ostia was excavated and restored by the fascists in the 1930s.  The restoration was intended more to impress visitors than to be historically accurate.

Ostia had many warehouses and apartments for lower class laborers.  The multistory apartments were cramped and smelly.  Because residents couldn’t cook for themselves at home, they ate “fast food” for almost every meal.  The most interesting building we saw was a restaurant, complete with bar, sink, backyard courtyard for diners, and a “menu” on the wall with pictures of food, alcohol, and music so illiterate laborers knew what the business offered.

Ostia is a complete city.  You can find a cemetery, a courthouse, businesses, baths, public toilets, temples, and private homes.  If you visit the forum and still want to see more ruins, then Ostia Antica is the perfect day trip from Rome.

Umbrella Pines

Theater

Corinthian Capital

Gym

Restaurant Counter

Fresco Remnants

Hollow bricks — part of the heating system of the public baths

Mithraeum (for worshiping the god Mithras)

Detail of large mosaic

Toilets

Bust of a boy

Jug

Ostia Antica was our last adventure in Rome.  It was a good finale to ten months of traveling.

That evening we indulged in a Michelin-rated restaurant near our hotel for dinner.  We arrived just after 7:30 PM, and of course we were the first diners to sit down.  Eventually the restaurant began to fill up with several groups of locals, all who were greeted with hugs by the waitress (possibly proprietor).  I enjoyed the lyrical sounds of Italian that floated throughout the room as we ate our pasta.  Part of me wished that we could stay in Rome just to become a regular at that little restaurant.

Astoundingly, Jesse said his favorite thing about Rome was the dessert  he had that night: pana cotta topped with fresh berries.

The next morning, we checked out of our hotel, dragged our suitcases back to Termini Station, and began the long haul home to the United States.  I wasn’t too sad as we rolled out of Rome on a shuttle bus to the airport.  After all, I had tossed the required coins into the Trevi fountain.  I knew that I would be back.

*Stay tuned for one last Hungary for Adventure post*

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Rome: Part Two

On our second and third full days in Rome, we covered a lot of ground.  I can’t even remember the exact order in which we saw things, but we saw the: Capitoline Museum, Pantheon, Ara Pacis, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and Vatican Museums.

If it seems like there are a lot of pictures of marble statues and carvings in this post, that’s because we saw a lot of marble stuff.  (And my photos didn’t do justice to the amazing engineering and architecture of places like the Pantheon or St. Peter’s, so I omitted these.)

I can’t describe how I felt in St. Peter’s and the Vatican.  I guess a sense of awe and joy mixed with a mild sense of distaste.  There is a lot of gold in St. Peter’s, and the cynic in me thinks that perhaps the Catholic Church could have put its wealth to better use.  But I am very, very glad that the Church commissioned Michelangelo to do so much work because his paintings and sculptures and designs really are among the greatest creative achievements of human kind.

Luckily, my encounter with Michelangelo’s Pietà was much more positive than with the Mona Lisa.  Although tourists are separated from the sculpture by a wall of plexiglass and crazy people were still snapping photos, I had enough space to gaze at and appreciate the work–which Michelangelo completed when he was younger than me.  Mary’s sorrowful face and gentle hands cradle Jesus’ body, which is limp in her arms, and heartbreakingly realistic.

Michelangelo’s Pietà (Image from Wikipedia)

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgement were equally moving.  The room was crowded and, according to a tour guide I overheard, it was unusually noisy.  I spotted a French couple sitting on a bench along the wall who were about to get up, so I hovered around them for a few minutes and then Jesse and I squeezed in and listened to Rick Steves’s free audio tour.  I can’t believe that Michelangelo designed and painted such a huge space mostly by himself–unlike Raphael, who designed the paintings for the papal apartments down the hall but whose work was primarily carried out by assistants.

At the Trevi fountain, hoping I will return to Rome . . .

The Spanish Steps were underwhelming.  Although I insisted on walking to the top, I couldn’t help feeling that they were just a bunch of steps.

