Pork and Paprika: A Hungarian Disznotór

It’s just past 6:00 am, and I am standing in a stranger’s kitchen, peeling potatoes. Outside, the roar of a gas-fired flame torch fills the air as four men begin roasting the largest pig I have ever seen. I send up a silent prayer: Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

Thus began my first disznotór, or pig-killing. Usually taking place during the colder winter months, Hungarian pig-killings are full-day, ritualized, family affairs, beginning in the early hours of the morning with the slaughter of a pig. I had been invited by a friend of a friend to join their family for the day’s events, and I didn’t know what to expect. I had never seen a slaughter before, and while I was worried it might be uncomfortable to witness, I wanted to make sure to get the full experience. When I arrived at their home, however, even earlier than I had been advised to come, I was surprised (and, admittedly, somewhat relieved) to find the pig had already been killed, and was now in the process of being roasted to remove the hairs. The darkness and the early hour made everything feel almost illicit, like we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be.

My host, an exuberant and incredibly friendly woman named Ági, quickly pulled me into the shed/kitchen where the meat would be prepared later in the day. A cup of strong, hot coffee helped wake me up enough to chat with her in my broken Hungarian, and she put me to work beside her, prepping for breakfast. It is tradition for the blood of the pig to be roasted with fresh potatoes and onions for breakfast, a flavorful dish called hagymás sült vér. We also set out thickly-buttered slices of bread and homemade apricot jam, which disappeared quickly as the men rotated in and out of the room to get respite from the cold. When the pig had been completely roasted, and the hair scraped away, I was called outside to pose with the men and their prize. It was only a picture, but that simple gesture of acceptance and inclusion warmed me more than the brandy they passed around afterwards (also a tradition).

The finished product!

The next hours flew by in a blur. More family members arrived, and the kitchen filled with chatter and movement as the pig was separated into thick slices of fat for bacon, meat to be ground into kolbász (sausage), and even the organs, which would be ground and made into a special sausage called hurka. (The zoologist in me felt right at home in the midst of the dissection.) Most of the morning was spent grinding the meat for the kolbász, which soon covered the large wooden table. After seasoning the meat with garlic, salt, pepper, and piles upon piles of sweet and spicy paprika, one of the men handed me a plastic poncho and gestured for me to help them mix it all together. Usually, the women do not help with this part of the process, so it was a special honor that I was invited to participate.

(Ági took a video of this moment, and when I watched it later, I was struck by how at ease I looked. Laughing, responding to the a question in Hungarian, stained up to my elbows with orange, I look so comfortable and relaxed. You wouldn’t think I had just met those people that morning – I fit right in.)

The finished meat was then squeezed into sheep intestines and either smoked or fried. I got to help with this process a bit too! At the end, we fried up a small portion of the kolbász right then and there. Knowing that I had helped, just a little, to make the traditional Hungarian food I was eating made it even more delicious.

Just some of the 100+ kolbász made that day!

When the day had begun, I had been apprehensive, and shy, and completely out of my element. By the time I left, late in the afternoon, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to old friends, all of whom had guided me through one of their most treasured cultural traditions with patience, smiles, and hospitality.

In the end, my most important experience from the pig-killing was not the slaughter, or the meat. It was the cultural exchange, and the fellowship, and the early morning cry of, “Michelle! You came!

Ági’s husband Zoltân teaches me how to make kolbász.


The fried blood breakfast.
Ági smiles for the camera!

Dec/Jan Mural of the Month (Double Feature)

I realized that I forgot to make a Mural of the Month post for December, so here are two stories to make up for it! If you didn’t know, 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.

The Birds

“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.

Indian Blessing

“[This mural] really comes to life when the sun is shining and illuminates it. [It] was painted by a half-Polish, half-Ukranian Roma lady who spent most of her life in India. And she painted all the symbols of blessing, happiness, richness, whatever that should bring good fortune to the village on this wall. And when the sun shines you see that all these brownish things are really gold, and then it glitters in the sun and it’s very beautiful. Unfortunately the blessings have not yet materialized. Her (the artist’s) most recent exhibition was opened by the vice president of India in New Delhi.”



My First Magyar Christmas

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how I spent the holiday season here in Hungary, so I thought I’d make a post to update you all! If you read my newsletter (yep, this is a test), then you’ll know I spent most of December attending my students Christmas pageants, rushing through the last weeks of the semester, and going to morning Advent worship services at my local church. Going into the holiday season, I missed home more than I ever have. Like many of my fellow YAGMS, it hit me pretty hard that I wouldn’t be spending those special days with my family. So many people kept reminding me of how important it was so be around those you care about during this time of year. It made my heart ache.

Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending: my host community of Szarvas showed up for me in a big way. The weekend before Christmas and the holiday itself, I was invited to many homes to eat, laugh, and spend time with different families! Sitting in warm rooms filled with once-strangers, all laughing at some joke or reaching for some delicious fresh pogácsa (Hungarian biscuits), I felt hospitality in a way I have honestly never felt before. I finally understood why the YAGM program asks volunteers to stay in their placements over the holidays – words can’t adequately express how important that surprisingly powerful, welcoming grace was for me. I did spend the holidays with people I cared about, and who cared about me – more than I realized. Even after Christmas, I spent the winter break getting coffee with students, being invited for lunch, or setting off fireworks with friends for New Years Eve! I felt more a part of this community than ever, and I cannot express how grateful I am for that.

To close, I will share two short stories of tradition:

At home in America, at the Christmas Eve service, everyone holds a small candle and we turn off all the church lights while the congregation sings “Silent Night”. It’s a beautiful and special moment, and I was disappointed to be missing it this year. To my surprise, the church I attended here on Christmas Eve had the same tradition! When it came time to sing, though, I was dismayed to see no candle near me or any of my neighbors. I slumped back in my seat, resigned to watching the tradition as an outsider. A few moments later, though, several people down the row made a point of passing me a candle, and making sure I was able to light it. My eyes filled with tears – I was still participating in the same tradition, but with a community on the other side of the world, who made sure I could be just as much a part of it as they were.

None of this is to say I forgot about my family back in the US. Another tradition is my dad reading “The Night Before Christmas” to my brother and I (and, usually, our nosy dog) by the fireplace before we go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Here, when I got home that night, my dad FaceTimed me from the fireplace. It was only about noon there – not exactly the late-night reading my dad was accustomed to. But my dad propped up the phone, settled back onto the brick, and read me the book, pictures and all. We were both in tears by the end of it, but knowing my family was thinking about me and still making such an effort to include me in their holidays made me feel so loved.

I am truly, truly blessed with amazing relationships all over the world. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and I wish you an amazing 2018!

Angyali Reggelek (Angelic Mornings)

A little background: Every weekday morning during Advent, my local church offers 7 am candlelit “Angelic Mornings” service, which features a member of the community sharing their Advent stories and reflections. I was blessed to be invited to share my own reflection this week, which I have copied below. It was such a special experience to speak in front of my host community and realize how many friendly faces I recognized in the audience, and how many connections I have been able to make here! Anyway, I thought you might enjoy reading my short talk:

This year will be my first Christmas away from home, and away from the family traditions I’m used to. The season of Advent is always busy for my family and me: we go pick out a huge Christmas tree, go shopping for presents for one another, and decorate the whole house from top to bottom.

If I think about those traditions too much, or talk about home too much, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m missing out on something. Like my real life is happening somewhere else, somewhere very far away, and I’m just not a part of it right now. Homesickness has a funny way of making you feel like you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when I sat down to reflect on the meaning of Advent, I kept coming back to the concept of being awake. Advent, at its core, is about waiting, and to truly wait, you have to be awake. If you’re asleep, or distracted, time passes, but you don’t notice, and you might miss what you’ve been waiting for. I read a devotional a few weeks ago that spoke of this need to be awake by saying, “you have to be ruthlessly present.” Being present like that can be difficult when you’re not always sure you are where you’re supposed to be.

My challenge to myself this Advent has been to stay present in the moment. To stay present in my life, in Hungary, in Szarvas, in these early morning services. I have many years to experience American Advent, and American Christmas, but I might not have many chances to see Hungarian Advent, and Hungarian Christmas. I think that Hungarians treat the season of Advent with far more reverence than my American church does, and it’s a tradition I hope to share. I’m trying to use this season of waiting to wake up to the life I am living, and the meaningful relationships I have been able to build. I’m looking for the face of God in all of you, and in myself. I’m learning that my definition of family can grow and change, especially when I’m finding my place in a new community. And I know that God waits with us. God waits while the world struggles to be present, and fights to stay awake.

When Christmas comes, and this season of waiting finally ends, this effort to stay present does not. Jesus is a gift that is worth waiting for. His arrival, and the constant reminder of God’s grace and unending love, just makes the world far too wonderful to fall back asleep.

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.