Almost exactly six months from the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, it seems an appropriate time to once again take note of the many things for which I can be thankful. To create this list I decided to start with some of the realities I too often complain about and see if I couldn’t find the blessings that lie inside instead. In most cases I didn’t have to look too far! There are a lot of reasons why this experience can be challenging, but there are equally many gifts for which to give thanks:
1) I definitely complain more than I should about how hard it is to live everyday in another language. However, I am seriously spoiled by this opportunity to learn Hungarian. Why? Because nearly all of my teachers, tutors, and conversation partners are native speakers. Though all of my learning is in informal settings, the opportunity to practice every day with native speakers should not be taken for granted.
2) The city where I live is entirely flat except for the two bridges over the railroad tracks. One of these bridges lies between my home and the church, and as such I bike back and forth over it several times a week. I tended to always grumble at the thought of it until one Sunday afternoon in April when a kind church member wanted to make sure that I would find my way home. He rode with me to the top of the bridge and then we stopped for him to point out something I had never noticed before. On a clear day from the vantage point of the bridge one can see all the way to Tokaj, a hilly region some 35 kilometers from here that is world-famous for the wine it produces. While at first I thought it a bit silly to have a guide for the route I have taken hundreds of times now, pesky hill and all, had I not I would have never known how much more I could see, if I was just willing to slow down and accept help.
3) Spring, if not summer, has certainly come to this area, but it’s a bit slower in coming to the big church downtown. On an evening in mid-April when it was close to 60 degrees outside, there were times when we could still see our breath in the sanctuary. Coming from a part of the world where there are few, if any, centuries-old churches that are much too large to heat, searching for more layers to bundle up before church somehow doesn’t quite compute. But then I think about the fact that I am going to worship and hear some incredible classical works for choir and organ in a beautiful cathedral-like space and I realize that there is really nothing to complain about.
4) Some days it’s just hard to always be the confused foreigner. Some days I wish there were a dozen others just like me so I wouldn’t stand out so much, whether it be for good or bad reasons. However, at the end of a full day or week I reflect on how much my local counterparts have taught me and I realize that a lot of this learning was only made possible by the strictly Hungarian life that is going on all around me. I hear conversations, see traditions, experience music, and feel the impact of local and global events through the lens of a Hungarian community that is constantly stretching my perceptions and worldview.
5) Some Sundays I am too much of a music critic at church, grumbling that we only sing hymns from the 1700s in slow meters and minor keys. This complaint is surely an exaggeration, but more importantly it inhibits my ability to appreciate the deep sense of church history and tradition that is present here. On Reformation Day, for example, I mentioned how special it was to celebrate in a country that has been home to Lutherans and Calvinists since the Reformation itself. In a post coming soon I will describe in greater detail the shared heritage of Lutheran families in this community. Religion did not always stimulate positive events in European history, but it has played a sustained role in shaping the peoples and societies on this continent today.
6) Now that I know the community and language a bit better I can help out with various events at my placement sites. I try to collaborate helpfully when I can, but sometimes the lack of rigid Midwestern planning and attention to what I consider efficient use of time drives me absolutely crazy. First, as a guest in this community who am I to say that the Midwestern way is the best way to do things? Second, as frustrating as it can be, the lack of a rigid plan and the absence of an extensive to-do list liberates me to serve in different ways. In the complicated context of living abroad I love that it is often my job to simply play with small children or strike up a conversation with elderly congregation members. The invaluable gift of time to listen to people’s stories and exchange cultural and life learning has been such a blessing to me this year.
7) When there are no programs or events and I have a few free hours, I am more than happy to set out on a walk around town and enjoy the relative quiet. The thing is, more often than not I run into a friend along the way; while I am happy to stop and chat for a bit, I can’t help but marvel that even in a town this large it’s difficult to truly become anonymous and invisible for an afternoon. However, this is perhaps the silliest complaint yet, as a lack of anonymity implies a wealth of relationships and friends. I may have written this dozens of times already, but I continue to be amazed at how many kind Hungarians have made space in their busy lives to get to know me in the last nine months!
8) Statistically speaking the county in which I live is the poorest in Hungary. Sometimes I tire of hearing over and over people’s complaints about high levels of poverty, low incomes, persistent unemployment, backward modes of thinking, and resigned frustration that life may not get better any time soon. It took me a long time to finally settle on an answer I like to the frequent question of why I would ever want to spend a year in such a “dismal place as this one.” The argument that the U.S. is facing plenty of social and economic challenge itself and there are pros and cons to living in any region of the world is received with varying levels of acceptance. However, the useful companion argument that I only recently found the words to articulate states that if life in northeast Hungary were one hundred percent identical to life in the Midwestern U.S., then indeed there would be very little reason for coming here. It doesn’t make the socio-economic realities any easier and it is a bit of a self-centered explanation, but it points to the incredible opportunity for learning that would never have been possible in the comfort of my home culture and community.
These examples are just a few of the many ways in which I have been blessed in the past nine months. The experience may be confusing, overwhelming, and chaotic at times, but it is never boring, colorless or predictable. This may not be the richest region in the world in terms of dollars or forints but there is an abundance of kind-hearted people, beautiful music, and generous hospitality. To paraphrase a bit from the psalmist, “My cup [that is more than half full] overfloweth” (Psalm 23:5). May we continue to be reminded to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for [us] in Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).