Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Speaking Hungarian.  Or not.

We had our first culture class last night.  One of the things we did was to go around in a circle and say something that had been particularly hard for us, and them something that was especially rewarding.  For many of us, including me, the language barrier was the most difficult thing so far.  It has been very frustrating for me at times to be unable to say simple phrases like “excuse me” and “you’re welcome.”  I have learned these things now, but for a long time after arriving here I felt like a total clod a lot of the time. 

Some days are better than others.  Last weekend when Julia, Cari and I went to Eger, the woman at the ticket office where we bought our train tickets did not speak English.  I had come to rely on public service workers to know at least a few key things, but she did not.  I’m not saying this was bad on her part, just that I had expectations, probably unfounded, that she did not meet.  I had researched the train tickets, and online I had found out that a one-way student ticket should cost 574 forints.  However, at the ticket office, the woman kept telling me that it would cost 1150 forints.  I’m not sure if she was giving me the student discount, or if she gave me a round trip ticket, but I ended up paying twice what Julia and Cari (who went to a different vendor when they realized the one who was helping me didn’t speak English) did.  Frustrating, because I couldn’t get through to her what I wanted to, and she couldn’t tell me what she wanted to.  Then, when I had paid for my over-priced ticket I said “thank you” in Hungarian, and she rolled her eyes.  It makes me mad when I try my best, and people still get annoyed with the fact that I’m not Hungarian. 
Most of the time though, the Hungarian people are very helpful and understanding.  On our way out of Eger, I bought a drink at McDonalds because all I wanted was an inexpensive throat-wetter.  I ordered it in English because I couldn’t remember the word for “drink” in Hungarian, but then after paying I again said “thank you” in Hungarian to the worker, and I was so encouraged when his eyes lit up and he said “you’re welcome” and then told me I had done very well.  It completely made my day. 
Then today I went to the central market to buy some fresh fruit.  I was by myself, so I knew the vendors wouldn’t have overheard me speaking English to anyone, so I told myself I would speak only in Hungarian.  So I did.  And I was fine!  I bought five apples and a bunch of bananas from one woman, three ears of corn from another, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange/grapefruit juice from a third, and all three understood me and were patient when I had to revert to “um…”  In many cases, as soon as I say “um,” the vendor’s face will change from blase acceptance to exasperation, and then (s)he will start speaking to me in English.  In these cases, all I want is a chance, but they won’t give it to me.  I might take a little bit longer than the native Hungarians, but eventually I can come up with the words.  They may not be in the correct order, or pronounced perfectly, but I usually do know them.  So today I really appreciated the patience and good-humor of the vendors.  What a thrill it was to be able to ask, at the end of our exchange, “Mennyivel tartozom?” (how much do I owe you?), and have her say “negyszaz kilencvennyolc.” (four-hundred ninety-eight)  I felt so accomplished!
It is the little nuances of the language, the colloquialisms if you will, that are the most exciting to me.  I love being able to say “tessek” (here it is) to an elderly lady on the bus, and have her know that I mean she may have my seat.  It is so wonderful to me that I know that adding a k or an m to the end of a verb means it is in the first person singular, but adding a d means it is the second person singular.  Even if I don’t know what the verb is, I can recognize whether it says “I…” or “You…”.  Simply fabulous.

Posted by Emily MacLeod on 09/13 at 01:03 PM
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