Brian Thelen

The full interview with our new Fulbright teacher.

Welcome in Toldy! We hope you will have a great time here. So, first of all, could you tell us a couple of sentences about yourself and where you come from?

Well, my name is Brian Thelen, I’m a teacher with the American Fulbright Exchange Program. I come from the city of Chicago. I’m not originally from there, but I have lived there for the past eight years. I’m teaching high school English Literature.

We’ve heard that you started with maths and physics, and then turned to literature.

Yes, very much so: that was my subject of interest in high school, mostly maths and physics.

What made you change?

Well, I joked to a couple of students today, that literature seems like a bit of a scam, in that, to study literature is something that many people will do just for fun on a Saturday afternoon - and teaching literature is very much the same, it’s something that I would do for fun, even if I didn’t get paid, as a job. And, while I was at university, trying to decide what it was that I wanted to major-in and focus-on, I just fell into literature, because it seemed fun to sit around and read books all day - that was really the turning point. I often tell my students at home that I don’t remember having read a book at high school, and I probably didn’t read a book for the first two years of university. And I tell the students this story because I think it illustrates how much people can change when they get older and they mature, and they find out what kind of things are available for them in the world.

From all the countries around the world, what made you choose Hungary?

It was one of the countries that was available as part of the Fulbright Program, and it seemed like a pretty natural fit, because I’m interested in what I teach at home, world literatures; African literature, and Asian literature. I can’t say that I know terribly much about Central European literature and history, so it’s kind of a blind spot in my knowledge - and Hungary seems like a country in which people value history and literature probably more than the average country. And I felt like a country in which the people are very protective and prideful of their language, of their poetry, history and their literature, would be an interesting country to learn about. And I also wanted to be in a country which was not English-speaking.

Have you had a chance to find out something about the Hungarian culture, or do some sightseeing..?

I haven’t been out of Budapest much, largely because I just got here. Also, I’m an urban-kind of person, I like cities very much. There are four other American teachers working in Hungary as a part of this programe and I’m the only one in Budapest, so I feel very fortunate. So I’ve set out to the Danube-bend on a couple of occasions, and seen that part of the country, I’ve taken a train trip to Slovenia, so I’ve been through the West, and I’d like to get a chance to go to the South-East, to Transylvania and Romania sometime...

What was your first impression on arrival?

I don’t know, the thing about almost any place in the world, is that I’m not sure how distinct places are, and people in general - it’s more like individuals specifically that tend to stand out. In a lot of ways life in Hungary is very similar to life in the United States, there aren’t any gross differences; they are not extremely different. What I think has struck me, from the first day until even today, is how the small differences change the way you look at life; you become really overstimulated, because everything is just a little bit different, and you sense every little thing: the way you turn on the water, the way a doorknob works, or the way a building looks, or the way people engage in a conversation, the hand gestures, the kind of cereal you can buy, whether the milk is refrigerated or off the shelf - all these little things add up to a sensory overload. So I guess I would say that being in Hungary has been many-many consecutive weeks of bombardment of the senses.

How long have you been here?

Just about a month now.

What are things you really like here, like, better than is the US?

I think there are a number of positive elements of the Hungarian educational system that the US withstands. For example smaller schools, most importantly maybe the separation of schools from athletics: in the United States athletics is very much a part of high school life, and I think the separation of the two is a real positive. The strong emphasis on public education, and that students have the opportunity to apply for and attend university without having to pay money and accrue huge debts. Public transportation is a big positive. If there is a thing that Europe has over the United States, and I’m sure there are many, but the number one thing, and I fear that maybe it’s moving towards the opposite direction, but it’s the public sector: whether you’re talking about medicine, education, or infrastructure. And even though I can’t take advantage of all of it because I am an American, I think that the European social safety net, its infrastructure, and its public sector is really a wonderful, wonderful thing that should not be undervalued. In the United States you can get anything you want as long as you’re willing to pay for it, and you have to pay for everything. I think it’s not so much an issue of the economics, but an issue of people - the way people in the United States are very independent and individualistic- and I’m not saying that people are not like that in the other parts of the world, but I think that there are certain elements of the European society that encourage people to be more community-oriented.

On the other hand, what are the things you find weird or disturbing, or hard to get used to?

Coffee, a little bit... I know Europeans enjoy their espresso, and in the United States we tend to have a one litre cup of brewed coffee. That’s very black and strong, and that’s how I take my coffee. My mother sent me coffee and a little coffee brewer from the US; I’ve had that for the past week, and ever since everything’s been kind of perfect. So, there isn’t much that I would say is weird or different. Maybe there’s a little bit more of a complicated bureaucracy, lots of problems that shouldn’t be problems, for example, a particular sticker or stamp needs to be on a document to make it official, and the length of the process one has to go through to acquire the stamps - that can be frustrating.

From your experience so far, how are your students here different from your students at home?

Honestly, it’s too early to tell for a variety of reasons. I’ve met most students only one time, and then, I have a lot of classes that I’ll see only one time a week, and the fact that I’ll only meet them one time each week, and the fact that we don’t speak the same language means it will make it tremendously difficult for me to get to know them. There’s one group of second-years whom I’ll teach four times a week, and I certainly hope that I’ll eventually get a sense of who they are. But the thing in the United States is that it’s difficult to get to know students too because of the organisational structure of high schools. I often feel that at the end of each year I really enjoy working with students; I get to know them, and all that is out of the way, and we can focus on academics. Whereas here I think it’s going to be a bit of a challenge for me, because of the organisational structure I probably won’t get to know my students. On the other hand, here the educational system is set up for teachers and student to know one another, after the long, four-year or six-year working relationships, so even though I’m an outsider, I think what’s a benefit for you, is going to be the drawback for me - I don’t have those connections, but I think that you do, and the Hungarian teachers too. So the way the Hungarian students are focused or academically driven - the connections they have with their teachers and the school is probably something a little bit different from what we have, and definitely something that I like.

Did you have any expectations, or do you have any goals or plans for your year here?

No - I mean, honestly, this might sound stupid, but I have to say that a lot of my goals are just to kind of take things as they come, to absorb as much as I can. I think as a teacher to have goals means that you want to shape people and places in a particular way, and I’m certainly not so presumptuous to think that what I know or can offer here would be something unique. Maybe I don’t have that opinion at home, but I lived there for 33 years - and here I’m more interested in receiving than giving, and this almost sounds evil, but I what that means is that I want to learn and absorb as much as I can, and have as many experiences as I can, and not worry so much about analyzing or judging them or changing things at all. I guess the goals that I have are to read Hungarian literature, meet Hungarian people and enjoy the city.

One last question: how do you like Hungarian food?

Hard to say... I think that Hungarian linguistics and literature and culture are top-notch, and I think that the Hungarian educational system is fantastic, and I think that the transportation in Budapest is also world-class, but I don’t think I would characterise Hungarian food as world-class. I live in a huge city (Budapest), so I obviously have access to plenty of good food, but to be fair, I think that the Vietnamese, the Argentineans, and the Japanese probably do food a little better. I should clarify that I don’t dislike Hungarian food, I’d eat anything, I love food. So I enjoy Hungarian food; it’s just that to compare it with some other countries in the world, it’s just good, not great.

Thank you for the interview!

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