Editors’ note: The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
Sarah Berta-Somogyi moved to Hungary 13 years ago to teach English. She met her husband in Hungary and together they're raising their three daughters in Győr, Hungary.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What do you do professionally?
I grew up in Colorado, and then I went to Concordia University Irvine, in California. And while I was at Concordia, my family moved to Northern California.
I studied English and education in college, and then I got a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. When I first came to Hungary, I was teaching students English as a foreign language. I thought I would end up teaching English literature and composition, but teaching English as a foreign language actually fits really well with my skill set.
Did you move to Hungary for that teaching job?
I came here as a missionary through the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, because they have a partnership with this particular school in Hungary. The church sent missionary teachers to the school who stayed for one to two years.
I am the sixth missionary teacher in this school. I thought I would be here for one to two years. This is, I think, my thirteen year here. So, my plans changed. I loved Hungary, and I wanted to stay. I also met my husband, who teaches in the same school as me.
We have three girls now: Lili, who is seven, and the twins, Hanna and Emma, who are five.
Before going to Hungary, had you ever lived abroad?
No. A couple of summers in college, I spent three weeks in Hungary, as part of an English Bible camp program run by my school.
Being here definitely changed my perspective, because it was really my first time being abroad, besides spending a day or two in Mexico. I realized that the world is much bigger than America.
Where do you live in Hungary and what were some of your initial impressions of Hungary?
We live in Győr. It’s the sixth biggest city in Hungary with a population of about 128,000. It’s in the northwest part of the country, equidistant between Vienna and Budapest.
One of my first impressions was that as you walk down the streets, no one smiles. People seem really closed off, even though if you get to know them, Hungarians are very hospitable. But at first glance, you wouldn’t assume. I think things are changing a little bit because of Western influence, but that was very strange when I first moved here.
The language is also very different. It’s in the Finno-Ugric language family, which means it’s apparently related to Finnish in some grammatical structures. But if you speak Finnish, there’s no way you will understand Hungarian. It’s not Slavic, and it’s not a Romance language. It is its own thing.
I had a colleague who taught me some basic grammar and vocabulary for about six months. But other than that, I learned just by hearing it and going out and about in the city. I always thought I was bad at learning languages. It turns out I just didn’t have the opportunity.
Was there anything that was hard for you to get used to in Hungarian culture?
One of the hardest things was actually that lots of things are really similar, so you think everything will be the same. I could be just going along and everything’s fine and then all of a sudden . . . Bam! I’d run into something completely different from American culture.
For example, in Hungarian there’s an informal “you” and a formal “you.” If you don’t know somebody or somebody is older than you, you have to use this formal greeting. Since we don’t have something similar in English, it was really hard for me to learn. I still mess it up sometimes. For example, we moved a couple of years ago, and when I first met my neighbor, I was way too informal. Luckily, she forgave me.
There are lots of other smaller differences. For example, in the United States, you can take a shower, wash your hair, and go right outside, with wet hair. If you go outside here with wet hair, people are going to look at you like you are crazy and tell you that you’re going to get sick because your hair is wet. The other thing I was often told is that you have to cover your kidneys or you’re going to get sick. .
If you go to a restaurant, there’s no ice in your drink and no free refills. And the currency is different; the currency here is the “forint.” Now, there are about three hundred forint to a dollar. When I first moved, it was around two hundred forint to a U.S. dollar. At first, it feels ridiculous when you buy something for a thousand forint. It seems like so much, but it’s not. They’re just little things you have to get used to.
What are some of the aspects of Hungarian culture and life in Hungary that you like most?
I really like that it’s a very family-oriented place. There are policies designed to support and incentivize families. For example, the maternity leave is up to three years. If you have twins, it’s up to six years. is not 100 percent paid for all those years. The percent of your salary that you get paid decreases, but you still have the leave. Your job has to take you back at the end of your leave.
There are also tax breaks for families and programs where you can apply for money to do some renovations on your house or change your current vehicle to a bigger one.
