great hungarian plain

a Seattleite teaching university in eastern Hungary


I traveled abroad over the holidays, and as I packed my bag in preparation, I was struck by how out-of-practice I felt. For so many months, throwing together a travel bag (whether the trip was for three days or a month) felt so automatic. The strangeness of putting together a bag for this holiday trip has been one of the strangest indications that I’ve really settled back into life in Seattle. And so it is time to document an important part of the experience of my year in Hungary, one that has heretofore been missing: leaving Hungary behind and coming back home.

I’ve started writing this post a few times over the past six months, but I never made it very far. Perhaps I didn’t feel ready. Perhaps it’s just quite a lot to try and fit into one cohesive post. On a personal level, my year in Hungary was, and always will be, a huge part of my life. It changed my life in many ways, some of which I’ve written about here, and some of which I haven’t. But for those of you who followed along all year, and even those of you who’ve stumbled across this blog after the fact, the most relevant question might be: how was my re-entry into American society?

The short answer is: fairly seamless. But there are some caveats. I didn’t have a hard-and-fast re-entry into American life, which helped a lot. In between leaving Hungary and returning to Seattle, I traveled for a week. And once I got back to Seattle in July, I was only home for a week before I was on a plane to the east coast. The next month, August, brought more overseas travel, and when I returned from that 2.5 week trip, I had six days at home before I flew to North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention. So I didn’t truly have any substantial length of time at home until mid-September, even though I left Hungary on July 4th. By the time I was able to spend more than one week at a time at home in Seattle, I was simply ready to stop living out of the backpack I’d been carrying around all summer. It was difficult to feel anything but relief.

And what about reverse culture shock? I think I’ve managed to avoid it for the most part, although there are certain things about Hungary that I often miss. Some things I knew I’d miss (train rides through the Hungarian countryside) and others I couldn’t have predicted (the ritual of saying jó étvágyat, or “good appetite,” before eating a meal). I miss using the Hungarian language much more than I expected to, and I often find myself using simple vocab and phrases at home (my partner picked up a teeny bit of Hungarian on his visits). Sometimes I miss the excitement of an expat life – bonding with other expats, frequent travel to new places, conquering little challenges presented by everyday life. But even though there are things that I miss, I’m mostly just glad to be home.

A year abroad will shape and change your outlook in ways that are impossible to foresee – though for many of us, I think that’s precisely why we decide to do it in the first place. While I am so happy to be back in Seattle for now, I think I’ll always be a little bit restless, and I’m sure I’ll find my way abroad again. Only time will tell.

Thanks to each and every one of you who took the time to read about my journey along the way, and to those of you who’ve found your way here after the fact. I’m not always quick to respond, but I do always welcome questions from anyone considering teaching in Hungary (particularly through CETP), and those questions can find me at:

homeward bound

It’s been quiet around here!

While I officially touched down in Seattle on July 11, 2012, I’ve been busy and doing quite a lot of traveling (unrelated to my year in Hungary, so I won’t be writing about it here) and I’m only just starting to re-settle in Seattle, getting moved into a new apartment, visiting friends I haven’t seen in awhile, and everything that goes along with it. I have plenty of thoughts to share about that process, but I’m not quite ready yet.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a little bit of my trip to Iceland on the way home. Iceland Air flies directly between Seattle from Reykjavík, and in the interest of promoting Icelandic tourism, if you have a layover in Reykjavík, Iceland Air lets you extend the time of your layover by several days at no extra cost, in order to spend some time in Iceland, falling in love with the country and boosting its economy all at the same time. It’s a pretty genius model, and it made it a very appealing way to make my way home. And so that’s what I did!

Below are some photos of my five days in Iceland in early July. I got to see an old friend and make some new ones, walk home at 2:30 in the morning as the sun was already moving back up in the sky (it doesn’t get completely dark out so close to the summer solstice), and see just a few of the places of staggering beauty Iceland has to offer. I also bought a lot of Icelandic wool, and I spent a lot of time in coffee shops downing cups of espresso. The Reykjavík cafes were a welcome sight for my Seattle eyes.


