In 2000, author and California teacher Phillip Done decided to follow his dream and relocate to Europe. With two suitcases, one guidebook, and zero knowledge of Hungarian, he moved to Budapest where he has lived, taught, and torn open care packages from home for most of the last decade.
Before moving to Hungary’s capital, Phil knew nothing about the land of the Magyars except that Zsa Zsa Gabor was a former Miss Hungary, Bela Lugosi had a strong Hungarian accent, and that when a party guest in My Fair Lady tries to determine where the newly transformed Eliza Doolittle is from, he announces that there is only one possibility – she must be Hungarian! While living in Budapest, Done has survived drinking pálinka, braved Hungarian winters, and can’t count the number of foot-in-mouth moments he’s had trying to learn the impossible Hungarian language. (Don’t ever say “cookie” to a group of Hungarian kids. It means willy.)
You came from California. Why did you choose Budapest as the destination?
-In 2000, I went to a job fair in London for overseas teaching positions. Budapest was one of the schools at the fair. I had been to Budapest once in 1989 and thought it was a beautiful city.
Before coming here, what had you heard about Hungary?
-I mainly knew about the composers – Lehár, Kodály and Bartók. I had studied music in university.
What was your first impression after landing here?
–Unfortunately, my first impression was not a good one. As I drove from the main airport into Budapest, I thought – what have I done? There was a lot of graffiti. The buildings were crumbling. But then when I drove across the Elizabeth Bridge and saw that breathtaking view of the Danube, Gellért Hill and the Royal Palace, my jaw dropped. Yes, I thought – I can definitely live here!
I am sure throughout the years you’ve learned a lot about Hungarian traditions and culture. What is the biggest surprise for you?
–The biggest surprise for me is when I walk into a room and Hungarians say, “Szia!” and when I step out of a room and they say, “Hállo!” For an American, that’s totally backwards because szia sounds like see ya and hállo sounds like hello. Even after almost ten years of living here, it still boggles me.
What is it that you do in Hungary?
–I teach at the American International School of Budapest. I’ve been here for about ten years. I am the Coordinator of the EAL Department in the Elementary School.
Have you visited the countryside as well?
–Yes, I’ve been to the countryside and find it beautiful! Not too long ago, I visited Tihany on Lake Balaton for a weekend and loved it. I haven’t been to the Tokaj region yet, but would really like to go there. When I do, I’m sure I’ll return with a car load of tokaji aszú.
How do you succeed with the Hungarian language?
-Sadly, my Hungarian is terrible. For me, learning the language is like trying to figure out the Rubik’s cube. I remember once I tried to say somlói galuska, and my Hungarian friends had absolutely no clue what I was trying to say. I so admire Americans here who have learned the language.
Do you like wine?
-Yes! I love Hungarian dry red wines. And I like that good wine is so much less expensive here than in the States.
Did you know hat in the US it was a Hungarian who introduced the wine making in California?
–Actually, it wasn’t until I moved to Budapest that I learned that a Hungarian is called “The Father of California Wine.” In California, we learn that the Spanish brought the first vines to California. They need to change their history books.
You are writing a blog about your experiences. How do your American friends like it?
–My American friends love learning about my life over here. But Hungarians also get a big kick out of it. They enjoy hearing about their culture from an American perspective.
What do you miss the most in the US?
–Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, big parking spaces, warm weather, smiley cashiers, giant To Go coffee cups, and Target!
You are a published writer in the US with a couple of books on the market. What is your writing style?
–I describe myself as a comic-sentimentalist. I like to make people laugh, but I pull at their heartstrings once in a while, too.
Could you tell our readers about your book?
–Both my books are collections of humorous and heart warming essays about life in the elementary classroom. They’re testaments to children, those wonderful grade school years, and the teachers we’ll never forget.
How long do you plan to stay in Hungary?
–There is so much more I want to learn about Hungary and so many places I still want to visit. I think I may be here for a very long time.
Rita Gaal / American-Hungarian Newspaper