Saturday, March 16, 2013

On Making One’s Self Understood

 I hope, dear reader, that having read one or two of my posts, you feel assured that I am an intelligent adult.  I hope so, dear reader, because this might make up for what the bakery lady surely thinks of me.  Imagine our encounters from her point of view.  I walk in, with one or two children, clearly an adult, past his twenties even, with grown-up responsibilities.  Then I open my mouth. 

Bakery Lady: I wish you a good day!  What may I do for you?
Me (pointing to one of twenty-five different loaves): Good Day!  I would like that brown one please.
Bakery Lady: You refer to the 400 gram Rye Baguette?
Me: Yes.
Bakery Lady: [at this point I did not understand everything she was saying, but it involved, I think, a sale on miniature brown breads.  That sounds reasonable, no?]
Me: Well, thanks but no thanks.
Bakery Lady: Very well.  That will be 470 forints please.
Me, to myself, like in a Shakespeare play: How did my 340 forint bread become 470 forints?  Is there some sort of sales tax I had previously not noticed?
Bakery Lady: Excuse me!  Don’t walk off without this other piece of bread you bought!
Me, to myself again: What other piece of bread I bought?  I only wanted the brown one!
Me, to Bakery Lady: Thank you!

As you can see, dear reader, there were some glitches in our conversation.  I do not think that the bakery lady took advantage of my poor Hungarian to sell me an extra 130 forints of bread, which consisted by the way of a gigantic chunk of white bread for the equivalent of 60 cents.  I think, instead, she was going through her usual spiel, perhaps a required spiel by the bakery she worked for, and I had just not kept up my side of the conversation. 
            I usually do not walk away from such conversations with a loaf of bread the size of a small child, but I frequently have to apologize that “I don’t know Hungarian well.”  The other day, during a snowstorm, I bumped into the apartment building handyman and his wife in the garage.  Fearing that I was about to drive off into something that looked like a shaken-up snow globe, the handyman began to say something to me.  His wife interjected that I did not know Hungarian, but the handyman and I had conversed briefly before, and he insisted that I knew a bit.  I vouched for myself that I know a little bit.  As a result, for the past two days, I have been wondering to myself: what exactly did he say to me?  Whatever it was, I assured him that we were not planning to drive anywhere.  Either I appeared to understand better than I did, or I appeared to be a blithering idiot.  I still don’t know.
            You may know, dear reader, that my wife and all of my children who can speak, can speak Hungarian.  I flatter myself that I and my two-year-old are neck-in-neck in our Hungarian language skills, but this probably isn’t true and anyhow it won’t be for long.  I know that there are many people in the world who are not fluent in the language that almost everyone else speaks around them.  I only comment here that it is difficult.  I get by okay, but I am sure I do not sound like a guy who has a Ph.D.  I don’t care about the bad accent that much; it’s my slaughter of the grammar and my limited vocabulary that embarrasses me.  In English, I care about these things.  In Hungarian, I am lucky if my interlocutor figures out what in the world I am talking about. 
            I am improving.  In the meantime, what must they think of me?  Assure them, dear reader, I am articulate in one language at least. 


  1. I checked the History department website, was wondering how your work on Paupers is going. Congrats on Fulbright scholarship.
    Frank Mccandless
    former student

  2. Frank,
    It's good to hear from you. I've seen you from afar in Oshkosh a few times. Are you still there? I am working on that book! It's current title is Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: A History of Welfare in the Early American Republic. I'm done with 2 of 6 chapters, and am on the 3rd now. How are you?

  3. I'm Doing well Good to hear the work is coming along. I graduated and looking for work. I have a slight problem with most corporations therefore my job search is a little difficult. One highlight is writing the monthly political/social column for the Oshkosh Scene. Hope your travels are well.