Special Feature: Eastern Europe travelogue 2006

May 30, 2006

By hammersmith

Every summer the Flinn Foundation escorts an entire class of Flinn Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week intensive seminar on the unfolding democracies of Eastern Europe. Scholars meet with leading political figures, learn the local history and culture, journey to important locales, and live amongst the locals. They return as seasoned travelers with a broadened view of the world–and wonderful tales to tell. Here are their adventures in their own words.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

By Ben Strauber

Abruptly awoken by the high-pitched beeping of my alarm, I realized that I had nine minutes to dress, breakfast, and reach the first of the set of trains that would take me to HIK. Matt Rolland found himself in a similar situation, and as we hurriedly prepared for our departure, we paused for a moment to lament our susceptibility to tardiness. This interval of nine minutes set the tone for the rest of the day, which for me consisted of a series of high-intensity events interspersed with periods of meaningful reflection.

Reaching HIK just in time, we took our seats and waited for our lecturer to begin. The day’s lecture focused on the perceptions of competition held by students in Hungary, Japan, and the United States. It was given by Marta Fulop, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which is a network of Hungary’s two hundred most talented and accomplished scientists. The chance to get a peek at the research of one of the Academy’s members had aroused my interest at the lecture’s first mention earlier in the trip. The lecturer lived up to her reputation, presenting us with a fascinating analysis of the style of interpersonal relationships and the views of success in each of the cultures under study. I was especially interested to learn that Hungarians have a strong fear of being better than others and place very little weight on long-term planning. Our lecturer attributed these phenomena to the long history of Hungarian loss and social upheaval.

The day of deep experience continued with a visit to the Budapest Synagogue, the second-largest synagogue in the world. The main building was amazing in its enormity and ornamentation, but in my view the most breathtaking part of the synagogue was the memorial in its rear courtyard. The memorial, dedicated to those Hungarians who died during the Holocaust, takes the shape of a weeping willow. Each of the willow’s leaves is engraved with the name of a Holocaust victim. Relating the willow to the Jewish Kabbalah’s tree of life, a symbol of immortality, I understood the great hope with which this memorial was constructed. Though the victims did not survive, their memory continues to live on, reminding us of the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The powerful symbolism of this memorial has stuck with me since.

Following an exploration of the synagogue, we made our way to the nearby museum, where we learned about a few points of Hungarian Jewish history.

And, of course, the day wouldn’t have been complete without an awkward (but enjoyable!) attempt to practice my use of the Hungarian language. Stepping into the room immediately adjoining the museum, I encountered a table of Yiddish folk CDs. On this table, I decided, could surely be found the perfect Father’s Day gift for my dad, a man of Jewish ancestry and fine musical taste. I merely had to figure out which CD best suited him. The complicating factor: neither of the women behind the table knew much English beyond the words “three thousand forint” (which was, conveniently, the price of the CDs). Equipped with the Hungarian words for “music,” “favorite,” “violin,” “good,” and “beautiful,” I managed to inquire about the women’s favorite CD and its musical style. Unfortunately, I was not yet versed in the vocabulary necessary for a discussion of vocal song, so I proceeded to ask about which of the CDs included singing by issuing a series of hand gestures and semi-melodic sounds. After a moment of confusion, one of the women grasped my meaning and answered my question. Using the information I had gathered, I made my selection, thanked the women for tolerating my broken Hungarian, and left satisfied with my work.

Next, after returning to the Radio Inn for a brief pause, I set off for the opera to meet the rest of the group. Here, we watched Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. The opera tells the story of a man whose obsession with winning a woman quickly morphs into an obsession with winning a card game. The man’s strong desires result in the deaths of two other characters and his own suicide. Although I was able to understand these major plot points with the help of my program and my limited knowledge of Hungarian, I’m afraid I missed a few of the opera’s subtleties. While those who fully understood the opera’s Russian singing or its Hungarian translation may have been depressed by the opera’s dark complexities, I was merely excited to recognize that these dark complexities did indeed exist. The beauty of the singing and the story made the evening at the opera incredible.

The night finished off with dessert at a nearby coffeehouse. I had somloi, a delicious Hungarian specialty consisting of sponge cake, raisins, and walnuts submerged in rum sauce. Dessert was accompanied by an impromptu Hungarian lesson from our wicked cool program director Agi. I learned to say “dead tired” (hulla faradt), a phrase appropriate after this day of amazing happenings. After dessert, I walked home, silently lost in thought about the day’s experiences.


Monday, June 12, 2006

By Robert Gibboni


Today marked our return to Budapest and, sadly, the beginning of the end of our Central Europe trip. Luckily, we were granted one last chance to roll in the hay before we had to roll into the big city.

To the casual American observer, Hortobagy seems to be a mix between the Wild West, the Fred Astaire Dance School, and Kansas. Hungarian cowboys abound in Hortobagy, and after a brief spell of skepticism over the claim that any country besides America, the home of both John Wayne AND Bush’s Baked Beans, could have cowboys worth their salt, our Hortobagy hosts quickly demonstrated their skill in the saddle. I use the term “saddle” loosely; the preferred saddle of these cowboys lacks a girdle (the part that wraps around the horse’s belly, as I learned), placing it somewhere between riding bareback and riding on a buttered bowling ball while wearing Goretex britches in terms of human-to-horse traction.

Hortobagy is also the undisputed “whip capital” of Europe (not to be confused with the “whig capital” of Europe: Scotland (or the “wig capital:” Vienna)), as indicated by the copious number of whips wielded by the locals and the skill and ease with which they wield them. Not surprisingly, the graceful flailing seduced many of my fellow Flinns into trying it out for themselves. The results were embarrassing, to say the least. I imagine that, to an outside observer, the ensuing scene would resemble some strange Pagan self-mutilation ritual. It went like this: one of our number would come into possession of a whip; the remaining whip-less Flinns would clear a swath of ground around the armed Flinn; that person would then awkwardly thrash about while the others would shout out supposedly helpful comments while motioning wildly with their own imaginary whips. The whip would get passed along from Flinn to Flinn until, finally, some Hungarian onlooker would be recruited to show us how easy it really was. Luckily, there was no shortage of sufficiently trained locals; nearly any Hungarian could do it, as was clearly demonstrated when our bus driver took the whip and proceeded to crack it effortlessly numerous times. (In all fairness, Matt Rolland was indeed able to crack the whip, a talent for which I am extremely grateful since it made a small but perceivable improvement to our credibility as Arizonans.)

