Nem értem

“I don’t understand.” I have been in Szeged almost a week now, and I feel like this simple phrase should be emblazoned on my forehead as I struggle to learn the basics of Hungarian. I find myself seeking out cafes and restaurants where there are English translations on the menus, and at least one English speaking staff member. But no one speaks English at the grocery stores. I’ve been having fun trying to find things there, using the pictures on products when available and scanning my small travel Hungarian dictionary otherwise.

I actually love looking around grocery stores, oddly enough, and it’s particularly fascinating in a new country. Yesterday I was trying to find salt and pepper. Pepper, predictably, was with the spices as in the U.S. But salt was another story. I finally found it on an aisle with sugar, flour, and rice. Perhaps all white food products stick together? Then there were so many different bags of salt, with indecipherable descriptions. What kind did I want? Just as in the U.S., I faced too many options! I settled on the smallest package I could find of plain old table salt (at least I think that’s what it is). Looking at all the dried soup packages was another trip into the mysterious. Gulyas I could understand, but the rest were trickier. I decided to try a dumpling soup, which I found listed in my menu decoder.

Cashing out is another challenge. I know enough to say “Jó napot” (hello, good afternoon) and “köszönöm” (thank you), and I can read the amount on the register. But yesterday, a cashier asked me something when I gave her a bill and I had no clue. She said it again and I shook my head, lamely telling her I didn’t understand (and of course forgetting how to say that). Finally she wrote “.50” on a scrap of paper. Ah, did I have the 50 forints; why, yes, I did! See what I mean? I need it emblazoned on my forehead: “Nem értem.”

On the other hand, many people in restaurants and cafes seem to speak a bit (and sometimes much more) of English. Yesterday at the “Texas Barbecue” stand at the festival (more on this later) I talked to a young woman working there, who had spent three months in the Adirondacks as a camp counselor. So I asked her how she liked NY, and we had a nice little chat. The BBQ wasn’t half bad, either. They even served the pulled pork Carolina style (despite the eatery’s name) with coleslaw on top. And the pilsner was a good accompaniment!

Just as big a challenge as the grocery store is the staff at my home for the duration, the Otto Herman Kollegium (that’s dorm, yes, dorm), where I have a small apartment. Most of them speak very little English, but they know me. I can only imagine what they are thinking–oh, here comes that dumb American again! But they are friendly, and we exchange “Jó napots” as I turn in my key when I leave and pick it up when I return. I tried a new phrase the other day on one of the guys: “Hogy vagy?” or “How are you?” (pronounced sort of like ‘haj vaj,’ so it’s fun to say). This cracked the guy up. So I am making some progress (I think). The correct response, by the way, is “Jól. És te?” (Fine. And you?)

One final adventure in interpreting Hungarian. My apartment has a small washing machine with very different controls. There is an instruction sheet in English, but it left off a few things, such as how to turn it on, whether it was plugged in (it was not), whether the water was on (it was not). After figuring out the latter two, the mystery of turning it on remained. But I tried the only option I could see, which said “500.” I looked up a manual online (have I mentioned how much I love Google Translate?), which wasn’t much more enlightening about the on button, but did suggest I was on the right track. And, yes, it did work. So I have mastered the washing machine. Looking at my wet things hanging here, I’m wondering, however, why I didn’t bring more of my typical, fast-drying travel clothing with me!

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Well, I believe that is enough for a first post. This may be a strange first post from Szeged, but this language confusion is an overriding thing right now. There is much more to come on the city and the university, of course. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Nem értem”

  1. I can completely relate to your fascination with grocery stores! It was always very interesting trying to figure out what stuff actually was in Norwegian stores. We encountered some new foods that we have missed ever since returning to the U.S. and, of course, we had our fair share of “good lord, what the hell is this supposed to be?” dining experiences! And it took us forever to figure out how to use our washing machine! It’s funny how some experiences transcend particular countries. Glad to hear you’re doing well!

    1. Yes, the washing machine must be a universal frustration. I kept thinking about that scene in “El Norte” where the Guatemalan women, who’ve never even used a machine, are being shown how to operate a fancy US machine by the woman they are cleaning for. They are completely mystified and she comes home to find the laundry all hand-washed and drying in the sun! Unlike them I had a computer and a slightly less complicated machine, so I was able to figure it out in about half an hour. I’ve now done 3 loads. When you have to dry it all by hanging you can only do one load, then wait a couple days til it dries!

      Will post more on food. Haven’t encountered anything too strange yet, but I haven’t been that adventurous either!

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