Reflections (Part 1)

Whoa, word association: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (boy did I read that a long time ago), “Reflections of My Life” (1969 song by Marmalade–I just looked it up–and there’s an earworm for ya).

Anyway, there’s nothing like packing and saying good-byes to start one reflecting, in this case upon my Fulbright in Hungary. As I pack and go through each “last”–last walk along the Danube, last meal with Fulbright friends, last final exam (a very happy “last”), last gathering with my colleagues–and as I try to burn images of the fabulous Secessionist buildings in Szeged into my memory (or at least my camera’s memory), I have been thinking a lot about what made this experience so wonderful. I’ve been trying in this blog to report on some of my activities and the people I’ve met and places I’ve seen along the way. I’m afraid I haven’t been a very conscientious blogger, as there are so many things I haven’t yet gotten around to writing about, such as Szeged’s architecture, the places I’ve traveled around Hungary, fabulous Ravenna, more about the university, etc.; and indeed, I will in coming weeks blog about those. But as I prepare to leave at the end of this week, it seems like a good time to start the process, which will no doubt also be ongoing, of setting down some reflections on my Fulbright experience.

I’m thinking a lot right now about when I first came to Szeged, and how everything then was potential. And I’m thinking, what are the moments that made me fall in love with this place? My first night, when my department chair, the fabulous Réka, came right over to welcome me so warmly and take me to dinner? The first full day, when I first laid eyes on the magnificent Reok Palace? The next day, when Zoltán and Zsófia came and whisked me away to the super Tesco to stock my apartment? The national holiday that week, which was also the occasion for a Beer Festival along the Tisza River, which let me know that craft brewing was alive and very well in Hungary? All of the above and so much more.

Some have asked wouldn’t I rather have been in Budapest, and yes, there are times that seems like a great idea (especially when I have to travel outside Hungary). I do love Budapest passionately (see previous post). And yet, despite growing up in a Chicago inner ring suburb, I’ve been a small town gal for more than twenty years now in Fredonia.  Szeged, while much larger than Fredonia, still has that small town vibe, only with a much better selection of restaurants and pubs and shopping. And then there’s the Secessionist (or Art Nouveau) architecture. I promise a post on that soon. (And Budapest is only a train ride away.)  Szeged’s laid-back pace and great style were home for me, and will, I suspect, always be my Hungarian home. The daily walk through the park and over the river was always nice. (Both Budapest and Szeged are terrific walking cities, by the way.) I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I am vowing to walk more back home. It’s good for the soul as well as the body; as Thoreau no doubt said, it gives one time to think and reflect and observe. So yes, Szeged proved absolutely to be the right place for me to spend my Fulbright.

As I write this, one of the periodic dense fogs that envelop the city for a day (or two or three) has lifted and it’s sunny. The fogs tend to depress me, but they certainly make one appreciate the sunshine! So I will soon be out and about to enjoy this, one of my last days in Szeged.

What else to say? The University of Szeged is huge compared to Fredonia, although its campus is spread around the city. The Department of American Studies is home to some of the hardest working professors I’ve met–teaching, heavy publishing obligations, administrative creep, and they created, edit, and publish Americana, an e-journal of American Studies in Hungary, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year–all on much less than a shoestring budget (and salaries). And they still found the time to be friendly to the Fulbrighter in their midst. I’m in awe of them all. The students have amazing English skills; good thing, as my Hungarian is still at a most rudimentary level! My graduate students were as bright and hard working as any I’ve met, and they did wonderful material culture research projects on artifacts as diverse as a topsy turvy Red Riding Hood doll, a German Christmas carousel, a velocipede, and a Ouija board. I’m still not a fan of the examination system for lecture courses, but I understand it, anyway. If nothing else, it certainly has made me appreciate the typical American exam system! But I  learned that one can indeed assess a student’s learning in a fifteen-minute oral exam. Or perhaps more accurately, one can assess how much they have prepared and how good their memorization skills are. I’m still uncomfortable having a whole semester’s worth of work come down to one exam grade, and I’d still like to know more about why this is so. Indeed, it has been fascinating to learn about the university system here. And Fulbrights are all about immersion in a new culture, which includes the teaching and examination system, which is not specific to Hungary, of course, but is common in many European countries.