After a tiresome day’s play, we bid farewell to Hortobagy and made for Budapest. Our next lecture was to be given by Tamas Daroczi-Bardos, a Hungarian musicologist and composer. I had been looking forward to this lecture for most of the trip, as music is a passion of mine. The lecture did not disappoint. Mr. Daroczi-Bardos was a very engaging lecturer, weaving a rich tapestry of Hungarian musical history for us complete with clips from various styles ranging from traditional folk music (sung beautifully by Mr. Daroczi-Bardos himself) to the wonderfully modern music of Bela Bartok and Franz Liszt.

Seeing the sun set on the first of our last days in Budapest, I am inclined to at least make an attempt at giving some impressions of this beautiful city. Budapest was my first glimpse at a European metropolis; my introduction to a continent that had until a month ago been known to me only through history books and the exceptional movie that made it across the Atlantic. Because of this, I feel a sort of special connection to the city. I have found so many answers here, but I think the questions I have found are of greater value. I would like to list a few here. For starters, what is all that cotton-looking stuff that is floating around all over the place? Also, what do Hungarians like so much about Korn? What am I supposed to look at while riding the Metro? Why overalls? And finally, is there anything in this country, nay, in this world that cannot be described as either “hasznos” or “nem hasznos?” I would venture to say there is not.

Signing off until next time, Robert Gibboni III


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Annelyssa Johnson

Today was much driving from Romania back into Hungary. We stopped about an hour from the border and had a nice picnic in a park. Some wandered around while others played soccer or sat in the grass. The sun was finally out so it was perfect weather.

We crossed the border without losing a Flinn and drove into Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city. We checked into the university’s dorms and then the group split up. Some went to a service conducted by a Calvinist theologian while others went to the baths. I went with the group to the baths. While we knew where it was supposed to be, we were confused by the apparent lack of baths.

It turns out the building was a hotel and the baths were in the back. There were three different sections, one with lanes, another for children (including an awesome looking slide that sadly was closed), and then a warmer bath with mostly older people.

We then took the tram to the restaurant for dinner but had to get off early because today was Turkey Day. There was a sweet festival going on with a band and what looked like a market.

Dinner was amazing and we all sat in these chairs that looked medieval. It was Lara’s birthday so we sang her a song and gave her a cake with candles. Towards the end, however, most were captivated by the melting candles on the table and what formations they would make as they dissolved. Oh yeah, we truly are special children. 🙂


Saturday, June 10, 2006

By Devin Mauney

Today was our last full day in Romania, and as such it served as an opportunity to fill in the last few pieces of my understanding of how contemporary Romania is influenced by recent history.

Our first activity of the day was a visit to the Romanian Revolutionary Museum in Timisoara. The museum was not like one of the well publicized and decadently ostentatious museums we found in other cities; it was tucked away in a markedly old and externally unkempt building. Upon our arrival the single curator (a kind-looking old man who participated in and lost his wife in the revolution) for the museum greeted us and directed us to the first exhibit. It was a gorgeous mural depicting Christian symbols dedicated both to those lost in the uprising and the glory of God. The part of the mural that most caught my eye was the representation of two saints, one catholic and the other orthodox both paying homage to the same God. This was to represent the partnership of the Hungarian and Romanian cultures that converge in Timisoara and their mutual assistance in the Romanian Revolution. It was a scene of understanding, compromise, and acknowledgment of similarities rather than differences, and I found its message inspiring.

Our guide then led us upstairs to view photos of the uprising and to watch a short documentary on Ceaucescu and the uprising against him. Finally viewing images of the life leading up to, during and following the revolution was so important. Seeing the palace Ceaucescu built as his people slowly withered on ever reducing rations was impactful. Seeing images of oppression allowed me to finally understand how a protest of a priest’s eviction from his home could in two weeks erupt into a revolution that lead to the death of an autocratic dictator.

In the afternoon we traveled to a Roma Community Center. It was located in a neighborhood that had traditionally been considered a slum, but from the Center you would never know. It was filled with computers, art supplies, books, musical instruments – everything needed to help kids learn. We were introduced to the work done there by one of the staff members and several of the students, and it was certainly impressive. Not only do they work to prepare disadvantaged children to succeed in school, they also provide programs for there moms, and dormitories for young women continuing their studies (something very rare for the Roma of Romania). After a question and answer period we made it to the best part of the day, giving toys to the kids at the center and playing games with them. A lighthearted ending to a day heavy with content.


Thursday, June 8, 2006

By Lynne Abbuhl

Everyone woke up early this morning in order to make a timely departure from the small village of Homorodszentpeter. After eating a quick breakfast with our host families, all of the Flinns and hosts met at Kinga’s home to say our final goodbyes. Before exchanging gifts, Kinga shared a story with us that she believed accurately depicted the relationship between her village and our group. Her story described the difference between the bear and the eagle. The bear had to climb to reach the peak of a very tall mountain, while the eagle had to descend to reach that same point. In her eyes, her village was much like the bear, while we corresponded to the eagle in the story. The moral was that each group had a very different perspective on the same issues. This directly related to a conversation that we engaged in the previous day regarding Romania’s accession into the European Union and the fate of her small village. While the bear and eagle analogy did fit, Michael added that the bear often has a more grounded position that allows it to see particular details that the eagle can easily overlook. I thought that this was a very important point, because as outsiders, our group of college students did not have the right perspective to provide a solution to Homorodszentpeter’s diminishing economy. However, by turning to the village and its vast knowledge of the community, the people of Homorodszentpeter should be able to construct a viable solution to the accession to the EU. Once we exchanged gifts and thanked our hosts, we loaded up the bus to travel to Sighisoara for some sightseeing.

