November Mural of the Month: Sitting on Stones

I am sharing one mural each month from the Fresco Village Project in Bódvalenke, to highlight Roma stories and culture and bring more attention to this wonderful project! Check out my post about the project for more information here.

This month’s mural is called “Sitting On Stones”. It isn’t based on a very cheerful story, but beautiful art often comes from places of pain, as Eszter explains:

“When the painter was here to do this mural, throughout that time we were really scared that he might commit suicide, because his marriage was on the rocks. And he was so depressed, it was unbelievable. And that’s what he brought out of it. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had really deep relationship breaking-off, I mean, all the feelings that you have [are] there. And I think the colors are wonderful, and I think it’s a wonderful picture. Very depressing, too, but it’s very beautiful. And I have a photo of this at a time when this little slope was full of white flowers.”




15 Lessons: What I Learned in My First Two Months as a CE YAGM

I’ve been in my placement for exactly two months, and I’ve been learning so much. Some of these lessons are serious and introspective, and some of them are just silly, but I thought you might enjoy reading them regardless!

Note: These only reflect my personal observations. This is by no means all of what I’ve learned so far, and any generalizations are intended to be hyperbolic and humorous.

  1. Learning a language is not a consistent process. Sometimes I have full conversations, and can understand most of what happens around me. Other times I’m lucky if I can ask for the bathroom. I’m learning to laugh at myself and be patient, and luckily my community is too.
  2. I am far more dependent on my own sense of control than I realized. Whether it is my schedule, my accommodations, or my ability to communicate, having questions I am unable to answer is pretty uncomfortable for me, but I’m learning to let go, and let God.
  3. Clipper settings (as in, hair razors) are different here. A “3” in America is a reasonable length. A “3” in Hungary is essentially bald. Thank goodness my alarmed hair stylist talked me into trying a “6” first – and thank goodness hair grows back.
  4. Conversations about race, privilege, and oppression are challenging, and incredibly frustrating. I am constantly working to educate myself more, in order to better respond to the harmful stereotypes about minority groups, such as the Roma, that many members of my community believe. I am here as an observer, yes, but also to start important dialogues, and ask questions that may not have been asked before. Some days I feel like progress has been made, and that I have helped to bring a new perspective to the table. Other days I feel like I threw a pebble into the ocean, and I can’t see even the smallest ripple. But I’m still growing, and so is my community, and we will keep talking about these issues together.
  5. There is a man who lives down the street from me known only as “The Yellow Man”. He wears bright yellow jackets and pants, drives an old yellow moped, and has a front gate and wall painted, you guessed it, yellow. This is all I know. I have so many questions about The Yellow Man.
  6. Making mistakes can be a community-building tool! Many of my students are still learning English, and can sometimes be too shy to talk to me. Once I struggle through some awkward Hungarian, though, and essentially make a fool of myself, I’ve found that people are far more willing to practice with me and learn together!
  7. Hungarians. Love. Carbohydrates. I’m talking pasta. Potatoes, in all forms. Rice. Bread. More potatoes. More bread. And the portion sizes are ambitious, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, it is finom (delicious). But I am definitely going to have to kick my workout routine up a notch to compensate.
  8. Small town life suits me more than I thought it would! The quick familiarity, seeing the smiling face of one of my students nearly everywhere I go, and knowing where all the coffee shops are (because, well, they’re all on the same street) is comforting and reassuring.
  9. Ceramic wall heaters can make very loud, sporadic clanking noises, but if it means I can get out of my warm bed in the morning without immediately regretting it, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
  10. Homesickness can hit me when I least expect it, like when I step on a particularly crunchy leaf that my mother would love the sound of, or when I sit in church without my dad’s shoulder pressed against me. It passes, especially as I make more connections in my community, but I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a nice long FaceTime chat.
  11. Sometimes Hungarian showers don’t have shower curtains. If you point the nozzle at the wall at just the right angle, and practice not directing the flow of water onto the bathroom floor via your limbs, and have a spare bucket to place strategically, you might only soak the corner of your bath mat. Or you can cave after 3 weeks and buy a cheap shower rod and plastic curtain. Either way, I shower more quickly now.
  12. Instead of standing ovations, Hungarians signal approval of performances by synchronized-clapping: everyone slow-claps together, in perfect unison. The first time I heard it I was uncomfortably reminded of high school students slow-clapping for each other when one of them did something dumb, but it turns out Hungarian synchronized clapping is actually high praise!
  13. Retreating to nature is such a life-giving practice. There is a beautiful riverside park near my house, and when the weather is nice I like to run or ride my bike or read there. With the leaves falling softly around me, and the cool, sweet-smelling air, it feels like a fairytale world. I always feel rejuvenated, introspective, and calm after a visit to my forest.
  14. At the market here in Szarvas, the pumpkins for sale are simply labeled “Halloween”. I kind of regret not buying a “Halloween” this year.
  15. Faith development can be challenging no matter where you are. Part of me was expecting my faith to be constantly on my mind during my entire YAGM year, but I was surprised to find myself falling back into old habits and mindsets once I found my routine here. It’s easy to pray when things are complicated, but I’m trying to practice talking to God and looking for God even when my world settles into the familiar again.