Spanish Steps

Statue near the Spanish Steps

View of a dome from the top of the Spanish Steps

Obelisk in front of the Pantheon

Marble lion at the Vatican

Egyptian tomb carving, Vatican Museums

The Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) was one of the most interesting things we saw, yet it is less well-known than other sites around Rome.  It is housed in a really neat building designed specifically to protect the monument from noise and air pollution.  Critics loathe this modern museum constructed in the heart of the historic district, but I felt like the museum was a perfect enclosure that helped me appreciate the art rather than distracting from it.

The Senate commissioned the Altar to commemorate Emperor Augustus’s victories in Gaul and Spain.  In an age long before television and the internet, big works of marble were a great way to get out the message to citizens that the Emperor was doing a good job.  (There was also the “bread and circuses” strategy: gain and maintain political power by keeping the citizens fed and entertained.)

Ara Pacis Museum designed by Richard Meier

Ara Pacis Frieze

Ara Pacis Carving

Ara Pacis Carving

Ara Pacis Carving

The Ara Pacis was used once again for propaganda purposes in the 1930s: it was reconstructed by Mussolini, who wanted to promote the wonderfulness of Fascist Italy.

Although Mussolini’s renovation projects actually did quite a bit of harm to the archaeological integrity of sites in and around Rome, it is another example of how Romans lives amongst their history.  Historical sites in the U.S. are cordoned off and preserved as museums, whereas in Rome they are often recycled and re-purposed.

Which I think the ancient Romans would’ve been okay with.  They were industrious and innovative.  For them, things were not “set in stone.”  They re-used marble and even re-worked statues to turn the face of a god into the face of an emperor, or vice versa.  I think they would be pleased to see a modern building encapsulating the Ara Pacis and tourists lined up to marvel at the Colosseum, which is still impressive after almost 2,000 years.

. . .

Amongst all the major sightseeing, Jesse and I found time to eat some gelato while sitting by a lovely fountain in a peaceful piazza.  That is, peaceful until a pigeon carpet bombed us and pooped on both our heads.

But as I told Jesse, at least it didn’t land in my ice cream.

I took it as one of life’s nice little messages about keeping things in perspective.

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Rome: Part One

June is not an ideal time to go to Rome.  It’s hot.  Public transportation is crowded and even hotter.  And many Romans are rather aloof.  For them, tourists are probably a necessary evil (and we witnessed some bad behavior from an American group at our hotel that gives me an idea why some Romans might not be happy to see an American checking in!).

But I loved it.  And maybe it was the perfect time to go.  We went to some off-the-beaten-path places in Europe, but for Americans Rome is a sort of mecca second only to Paris.  I wanted to have the quintessential Roman experience.  So it seemed appropriate to be traipsing around the Forum under the scorching sun and having to fork over €2.5o for a bottle of water when I left mine at the hotel.

We avoided the costumed gladiators who will pose for a picture with you–for a fee.  The Roman police got into a scuffle with some corrupt gladiators (the ones who overcharge you and threaten you or hold your camera ransom) last year.  I guess it was a full out Roman battle–the gladiators were even whacking the police with their wooden swords.

Our first evening in Rome, we got Indian food to go near Termini Station and walked to the Vittorio Emanuele Park to eat it.  While I was gobbling down yellow dal, a cheeky cat sauntered down the sidewalk.  I was snapping some photos of it when a large German Shepherd came along and chased it up a tree.

When Jesse and I went to inspect the ruins in the park, we saw that the cat had retreated safely behind the fence, where half a dozen more cats were lounging around on toppled marble columns.  There was no sign explaining what the giant ruins were, but there were several signs explaining that the ruin was now home to a protected cat colony.  Harming a cat could result in imprisonment–and that German Shepherd should not have been running free in the park.

The park seemed like Rome in a nutshell.  Romans live alongside several thousand years of history.  Some ruins are carefully preserved and are visited by thousands of tourists everyday;  the Nymphaeum Alexandri/Trophy of Marius is tucked away in a park, lacks a historical marker or sign, and is inhabited by cats.

