Sunday mornings and good books


Reading in Szent István tér.

It is sometimes the little things that bring me joy each week. It is the things that once seemed strange, but are now routines. One example of those routines is my Sunday morning routine.

I begin each Sunday by attending church with the local Lutheran congregation. I attend the service in Hungarian, but the church also offers an earlier service in Slovak. I don’t understand everything that’s being said. (My Hungarian is definitely not at sermon level understanding yet.) But, I can still follow what is going on and recognize different parts of the service. I can sing the songs with the congregation.


The bakery where I stop.

After church, I stop by a nearby bakery and pick up some sort of pastry to eat for breakfast, as well as my bread for the week. Then, if the weather is decent, I find a bench in the town’s main square and sit down for a couple hours of reading. It is nice to just sit outside, read a good book and watch as people walk by.

I really have rediscovered my love of reading this year. While I have always enjoyed it, as a student I often struggled to make the time to actually read. This year, I have had much more time to spend reading and getting lost in good books. It makes me want to commit to reading more when I go back to the states and get busy again.

So far, during my YAGM year, I’ve read over 60 books (and will hopefully add some more before the year is done). Below are just a few of my favorites.

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International Roma Day

Image result for roma flag

The official Roma flag, adopted at the first World Rromani Congress on April 8th 1971.

April 8th was International Roma Day. How much do you know about the Roma people?

I’ll admit, before starting my YAGM year in Central Europe, I knew very little about this group of people, who make up the largest ethnic minority in Europe, but also live throughout the world (including in the United States).

Though in my placement I do not work as directly with Roma communities as some of the other volunteers in Central Europe, I have still had the opportunities to meet many wonderful Roma people, hear their stories, and learn more about Roma history and culture (both in general and specifically in the European and Hungarian context).

Below is a list of “11 Facts About Rromani People” given to us by Vicente Rodriguez during the fall conference I attended in October on combating online hate speech. The conference was hosted by Phiren Amenca (a Roma and non-Roma volunteer and networking organization), the European Union of Jewish Students, and the Council of Europe.

I encourage you to read on and learn a little more about this group of people.

11 Facts About Rromani People by Vincente Rodriguez

  1. The word “GYPSY” is a racial slur. Rromani, Romany or Roma people are appropriate words to use.
  2. Rromani people are the largest and oldest Indian Diaspora. Over 15-20 million persons, distributed through the whole world, mainly in Europe, Russia and Turkey, but also in South America, North America, Oceania, the Middle East and North Africa.
  3. Rromani people originated from India between 1500 and 1000 years ago. Rromani language is related to Sanskrit and shares many words with modern Hindi and other Indoarian languages.
  4. Rromani people are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and the largest stateless nation in the world.
  5. Rromani people don’t have a central authority or a form of self-government beyond family. Rromani leadership is a traditional concept that derives from each individual life and different community values. Family is sacred and spiritually relevant.
  6. Rromani identity criteria varies from community to community. Generally it involves a historical/ community connection with Rromani people, family ties, values, culture, etc. Generally talking, a child born to Rromani parents or raised in a Rromani community will be perceived as Rromani.
  7. There are Rromani Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. Traditional Rromani beliefs also include a set of practices that derive from the different countries they have been passing through the centuries. (Hindu, Greek, Persian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc.) In this sense, Rromani beliefs are a time capsule that keeps still alive elements from cultures and peoples that long ago disappeared.
  8. Rromani identity has been heavily influenced by persecution and oppression over a thousand years. The word for non-Rromani people is Gadje. In the Rromani cosmovision fear of Gadje is widely present. Most Rromani communities also suffer from self-stigmatization.
  9. Since the arrival of the Rromani people to Europe, persecution has been wild, through slavery, human hunts, mass rapes, mutilation, infanticide, sterilization, forced assimilation, etc. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Rromani people were murdered under Nazi rule during the Holocaust. Some historians push the number up to 1.5 million persons.
  10. Rromani people reject all forms of organized violence, including authority/state violence, etc. Power is articulated traditionally through respect. In other words, shame/honor are the pillars of the social contract in a Rromani family/community.
  11. Rromani culture is very rich, especially in music, storytelling, poetry, etc. Rromani people have an enormous cultural, political and sociological impact on European history and identity. Modern ideas such as romantic love, individualism and resistance to authority resonate with the Rromani cosmovision.



