Living In Another Language

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Hungarian, I am told, is the hardest language to learn. There are almost no words that match English or any other language I know. The letters look familiar, but that’s where it ends. Typically, if I am visiting another country I try to learn phrases to use on a daily basis so as to not be that person who assumes everyone will speak English.  In six months living in Budapest, all I can say in Hungarian is koszonom, thank you, which is pronounced “kersonam.”  Fortunately, I get to use it every day in lots of ways.

Even Korean was an easier language to learn. There are twenty four letters in the alphabet and once I mastered that I could read.  I was able to learn enough of the language to ask questions and get information. Surprisingly, it made sense.  Hungarian does not make sense to me.  The way the words look has little to do with how they are pronounced.  Some words are so long I often look at them with amazement.  Lucky for me, most people here speak at the least some English, and many are fluent, often speaking better than they are willing to admit.

In late December I decided to enroll in a yoga class. To my surprise there were so many choices in English.  I looked at the times to find a class that matched my schedule, which mostly meant not after 8:00 at night.  I’m usually home and getting ready for bed by then.  I found a class from 4:30-6:00 on Mondays about five blocks from my apartment.  Perfect!  I went to the studio a week before to sign up and the lovely young yoga instructor told me in perfect English that the class was in Hungarian.  I guess I failed to notice.  I must have looked really disappointed because she told me if I wanted to take the class she would do it in both languages.  Since I’ve taken yoga for many years I knew I would be familiar with the poses and could probably follow along by just watching.

I showed up for the first class and she looked almost surprised to see me even though I had paid for four classes in advance. There was no one even near my age.  I took my place on my mat with the other students, all of whom looked about twenty.  The class began and we all got in position on our mats and she began the class in Hungarian. Then I heard her say, “Breath in and breath out.”  That was the last time she said anything in English until we got to the end and we were in the relaxation phase and she said again, “Breath in and breath out.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize the class wasn’t going to be in English.  Surprisingly I began to relax. I wasn’t distracted by the words of the teacher but simply following along watching the poses and drifting off into my own world.   When the class was over the teacher asked me how it was.  It was laughable, this class was not in English, but since I really loved it, I told her it was great.  I’ve now been to eight classes and each week she seems less surprised to see me.  The other students are friendly and seem glad to see me as well. I’m not sure if it’s really happy to see me or amazed to see me. For some of them it might be like taking yoga with your grandmother.  Whatever it is I keep going back.

In spite of the complexity of the language, it seems yoga in Hungarian can be relaxing! Who knew?

Stay in touch and I will too.

With love and gratitude,

Marsha

 

 

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70 IS THE NEW 70

 

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When I was pregnant with each of my sons, now 33 and 35, it seemed like everyone was pregnant.  Everywhere I went women were waddling around and it seemed like the whole world was having a baby. Every magazine I picked up had an article telling me the best way to get through my pregnancy and all kinds of advice about how to raise these children when they arrived. There was advice for everything: breast feed don’t breast feed, stay home with your babies until they’re adults, send them to daycare on day 3. It was confusing and maddening and I finally realized that every pregnancy is different and we raise our children as best we can.  We make lots of mistakes and hopefully, they grow up to be happy, thriving, independent adults. Now, I’m about to turn 70 and it seems like everyone is writing about turning 70.  The articles are, again, telling those of us approaching this milestone how we should now live.  Have a second career, retire, look like a million bucks, don’t give a sweet shit how you look.  Once again, I will approach this decade as I have all the others, with lots of irreverence and gratitude and face it head on with an unbridled enthusiasm regardless of what the articles may say.

Recently, I saw an advertisement that said “Look younger longer.”  Just how young and for how long would this look last?  That ship has sailed. When I look in the mirror, I see a woman who has aged, a person with lots of wrinkles, and hair that has not been colored for close to 10 years. I still wear it long and as wild as I can.  I start my day by putting all kinds of moisturizers on my face and my body, I put a small amount of makeup on every morning-no more eye makeup since it usually ends up on my cheeks after inadvertently rubbing my eyes.  I always wear lipstick.  In fact, I don’t go anywhere without it.  My dear friend, Carlene, and I, decided years ago that it’s all in the lipstick.  Somehow we believed if we were wearing lipstick, often bright red for me, we looked better and felt better and our confidence was a bit higher.  Recently, when in an Uber, with a woman driver, I hopped in front and we chatted all the way to my destination. As I was getting out of the car, she said to me, “I love your lipstick. It’s so bold of you to wear red lipstick, maybe I’ll try that.”  I skipped through my day.

