A view from ‘Gordon’s Travels: Week 3’ by Colin Darland at the Daily Wildcat.com
In preparing to come to Hungary, I thought I was putting forth a lot of effort. Once I arrived, I was able to get my bank account set up, find a flat and get a telephone pretty easily, but I soon found out that the actual moving to Hungary was not the hard part. The hardest part has been the school part of it. I had to work around limited hours of administrative operation and follow special procedures. What makes it so difficult is the fact that I do not speak Hungarian, but most of the students at BME speak English, which is good for me, because the challenges are mostly school related. There is a European nonprofit organization here called the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), which also operates at my university, Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME). The entire ESNBME structure consists of students who volunteer their time to helping exchange and Erasmus students. Erasmus students are students from European Union countries who are studying abroad in other countries, while other non-European study abroad students are referred to as exchange students. The exchange students are handled by the Erasmus office, and are able to enjoy the same benefits as the actual Erasmus students. Although I had already gotten most of my stuff taken care of prior to coming here, the ESN mentors have helped me in social aspects, everyday life, and getting used to BME’s online student interface, Neptun, through which we register for our classes and schedule exams.
Just to set some facts for understanding, ESN was founded in 1989 in Belgium and The Netherlands. ESN reached Budapest in the year 2000, and now has 12,000 volunteer members, with 358 school offices, operating in 34 European countries, and serves around 150,000 study abroad students annually. ESN BME, has 62 people working for them, 34 of whom are mentors that personally help the study abroad students, and 6 of whom are on the administrative board. The rest of the 22 members are in special workgroups, such as fund raising, and other sections that are vital to the functioning of the organization. ESN is a useful organization for study abroad students to be part of, because they help us build larger social networks than if we knew only the people in our classes.
This blog has given a unique opportunity to express my opinion of what is going on around me, which I think is a rare in journalism. Since I am doing journalism while I am here, even the act of journalism itself is worth talking about. My presence and my photographic behavior have been mostly welcomed at every social event I have attended and people have expressed to me that they are happy I am here to provide lasting memories of their study abroad experience. Many nights here are nights that people will be never to remember.
ESN social events have introduced me to all but about five of the people that I know here. I feel like ESN is an invaluable social resource. When asked about the challenges that ESN mentors have helped him to overcome, John Romano, a junior in electrical engineering from the University of New Hampshire in the United States, expressed that “… [the ESN mentors] were very helpful in getting acquainted with the city and learning Hungarian culture. ESN has also given me many friends from other countries that I would not otherwise have made, which makes my experience in Budapest far more fulfilling.” The social events give the exchange and Erasmus students the opportunity to meet each other and have interactions outside of the classroom. I missed one of the first events, which was Pub Crawl. Eva Posta, a mentor in training, had actually been to Pub Crawl, and described the event as consisting of five pubs in which they had reserved spaces for the groups of students to participate in organized events. The student participants were divided into four groups and went from pub to pub for different games and activities with their respective mentors as their leader. According to Posta, everybody learned how to say the Hungarian drinking salutation ‘Egeszsegedre’, which can be roughly translated to English as “to your health”. As soon as I went to my first ESN event, City Rally, on Friday, February 4th, I started to make new acquaintances. During City Rally, we walked and took public transportation for about 7 hours through Budapest. We were guided by two ESN volunteers, Judit Szotlar, and Eva Posta, who taught us a lot of interesting facts about Hungarian history. Posta and Szotlar also taught us a Hungarian Sun song called Suss Fel Nap. Due to the dark, cold, and cloudy weather that day the song was quite appropriate. Another interesting thing about the ESN mentors is that many of them are engineering majors. Since I myself am an engineering student, I can say that we generally do not have outstanding social skills. It is hard to have a social life when we are always busy with school work. Eniko Chovanyecz, the president of ESN BME has bachelors degree in civil engineering, and is in the first year of her master’s program for structural engineering. Chovanyecz sees her involvement with ESN as an opportunity to get involved with the community and to build social skills. The way she sees her situation is that, “Engineering is about calculations and math and it is very scientific. ESN is more about people and society. Combining those two makes a person feel more whole”. She wants to do something for the community, because “Human beings need other human beings”. She says, which I can agree with that “… it makes her feel more complete”. I had gotten similar feedback from other mentors and organizers in ESN, but I think that Chovanyecz made the best comparison between engineering and socialization.
