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COVID-19 or not, Hungarians still come

By The Review Staff

The pandemic may have halted travel from the U.S. to Europe; but the same is not entirely true in reverse. Not, at least, when it comes to Saint Vincent’s annual tradition of welcoming two Hungarian exchange students from Pannonhalma, a Benedictine-run boarding school in the country’s northwest.

But Levente Kiss and Bazil Kaplar were not sure until the last minute whether they would be able to come.

They were selected in January from eight finalists at their school, Kiss said. But that was before the pandemic.

“After COVID hit, we didn’t know anything about the stuff is going to happen. What it came down to basically, is that in July we started actually searching around, trying to get a plane ticket, getting a visa, get the stuff organized, and we actually got the visa appointment for the 6th of August. And the next day actually, we got the visas. And it was on that day, the WHO [World Health Organization] signed off Hungary from the hotspot list, and we didn’t have to quarantine,” Kiss explained.

“We had already bought our plane ticket, but we weren’t sure that we would be able to come here,” Kaplar added. But they felt they had to take the chance on buying tickets anyway.

They had to go to the American embassy to find out whether the US would let them in. Fortunately, they did receive permission, and they arrived at Saint Vincent on Aug. 14.

Some elements of American life came as a surprise to them. The way Americans interact is different, Kaplar said.

“For me, it was really—I wouldn’t say weird, just different: if you greet somebody else, you say, ‘Hi, how is it going,’ or, ‘Hi, how are you,” and usually the other person just says, ‘Good, and you? Good.’ And that’s all. And it’s really different because in Hungary, when you ask somebody, ‘How are you,’ usually you are really interested in what he has to say. And that means that you take your time to have a talk and listen to each other,” he said.

“It seems to me that it is a lot more individualistic here. They might actually be afraid to open up, because they learn that if they open up, they will be vulnerable,” Kiss added.

Even though Kiss comes from a smaller town himself, he was also surprised by Latrobe.

“You have about 8000 people in Latrobe. And you have like a pretty big Walmart, a lot of shops, a freaking airport. And we don’t have as many fast-food restaurants in my town. All the big stuff is in the capital, that’s Budapest. Even the railways, when they were built, they were built in such a scheme that it goes out to all parts of the country from Budapest.”

One adjustment hasn’t been too big, though: English. They’ve been learning it since elementary school, Kaplar said.

“How it is in Hungary is that when you go to the elementary school, you can choose a language. You can choose either German or English. We both went for the English. We carried it all the way to High School,” he said.

The Benedictines are also familiar. Pannonhalma is a Benedictine monastery found in 996, making it substantially older than Saint Vincent, but with somewhat fewer monks. According to UNESCO, which has designated it as a World Heritage site, the monastery played a major role in the conversion of Hungary. The boarding school is run from the monastery.

In 2007, Kaplar’s brother leveraged that connection to make the now-annual exchange program possible.

“My oldest brother, his name is Peter, after he graduated in Pannonhalma, he wanted to learn in America somewhere. He and one of his friends just wrote letters in lots of places, usually where are Benedictine monks in America. And from Saint Vincent College, they replied that two students can come here and spend some time. And one of my brothers was here, and after one of my other brothers also came here. They told me a lot about this place and about America,” he said.

The family connection solidified his desire to come.

“I am pretty glad and I’m really proud that I will be here, because I am the third from my family here. It’s a pleasure,” he said.

Kiss, on the other hand, says he would like to become a lawyer; he was thinking about legal studies in the U.S., and hopes to pick up sufficient English skills to become a certified translator in Hungary. For now, he’s just taking in the American experience.

“What I really like now is making friends, and just talking to people, and getting to know your perspective, because all the things that I saw in a negative perspective, socially, I also see that there is a much bigger optimism and bigger possibilities for people if they really want to take matters into their own hands. And that’s something that I myself sometimes struggle with, and to be more optimistic is something that would be a pretty big goal for me.”


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