Acting funny in the middle of nowhere …


The famous Bugaci horse riders out on the puszta ....
One of the Bugac horse riders out on the puszta ….

 Have you heard the philosophical riddle about “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” If memory from my philosophy degree serves me correctly, it’s based on George Berkeley’s theory of subjective idealism and it raises all kinds of questions about the knowledge of reality. Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived.

There is a more recent version of the riddle, which goes: “If a man says something in the middle of a forest, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?” 🙂

I started thinking about this when I decided to write something about the summer course that Dede and I used to do in a village called Bugac in the middle of the Hungarian Plain. Almost exactly the geographical centre of Europe, in fact. The course was called Drama Plus and ran every summer from 1993 to 2002.

Bugac was reachable by train on a narrow-gauge railway, which took about two hours to trundle there from the nearest city, Kecskemét. Or there was a bus which left from outside the Farm Implements Museum at 6am and returned at about 11pm.  Even so close to a city, it really did feel like the middle of nowhere.

Somehow we managed to persuade between 15 and 30 teachers a year to spend two weeks there, working together to find ways to make drama a core part of their teaching method. When we were rehearsing noisy sketches, especially after dark, I did wonder if anyone else out there beyond the trees could hear us…

I had done a British Council summer school in Kecskemét in 1992. One of the participants was a woman called Eva Berényi, who with her husband Gyuri owned a private language school called Coventry House (Kecskemét is twinned with Coventry).

At the end of the course, before I headed back to Budapest and my flight home, Eva persuaded me to drive with her into the nearby forest to look at a conference facility. It doesn’t take quite so long to get to Bugac by car, but it’s still a drive of nearly an hour.

What a conference facility it was! In the middle of a very basic farming village, here was a beautiful modern building with a thatched roof. Even on the hottest days of the year, it was cool and crisp inside. I immediately agreed to try to organise something for the following year with Eva and Gyuri. In the end, we continued to organise a course there for 10 years.

The British Council and the Soros Foundation were very generous with grants for the course. Soros in particular sponsored people from countries where opportunities to travel or to get training with native speakers were rare.

One year, we welcomed five teachers from Kyrgyzstan, one of whom, a man called Kerkebek, was actually a farmer as well as a teacher. His eyes lit up when he saw the Farm Implements Museum across the road, and he spent most of his free time there.

Kerkebek told us that on weekdays, he got up at 4am, tended to his cattle until midday and then travelled by horse and cart to the school where he worked. A journey of nearly an hour. He would work at the school until 7pm, then go back home by the same means of transport before spending another couple of hours with the cattle. He said he never got to bed before midnight.

I asked him if he ever fell asleep on his way to and from the school.

“Oh yes!” he said brightly. “But the horse knows her way home!”

In 1999, ten Mongolians arrived for the course three days late on Wednesday 11th August, which also happened to be the day of a spectacular total eclipse of the sun.

After meeting the other course participants who had already been together for three days, the Mongolians excused themselves and ran off to the kitchen to borrow some spoons and pans. Then they stood in the forest and beat the pans, a Mongolian custom designed to scare away evil spirits that emerge during solar eclipses. They then came back and sat in the conference room as if nothing had happened.

Some of the Mongolians later worked with Sue Mohamed, who was a brilliant and tireless adviser on the Mongolian English course project. You may remember that this project won an ELTon at  the British Council Innovations Awards in March this year. Dede and I felt a vicarious sense of delight when the award was announced.

Anyway, back to musings about drama training in the middle of nowhere.

In the mornings, there were classes on using drama to pep up every aspect of a typical lesson – grammar, vocabulary, pronunication etc etc –  and in the afternoons of the first week, we rehearsed a series of English Teaching Theatre sketches, which they performed on Friday afternoon.

On Monday of the second week, we filmed them making a news programme, with Bugac as the backdrop of all the stories (Daring raid on village shop, oldest Bugac resident celebrates 100th birthday etc etc).

On the last day of the course, the second Friday, the participants put on The People’s Show, which they had to devise and stage themselves in what little free time they had.

The only touristy thing we did was to visit the ranch even deeper into the middle of the puszta (plain) where frankly bonkers young men rode five horses at a time round in circles at high speed (see picture above). It’s a wow experience if you ever get the chance. One year a teacher fell in love with one of the horsemen, but that’s another story….

My favourite part of the course was the first Friday morning. The teachers were told throughout the week that nothing had been planned from 9am to midday on Friday. When they turned up, the chairs were in a circle and Dede and I were sitting there waiting for something to happen.

It was during these Friday morning sessions that I witnessed some of the best teaching I have ever seen. I also learned more about what it means to be a non-NEST, particularly one who has never had a chance to visit an English-speaking country, and who until the 1990s may never have met a native speaker face to face.

What did I learn about the non-NEST experience? I’ll tell you next time… 🙂

10 thoughts on “Acting funny in the middle of nowhere …

  1. I imagine we have a fair few people in common from the OSI/Soros network. We’ll have to catch up on that topic one day.

    And is there any TEFL luminary who hasn’t, at some point, worked in Hungary? I’ll obviously never make the grade since I fetched up in Hungarian not-Hungary (or Magyaristan as someone once called it), rather than the country itself.

  2. Hi Andy!

    Hungarian not-Hungary – ie Transylvania, right?

    You may be aware that my book Prospects was used extensively in Romania, and we actually wrote the Super Advanced level just for the very bright Romanian 12th graders who thought Advanced wasn’t advanced enough.

    The main requirment for the Super Advanced level was lots of authentic texts, novels especially, and at least ONE reference to Romania in them.

    I was pointed in the direction of a book called Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Do you know it? Written in 1986 about his visit to Romania as part of his hike across Europe which he started when he was 18 in 1933.

    There were some great pieces about meeting eccentric stamp collectors and people like that in Romania. Fortunately, I knew that if they were called Sechenyi or names like that, they were actually ethnic Hungarians, and the extract would get veto-ed by my hawk-eyed editors in Bucharest. I was therefore not able to use the really brilliant extracts.

    Thanks for accidentally reminding me of the book. I think I will re-read it!

  3. Hi Ken,
    I am really envious.I can picture this place and the sense of freedom you get in the plains.
    I am glad my name popped out from your various email addresses as I am ‘M’ mmmmm? I have picutures of Dede and you from 2006 IATEFL . Seem to be a long time back,
    By the way have you written ‘Room 101’ ? Your name appears as Kevin Wilson and I think it is you.This article has appeared in one of Sri Lankan TT articles, probably borrowed from India
    Best to you and Dede

    1. Helloooooo…

      I didn’t write an article called ‘Room 101’ – the author probably IS Kevin Wilson. I don’t know if the author of the article is the same person, but there is a Kevin Wilson who is an Australian comedian. Could he have written it?

  4. Dear Ken,
    My name is Galina and I am happy to get into your list of names (G)! We have met in Odessa where you presented “Move Ahead 3” and “Move Ahead Plus”. I have shared my students’ and my anthusiasm with you – they worked at the project “What’s in a Name?” (you have got a copy of it).
    This year we continue to work with your books and I hope my new students will enjoy it even more.
    Thank you so much for this joy and pleasure.
    Best regards,
    P.S. I hope, next time when you are on Odessa, you will have a few hours to visit our town Belgorod-Dnestrovsky.

  5. Hi Galina,

    I remember your name project. What your students wrote was SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than my piece in the book!!! 🙂

    My next blog post is about my visit to Ukraine. Hope you like it when you read it!

  6. Hi Ken,

    In 1999, the year when I had the pleasure to participate in Drama Plus, it took place in Lakitelek, not Bugac. But the Mongolians were really there and we had sooooo! much fun.
    (The venue, Lakitelek is currently used by Hungarian right-wing conservative party, Fidesz as an educational centre.)

    Big hug,

    1. Hi Krisztina!

      long time no hear… yes, Lakitelek was a great course, but I thought it would be confusing to mention our one-off visit there. I have great memories of the Mongolians too, and how the rest of you gave them such a warm welcome when they arrived two days late.

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