Halottak Napja

(The following information of this important holiday in Hungary I have received from my host mom and sister, the English teacher I assist in Pilis, and her son.)

Halloween has only just started beginning to be observed in Hungary in the last ten years. The part of the population that is beginning to take hold of the idea of Halloween is the young people (mostly pre-teens and teens). The day after, November 1st, has had more significance in the culture for quite some time.

Halottak Napja is observed every year in Hungary. Someone told me that it translates to something like “All Hallow’s Eve”. It is a day that most businesses and workplaces are closed so the employees can properly be involved in this part of the culture (definitely a significant part of Hungarian culture, but could be a part of other European countries culture, too).

Individuals go to cemeteries in the morning and “prepare graves” of loved ones’ by placing flowers on the raised tombs and tilling the soil/sand around them. I wasn’t available to go with my második mámá (second mom) in the morning, but she told me that the cemetery looked “like a beautiful, big garden” when she left.

In the evening, people go back to the cemeteries with candles of different shapes and sizes. As the darkness covers the sky, people light their candles and place them on the raised tombs or in the sand around the tombs. Those who are there usually meander through the cemetery with their immediate family members, visiting the graves of family members and friends who have passed. Someone from the group may take a candle to another grave on their own for maybe a close friend’s mother or classmate who touched their lives in a special way. My host mom told me that they light candles because people used to think that those who have passed could see the light from heaven.

To my surprise, I didn’t see many people crying as we walked around the cemetery, crossing paths with at least 100 people. I voiced my observation was told, “Today is not for that. It’s about remembering them and giving respects.”

When asking about the holiday, I found that it originated from the Catholic tradition that honored the saints on November 1st and others on November 2nd. Though, this part of Hungarian culture began with a religious base, almost everyone observes the day now as an act of respect for those have have gone before them. Most go to the graveyards on November 1st, but November 2nd is also seen as part of the holiday (just not as common to observe). Halottak Napja isn’t necessarily seen as a religious holiday anymore, and many people remember observing the holiday as long as they can remember. I asked my sister why she thought this holiday is important to Hungarians, and she said, “It is important to remember loved ones who have died”.

I wasn’t sure what I would experience on November 1st this year because I didn’t have any personal connection to what others have observed and done for years and years. Yes, I did feel on the outside of culture because it was like nothing I’d been given knowledge of before. But, I felt honored to walk alongside people who I deeply cared for and see their deep love for others who have passed. I walked in solace that evening, trying to soak in as much as I could while passing each flower and candle placed with care. I also thought to myself, “Heaven must have quite the view of this sacred place.”

The Wedding

On Monday, I had the opportunity to go to a Hungarian wedding! Not only did I attend the wedding, but I sang in the choir! Let me tell you, this celebration of love was like no other. So, let me start at the beginning of the afternoon and give you as many details as possible. Are you ready?

Panna and I get to the church an hour before the wedding to practice the song with the choir for the second time (the first time being the day before). There were about twelve people already there, only about four of which came to rehearsal the day before. It was a pleasant surprise to see one of the women I work with there! We had a man on the keys, one on a drum, two girls Panna’s age on the flute and the clarinet, and Ildikó directing. We practiced our song a few times, moved our positions of where we would stand three times, cut out a verse of the original song, and added a new song to the mix. At about 2:45pm, we wrapped up and waited for the wedding of a fellow choir member to begin.

Within fifteen minutes, about 150-200 fancy-dressed people took their seats -with their coats on- in the chilly church. My reaction to this event was the same as any other wedding I’ve been to- giddy and continuously whispering to myself, “Wow. I just loooove weddings”.

At this wedding, joining a Lutheran man and a Catholic woman, there was no organ music. There was no music at all at the beginning of the service as the 10 (yes, 10!) children all dressed the same walked down the aisle with the two bridesmaids. There was no music for neither of the two pastors when they walked to the altar or for the groom himself. BUT when the groom came to the altar, he leaned to the side pew and grabbed his TRUMPET. He started soulfully playing “Amazing Grace”, basically enchanting his bride up the aisle as he walked slowly back down it to greet her with his smooth tune. The father gave his daughter away as they all reached the altar together. This was the point where I noticed there were no groomsmen and that the bridesmaids weren’t standing as close to the soon-to-be-married couple as I had expected them to.