I must confess that when I envisioned “ruins” I thought mostly of some foundations and a few marble columns.  In reality, most of the marble was stripped from the ancient Roman buildings and incorporated into new construction–sometimes thousands of miles away.  But there are many huge brick buildings still standing after two thousand years.  It is truly amazing.

I was prepared for crowds and long lines, but Romans have designed their city and sites to accommodate hoards of tourists.  Here is how to avoid a line at the Colosseum:

1.  Buy the Roma Pass from a tourism information point the night before you want to go to the Colosseum.  The one at Termini Station is open until 7:30 PM.  The Roma Pass is valid for 72 hours after you use it the first time–either on public transportation or at a museum.

2.  Get to the Colosseum between 8:15 AM and 8:30 AM.  The gates open promptly at 8:30.  Stand at the left side of the line, turn left when inside the gate, and head for the special turn styles designated for Roma Pass holders.  Your first two museums are free so you don’t need a ticket–just scan your card and start enjoying the stadium before everyone else!  I downloaded Rick Steves’s audio guide onto my iPod, so I didn’t even need to stand in line–or pay–for one.

There is one ticket for the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Palatine Hill museum, so you just have to scan your card at each of these sites!  We spent all morning and part of the afternoon at these locations.  In the evening, we went to Trajan’s Market, which felt like a modern, multistory shopping mall.

I’ve seen many History Channel and PBS documentaries about Ancient Rome, but seeing all the ruins in person was still breathtaking.

Cat in the park

Cat at home on the ruins

Ruins of the Nymphaeum Alexandri, at one time a fountain

View of the Colosseum from the Domus Aurea ruins

Colosseum

Temple ruins at the Forum

At the Forum

Trajan’s Market: The Original Shopping Mall

Emperor Constantine

Modern art inside Trajan’s Market

Horse capital inside Trajan’s Market

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Exploring Prato

Jesse and I got back to Ohio just in time for a thunderstorm that wiped out electricity to most of Columbus and Franklin County.  Now that I have internet access, let me take you to Prato, Italy.

From Budapest we flew to Rome (in my ongoing airline difficulties, earlier this year Wizz Air discontinued its flights to Pisa and we had to change flights) and took the very expensive very convenient high speed train to Florence the next day.   From Florence, a twenty-minute train deposited us in the charming Tuscan city of Prato, where we spent one night.

Why Prato?  It all began in the Uffizi Gallery last Christmas where I was transfixed by Madonna and Child with Angels by Filippo Lippi.  The Madonna was beautiful and serene.  She remained in my mind long after our vacation was over, and I decided that Lippi is one of my favorite artists.  When I learned that his masterpiece is a series of frescoes in the main chapel of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I knew that I had to see Prato before we went home.

There are a plethora of awesome towns in Tuscany.  Guide books do not rave about Prato as one of them, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  I thought perhaps the Romanesque cathedral was the only beautiful building surrounded by ugly modern construction.  Instead, Prato was like a miniature Florence, with narrow streets flanked by medieval and Renaissance buildings, little piazzas with fountains in the middle, plenty of old churches, and even a giant fortress.  The most remarkable things was that there were no tourists.

We spent over an hour gazing at the frescoes in the peaceful, cool cathedral.  An older American couple had also stumbled upon the church, but that was it.  St. Stephen’s is one of the most beautiful churches I have been in.  It has an external pulpit designed by Donatello and a facade of green and white marble.  There are five chapels behind the altar, all covered in frescoes.

We also visited the Opera del Duomo (a museum dedicated to the works of art from the Cathedral) and the Museo di Pittura Murale (Museum of Mural Painting) and they had several more Lippi pieces.  I was in heaven, and Jesse really enjoyed the trip as well.

The wonderful thing about traveling is that you never know what will capture your imagination or send you in a new direction.