More to come.





Budapest & Prague

I recently returned from a trip to the Czech Republic, where I gave a research talk at Liberec Technical University. Zénó, my generous  host for this trip, showed me around the area, including a trip to the wonderful glass and bead museum in Jablonec, where they still make beads sold all around the world. He then accompanied me on a weekend trip to Prague, giving me my own personal guided tour of the city. Given my oft-repeated assertions of Budapest’s beauty, as well as Prague’s reputation, I wondered how the two cities would compare.

First of all, let me make clear that Prague is an absolutely beautiful city, even in frigid temperatures & snow (same goes for Budapest). I wasn’t really cut out to be a winter tourist to cold places, but sometimes that’s just how it goes! I was amazed by the architectural variety of the city, which definitely beats Budapest. From medieval buildings on the Old Town Square (also including my hotel, built in 1466) to Renaissance, Baroque, neo-Classical, wonderful Art Nouveau & Art Deco, even Cubist, and more modern, Prague is an architectural marvel, blessed by the fact that it was not bombed heavily during WWII. We went to an Art Nouveau cafe, a “Kubistic” cafe, and an Art Deco cafe (it was cold, so we needed lots of breaks for hot drinks!). I will admit that I haven’t found anything in Budapest to compare to the magnificent Art Nouveau Municipal House, home to said Art Nouveau cafe, as well as a restaurant and performing arts center. And I can’t recall ever seeing a “cubist” building like that bearing the Black Madonna statue. The medieval astronomical clock on the square is way cool. The synagogues are gorgeous, St. Vitus Cathedral has a stained glass window by Alfons Mucha, one of the most renowned Art Nouveau artists, and there is a fantastic Art Deco church as well. Despite my love of all things Art Nouveau and Art Deco, I have to say that I also have a fondness for much modern architecture, and Frank Gehry’s “Dancing House,” also known as  “Fred &  Ginger,” blew me away!

I dragged Zénó to the Mucha Museum, which showcased the artist’s wonderful posters, including the ones for Sarah Bernhardt that put him on the map, as well as drawings, paints, and other art; I didn’t make it to see his Slav Epic, the nationalist series that was his last major work. (If interested in Mucha, here’s more.) I also adored the whimsical art of famed Czech sculptor David Černy, particularly the “Tower Babies” climbing up the television tower, as well as the revolving head of Kafka (“Metamorphosis”), and St. Wenceslas (Vaclav) seated on an upside down dead horse (wry commentary on the traditional statue in Wenceslas Square). Bonus: he did an awesome bus stop in Liberec, called “Giant’s Banquet.” (For more on Černy, see this.)

It snowed all day the second day in Prague, and Prague in the snow is still beautiful, if treacherously slick. This was particularly true on the Charles Bridge, which was like a skating rink with everyone slip-sliding along. People made little snow people along the walls and bridges, which was cute.

So, is it more beautiful than Budapest? In terms of its diverse, wonderful architecture, I say yes. Budapest has some splendid buildings for sure: Odon Lechner’s Applied Arts Museum, the Matyas Church, the Castle, Gresham Palace, the Turkish Bank building, the Moorish Revival Great Synagogue, the train station by Eiffel, and the many Art Nouveau and Art Deco masterpieces. Not to mention the iconic thermal baths such as the Szechenyi Baths, and equally iconic, if of more recent vintage, ruin pubs.

