Imagine speed-dating. Now replace the 90 second conversation at a table for two with a 90 second folk dance routine in a crowded ballroom. That is just what I did for an hour and a half one Wednesday night in some dive of a place just outside of Budapest.
My host parents were going to a “dance house” to meet up with some high school friends of theirs and they invited me along. Before going, I was familiar with the concept of a “dance house.” Usually a live folk band plays music and friends sit at tables in conversation while partners occasionally join in the ancient, yet well known, dances from Transylvania. So when my host parents invited me to go, I said, “Yeah sure, why not!” I anticipated watching more than participating, and was along for the ride.
My initial nerves for the night were soothed, or rather shocked by a sip of pálinka- the famous Hungarian beverage that is often made in the back yards of Hungarian homes. It’s the moonshine of Magyarország, and always offered as a sign of hospitality at social and family gatherings. János Lacki defines it as a, “chemical cocktail” yet I find the pear or plum flavor combined with good people and laughter somewhat digestible. Either way we arrived late, per usual, accepted the welcome drink and hurried into the ball room.
I walked through the door and observed a large circle of people practicing a rhythm the couple in the center was displaying. There must have been 60 people gathered ranging from 20 to 60 years of age. The room was stuffy and the sounds of heels tapping on the scuffed wooden floor filled the air, along with an aroma of perspiration. I had no partner upon walking in, but precisely seven seconds later a man nearing 50 swooped in and sent me spinning.
The combination seemed familiar and was similar to something I had learned in the previous months. Yet still, I was stumbling and muttering, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know this” in my broken Hungarian. Immediately upon learning I was not a native speaker the man began instructing me in German. As soon as I caught my breath to mention that I speak English, a bell rang. The men stayed standing in place and the women moved one space to the right, it was on to the next one.
The next one must have barely been 30, his English was quite good, a common characteristic of Hungarians his age and his dancing moves were just as skilled. He quickly went over the basic step of this particular dance and I had just enough time to become comfortable with it when the bell rang. On to the next one.
The next one was twice as wide but the same height as me, or perhaps a bit shorter as I noticed the hairs poking out of his mostly bald head. His chubby fingers spun me with great confidence and he never spoke a word, until the bell rang and he offered a word of thanks.
The next one was tall and lanky and my Hungarian skills were better than his dancing skills. Through bumping and stepping on my feet, as well as the feet of the couple beside us, we somehow managed to establish some sort of rhythm. And I was a bit relieved to hear the bell a few seconds later.
Two years ago when I was in Europe studying abroad, I felt a bit like I was speed-dating the countries. Every other weekend my friends and I would pick somewhere new to travel, and the next weekend it was on to the next one. I got brief glimpses of each country's culture, personality, language, and food. And occasionally I really clicked with one, but I never got to stay long enough to really know it.
It takes time to develop a rhythm and relationship with a person or with a place. I'm happy to be past the small talk with Hungary. I know now where the locals eat, where they like to vacation, and why they speak of "Greater Hungary" as if the current borders are not correct. I've experienced a Hungarian prom, celebrated Christmas in a Hungarian home, and I eat paprika like it's my job. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to dance with this country and it's people for an entire year, and look forward to the new steps and routines that are sure to come.