Traveling is also full of challenges.  A nationwide transportation strike nearly stranded us in Prato.  I’m not sure what the unions ended up deciding, but we took the train back to Rome with no problems and were able to check into our pre-paid, non-refundable hotel room!

In the Romanesque cloister

John the Baptist saying good bye to his parents by Filippo Lippi, St. Stephan’s Cathedral

Self-portrait, Lippi, St. Stephan’s Cathedral

Saint Margaret (from Mary presenting her belt to Thomas) by Lippi

Sinopie (for a fresco)

Annunciation

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The Edge of the Roman Empire

Although I am writing from the capital of the former Roman Empire, I will share a few pictures taken from Aquincum, a Roman city on the outskirts.

Parliament at Dusk

Last Tuesday morning, Jesse and I hopped on the tram and transferred to the HÉV (suburban railway) stop that goes to Aquincum.  When we got to the bottom of the steps, we were met with this:

It was déjà vu.  Last August the very same segment of the  HÉV was under construction.  While Jesse and I, jet-lagged and disoriented, were staring at the sign, two pierced-and-tattooed guys came up to us and started talking to us in Hungarian.  When we failed to respond, they immediately switched to English:

“This is f***ed up!”

Which pretty much summed up how I felt about the situation.  We had navigated our way around tram construction, but I felt overwhelmed by more public transportation obstacles.  I was ready to go back and hide in the hostel room.  Luckily, the guys decoded the cryptic sign.

“There is a bus.  You better come with us.  We will show you.”

We weren’t really sure how wise it was to follow two strangers through Budapest, but they led us to the bus stop and chatted with us while we waited for the bus. We identified ourselves as Americans, and their immediate response was, “Why did you come to Hungary?”  We explained that we were English teachers.

“Oh, that is very respectable.  Our English, it is s***.”

While we were standing at the stop, a young woman with wild hair came up to the four of us and started murmuring.  Her lips were moving, but not much sound came out.  It wasn’t clear whether she wanted money, needed help, or had some important message for us.  Our new friends tried to speak to her in Hungarian, but she didn’t respond.  As she wandered off, the guys looked at us apologetically.

“Yeah, we don’t know what the f*** that was about.”

During my time in Hungary, I often reminded myself that if I was confused, chances were there was a Hungarian who was equally confused.

A few minutes later, we followed them onto the bus, and they made sure we knew where to get off and change to the HÉV.  We arrived at Aquincum as the sun was setting and only had time to walk around the small civilian amphitheater before we made our way back to the hostel.

The incident will stand out in my memory as our first bizarre adventure in Hungary.  It was reassuring that two strangers helped us on our way, and they were glad that we had come to their country to teach.

A year later, we managed the replacement bus without the help of our friends.  And this time, we actually went inside the museum and archaeological park.

We spent several hours at Aquincum, and we virtually had the park to ourselves.  With the help of EU funds, the park recently built a new museum complex, reconstructed a painter’s house, and created a beautiful park for kids.  It is too bad that there weren’t more visitors to enjoy the state-of-the-art facilities.

Although it was the capital of a province on the periphery of the Empire, Aquincum had all the essentials for a Roman lifestyle: public and private baths, central heating, floors covered with mosaics, walls painted with beautiful frescoes, temples, and plenty of markets.  And this was just the civilian town near the equally large military settlement.

It is believed that Marcus Aurelius wrote part of his Meditations in Aquincum.  I have often taken solace in his calming, stoic words, and it was fascinating for me to imagine this great philosopher-emperor sitting near the Danube and scribbling his thoughts on a piece of parchment.

Aqueduct in the middle of the highway

Painter’s House

Dining Room, Painter’s House

Porch, Painter’s House

Aquincum Meat Market

Roman Family

Mythological Playground

Mythological Playground

Sometimes, life comes full circle.  Aquincum was both our first and last Hungarian adventure.  Only ten months later, I know a lot more about Hungar, and perhaps a little more about life.

We are flying back to the States on Wednesday, but I promise that pictures of Prato and Rome are forthcoming!

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