Photo: The sunset over the river near my home.

Dancing Culture

Beginning in autumn and continuing through the winter and spring, the town of Szarvas, where I live, hosts many balls – elegant, festive affairs that often raise money for the hosting organizations. A few weekends ago, I was able to attend a fundraising ball for the high school where I work, Vajda Péter Evangélikus Gimnazium. As part of the entertainment, a group of students (some of whom are in the classes I help teach) came and performed a traditional Hungarian dance, complete with traditional clothing and music. It was such a pleasure to watch some of my own students, who surprised me with their enthusiasm and dedication to the dancing, demonstrate this wonderful skill and show me a glimpse into traditional Hungarian culture (see video below). I had no idea they had been preparing this display, and their pride in their culture was undeniable.

A few days later, as I was sitting in the culture classes for young Roma children that I attend several days a week, the teacher put on a video of a school performance from last May, in which the Roma children at the school performed a play about (from what I understood) the history of the Roma people. One section of this play included music and dancing, which, it should be noted, are only part of the many valuable global contributions from Roma people. At this point of the play (see video below), a group of young Roma boys began dancing a traditional Roma dance. Then (my favorite part), an adult Roma man comes and joins the dance with them, and the whole room begins to clap!

As this part of the video played, I turned to look at the young students watching with me. The pride and the admiration in their eyes shone like stars in the darkened classroom. It really hit home for me how important it is for these children to watch their elders, and their role models, embrace and exemplify their culture and history. Even from the video, you can practically feel the mood in the room shift as the boys are joined by the older man, and they all dance together.

Culture, and tradition, and history: these are such vital parts of who we are. The Roma community is so often marginalized and shamed for their culture, and taught to distance themselves from their traditions and beliefs. Classes like this, and these cultural exhibitions, are so important for these children to participate in, and to take pride in, so that they know who they are and where they come from, and that their identity matters.

Children see all, hear all, learn from all. I am so glad that my students, Roma and Hungarian alike, are able to experience and participate in their cultural traditions, and I am blessed to walk alongside both communities while they do.


October Mural of the Month: The Legend of Bódvalenke

“Look, here we are with all our great problems, and misery, and all sorts of bad things, but – please accept us.”

As I introduced last month, I will be sharing one mural each month from the Fresco Village Project in Bódvalenke, to highlight Roma stories and culture and bring more attention to this wonderful project! Check out my post about the project for more information here.

This month’s mural is called The Legend of Bódvalenke, and shows depictions of some of the residents of the village when the project was beginning to take shape.

Snapseed (3)

Eszter Pásztor described the story behind the mural:

“At the time when we started this project…there were a few houses [at the other end of the village] that were built in contravention of all regulations – on marshland. That was because the mayor at the time didn’t want to have the Roma…build their houses next to his place. So he managed to get building permits for them for this totally unsuitable land. And the situation was horrible – the water table was so high that you couldn’t even build an outhouse because the [water] would just wash all that dirt up. And the houses were about to collapse, and, particularly in the summer, the smell was horrible. So we knew the first thing to do was to demolish those houses and buy other ones and relocate those families. And that was still under the socialist government,” *she laughs* “so they gave us the funding for it. That was one of their last actions while still in power.”

“And when the guy who painted this was working here, that was the time when we made the most important decisions, like: who can participate in the program, whose house we were going to buy, who’s going to be whose neighbor? Which meant that there was incredible tension in the house. And he somehow let all that tension through him and he threw it up on the wall.”