“The Golden Circle” tour:

Gullfoss, a massive waterfall. You can see a path and overlook on the left side of the photo, with tiny people!

Strokkur, a fountain geyser with frequent eruptions. Iceland has a lot of geothermal activity (energy which they’ve learned to harvest to heat their homes and greenhouses)

The continental rift valley of Thingvellir National Park, which straddles the divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.


My last post was a month ago, but it feels like a lifetime. I’m back home in Seattle, but I’ve been a lot of places between here and Hungary and I’m still trying to get my bearings. I have a few more posts before I’m done with the story of my year abroad. In an attempt to catch up, and perhaps also to mentally de-clutter and simplify, here’s the first of the posts of the road home.


It was interesting to visit Romania after a year in Hungary. I had been meaning to visit all year – much of present-day Romania belonged to Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon, and there are still plenty of ethnic Hungarians and Hungarian speakers within the Romanian borders. Driving from Debrecen to Sibiu with my family, this presence was apparent. We passed through a town that had old Christmas lights up, one of which said ‘boldog új évet 2010’ (that’s ‘happy new year 2010’ in Hungarian). We also passed through a town with posters on every telephone pole, visibly proclaiming in boldface type, MINDEN MAGYAR SZÁMIT!’ (‘every Hungarian counts’).

We passed silver-topped churches, horse-drawn carts, tractors, and cyclists. And Romanian roads are without a doubt the worst roads I’ve ever been on. Between the condition of the roads and the many obstacles a driver must face, driving in Romania is a lot like real-life MarioKart. We also had to dodge pedestrians, chickens, dogs, oncoming cars passing other cars (in our lane). We passed a group of road workers at one point, working away, clad in nothing but their shorts and sandals.

It was a short, three-day trip, and I really only saw Sibiu and Sighişoara, two cities in central Romania (but still part of Transylvania). They are quite different cities. Some differences are obvious on the surface: Sibiu is sizeable where Sighişoara is much smaller. Others are more subtle and somewhat difficult to put into words. Both cities were at once familiar, due to their proximity to Hungary, but also a totally new experience for me, which was sometimes disorienting. Sighişoara totally won me over, while Sibiu did not (it felt like a German-Hungarian city where everyone spoke Romanian and the beggars were way more aggressive). Sighişoara was beautiful and charming. It is most famous for being the birthplace of Vlad III Dracul, or Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula, but you’d never know it just by looking at it.

Still, the Romanian countryside was beautiful, and I’m immensely glad I got to spend a little bit of time there, bad roads and all. But if I ever go back to Romania, I’ll probably fly.

A few photos from the drive into central Romania:

And some from Sibiu:

And Sighişoara:

the last house on the right (the yellow one) was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler


What am I celebrating with citrom fagyi in hand? Two things:

1. I finished packing up and moved out of my apartment in Debrecen today. This is bittersweet, because I’m going to miss it a ton, but I’m super excited to be going home to Seattle, too. But still, packing up and moving out is a really big bookend to a successful year abroad, and worth celebrating, right?

2. Possibly way huger, definitely in the grand scheme of things: the United States Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) in its entirety, essentially. I am BEYOND elated. This is such a huge step forward toward universal health care in my country.

Because I’m traveling for the next two weeks (writing to you from Romania at the moment), the fact that I’ve moved out of my apartment in Hungary hasn’t really sunk in yet. It feels a little bit like it’s just another weekend away. Even the sight of my empty apartment didn’t seem to do it. I snapped a few photos of my last hours in Debrecen, though, and I’m sure once it starts to sink in that I’ve left I’ll want to return to these, so I thought I’d share them with you too.

I’m gonna miss old Trabants on the road,

I’ll miss my apartment building on Poroszlay út,

I’ll miss the little Coop grocery and the zöldség-gyümölcs stand across the street, too.