Helen Mirren,73, when accepting an award in front of a group of women said, “Your 40’s are good. Your 50’s are great. Your 60’s are fabulous.  And your 70’s are fucking awesome.”  I am embracing who I am: wrinkles, grey hair and a body that I’m comfortable with. I have pride in the fact that I earned every wrinkle on my face, that I still jog, swim, bike and walk everywhere.

Gloria Steinem coined the phrase, “This is what 40 looks like.”  She went on to repeat it every decade.  I turn 70 in June and this is what 70 looks like.  It’s not 60 or 50 or any other age than what it is.  When I was 50, people often told me that I didn’t look 50. It even happened occasionally when I turned 60. These days, when someone asks me my age and I say 69, they simply say, “That’s nice.”   I don’t need any more articles telling me what’s in store for me. I won’t look younger again, and yet I’m ready for whatever is in store for me this decade. and I look forward to the ride, red lipstick and all.

Stay in touch and I will too.

With love and gratitude

Marsha

 

Blending In

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When I was in the 8th grade we had a graduation ceremony to mark the end of middle school. We called it junior high then. They lined us up by height, matching boys and girls, paired up and walking down the aisle arm-in-arm, headed to the stage, so we could repeat this process when we officially graduated.  To my horror, there were no boys left by the time they got to the end of the line where I was.  I was tall, even for my age, and I had to walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with Marie Fabian, a girl I really didn’t know then, and haven’t seen since, but I still remember her name.  Not a day of blending.

I moved to South Korea in 2013 and lived there for 4 years.  My height, which has diminished since my middle school days, another joy of aging, was still a factor in not blending.  That, along with my age, my hair color, which I had stopped coloring a few years earlier, and my skin color, all contributed to being stared at for simply being different.  In some ways I got used to it, but in other ways it was always present in my inability to be anonymous.  I did not blend.

In August, I moved to Budapest and immediately felt like I belonged here.  These were my people.  I looked like everyone and there was a comfort that I couldn’t quite understand at first.  Last year, I spit into a tube and had my DNA tested through one of the many companies now doing this.  It came back with unsurprising results.  I am 98% Eastern and Central European.  No wonder I felt something here in Budapest.  I blend.  There are lots of similarities between the cultures, customs and food of central and eastern Europe and what I grew up eating and knowing.  For example, the word for almond in Hungarian is mandala.  When I was a little girl, my grandmother made a cookie called mandel bread.  It was a crispy almond cookie that looked like a biscotti.  Other foods like stuffed cabbage and soups are all familiar to me.  In addition to the fact that no one is staring at me until I speak English, I could otherwise be Hungarian.  But, there is one huge exception.  I am Jewish.  During the very last months of World War II, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were given up to the Nazis and murdered. That, along with a long communist rule, has caused most Jews here to go underground.  Many Jews here discovered their backgrounds when they were adults, since I suspect they were desperately trying to blend into a culture that came with a big dose of antisemitism and fear.  Steve and I are fascinated by the phenomenon and experience it directly. When we ask someone if they‘re Jewish, there is an unmistakable hesitation. The response is often, a confusing explanation of “not really” or “it’s complicated.”  Steve is attempting some research to write a blog about this very thing.  We joined a group of about 40 Jews living in Budapest, some expats, some students studying here, and others who are Hungarian, for a Shabbat dinner in November and we are planning to join them again in January.  The retired, American Rabbi leading the service and the evening event, told us there are 100,000 Jews currently living in Budapest. Hard to believe.  My guess is that they have blended into the culture and have in many ways become invisible.

I ask myself if blending in is really what I want.  I’m proud of my Jewish background, but I realize that my circumstances are different. I’m only here for a year, not a lifetime. I will continue to appreciate the similarities I share with the Hungarian people and resist blending in.

Stay in touch and I will too.