A mural in the Roma village of  Bódvalenke.  Eszter Pásztor describes it. “That’s another fairy tale- that is, another legend of Roma origin. As the tale has it: once upon a time, the Roma had wings. And they flew freely like the birds from one place to the next. And they would never stay, but always go on. But one day they found this fantastic valley full of all the goodies that you can think of – a Canaan. And they didn’t go on, they stayed and they had their [fill] and were having fun and played music. And they grew fat! And by the time autumn came, they found that they had eaten up everything in that beautiful valley, and there was nothing left, so they had to move on. But they realized that their beautiful wings had withered into arms, and from then on there was nothing but wandering and poverty and the hope that some time it will be different. That’s the legendary past,” the left part of the mural, “that’s the age of wandering,” the center part, “and that’s the present day, of settlement and hope of integration” the right part of the mural.

Awake before the city

While many people were still sound asleep, curled up in their beds on this Easter Sunday morning, I woke, rubbing sleep from my eyes. The sky was still dark. I got ready for my day. Hopping on my bike, I rode through the city, from my house to the church.

It was quiet, quieter than I’ve ever seen it before. Few people were about. The church bells were silent. The shops were closed. The only sounds came from the singing of birds and the pitter patter of rain.

People slowly arrived, entering the dark, unlit church in silence and finding a place to sit among the pews. The service began—the only light coming from the projector, displaying the words of the songs, and the flashlights of those who read the readings.

Then a boy brought in a candle, giving it to the pastor and adding light to the room. Soon, everyone in the congregation had lit their own candle from that first candle. Candlelight mixed with sunlight as the sun rose (albeit behind the rain clouds) welcoming in the day.

Easter is here. He has risen. Alleluia!

The 15th of March


The 15th of March. In the U.S. this is just a day in March that passes like any other day. Perhaps some people are gearing up for St. Patrick’s day, but for the most part it goes unnoticed. In Hungary, the 15th of March is a national holiday, celebrated as independence day.

img_1002.jpgOn March 15, 1848, a Hungarian revolution began, standing against the often oppressive rule of Austria’s Hapsburg Empire. Revolutionaries gathered in Budapest, wearing lapels of red, white and green ribbon over their hearts (Hungary’s national colors). They marched through the streets, defying censorship by seizing printing press and printing their 12 demands for democratic freedoms. Sándor Petőfi read his poem, “National Song.” One translation can be found here. Lajos Kossuth, a reformist Hungarian politician of the era, became the leader of the movement, which began on the 15th and lasted for many more months. Ultimately, this revolution paved the way for Hungary’s independence from Austria.

In Békéscsaba today, I had the chance to witness some of the celebrations. There was no school and many business were closed for the occasion. Like in 1848, Hungarians today wear lapels of red, white and green ribbon over their hearts for the day. The day began with the laying of wreaths at the feet of the statue of Kossuth that stands prominently in the center of Békéscsaba. During the ceremony, a band played (in which my mentor’s daughter plays).

After the laying of wreaths, there was a parade around the main square, which included a lot of folk dancing groups.

This was followed by various speeches in the main square. After the speeches, there was a musical, acting out the events of the 1848 revolution, which was fun to watch and listen to (even if I still struggle to understand most of what is being said.)

In the square, apart from the main stage, there were various booths where folk artists helped kids (and some adults) make various folk art inspired crafts for the day.There was even a period-style printing press, where I picked up a copy of the 12 points. Finally, there was a period-style military demonstrations.

It was fun to be out and the square and just get to see and experience the celebration of this holiday. I am glad I had the chance to do so.

A Serbian Perspective

YAGM Central Europe volunteers looking out on the city of Belgrade, Serbia.

The YAGM program in this part of the world is not called YAGM Hungary. It is YAGM Central Europe. Central Europe is a collection of countries in—you guessed it —central Europe. Depending on the definition you are using, it can include countries as far west as Germany and as far east as Romania and Bulgaria. While most of the YAGM volunteers serving in Central Europe serve in Hungary, we do have one volunteer serving in Serbia. Over the last week, for our Lenten retreat, the volunteers had the opportunity to meet and spend time together in Belgrade (Beograd), Serbia. There we were able to explore Serbian history, perspective and context in Central Europe.

We got to tour the city on two walking tours (one of which I missed due to an unfortunate stomach bug.) We saw the district of Skadarlija (the Bohemian district) and the Belgrade Fortress. We visited the Church of Saint Sava (a church dedicated to Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been under construction since 1935) and toured the Nikola Tesla museum. We walked by a number of bombed out buildings that stand as shells in the city, still bearing the unmistakable scars caused by the NATO bombings in Belgrade.