Despite all this, Prague, I think, has a superior architectural footprint, mainly because of the profusion of diverse styles, which somehow all work together to form a fabulous whole. But (yes, there’s a but) I have to give Budapest the edge in terms of the splendor of its cityscape, sprawled as it is along both sides of the Danube. Its bridges are much more beautiful than Prague’s, in my view, and the hills and buildings along the Danube, whether by sunlight, in snow, or lit up  at night, are impossible to beat for sheer magnificence! So in my humble opinion, if we are talking about the most beautiful city overall, Budapest wins hands down. It is simply stunning. Check it out and see if you agree.


Happy Szilveszter!

That’s Happy New Year to you. I spent a frigid New Year’s Eve wandering the streets of downtown Budapest with my visiting pals Del and Jacky. It was COLD (in the teens)–a shock to the system after the moderate temperatures in Italy (more on that trip to come). Ever since I got here, Budapest has struck me as a city that is a magnet for folks from their late teens to mid-thirties. That is the population you most often see roaming the streets on a Budapest evening, and filling the ruin pubs and squares. And on New Year’s Eve this was clearer than ever. The bus from the airport to the metro the night before had been chock-full of non-Hungarian college students (and I had to giggle as even the English ones ignored two announcements in both Hungarian and English to get off at the SECOND Kobanya Kispest stop, not the first one). I have to say I felt OLD (as well as COLD) fighting the massive crowds of (mostly) young people on Szilveszter.

Szilveszter, by the way, because it is the eve of St. Szilveszter’s feast. From what I could see, New Year’s Eve in Budapest is about drinking (big surprise), noise, and fireworks. There were stands on the main squares selling hot mulled wine and other alcoholic drinks, as well as coffee, hot chocolate, and various types of food. People walked around blowing obnoxious noisemakers in your ears. And there were fireworks everywhere–on the main celebratory squares such as Vörosmarty tér, but also on smaller squares such as the one our rental apartment faced. Sky rockets and other fireworks going off constantly, not just at midnight. The skies were full of beautiful colors, a rainbow of “shooting stars.” Indeed, they were shooting off fireworks until at least 3 a.m. outside my window!

Our plan was to wander around the town, although we could only do this for so long before we were frozen and had to warm up. We tried some mulled wine and hot chocolate from one of the stands, which provided a temporary fix (and the hot chocolate was quite gourmet for something from a stand). We walked down to the river and around that area to see the lights. One of my favorite Budapest sights is the buildings, bridges, and monuments along the Danube, all lit up every evening. Then we returned to Vörosmarty where we saw more fireworks with the crowds. By about 11:45 we had had it, however.  So we headed back towards our apartment, swimming upstream as it were against the massive tide of folks heading toward the Danube. We stopped at a coffee shop for some coffee and tea, and we were comfortably ensconced there as 2016 rolled in. So yes, I missed one of the characteristic Hungarian Szilveszter events, which is the singing of the national anthem at midnight. But I figured I’d seen enough fireworks and it was just too damn cold and crowded to be standing out there for another fifteen minutes. I guess that’s when you know you’re old . . .

After sleeping in on New Year’s Day, we ate our pork lunch for good luck in the new year and spent the next couple of equally cold days roaming Budapest on the same plan–walk a bit, find somewhere warm to visit: a museum, a pub, a restaurant, a coffee shop. Budapest is most definitely a walking city, and that is by far my favorite activity while there. We had some tasty chow and some good Hungarian craft brews, and I showed first-time visitors Jacky & Del some of the key sights, such as the bridges, Matyas Church and Castle Hill,  St. Stephen’s, Parliament, the Shoes along the Danube memorial, and Szabadszag Tér, as well as Szimpla Kert, the granddaddy of ruin pubs. Even in frigid temperatures, Budapest proves to still be a fun walking city.

Public Memory & Public Squares in Budapest

The squares (or tér) of Budapest are beautiful to stroll through but also provide the visitor with lessons in Hungarian history. What is most interesting about this history is not just that it has changed over time, but that this change is sometimes visible in the same square. Americans are currently debating whether to remove Confederate monuments  and change the names of buildings that honor historical figures who owned slaves or profited by them, or perpetrated racist government policies. Similar debates have long occurred in Hungary, although the issues are different.

