Putren Le Jakha! Open Your Eyes!

6 days + 35 Roma and non-Roma participants + 13 different countries represented = a very unique conference experience!

Last week, I was able to attend a conference with a name combining Romani and English language,  “Putren Le Jakha! Open Your Eyes!”. The week was focused around antigypsyism. Like any other “anti” or “-ism” word, you might be able to come up with an idea of what this term means. (Maybe something along the lines of “discrimination against gypsies”?). If only definitions for such deep words could be wrapped up in three words…

From my experience last week, I can tell you that there is so much to this word, and there’s no way to give it a complete definition. First of all, a YAGM friend and I were slightly confused why the word “gypsy” was even in the word in the first place. Most often than not, “gypsy” is used as a slang term for Roma people and has a negative connotation. Taylor asked about this at a round table discussion, and this is what I understood through the answer given:
1. The word “gypsy” can be referring to not just Roma people, but also “travelers”.
2. Roma people may use the term “gypsy” to describe themselves and embrace the word, others may not.
3. It’s IMPORTANT to ask individuals if the term is offensive to them.
4. Stick with the word “Roma”, unless told otherwise.
5. Why it is included in the term “antigypsyism” is because the “anti” part of the word focuses on abandoning any negativity towards the population being discussed.

During the conference, we discussed how each of us see or have experienced antigypsyism. We spoke about national strategies for the inclusion of Roma people in European society, the positive effects and the plenty of negative ones. Different organizations planned to collaborate on the national level, and youth empowerment was a highlight in several conversations.

By Day One, I knew I was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was bonding with people from Kosovo, Italy, Bulgaria, Albania, and so many more countries. Not only was it amazing talking to so many new, diverse people, but I got to see multiple perspectives of Europe through so many different lenses. I was inspired to see so many young people (ages 20-35) representing all different NGOs or organizations for the same cause- to help Europe see all of the people in the continent as humans.

As the “good YAGM” that I am, I went into this past week with the thought of being a sponge. I was going to try to soak in as much information as I could (because frankly, what would an American be doing at a conference about such a huge issue in Europe that even some Europeans don’t understand or know about?). Thankfully, this beautifully knitted community accepted my American-ness with open arms, love, and support. Thanks to seeing the passion in the eyes of the participants in this conference, I left on Saturday rejuvenated and reminded of the main reason why YAGM has placements in Central Europe- to accompany and empower the Roma people here.

(P.S. Experiencing Budapest, it’s “night life”, and disco parties with these people are memories that will last a lifetime!)

Circus Acts, Mugs, and Hockey- Oh My!

Saying “these last few days have been busy” would be an understatement. Since Thursday, I’ve been to Budapest twice, rode a glass elevator up to the 14th floor of a bank overlooking the Danube River, ate pizza for three meals, sang “Amazing Grace” over the loud speaker at the middle school with a few girls, and have felt the most “alive” in awhile.

I could go on for awhile about the last five days, so here are some details of the three events mentioned in the title of this blog…

Circus Acts
On Thursday, I had to privilege to join some of the kids I accompany at The Castle (an organization where children – who do not have parents or can’t be with their families for safety concerns – are given homes at a castle in town or in houses around the community of Pilis) going to the circus in Budapest!
I wasn’t quite sure what the day would entail besides meeting them at the train station at noon, seeing some of the kids perform, and coming home by train around 6.
I joined a group of ten kiddos and a few adults at the train station, and we made our way to the circus together hand-in-hand.
Excitingly, we sat four rows up from the performance area in the circular showroom. First, we watched a group of about 20 people with disabilities performance a Hungarian song in sign language. We enjoyed music from famous Hungarian performers. A group of individuals with and without wheelchairs danced their way around the arena. Then, a group of kids from The Castle (that I didn’t come with) sang and danced in front of the crowd of easily 400+ people. A 16-year old, who would later sit behind me and befriend me, sang a solo, “Stone Cold” by Demi Lovato.
There was an intermission, and then a Christmas story was told through the acts of professional circus performers. I saw a magician, a dog and tiger trainer, a tightrope walker, a unicyclist, a group of men who did more flips and tricks than I can count, and hundreds of smiles of kids that would go back to this magical place everyday if they could.
I asked my new friend behind me during an intermission, “Do you like the circus?”. He said, “I like the circus for the humans performing, not the animals. I know when I see the animals that they are really in pain.” That reaction really stuck me…
After the last performance, the group of us boarded the van to take us to the train station, ran as fast as we could up the steps at the train station, and were on our way home with not even three minutes to spare.