Viszlát, Debrecen. All my love.

more lake balaton

Keszthely, Hungary

the hungarian sea

I’ve wanted to visit Lake Balaton since I first learned of its existence. Hungary once had a port and coastline on the Adriatic Sea – before the Treaty of Trianon – but in its current landlocked state, Balaton is the only place to come experience Hungarian life on the water. I’m here with my brother for a few days, and today the beautiful weather we’ve had has turned to rain, driving us indoors, so it seemed as good a time as any to write about it.

Balaton is one of the largest lakes in central Europe, and we opted to stay on the western shore of the lake, which is at the far end if you’re coming from Budapest. This meant a three and a half hour train ride that took us along the entire southern shore of the lake. We saw tons of little resort towns right on the water from the windows of our train car. Balaton is a favorite summer destination for Hungarians and foreigners alike. We spied hostels, guesthouses, little camping cabins, and larger hotels. We picked a vendégház (guesthouse) in Keszthely, the second-largest town on the lake, to stay at. While there are certainly other tourists around, Keszthely feels less like a cheesy tourist stop than many places we passed on the train, if only because it’s large enough to be a proper town, with a nice town center, and there are plenty of folks around who live here full-time. Keszthely is also home to a Baroque palace.

It’s been quite fun to simply wander around, soak up the sun, and stare at the lake. There’s a public beach for swimming, though I’m not sure we’ll partake in that, but we might take a boat ride tomorrow if the weather clears up. My heart is happy to be by the water, and I’ll be sad to move on when we pack up to catch the train back to Budapest on Wednesday. Balaton is a wonderful place to spend a few days.

A few glimpses into our days in Keszthely…

lang may yer lum reek!

I’m traveling for about two and a half weeks before I get back to the States, and much of that traveling is within or near Hungary. I’m currently writing from Keszthely, on the western shores of Lake Balaton, and an update on that will be forthcoming. But first! I have photos of my trip to Edinburgh for you.

Scotland is one of my ancestral homelands, but I’d only ever visited as a child. I’ve always had an affinity for the country, its dialects, and its cooler (some would say “bad”) weather. It was certainly cooler while I was there, and grey and rainy to boot, but for my Seattle-loving self, it was a welcome respite from the heat and sunshine of the Hungarian summer. I loved it.

While I was there I got to stay with an old friend from college who’s studying in Edinburgh as well as one of the most wonderful couchsurfing hosts I’ve ever had the pleasure to stay with. My friend Laura (who recently landed a book deal for her debut novel, Pantomime!) came down from Aberdeen – she’s a fellow American expat, married to a Scot – and we had a grand time traipsing around in the rain (thank goodness for rain jackets and umbrellas). Laura also taught me the Scots toast featured in this post’s subject, lang may yer lum reek, which they say up in Aberdeen.

We also took a quick trip out to Roslin, to see the Rosslyn Chapel. Today it’s most famous for being featured in Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Code and its film adaptation. It’s a church with a very interesting history, Freemason conspiracy theories aside, and it was a lovely little side trip. We took a nice walk around some of the area around the chapel as well, take-away tea and florentines in hand. Midlothian is a really beautiful place.

Ferihegy in Budapest – saying farewell to sunny Hungary

Arthur’s seat

Okay, I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd, so I loved visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard and taking a peek at the names. Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she was writing the earlier Harry Potter books, and you can see that she drew inspiration from all over the city. Above is pictured the grave of Thomas Riddell, who had a son named Thomas Riddell. I spied a McGonagall and a Moodie in the graveyard as well.

tea and cake at Tea at 94

the National Museum

The Elephant House – a cafe famous to Harry Potter fans as one of the cafes where Rowling worked on the books


The Olympic Torch had passed through town just a week or two before I was there (and that horrid London 2012 logo was everywhere, too)

The sun finally came out the morning I left. More soon!

a magyar nyár

As we head into summer, Hungary feels a lot like it did when I arrived. Summer in this country is undeniably beautiful, charming, and hot. For it to feel like it did when I arrived is both familiar and disorienting; familiar because it once again feels like the country I first arrived in last August, and disorienting because I have gone through so many changes and experiences in the time between this summer and the last. Walking around outside quickly sends me deep into memories of CETP orientation in Budapest or of my first week teaching at the university. There was so much I didn’t know yet, and everything that I have learned in the space between then and now sits at the front of my consciousness as I navigate these last few days.