We explored the complicated history of the former Republic of Yugoslavia and the war that broke it up—a war that many view as unnecessary and avoidable, the result of U.S. intervention. We looked at the culture and context of Serbia today. Serbia is country that shares much history with Hungary, but views it with a different perspective through the lenses of those parts of their histories that are separate and their varying cultural contexts. While Hungary is in the E.U., Serbia, just to their south, is not.

Personally, I found the Serbian people I met during my week there to be very friendly and I was surprised by how the majority of people spoke English and spoke it well. This visit, at the very least, made me curious to learn more about Serbia, and the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

It was also a time for me to rejuvenate and enjoy the company of my fellow YAGMs. It was good to just see and spend time with everyone again.

Két evangélikus bál

It’s ball season here in Hungary!

Saturday evening, I attended a ball for the Lutheran churches in Szarvas with Michelle, the volunteer serving there. The Saturday evening before that, I attended a ball for the Lutheran churches in Békéscsaba.

These balls, which are more akin to fundraising galas in the States, are a common for schools and other organizations to host as a way to fundraise. They are a chance for people in the community to get dressed up and enjoy an evening of eating and dancing.

Why do so many balls happen at this time of year? It’s Farsang, or carnival season, which is celebrated each year during the time between epiphany and lent. It is a time to scare away the winter (with costumes and masks) and welcome the spring. It is celebrated with a variety of activities, which include doughnut eating, parties, masquerades and, yes, balls. (In my case, fundraising balls for the Lutheran churches in Békéscsaba and Szarvas. In Békéscsaba, the proceeds for the ball went toward renovations currently being made to the churches.)


One of the dance performances at the ball in Szarvas.

Both balls I attended began with a program which included speeches thanking everyone for coming and talking about why they were gathered (in Hungarian, so I can’t give you too many details as to the speeches’ contents), and dance performances. In Békéscsaba the dance performance was by a Hungarian folk dancing group. The group did several dances and then invited audience members to the dance floor to join them for a couple more dances. In Szarvas several groups of students ranging in age from elementary to high school performed different dances.


Waiting for dinner at the ball in Szarvas.

After the program, dinner was served. (Yay, food!)

Following dinner, the floor opens for dancing. Both balls had live bands providing the music for the evening. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really dance at the ball in Békéscsaba. Instead, I enjoyed my mentor, his wife and some of their friends to take pictures at an old-timey photo booth that was set up at the ball.

In Szarvas, I did quite a bit more dancing and was able to dance with several different people throughout the night. I have two left feet and am not especially good at the whole dancing thing, but it was a lot of fun anyway.


Me and Michelle at the ball in Szarvas.

After a while, the dancing paused in order to draw for raffle prizes. (I didn’t win anything, but have never had much luck in raffles, so I’m not particularly surprised.)

Then more dancing and talking and dancing and talking. I

didn’t get home from the ball in Békéscsaba until 3 in the morning. In Szarvas, we left at midnight. But the ball was still going strong.

It has been fun to experience these balls here. Who would have guessed that I would more occasions to wear fancy dresses during my YAGM year than I typically do in the States?

A haircut with a side of art


I first met Misi at a bible study I attended with a friend. He doesn’t speak much English but that is not a problem. Misi is a joyful man and a passionate artist. He’s also a hairdresser.



I don’t know why I waited so long to get a haircut. Let’s just say my hair was not especially happy about that decision and when I finally got that much-needed haircut on Thursday, it was a relief. I was just happy to be there, getting my hair cut (with some translation help from my friend, Erika).

As Misi was snipping away at my hair, I couldn’t help but notice a couple paintings behind me staring back at me through the mirror. They were paintings done by Misi, himself, who is a skilled painter. I’ll be honest, I spent most of the visit just staring at the paintings in the mirror. They were really great. I loved them.

At the end of my visit, Misi signed a book of his paintings to give to me. It was such a joy to have him sharing his art with me. So, now, I am going to share some of it with you. You can find his work at I encourage you to go check it out. It is beautiful.






Here comes Christmas

Advent is a season of joy. It is a season of preparation for the celebration that comes in Christmas. And, most importantly, it is a season of waiting and anticipation.

This will be my first Christmas I spend away from home and away from family. I think about the ways we prepared in my family for the coming of Christmas over the years.

Putting up the tree, decorating it with boxes and boxes of ornaments, some very nice, others I made out of construction paper when I was four years old, and even the elf’s feet broken off an old elf ornament that my sister, Kayla, insisted on hanging up every year.

