Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.
Michael Weingartner (’09)
This morning began at 12:01 when I turned to Blake and said “Hey, Blake, its 12:01.” He nodded back to me, but amongst the sound of Katy Perry and Sean Kingston, I wasn’t completely sure that he had heard me. The place is Morrison’s 2, a Budapest dance club. I’m in a circle with Blake and about seven Hungarian students studying English. It’s very crowded and I don’t know where the other Flinns are.
I think to myself, this is going to be a good day.
Flashback to about five hours ago, which isn’t technically my day to blog about, but It’s kind of important, so, whatever. At 7 pm we Flinns met up with our Hungarian host students, who would be in charge of us for the next fourteen hours. We had met these people only once before and only very briefly before we were matched up. My host’s name is Alexandra Kálmán, but we call her Szandra, and she tells me that she and the other hosts have something planned for us already, and so they take us out for the night, first to a café, next to their university library, known as Könyvtár (Hungarian for “Library.” Go figure.), and then on to Morrison’s.
All in all, somewhere in this massive club built into a three-floor building out of the nineteenth century, there are fifteen Flinn Scholars and seventeen Hungarians studying English, which I begin to realize must be at least a little easier in a world where their nightclubs play American hits all night long. I’m dancing with Szandra and Blake is dancing with Eva while his host, Istvan, dances with another of his friends. After losing some of the other Flinns–trying to find a way to watch the Sun’s Game at three in the morning–and singing Backstreet Boys at the karaoke bar with four Hungarian strangers, Blake and I decide to call it a night at about three in the morning. I return to Szandra’s dormitory and I fall asleep by about four in the morning.
It’s six in the morning, and I need to wake up because today is another big day. I get up, spend twenty minutes trying not to scald myself in the dormitory shower (Hungarian showers–don’t get me started), spend ten minutes trying to translate to Szandra in Hungarian why Scyther is my favorite Pokemon, and then spend another forty minutes getting from the dorms back to the Radio Inn where Blake and I try to piece together our own stories while sharing tales of the previous night with the rest of the Scholars. It is nine in the morning by the time we all arrive and say goodbye to our hosts. I tell Szandra, my host, that we will be back in Budapest three more days in the near future and that we should get together. She emphatically agrees, and we say our goodbyes. Szandra and Istvan are the last hosts to leave the hotel.
Ten in the morning and the bus is packed up and we are on our way to a little place called Alsószentmárton. It’s a tiny village, about 1300 people, and every single person there besides the priest is a Gypsy. Now, I use the term Gypsy here because of what exactly we as a class have come to learn about this word. The Gypsy people are the single largest minority group in Hungary, comprising somewhere between 6 and 8 percent of the entire population. Many Hungarians refer to these people as criminals, drunks, stupid, lazy, dirty, and all sorts of other terrible things. The Gypsy people hold only three seats in the Hungarian parliament of nearly 400 representatives and are significantly behind their Hungarian neighbors in education, standards of living, employment, and even in their access to the Hungarian universal-health-care system. We are told that it is more polite, more politically correct, to refer to these people as the Roma, and as we tentatively spoke of them on our way to encounter them for the first time, this is what we called them ,because we did not want to offend a group that had already been through so much. I know that this is how I felt. And then we met them.
We are greeted before we even park the bus by children who burst out of their front doors and come running from all over the village to see the Americans. They call out to us as we walk from the bus to the community center, no bigger than a convenience store, in every English word they know.
“My name is Alex!”
We wave to them as we step into the community hall, where some of the women of the village stand, having been cooking since three in the morning (which I personally found ironic, but didn’t mention). We are treated to a remarkable feast, by far the best that I have had yet in Hungary. Goulash, chicken paprikash, peppers and salads and the most wonderful bread–and did I mention the bread? As we eat and eat and eat, we are being spoken to by Laszlo, one of the men of the village who tells us about his story and the story of his family and his people.
Laszlo grew up in this village and went to the Ghandi school, which we will be visiting in a few days. He attended university, one of the first ever to do so in this village, and received a degree in sociology. After this, he left to work for Princess Cruise lines as a waiter to make money for his family (19 percent of Roma are unemployed in Hungary) as well as to make his dream of seeing the world come true. He introduces himself and his community as being Gypsy, and he is proud of this. Later, I will ask him about how he plans to make changes in the village (He is running for office in a month) and then why he chooses to call himself a Gypsy instead of a Roma. He tells me that we cannot change who we are by changing our name. We must instead change the world so that the name Gypsy can become something to be proud of.
As surprising as this might sound, this is not what inspired me most in Alsószentmárton.
We step outside, and where before there were ten children there are now twenty, thirty, more than I can count, and more are coming. We have brought stickers, balloons, jump ropes, tennis balls, frisbees and Slinkies (which, in case you were wondering, everybody does love), and these we cannot give out fast enough to meet the children’s enthusiasm. We play tag. We make balloon animals. We play catch. After a while, Ravi begins to lose his language skills and devolves into a form of communication consisting of shouts and wails, which the kids seem to understand perfectly well. Derek teaches the kids how to dance and when he is finished, they end up teaching him how to dance. A boy named Alex runs towards me and jumps up onto my back and points forward, asking me to run. I oblige him until I am too tired and let him down. He runs to Blake and does the same thing a moment later.
All around the town we walk and play and run and jump and by the end of it, we are doing acrobatics in the grassy field outside the community hall and trying our best to catch our breaths, we are laughing so hard. And then the news comes: We have to be going. The kids don’t understand any English but when Michael tells us to start getting ready to leave, they are already upset. Laszlo and his wife say goodbye to us and present us with bread and drink (Tradition dictates that guests should never be let go without sustenance for the journey.) and bid us farewell. Adam decides to give one of the kids his ASU hat, saying later that it is the best seven dollars he has ever spent.
We take our last pictures, say our last goodbyes, and head onto the bus. As we go, Alex stops me to say goodbye. We pound our fists together like Hugh taught the kids to do, and he says to me “Thank You” as I get onto the bus and we drive away to Pecs.
In Hungary, May 30th is Children’s Day, and I still don’t know whether or not we made these kids’ day, or if they made ours. Either way, by the end of it all, I can say that I’ve never felt more like a kid.