Hungry in Hungary

MP900424322“Oh, you’re just kidding! I don’t believe it.” My roommate said peering over her glasses in classic librarian fashion as she dangled her feet off the top bunk.  “There can’t be homeless people in America, Kelsey.  How is that even possible?”

Several evenings a week my five Hungarian roomies and I would sit on our bunks, comparing life in the States and life in Hungary (no, the capital isn’t “Thirsty” and people there aren’t “hungry.”  But if you do ever find yourself feeling hungry in Hungary, you have got to try a bowl of goulash).

Hungry Americans was a novel concept for my roommates.  The fact I not only had the word “homeless” in my vernacular, but I’d seen and even been on a first-name basis with homeless individuals was contrary to everything they’d believed to be true about my homeland.  My roommates, though, were not the only ones working through misconceptions that summer.  In addition to my toothbrush and a pile of extra socks, I’d packed my fair share of stereotypes, too.

Hungry for Adventure:

I was hungry for a globetrotting summer adventure in Hungary.  But prior to jumping on a jet and spending three and a half months living in Europe where I didn’t know a single person, I’d never even met a Hungarian.  And I wouldn’t have been able to identify spoken Hungarian if my life had depended on it.  So it’s amazing the level of preconceived ideas I had regardless of my complete lack of exposure to their culture.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the way Hungarians dressed.  I’d always pictured Europeans sporting black and brown, thick cable-knit sweaters, leather jackets, and flower-print dresses—no psychedelic colors, look-at-me trademarks or wild runway-style prints, instead the timeless classics would reign supreme. 

But on trips to the local malls and shopping centers as I watched a parade of hairstyles, fantastically untamed patterns, and expensive brand names passed me by in a whiz of color, I was the one left feeling like the washed-out person on a Tide commercial who’d used the wrong detergent.  To my surprised, Hungarians, at least the ones I met that summer, wore bright colors and eye-potting prints.  And lots of them.  

The Color of My Passport:

Between our regular tell-me-about-your-country pajama parties and living in such tight quarters, my five roommates and I stumbled upon a lot of cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings.  Unfortunately, not all of the labels we encountered were as comical and harmless as the color pallet of most Hungarians’ closets and whether the American population included anyone who was down on their luck.  In fact, thanks to misconceptions, it’s amazing our friendships ever got off the ground.

Prior to my time in Hungary, I’d never experienced stereotypes because of the color of my passport. 

Unfortunately, thanks primarily to Hollywood and individuals like Paris Hilton several of my roommates already thought they knew what America girls were like before we had even been properly introduced.  American girls, according to a few of my roommates, were spoiled, lazy, loud, sheltered, and slutty.  Not exactly how I wanted people assuming I’d act right off the bat.

I found it frustrating having everything I said and did, who I was colored by the stereotypes of what “American girls” were like.  And their stereotypes were extremely hard to break through. 

In a way I had it easier than my roommates, though, because I was confronted with so many different people who didn’t look or act anything like what I’d expected Hungarians to all be like that it was easier for me to realize how off-base my assumptions had been.  My roommates, on the other hand, only had me—their lone American ambassador—and they didn’t get the chance to experience my culture firsthand the way I was experiencing theirs.  All they had were some postcards I’d brought from home and movies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” neither of which particularly challenge stereotypes. 

If I’d only met one Hungarian in Washington State, even if they’d been nothing like what I’d pictured a Hungarian being like, I might have assumed they were just an exception.  And I think at first that’s exactly what a few of my roommates did—they assumed I was just different and not that their stereotypes had been wrong.    

Breaking down those stereotypes didn’t happen overnight. It took time before the roomies’ wrong assumptions began to flake off, so they could finally see me.

 Maybe We Were Both Wrong:

“You know,” one of my roommates said several months into my trip as the two of us settled into a pair of overstuffed chairs, “We’re actually not that different.” 

Through several months of seeing each other on a daily, almost painful basis we discovered, to our surprise, we actually had a lot in common.  We rode public transportation, loved rooms lined with books, had experienced our share of boy drama, and had some embarrassing extended family members.  More importantly, though, thank god we had enough humility to realize we’d been wrong; we’d started off with absolutely no real knowledge about each other’s culture or life but with plenty of assumptions.

Thanks to my roommates willingness to listen, patience on everyone’s part, and several jars of peanut butter my mom snail-mailed my way (I introduced my roomies to good ol’ fashioned PB and J’s), my roommates and I became a very tight-knit group that summer.  We realized despite our passport colors and which speck on this space-rock we called home, we weren’t all that different after all—just a bunch of broke college students trying to figure life out and hungry for a bit of adventure along the way. 

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