Special Feature: Eastern Europe travelogue 2007

June 4, 2007

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.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

By By Paul Schaffert

Greetings from the future.

Budapest is an eclectic city. This is most visible in its architecture: Gothic arches and flying buttresses reach up across the Danube from Eastern domes and spires. Interspersed are styles from the neoclassical columns and facades of the museums and the opera house to the more traditional stone (or fake stone) buildings that line the streets. There is even a bit of Moorish architecture in the old synagogue.

The multiple traditions of architecture reflect the nature of Budapest. The streets are filled with visitors and residents from across the world. Aside from the tourists the city has more than one role to play. It is the western end of Eastern Europe and the eastern end of Western Europe. This shows up in the food, where a lasagna-like spinach dish cohabits the table with sour yogurts, stuffed cabbage leaves, sausages, cheeses, and salads of several stripes.

There is clearly some remnant of the prior eras. Some of the newer buildings are bland, brutal reminders of the two oppressive rulers of the 20th century. Fascist buildings, with their strict order, and communist buildings, with their tired exteriors recall a state not in control of its destiny. The newer buildings, the modern apartments springing up within the menagerie, remind us that Budapest is alive once more.

With best wishes for those living nine hours in my past,

Saturday, June 2, 2007

By Beryl Jones

Still recovering from the time zone difference, jet lag, and a severe lack of sleep (not to mention too much excitement), we took a day of relaxing to calm down and enjoy more of Budapest. In the morning we had the opportunity to listen to and share Hungarian folk and classical music with a Hungarian composer and music guru. His love of music was clear and we enjoyed the traditional music as he sang and danced along. It was interesting to hear some folk songs that we all knew and recognized and then also learn about some different styles that we are not so familiar with.

After the morning music session we took a few metros to the thermal baths on the Buda side of Budapest. It was definitely shocking (at first) yet incredibly rejuvenating to step from the fiery sauna to the 8 degree Celsius water. It was a nice change of pace from the lectures and walking tours that we had taken in the previous couple of days. I think it’s safe to say that everyone enjoyed the thermal baths and felt refreshed and ready for more of Budapest afterward.

The rest of the afternoon was free to pursue our personal wishes and we broke into groups. My group headed deep into Buda to find a nice restaurant for lunch. We ended up at a very nice place (forgive me for not remembering the name) where I had goulash and the rest of the group sampled most of the other main dishes on the menu. Everything was quite tasty and a great representation of traditional Hungarian food. We then walked around Buda and then Pest, and took a tour of the “House of Terror,” a museum dedicated to the history of communist and Nazi oppression. The exhibits were very eye-opening and I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever find yourself in Budapest with a free hour or two.

The day ended with my favorite part of the trip so far: the home stays. We were each paired up with a host—usually they were students, but some were just friends of the IIE office who were willing to take us in for the night and show us more of what Budapest and Hungary is all about. Some ended up many miles from the heart of Budapest in the countryside and saw some of rural Hungary. I personally ended up being hosted by a third-year student at one of the universities in Hungary who stayed in a two-room apartment about 15 minutes away from the center of the city.

Over dinner we talked politics, food, perception, art, lifestyles, and pretty much anything you can imagine. It was fascinating to hear her views of Americans and what has been going on both in the U.S. and in Hungary recently. As a university student, she had great insight to many of the questions that I had thought of before and during my time here in Hungary. It was also very interesting to talk with Kata about Transylvania, a region where we will soon be traveling for about a week. Most of her family lives there and she visits often. She had very strong beliefs about the Hungarian influence in Transylvania and the strong ethnic ties to Hungary that many people and villages in the region share. After our dinner conversations we got ready to go out for a night in Budapest. We met up with many of the other students and hosts at a couple of the popular “hang out spots” for people our age. There we all chatted about various things and gained even more insight to the Hungarian lifestyle and beliefs.

The night ended far too quickly, and we all split up yet again with our respective hosts to spend the night full of thought and the realization that we were having some of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

By Am Norgren

Many of the students in my class, including myself, have felt as if parts of this trip are extremely surreal. The events of Saturday, June 9th, added to this feeling. First of all, we went to Sighisoara, a town spotted with shops brimming with “Dracula” apparel and souvenirs. This city was, for lack of a better description, a tourist trap, but provided a good contrast to the towns we visited later in the day.

After having a few hours of free time in Sighisoara, we traveled to Szekelyderzs, a small Hungarian village in Transylvania, to learn about its fortified church and to eat dinner. I don’t think I can do this experience justice in words, but I will try. The second we walked through the gate of the fortifications, it felt as if we were transported into another century, perhaps in the Middle Ages. We had the chance to see the church, a world heritage site, which contained frescoes that were preserved on its walls and a brick inscribed with ancient Hungarian script. Also there was a collection of farming and household tools, which sat under the cracked, dusty walls of the fortifications. As if these sights weren’t surreal enough, we also had the opportunity to see the church’s bacon tower—a room full of bacon slabs and sausage links that hung from its ceiling. The smell was pungent, but it was a smell new to our twenty-first-century noses. It may seem like this “bacon tower” was a trivial detail of the trip, but experiencing the life of peasants living in Transylvania hundreds of years ago (and still today) was not trivial at all.

After climbing the church’s rickety bell tower, we migrated into a cool, candle-lit room that was tucked in the walls of the fortifications and was furnished with simple wooden tables. We ate various cheeses and sausages—fresh and flavorful reminders of peasant life in Transylvania. With full stomachs, we drove to Homorodszentpeter, another quaint Hungarian village. On our drive to the second village, we were somehow energized by the sight of cows obediently returning to their homes. As soon as our energy was captured, it was channeled into a dance party on the bus, in which our whole class, our chaperones, and our guides danced to Credence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Apparently, living in a bus with 25 other people causes strange things to happen….

In the village of Homorodszentpeter, we met our host families and divided up for the night. My group did not have a host living at the house we stayed at, but we went to the homeowner’s father’s house for schnapps and conversation, which was only possible through a strange series of translations of words in Hungarian, Romanian, English, French, German, and even Spanish. The sheer beauty of using multiple languages, awkward hand motions, and exaggerated facial expressions to express sentiments that all of us shared was an experience that I will never forget.

Traveling from the tourist trap of Sighisoara to two isolated Hungarian villages in the middle of Transylvania was a journey back in time. On Saturday, June 9th, I experienced something unknown to me previously—the sense of living in a different time and place—and this experience, above all, allowed me to truly appreciate the beauty of traveling.

Friday, June 15, 2007

By Neeru Narla

Today marked our ascent into the final stretch of our trip, and proved to bring us yet another perspective on Hungarian economy. After breakfast we loaded the bus and headed for Ozd, where we were able to see first hand some of the opportunities made available under capitalism by touring the General Electric plant that had been built there in 1999.

As we toured the floor where circuit breakers were being manufactured, it was astonishing to witness the robotic, yet meticulous, assembly lines of people hard at work. On the surface, the excitement of instituting a GE plant in Ozd seemed apparent. The plant provided over 1,200 new jobs for the community, greatly contributing to increased employment rates in Ozd. Yet the more I assessed the situation and working conditions of the employees, the more apparent issues—like division of labor within the work (about 53 percent were women and 47 percent male due to the precision women are able to bring to the bench), wage distribution across the plant, and the balance between plant efficiency and expenses—became. An interesting question and observation that came up was the lack of automation of many of the seemingly monotonous tasks powered by human labor within the assembly lines. The answer Susana provided was that the complicated machinery it would take to perform these tasks would cost more than the employees’ salaries, and brought forth much debate as to the full reasoning behind a failure to invest in equipment. Did the plant have a responsibility to the surrounding community in providing employment opportunities? Or, is it easier for GE to remain mobile without such investments?

Discussion continued on into the bus, as we struggled to understand capitalism from the perspective of a community for which this economic lifestyle is still relatively new. Everyone seemed to have a diversity of experiences from which to pull examples and input (I suppose one of the neat things about discussion with a group of Flinns!). Our subsequent lecture on the economic development of Ozd and Hungary provided context for what we had seen earlier at the plant as we learned about the collapse of the mining economy in Ozd and transition through General Electric, as well as the continued need for infrastructure.

It was a sentimental time as we realized that today was the last day on the bus, which essentially had been our home (and only access to air conditioning!) for the past week. I’ll never forget the feeling of returning home as we entered Budapest and passed by Hero’s Square or the great rush of excitement I felt upon pulling up to the familiar neighborhood of the Radio Inn. Though we had only been in Budapest for a few days at the beginning of our trip, we had come to view it as our home base. We gave Bela, our wonderful bus driver, a soccer ball signed by all of us in commemoration of his favorite sport that he so willingly played with us rain or shine (there are mud stains to prove it) and for the faithful and friendly support system he had provided us with throughout our journey through Romania.

With more than two-thirds of the trip over, we have exactly one week left as of today. I foresee minimal sleep for the next few days as we don’t plan on wasting a minute of what little time we have left. 🙂 See you all soon!