Remember that interview project I mentioned back in spring 2011? Well, that bounced back with some force upon my return to Hungary.
Wrapping up the project has meant a lot of phone calls and mountains of emails (and yes, Spanish speakers, when I say “a mountain” I am actually thinking “un montón!” Oh, the beauty of cross-language confusion). The project has also offered up the amazing privilege of speaking with impressive and kind women in Budapest. Only this weekend, though, did I finally get the opportunity to venture outside Budapest to talk to women from the Hungarian countryside.
The research trip took a Hungarian friend and me to towns and villages right on the country’s eastern border. The train took about 5 hours from Budapest; after stumbling off the train after the long journey we promptly got lost in the quiet town. My friend pulled out her smart phone to ask for directions, but for some reason it kept directing us to destinations in Romania.
When we found it, the hotel was a bit of a mixed bag. The staff were pretty gruff when we first arrived (probably because it was off season, they weren’t thrilled to be there, and they were saddled with the task of providing us with a meal at 8:45 when the hotel restaurant closed at 9:00). We had to switch hotel rooms twice to get one where the heater worked, and this third choice unfortunately also smelled very strongly of…something. Unpleasant something. We aired out the room quickly enough, though, and the working heater outweighed scent-related woes. At least it was quiet and the beds were comfortable.
The next day we had brunch at an Italian place that seemed like the only major restaurant in town. Counterintuitively enough, their pizzas were delicious.
Also, when we asked the waiter where we might be able to print some documents for our interviews, the “small town charm” came out in abundance: the waiter fetched the owner of the restaurant, who led us back through the kitchen to the main office. He let us open Facebook and print our documents on his computer, then refused any compensation for printing costs.
As we left the restaurant, my friend and I exchanged amazed looks. Then she said, “We really are not in Budapest right now.” (A sidenote: When we went back to the restaurant for dinner that night, we left a very generous tip.)
We got lost finding the bus stop and managed to miss the bus to the village where the interviews would take place. Cue panic. The next step, then, was a walk back to the hotel, where the young woman at the front desk did her best to help us out. The only local taxi company–which we eventually gathered was really just a guy with a car–was booked for the day. Eventually we managed to get a taxi from the next town over to pick us up and drop us at the nearest useful bus stop.
On the bright side, the hotel’s receptionist was young and very friendly. Her English was nearly perfect and she had a university degree but hadn’t yet managed to find a job where she could apply it. With this job she at least made some money: the equivalent of $30 from each 24-hour shift.
Between the taxi and a local bus, we eventually made it to the right village. After that…well, I won’t go into too much detail about the interviews, but I will say they made for a thoroughly interesting though exhausting afternoon. We conducted 5 interviews with 7 women during the space of about 3 hours. They were about the women’s real lives and so didn’t offer much sweetness and light; the majority of the women are impoverished and seriously struggling to make ends meet. They were also mostly kind and open to us despite our obvious outsider status.
At the end of each of the last 3 interviews I tried to signal to my friend–who was translating–to request a break before our next interviewee’s arrival. She was clearly tired, and I was so drained that I was struggling to remember what questions I had and hadn’t asked. In each case, though, the next woman was in the room with us before my friend had squeezed out more than a quick “Elnézést” (“Excuse me”)…so we continued moving forward.
During our last interview of the day, we heard the sound of a woman singing–beautifully, in Hungarian–in the room where the group was meeting. The woman we’d just spoke with was just getting up, and I asked her to pass on our compliments to whoever had been singing. She entered the room, and a moment later the facilitator for the group popped her head out into the hallway where we’d been stationed and invited us in to listen while the same singer performed one more number.
That young woman singing a Hungarian folk song to the circle of women in that unheated room may be the most powerful memory of the trip–and after all those hours of interviews, I didn’t even catch the song on tape.
When the program’s facilitator dropped us off at our hotel a half hour later, my friend and I were both too tired to speak. (She drove us there despite its being out of her way and also refused any payment, even just to cover gas costs…so many incredibly nice people!)
Here are some photos from this weekend’s travels: