Life in Two Countries: the Leila Fletcher Story

Each year of my life, I have left my home in America to fly across the Atlantic and spend my summers in Hungary.

My mother was born in Hungary, but she came to America to learn English when she was in her twenties. She left her whole extended family behind. Years later, I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, where my mom met my dad. My parents decided to settle down in Madison after I was born.

My mother did not want to abandon her home in Hungary altogether, however. She wanted me to know her family and her culture. That was when my parents decided that my mom and I would travel back and forth across the ocean each summer. Through my experience living in both Hungary and America, I have noticed many differences between life in one country versus the other.

To me, one of the most fundamental differences between Hungarian and American culture is the language. My mother taught me Hungarian and English simultaneously, so I grew up bilingual. Although Hungarian is a phonetic language, the grammar is extremely difficult for foreigners. One such difficulty is that there are four different ways to pronounce “o” and “u,” depending on the accents: o, ó, ö, ő, and u, ú, ü, ű.

The meanings of Hungarian words vary greatly with the length of the vowels, too. Take the following two sentences for example—with small changes to the vowels, their entire meanings change: “a nagymama megörült amikor meglátott” (“grandma became happy when she saw you”), as opposed to “a nagymama megőrült amikor meglátott” (“grandma became crazy when she saw you”). Specifying whether a vowel is long or short is very important when speaking Hungarian. Although English is fairly difficult to learn, Hungarian—with all its conjugations and word-endings—is definitely one of the hardest languages to learn, at least in my experience.

Modern Hungarian culture is, in fact, relatively similar to American culture and most other modern Western cultures. Many of the music, film, and fashion trends are the same in Hungary as they are in the United States. Hungarian people listen to American music and watch dubbed or subtitled American movies and TV shows. Hungarians even take some English words and “Hungarianize” them.

One main cultural difference visitors to Hungary might notice is that Hungarians are much more straight-forward than Americans are, especially toward their family members. Foreigners might find the candor of most Hungarians rude, yet usually their blunt remarks come from a place of love, and their intent is to help fix whatever they think is wrong. It has been a slight challenge to get used to my Hungarian family’s readiness to immediately call out my flaws, but I know that they mean and want the best for me.

Whenever I tell someone that I go to Hungary every summer, I often get the follow-up question: “Where do you like being more?” This is an extremely tough question for me to answer, because each place has its pros and cons. My grandmother in Hungary is the youngest of seven in her family, so I have many relatives there, some of whom I have never even met. Most of those we visit live in a different city and relatively far from where my grandparents live. So, when I live in Hungary, that usually leaves me with my mom, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my two baby cousins and my great-grandmother. I don’t spend time with many people my age during my time in Hungary. In contrast, in America, I am constantly surrounded by friends and other teenagers.

While I was in kindergarten in the U.S., my parents decided to homeschool me for my elementary education in America. This allowed me to engage in a variety of different activities, from acting and singing in a choir to writing articles at Simpson Street Free Press. My extracurricular involvement also introduced me to many new people. However, my mom didn’t want me to be totally school-free, so she enrolled me in a school in Hungary. As soon as I started school in Hungary, going became more than an annual family reunion; it became a necessity.

I usually attended school in Hungary for the last few weeks of May, June, and the first few days of September. Then I would bring my Hungarian textbooks back to study them throughout my time in America. However, due to the amount of extracurricular activities I am involved in, I didn’t always finish studying by the time I went back to Hungary. Many years, I ended up finishing most of the years' worth of material in the summer months and took the Hungarian year-end exams in August. Since I was busy studying most summers, I haven't formed many close friendships in Hungary, which is very unusual for me. While my American life is full of driving to different places and being with different groups of people, my life in Hungary is relatively solitary, with only my close family and tourists for company.

A common misconception among my circles in America is that my mom and I go to Hungary each summer for vacation. But these trips are not a vacation. When I was in Hungarian school, I spent a lot of time studying. And my mother runs the Hungarian bed and breakfast she built. We live by the Lake Balaton there, one of the tourist hubs in Hungary. Unlike in the case of a vacation, it doesn’t really feel like I’m in a different place when I’m in Hungary. It’s as if I have two totally separate lives, but I never really finish either of them.

I love being in both places. In Hungary, I have my whole extended family. In America, I have my dad, my grandmother, my aunt, my friends, my school, and all of my activities. Yet, whenever I am in one place, I am always missing something, or someone, from the other. It is true that wherever I am, I always love something about being there; however, I am never totally fulfilled. This is why I think that it might be easier for both my families in Hungary and America than it is for my mom and me: either they miss me when I am gone, or they are happy and fulfilled when I am there.

I am often told that I am very lucky because I get to travel to Europe every summer. Although I don't normally consider my situation unusually lucky, when I think about it, I realize that I am very fortunate. Since I am so used to it, getting on a plane twice every year and flying across an ocean does not seem out of the ordinary. Living in America for a while and then going to Hungary just seems natural.

Nevertheless, I know that my parents' decision for me to live this kind of “split life” has afforded me many opportunities. I now have friends and connections on two continents, I have been exposed to many different European cultures, and I have the advantage of being bilingual. I am grateful to my family in both America and Hungary for making this lifestyle possible for me and my mom. Despite the hardship of always leaving things I care about behind for a long time every year, having a life in two countries is an experience that I am very thankful for. It is also an experience that I believe will help me throughout the rest of my life.

Thanks for sharing, Leila! What a fascinating and personal account of your two-continent upbringing! – FionaMadison, WI (2017-02-08 16:06)
Leila--wow, I am so impressed. This piece is really excellent and full of insight. Well done! – MckennaMadison, WI (2017-02-08 17:31)
Nice article! I have a life kinda like that too! I am half Bulgarian, and I go there every year. Your article was very fasinating! Good job! – Yoannamadison. wisconsin (2017-02-08 17:37)
Your article is very well organized! I wish I could've been as fortunate as you and travel to Mexico once in a while. If I had to pick one I prefer the "split life" than my one-sided reality. Keep up the great work- you're one to look out for! – Jacqueline Zuniga PaizMadison (2017-02-08 20:42)
Leila, this is a wonderful insight into your double life and you've written it so honestly and well. You are an engaging and an engaged citizen of the world. I'd like to say out loud in Hungarian that I am crazy happy to see what a mature writer you've become and more, a neat person! I can, however, pronounce this two syllable word: bravo. – Marnie SchulenburgMadison (2017-02-09 07:28)
Very well done, Leila. Your writing is crisp and clear. And your story is compelling. Excellent work! – james KramerMiddleton, WI (2017-03-27 18:06)
Thanks for sharing and explaining both the advantages and hardships of your experience. Your statement: "but I never really finish either of them" stood out to me - I wonder how writing and sharing your experience can help bridge the gap and "finish" the story for you! – Rachel ZekaMadison West HS (2019-02-25 13:42)