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The Hungarian Pastry Shop
Nica Strunk, Alum
School of Law 1996
Columbia College 1992

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Columbia College, in 1989, I decided to study Russian. Within a week of starting my first-year Russian class, taught by a charming graduate student whose name escapes me, I feel deeply in love with this exotic language, its beautiful Cyrillic characters, passionate vowels and angry consonants, and with its brilliant, melancholy literature.

My first-year Russian section met five — count ‘em — five days a week at 10 a.m., on the seventh floor of Hamilton Hall. There were no free Fridays for Russian students. And we had quizzes almost every week. This meant that, unlike most of my friends who were gearing up toward an English or history major, I actually had to study on a regular basis.

I was a heavy smoker of Marlboro cigarettes at the time, a nasty habit that meshed perfectly with the whole Russian thing. I couldn’t sit and study for more than 30 minutes at the library without a major smoking jones, and sneaking cigarettes in the concrete stairwell outside of Burgess-Carpenter got old fast.

I soon found my solution: the Hungarian Pastry Shop. It opened at 8 a.m., and had a large smoking section in the back. A lot of people pretend to study at the Hungarian at night, when it is noisy and packed, but I consider that a euphemism for socializing. At 8 a.m., on the other hand, it would be nearly deserted, except for me, my Russian textbook, a croissant, café au lait, and a pack of Marlboro reds. One hour and forty-five minutes later, I would pay my miniscule bill and head back up the hill to Hamilton Hall, buzzing with nicotine and caffeine. I would wheeze all the way up the six flights to class, where I arrived at 10 a.m. sharp, perfectly prepared.

I vividly remember a call from my charming Russian teacher early the following summer, telling me that I had scored the highest of all the students in all of the first-year Russian sections on the final exam. This news confirmed my decision to declare Russian as my major and paved the way for an incredibly rich and rewarding course of study in Columbia’s Russian department with some of the best teachers in the world. I owe it all to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a not-too-clean, poorly lighted place that suited me perfectly.

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