A Del Norte High School graduate got a taste of life in Hungary last autumn, learning the language as well as what life was like during Communist control.
Paige Van Valkenburgh, who grew up in Smith River and graduated from Del Norte in 2013, said she arrived in Budapest in September right before Hungary closed its borders to refugees from the Middle East. But while advisors at her college talked about safety precautions, the refugees weren’t dangerous and weren’t causing any problems, she said.
“They were all just trying to move forward into Germany,” Van Valkenburgh said, adding that most of the refugees were in a different part of the city. “Budapest, overall, is safe. I was never afraid of being pickpocketed. I would walk around and just feel safe there.”
Van Valkenburgh, a junior, is studying political science and international studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. She said she wanted to study abroad since her freshman year in college and was intrigued by Hungary’s status as a post-Communist country.
Hungary was also not the most popular choice among her peers and Van Valkenburgh said she wanted to be different.
“I like to go off and do something crazy,” she said, adding that she also made weekend trips to Krakow in Poland and to Romania and Transylvania. “To be able to go to a country that used to be Communist was amazing, and to see how it transformed in the last 25 years.”
Van Valkenburgh took five classes at Corvinus University of Budapest including, East Central Europe in Communism. Her other classes included Hungarian for Beginners, which helped Van Valkenburgh navigate the city and speak with the locals, a class on European politics and international relations and a class on the history of film in Europe.
Van Valkenburgh said her favorite class was East Central Europe in Communism and was taught by Eva Kîss, who grew up in Budapest during that era and spent part of her college career in the Soviet Union.
“I felt I learned a lot more about Communism than I ever thought was imaginable because she put it into perspective,” Van Valkenburgh said. “She would go in depth (about the) different countries and how each one, even though they were Communist, were all different. It was eye-opening.”
She also taught English to high-schoolers and middle-schoolers. This included working with students getting ready to take an exam and beginners who were barely learning to speak English.
“It was just a conversation trying to make them speak English because learning a language is hard,” Van Valkenburgh said. “I had to learn Hungarian because English is not very prevalent, so I understood the struggle a communication block (can be), but it was fun to help.”
Communication on the streets was a struggle due to a language barrier as well. But Van Valkenburgh said she never got the impression locals were frustrated even if she got a word wrong.
“They’re very easy going people, they don’t get mad at you if you don’t speak the language, which is great,” she said. “I was really afraid of pronouncing words wrong, but they would understand me.”
Now that the spring semester has started, Van Valkenburgh is in Washington D.C. interning at the U.S. Capitol Building. When she graduates from Stonehill in 2017, Van Valkenburgh said she wants to go onto law school and would like to return to Budapest someday.
“I definitely want to continue learning Hungarian,” she said. “It’s an unknown language that could totally be learned even though it’s really difficult. It’s unlike any other language out there.”