I’m Sorry, I Don’t Speak My Own Language

Sometimes Hungarian words are easy. I bet this sign says "auto bus". (click to see larger)Right out of the starting gate, my life is different.  I knew the differences would appear, but I didn’t think I’d start seeing them so quickly.  I was naive.

Békéscsaba, where I lived last year, is a town of about 65,000 people.  Budapest, where I live this year, is a city of about 2 million people.  Of the 65 thousand, I think about 9 spoke English.  So far the ratio seems to be much larger in Budapest.  Unfortunately, I haven’t met all 2 million yet, so I can’t give an accurate count.  I’ll try to have that for you by next weekend.

Here’s where today’s difference arises.  In Békéscsaba, people would be baffled when I would walk into their business and not speak Hungarian.  I’m pretty sure they wondered how I found my way to that distant conrner of the country without the use of the language.  Being fairly small, and me looking very out of place, it wasn’t long before most people knew who I was.  That led to most of my interactions being conducted in a mix of Hungarian, English, and ridiculous party-game-like forms of sing language. 

Not only can this guy make obscenely large bubbles, but I bet even he can speak English. (click to see larger)It was usually pretty successful.  Haircuts were worrisome, buying medicine was dangerous, eating at restaurants was a mystery, and everything else was exciting.  If I couldn’t find something that I needed, I went home without it.  Can’t locate the toothpaste?  Too bad.  Go home and chew some gum.

Life in Budapest is a little different.  My average interaction seems to go like this:  I walk into a place, I greet the employee in Hungarian while he or she simultaneously greets me in English, there’s a few second pause where neither one of us are sure what to do, then we awkwardly conduct our business in a confused mixture of the languages.  The confused mixture is me trying to speak Hungarian while they successfully speak English.  How is that fair?

One of my strategies is to just point to the menu and see what I get. If I hate it, I remember what it is. (click to see larger)I’ll never learn Hungarian like this.  Why isn’t there some magical place in this country where only some people speak some English?  Without a place like that, I need a plan.

The way I see it, I have two choices.  First, I could figure out a way to convince them that I don’t speak English, and Hungarian is our only common language.  This will be challenging without knowing some rare African dialect, but possible.  The other option, of course, is to learn more Hungarian.  That seems to be the much more practical (and difficult) method.

I suppose there’s also a third option.  I could surround myself by Hungarians who only speak their native language, and spend all of my time with them.  Then, when we go to stores or restaurants, the workers won’t assume I can’t speak Hungarian, they’ll just think I’m mentally handicapped.  I don’t know, though, not only does this plan sounds like it sucks, but it sounds remarkably similar to my entire year in Békéscsaba.  Getting discounts for being disabled doesn’t make up for never knowing what’s going on.

This strange sculpture thing on the side of a building makes about as much sense to me as the Hungarian language. (click to see larger)I’ll figure something out.  Once I do, I’ll explain it in Hungarian.  That way the Hungarian waiter from the coffee house I went to today will be able to read it.  Obviously, he’ll leave a comment in English.


Hungarian word of the day:


Pronounced Beh-sail, this means “speak”.  You know, what I can’t do in Hungarian.