Saturday afternoon, I met my friend Eszter outside of the Penny Market to walk to our friend Ditta’s house for a program organized by the church. On our way, a sweet little kitten crossed the road to greet us, and we greeted it with some cuddles and compliments. We attempted to name it, But we couldn’t decide between Barátságos (“friendly” in Hungarian) and Purrfect.
We arrived at Ditta’s to a warm welcome, and we began our project with some boiled and spiced wine. Our project consisted of decorating 100 white mugs to sell as a fundraiser for the church during Advent. We gathered around the magazine covered table and let our imaginations run wild. After a few hours, our group of eight decorators, a few cheerleaders, and a few bakers finished.
Ditta, Eszter and I played a few Hungarian games in Ditta’s room, and Edit (Ditta’s sweet mother) ordered pizza for the crowd in her house. Seriously, I’ve never seen pizza so big before!
It was an afternoon full of creativity, friendship, and learning each other’s languages!

Yesterday, I went with people associated with The Castle to Budapest again. This time, there were 45 of us who traveled by coach bus!
My pal I get to see every Thursday wanted me to sit with her at the front of the bus, so I took my place and was ready for an action-packed day. Our first stop in Budapest was at a bank that is associated with The Castle somehow. We rode glass elevators on the side of the building to the 14th floor to get a tour of that level (and receive some chocolate!). Riding the elevator was such an awesome experience! My smile was just as big as the kids as we went up, and up, and up. The kids were squealing with excitement as the people on the ground slowly started looking like little toy people.
After our tour of the bank, we headed to the ice arena to watch the Vasas team win after double overtime and a shootout! I sat next to Roli, the 16-year old who sang the solo at the circus’ brother, and a little fourth grader who wanted to show me his English skills. On my right, I had a new dear friend who helped me immensely by translating some things to me and having friendly conversation. On my left, I had an excited little guy trying to record every minute of the first period of the hockey game and asking if I can translate whatever English words he could think of (I couldn’t, haha).
Guess what we were eating? You guessed it. Pizza.

Knock, Knock! It’s the Holidays.

I knew I’d get homesick when the holidays rolled around.

I could have told you that in July. It’s inevitable.

I’ve been doing Thanksgiving and Christmas the same way since I can remember. Our locations might have changed, but there’s always been the comfort of knowing I’d be in “the atmosphere of my family” every year (seeing family members arrive through the front door with snow on their heads and smiles on their faces, overeating while talking about family memories made and creating new ones, catching up on each other’s lives on a couch…).

This evening, while planning a youth group meeting that falls on Thanksgiving, I could feel homesickness walking up my street. As every word describing my Thanksgiving traditions came out of my mouth, homesickness took a step closer to the front door of my heart.

I knew I had to be proactive about the upcoming stay of this expected guest. I messaged my immediate family (who will be with my mom’s side of my family) about video calling on Thursday. Then, I reached out to my uncle (who will be hosting my dad’s side of my family) about when to chat with them.

As homesickness was knocking on my door, my uncle video called me with my aunt, niece, nephew, and cousin. What a wonderful fifteen minutes it was! Indeed, something I didn’t know I needed in my last-minute prep for my awaited visitor.

As I hung up the call, I opened the door of my heart to greet the being at my door. This guest has packed bags at its’ sides; I think homesickness is going to stay awhile.

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.