I’m pretty sure Eszter (one of the pastors at the Lutheran church) led a prayer, and then the choir sang the song that was just given to us an hour prior. Naturally, I didn’t have enough time to study each Hungarian word in this new song to pronounce correctly, so I was not very confident heading into this commitment. Of course, I was in the front row though and some man was recording us. I tried moving my mouth enough to be able to pass as knowing what I was doing, but I don’t think it worked as well as mouthing “watermelon” on stage in America does.
We sat down after some claps and smiles from the couple, and the children followed us with talk-singing a song of their own – adorable!

Soon the choir was up again, but with confidence for our original song! The song was incredible with our perfect harmonies, a beautiful blend of our instruments, and the groom even joined in part way through with his trumpet! I felt like I was in Madrigals (*Warren, PA reference #sorrynotsorry) singing the most fun song in the concert!

I’m not sure the exact order, but by the end of the ceremony, here’s what happened:
– A woman played on the piano (not even a foot away from me) the most elegant, fast-finger-moving song I’ve ever experienced, and I’m pretty sure she put us all in a trance.
– The Catholic priest shared a message, crowned the couple (literally with bronze crowns), and put a cloth over the bride’s head and flicked oil on it (which her bridesmaid held like her bouquet afterwards).
– Eszter did the vows, and their responses translated to “Of course”.
– There was no kissing or introducing of the newlyweds.
– The couple walked down the aisle in hand, in silence. Then, in no particular order, everyone else (including the rest of the bridal party) just started shuffling around to leave.

After the ceremony, friends and family gathered in the church’s garden to receive drinks and snacks from a man standing at a plastic table as the pictures commenced. The youth of the choir did not join this part of the celebration, but we went to the church’s kitchen for some snacks of our own and then went home. I was told that a party endures after all the pictures are taken.

Man, I love weddings. What an experience this was!

“God’s Work. Our Hands.”

“God’s work. Our hands.”

I’ve always loved this saying, the good ‘ole Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s motto.

These four words are plastered on the front of my church’s red T-shirts, which you can usually find on, at least two, people at any of our church outreach projects. These four words always echo through my thoughts when I’m on our annual mission trips while I’m either pounding a nail into a wall, handing food to those who are hungry, moving donations to their designated spots, and so on.

The thing is that’s where this quote stops being applied for me- only in stereotypical situations of “doing God’s work”.

At least it used to be…until I had some time to think the other day, while staring out a window in the library with nothing else to do but collect my thoughts.
*insert a PSA about how “not having anything to do” can be a good thing…*

I was mulling over how I’d been feeling a little useless lately because I can’t lead entire religious lessons because I don’t know enough Hungarian. I was thinking about how I feel like I’m not doing much in Sunday School or in the church’s youth club because I just participate in the program with the other children/young adults. I was a little bummed that I can’t independently help middle schoolers with their English homework because I don’t have the Hungarian words to make sure they understand what the English words mean. (Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m making a difference, but sometimes it’s hard to see when you’re used to doing “a lot more” and when you’re in a cross-cultural setting not doing what you’re used to.)

Then, I was reminded, mid-thought, that “God’s work” isn’t just the physical labor that I listed above or something you just clock in and out of.

“God’s work” is “to love”. Two words with a lot of importance and meanings.

I realized I’m doing God’s work with my hands when I:
-wash the dishes so my második mámá doesn’t have to do them later
-hold a child’s hand as we walk into our religious lesson together
-frantically point to the things I don’t know the Hungarian word for because I want the child to know that a language barrier doesn’t always have to be overcome with another person who knows both languages
-wave to the woman across the way that is yelling “Hey! Hey!” and the people I’m with are just staring at her
-type back responses to my students who message me because they want to practice their English
-pull the covers over me at night because I know I need to go to bed early (because we are called to love ourselves, too)

Now, I know the following Bible verses are well-known, making it easy to overlook the importance behind each of the words. But, friends, this is the love we are called to take part in:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” -1 Corinthians 13:4-7

While I struggle recognizing and explaining to people “what I’m doing here”, my reflection on the ELCA’s motto is being remolded everyday. To that, I am thankful.