During the three hour bus ride to Sighisoara, we reflected on our experiences in Romania thus far. In particular, the group chose to focus on two important environmental lectures and the discussion section at Homorodszentpeter. The environmental discussions sparked a lot of controversy within the group because the lectures were very heated and very emotional. However, I think that this conflict and disagreement really furthered the learning process and allowed all of us to become more involved in the issues at hand. The reactions to the discussion session in Homorodszentpeter were generally negative because most people felt that we could not provide the answers that Kinga was looking for in response to the dissolution of the village’s economy. However, we did agree that we did what we could and also agreed that Kinga was just looking to begin a discussion. This reflection session was very informative, and it was helpful to hear everyone’s opinions on the issues we were only able to discuss briefly before this point.

When we arrived at Sighisoara, most of the group went up to the Lutheran church in the older part of Sighisoara. The history of the church was amazing, and the artwork really provided a link to the history. In particular, I was enthralled by the recovered frescoes adorning each wall of the church. I was amazed that anyone could come in and simply whitewash over these beautiful works of art and not give a though to the history they contained. However, when the frescoes are recovered, as these were, it’s fascinating to see how different scenes were depicted. For example, one of the most prominent frescoes in the church depicted the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost all in the same face, which is something that is not done anymore. After this visit, we had several hours of free time in Sighisoara. Many people chose to visit the large clock tower in Dracula’s castle, and we also took advantage of the many Dracula themed shops and restaurants. When the free time was over, we loaded the bus for Deva.

Driving into Deva, the entire bus seemed to notice the great impact that Communism had on the city. The architecture was plain and square, and the city just looked as though it had been run down during the age of Communism. We had already passed several old Communist factories, but it was really fascinating to see how Communism completely took over this one small city. It was sad to note that the plain buildings seemed to block out the rich history and beauty that the city did hold. However, once we had some time to explore the city a bit, we saw that there was much more to the city than the strict architecture we first encountered.


Wednesday, June 7, 2006

By Melissa Lamberton

My host family in Homorodszentpeter served us bread, cheese, meat, and boiled eggs for breakfast, along with a sort of blueberry brandy which seemed far too alcoholic to drink in the morning. They live on a small farm with three cows, a pig, a horse, and a barn full of sheep, all of which I met last night. It is the very first house in the village, but still only a five minute walk from the center, where the church is.

In the morning, we all gathered at the church to hear a lecture from Kinga Szekely, the Unitarian minister here. She spoke about her concerns with Romania’s future entrance into the EU, and what globalization will mean for the villagers and their culture. At the end of the lecture, she surprised us by asking questions about our thoughts on globalization and what can be done.

I believe Kinga hopes that we, the students, will take from this discussion a more cynical attitude toward globalization. But I believe we all came away feeling disillusioned and a little bruised by her manner of getting the point across. Halfway through the discussion it became clear that she did not like the answers she was getting: but the fact is we simply have no answer for her. I suppose we should have said that, but after spending a night immersed in their beautiful culture of dancing and food and music, I think we all wanted to offer her a little hope for the future.

Later, I gave her a dreamcatcher I had brought from home. Although their culture has been nearly destroyed by globalization, I do not believe, as Kinga does, that it is lost. I wanted to give her something that represented hope for the future of the village, but I do not think the gesture was really effective. She seemed, perhaps rightly so, to have already lost all hope.

The afternoon was much more lighthearted. We all climbed on to horse-drawn wagons and set off for the village of Szekelyderzs, a three hour trip. The name of the driver of my wagon, we learned on the way, was Imre, and the name of the horse was Chelog which (if I had spelled it correctly) means Star. At Szekelyderzs, we visited another Unitarian church that has existed since medieval times. There were fragments of frescoes on the walls that tell the story of a king victorious in battle: propaganda to improve the people’s morale. There was also Runic writing on one of the bricks. This church showed the signs of a long and violent history: there were arrow slits in the walls of the tower, and a storage area where the villagers still place their pork.

We returned through the beautifully green Transylvanian countryside, although for the people in my wagon the trip took a little longer. Robert lost his camera and we had to go back looking for it. Matt R. taught us to make flower chains while we were waiting, and Urusa gave one to Imre as a thank you for waiting, which I think he was quite amused by. We find out on the way back that he is engaged to a girl in one of the villages we pass through, and we spent the long journey back trying to teach him American love songs.

Dinner, back in our home village, was outdoors and absolutely delicious after our long trip. We ate hot potato soup, bread, and polenka for those who wanted it. Afterwards was dancing in the community center. Matt R. played the fiddle along with my host father, who played the accordion. I know my host father was touched because he mentioned it to me the next morning. Clouds built on the horizon, but for the first day in a long time it did not rain.


Tuesday, June 6, 2006

By Adrienne Contos

I have lived my whole life in the United States, and I only speak English well, so I expected to be challenged by the differences in language on my trip. However, in Hungary a person either spoke English or there was a translator nearby for communication. On June 6th in Romania, I learned how to communicate without a common language.

In our free time after lunch, Ben and I took a walk to the castle. We tried to walk into the city hall and another building but were stopped by security guards. We then went to a cafe and bought doughnuts. I tried to communicate with waitress who only spoke Romanian. We managed to order coffee, but I could not explain that I wanted cream. The language barrier was a new experience for me.

The language barrier was more interesting as we traveled to the village of Homorodszentpeter. My host Gyongyi spoke only a few words of English, and I spoke less Hungarian. Most of the night Agi translated for us, but while she was bathing (in a basin, we had no bathroom), I tried to communicate with my host directly. I showed her pictures of my family, and she knew the words for mother and friend. I learned the word sz p, which is “nice”. I then decided to try drawing pictures. I drew a map of Arizona and labeled Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson. I then started explaining where I lived and went to school. I then continued to discuss schools, majors, and cacti with pictures, laughter and hand gestures. It was amazing because my host understood what I was saying. And even more important, my host and I shared and understood emotion. We connected in a way which was unnecessary to speak the same verbal language.

I became good friends with my host. We laughed and talked to each other in two different languages. She would point to the sky and say something in Hungarian and I would comment that it was a beautiful night.

Although this blog is only for the sixth, this story continues onto the next day and the friendship for long after.

