Goulash and the Gabor sisters. That's as far as most Americans' knowledge of Hungarian culture goes, but the United States and Hungary are out to change that with an exchange program beginning this fall in Louisiana - a state where "Bonjour!" is a far more common greeting than "Joreggelt!"
With a $142,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Hungarian language classes have been set up at Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) in Hommond and in kindergarten and first grade in Livingston Parish (county) - a parish across Lake Pontachartrain where about 125 families of Hungarian descent live.
Thirty students are enrolled in the SLU classes, and there are 126 in the Livingston Parish school system. The program is funded for three more years, and projects leaders hope to add the next grade to the program each year.
In return, the World Federation of Hungarians, an organization coordinating worldwide activities pertaining to Hungarian culture, is sending two teachers to lead the Livingston Parish classes, and it will fly the SLU students studying Hungarian to Hungary next summer for a month-long expense-paid trip.
Accompanying the collegians will be their teacher, Gisele Friedrichs, a native Hungarian who started the exchange program.
A linguist who once studied to be an interpreter, Friedrichs left Hungary in 1956, the year of the ill-fated Hungarian uprising. She lives in Baton Rouge and has worked with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), a program France set up to give a dose of its culture to this state's Cajuns.
Through her experience with CODOFIL, Friedrichs learned about the many types of grants and programs that could be used for a wide variety of educational projects, and she figured federal money could be spent on a program similar to CODOFIL for Louisiana's Hungarians.
These people, most of whom live in Livingston Parish, are descendants of Hungarians who came to Louisiana in the late 1800s and worked on sawmills and strawberry farms. During the process of Americanization, Friedrichs feels, many lost their language and parts of their culture.
"Schools took away this legacy," she said. "Now the schools must give it back. Only through schools can we give back the dignity of being a Hungarian."
Her work to set up this program took two years and included many telephone calls to Washington, a quwstionnaire about the project distributed among the state's Hungarian community and a trip to Hungary to sell her native country's leaders on the idea of contributing teachers and other services.
"I am a diplomat," Friedrichs said of her meeting in Budapest, the country's capital. "I am capable of getting my own way and getting people to do what I want."
To promote the program in the United States, she used the favorable response to her questionnaire, saying the people with whom she spoke were "floored."
Relying on her knowledge of federal grants, she said, "I knew that if 15 or more people demand a program, it has to be set up."
However, because of the comparatively small number of Hungarian families in Livingston Parish, Friedrichs appealed for federal money to teach French and English as well. The title of this project became "Harom," which is Hungarian for "three" - in this case, the three languages.
Her proposal won federal approval and the money started flowing July 1. One September weekend, Friedrichs escorted a Hungarian delegation through Southeast Louisiana and took them to a harvest festival in Albany, which is in Livingston Parish. There the visitors saw their native dances performed by a troupe of local dancers who had performed in last year's Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife.
"I grew up in a very small town in Hungary," said Dr. Zoltan Szabo, the world Hungarian Federation's secretary general, "and I hadn't seen anything like that since I saw old people dance when I was very young."
Szabo, who used to be Hungarian Premier Janos Kadar's health minister, said the start of Project Harom is part of a gradual improvement of relations between his country and the United States.
"I don't believe that we can say that Hungary from one end to the other has opened its doors," said Szabo, who spoke in Hungarian and used Friedrichs as an interpreter.
"The foreign policy of the Hungarian government has as its foundation the fostering of peaceful coexistence among nations, and this cultural exchange is part of this peaceful coexistence. As more and more of these things occur, the more they will open up the doors."
As Project Harom grows, Friedrichs and Szabo said they hope to supplement language instruction with courses in Hungarian culture to give students a better idea of the country from which Friedrichs, Szabo and many of the students' ancestors come and to foster a better attitude toward Hungary.