What Can I Say? I Like Chocolate Milk…

(I’d like to dedicate this blog to my daddy- my fellow chocolate milk lover and someone who probably would have done the same thing as I did. ❤️)

Yesterday, my második mámá (second mom) made my sister’s favorite meal (cabbage-wrapped meat with a tomato sauce base). Around 6:30, I thought I’d go for some of this delicious-looking grub- even though, I’m not usually a “cabbage girl”. Panna had already eaten her dinner, and my második mámá was preoccupied with cleaning the house. I scooped some of the beloved dish out of the pot on the stove, and my második mámá suggested I added tejfol (like sour cream) and bread to my plate. After I made my way to the fridge, második mámá closed the kitchen door on her way out to vacuum with a “Jó étvagyat” (“Have a good appetite”).

I tried the dish and ended up finishing my plate very quickly. I thought I’d “take it easy” with my second helping, so I scooped a little bit more on my plate and grabbed a drink to go with it. I thought chocolate milk sounded good because I hadn’t had it in awhile.

I was finishing my second serving and had about half a glass of my milk left when második mámá came in. She bent her knees a little bit, pointed her arm toward my glass, and with the utmost concern said, “What is that?! What are you drinking?!“.

I was thinking maybe she thought it looked strange because it was a darker brown than usual (There was extra chocolate at the bottom of the container when I poured the rest of it in my glass- yum!). In a calm voice I said, “Chocolate milk..?”.

She was flabbergasted. Honestly. Without words. She was stammering trying to explain herself. Finally, she said, “That is not good! *points to the glass of milk* That.. *points to the plate* and that.. Not go together!” A little confused, I said, “Why?”. She said, “milk and chocolate.. Sweet. The meal… Salty. Together… Impossible!”

Now I was just as flabbergasted as her. I asked her what I was supposed to drink. She said, “Wine or water. That’s all with that!”.

At this point, we are both laughing and smiling at each other’s confusion.

I said, “I never think of what I should drink with what I eat. I just think that I should eat something when I am hungry. If I am thirsty, I get something I like to drink.” She continued to tell me that if I would have picked anything else- Coke, Fanta, juice, etc- it would have been strange but okay. But “chocolate with milk.. Incredible!”.

We discussed how a few days ago I was mistaken by a stranger for being Hungarian because he only heard me (correctly) saying “nagyon jó” (“very good”). Apparently my eating habits give away my nationality, though. Yesterday evening, I might as well have had a sign on my forehead that says “I’m American.”

Of course, we smiled and laughed together about the cross-cultural situation. Then, I asked her if I could blog about, and she encouraged it.

Hey! I Know That Song!

(Hi friends! Sorry it’s been a little while since I’ve posted.. but I’m back with a few little stories for ya.)

Story #1:

A few Sundays ago, there was a kick-off for the start of the school year’s religious education program. The program began with a few songs after my introduction. It was nice to hear familiar “camp song”-sounding tunes, but I couldn’t place if they were singing any songs that I knew. After a few songs, I was asked by the leadership to suggest an English Bible song. Maybe the kids would know the Hungarian version? I was totally unprepared for this question, so (naturally) my mind blanked and I didn’t know what to say. The man playing the guitar, Sámuel, said, “Do you know ‘This Little Light of Mine’?”. Ahh, yes! Sámuel started strumming, and I was intrigued to hear one of the songs I grew up with in Hungarian. Guess what? EVERYONE STARTED SINGING ENGLISH. You can bet your bottom dollar I joined right in. Of course, I was “that girl” that shouted “No!” the loudest, but I didn’t really care. I was jamming.

Story #2:

The first full day I was in Pílís, my mom drove me to buy a SIM card. When I hopped in the car for her to pick me up, Imagine Dragons was playing on the radio! My first reaction was, “Hey! I know this song!”, and she responded with her enjoyment of the radio station that plays a mixture of Hungarian and English pop songs. We rode away from our home with my head bobbing along to the music and my lips whispering the lyrics. I saw my mom sneaking a grin at me out of my peripherals.

Story #3:

This past Sunday, I attended Sunday School with the children. We were about to open with a song out of the children’s songbook, and the pastor asked me if I knew the song in English. After just glancing at the Hungarian text (that I could not decipher), I said I didn’t think so. The children started singing and by the time they got to the chorus, I recognized the song! It was “You Are my All in All”! Because I knew the tune, I picked up singing it in Hungarian easier because I just had to focus on the pronunciation of the lyrics. I told the pastor after we finished that I did actually know it, and I taught his 4th grade religion class how to sing most of it in English the next morning.