The next night, I again decided to talk to Gyongyi without a translator. We exchanged addresses, and I promised to write. Then she got out the dictionary and pointed to a word. It was varr g p, which is “sewing machine.” I was confused. She then showed me the word envelope then another word with the root v r, which meant “ruins of a castle.”

I asked Agi in the morning what she could have meant, and if there was a word close to var that meant letter. Hagi asked Gyongyi, and with much laughter explained to me that she meant the verb var, which means to expect or wait for. She would anticipate my letter.

When I left Gyongyi, I tried to say sz p, in the context “it was nice to meet you.” Agi laughed and tried to teach me the proper Hungarian. Instead, Gyongyi said it to me in English. Language may be important for details like cream in coffee, but for life emotion and sincerity is more important.


Monday, June 5, 2006

By Nicole Rennell

Monday was our day of physical activity! We began in the village of Torocko and after viewing a water mill, hiked for four hours to the top of the nearby mountain. The group split, but a good number made it all the way to the top and took some great photographs of the surrounding valleys. Also, the most exciting part for me was the clouds that swept over the mountain as we were at the summit. We proceeded to take pictures literally within the clouds. The hike was strenuous, but really enjoyable, even with the bit of rain at the end. It is one of my favorite aspects of the adventure thus far. After a delicious lunch at the guest house in the village, we proceeded to two lectures on the Targu Mures University faculty of economics, tourism, and administrative sciences and on tourism in Romania. The lecturer on tourism also organized a basketball game to challenge us against some of his colleagues. We lost, but did not play poorly considering we were not really prepared or dressed for the occasion and had never played together. Finally, we had dinner with the traditional cabbage wraps/rolls and goulash. Today was physically demanding, but most enjoyable.


Sunday, June 4, 2006

By Kirsten Pickering


Four to six hours of sleep later, we rolled out of bed one by one, trooped to the breakfast table, and compared notes on what we did after dancing last night. Some searched for an internet cafe, others, like myself, walked back and collapsed. Dancing at the Latina Club – including the chaperones, Mada, Zolton, and Michael – made my night. Luckily, the lectures today were filled with controversy and intrigue; otherwise, I might have fallen from Michael’s grace.

One thing Romanian environmentalists have in common with American environmentalists: even when they embrace a common cause, the question of rejecting the “system” or exploiting it pits them against each other. Our lecture series today featured an environmental economist and two activists. While the subject area of the first speaker covered waste disposal, she certainly seemed to have strong opinions on the subject discussed by the other two. They presented the case of Rosia Montana, a little mining town where Roman mining galleries and valuable architectural sites sit right on top of a cache of gold and silver. The big-time corporation that wants to level the town, the mining galleries, and everything else, will give the government just two percent of the profit, employ just a couple hundred people, and build a tailing pond full of toxic sludge a few kilometers away from human habitation.

While the “wactivists” clicked through picture after picture of sign-waving Rosia Montana residents and described a mining disaster that killed all the fish in the Tisza river, the economist shook her head in deep dismay. She seemed to agree with the two on the basics: the local government should oppose the project. However, she also wanted an economic analysis of the situation. The profits from this project, in the short term, could not outweigh the economic costs of a possible environmental disaster, the costs of human relocation, and the value of the architectural materials lost. Using charged rhetoric only isolates the officials, politicians, and corporations that environmentalists want to persuade.

After hearing one activist casually mention that the Romanian Institute of Economics did not support the project, I think we all wondered why they considered that piece of information so insignificant. They showed every dead fish in the Tisza, but not one slide mentioned that they had the economists on their side. We had a discussion on the lecture en route to Rosia Montana. It seems that in all of our various causes, from Devin and Joel’s support of the Democratic Party, to my interest in homosexual liberation, to Melissa’s environmental advocacy, we all value speaking (as Melissa called it) “the language of the enemy”. You cannot force people to change what they value all at once. Right now we know how to value money; we have a harder time evaluating bird species or Roman ruins.

Yet I wonder how honest that choice – the choice to use the system – would seem to those activists. As we walked among Roman tombstones and descended thirty meters into the labyrinth of galleries, I knew that I have sympathy with the activists’ passion. And I knew that we cannot honestly reduce all the value of an area like Rosia Montana to economics. The real goal of those activists – beyond simply saving this town – is to force a system change, to protest a corporation’s ability to simply purchase ecosystems, historical sites, and human health.

Does speaking corporate language hurt their cause? Perhaps. Yet we need to get smart in our causes; we need to compromise. Over time, if we meld economics and environment, we may create new categories of values. We need money and jobs and change as well as history and music and trees. I want all of them; hopefully we won’t settle for just one at the expense of the other.


Saturday, June 3 2006

By Annelyssa Johnson

The lecture we had today about Transylvania history was something that I found incredibly interesting. Transylvania is so ethnically diverse and yet there seems to be such strife between Romania and Hungary and the citizens within this area. Ironically, Romanians were here first yet no one seems to want to acknowledge it.

We had free time after the lectures so most of the group went to Pizza Y where we ate outside and listened to techno music playing from the speakers. Once finished, we went over to St. Michael’s church where outside in a tent was an antique market. There were all kinds of pictures, knives, pocket watches, locks etc. Inside the church was amazing. There were beautiful stained glass windows and the choir was practicing for the mass the next day so we sat and listened as they played. It was so peaceful. We soon left and went and had the best hot chocolate ever. It was so thick I’m pretty sure it was melted chocolate. We then went window shopping and got caught in the rain. By the time we got back to the hotel we were drenched. I’m starting to understand what rain is… living in the desert I thought it was a myth like unicorns.

We then went and watched a Hungarian folk dance group. This was by far the most fun I have had. They performed for us and then we danced with them. It was something like Riverdance in which the performers were being attacked by mosquitoes. There was much twirling and leg slapping by the guys.

We then went to a restaurant and I was surprised with a cake and tea candle for my birthday. After dinner, the entire group went out to Club Latino where we danced for hours.