Not surprisingly, regime changes in Hungary have accounted for many such changes to the monuments and memorials that help create and reinforce public memory. The big monument in Heroes Square featured several Habsburgs when it was unveiled in the 1890s, but they were unceremoniously removed after WWI and replaced by Hungarians. (Oops, I stand corrected, it was actually after WWII that the Habsburgs were removed. Thanks to József for correcting me.) The communist regime after WWII removed some statues glorifying Hungarian heroes and erected their own heroic “proletariat” versions, some of which currently reside on the outskirts of Budapest in a place called Memento Park, or simply Statue Park. A statue of Josef Stalin was erected near Heroes Square in 1951 and toppled just five years later by the revolutionaries of 1956. Today that spot is marked by a memorial to the heroes of 1956. Stalin’s boots, all that remain of his statue, live on at Statue Park.

In some cases the same monument can be redefined. My favorite example of this is the Hungarian statue of liberty, or Szabadság Szobor, on Gellért Hill. This statue of the goddess of liberty bearing a palm leaf can be seen from all over Budapest. It was originally erected in 1947 to symbolize the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet Army. Rather than destroy it after the demise of the communist government, the Hungarians removed some of the more socialist statues at the base and reinterpreted the goddess as now symbolizing their new liberation from communism.

Szabadsag Szobor (Statue of Liberty), Budapest
Szabadsag Szobor (Statue of Liberty), Budapest

Two spots of particular interest for students of public memory, commemoration, and history are Kossuth Lajos Tér, in front of the Hungarian Parliament, and the nearby Szabadság Tér. Kossuth Tér recently went through a massive renovation to remove traffic and make it a pedestrian area. The statuary was also renovated. A monument to Kossuth, hero of the 1848 revolution against the Hapsburgs, and other supporters of the revolution, had been erected by the Horthy regime in 1927. The communists after WWII decided there were too many aristocrats in this group, so they removed this monument and put up a sort of social realist Kossuth leading the proletariat in revolt. This monument survived the demise of communism, but very recently has been replaced with a replica of the original. Some critics suggest that this is part of the current government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. (For more on the changing monuments of Kossuth tér, see this.)

The communist regime also removed a statue of Count Gyula Andrassy, a foreign policy advisor and architect of the WWI alliance with Germany, replacing it with a statue of poet Attila József, who had some leftist credentials. The recent renovation put Andrassy back in place, and moved József to a spot facing the Danube, rather fittingly as he wrote of the Danube in his poetry. He is in fact one of Hungary’s most well-known and beloved poets. He attended the University of Szeged and was kicked out for his revolutionary poetry, which was apparently not seen as suitable for a future teacher. They subsequently named the university for József in 1962, in a delicious irony that he was didn’t live to see, as he died in 1937 (by suicide or accident, depending on the source). If you are interested, you can read some of his poetry here. The university was again renamed the University of Szeged, however, in 2000, more’s the pity. I love this statue of Attila József, contemplating the Danube.

I also love the statue of Nagy Imre just off Kossuth Tér. He stands on a bridge, staring rather pensively at the Parliament he led for such a brief time, before his execution for his part in the 1956 revolution.  Kossuth tér also includes the excellent underground memorial/museum to the martyrs and heroes of that revolution, which I discussed in my Nov. 7 post.

By far the most interesting conversations and conflicts over public memory, to my mind, are in Szabadság (Liberty) tér. On one side of this square sits the U.S. Embassy. Almost directly in front of it is a huge Soviet monument to the Red Army soldiers who died in the liberation of Budapest. You might ask why this is still around. The story I have heard is that the USSR extracted a promise from the Hungarians to leave this monument up, in exchange for the Russians taking care of the graves of the many Hungarian soldiers who died in Russia. To make things even more interesting, in 2011 a statue of Ronald Reagan was added to the mix. He strides along, seemingly heading toward the Soviet monument; perhaps he is going to “tear down” this monument? The picture on the right captures all three: Reagan to the far left (looking like one of the pedestrians), the Soviet monument on the right,  and the U.S. Embassy in the center (yellow building).

