Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 15th

March 15th, 2007 turned out to be anything but expected - at least what our crazy conservative security teacher thought it would be. There were basically two predictions going into the big holiday - that all mayhem would break loose, cops would lay down their weapons, masses of people would swarm in and start a revolution - or most people wouldn't use this event for political gain and not much would happen. The second would eventually turn out - but let's start with just a little history.

So the history of Hungary after 1500 is basically about trying to throw off a greater power - either the Turks or the Habsburgs. In 1848 the Hungarians rose up against their Habsburg oppresors and initiated a full-scale War of Independence for about 9 months. The Habsburgs had many other problems besides the Hungarians so they turned to the Russians to help in shutting down the rebellion. This would not be the last time Russians would occupy Hungary and enforce a harsh law on the public. The Hungarians were mad, but got a large measure of autonomy in 1867 and then full independence in 1918. Ok so now to the juicy current events.

So last fall on October 23, the protestors used the ceremonies commemorating an anti-communist uprising in 1956 to voice their displeasure with the current government. Most people supported these efforts because many link the current government to the former communists.

After the violence was quelled last fall, many thought it would spring up again on March 15th. This didn't happen for several reasons. One of the most important is that the same ideological link wasn't there. This holiday was commemorating rebellions against the Habsburgs, not the communists. Another major reason was that there were international advisors in town and the police were much more accountable and prepared. All these measures allowed most of the festivities to go on without too much trouble.

At night though, there was some fighting. The police had arrested the main leader of the riots of October 23rd, and put him in a cell on the Champs Elysees or New York 5th Avenue of Budapest. Protestors tried to break him out and had several clashes with police, though there were only a few hundred participating. We of course followed the action but we were behind by about 1 hr. My friend Eric kept calling and updating us on what was going on as he was taking it in live, but we were still finishing our dinner. We saw all the remnants of torn down telephone booths and charred benches, but none of it firsthand. From all accounts, it was nothing like what happened on October 23rd. Since I didn't have any good pictures from March 15th, the one is from Alex last semester on October 23rd. You can see me standing next to Szabi in my sweatshirt in the lower left.

It really is too bad that such riots are hurting this country. It has many underlying problems and its economy is struggling. At the turn of transition it was supposed to be the first country to fully transition to a market economy - now it is in last place. And just think if this country after 20 years of peace lots of foreign investment, and many well educated, well meaning indviduals can't get this country working fully - how long will it take for Iraq or Afghanistan to get off the ground?

Monday, March 26, 2007

St Paddy's Day

I have to say that this year was probably my favorite St. Patrick’s Day yet. As you may know, I’ve unfortunately had to spend a lot of time with my new Irish “friends” here in Budapest after all my trusty American lads departed for the states. So of course we ended up spending the country’s unofficial national holiday at an Irish bar. First though the day had a very Hungarian beginning.

On March 15th, (which I still have yet to talk about), we met up with Liz’s Hungarian teacher from last semester who invited us with the rest of her class to an afternoon meal of gulyas, sweets, palinka, wine, and soccer. So for the big day we had a giant, delicious, Hungarian lunch at her house. It was a very interesting day because it shed a lot of light on how Hungarians live. The teacher, Maria, is a college professor who teaches English at one of Hungary’s most renowned universities as well as teaching us Americans some Magyarul. I don’t think she would mind saying just to illustrate that her salary is around $500 a month! – For a college professor. The lady is truly amazing but it shows how hard academics must work to make ends meet. This is true of all of our professors.

Maria and her husband Ferenc live in a flat that was built under the communist regime. They were able to buy the flat after the transition, but the buildings aren’t meant to last. They were in built in the fifties and designed to last for fifty years – but there isn’t enough money or houses for the people to move out so they have to make do and try to repair the old buildings. I make all this sound terrible but Maria is actually a great person and loves teaching English and Hungarian.