Friday, June 2, 2006

By Nicole Rennell

We have made it to our destination of Cluj, Romania. Twelve and a half hours is a long time to spend on a bus, but thanks to a simple mechanical error of omitting pages of Lara’s passport on the part of the United States State Department, we spent this time on a bus trying to remedy Lara’s incomplete passport situation. Our ultimate solution was for Lara and Michael to travel back to the US embassy in Budapest by taxi to arrive before the embassy closed so that they could issue a new passport. The embassy stayed open late to accommodate Lara and Michael and they were successful. Hopefully, they will be rejoining the group in Cluj tomorrow. Meanwhile, on the bus, we had a two hour reflections session, mainly covering Roma issues, but also concerning all of our adventures thus far in Hungary. I had read a book about Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust which took place in Budapest. This book was interesting because of the places it described that I could remember walking by, and also because it gave me a view of what happened during the Holocaust in Budapest, a city not usually associated with the Holocaust.

Also of note today, we were served our first glasses of Polenka, the whiskey like substance we were warned about before departing from the US. Most of us were brave enough to try once, but agreed that it was truly vile tasting. A new experience nonetheless. Blogging is harder when we are not in a location for more than a day, but we do our best. Warm wishes from Cluj!


Thursday June 1, 2006

By Matt Rolland

Today we went to a chain of caves on the Hungarian – Slovakia border in Aggtelek. After climbing down 130 steps into the damp and musty earth, we were greeted by the drip drip drip of water falling from thousands of stalactites.

After a brief introduction from our tour guide about the caves origins (Formula for Aggtelek caves: billions of kilograms of limestone + a few tectonic plate shifts + hot water = one 26 kilometer chain of caves), we started our march into the center of the earth. We learned about different stalactite formations, such as the “so called” cauliflower formation, harp form, and christmas tree formation. We visited the Tiger Cave, the Bear Cave, the Turkish Tower, the Alligator cave, all named for stalactite formations that resemble animals if you squint hard enough.

One of the highlights of the cave experience was walking through an enormous cavern which has been converted into a concert hall. Our guide clicked off the lights and as a soulful Hungarian folk song echoed through the cavern, we gazed in awe at the beautiful towers. A light show highlighted the breathtaking formations.

After many more meters through the caverns, we emerged to the bright light of day and prepared to embark on the next part of our journey to Romania. Before we would travel to Cluj however, we stopped in a small Hungarian village called Turistvandi. After dropping the luggage into our houses, we walked to a centuries old water mill. We toured the dusty but sturdy mill and then met with a local carpenter. He shared his woodcarvings with the group, including a miniature replica of the town water mill. Communication was difficult, but the few words we did know, such as “gy ny r” (beautiful) and “kusinum” (thank you) came in handy. The carpenter pulled out a musical instrument he played called the “tsizara,” which is a four stringed Hungarian instrument that resembles a hammer dulcimer. He rummaged for a pick in his house and then began to strum a melody for our group. Afterwards he offered the pick to the group, and I stepped forward to try. Moving my finger up and down the neck, strumming awkwardly, I did my best to imitate the tune he had played; it was similar to folk songs I had heard before, but different enough that it was difficult to imitate the Hungarian sound. However, the opportunity to share this instrument with the carpenter was a lesson in the power of music to bridge barriers of language. The smile on his weathered face spoke multitudes about the joy of connecting with new friends.

The rest of the night was spent eating Hungarian goulash, playing soccer, milking goats (Ty and Michael both win the award for goat milking stars), and conversation. Today was a day for strengthening friendships and coming closer as a group. One of the central goals of this trip is to form friendships, and this day provided many opportunities to laugh, relax, and see some of the beautiful scenery of southern Hungary. We thanked our hosts in the morning for their generous hospitality, and in the words of Robert Gibboni, “for warmth and kindness that nourished us both physically and spiritually.” Taking a lesson from our hosts, kindness and hospitality are not unique to any language but lifestyles of the traveler.


Wednesday, May 31

By Devin Mauney

Today began with driving. Because we are visiting so many Hungarian and Romanian towns quite a few of our days involve riding in a bus for most of the morning and then learning about the new locale in the afternoon. This particular trip involved traveling to a small town called Ozd in the underdeveloped Eastern side of Hungary and touring a manufacturing plant of a rather large company, GE.

After a good deal of sleeping, eating, and talking on the bus we arrived at the GE factory in mid-afternoon, and immediately upon seeing the complex I was struck with several impressions. It looked clean, well landscaped, boxy, and frankly, American – all of these aspects made the plant contrast sharply with the surrounding community. We went inside for a short introduction regarding when the facility was built (late nineties), what they make there (mostly circuit breakers and related items), and what the role of the factory was in the local community (massive job creation, high school internships and some corporate citizenship-type community development programs). We then took a tour of the entire factory.

On the tour I was surprised at how different this plant was from the Videoton (a formerly state-owned Hungarian competitor company) plant we toured several days ago. The GE plant looked busy, bright, clean, and had an air of efficiency; Videoton had none of these things. I also found that GE was looking to expand operations in the area while Videoton was fighting to stay alive. I’ll refrain from using this blog entry as an opportunity to build an argument about trade policy from this example. But, I will definitely affirm that this experience gave me much to chew on regarding the role of foreign direct investment in underdeveloped countries.

After the tour we found ourselves significantly behind schedule (not particularly unusual for us as a group, or me as an individual), so the following event (a trip to a local high school) was cut a bit short. At the high school we were able to just sit and chat with the students for a while. Like most of today’s Hungarian students, these had the ability to speak at least some conversational English. We talked mostly about what their lives were like and what their interests were, and almost all the students were interested in some American cultural export. Favorite TV shows, movies, and music were often American; a few students would name both a favorite American TV show and a favorite Hungarian show when asked about their tastes. I knew beforehand about the popularity of American pop-culture abroad, but I had no idea it was as pervasive as this encounter made it seem.

Leaving the school we went to dinner, and afterward, the day closed as it opened, on the bus.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

By Urusa Alaan

It was a bittersweet day as we set sail for the unpronounceable town of Szekesfehervar (“Seka-sheka-veka”, as some of us call it), for we missed our families, friends, Barbara, and John. It was our last full day in Hungary for quite some time, but our hearts, or at least our itineraries knew we would return. The cloudy day brightened as we were reunited with our Flinn comrades at the International House (of countries, not pancakes… mmmm pancakes…). Back from our home stays, we exchanged tales of culinary differences and beautiful landscapes, cultural significance and Roma issues, student life and capricious weather.