I Can Relate to an Animal in a Zoo Exhibit Now

I was reading through some of my journal entries from last week and thought I’d share this one with you… [Written after going to my little sister’s hip hop -just to watch- for the second time]

September 22, 2018
So I went with Panna to hip hop on Wednesday. I went with her last week, but we didn’t talk aloud much and there were a lot of people there for the first lesson of the season (so no one really questioned my nationality).

This week was different. I felt like a monkey in an exhibit.

First off, we talked in English a little bit in the locker room, so two of the girls in the class were amazed that I was from America and Panna could speak English so well. I saw some other girls I recognized from a religious education kick-off at church, and they just waved and walked away.

When we went into class, Panna and I were followed by six kids (the two from the locker room and four they accumulated on the way) to put our stuff down in the dance room. I sat on a folded mat next to the wall, and an arc of curious 11-12 year olds formed about two feet away. Panna was diagonally to my left, two to her left, the two girls from the locker room on her right, a few to their right, and the only boy in the class on the far right end.

They all just looked at me (besides Panna), leaned toward each other, and whispered. *insert the thought in the head, “Wow. Now I know what a monkey must feel like in the zoo.*

According to one of the girls from the locker room, Panna was the “pro translator”. They all started asking her questions about me continuously and (for the most part) all at the same time. Panna, being the wonderful human that she is, tried answering all their questions. After awhile, she encouraged them to ask me themselves. “It’s important you practice your English, too”, she said. For one of the girls’, Panna said, “How. Old. Are. You” and she repeated (after every word) it to me. One of them asked me (through Panna, of course) if I would come back, I said sure, and they all got excited.

Finally after what seemed like 30 minutes (most likely only 4), the dance instructor came in and started class.

In hindsight, I do realize I may have been the first or second foreigner they’ve ever seen, let alone in their hometown. (I’d probably be curious, too!)

Thankfully, not all of them treated me like a precious, untouchable species. There was one girl (who seemed to be about 15 years old or so and was apparently new because Panna didn’t recognize her) who was dancing in front of me during class who was making playful faces at me throughout the class because it was hard for her. At a few points, I questioned if it was the middle/high school “I want to look cool and relatable, so I’m going to act like I don’t know what I’m doing” (because I did that when I was her age). Honestly though, I thought she was being genuine. Especially after hearing her exasperated whisper in my ear during a transition period, “He says this is easy… How?!”

Thanks blonde-girl-in-the-black-sweatpants-and-blue-shirt-from-Wednesday-4pm-hip-hop-class for not continuously looking at me like an exhibit, but as a relatable person.

*Maybe I’ll be a dancing monkey soon, who knows??

Questions I’ve pondered since this instance:

Was this is a negative, positive, or indifferent experience?

How has not experiencing something like this before now been a privilege?

How can I continue to show my humanity and my love for all of humanity to those in this dance class?


Speaking Hungarian Here vs. Speaking English in the US

I’ve realized that attempting to speak the native language in Hungary as a foreigner is seen A LOT differently than a foreigner trying their best to speak English in America.

I’ve been in Hungary for over a month now, and I definitely was hoping that I’d magically pick up almost all of the language by now “because I was immersed in it”. Unfortunately, that’s not the case… I can confidently tell you that I only remember about three grammar rules, five greetings, and twelve vocabulary words off of the top of my head.

You see, though, when I meet new people here and tell them my name (honestly, just what translates to “My name is Sydney”), they are astonished! They look at whoever introduced me to them and say (in Hungarian), “What a clever girl!”. Their smile broadens to their ears when I respond with a Hungarian “thank you”.

That’s all I have to say.. Four words (though I am learning more).. for people to respond with, “You speak great Hungarian”.

Yet when they (whether 8 years old or 53 or somewhere between or above) can ask me questions in English, keep the conversation going, use transition words in their sentences, and much more, they say, “My English is not good”.


Now, maybe they think this way because they’ve heard English-speaking countries expect you to be perfect or they will judge you when you visit? Maybe they aren’t supported in their English learning, and they discourage themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of these two explanations, or neither of them, or (probably) there’s way more to it. I don’t know.

But these experiences have made me think about how “the typical American” would respond to: someone who came into their shop only knowing a few English words, someone who sat quietly in church and was whispered the translation of the sermon to, someone who may or may not “pass as looking like the majority of the people in the community”, or someone who walked down the street with a much younger person speaking a different language than the native language in the town.

With my experiences, I don’t think Americans would be so welcoming to the strange “someone”.

