Lessons Learned in a Hungarian Kitchen


1. Gather what you need

It’s best to begin preparing early. The earlier the better. Before you ever open the heavy metal door between you and your Hungarian kitchen, before you rattle the skeleton key inside the lock, before you slide into the backseat of your new boss’s car, before you ride 120 miles south from Budapest to your new home, before you spot the lights of your hometown’s sweet corn festival flickering beneath the plane window as you fly away, before you take the job to teach English for a year, before you begin daydreaming about moving to Europe, before you start down the line of thoughts that lead you to stand in your Hungarian kitchen, take a moment.

Pause.

Consider the word small. A swastika scribbled on a page corner. Poppy seeds on a flaky roll, flecks of paprika on the soup ladle, smudges of jam caught in the lunch lady’s hair. There are many ways people and places can be small. Glances and glares. Dots and dashes over vowels. The village you teach in will seem a hopelessly small place to be a child staring down life and seeing years to come. You’ll begin to have a recurring dream about a brick through the window after encountering a few people who seem small-minded enough to throw one. Then there will be your kitchen. Your kitchen will be small, no bigger than a narrow closet with just enough space for a table, one chair, and a mini-fridge that reminds you of college dorms.

If there’s time to spare, consider the word large. You’ll encounter the large. The towering Christmas tree in the town square. The Hapsburg mansions in Budapest. The expansive sunflower fields in bloom. The pig hefted atop a scale after slaughter, the train car heaping with potatoes, the steam clouding over vats of hot kraut at festivals. Contemplating the large makes for worthwhile daydreaming, but your time may be better spent on the small. Once in Hungary, in the quiet moments, it will be the small that troubles you, that overwhelms you. You’ll find yourself trying to redefine the word so that your students have a life of opportunities awaiting them and the sixth-grader perfecting his rendering of a swastika is passing through a phase.

So, get a head start. Don’t put off the work of convincing yourself things are not as small as they seem. Because it’s hard to believe something you suspect is not true, but there are times when it’s worth trying. Living in Hungary will be one of those times.


2. Review the directions, make adjustments as needed

When you walk into your Hungarian kitchen, one observation will overpower all the rest. Before you notice that the cabinets are orange and the space is unventilated, you will notice how miniature everything seems. Not just how close the walls are to each other, how tight the passage between the sink and counter, but how everything is shrunk down from the size you expect. Take heart. You’re not alone. This is a common revelation for an American abroad, realizing how big our sidewalks are, how large our cars. But if the contents of your kitchen are downsized, even for a Hungarian home, there’s work to be done.

Not on the kitchen, itself. That will remain as it is for the year you’ll live here, one town over and a 27-minute bus ride from your school. No, the kitchen will remain beyond your control, but your vocabulary can be adjusted.

Pull out that drawer of words in your lexicon. Run your fingers over the language you’ve come to rely on for describing what surrounds you. See that ubiquitous adjective? The word small? Throw it out. Get rid of tiny, too. Narrow and cramped will have to go. Find any related words, the accompanying adverbs, and toss them all. Once you move to Europe, you’ll continuously narrate your experiences to yourself, checking in to see if the lived reality conforms with the storyline you always imagined. These words may lend accuracy when describing your Hungarian kitchen, but they won’t contribute anything usable to your campaign to one day walk into your kitchen and realize you’re home.

These words can be replaced. Utilize the adjective quaint. You’ll need it often, since it’s a good substitute for all the other size-related words that you left behind. Place idyllic beside it. Peaceful, simplified, and charming could be helpful.

Your stove is not a small box of danger waiting to engulf your head in flames every time you go to ignite the pilot light. It’s a charming relic. The washer, with its metal drum that tears holes in whatever armful of clothes it’s holding, will not seem like a frustrating hand-me-down. It will become a quaint reason to do your wash in the bathtub.

Words matter. They give us the material for constructing the story we tell ourselves, the data for responding to the internal question, “How am I doing?” Choose your response carefully.


3. Use what you can

Many people have called your home their own. It’s a white stucco building tucked into one corner of the high school that provides your housing. It’s leftover from the Hungarian tradition of building a home for the groundskeeper on the school property. Over the years it’s been split into parts. One of the slices went to the groundskeeper, who you may hear but will rarely see. Another section is rented to the German teacher. The basement is a student club where a rock band of high school seniors practices every Thursday.

The leftover space is for you. The flat consists mostly of the living room, with a floor you soon cover with an air mattress after sleepless nights on the broken futon. In the back corner is your kitchen. It’s owned by the city and houses the native English teacher for however long she stays, which is usually no more than a year or two. The rent is free, so you can tell yourself you shouldn’t complain, but that may not stop it from happening. The native English teacher’s conversation classes aren’t taken very seriously by the students or other English teachers. Without a native speaker, the school would lose funding.

Every room and closet in your apartment exists behind a heavy metal door. One of the doors, which leads to the place where you hang your laundry, is tricky to open, and sometimes you get stuck inside. In a matter of seconds, your apartment can be sealed up so only a hallway is visible. This was once a common floorplan for flats, especially the uniform bloc housing that Soviet communism built.

