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

 

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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