So anyway after they got us good and liquored up and incredibly full of food, we met up with Eric and another kid Ian, who is also Irish and studying to be a vet here in Budapest, at this Irish Bar called Beckett’s. Oddly the entire bar was filled with people watching a rugby match between France and Scotland (I think). Anyway France had to win by less than 23 points for Ireland to win the Six Nations Rugby trophy – something that they haven’t done since Ian has been alive. Well France had to go and screw things up and score a try (touchdown) in the very last minute and the TV judge awarded it after the field judge said it wasn’t good. Anyway it just means lots of controversy and France winning the trophy instead of Ireland. The pub was a bit disappointed at this. Still the day was a good one. I had my first Irish car-bomb “baileys and Guinness” thanks to my friend Pat, but the Irish are quick to point out that the Guinness just isn’t as good as it is in Ireland.

We watched a bit more rugby, went home for dinner then returned to the bar for the rest of the night. We danced to this live band with a guy from Ireland as the lead singer. I thought it was especially fitting that they finished off the night with a song about an event in Iowa: American Pie.

I must add that it is St. Paddy's Day and not St. Patty's Day as we say in the US. The Irish thought it unbelievable that we would nickname a holdiay after Patricia (nickname Patty) and not after Patrick (nickname Paddy). Just to clear up the confusion...

My Favorite City

For the past 7 months or so, I have been obsessed with the city Szekesfehervar for no particular reason, but there are many superficial ones. First of all, we pass it every time we head anywhere southwest of Budapest because it is a major rail junction. Secondly, I love the way it sounds (say-kesh-fay-hair-var). Last of all it means Seat of the White Castle and was the home of Hungary’s first kings and of course the link to the famous White Castle sliders. For all these reasons I had to see it, even if everyone was telling me that it wasn’t worth it.

I jumped on a train about noon after a very awkward transaction to buy the ticket. I had forgotten that Eric made me spend all my money the night before on a Chinese dinner. So I had about 200 forint in change in my wallet and the ticket cost 260. I happened to have about $3 wroth of Slovak money because I was supposed to go to Bratislava but overslept. Anyway through the help of a translator the lady said she would take my Slovak money because her son collects foreign currency.

So I sprinted off to get my train and saw it was still on the platform so I slowed to a walk. That’s right when it decided to depart. So running up to the train, I dashed in front of this guy hobbling with a cane and jumped on – then my conscience kicked in and I helped the injured guy get on.

The outskirts of Szekesfehervar looked a lot like Salgotarjan, but the downtown was pretty neat. It consisted of about four intersecting streets of cobblestones. Still I had to make the most of this city if it was going to be my favorite (I guess it made it in name only). You walk off the train and the train station is incredibly Socialist. It’s very square, plain, and the two story entrance had these two very simple murals dedicated to workers. The town was full of these murals dedicated to surveyors or factory workers – you can see some of them in the pictures.

For lunch, I decided had to compare the hamburgers in this white castle to the ones of the white castle in America. The hamburger was pretty good, but it just didn’t measure up to the quality of a slider. I walked around a bit more, got some chocolate and a much needed finger nail clippers and then headed for the train. At the train station I had to sit in this waiting room for about forty five minutes with these two sleeping, homeless guys. Then I went to buy a fanta where the guy in front of me was drinking a bottle of beer as fast as he could before his train departed. Ah Hungary. Made it back to Budapest safe and sound, and must say I’m a bit disappointed with Szekesfehervar, but I still have a special place in my heart for the city.

I forgot to mention that the first thing you walk by in this town is a graveyard which I think was dedicate to Russian soldiers liberating the city from the Germans after WWII. The last major German offensive was launched from just near the city. The graveyard had lots of Russian writing, Soviet star shaped flower beds, and a giant monument with a Red star on top. I thought for a second my train had travelled back in time.

Hungarian Stalker

Ok so this story should really alarm you about the level of stalking on the web. So I logged into my email last Sunday after a few days of being a tourist. There was this email in my inbox from a random Hungarian person. (It’s ok if you are reading this – I didn’t mind but it’s a funny story for the folks back home). This girl (I think) asked me what I thought of Salgotarjan and why I visited and what I was doing in Hungary. So this took me completely off guard and I wondered how this person got my blog address – I’m pretty sure my grandma and eric are the only ones that ever read it. And I know Eric wouldn’t spread rumors like that.

