Harghita County, Romania: Borderlands

Landscape (1) (1) (1)

How fortuitous that the final milestone along my journey was also the most beautiful. The forested mountains and mineral springs of Harghita County, Romania, reminded me of where I had lived in Humboldt County, California, and at moments I longed to return to the coastal community of Arcata, while simultaneously imagining a future connection with this place, the town of Csikszereda. I centered my mind and heart back into the root of human time and space, and prepared myself for a week of volunteering at an after school program in the nearby village of Szentegyhaza.

A rolling landscape outside of Csikszereda.

Harghita County is in a region of Romania that is ethically Hungarian. The majority of the people speak Hungarian, but the towns and villages also have Romanian names. Csikszereda is also Miercurea Ciuc, and Szentegyhaza is also Vlahita. The entire region is known as Szekely Land. At some location along the lines of history when borders were compromised and renegotiated, Hungary forfeited a few of its people, and a territory was drawn around them. In Szekely Land, Hungarian is spoken more often than Romanian, but both languages are taught in schools.

I also noticed some signs written in the Hungarian Runic script, which derives from the Old Turkic alphabet. According to Peter, the Director of the NGO through which I volunteered, Hungarian is a language from Middle Asia. Several theories exist to explain how a Middle Asian language landed in Europe, but the Roman alphabet was adopted after the establishment of a Christian Hungarian empire. Peter has a tattoo on his arm written in the Hungarian Runic script that translates into, “live strong, die proud.” That statement summarizes my impression of the people in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, survivors of two world wars, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the rise and fall of communism.

runic hungarian
Runic Hungarian characters.


My volunteer project schedule was Monday through Friday, and I was to report to the placement site at 2pm. However, the bus from Csikszereda to Szentegyhaza left the station at 12:20pm, and I had a two kilometer walk from the bus stop to the school. On my first day, I was not sure what to expect or how to find my bus at the station. Anticipating a shortage of English speakers, I carried a notecard with me that read, “Szentegyhaza,” so that I could use it to communicate where I needed to go. After some scurrying between groups of people saying, “Jo napot,” and holding up my note card, I found my correct bus and was on the road to the village.

The village of Szentegyhaza where I volunteered, pronounced Sent-ee-ca-za. 

At the after school program, my primary role was assisting the kids with their English language skills through activities and homework. The kids were between the ages of about 8-15, and the program was funded through the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation. The educator at the site explained to me that each of the kids came from a family with struggle, like alcohol abuse and unemployment. Their favorite activity was playing with flashcards, which depicted a cartoon image of an animal, and then the English name for it underneath the picture. “Squirrel,” “owl,” “seal,” and “walrus” were the most difficult sounds for them to make. Even the educator balked at “squirrel.”

As the week progressed and we all gained a comfort level together, one of the boys began trying to teach me the Hungarian names for the animals. They laughed as I struggled over the Hungarian words, but it helped them feel more comfortable with their mistakes in English. They were able to see and understand that learning a language with different sounds and pronunciations is challenging for everyone including adults, not just them. It equalized the exchange between us, where English was no longer the singular language of power that I spoke, the volunteer from the privileged west, but was simply Amanda’s language, and Hungarian was their language, and we shared our languages with each other.

As is typical of students, some of them were more motivated to learn English than others. One of the older girls wanted to practice from a workbook and the instructions were written in English. The exercise was to write a paragraph recalling a boat trip. I knew from speaking with the educator that she had traveled on the Danube that summer, but it was very difficult to explain what she needed to do for the assignment. I had an English-Hungarian dictionary that I used, and after learning that my pronunciation was too poor for me to speak the Hungarian words, I began showing her the words on paper to help her understand the assignment. Finally, the educator came over to help us, who speaks Hungarian, Romanian, and a bit of English. Eventually, the assignment was understood, and it was agreed that the girl would write her experience first in Hungarian, and then I would help her translate into English.

The School
The school, where kids learn Romanian, Hungarian, and English.

I learned quickly that a paragraph of Hungarian switched into a literal word-for-word match of English translation becomes gibberish. Perhaps words are connected to meaning only when arranged with other words, within a temporal context of tone and experience. An understanding between two or more people requires more than an exchange of words in any language, but also a relationship that flows to establish a context. My squirrel is your mókus, and neither of us is wrong. We simply need to take some time to make sure we are both describing the same animal.

The student and I never did complete the assignment. It would have taken me an hour or so to think through the meaning of the words and rearrange the grammar to create a comprehensive thought, and even then, I’m sure details would be lost in the translation between her experience and my understanding. People trained in the practice of active listening are taught to say, “What I hear you saying is… x, y, and z. Is that right?” But even that practice is difficult when barriers to communication are present, like resentments, uncomfortable vulnerabilities, or defensiveness. Sometimes even in the same language, details are lost in translation. If we reflect on the experience of communication barriers, though, we can find our own limitations and learn more about how others see and understand the world. Maybe a squirrel fundamentally changes shape when it is called a mókus instead.

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