And that, believe it or not, is only one of the debates going on in this square. The more controversial one surrounds a recently raised WWII monument called a “Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation.” The government calls it a memorial to all the Hungarian victims of the Nazis. The memorial is dramatic, depicting the German eagle swooping down on poor Hungary, symbolized by the Archangel Gabriel. This memorial has been very controversial from its inception. Critics of the Orban government claim that the monument is an attempt to downplay the Hungarian complicity in the murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, by shifting all the blame to the German Nazis. The government simply says that it is memorializing all the victims of the German occupation, which included both Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians. Looking at this monument, one would never know that Hungary had allied itself with Germany in the war and had its own “Arrow Cross” (Hungary’s Nazi party). This monument was so controversial that it was completed at night, with a police guard standing by. Protesters have been presenting a counter message here ever since the monument was erected. There are regular protests, as well as signs asking P.M. Orban to “Tear down your Monument.” And there are the shoes, pictures, letters, and other mementos placed by survivors and family members of the Jews of Budapest deported in 1944 and murdered in the Holocaust. These, along with stones bearing the names of victims, form an eloquent and moving counter-memorial in direct dialogue with the monument. If you are in Budapest, do not miss this example of public monument as public debate. This monument and its counter-memorial provide evidence, it seems, that Szabadság tér is aptly named, as competing speech abounds here.

Finally, the shoes at Szabadság tér bring to mind another eloquent memorial to the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust, one which gives the lie to any attempt to shift blame wholly to the Germans. In 1944-45, the Arrow Cross rounded up many Budapest Jews and others deemed undesirable, ordered them to strip at the edge of the Danube, and shot them, letting them fall into the river. Director Can Togay came up with the idea for a memorial, and sculptor Gyula Pauer brought it to life in the “Shoes along the Danube Promenade” in 2005. (For more on both the history and the memorial, see this.) Walk along the Danube near Parliament and you will come across this memorial featuring dozens of rusted iron 1940s style shoes, interspersed with pebbles, flowers, wreaths, and mementos. It is an incredibly moving experience to walk here among the “abandoned” shoes.

Northumberland: Romans & Saxons, Floods & Community

I recently spent a weekend visiting friends in northwestern England. True to my travel weather karma, I managed to pick the weekend of the great floods. Nevertheless, I had a terrific visit with my friends, learned some history, and got to see community spirit in action.

My friends live in Humshaugh (pop. c. 700), which is a lovely little village west of Newcastle. I arrived in the rain and soon got my first taste of village life. It was Nick’s night to volunteer an hour at the Humshaugh Village Shop, so I went along to assist. This is a shop with an interesting story. Seems the government closed the post office and the owners of the shop that housed it decided to sell, but there were no buyers. The villagers determined to save the local shop and raised money to purchase it. Now some 40 residents of Humshaugh volunteer and keep the store open for several hours a day, meaning that residents don’t have to drive to Hexham just to pick up their paper or a jug of milk, and the village retains a vital enterprise. The shop has an amazing variety of goods for such a small place, and the prices are no higher than at a larger grocery.

Humshaugh Village Shop
Humshaugh Village Shop

The profits from this enterprise are given back to the community in the form of grants to various projects and individuals, including community beehives and student scholarships. Volunteers also bake bread on Fridays to sell at the shop, and make delicious apple juice from local apples. (If you want to know more about the shop, visit this website.) Nick is even training a couple of local kids how to run the register and wait on people. I love this shop! What an incredible model of cooperative enterprise. After our hour at the store, we joined Liz for dinner and a pint at the local pub, another of my favorite things to do in England!