Before long, we were on the road again. Clothes hung from bus racks, yearning to dry. Arizona heat was missed, but not envied as we made our way to Szekesfehervar, Hungary, waving goodbye to Pecs.

In Szekesfehervar, we made our first stop at Videoton. Videoton “is a privately owned Hungarian company, the largest and most significant independent Central European-based contract electronics manufacturer.” Among corporations, it is ranked fifth among European countries and 28th in the world. Our lecturer was very knowledgeable on the company, and provided us with a perspective on Videoton before and after 1989, when the Iron Curtain collapsed. Interestingly enough, Videotron now builds parts for several partners, including Bozendorfer pianos.

We were then able to tour the actual factory. Crowded with the several machines, the room accommodated many people making what seemed to be motherboards. Next, we ate lunch in the cafeteria, which looked as if it may have been an old Communist mess hall. There, the vegetarians feasted on the traditional fried cheese and french fries while the carnivores enjoyed fried turkey.

After lunch we went sightseeing with a guide from a local museum. The town seemed very small, especially relative to Budapest. There were still the cobblestone roads and statuesque buildings, and overall, it was very nice. Our guide did, however, mention another part of town, one that did not focus on aesthetics, God, or beauty. Something left over from the “other regime”, which we can only assume refers to that of the Communists.

Checking back into our hotel, we had two hours of free time to get dinner. We split off into three main groups. The more reasonable of these went to a cafe and mostly ordered the typical sandwiches, while a more irrational one braved the freezing cold in order to run to an ice cream shop. The final group was determined to seek out traditional Hungarian food. Asking the locals for a good place was completely useless; they did not seem to want to associate with strangers, and there were far less people around than in Budapest. Although it was only a little after 6 pm, most restaurants had already closed. Among the few that remained open was a place called Dodge City. Filled with murals depicting cowboys and cacti, it seemed perfect, probably because we were too tired and Hungary to look any further. Upon asking for their advertised meals, however, we were waved off by the waiters. This left us no choice but to venture to a supermarket bordering the part of the city that had been constructed during the “other regime”.

Ravenous, we bought a box of Cheerios, 1.5% milk, meat, cheese, pie crust (it was good!), 5 loaves of bread, candy, sodas, chocolate pudding, and more. Taking our feast to the back of the store, we devoured every last morsel, dining on the pavement and practicing our Hungarian (ehes=hungry).

The buildings were indeed “Communist blocks.” Grey, drab cement towered over the unadorned streets. No statues or ornamentation could be found. Soon we met with the other groups and spent the night at the hotel. As slumber overtook us, we drifted into dreams about that day’s adventures and the following day’s journey to Romania.


Monday, May 29, 2006

By Matt Petterson

Today was our only full day spent in Pecs. We started out with breakfast (omelettes) and then took the bus into central Pecs to start the day’s activities. These activities took place in the International House, a home to a number of different program offices from a variety of nations.

We had three excellently-prepared speakers in the morning. The first presentation dealt with Pecs’s status as one of three European Capitals of Culture for the year 2010 (along with Essen, Germany and Istanbul, Turkey). This program, coordinated by the European Union, is a partially funded effort for cities to showcase their cultural and historical uniqueness over the period of a year as the culmination of a half-decade long program of improvements and developments. Our introduction to this process, made by the director of the International House, was quite impressive. The city has identified a number of specific areas of development and has already begun a locally-produced advertisement campaign to promote local interest and foreign tourism.

The second presentation introduced a variety of research programs at work in and around Pecs, many of which utilized researchers at the University of Pecs. The overall concept behind these programs is that they each use a “cluster” of related interests to promote cooperation and mutual improvement. Although the specifics of each program were diverse and technical, I was quite impressed by the variety and potentially valuable products currently worked towards by each of these programs.

The final presentation, given by a former member of the Hungarian Parliament, addressed the modern political history of the country (the period since World War II). As a former MP, our lecturer was in a unique position to give insight into the goals and unusually smooth transitions of each step of the democratization of Hungary since 1990. One point driven home during the presentation is that the process of stabilization and privatization takes a good deal longer than transitioning to a democratic government or beginning the process of economic privatization. It is necessary, at this point in Hungary’s development, to observe the ongoing changes with more patience than the first decade following the fall of socialism.


After these three detailed presentations, we adjourned for lunch at the same restaurant that we had enjoyed for dinner the previous evening. Rather quickly after eating, the Flinns collectively split for our free time in the city. I visited one of the city’s namesake churches (the city, in several languages, is named “Five Churches”), a now-inactive Catholic basilica, and then enjoyed a warm coffee out of the rain that had been falling all day. When the rain lightened, some of us who had stopped for a hot drink ate up the rest of our free time by strolling through something of a shopping street, although many of the stores were closed.

After returning to the International House, we were paired with local volunteers for our second set of home stays. My host was a student finishing a degree at the University of Pecs, who also worked part-time as a DJ. My night was full of comparing American and Hungarian culture (and correcting some unfortunate impressions of college life presented by exported American movies) with my host, Peter, and a close friend of his, Attila.

I must give a singularly appreciative report of my time in Pecs, and I regret that we could not have spent longer in what was evidently a very dynamic city.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

By Lara Cardy

In the past week, I have gathered that dancing and good food are two primary Hungarian pastimes. Homestay visits from yesterday evening, for most of us at least, certainly included dancing. And since the dancing continued long after midnight last night, I suppose I can include it in my reflection of today! Our overnight hosts escorted us back to the Radio Inn this morning and the majority of homestay pairs parted with traditional kisses on either cheek. Lynn and I found that custom among our homestay host and her friends so endearing that we are making an effort to institute it within our Flinn class although it probably will not stick.

