Whoa, word association: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (boy did I read that a long time ago), “Reflections of My Life” (1969 song by Marmalade–I just looked it up–and there’s an earworm for ya).
Anyway, there’s nothing like packing and saying good-byes to start one reflecting, in this case upon my Fulbright in Hungary. As I pack and go through each “last”–last walk along the Danube, last meal with Fulbright friends, last final exam (a very happy “last”), last gathering with my colleagues–and as I try to burn images of the fabulous Secessionist buildings in Szeged into my memory (or at least my camera’s memory), I have been thinking a lot about what made this experience so wonderful. I’ve been trying in this blog to report on some of my activities and the people I’ve met and places I’ve seen along the way. I’m afraid I haven’t been a very conscientious blogger, as there are so many things I haven’t yet gotten around to writing about, such as Szeged’s architecture, the places I’ve traveled around Hungary, fabulous Ravenna, more about the university, etc.; and indeed, I will in coming weeks blog about those. But as I prepare to leave at the end of this week, it seems like a good time to start the process, which will no doubt also be ongoing, of setting down some reflections on my Fulbright experience.
I’m thinking a lot right now about when I first came to Szeged, and how everything then was potential. And I’m thinking, what are the moments that made me fall in love with this place? My first night, when my department chair, the fabulous Réka, came right over to welcome me so warmly and take me to dinner? The first full day, when I first laid eyes on the magnificent Reok Palace? The next day, when Zoltán and Zsófia came and whisked me away to the super Tesco to stock my apartment? The national holiday that week, which was also the occasion for a Beer Festival along the Tisza River, which let me know that craft brewing was alive and very well in Hungary? All of the above and so much more.
Some have asked wouldn’t I rather have been in Budapest, and yes, there are times that seems like a great idea (especially when I have to travel outside Hungary). I do love Budapest passionately (see previous post). And yet, despite growing up in a Chicago inner ring suburb, I’ve been a small town gal for more than twenty years now in Fredonia. Szeged, while much larger than Fredonia, still has that small town vibe, only with a much better selection of restaurants and pubs and shopping. And then there’s the Secessionist (or Art Nouveau) architecture. I promise a post on that soon. (And Budapest is only a train ride away.) Szeged’s laid-back pace and great style were home for me, and will, I suspect, always be my Hungarian home. The daily walk through the park and over the river was always nice. (Both Budapest and Szeged are terrific walking cities, by the way.) I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I am vowing to walk more back home. It’s good for the soul as well as the body; as Thoreau no doubt said, it gives one time to think and reflect and observe. So yes, Szeged proved absolutely to be the right place for me to spend my Fulbright.
As I write this, one of the periodic dense fogs that envelop the city for a day (or two or three) has lifted and it’s sunny. The fogs tend to depress me, but they certainly make one appreciate the sunshine! So I will soon be out and about to enjoy this, one of my last days in Szeged.
What else to say? The University of Szeged is huge compared to Fredonia, although its campus is spread around the city. The Department of American Studies is home to some of the hardest working professors I’ve met–teaching, heavy publishing obligations, administrative creep, and they created, edit, and publish Americana, an e-journal of American Studies in Hungary, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year–all on much less than a shoestring budget (and salaries). And they still found the time to be friendly to the Fulbrighter in their midst. I’m in awe of them all. The students have amazing English skills; good thing, as my Hungarian is still at a most rudimentary level! My graduate students were as bright and hard working as any I’ve met, and they did wonderful material culture research projects on artifacts as diverse as a topsy turvy Red Riding Hood doll, a German Christmas carousel, a velocipede, and a Ouija board. I’m still not a fan of the examination system for lecture courses, but I understand it, anyway. If nothing else, it certainly has made me appreciate the typical American exam system! But I learned that one can indeed assess a student’s learning in a fifteen-minute oral exam. Or perhaps more accurately, one can assess how much they have prepared and how good their memorization skills are. I’m still uncomfortable having a whole semester’s worth of work come down to one exam grade, and I’d still like to know more about why this is so. Indeed, it has been fascinating to learn about the university system here. And Fulbrights are all about immersion in a new culture, which includes the teaching and examination system, which is not specific to Hungary, of course, but is common in many European countries.
More to come.