The most talked about event during my interviews was the International Dinner, which takes place every semester as a way for students to share their culture’s traditional food and beverages with one another. This semester, there were about 15 nations represented, with about 25 to 30 different food dishes and approximately 10 different types of alcohol. Adrian Fernandez, a mechanical engineering senior from Chihuahua, Mexico, described the evening of the International Dinner as one, “… where everyone could just experience other cultures, tastes, [and] alcohol and just have the intercultural experience I was hoping to be in”. It was great to see the colors and smell the different aromas that were there. There were breakfast foods, like pancakes and Spanish omelets, and appetizers such as the Finnish Karelian pies, which were made of rice porridge, with a rye flour shell. There were main dishes like Hungarian soup, Mexican chile rellenos, Korean fried rice, and Estonian meatballs. The deserts included pastries like cheesecakes, cookies, homemade Romanian chocolate and even an American apple pie. The Hungarian table definitely had the best deserts. There were about eight different types of deserts on the Hungarian table, half of which appeared to be home made due to their imperfections which you don’t usually find in professionally baked goods. The Spanish prepared red wine mixed with cola, the Finnish had a thick licorice flavored liqueur, and of course the Mexicans had Jose Cuervo Tequila. The Romanians and the Hungarians both brought homemade palinka, a popular European liquor that is commonly made out of plums. It is hard to determine the concentration of homemade liquor, but the Hungarians’ store bought 70% palinka was likely the strongest of all, simply based off the distance from which I could smell the fumes. I barely moistened my lips with the 70% palinka, and it burned my entire mouth like fire. After the International Dinner, part of the group relocated to an Erasmus party at Club 49 in Budapest. The basis of the party was to come dressed in the colors of your nation’s flag as a way to represent your culture. The evening was overall fun and the Flag Party really brought the wild side out of the people who are generally very reserved. I gave a cigarette to a girl who does not even smoke, and she didn’t remember when I asked her about it the next day. Aside from the fun of socializing, the mentors can also be a resource for everyday help.
I even took for granted everyday things at home, like knowing what I am looking at in the grocery store. When I go to the grocery store in Tucson, I don’t always know exactly what everything is, but at least I can read the ingredients, and get some sort of idea what it is. This last week, I tried to find cornbread mix for the International Dinner, but I simply could not find it. Finally, I gave up on the cornbread Idea, and just got popcorn, Corn Nuts and Jack Daniels Whiskey. I am not the only foreigner here who has had this problem. Laszlo Deak, the I.T. coordinator for ESN, with a bachelor in software engineering, and first year masters student in information technology, described a similar situation where “… an American girl was here a year ago, and she wanted to buy [a turkey] for Thanksgiving. She couldn’t find one at the market, so she called and asked me. I didn’t know, so I called my grandmother and my mother and they told me that you go to the market and ask a vendor for one and they will bring it the next day for you.” He continued by saying, “If a student is in ESN, they can get advice for their everyday life, like where to find a doctor, transportation issues, shopping for food, and tourism”. I had asked some of the mentors about cornbread mix, but the only advice I could get was to make it from scratch, but I am just kind of spoiled by Betty Crocket baking mixes. I don’t know what most of the Hungarian food is, so I find myself buying stuff because it looks or smells good. My daily habits here are very much affected by the resources that are available, but the biggest everyday challenge that I encounter is school.
At orientation day I, discovered that there were quite a few tasks to complete in order to get my classes all lined up. Neptun is the student interface system that we use at BME and is analogous to UAccess. Although there is an English version, Neptun still has equally complicated usability as UAccess. Due to having not previously taken classes at BME, I was not able to register for any of my classes until the third day of the spring session. After contacting my professors, I found out that, contrary to my assumption, they did not think it was a big deal. Another student that I met here, John Romano, the student from New Hampshire, was actually in a similar situation with his academics. I think there were five of them from New Hampshire, and they had just arrived to Budapest literally hours before I first met them on the evening of orientation day. He and the colleagues with whom he traveled felt very in-the-dark upon their arrival and had to figure out how to register for classes by themselves. This was all on top of finding housing, and getting orientated with the city and school within just a few days. I am constantly reminded of how petty the challenges in my life really are that I normally call ‘problems’. I have completed my first two weeks of school with mo problems. As of February 21st, I began my third week, and things are going very well. Although I would probably have gotten everything sorted out on my own eventually, I am sure that it was ESN who helped me avoid a load of trial and error that would have slowed me down in the acclimation process of coming to Budapest.