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.