“The central figure is an Indian demigod, with strong associations of Jesus Christ, with the entire village of Bódvalenke behind him. There is the great manipulator**, there is the cruel wife of one of the moneylenders**, there are the guys who kill everything off with their sharp tongues (*long tongued-figures to the upper left of the main figure*), there are the ones who don’t want to know anything (*three figures above the right arm*), there is the painter himself with the horn of plenty above him, off which only children drop (*far left side*). That woman there** is a mother of four, actually working as a prostitute, who used to get on the bus in the morning, go out to the main road…and when she has made enough money to feed her family, then she will…do her shopping, get back on the bus and come home. Like any other working woman. Maybe she was a bit broken by the experience. And down here (*bottom edge of mural*), you see all the oppressed, suppressed, all those in pain or misery, those who are helpless, who are forlorn.”

“And to me, this whole picture says that, look, here we are with all our great problems and misery and all sorts of bad things but – please accept us. You may know Picasso’s famous painting the Guernica. This doesn’t look like it but by association I’d say that this was the Roma Guernica.”

** = exact location in mural unknown

Learning to Follow

As part of my placement this year, I’ve been volunteering at several local schools. One of these schools, which I’m sorry to say I don’t know the formal name of yet, has several small classes of Roma children, where they learn about Roma culture, sing songs, and practice their language skills.

Today, however, right at the beginning of class, the children all grabbed their coats and lined up at the door. I was perplexed. Was there a field trip scheduled that I didn’t know about? I just started at this school last week, and I don’t speak enough Hungarian to always follow the discussion. The teacher, Kristi, always speaks slowly and clearly to me, kindly guiding me through the basic premises of the lessons, but I know I often miss details. So where were we going?

Each student had a partner to hold their hand in the line. Kristi guided me to the back and gestured for me to grab the hand of the last little girl, who grinned up at me with boundless excitement. Then, we were off! I still had no idea where we were headed, but I gripped that small, sweaty hand tight, and just followed the leader.

I spend a lot of my time here following people around. I follow my site supervisor, Pastor Zsolt, after church services when I’m not sure where to go next. I follow my co-teachers from classroom to classroom, because the layouts of three different schools have tangled themselves in my mind. I follow members of my community on my bike, as they guide me through the town to different shops and parks. Not only is this constant following helpful and necessary, it’s also quite humbling. I’m used to confidently leading the way, relying on my own knowledge and experience to guide me through my world. As I mentioned in my last post, learning to rely on others is a growing edge for me, so to have so many people in my community willing and able to lead the way every time I am lost (be it literally or metaphorically) has been an eye-opening blessing.

As it turned out, the children were leading the way to a nearby park, for a bit of much-needed playtime in the sun. I got to watch them giggle and scream and shove each other off playground equipment, each of them shouting to me the English words for the colors they saw, or demonstrating how they wanted to be pushed on the swings. When the time was up, they all lined back up again. This time, I knew where I was going. But I still grabbed that little girl’s hand, and let the other children lead the way.

Feeding the Spirit: Hungarian Hospitality

My apologies for the social media silence I have been in since my arrival here in Szarvas. I find myself too often at a loss for words to explain my experiences here, but I must keep putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to share this new world I live in!

Whether it is the DIY spirit of American culture or my own pride, I have found it surprisingly challenging to accept hospitality. I want to insist that I am fine without help, that I don’t need anything else, because to admit otherwise would make me a burden on those around me. The truth is, I am incredibly vulnerable here. I don’t speak the language, or necessarily have the resources to take care of myself. But the hospitality of my community has continually surprised and sustained me, both physically and spiritually.

For example:

On weekends, when there is no school cafeteria to eat in, I eat my lunch at a nursing home across the street from my apartment. The kitchen staff there doesn’t speak any English, but whenever I walk in the room, I am welcomed with smiles and a full plate of food, each of them leaping up from their own meals to grab me an extra knife, a ladle for the day’s soup, or a fresh cookie. I stutter through a few Hungarian phrases I know, and we share a meal together, without any expectations of my ability to contribute or reciprocate. Even more amazing, I went in one weekday evening to ask if they knew where one of the nurses was. Without my mentioning anything, one of the staff members immediately handed me a steaming plate of food for my dinner. I don’t have cooking capabilities in my apartment yet, so I’ve been eating sandwiches for dinner most nights. I had no idea how much I needed that hot meal, and hadn’t expected to receive it, but the kind souls at the nursing home took care of me, and I left with my heart as filled as my belly.