We would hang the stockings over the fireplace (mine’s the one with Santa Clause on it) and count down the days before Christmas using the alphabet Advent calendar (which Kayla and I have had memorized for years now).

We would sit on the couch at night and watch cheesy Christmas movies. On Wednesday nights, we would often go to church for soup and a Holden evening prayer service. And, in one of the evenings leading up to Christmas, we would go on our annual Christmas light tour, driving around random neighborhoods looking at all the Christmas lights.

My Christmas Tree

My funny little Christmas tree.

While I am sure I will once again return to these traditions, my Christmas preparations in Hungary have often looked different, but no less meaningful. While I do still watch cheese Christmas movies on my computer at night sometimes, the tree I’ve been decorating is 2-d and made of embroidery floss strung up on my wall.

This has been an advent season defined, in many ways be Christmas crafts. We have been making a variety of Christmas crafts each week over the last month at both the day center for adults with disabilities where I work and the elementary school art classes that I help out with. There was even a crafting session for teachers at the school where I attended. And, at the church in Békés, where I attend youth worships on Saturday nights, there was a kid’s activity and craft day that I was able to help out with.

It has been a joy to watch my home here look a little more festive each week with the new crafts added to the walls. It is definitely starting to look a lot like Christmas.

Another magical experience during this season has been the joy of visiting Christmas markets in cities around Hungary. My first Christmas market of the season was in Budapest. A couple of friends, who are currently students, studying at universities in Budapest invited me to visit them for the day and see the market there. It was definitely the biggest market I went to.

The next markets were in Szeged, a college town in southern Hungary. I had the opportunity to join Erika, one of the English teachers at my school, for a day trip there, along with fellow YAGM volunteer, Michelle. We also met up with Anna, who is the YAGM volunteer serving in Szeged this year. Among other things, we visited two different Christmas markets there, both of which were lovely.

Finally, the smallest of the markets, and somehow the last one I visit was the one in Békéscsaba, where I live. (It was also the only one with a ferris wheel bumper cars, so it has that going for it.)

Each Christmas market was unique and beautiful. Each stall was filled with new treasures and gifts for the holidays, much of which was handcrafted by the person standing behind the counter. It was fun to just walk around and look. Plus, there was always good food and drinks: kürtőskalács (chimney cakes), roasted chestnuts, stuffed cabbage, mulled wine and Christmas tea. One of my favorite times to see the markets is in the evening when all the lights are turned on. It’s gorgeous!

Well, now the wait for Christmas is almost over and over the next few days advent will come to a close and I will have the opportunity to experience Christmas and celebrate the birth of Jesus here in Hungary!

Boldog Karácsonyt! Áldott Karácsonyt!

Merry Christmas! Blessed Christmas!

Ebédelni: A week of eating lunch

Every weekday I eat lunch in the cafeteria for the Lutheran high school dormitory.

Lunch in Hungary is the largest meal of the day and includes a bowl of soup and a main dish. Dinner and breakfast on the other hand tend to be very small. There are times when I’ve had such a large lunch that I don’t even bother eating dinner (or only eat a snack-sized dinner).

So far, I’ve rarely had the same meal twice, so it is really hard to tell you what I eat on a regular basis, but I did take pictures of my lunches for a week to give you somewhat of an idea of what meals look like for me this year.

Monday: Monday’s soup was húsleves eperlevéllel. It is a meat broth with vegetables and pasta. The main dish was finomfőzelék with fasírt. Főzelék is a thick stew typically made from some sort of vegetable (though I’ve also had grape and cherry főzeléks). This one is made from peas, carrots and potato. Whether it is a vegetable or fruit főzelék it is typically served with fasírt, which are salty, breaded meat patties, usually made from pork and fried.

Tuesday: Tuesday’s soup was a pork ragu, known as sertés raguleves. This one is made with pork and vegetables, including cauliflower, potato and carrots. As this is a heavier soup, it is served with a sweet lunch as the main dish. In this case, it was masánszky rizsfelfújt, which is a sweet cake made with a base of rice and milk and apples, topped with raisins, a fruit sauce and powdered sugar.