With love and gratitude,

Marsha

 

Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride

download.jpgIn the early 1900’s my grandmother, Fanny Slesser, came to the United States.  She boarded a boat in Hamburg, Germany from her shtetl in Lithuania.  She was 12 years old traveling with her cousin who was about the same age.  They made their way to Ellis Island and then on to Boston where my grandmother’s sisters lived. She didn’t speak a word of English,couldn’t read or write. She met my grandfather, Jacob Cutler, who had arrived about the same time and married him when she was 15 and they went on to fulfill their American dream. This was the ultimate example of buying the ticket and taking the ride!

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Jacob & Fanny Slesser Cutler

In my almost 70 years I have been buying tickets and taking loads of rides. Once I buy the ticket, I embrace the ride with all the enthusiasm and adventurous spirit I have.  My most recent ride finds me living and working in Budapest, Hungary.  I’ve been here with my husband, Steve, since August and I started working as an English teacher in a high school in early September.  All my experience as an educator has been with adults.  So, I thought, how hard can it be to teach high school?  An easy transition right?  NOT!!!!!  High school students are nothing like adults, they’re teenagers.  I soon realized after starting this job that I really don’t like teenagers.  I didn’t much like myself as a teenager, so why would these kids be any different? They’re not. Surprisingly, this has actually become an easy part of my transition.  The students I teach are a cake-walk compared to the bureaucracy and red tape of the Hungarian system.  This, combined with a culture that sees the glass as half empty, and is pessimistic at every opportunity, has been a real challenge.  At first I didn’t get the pessimism, since I’m a pretty optimistic person.  But after several weeks, and now months, of greeting my colleagues each morning with a smile and asking how their evening or weekend was, and never getting a positive response, I caught on.  This is a country with a history of losing.  They lost wars and rebellions and certainly lots of their country.  They were once a huge country, only to lose most of it during wars and takeovers.  How can you be positive with that legacy?  I decided not to let this get to me.  After all, I bought the ticket, and God damn it, I was taking the ride.

My first bureaucratic challenge came when I couldn’t get the two boxes we shipped before we left the States that had actually arrived in Hungary before us, but somehow, were held up in customs.  After asking several times, and filling out endless forms to get the boxes, I was told that this is the way it is. This is Hungary! I eventually stopped asking, convincing myself, optimistically, I might add, that the boxes were filled with our winter clothes and it was September ,and very warm, and I would surely have them before the weather got cold.  It took two months, and they arrived just as the weather turned.  OK, it all worked out so what was I making a fuss about?  This is Hungary!

At work, I continued to fill out papers and make trips to immigration, only to be told, each time, that I needed one more form and I then would get my residence card.  That card would allow me to be paid and getting paid would allow me to get health insurance.  All this involved more forms and more trips to various government offices.  I was finally paid on December 1st.  I then went on my final government office trip to get my health card.  The women in the office recognized me. That should tell you how many times I’d been there.  Unlike my four years in Korea, here in Hungary, I blend. (See my next blog for more on blending.) Most of my colleagues just took my situation for normal and that came with a big dose of the pessimistic mantra: “What did I expect?” and “This is Hungary!”

At my age, optimism is the only way to live, so, on the positive side of life, I love Budapest.  It’s a wonderful city, with great food and incredible wine, lots to see and do, and we haven’t stopped enjoying just walking around the city and experiencing all it has to offer: the street art, the architecture, the Danube, and all the different neighborhoods. We have travelled to cities within Hungary, as well as to Prague and Krakow, with lots of additional trips planned during our time here. I have thought many times that perhaps I bought the wrong the ticket and that this was really not my ride. But life always has a way of working out and giving gifts, if we look for them. I have maintained my optimism although, I must admit that at times, it’s not easy. But it wasn’t easy for my grandmother either, and she was not able to return home.  I, on the other hand, will be back in Maine in June and that will be a ticket I will gladly buy and a ride I will cherish taking.

Stay in touch and I will too.

With love and gratitude,

Marsha

Friends, Friends, Friends

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In a few days I will be leaving, with my husband, Steve, for Budapest, Hungary, a country I have never been to and know some, but not a lot, about.  I’ll be teaching in a high school, something I have also never done.  We will be picked up by my boss and brought to our new apartment which is less than 500 square feet.  I’m leaving the comfort of my home, my children and grandchildren and my wonderful, supportive friends, to embark on this new unknown journey.