It is only now, as I approach the end of my year in Hungary, that I realize how much Hungary has become my normal. I come home from weekend trips away to a familiar airport, the familiar cadence of the Hungarian language I still find so difficult, to a Communist-era apartment block that feels like home, surprisingly more charming and inviting than I ever supposed a Communist apartment block could be. I realize that I will miss the train announcements at the Nagyállomás that I now largely understand, and the voiceover on the city bus that announces the next stop with the once-foreign but now-familiar phrase a következő megálló…

I recently took a cab to the Debrecen train station on my way to the airport (I went to Edinburgh this past weekend), and my cab driver was friendlier and more chatty than most. After I told her I wanted to go a vásútállomásra (to the train station) we struck up a conversation that began with her asking me (in Hungarian, as she didn’t speak any English) “You’re not Hungarian, are you?” Her conversational demeanor was inviting and unintimidating, and we talked about what I was doing in Hungary, where I was going, if I found Hungarian a difficult language. She was considerate, too, checking to see what time our train was leaving and if we’d already purchased our tickets (we were short on time). It was a simple conversation, truly, but I realized after I got out of the cab that it was the longest conversation I’d ever had in Hungarian (and look at that, I could actually have a conversation in Hungarian).

I read about the experiences of many other teachers who had gone abroad to teach for a year before I embarked on this year abroad myself. One of the most common reflections I encountered, something all of us foreign teachers seem to share at one point or another, was the feeling that only once we are approaching the end of our time abroad do we feel like we’ve begun to hit our stride. Teaching my last class in Hungary last week, I was privileged to hear the sincere thanks and appreciation of my colleagues and students. I began to realize that I may have managed to do a good job in spite of all the things I found challenging, things that sometimes chipped away at my confidence as a relatively new and inexperienced teacher in a foreign country, a foreign system. I will be leaving Hungary with the feeling of a job well done. I’ll leave with memories of my students, my friends, and my experiences that I’ll carry with me forever. I’ll leave with a surprisingly larger working vocabulary of medicine than I showed up with.

In the midst of all this reflection I realized it is probably the act of preparing to wrap up our lives abroad and return to our old ones at home that allows us to see how far we’ve come, to really see the progress we’ve made, and that is what makes us feel like we’ve really hit our stride just in time to go home. In truth we hit it much sooner than we realized, and only once we turn our eyes away from our lives abroad, toward home instead, are we able to see it.

Köszönöm szépen, Debreceni Egyetem. For everything.

a nagytemplom

Though I have lived in Debrecen since last August, I hadn’t ventured into its most recognizable landmark until last week, the nagytemplom. Nagytemplom means Great Church, but in English it more often gets called “the big yellow church.” Big it is, and yellow too, but these are not its most notable features. Hungary is no stranger to big churches (the immensity of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest is difficult to wrap your head around) nor to yellow ones, as there are many of those, too. But Hungary is a predominantly Catholic country, as far as religion goes, but Debrecen’s Nagytemplom isn’t Catholic. Instead, with its huge Reformed chuch, Debrecen is known by some as the Calvinist Rome.

That may be a heady claim, but the building is a very important piece of Hungarian history. It played a key role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (against the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). It was in Debrecen’s Great Church that Hungarian hero Lajos Kossuth issued Hungary’s Declaration of Independence to the parliament and government who had fled the capital due to the war. The Hungarians eventually lost, as they usually did in these matters, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of anything that Kossuth did. The pedestrain square stretching south from the front of the church is named in his honor, Kossuth Tér, and there’s a great big hulking statue with Kossuth perched on top in front of the church as well.

I’m more than familiar with the church’s exterior after my year of living here, but I had only seen photos of the inside before. While I’m not religious, I am fascinated by the interior spaces of churches, and the contrast between the ornate, heavily-decorated interiors of Catholic cathedrals and the pretty simplicity of the interiors of reformed churches of the same era never ceases to amaze me. The reformed churches I’ve visited in Hungary have bright white interiors, featuring clean lines and little excessive ornamentation. That is not to say that there is no ornamentation, but much of the beauty comes from the simplicity and the way the round surfaces capture light and shadow. I find myself drawn to how clean the lines of the arches look in the bright white; there is a modest, un-showy beauty in it that I find easier to enjoy (or perhaps just less overwhelming) than the often ostentatious beauty of Catholic churches. Debrecen’s Nagytemplom did not disappoint.

For 350 forint you can climb the west tower of the church and look out over all of Debrecen and the expanse that is the Great Hungarian Plain. It’s not hard to see why they call it that: I’ve never lived in a flatter place in my life!

Climbing the tower also gives you a sense of the size of the church. My first studio apartment could have fit within the west tower several times over.

“smoking and open flames prohibited” (all of the stairs are wooden)

I believe this is the Rákóczi bell, largest bell belonging to a Hungarian Protestant church

Just a few more (very) steep stairs to the top…

Looking south from the top, you can see Kossuth Tér and Piac Utca (Market Street) heading south toward the train station. In the distance it’s also possible to see the Catholic church to the left (also yellow, also with two towers):

Looking west, a row of uniform apartment blocks blends neatly into the horizon:

Looking north toward the University of Debrecen (visible in person, but quite difficult to spot in the photo). The Reformed College of the church is in the foreground:

And looking east, one sees (what else?) the east tower:

It was well worth the 350 forint to climb the tower and anyone in Debrecen for an extended period of time should also check out the church.

on health care & politics, or, how hungary changed my priorities

When people decide to live abroad for a year (or longer), many of them are hoping to broaden their perspectives, change their lives, and find something new: about the world, about themselves. I can’t say I was any different when I decided to teach abroad. I love Seattle and I am incredibly excited to return home in July, but I felt restless and I craved both the challenges and the new experiences a year abroad would bring me. Of course, we cannot predict how such experiences will change and shape us, or our priorities.

One of the most unexpected effects this year in Hungary has had on me has been the reigniting of my interest in and passion for American politics (specifically for U.S. health care reform, but more on that in a little bit). I find myself invested in politics in a way I haven’t felt since I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman in Honors ELPSA (that’s “Economic, Legal, and Political Systems in Action”). The next year of school I took AP Government, which turned out to be a bunch of busywork that didn’t make me feel passionate about much of anything, and I sort of fell off the boat, so to speak (I also dropped out of high school that year for a couple of months, to give you some context). I think I’ve finally found my way back on the boat, though.

Thinking about it within the frame of the bigger picture, I shouldn’t be too terribly surprised by this change in me. I learned when I studied in France that nothing makes me as patriotic as living abroad. And we’ve entered a presidential election year, which always brings politics a little bit closer to the front of Americans’ brains, which is a factor. But the biggest factor of all has to do with the fact that I’ve been teaching at a medical university and in the fall I was assigned to teach a course on the health care systems of English-speaking countries (as if being a native English speaker from an English-speaking country was sufficient to qualify me to teach such a course). Needless to say, I learned an immense amount about health care in a very short amount of time.

When it came to American health care, I was baffled.

Now, I may have fallen of the politico boat as a teenager, but I wasn’t completely ignorant of politics in the past few years. I even took the time to volunteer for the Obama campaign in 2008, back when I was living in North Carolina (I was immensely proud when my home state of NC, which typically goes red in presidential races, was called for Obama). I was aware that health care was a big issue in the 2008 election, too. But to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really have any idea why. I had health insurance and I knew we paid a $15 co-pay when we went to the doctor, but that’s about it. I didn’t realize almost 50 million Americans didn’t have health insurance. I didn’t realize the power and sway of American health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I didn’t realize they were for-profit. I didn’t realize a lot of things. I think the same can be said for most Americans – especially young Americans, whose votes can pack a punch if they actually know what to vote for.

