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January 24, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: Feeling better about being away from home

By Grace Heneghan
Cooperstown Crier

---- — I have been in Hungary for a little more than five months, boy where does the time go? My life has gotten exponentially better since I last wrote, and I think this is due to the fact I changed host families.

I now live in the 16th district in Pest. Both of my host parents work and I have an older host brother. All of them are so kind and patient with me, I feel as if they genuinely want me in their home. Since I didn’t get along with my last family, I was eager to build a strong relationship with my new one. This made me nervous, I didn’t want to go back to feeling unwanted or like I was intruding on some else’s home.

But on my first day my new host mom hugged me and said, “I know how lonely it can get around the holidays and I want you to know you are our daughter now. You don’t have to feel alone anymore.”

I was speechless, and after that I felt the most at home than I ever had in Hungary. I will admit that I misjudged the Hungarian family dynamic, but now I see only love and kindness. Sadly I had to change schools (to Kölcsey Ferenc Gimnázium) along with my family; however this transition was not as difficult as I was anticipating. I remember my first day of school at Veres Peter feeling very self-conscious and stressed. Questions like “Am I going to make friends? What if I don’t understand anything? What is everyone thinking of me?” and so on. This time, I felt so calm it even surprised me. I just didn’t feel worried at all, I guess in my mind I knew that I would make friends, understand something and had already experienced being the topic of gossip.

I found that having a clear mind really helped me make friends faster. I am starting to hangout with my classmates and finding the ones that I truly click with. The atmospheres of the two schools are very different from each other. I can’t really explain it; both are positive and negative in their own ways. My life has shifted into a different version of Hungarian everyday living, and it felt very natural. I still spend time with my old friends, who I adore. All in all, I feel happy and content. My curiosity and enthusiasm to learn has rekindled and I feel at home. I’m not quite Hungarian yet, but I’m getting there.

Throughout this exchange I realized how important friendship is. I’m not sure if I mentioned this in an earlier article or not, but I’m going to talk about it again. Hungarian friendships are a very strong bond and are hardly ever broken. Hungarians tend to be suspicious of over friendliness when first acquainted. We Americans tend to do this to get to know each other and its expected. A Hungarian friend of mine explained to me that American friendships are perceived as fake, whether this is because of the media or stereotypes it doesn’t matter. This perception made me feel disappointed and a little defensive of my culture.

I understood her point of view and agreed with it in some part, but I wanted to explain her that not all relationships are like that. Now she is one of my closest friends. I hear some of the other exchange students in Hungary talking about how they can’t make any local friends or some only stick to other exchange students, and this makes me sad. I remember what it was like not to have any friends at all, and how much better life got when I made them. You have people to talk to (or try to) during school, people to go out with, and learn from. I know all situations are different, but my advice to future exchange students is to be fearless. It’s wonderful to be close with other exchange students, although you don’t fully experience your host culture. I am lucky, I was able to balance my exchange student life and my Hungarian life, it took some time but I did it. I guess my thought process is, if I can make friends in Hungary I can make friends anywhere.

During classes in school I read and study Hungarian. I still get bored during lectures; I guess that will never really change. I am making friends and getting to know the school more each day. Needless to say school is all right. I have to take public transpiration there and back, which I’ve grown used to. My school is actually in the city, so I really enjoy the journey getting there. I go to school with my host brother, who is a year older than I am and is part of a different class. I like this arrangement much better than having a host sibling in the same class, I feel less self-conscious of my actions.

My new home being in the city and on the Pest side is really exciting for me. I get to explore the city more and find new places. The other day after school and before a lesson, I was in search of a good café. I was able to find one above a local book store with the best coffee I have ever had. I am most definitely a city person, I think that will be one of the hardest things for me to adjust to when back home. I also have a later curfew, which gives me time to discover Budapest.

My holidays where low key, I spent my New Years watching Harry Potter movies. Nothing really happened. 

I’m just going to take a moment and praise my city. Budapest is truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. It’s filled with culture, nightlife, activities and breathtaking sceneries. The public transportation is easy and everything is fairly cheap. The Danube, the river that cuts the city into Buda and Pest, is stunning. People are friendly and the pastries are delicious. The best part is that it’s not overrun by tourists, it is a hidden gem in Eastern Europe. I am far past the “Honeymoon Phase” on my exchange, but I can’t help but feel giddy knowing that I live here. Hungarians have a rather negative view on their country and how it is seen by other countries, but I try to reassure my acquaintances that Hungary is sincerely a nice place. So if you don’t know where to go for your next vacation, try Budapest.

My language skills are still slow, though I understand more. Less people in my new class can speak English, so it gives me the chance to use my Hungarian. I found myself being able to respond better when talking. I was having a conversation with a bunch of girls from my class and I could answer without translating in my head. I just knew what they where saying and how I wanted to reply. This started happening to me a few weeks ago and was a major breakthrough for me. It does depress me a little thinking that other exchange students in different countries are already fluent in their host language, but I there is no other place I’d rather be than in Hungary.

I feel so different. I have changed tremendously this year. My time here in this wonderful country is running out. This experience is life changing; Rotary told us this going in, but its one thing to be told something and another to experience it. Now that the worst it over (Holidays, culture shock, and being lonely) I believe this year has no where but to go up.

Grace Heneghan is a Cooperstown Rotary exchange student who traveled to Hungry. To read more about her adventures, visit her blog at