Following a night enjoying the Hungarian pastime of dancing, our group was treated to an exceptional example of the Hungarian love for food. After making our way from Budapest via bus, we were welcomed into the Alsoszentmarton Roma village by dozens of excited children, freshly baked bread, sauteed peppers, Hungarian salata, and chicken. Then we learned about the Roma communities and their extreme poverty as result of racism and segregation, they spared no expense welcoming us into their home and community. It was easy to tell that we were somewhat of an anomaly in Alsoszentmarton: not only did the sister of the mother of the village leader recall our chaperones, Michlle and BJ from their visit half a decade ago, but the Roma children were both captivated and frightened by our presence.

But their fear disappeared as soon as our toys appeared. In our limited luggage space from the states, we brought frisbees, beach balls, chalk, balloons and jump ropes for the Roma children. And even though we collectively knew only a handful of Hungarian words, that did not matter- beach balls seem to easily cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. And, in accordance with a special session of our class congress, led by Devin, Ben Strauber was voted “Badass of the Week” for his extensive knowledge of Hungarian and ability to act as our ambassador and graciously thank all of our hosts in their own language.

Ben was also a favorite among the Roma children because he is a skilled balloon animal creator. He was making animals for the kids until the bus doors slammed shut- literally.

The most touching part of the day, for me, came after doing chalk drawings with a village toddler. She imitated the way I traced my hand with the chalk, and as I stood up she grabbed on to my knees. I looked down and she threw her arms up. I picked her up and carried her on my hip as we toured the village. As I work heavily with kids in the states, I have certainly held many children, but very few instances of my life carry more meaning than the outstretched hands of the Roma girl. She was comfortable with me—this little girl accepted me into her community. That gesture made me want to return to Alsoszentmarton, to make sure that little girl can go to kindergarten, to primary school, to secondary school, to a university, to become someone and something.

There was a distinctive air you could feel when we were engaged in conversation with our gracious host and village leader, Deputy Mayor Laszlo Petrovics, or his family members. We all feel a connection to this tiny community. It translates into a different drive for each of us but as Joel commented afterward, “this gets me fired up for politics again.” The situation affecting the Roma is so real because, as many scholars pointed out, a similar dynamic exists in poor Mexican communities within the States. And although not all of the scholars have a particular passion for politics, viewing the Roma community firsthand and being welcomed as a part of the village made me, and the rest of the group, evaluate our passions and relate them to the injustices we saw in Alsoszentmarton.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

By Michelle Hertzfeld

The Flinn Family’s First Free Day in Budapest

Today was the first day that everyone has had to plan for themselves, and people have been talking about it all week. There were the ambitious who originally planned to get out to Lake Balaton, which would have involved leaving the hotel at 6am, and there were the not-so-ambitious (or maybe just tired) who wanted nothing more than to nap the day away in City Park down the street from our hotel. In the end, no one got up at 6am and everyone split across Budapest to find out what they had missed or wanted to see more of.

Much of the class made it out to the suburbs and Statue Park. This park was created as a home for all the old Communist monuments that had been taken down after Hungary’s move to democracy in 1989-90. The park is itself is also a monument, not to Communism but instead to the immense changes that have taken place in this country in less than twenty years. Where statues once stood, there are now thriving businesses and tourist zones, testaments to Hungary’s capitalist reality.

Several students also made it to Gell rt Hill, which is right next to the Gell rt baths we visited earlier this week. The monument on top has a story. Apparently, during WWII when Hungary saw that their allies, the Axis powers, were going to lose, a politician sent his son to fly a secret mission to the Russians to make peace. The Germans found out and shot the plane down, and afterwards the father wanted to make a monument to his fallen son. He started making the shape of the woman in the statue and planned to put a broken airplane wing in her hands, but the statue was never finished. Then, when the Russians ‘liberated’ Hungary after the war, they wanted to make a monument to, well, themselves and this liberation, and decided that this lovely half-finished statue would work perfectly with the mere addition of a laurel leaf in her hands.

At the end of our free time, everyone headed back to the Radio Inn where all the Flinns were picked up by Hungarian students for a homestay, which I’m sure will be reported on in tomorrow’s entry!


Friday, May 26, 2006

By Kirsten Pickering

Analyzing the fragmented pieces of post-modern Hungarian poetry with the Flinns. What a high! I remember learning that poetic truth hangs on the placement of a comma, the inclusion of a subordinate clause. It’s nice when an entire classroom of one’s peers remembers the lesson as well, then proceeds to teach you more than you knew already on the subject.

The last week has flown by; we’ve seen so much of Budapest, eaten so much good food! We got the tastiest Indian food I’ve ever had at one little cellar restaurant; our hosts at IIE were extremely friendly and helpful. This trip may spoil me for travel that requires my own input and logistical planning; we move so quickly from one activity to the next, from one lesson into another.


This trip could also spoil me for working with other students in class. It’s fantastic to hear so many intelligent comments and interesting opinions on literary pieces, Hungarian film, and historical events. I wish we had a Flinn class! But I suppose I’ll live without it.


Greetings from Hungary, Kirsten


Thursday, May 25, 2006

By Melissa Lamberton

Today we visited the Parliament and took a rather quick guided tour. From the outside the building is all spires and spikes, but inside the ceilings and walls are very colorful. Everything is decorated in gold leaf.

The stairs up to the dome are covered in red carpet. Standing at the top looking back, I feel like Cinderella at her ball and wish I were wearing a prettier dress. There is a chandelier in the center of the dome with most of the light bulbs out because they are so difficult to replace. In the center of the room are the crown jewels: a battered crown, a scepter and a practical-looking sword.

In one room, handmade ceramic statues of common laborers– farmers, etc– decorate the walls. Even their clothing is decorated with gold leaf– a little ironic, since I m sure none of the models ever had gold in their life and probably could have used some. The last room we visit is the Parliamentary chambers, beautifully furnished with wood chairs and painted with historical scenes.

Our next stop is the Gellert baths. The building itself is gorgeous, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. The first pool is very cold, though. The one outside, with the waves, is much more exciting. Some of the boys tried the ice bath which I think is absolutely crazy, especially after coming out of the steamroom. The thermal baths were not actually as hot as I expected, and they had a slightly mineral smell. Most of the girls get massages as well. I didn’t, but everyone said they were excellent, especially after all the walking we have been doing. We have the evening to ourselves and no one is in a hurry to leave the baths.