Wednesday: Wednesday’s soup was gyömbéres kukoricaleves, which is similar to a corn chowder. Some of the people I was eating with weren’t huge fans. I was told that corn is not a particularly popular vegetable here. For the main meal we had rántott szelet (pork cutlet), with sides of steak burgonya (steak fries) and vitaminsaláta (a pickle salad). Pickles are a popular way to eat vegetables here and are not just limited to pickled cucumbers, but instead include all sorts of vegetables (and once in a while even fruits). This pickle salad included pickled cabbage, carrots and cucumbers.

Thursday: Thursday’s soup was fahéjas almaleves or apple cinnamon soup. Fruit soups like this are fairly popular in Hungary and are typically served cold. They are sweeter than most soups, but are not super sugary either. Personally, I find them rather refreshing. For the main meal, I had töltött csirkecomb (stuffed chicken drumstick) with sides of Burgonyapüré (mashed potatoes) and savanyúság (more pickles).

Friday: Friday’s soup was lencseleves füstölt kolbásszal. This is a lentil and smoked sausage soup, flavored with paprika (a popular spice in many Hungarian dishes). Again, after a heavier soup, we had a sweet lunch. The main meal was a palacsinta trió. Palacsinta are Hungarian pancakes, but we would probably describe them more akin to crepes. In this case, each palacsinta was stuffed with a different filling: nutella, apricot jam, and túró (a cheese, similar to cottage cheese). All of them were then topped with powdered sugar.

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the Hungarian food I’ve had thus far. It’s finom, as they say in Hungarian.

Another Tuesday

It is hard to say what a day looks like in my life here. Every day is different. My schedule is still changing and I do different things each day of the week. What I can do is tell you what today looked like.

It is Tuesday, October 17. The sun was shining as I rode my bike to work. (I ride my bike everywhere here—more than I’ve ever ridden my bike in my life.) This morning I worked at the Evangélikus Fogyatékosok Nappali Intézménye Támogató Szolgálat, which is a day center for adults with disabilities. I work at the day center every Tuesday and Friday morning.

As I arrive, the adults there great me with plenty of “hello”s and “good morning”s. They love to practice the English words they know with me. One of the men there tells me every morning whether the weather outside is nice or bad that day. He also tells me about his favorite songs (he has a lot of them), his favorite colors (red, yellow and black) and his pet dog, just to name a few of the things we talk about. His English is certainly better than my Hungarian, and is better than any of the other people at the day center (including those who work there). Sometimes, he helps translate when one of the other adults wants to ask me something or says something that I don’t understand.

Today, we mostly played games and colored. Then, the pastor that works at the day center and the nursing home (which is in the same building) came and led everyone in songs and prayer. After that, since it was a gorgeous day today, we went outside and played. I threw a ball back and forth with a couple of the men there, both of which use wheelchairs. Then, the adults at the day center went in for lunch and I said my goodbyes and left to have my own lunch.

In Hungary, lunch is the big meal of the day. Breakfast and dinner, on the other hand, tend to be very small. I eat lunch Monday through Friday at the school dormitory’s cafeteria. It always consists of some sort of soup and a main dish. Today the main dish was pasta in a pesto sauce with sour cream and cheese on top.

After lunch, I rode my bike to the school, where I help teach a sixth grade English class. Today we were learning about international foods. None of the students said they would be willing to try escargot, but one of the boys was very excited that he had tried American pancakes. (Hungarian pancakes are more like crepes.)


Me with some of the students in the art class I help with.

After the English lesson, I went to help with a fifth grade art class. Since it was such a nice day outside (one of the teachers was telling me it was approaching record highs for this time of year here), we took the class to the city park to do some nature art. Students gathered leaves, sticks, rocks, chestnuts, flowers, grass and whatever else they could find in nature. They then used these natural materials to make pictures on the sidewalk. (See the slideshow below to check out some of their creations.) This group also loves to teach me new words in Hungarian (which I am more than happy to learn). Today, the big new word was “kacsa,” which means “duck.”

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On other days, I teach at the high school instead of at the primary school. It really just depends on the day.

In the evening today, I went back to the school. This time it wasn’t to help tutor or teach. Instead, it was for an exercise class put on by one of the gym teachers for female teachers at the school. It was really good (though I will probably be sore tomorrow).

Now, I am back in my house writing this blog post. Tomorrow is my day off, so I will probably be sleeping in.

It is nice to finally have enough structure in my life here to be able to write a post like this, describing my day, and be able to reasonably expect that future Tuesdays will have similar structure. Now, not all days of the week are quite this structured yet. Things are still changing and I am definitely still figuring everything out as far as my life and role here in Békéscsaba. But, every week I figure out just a little bit more and feel just a little bit more settled into my life here.