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Hungarian and Leo


It is a cool evening in May. Michael and I are sitting in our cozy living room, happy to have our daughter, Zeta, back from college for the summer. Our exchange student, Leo, just got home from school and has disappeared to take a shower before dinner. That’s when the ruckus starts: first music with a booming bass line (Leo can’t shower without a bumpin’ beat). Then the water and then . . . BANG! CRASH! “Ouch!!” “AHH!!” 

Zeta’s eyes pop open in surprise. Michael and I are still calm and serene. A few more crashes and yells . . . by now Zeta is sitting up straight, ready to jump out of her chair. “Should we do something?” she asks, somewhere between a whisper and a scream. “No, it’s always like that,” Michael replies. “That’s just how he showers.” “WHAT?” Zeta just can’t believe that is normal.

Leo grew up living part time in Northeast Germany and part time in Hungary. We had been friends with his family for over ten years and visited them in both Germany and Hungary. Germany is familiar turf, but Hungary . . . wow! We spent a week in Hungary with Leo’s family before he came to live with us for a year. While we were there, his mother, Andrea, gave me a tri-lingual Bible. Upon seeing it, my son read from bottom to top, “The New Testament, Das neue Testament,” and then he twisted his face and uttered sounds that resembled a Wookie trying to speak Klingon.

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Leo, this lanky, easy-going hot mess came into our home eight months earlier. For a solid eight months, Leo had made us laugh every day—it just never stopped. One beautiful day he woke up and couldn’t use his arms. He had done 120 burpees during basketball practice and woke up the next morning so sore that he could only flop his arms around like empty sleeves. He moaned and groaned while laughing at himself simultaneously. At the breakfast table he flopped one arm up on the table and crawled his fingers over to the sour cream (a staple that he ate on everything: pizza with sour cream. Spaghetti with sour cream. Toast and Nutella with sour cream . . . ) His arm flapping antics had me laughing so hard my abs started aching!

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Having Leo in the house, spouting phrases in Hungarian and showing me first-rate Hungarian artists like “Pamkutya” really made me want to learn this language. A few months of study did not make me fluent, but it made me appreciate its beauty and structure, and the culture, oh the culture! I have never met people who are so warm and loving and have such a fabulous sense of humor!

Here are just some of the reasons I love Hungarian:


1. It is unique: a member of the ridiculously small Finno-Ugric group, it does not even share many cognates with Finnish, the other most widely spoken language in this group.


2. The conjugations and vowel harmony: Verbs are not only conjugated by the subject doing the action, but by if the object is specific or not, as well. My conjugation charts just doubled! All words must have vowel and consonant harmony as well, so suffixes change based on the vowels and consonants in each word.


3. The cases and structure: Hungarian has between 5 and 18 cases, depending on what source you read. Cases as well as number and possession are added to the end of the word as a suffix. Hence, “a ház” (the house) can turn into “a házban” (in the house), or “a házamban” (in my house) or “a házaimban” (in my houses). There are hundreds of possible combinations! My friend Levi’s favorite example is “megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért” (for your incorruptibility).


4. The sound: The melody of Hungarian is simply beautiful, and yet it is also the dirtiest sounding language I have ever learned! Just have your google translate say “second” or “tenth” or any future tense in Hungarian. Shocking! Which brings me back to Leo . . .

I quickly grew accustomed to parting ways with Leo by saying what he and his mother always say, “Puszi!” or “Puszi puszi!” (kiss kiss!). One day I was letting him out of the car. Nearby, a woman was walking her dog. Leo leapt out and called to me, “Szia, puszi!” It just so happens, this sounds like “See ya, pussy!” in English. The woman’s mouth dropped open and she looked at me, expecting an angry response. I just smiled, waved and drove away. Now seriously, what other language can provoke such a response?


Michael and I can’t wait to travel back to Hungary again and to delve into this rich language by spending time with people we love. Leo and Andrea, here we come!

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