Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Slovakia and Serbia for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.
Jonah Thomas (’10)
We have officially reached the halfway point of the 2011 Central European Seminar. After just 12 days of constant learning, exploring and living, we have already tackled the most pressing issues faced by Central Europe, and have traveled to two countries and are currently on the bus to the third – Sombor, Serbia.
Looking at our itinerary, we have had many cool lectures and presenters, seen incredible landscapes, and still have much more to come, but today is definitely the day everyone wishes they could blog about, because today we went to Alsoszentmaton, the Roma Village. I have been lucky enough to be given this blog day, but I am also under immense pressure to truly capture the joy, excitement, love, and real experience of Alsoszentmaton.
As I sit here looking at my fellow exhausted Flinns, I am proud to say that we all left every bit of energy we had at the Roma Village. When our bus pulled into this village of 1,300 people, 100% of whom are ethnically Roma (or gypsy), we were greeted by Lazlo, a Flinn Family friend of 11 years. The Flinn Foundation first met Lazlo several years ago, when he spoke at the Gandhi Gimnasium School, which we visited yesterday. He invited the entire Flinn class back to his village to meet his family; since then, the Flinn Central European Seminar has been “adopted” by the family and has made it a tradition to visit every year with the new Flinn class.
As soon as we stepped into Lazlo’s yard, we were greeted by at least eight smiling faces (one of which was only five months old) and the most spectacular garden I have ever seen. There were pink and red roses everywhere… No florist in the world could compete with this. All 26 of us (chaperones and guides included) then paraded into the kitchen and sat down, not expecting the feast we were served. We were given homemade gypsy-bread, each loaf the size of a small child, chicken goulash, and a platter of peppers. The food was incredible, but the best was yet to come…
After we all left Lazlo’s house, he took us on a tour of the village. A minute had not even passed, and there were already three young boys following us. I had been in the middle of the pack, so I didn’t have the chance to immediately speak to them. However, just moments after I had turned around to follow the group again, I felt a quick tug on my shirt and then a tap on the elbow.
I turned around and standing in front of me was my first Roma friend; his name was Roland and he was wearing a red, Ronaldo soccer jersey. He asked me for my name and I told him “Jonah.” That must be a difficult name for the children here to remember, because for the rest of the day he, and every other kid, called me “Jon” (with the long ‘o’ sound). This is the new identity I have acquired since being on this trip. Roland and I first connected because we both had our ears pierced; he was the one to point this out.
The second boy I met was named Loti; he had a cannon for an arm! We first met as I was walking down the street with the group, and I was playing with a paddle-ball (you know, the paddle that has a ball connected to it by a stretchy string). He saw me playing with it, came up to me, pointed to the toy, then pointed at himself and smiled. I immediately knew he wanted to have it for himself. As soon as I told him it was all his, he fist-pumped like Tiger Woods and couldn’t stop smiling. Throughout the day I taught him how to use it, and by the end of the day, he was a pro (my coaching had nothing to do with it; he was a natural talent and was so easy to teach).
The final kid I met was named Emilio. I can’t think about Emilio without thinking about myself; he was about three years old, wore a Pokémon shirt with soccer cleats, and was incredibly shy. I finally was able to break through with him and make him smile; who knew all it would take would be an insect sticker and balloon sword?
Not only were all the kids ecstatic about meeting people from outside their small village, but even the parents and grandparents of the children loved our presence. There was an elderly couple that sat outside their house the entire time, watching us play with the children. At one point, our football went into their yard, so as I retrieved it, I directed a smile towards them, and they returned the gesture; I could tell that they appreciated what we were all doing.
As the day continued, it was great to look around and see every single one of my classmates connecting with either a single child, or with a group of children. Everyone was able to connect via different outlets; I looked around and saw kids getting their faces painted, others playing catch with Nerf footballs, large groups of Flinns and children racing (the kids won most of the time), and others having sword fights. At one point, Ryan and I even shared our dance moves with some kids, not knowing they would come right back and completely out-do us with moves of their own.
This experience in the Roma village has been the best experience of this trip so far. Throughout this trip, we have discussed the idea of truly connecting and interacting with people from different cultures, but I had no idea that it could be as easy as playing with children. It is so interesting how people of different cultures can connect without any prejudice or discrimination.
For me, the visit to the Roma Village was more than just a chance to make a community smile and have fun; it was definitely an experience that put the pressing issues we discussed just days before into perspective. I realized the immediate need for a change in the opportunities given to the children, as well as the injustices that the Roma face daily. Meeting a group of children that will have to grow up dealing with the problems that currently plague the Roma saddens me, and has actually given me the motivation to hopefully return to Central Europe in the near future and also become active in attempts to increase opportunities of minorities in Arizona.
Leaving this village has been the hardest thing we have had to do this entire trip – even harder than carrying 50 pounds of luggage up four flights of narrow stairs. As we were heading towards the bus to leave, I felt a familiar tug on my shirt and tap on my elbow. Roland and Loti wanted to get a picture with me before I left. We took a picture on Roland’s phone, and then one on a camera we brought with us, because they wanted to make sure I had a picture of them as well. One of my classmates said it best when we sat down on the bus, “I left part of my heart in that village.” I know I left a large part of my heart in the village.
The first thing Lazlo said to us when we sat down for lunch was, “If you only remember a single sound, a single color, a single image… if you think about us just once when you go home… that will be enough.” I promise that when I return home, I will remember every single sound, every single color, every single child I played with, and that single Roma village.