Being at a loss for words
I am getting accustomed to the panicked look in the eyes of shop attendants and cashiers. The greeting part usually goes well (Jó napot!), but if they deviate from the typical script in the least, I am a deer in headlights while I try to parse the sounds they’ve spoken without appearing like a complete dolt. I succeed at neither.
A 40-something woman with a cart full of groceries should not be at a loss for words when asked if the ciabatta is plain or with olives, if she wants a bag, how many zsömle are in the bag, or — a real tricky one — if she has a Penny / Tesco / Lidl points card.
I smile and opt for either Nem? or Nem tudom, or when it’s really bad, my version of crying uncle: Nem beszélek magyarul. On more than one occasion, this has led to my interlocutor giving up on me entirely.
Sometimes, as I’m frantically trying to piece together sounds into meaning, my brain switches into French as if the command “speak another language” can deliver only French words. I start to speak, hear the word as I’m uttering it, and stop. And at that point, I am truly at a loss, as mouth, brain and context no longer jive. Other times, I just keep saying köszönöm, igen, köszönöm while nodding and smiling and gesturing.
Today, I was cheered on (albeit rather stony-faced and stoically) by the woman at the chicken counter in the húsbolt and by both the asszonyok at the savanyúságbolt in the market. The chicken lady, as I think of her, exhibits extreme patience as I formulate my sentence, starting carefully with legyen kedves or kérek szépen and proceed to indicate with my fingers how many of what I am requesting: egy kilót csirke maj or as occurred today, negy darab csirke mell. She held up a full chicken breast (two sides) and asked if I wanted four of those. I raised my two fingers in submission and said, ketö. She nodded demurely, as if in acknowledgement that four pairs of chicken breasts was far outside the realm of reason, granting me the benefit of the doubt that, despite my lacking communication skills, I was a reasonable woman. A charitable concession, I’m sure.
At another store in another town, there is the savanyúnö at the pékség. (I just made that up. I have no idea if it’s a word, but sour woman, the direct translation, is what I’ve named her.) The look that crosses her face when I politely and painfully request tiz zsömle és harom perec és egy kakaós csiga, kérek szépen brings to mind squishing a moldy raspberry between tongue and palate. On my last visit to that pékség, she visibly sighed as I started speaking and looked at me as if to say “You again? NOW what do you want?” Since then, I’ve been avoiding that store, though they have better rolls and pretzels than the other bakeries. Perhaps next time I should slip into French and leave her truly frustrated.
I’ve been quiet — not posting — lately, and my quest to learn Hungarian is a small part of the reason.
The mundane stuff of life has a way of filling up all available time. Pushing back to carve out time for these other activities, which feel like luxuries, takes effort. Husband and I had been diligently going to a gym most mornings in an attempt to return to some good habits, but this ate up most of our mornings, so we’ll be doing our workouts at home, saving us some time and money.
Another obstacle was that I decided to submit the last piece I wrote to a personal essay contest instead of posting it. This is something I want to do more of. Maybe.
Why does it feel more legitimate to write for publication elsewhere, rather than here?
I’m interested in ways I can do the things I enjoy doing and still earn a living. It’s a tough one, that. Who will pay me to sit outside thinking my thoughts quietly to myself while listening to the birds, watching the sky, and appreciating my surroundings, occasionally taking photos or jotting down a word or three?
Plus, I do have paid work that consumes most afternoons and early evenings. By the time that’s done, I’m drained and my brain is tired. It doesn’t matter how much inspiration I had earlier, by this time of the evening (it was 10 p.m. when I wrote this though it is now several days later), I’m faded and droopy like the outside leaves of a week-old head of iceberg lettuce.
Plus, there are the animals: The two dogs have to be outside because they are rambunctious jerks in the house but then they bark their heads off the entire time they’re in the yard. And the two cats aren’t any better — the young one chases the old, pouncing from behind corners at her, and then the old cat growls and takes off, fur flying, followed in short order by the dogs, if they’re in the house. It’s a zoo. For the moment, the animals are all sleeping and likeable, and the house is quiet.
