The idealism that cushioned East Europeans through last year's democratic upheavals has begun to wane. But a small group of Americans is hoping to show there is still a place for such dreams.

The first Peace Corps volunteers in Eastern Europe are infecting Hungarians with some of the idealism on which America has prospered.For Hungarians and other East Europeans, the initial euphoria at throwing off four decades of Communism has given way to gloom as people struggle to make ends meet amid inflation, unemployment and the vagaries of a new political and economic system.

The 57 enthusiastic Peace Corps volunteers are teaching a valuable skill that will help break down four decades of Cold War barriers. They also will help alleviate a sense of isolation inevitable after 40 years of Soviet domination, anti-Western propaganda and restricted travel.

Bonita Plymale, 39, who has been assigned to a new teacher-training college, said she thought Hungarians also felt cut off because their language is unrelated to any of the main European language families and is difficult to learn.

Dave Billett, 27, a volunteer at a dilapidated school on Budapest's Csepel island - a workers' district - said the contact with Americans enabled Hungarians to see that "the basic human (and) societal problems are the same" in the West.

Hungarian teachers have told volunteers they gain confidence from conversation with native English teachers. Behind the Iron Curtain, English teachers themselves often have never spoken to native speakers.

For the Peace Corps, the assignments in Hungary and Poland fulfill what director Paul Coverdell says was a long-standing goal of bringing U.S. skills and culture to Eastern Europe.

The Cold War kept the Peace Corps out for four decades.

Now, "the wall is down and the Peace Corps is clambering over it," Coverdell said in an interview at the organization's cramped Budapest office.

The volunteers who took up teaching posts in every county in Hungary in September were all ages and from varied backgrounds. But they were united in a desire to contribute to Hungary's struggle to get equal with the West in democratic principles and opportunities.

Plymale traced her motivation for leaving Highland High School in Albuquerque, N.M., after 17 years to the ideals of the 1960s, when the Peace Corps got off the ground.

"I think there are many people in the United States who are taking stock of what they're doing and maybe going back to some of the ideals we had in the late 60s and early 70s," she said.

Another reason she cited is likely to surprise Hungarians, dazzled by the variety of goods available in the West to consumers who can afford to buy them.

Plymale, who headed her school's English department for the last six years, said she wanted to get away from "worrying about how much money I'm making."

Coverdell said interest in the Peace Corps has increased dramatically recently, partly as a result of rapid changes around the world.

It was President Bush who proposed during his visit to Hungary in July 1989 that Peace Corps volunteers come to Hungary and Poland.

Coverdell said he hopes the organization, which has about 7,000 volunteers in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, will send people soon to most countries in the former East bloc.

A Peace Corps program is to begin in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in November. Coverdell said Bulgaria and Yugoslavia are also interested in English teachers.

In Romania, a team is looking at children's health to determine whether the Peace Corps could be of assistance.

Laszlo Vida, a senior Hungarian Education Ministry official, said he hopes to see the Peace Corps program expanded.

"We are very pleased to have the Peace Corps here," Vida said.

Students appeared to echo that enthusiasm.

On the second day of class, children in his secondary school begged him to stay beyond the two-year Peace Corps assignment, Billett said.

Plymale and Billett, a freelance TV production manager in Hollywood before he joined the Peace Corps, both said that in addition to telling Hungarians about the United States, they had a lot to learn from the Hungarians.

Plymale said she found the Hungarian educational system "excellent" and hoped to learn new techniques.

Billett, who is eager to learn Hungarian, was impressed with stories he has heard from Hungarians about their experience of the past 40 years.

Despite the hardship, he said, "they still have a sense of humor."