Thankfully, as the “someone” in Hungary, I’ve been welcomed like they have been waiting for me for years.

Here’s some questions I’ve been pondering lately (feel free to join me, if you want):
-Why don’t we, Americans, take learning other languages more seriously?
-Why do we, Americans, feel like everyone has to “speak English or get out”?
-Why aren’t we, Americans, welcoming those who are trying to “make better lives for themselves in America”? (Please don’t answer this starting with, “There’s not enough…” There’s always enough.)
-When was the last time I tried approaching someone (who I knew spoke another language than me) to make them feel welcomed near me, to show that a “language barrier” doesn’t have to be a “barrier of acquaintanceship”?

Appreciations Here (Not There)

Recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve been appreciating certain things (that I take for granted in the US) while in Hungary.

Some of these things include:
-A cold Coke
-Nestle Nesquik chocolate bars
-Seeing Philadelphia cream cheese in the grocery store
-The flavor of beef in soup
-The familiar taste of baked spaghetti
-Large, wooden cutting boards
-Talking at the (relatively fast) speed I normally talk and having people understand what I’m saying
-Having parents who raised me to be a “kind and helpful” person
-The privilege of being able to connect to wifi when I get home
-Being able to actively try to pick out words I know when someone is speaking in another language
-Coming home to people who genuinely love me
I may have an explanation to why I am recognizing my appreciation for these certain things while I am away from home…
In America, I have the mentality that I “deserve these things…and more”.

Why wouldn’t I get a cold Coke instead of a room-temperature one? Because I’ve had the privilege of having access to ice cubes in my freezer all of my life.

Who cares about the mediocre taste of baked spaghetti? Where’s my Olive Garden Chicken Parmesan? I’ve had the privilege to be able to eat at Olive Garden (basically whenever I felt like going) if I didn’t feel like cooking dinner.

You’ve always had people that genuinely loved you when you got home- what makes it special now? I’ve always had the privilege of coming home to a loving family. I’m realizing that I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have loving people (or people at all) to come home to.

You see, in America, I think we, as Americans, are always focused on the next “best thing” so when something that was the “next best thing” 20 years ago comes along (or is something we see every day or so), we don’t think it’s enough for us.

In America, we have SO MUCH PRIVILEGE. Honestly, this applies to everyone in America (yes, I mean everyone).

It’s important to recognize that we have this privilege and realize we’re incredibly blessed just by being able to say we are Americans.

I’ve Been in Hungary for One Month Already!

Today marks four weeks since I’ve stepped off a plane from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary. Though I’ve only been in Pilis for one week, I feel like I’ve been here for a lot longer than seven measly days.

What a perfect day to stand next to my második mama (second mom) in the kitchen and learn how to make a typical Hungarian soup. Though it took more than two hours to make, it felt like 20 minutes (because let’s be real- time here feels WAY different than in America!).

It was truly finom (delicious)! Cheers to the first recipe I’ve been able to write down and one month in Hungary!

(FYI, I did take a picture… But it won’t upload to my blog. 😭)

RAKs from Zoltán

“Sydney, what’s a RAK? Who’s Zoltán?”

RAK stands for Random Act of Kindess, and Zoltán (who I sincerely apologize for not mentioning before now) is my host father.

A reason why you have not have known I have a host dad here is because I haven’t physically met him yet, so I don’t have any physical experiences or pictures with him (yet!). But I thought I would share with you some of the RAKs I have received from him, despite the fact that I haven’t physically met him (yet!). Come November when he returns from a work trip, these “yets” will turn to “nows”.

Top 3 RAKs from Zoltán:

1. While I was in Chicago, I received my first email from someone in my (at the time) future host community! It was from Zoltán expressing how happy they (him and his family) were to have me stay in Pilis with them. He made sure I had contact information to get ahold of him, my host mom, and my host sister. It eased my nerves drastically to read of the love and hospitality I would soon physically receive.
2. When I was shown my bedroom, my host mom pointed to a power outlet right away. Attached to one of the outlets was a converter for a non-Hungarian plug (compliments of Zoltán!).
3. The day after I had arrived in Pilis, I received a message on Facebook from him stating that he was sorry he missed my arrival (but there was no way around missing his work trip). He explained how he wanted me to “make myself at home” in Pilis.

Thank you, Zoli (because apparently only his mom calls him Zoltán), for being so kind to me!