Then there’s the garden that I’ve barely started but already can’t keep up with, the impending renovation chaos, and the myriad drudgery tasks.
I’ve been taking pictures, which is a nice return to one of the things I used to do, and I derive a lot of pleasure from that. But, it’s also an evasion of sorts. The problem is that it doesn’t get me any farther with the writing I want to be doing and the business I need to be building.
I’ve noticed in my language studies and struggles that some words refuse to stick in my brain and others are firmly planted. I think the difference is due to an alchemy of repetition and focus and context. Watering what you want to encourage, weeding out what you don’t. This is just my little observation from first-hand experience — I’m not trying to ruffle the feathers in the adult education crowd, simply observing what seems to work for me (and perhaps making excuses for my slow progress).
Every day, I see the benefits of repetition, focus and context. Why does börtönben van stick in my head when far more necessary words (ask, give, take, etc.) refuse to step out from the shadows of sound? (Because I learned börtönben van through a story that we repeated a gazillion times and then started using it regularly at home to refer to the dog crates.)
The feeling that I am stalling out is a tacit admission that I haven’t been putting in the work as I should.
I’ve gushed over Jordan B. Peterson before, but he explains it so well: Word / speech has a divine power because it literally calls things into being. It’s a power to fear and to adore.
Being unable to speak, to name, to identify and express things, is to lead a restricted, atrophied existence. I feel, at times, less of a person, or at least less capable as a person. I negotiate my way with the help of gestures and take the kinds of shortcuts that allow me to avoid interpersonal interaction, conversation. I rely on signs and packaging, use tap-to-pay, and avoid places (like the market) where there is no alternative to speaking if you want to buy something. I feel somewhat isolated and distant, as if in a perpetual fog, much of the time. I’m sure others can see it on me immediately that I’m not from here; I look strange to them. Some cashiers address me in German from the very first word. (This doesn’t help the communication; I don’t know German.) I am out of place, and it shows in the very structure of my face.
I have taken to thinking of myself as the horse-faced woman, a phrase I plan to use in the title of a novel, if I ever start writing it. The horse-faced woman in the window stands at the sink washing dishes. I observe her from without and from within. She is framed under a layer of grimy cob-webbed glass, a hazy etched-over representation of a person. You see, I have already started writing it in my head. I’m just not sure what happens next.
Being out of place entails a certain amount of discomfort, and perhaps an equal measure of freedom. I tune out most all chatter and conversation and PA announcements. I don’t even hear them anymore — their messages don’t enter my consciousness — and I amble along, scrutinizing the packaged sliced ham, selecting zsömle and pastries, comparing potato prices, as if in a bubble. If anyone addresses me, I’m slow to react, and startled that anyone other than my husband or daughter would address me. I am a blank reply.
And so, learning to speak this language, to interact with people around me, is also about being willing to step out from invisibility, to step into being, through speech.
My vocabulary has improved greatly. I now know a lot of words: many, many, many more than I did six months ago. I can more easily follow conversations, and while I’m listening, little bits and pieces of the world appear before me. I recognize words and phrases, sometimes effortlessly. But it’s not enough to start building my own vision, to create my future reality, to bring my future self into being. I struggle with a mouthful of syllables like a lump of modelling clay or uncooked dough, struggle to piece together the order, the prefixes and suffixes, stumble and pause and draw a blank as I try to remember the word, as I grasp onto one letter and make shapes with my mouth searching for the next right sound.
What happens next? What will become now?
“Oh!” I exclaim and point overhead at the dark shape gliding silently past. I try to tell the others what I just saw.
“Az a bogrács! Nem, nem, uh … az nem a bogár, az a … uh …“whoooo whoooo”?”
“Igen, igen! Az a bagoyl!”
But of course, by then, it’s gone, slipped away into the dark canopy and layers of shadow.