I could go on and on about the support I have received in my new home. I have heard the words “if you need anything, just let me know” more times than I can count. This selfless generosity, time and time again, is teaching me not only to accept hospitality, but to see God in the faces of those around me.

On one of my first nights here, one of my co-teachers, Klari, was explaining to me the lesson plans for her religion class. They were studying the vows that monks take, particularly the vow of poverty. As I listened distractedly, internally obsessing over all the unanswered questions in my life, her voice broke through my thoughts. “God will always make sure you have what you need,” she told me. I was floored. While I may not have as much control over my life as I am accustomed to, I am still being taken care of by my community. I am shown God’s love every day, be it through food, loving notes from my students, or enthusiastic encouragement when I attempt to speak Hungarian. What I need might look different than I think it does, but I have faith that God will fulfill it, in whatever form that takes.

Painting the Picture – Mural of the Month Feature

Hello from Hungary! I have been in this amazing country for well over a week now, and I can’t believe how much I’ve seen and learned. I’ll get into most of that later; for now, I wanted to talk about an experience my group was able to have this past weekend, and a resulting feature on my blog!

Deep in the Hungarian countryside, nestled among marshy foothills and acres of sunflowers, lies a small village called Bodvalenke. This isn’t an ordinary village, however. Out of the 50 or so homes in Bodvalenke, nearly 30 of them are painted with stunningly intricate murals, each depicting various scenes from Roma culture or folklore. Beginning in 2009 and directed by Eszter Pásztor, the Freskófalu Project (Fresco Village) highlights Roma artists from around the world and brings prestige and tourism to the region. As their website describes, the project has two goals:  “[G[lobally, to contribute to the dismantling of prejudices, and locally, to remove the village from extreme poverty – that is, to prove that a Roma village can stand on its own.”

Unfortunately, the project has run out of funding, and there doesn’t seem to be hope of getting more in the near future. Weather and poor building infrastructure has already damaged several of the murals, and many more are at risk of loss. The people of Bodvalenke are proud of their town (as they should be), but they are too disenfranchised and poverty-stricken to fight its decline. Tourism to the Freskófalu Project can be a boon, but without more government funding, the future of the project remains uncertain.

However, the passion and the kindness of the residents is unwavering, and we were welcomed with open arms for a homemade meal and a personalized tour. Our group was frequently followed by local children, who were excited to practice their English and show off the woven crafts they had for sale at a nearby school.

During our tour, Eszter led our group to nearly all of the murals, lovingly describing each detail as though she had painted them herself. The stories are beautiful, and fascinating, and often haunting. Roma culture is very expressive and empathetic, and these elements were reflected in the artwork. I was blown away time and again – not only by the precision and care each artist or group had taken with their mural, but also by the willingness of the residents to allow large groups of strangers to tromp through their yards to view them.

I left Bodvalenke feeling incredibly moved by the Fresco Village. To see such vibrant life and resiliency in the face of discrimination and hardship is powerful, and not an experience I’ll soon forget. Since Eszter’s words are far more eloquent than my own, I will be sharing one of her mural descriptions each month, so that you can all witness this important project and hear the stories for yourselves. As Eszter says, the first step in empowering a community is to return their dignity to them. I hope that by sharing their work and their stories, I might contribute to that movement.

This month’s mural is called “Flying Angels”.

Snapseed (2).jpg

Eszter: The painter János Horváth first thought of this picture at a time when the Roma were flying to Canada and France and all sorts of other countries in the hope that they’d find refuge there, in hope of a better life. [In this mural] everyone is leaving. Even the tree tears its roots. And there are some who [tell] them, “Go away!”. But by the time they get there – you see this returning movement in the picture – they are turned back.

[One] of the questions that this picture tries to [ask] is: Do we have a home? And look at all the faces – they are all distorted. They are distorted, because when you are afraid or when you intimidate others, then you lose everything worth living for. You lose love, and trust, and confidence, and all the good things, and all that remains is envy and suspicion and fear of the other. And that distorts us; both those who fear, and those who make you fear. This picture was painted with the Roma in hand, but I think [it could reference] any refugees.