So I emailed the girl back and then did some intense detective work. After a google search I found a Hungarian blog about that town and they had somehow got word of my blog. I had Eric ask his Hungarian girlfriend to translate some of it (thanks Anna), and she told us what it said. Turns out this blog is dedicated to this town in northern Hungary. The town is pretty big so that makes sense, and the people on the blog were just kind of interested what a tourist had to say about their town. I don’t think many people visit it, because as you’ll see in my earlier post – it doesn’t have a lot of classical Hungarian traditions to offer. Still it was a good base for us to see the surrounding castles and Eric got to experience his first McDonalds breakfast there. I should probably stop rambling but I just would like to brag that there are now Hungarians reading my blog.

I’ll probably try to keep in touch with this person and see what they think of my continued posts about Hungary, but it makes you think about what kind of stuff you put on the web and how personal some people’s blogs are (ahem…Eric). Here are some pictures of the stalker's town.

Talk about awkward

Sorry its been so long since I updated the blog. Liz has been visiting from the states, and I’ve had midterms for all my tests this week. Still there is much to report. Probably what you most want to read about is the crazy March 15th celebrations, but you’ll just have to wait a few days for an explanation (it was pretty lame anyway).

I actually wanted to write about this really awkward encounter at the Natural History Museum in Budapest. I blame this encounter completely on Eric and Laura who went with me to the museum.

We got in for free and had a good time looking around and everything – its actually a pretty nice museum. But the really fun part was that they were having some type of reception. This involved all kinds of free wine and breaded meat which of course I was all over. Trouble was there was no one going for the reception area and this really burly looking guy was kind of standing in the way. So after reprimanding Eric and Laura several times, I finally convinced Laura to walk over with me. We snagged some food just as a huge crowd was descending so our entrance was safe. So we’re sitting around eating our food like mice on cheese when we spot this American looking guy. He’s wearing a Lake George, New York t-shirt and his wife and son both have old navy gear and jeans on. So Laura says, “Oh yeah, he’s totally American. You should go talk to him.” And Eric says, “Yeah, if I saw someone who I knew was from Ireland, I would definitely go talk to them.” So me never being one to turn down a challenge headed in like Little Red Riding Hood. Of course he wasn’t from the states, although he did speak English and was an artist funded by some Japanese couple’s art gallery in New York City – who knew? I had about a 30 second chat and tried to bring Laura in who introduced herself with a itty bitty whisper – Eric just avoided the conversation entirely. After a few minutes of awkwardness I made some half-assed excuse and bailed. It was really awkward – but the free wine and meat was great. Usually I’m the one that gets mistaken for being Hungarian, but I made a really big mistake this time. Oh well – shit happens.

The picture is just some random group of Indians that happen to show up around Budapest in bizarre places singing songs from Titanic and war chants.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Quality of Professors

After just about every class, I come away surprised at how cutting edge our professors are here in Hungary. I think it might have something to do with a) a small country and b) the quality of our university but it really is amazing. Just to give you a rough estimate we have had as lecturers: 1) former foreign minister of Hungary and ambassador to the US 2) former commissionar of the EU and ambassador to Denmark 3) man who is starting a new political party in Hungary 4) man who is president of the fan club of Hungary's biggest soccer team and 5) the foremost authority of Hungarian Art and Architecture.

The foreign minister and ambassador to the US was a beareded, humble old man that somehow in a class on European Integration got stuck on the relations between China and Russia. Still, the man had an amazing mind and went back to teaching history after he got kicked out of government. I wonder if a conservative government were in power right now, if all our professors would be in power and instead our professors would be liberal. Who knows.

The former ambassador was also a substitute but his English was better than mine. The man had amazing fluency and just rolled out stories about Copenhagen that we couldn't believe.

The man who is starting the new political party is the one pictured on a recent news magazine. Although he is quite arrogant, he was educated in the UK and knows his stuff about Hungary. He teaches at the NATO defense college in Germany and heads a think-tank here in Hungary.