Your children were born and have lived their whole lives in Hungary. What has the experience been like raising them in a country different from the country in which you grew up in? Do you at all feel like they have a different cultural background than you?
We kind of make it up as we go along because it is a new experience. I also think in some cases it’s good because there are some parts of American culture I don’t really want to pass down to them.
They’ve also visited the United States, so they have some personal experience of life there. And they love when I tell them stories about when I was growing up, about what life was like for me or what I did when I was in school. I think that also teaches them a little bit about life in the States. And they have good relationships with my family, my brothers and my dad. And we do have some American friends here as well. So, I think that they have a good balance.
They are also beautifully bilingual, so I am super proud of them. I speak English to them and my husband speaks Hungarian to them and they go to school in Hungarian. Their accent in both languages is great.
When you come back to the United States now, is it like coming home or more like visiting a foreign country?
There are parts of it that are definitely foreign feeling, like walking into a huge store like Target (though we love Target!). I feel a bit overwhelmed by the massiveness of it. And it’s a little bit more stressful, but that’s also just because we’re traveling. I feel most at home in America when I’m with my family, because I think they make it that way. But there are definitely some things which I forget about that kind of throw me for a loop, for example , the loudness of things. Even though I am American, I feel like America is very loud. If I’m in a group of people or even walking anywhere, I feel like the noise level is just really high compared to a similar situation in Hungary.
Also, when I’ve hosted some groups of Americans coming here, I have a hard time sometimes because of the level of the noise, just how loud people talk.
Are there any aspects of life in Hungary that have made you rethink the way you traditionally did something or thought about something?
I mentioned that, in Hungary, if you meet someone on the street, they’re not really going to smile at you. But once you get to know a person, the Hungarians are open to talking about pretty much anything. There are not a lot of taboo subjects once you know somebody. I think it’s kind of the opposite in the United States: it’s easy to get to know somebody on a surface level, but if you really want to get to know somebody and talk about everything, it’s going to be much more difficult.
In Hungary, people will listen to you, even if it’s obvious that you disagree with them or that they disagree with you. You can generally have a conversation where both people will listen to the other side. So, living here has maybe made me a bit more open-minded.
What has it been like living in Hungary through the pandemic?
We had our big shutdown in March and April of last year. I think it was two weeks mandated, everything was shut down, except grocery stores. After that, some things opened up a little bit. But I didn’t go out with the girls for at least a month.
If someone had a weekend in your city or town, what are three things you would recommend they do while there? Or are there other places in Hungary they should visit?
My city is not the most exciting city for tourism, but it is one of those places where you can go and just kind of chill. So, if you’re the type of person who is all about seeing all the things and the sights, Győr might not be the best place to visit. But if you want to have a nice relaxing weekend where you learn about history and see some nice baroque and a little bit of Roman architecture, and walk on winding cobblestone streets it is ideal.
The Püspökvár, the Bishop’s Castle, is the oldest building in Győr, with parts of it dating back to the thirteenth century. It has a lookout tower you can go up in for a bird’s eye view of the city. There is also a museum there which is very informative. About 20 kilometers away is Pannonhalma Archabbey, which is more than a thousand years old. It’s another really fantastic place to visit.
Third, you should visit Budapest. It is the capital city, and that’s where you’re going to find a lot of tourist sites: you have the Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the thermal baths, Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the Danube, and lots of museums. There’s also the Central Market which has a lot of food stalls.
There’s a lot of things you can learn about a culture through its food. And Hungary is no exception. Hungarians have some great food. There’s a chicken paprika dish. There are little dumplings called Nokedli that you eat with a beef stew called pörkölt. We have goulash soup, which is very different than American Midwestern goulash which has pasta in it. There’s a fried bread called Lángos, which is crazy delicious. You put sour cream and cheese on top of it. There are crepes called Palacsinta that are amazing.
Finally, if you’re planning to visit Hungary, it’s worth studying a bit of history. Because to understand Hungary and this part of the world in general, it’s really helpful to know at least some of the country’s history, especially its modern history related to its life under communism, what happened at the end of communism, and what’s happened since then.