For two weeks this month, I got to experience what it's like to be the typical "American Abroad," as I spent time with my uncle on business in Hungary. First off, let me say this -- Hungary is a beautiful place, even when covered in feet of snow, with temperatures well below zero. But the people, and the culture, are in many ways completely opposite what we have here at home.
The first thing that struck me about Hungary was it's people -- and the fact that they don't smile. Whether walking down the street, driving a car, riding a bike or jogging in a park, they just don't smile. The fact that our group of 13 Americans and western Europeans were constantly laughing, joking and grinning, really threw our Hungarian hosts off. The first few days, we had to gently coax smiles out of our hosts, until, by the second week, they were finally feeling comfortable enough around us to go ahead and smile on their own, without our smiling at them first. On our last evening, at dinner, our wonderful translators told us how much they would miss us and our "fun, smiling ways." Isn't it odd, that as Americans, we just take it for granted that if we smile and say "Hello" to someone, they will typically at least smile back? It was sad to me that the Hungarian culture has been so beaten down by various conquering regimes over the centuries, that they've lost the simple habit of smiling with one another.
Another cultural past time to get used to was dinner. Now, don't get me wrong, Americans and Hungarians both know how to eat, and eat well, but in Hungary, a meal becomes an event. First, there is a small salad of vegetables - no lettuce, no cheese, just vegetables. Then comes the first soup, followed by another plate of "cleansing" vegetables. Then comes soup number two, followed by an amazing main course. Followed by -- you guessed it ---- another salad of vegetables. Then finally, dessert, followed by a glass of cognac or sparkling water. All in all, dinner takes close to three hours, during which time the gathered diners share stories about home, family and vacations -- but never work. For meal time is leisure time in Hungary, and work time and leisure time never mix.
Finally, there is no such thing as a To-go cup of coffee in Hungary. You also don't see To-go food containers or soft drink cups. In fact, my entire time there, I didn't see one person walking with a drink or food of any kind, and the lack of trash along the streets -- compared to what we see here at home -- is amazing. We Americans could take a point or two from this custom, and not just from the point of view of less trash on the roadways. To Hungarians, meals of any type -- even just a cup of coffee with friends -- are an occasion that require those partaking to stop, sit and enjoy the moment. Can you remember the last time you bought a cup of coffee and sat still long enough to savor it? I for one am going to take this tradition to heart -- coffee break anyone?