We were an odd lot of people to be the first team into Hungary, ranging in age from an admitted 79 years to early 20’s people. One volunteer couple who owned a winery in California looked forward to learning about famous Hungarian wines. What Sally Swartz and I knew about wine was that we enjoyed drinking it, but we were assigned to a high school.
What a delight the students were. Eager, smiling, welcoming, with enough mischief to make them fun…..but they were also smart, well-behaved, and open to learning, unlike my then-current clutch of U.S. high school students. One morning the Hungarian students came into my classroom, all excited. (In this small European country, everyone knew “stuff” in the news, far exceeding typical U.S. interests, unfortunately.) What had excited them today? The election of a governor in a state in the U.S……yes, in California and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger—who they instantly claimed was of Hungarian descent. Now, what U.S. student would know where Hungary is located, much less who the leader of that country was? I was learning more than I was teaching.
The teachers took us on weekend day trips, visiting small towns with big histories—walking through cemeteries with centuries-old dates of burial, the fallen in some long-forgotten war; visiting fabled churches with soaring vaulted ceilings and walls showcasing Hungarian artistic talent; strolling past statues, some funny, some respectful of people in Hungary’s past. That past included a cruel Nazi invasion before the U.S. was involved in WWII, but we felt the anger and sorrow shown by our Hungarian friends as they told stories of unbelievable German brutality, particularly as it focused on the large Jewish population of the country.
But we had time to visit the markets, filled with food and other items that we didn’t even recognize. We walked the streets, admiring all those statues that showed the talent of Hungarian artists. And, we happily ate the plethora of food—especially the mashed potatoes one young lady ladled onto my plate. And, Irish or not, I couldn’t possibly eat all those potatoes.