When I think about the challenges I’ll face, the top one is starting over developing friendships with new women.  My women friends are and have always been the touchstones in my life.  When I was growing up my mother had lots of lifelong women friends and she was always doing things with them. She was a true role model for having and keeping women friends.  During my adolescents my mother would always say, “It’s your women friends, well she probably said girlfriends, who are important.  Hold on to them, cherish them, honor them and all else will fall into place.”  I have lived my life with that in mind.

A few weeks ago I celebrated my dear friend Debby’s 70th birthday.  We have been friends for our entire lives because our mothers were best friends.  At the celebration two other friends, Joan and Mame, where there. They have also been in my life for more than 5 decades.  These women, along with my sister, know me like no others and even though we don’t see each other that often these days, time means nothing.  We simply pick up where we left off and the friendship only deepens.

I have been faced with this challenge of meeting and developing friendships with women several times. It always works out and I find myself creating bonds and finding common ground and forging meaningful relationships.  When I return in 10 months all those friends that I left behind will still be in my life.  Thanks in part to email, SKYPE and Facetime we will stay in touch. Some of them will have visited and others will have had their own amazing adventures.  What I do know is that I will heed my mother’s words and I will hold on to my women friends, cherish them, honor them and I will trust that all else will fall into place.

Stay in touch and I will too.

With love and gratitude,

Marsha

Retired or Unemployed?

imagesWhen I turned 62 people occasionally asked me if, or when, I would be retiring.  The idea seemed ludicrous to me and I didn’t give it much thought.  After being out of the country and working and living in South Korea for the past 4½ years, I returned home with every intention of being fully employed.  All summer my only income stream was Airbnb and my social security check.  When people saw me they would assume I was retired, hanging out with my grandchildren.  It seemed like an easy way to transition back while I figured out my next move. I would smile and not dispute their assumptions about my retirement.  The truth is I was unemployed, but when you get to a certain age there is a fine line, and a bit of confusion between retirement and unemployment.

I have no intention of retiring and think of myself as a person with lots of energy, creative ideas and the desire to continue to do interesting work.  So what does a 68-year-old woman do when the job market is not overly age-receptive?  Well, she starts a business, of course!  I have been an entrepreneur through most of my career, having run several businesses, loving my work and my life along the way. Things haven’t changed for me.  I hear all the rhetoric about how we, baby boomers, have lots to contribute to the work force and then I realize that most of the articles are about people in their 50s seeking a new career.  Well, I’m nearing 70 and I don’t want a new career; I like the one I have.  Since I have never taken no for an answer, and I see myself as a pretty recalcitrant citizen, I am determined to move from retired or unemployed, to fully employed.  I don’t know how long it will last or, if after a few years, I’ll call myself retired. But right now, I intend to make my way in the world of work.

After leaving Korea, my husband, Steve, and I, traveled for almost 5 months.  We travelled through Southeast Asia and then on to Europe.  We made our way to the southwestern part of France and began our amazing Camino walk.  The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain.  We started on April 25th on the French side of the Pyrenees and ended in Santiago on June 1.  The trip was transformative and I took the lessons we learned on the Camino and started my new business:  Buen Camino Finding Your Way.  It’s a journey of discovery, reflection and action. The “journey” is an 8-week group for women that meets once a week for 2 hours to explore visions, goals, and values, as well as identifying and addressing what might be in the way of total success.  I’m having a great time and our second group will start soon.

I may look more like a retired person than an unemployed one, but I will defy all stereotypes and make those choices when I’m good and ready.  Right now, I’m moving towards full employment and there will be no confusion about my role in the world.

The fact is, that getting older is a privilege, no one gets out of this life alive, and I intend to make the most of my time in ways that bring me joy.  Truth be told, if I hit the lottery tomorrow, I would quit working, become a philanthropist, and travel to the places in the world that are still on my “living list” (formally known as my bucket list). But since that’s not happening today, I am loving my new business and having fun doing it. Now that I have reached a certain age, and realize the finite amount of time left, I try to only engage in things that bring joy and happiness.  A lofty goal I know, but until I chose to retire and take  that path, this one suits me fine.

Buen Camino