Eventually we all go off in different directions looking for dinner: I get coffee and a sort of chicken dish with mozzarella cheese. There is a Mexican dish on the menu but I am too afraid to try it. At night we take the last metro over the river into Buda to go dancing. It’s a long walk back home, several hours later, but very beautiful. Heroes Square is lit up and completely deserted except for a few taxi drivers circling around.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

By Amanda Confer

We began today at HIK, the student center that provides computers, research materials and advising for all of the students in Budapest, and heard three lectures. The first was a very brief overview of Hungarian history, which was automatically interesting since we were in an amazing replica of a classroom from 1901 (which made for a great photo op). Historically, the Hungarian people were controlled by outside groups, such as the Turks, Habsburgs and Communists for hundreds of years. In some ways I thought of Hungarian history as “backward” (the professor’s term) since their first free election was in 1990, but their history is so deep and rich that it’s now hard to associate the word with this country. The second lecturer works for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and told us a little about the European Union. For example, Norway is not a member and 40% of the EU budget goes to agricultural subsidies. She also explained how research and development works in Hungary, since funding comes from EU grants and the state. Finally we listened to a professor from the University of Pecs who told us about the higher education system in Hungary that is in the midst of being overhauled so degrees are consistent with those in other European nations. It was a very informative morning.

For lunch we went to a great place very close to HIK. The name of the restaurant, which I can’t possibly pronounce, is a Hungarian onomatopoeia for the sound an espresso machine makes. It’s very eclectic by American standards and the crepe-like dessert was pretty much incredible. I’m no expert, but I’m fairly sure that lots of butter, sugar and chocolate were involved….

We had this afternoon off so some people went to Margarit Island (in the middle of the Budapest section of the Danube), others went to Museums or the massive market and Castle district. I was part of the group that wandered around the market that’s held in a building built by the Eiffel company. They sell lots of fruits, veggies, sausage, unidentifiable meat products, paprika, tourist stuff and all sorts of other strange things like cowboy boots. It’s a great place for eating Hungarian cream puffs and strawberries while doing some people watching. Then we went to the Castle district in Buda. There were great views of the river and Parliament, amazingly gorgeous buildings like I’ve never seen in my life and lots of freezing, cold rain. So we of course decided to buy Magnum ice cream bars, which were incredible.

More icy rain accompanied us on our long walk to dinner this evening where all of our factions compared both odd and hilarious stories over plates of strange, but wonderful Hungarian dishes (ie. pigs knuckles and fish head soup). Another great day in Budapest.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

By BJ Lynch

Tuesday was our second day in the beautiful city of Budapest. Our activities began bright and early with the ever so popular ambassador Banlaki. His colorful presentations on the history, politics, and people of Hungary are what have made him a Flinn seminar staple since my class came here four years ago. Our presentation in the morning was equally as informative and entertaining as I remember. Afterwards Agi gave us a crash course on Hungarian higher education to prepare us for our trip to the Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Piliscsaba later in the day. We ate a casual lunch on the train from Budapest to Piliscsaba and had a small taste of the countryside on the way. The rest of the afternoon was filled with a presentation about the university and more details about the Hungarian education system. This information sparked an engaging discussion about the changes that are occurring in higher education in Hungary. We were lucky to have the time of both professors and students in order to hear their perspectives on the matter. Our discussion was followed by a tour of the university and the unusual architecture that gave the campus a truly unique character that will be hard to forget. I was most interested in the central university building which featured a forested interior, an indoor English alley, and a wooden-domed theater. Needless to say, our pictures will describe this place much better than my words, so look forward to the many that were taken on our tour when we return. After our tour of the University we spent a little more time with the students and then headed back to Budapest for a night out on our own. We headed out in different groups for the night and had dinner in a multitude of places with many of us trying dishes we couldn t pronounce. The rest of the night was spent packing as much fun and adventure as possible into the day. We went to bed exhausted so we could pick up where we left off in the morning.


Monday, May 22, 2006

By Joel Edman

We split into two groups for most of the day, with one starting out at an orientation seminar at HIK (Student Information Center, basically a common student union used by 8,000 students from universities all over Budapest) and my own group going for a walking tour of Budapest. Our tour guide, Jeff, was an American expatriate and was very knowledgeable about each part of the city that he took us to. We started by just walking down Andrassy, a major thoroughfare near the Radio Inn that was designed to look like the Champs-Elys es in Paris and serve as the main route for visitors to the 1896 World’s Fair. As we toured the city, Jeff emphasized two main themes: 1) the tension between the 19th and 20th centuries that permeates the city because it grew up around the turn of the century and 2) the influence of governmental instability on public works projects. He pointed out quite a few locations where a museum or a cultural landmark had been under construction but were abruptly shut down by newly elected governments. Jeff brought us to the “Jewish Quarter,” which has recently become the “hip” part of town. Just before lunch, we went across the Danube to the Buda side and walked around the Castle District and admired the statues and the Mattias church.

The two groups met up at HIK for lunch and a Q & A period with the Cultural Affairs Officer from the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. It was interesting to hear about what the embassy does in Hungary in education and ethnic relations. On the other hand, when Kirsten and Ben asked about certain aspects of U.S policy towards Hungary in general, and when Devin and John Murphy asked about the media hoopla over difficulty accessing student visas, we got little but stonewalling and the common administration line that things are really better than they seem. On a lighter note, we also learned the distinction between what we called “Boy Water ” (blue-capped water with gas) and “Girl Water” (pink-capped water without gas). After lunch we had an orientation session, and more importantly, Agi’s Hungarian lesson. At this point I can apologize to Hungarians for bumping into them and then count from zero to ten.

That night we returned to HIK for a reception with some of our hosts for this Saturday’s home stays. This was definitely the best part of the day. The best way to learn about everyday life in Budapest, especially from a student’s perspective, is to get it straight from the source. The night was capped off with some incredible ice cream at a little cafe in Pest. All in all, a great way to start our Central European excursion.