But then I had to teach a course on all this stuff, and so I learned all about it. And I also learned about the health care systems of the UK, Australia, and Canada. And no system is perfect, but they all seemed to have things figured out a lot better than the United States. To be the only western, developed nation without universal coverage is an oversight of the highest magnitude. We earned our position as #37 on the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems by quality and fairness (published in 2000).

In the modern political climate of the United States, it’s really easy to feel depressed once you start paying attention. But I’ve been fortunate to talk health care and politics with my students here in Hungary over the course of the year, with students preparing to enter the Hungarian health care system and students already working in it. Among those already working in it (and even among some of those just preparing), a sense of hopelessness and helplessness seems to pervade. Given Hungary’s history and cultural leanings, I am tempted to attribute it to collective learned helplessness. Everyone insists that things should change, but no one knows how or what to do about it. Politicians don’t care, and they’re the ones making decisions. Hungary and the United States start to look a lot more similar. Interestingly, the feelings of helplessness I witness in a system outside my own only serve to strengthen my own resolve to try and change things back home (perhaps the American attitude that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to plays a role in this). I can only hope to inspire some of the same resolve in my students – it is only from within the system itself that change can come. Hungary’s health care battle is its own to fight, and they have many problems to deal with. But so does the United States, and it is toward home I turn my eyes now.

I thought I’d share with you some of the books I’ve been reading this year, because I can’t recommend them enough.

For those who want a crash course in what the health care systems of other rich capitalist economies look like:

The Healing of America by T.R. Reid

Blurb: “How is it that all other industrialized democracies provide health care for their citizens as a reasonable cost-something the United States has never managed to do? In The Healing of America, New York Times bestselling author T.S. Reid shows how they do it, bringing to bear his talent for explaining complex issues in a clear, engaging way. In his global quest to find a prescription for American health care, Reid finds that it’s not all “socialized medicine” out there. Instead, many industrialized democracies rely on free-market models the U.S. could use to cure a health system that has failed us.”

For those familiar with different health care system models who want an overview of major health care reform efforts in the United States:

Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform by Paul Starr

Blurb: “In no other country has health care served as such a volatile flashpoint of ideological conflict. America has endured a century of rancorous debate on health insurance, and despite the passage of legislation in 2010, the battle is not yet over. This book is a history of how and why the United States became so stubbornly different in health care, presented by an expert with unsurpassed knowledge of the issues.

Tracing health-care reform from its beginnings to its current uncertain prospects, Paul Starr argues that the United States ensnared itself in a trap through policies that satisfied enough of the public and so enriched the health-care industry as to make the system difficult to change.”

For those well-versed in health care systems and American health care, a thorough explanation of 2010’s Affordable Care Act:

Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol

Blurb: “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama in March 2010 is a landmark in U.S. social legislation. The new law extends health insurance to nearly all Americans, fulfilling a century-long quest and bringing the United States to parity with other industrial nations. Affordable Care aims to control rapidly rising health care costs and promises to make the United States more equal, reversing four decades of rising disparities between the very rich and everyone else. Millions of people of modest means will gain new benefits and protections from insurance company abuses – and the tab will be paid by privileged corporations and the very rich. 

How did such a bold reform effort pass in a polity wracked by partisan divisions and intense lobbying by special interests? What does Affordable Care mean – and what comes next? In Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol–two of the nation’s leading experts on politics and health care policy–provide a concise and accessible overview.”

With the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court could turn over the Affordable Care Act, and in a presidential election year, to boot, it’s more important than ever for people to understand the issues that they’re voting for or against when they vote for a candidate. I can’t urge you enough to read one or more of these books, and to share them with the people you know.