BUDAPEST, Hungary — I arrived in here for a semester just over three weeks ago on the morning of Feb. 3. Writing comes naturally to me, and I fully intended on updating this space frequently throughout my time here. That’s still what I plan to do. But I was not drawn to put pen to paper (keyboard) until this moment, at the end of a long day on Feb. 26.
Adjusting to a new city (for anything more than a vacation or brief experience) does not come with an instruction manual, and my mind was fully in processing mode for a while. I’m a relatively seasoned traveller, but I’ve never lived long-term outside the United States and the adjustment was disorienting. I quickly made new friends, found places to eat, learned my way around school and the Metro system, but living here just requires a different rhythm, and that took adjustment no matter how comfortable or fortunate my situation was starting out.
Again, I’ve travelled a good deal before. Thanks to a program called CISV, which sends children from countries around the world to get to know each other, I’ve been fortunate to get to know the outside world more than most American youths get to. But struggling to communicate with locals while on a brief trip is one thing. Living that way every day for a semester is another.
That’s not to say I feel burdened by not speaking the local language. I chose to come here, and in doing so I elected to be disadvantaged when it comes to language. (Trust me, there is absolutely no learning Hungarian in a short period of time.) It’s simply mentally taxing to communicate, day in and day out, without the fluent English we share for the most part in the States. Luckily, most Hungarians do have at least a basic knowledge of English.
Here’s how not to communicate with a non-fluent English speaker: Speaking rapid-fire English, thinking that they’ll understand and respond with their slower version.
Here’s an approach I’ve found makes more sense: Meet somebody half way. Be thoughtful in the words and phrasing you choose. Most people genuinely feel bad and uneasy when you’re trying to communicate with them and they don’t understand, and since I’m the visitor here, I don’t want to make people feel that way. I try to speak concisely and clearly, and whenever possible, try to throw in a few Hungarian words as a courtesy. It may feel silly, but just making that small effort can open somebody up.
The last three weeks have been a blur. It took a trip out of Budapest for a weekend to really solidify my connection to the city. After three weeks I got on a Ryanair plane to Copenhagen with some new friends for my first visit to Denmark, and I quickly found myself “missing” Budapest. Gone were the distinctive Hungarian accents and cadences, replaced by the polished Nordic words. Budapest has a gritty quality, in a good way, that is certainly not present in Copenhagen (or any other Scandinavian place I’ve been). Plus, things are like three times as expensive there.
After a fun weekend, we landed at Liszt Ferenc airport with lighter wallets, and I was glad to see the generic and somewhat dilapidated kebab shops and apartment buildings whiz by as the bus took us home. It felt a little familiar. And when you’ve crossed an ocean, that familiarity feels good.