The president of Hungary's biggest fan club is quite the instructor and hes only about 30 years old. Now some of my friends think he has a secret love interest, but I had better not put that here. Anyway he told us that when he gets called to speak on TV, about 4 out of 5 times its for politics but every once in awhile its to talk soccer.

Our art history professor is simply amazing and knows everyone in the field. He commands respect everywhere we go including the parliament and has so many ins in the city. Every museum we visited people were crawling on the floor to do favors for him.

Finally I can't forget to mention the two econ teachers I have. They have the most bizarre stories during communism. One worked in a gulag in the Soviet Union for a period of time. He tells us stories like one time he got off the train in Bucharest at 3 am and saw people lining up for bread because they had to get there that early if they wanted to get any of the rations. This is only one of many stories he has to offer. This might sound quite conceded and all that, but I think anyone studying in a small country like this would feel pretty amazed at what academics have to do to keep a small country afloat in the world. Or something like that.

Fun with the Night Bus

Contrary to what you might think based on Harry Potter, the night bus isn't always a pleasant experience. Seeing as I have no car in Budapest and most places are quite distant at 3 am, the night bus is an essential tool. Sadly it took two or three months to fully utilize the system, and as you will soon see, I haven't grapsed the concept fully. This post I want to dedicate to a) one specific long night of mistakes on the night bus b) the people you see on the night bus c) bad Hungarian conversations on the night bus, and d) early morning taveles via the night bus.

First of all, my bad experience with the night bus dates from about two weeks ago - and I was completely sober. I was just hanging out at a friends apartment until about 12:45, but this is late enough for the trams to cease running. Well i know an easy route home but it involves a little more walking or a shorter way home but with a bus that only comes once an hour. Well i got the once an hour bus, but failed to get off at my stop. I was daydreaming (night dreaming I guess) and figured the bus would drive past my apartment and then i would push the button. It didn't. So after three other failed transfer points, I finally arrived at the end of the line - in the middle of the Soviet/cornfield ghetto of Budapest. Normally I'd be at home in a cornfield, but not at 2 am and in 20 degree weather. So in broken Hungarian I ask the driver when the bus heads back. He said not for another twenty minutes. Well lucky for me I just happened to have the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy with me. I waited my twenty minutes, rode that bus for twenty minutes, got off waited for a half hour, rode another bus for 20 minutes and finally made it home. It took me almost 3 hours when it should have taken just over 30 minutes. Nothing really bad happened though so I can't complain too much - just got a lot of reading done.

The other thing about night buses is that the people on them are bizarre. If you make it on early, say between 12 and 2, you have the standard drunk college kids heading to or coming from a party. But usually you will also see about 10-15 guys per bus asleep. This is their sleeping quarters and it generally is every night. Besides these creepy guys you will randomly have about 5 poeple in really nice clothing that are coming from the office at 2 am? Awfully suspect. Also you will have standard drunkards/beggars that are either making fun of you or asking for money. While the bus can be quite comforting when you are really wanting to get home, it provides an adventure everytime.

The last good story about a night bus is when we were coming home from a club at about 3:30 am. A girl was visiting from Paris, so she didn't really speak Hungarian and wasn't really used to the medlam of the night bus. Just as we got on to the night bus, this crazy Hungarian really wanted to talk to us "Americans." So for about a half hour on the bus, this guy spoke to me in English and I answered him in Hungarian. The guy was quite thrilled to be practicing English and I'm pretty sure I was making up Hungarian words, but we had a nice conversation. He tried to trade me his Lonsdale hat for my Brewers hat, but I wouldn't acquiese.

Finally, the last oddity about the night buses is when we're headed on a day trip to some town in Hungary, but the train leaves so early that we have to catch the night bus to the station. Especially if its a Saturday morning, so here we are catching a 5 am train while there are people getting the night bus home after a night of partying. It makes you feel kind of odd, but also rewarding that you are seeing something a lot of the other stupid students are missing. Guess I'll use that as my reasoning.