We heard about Work Away from a college friend and fellow traveler. The premise is simple: volunteer work in exchange for accommodations and food. We were totally down for this, and tried to find Work Aways in the cities we were visiting. The only issue was so far, it seemed to only work if you were willing to go to the hosts who contacted you, no matter how far away. When we knew we were going to Budapest, we sent about 20 requests in hopes we would find a place to take us. We couldn’t have found a better 1st Work Away, and we had no idea it would be a highlight of our trip!
So our work: help out at an English Immersion program in the countryside of Hungary. We would be staying in an old chateau, eating great food, playing games and speaking English to Hungarians! It sounded too good to be true, but we had no clue how good it would be! We met our fellow volunteers at a train station in Budapest. Ken and Istvan from Australia, Denym from New Zealand, Vilius from Lithuania, Natasha, Andrew and Britta from the USA. The program organizer, Anet, met us at the station too and we hopped on the bus for an hour ride to the good old countryside. When we pulled up to a chateau that could be used by Beauty and the Beast, we were immediately excited! We got a quick briefing and then explored the grounds, complete with pool, tennis courts, mini golf, gardens and a large lawn.
Our group of “students” were mostly Hungarians working in business that had international connections, with a few inspired students who just wanted to improve their already conversational English skills. We were warned that Hungarians can be a bit closed off to new people, and maybe a little shy around us volunteers. Who could blame them?! We were a group “free lance”/unemployed, 20-30 somethings who spoke quickly and mostly in slang. On our first day, we spent a good deal of time just getting to know each other. Basic questions about family, work and hobbies made our conversation easy. Regardless of the obvious differences between us, many of us found commonalities in each other and started to form bonds that would last all week. The next days were just as wonderful as the first – the days filled with great conversation and debates. There was a buzz around the chateau where at any point you could find people playing games, tennis, swimming or chatting. Every second was fun, free and relaxing. Nights were spent doing an early evening activity organized by the volunteers, and then drinking copious amounts of alcohol. On our first night, the volunteers were up chatting with a few students, Akos and Attila, when I suggested a game of Cheers to the Governor. As always, it was an instant hit and the drinks flowed freely. We had so much fun that our director got out of bed to ask us to shut it down…more than once. But while the night seemed like a drunken nuisance for the sleepers, this simple game quickly became the activity that opened everyone up! A fact that became ever clear when one of us ended up in a speedo “swimming” through the yard…
It wasn’t until the second night when our group grew from 5 to 10 that things got EPIC! We got our director to play the game she seriously despised the night before and by the end she was one of the best players! We also met the legendary Zoltan – a man who seemed to take shots of whatever liquid was in his glass, no matter how full it was. When we asked him why, he proceeded to sing a wonderful drinking song for us, which translates to “drink your alcohol down down down to the bottom.” It was clear that this was more of a mantra for him than song, which only made the night more magical. He may not have been the strongest player but he was by far the most interesting man we’ve ever met! The night continued with learning a few Hungarian words, singing “Cake by the Ocean” and so much laughter. It was then that any differences in age or career became insignificant and friendships truly started. On the third night, we had a bonfire complete with s’mores and bacon cooking. Somehow I got charged with teaching the Hungarians how to make s’mores and subsequently talking about American cuisine. Apparently they were fascinated with American’s love for peanut butter, which sparked a Nutella vs. PB debate. We ended the night with telling scary stories, debates about world issues, and so much laughter my stomach ached. On the fourth night, we played a great game of touch rugby! It was amazing to have all of us, young and old, playing our hearts out and having so much fun.
The last night was the capstone for the week. We started off with a spaghetti building competition, which had us all dying of laughter (apparently we can easily recreate the leaning tower of Pisa). We then continued to drink, chat and play…yup CHEERS TO THE GOVERNOR! This time the whole group played and it was pure bliss. Once we all had a good buzz going, Denym taught us a traditional dance from New Zealand called the Haka. If you haven’t seen their rugby team do it, you need to YouTube it now. Crazy faces, tongues hanging out as far as possible and chanting that got quite mumbled the more we drank. We were not as powerful as true Kiwis, but what we lacked in skill we made up for in spirit, humor and persistence.
On the last day, the students were invited to present to the group on a topic of their choice. It’s goal was for them to practice some of the English business vocabulary and skills they had learned throughout the week. Earlier in the week, during a drunken night of Cheers to the Governor, Attila asked me to help with his presentation. He wanted to perform the cup song from Pitch Perfect including the cup dance. What I loved about this presentation was how it embodied Attila – light-hearted, fun and compassionate. He started off by saying how much he enjoyed the camp and that he would miss everyone when we all left. But most importantly, we would all miss him! Then Atilla, Matt and I performed our well practiced cup song and dance to perfection…well not really but it was a perfect farewell to a great friend. Upon re-reading this, words just can’t describe what a life changing experience we had at our first work away. The people were so incredible and inspiring. We made some true life long friends that I wouldn’t give up! It was such a liberating and yet grounding experience, one I will be eternally grateful we got to have. Thank you to everyone at ANGOL FALU for enriching our lives.
Epilogue – What may have been the greatest godsend on this trip was the lack of wifi. We all know that technology sucks up much of our time throughout the day. But being “stuck” in this chateau, not much of anywhere to go and no wifi made the week even more special. Without technology, we played and talked and laughed. We had meals where we discussed food, culture and our families. We truly got to know people and were active all day long. It made each bond stronger, and by the end of the week we felt like a large family. Being present at the camp helped us to push the real world aside and just be! Attila told me once that I “made him feel young again”, and really I think he was right. This week made people come alive! We didn’t forget our lives outside of the chateau, but merely left all the stress and negativity out. We were just happy, in a way that seems so rare to find.