It is also how many Hungarians appear to you. Closed. Polite, helpful, and neatly contained. You may want to reject this observation, because it feels like you’re giving in to the people who told you Hungarians were hard people to get to know, but you can’t lie to yourself. Sitting in your kitchen, where you seem to be spending more and more time alone, you imagine that the teachers must invite each other over for dinner often, lingering over empty plates chatting. After a few months, are invited for dinner by a fellow teacher. Hers is the first Hungarian kitchen you have seen. Everything is the size you expect it to be, and your kitchen begins to look like a dollhouse version of the real thing. You stare at the pictures on the fridge of her family and friends. You realize she has a full life, a foundation with people around her. You think, this is the start. We’re breaking through. You begin to imagine the dinners to come, because you know that while Hungarians are private people, once you are in their inner circle, you are in. But you will not return to this Hungarian kitchen or any other.

Your most tangible connection to the people around you becomes the objects that fill your home. They’ve all been accumulated after falling out of use by one person or another, mostly teachers. In the first few days, you feel like you will never stop discovering new things in the drawers: a delicate glass vase under the sink, ceramic candle holders in the closet, a beautiful but tarnished ladle beside wooden spoons. You will make borscht, and after you dip in a spoon to have a taste, decide it’s ready. You pull out the ladle, rub a finger against the swirls etched into the handle, and wonder about its history. What celebrations called for its use?

You think of the kitchens you’ve had in the past, how they’ve always been hubs for convening over coffee mugs or plates of food. You think of the other kitchens under the roof above you and ponder what the other people beneath are eating for dinner. You think about the foreign teachers who have used this ladle in the past. You had heard Hungarians were skeptical of outsiders and hard to know. They learned this privacy after years of dictators. But you thought you would find a way to become an exception. You thought you’d meet confidants, and that if you didn’t, you’d have the assertiveness to find some. Instead, you walk home from work considering what elaborate meal you’ll spend the evening cooking. You hunch over the pot of lécso, a Hungarian stew doused in paprika you’ve been perfecting under the guidance of a cookbook that was on the bookshelf, and you wonder if the former residents of this kitchen were alone for so long too.


4. Let your kitchen teach you

In your first weeks, you decide to make goulash. As you make your way past the supermarket’s overflowing crates of pale green peppers and stacked tubs of sauerkraut, you will find one phrase sliding through your mind again and again, like a slideshow with a solitary picture:

“Nem beszélek magyarul.” I don’t speak Hungarian.

Indeed, you don’t. With the exception of this phrase and a few others struggling to be pronounced in your mind, thus far your first graders know about as much English as you do Hungarian. Yet you mentally grip this phrase, “Nem beszélek magyarul,” like a child clinging to a flashlight in a dark room.

Write this phrase on a flashcard and stick it to one of the orange cabinets. When you return home, begin adding more post-it notes. The glass salt and pepper shakers, nesting in the silver frame on either side of a toothpick container, will get covered in two post-it notes: “” for salt and “bor” for pepper. The fridge will get a post-it note. The wall, the door, the ceiling. Don’t stop there. Above your kitchen table, post cartoonish drawings of food with the colored pencils you’ll purchase for your students, and write the Hungarian beside each image. They’ll look like elementary cartoons, but they’re the best you can manage and that will have to be enough. At dinner, before you take a bite, say, “Egészségedre,” which means cheers, or bless you, or, may it serve your health.

At school, when you have lunch duty, share the phrase with your students. They will say it back every time. Try it out on the stern lunch lady, “Aunie Kitchen” as the students call her in Hungarian, the one who appears perpetually disgruntled. Your tongue will get tangled up, and the words will come out all wrong, but her face will soften.

Egészségedre,” she will say, slowly, with a rare smile.


5. Light the stovetop flame

If these tips seem trivial, it’s because they are. No matter how soon you begin to sift a word out of your vocabulary, the meaning behind it will persist. Your kitchen can help you learn Hungarian, but it’s hard to learn about a person’s life with a mishmash of nouns and verbs at your disposal. Your kitchen may be one way to learn about a country and its people, but a ladle is poor company.

Still, the advice is worth following, because there will be things that deserve your concern. And to get through your new, temporary life in Hungary, you’re going to need a place all your own to make sense of it all. That place will be your kitchen, because with all its faults it has a stove and pots and hours of possibilities. Don’t bother with months of resisting your appreciation for it. Don’t waste your energy being bitter at burnt meals and singed pans. Don’t bother mustering anger about an airless room that makes you feel woozy with heat even when the oven’s set to the small flame. Your kitchen’s not worth your frustration. You’re going to need that energy for things that do.

You will learn real lessons that can’t be neatly contained in quick tips. Before you see what poverty looks like sitting in your classroom without pencils, before a local students drops out of school and later appears with a swastika on his chest, before you learn the school secretary dislikes a fifth-grade student because she comes on to her husband, take out a pot. Cover its bottom with a glossy layer of oil. Light a match and light a stovetop flame. Open the forgotten Hungarian cookbook and choose the most involved recipe. Chop all the vegetables the recipe calls for, then keep going. Chop all the veggies in the house. Watch their structure soften and bend in the hot oil.

When you’re ready, you’ll stare into the tangled peppers, and begin to make some sense of it all. But when you’re not, you’ll practice some self-compassion. Give the spoon a turn, let the peppers and tomatoes reassemble into a new form. Ask yourself, “How am I doing?” and stare into the pan into while you formulate your response.  

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