The shop was not my only encounter with the wonderful sense of community in Humshaugh. The next evening I had the pleasure of attending the Christmas pantomime performed by the local theater group, which consisted of some very talented local young people. The show was an amusing and well-acted parody of “Snow White,” written by a local woman and featuring local references (such as a Handrian’s Wall walker), a dancing cat, fairies, a “cheesy” singing family, and the wicked Stepmother’s efforts to win a cooking contest. The performance was followed by a reception with wine, pie, and soft drinks. A good time was had by all!

The rains continued, meanwhile, which brings me to my final encounter with Humshaugh’s community spirit. By Saturday many areas to the west were flooded, as were local roads and the homes of residents who lived by the North Tyne. On Sunday we visited a woman whose home had been invaded by the river, which left behind mud and ruined furnishings. We helped bag up waterlogged books for disposal while other villagers checked on the electricity and heat.

Despite the weather, I did manage to do some sightseeing. On Friday we took a look at what remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which separated Roman Britain from the “barbarians” in the north, and we drove along the route of an old Roman road.

Unfortunately, the weather did not allow for much walking to explore the area. We then went to Hexham, the larger market town a few kilometers from Humshaugh. There we visited the Hexham Abbey, where we first had lunch (some fabulous mushroom soup) and then toured the museum and church. The Abbey was founded by St. Wilfrid in the 7th Century; the oldest portion is the Saxon crypt, which was closed, unfortunately. Also of note is the Frith Stool (or Bishop’s throne) dating from the 7th century, an 8th century high cross from Bishop Acca’s grave, and a thousand year old Saxon chalice. In addition, I loved the old choir stalls with their carved misericords (ledges on the underside so that monks could “cheat” and perch on them during the Mass when they were supposed to be standing!). These misericords were carved with designs ranging from flowers to the pagan “green man,” beasts, satyrs, and demons. (To see some of the other carvings from the choir stalls, check this out.) Most of the church is Gothic in style, having been built in the 12th-13th century, and then added onto over the years. There are some wonderful Roman stones that had been part of the original abbey, including the memorial to a 1st Century Roman soldier and standard bearer named Flavinus. There is a nice museum that tells the story of the Abbey and also includes a lot of exhibits to appeal to children. All in all, a very cool place.

On Saturday I visited another friend in Newcastle Upon Tyne. I had my first inkling that this was more than just a lot of rain when we got to the station in Hexham and my train had been canceled because floods to the West had made the tracks impassable. I was able to take a later train, and I could see the flooding Tyne, at times ominously close to the tracks, all the way to Newcastle. Howard met me at the station. In Newcastle it wasn’t raining as hard, but the river was definitely running high. We took a tour of some of the local sights, including the many bridges over the Tyne, such as the magnificent tilting Gateshead Millennium Bridge. I liked the Gateshead concert venue, a blobby building that reflects the sky and water (much like the “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park). We also saw the “New Castle” that gave Newcastle its name. After lunch we visited the Discovery Museum, where I learned about the history of Newcastle.

When I got back to the train station to return to Hexham, I found out just how bad things had gotten to the west. The station was chaotic, with lots of trains canceled and delayed. I tried for several trains. One was moved to another platform but they didn’t bother to inform those of us waiting at the one scheduled. Another was canceled after we boarded, because there was no crew (they were stuck in a flooded area). Finally, I got on a train which turned out to be the last leaving for Hexham that night. We had to wait for a crew but finally, almost three hours after I got to the station, I was heading back to Hexham. Nick met me at the station and filled me in on the flooding, which had closed a number of local roads, and done far worse in other areas. On Sunday we saw just how high the North Tyne had risen (although it had already begun to come down, it was amazingly high) and how fast it was running. When the “Danger” sign is almost completely submerged, you know you’re in trouble!

Despite the rain and flooding, I had a great time in Northumberland. It’s always great to visit good friends! I found Humshaugh to be an utterly charming village, the type I thought only existed in English novels or television shows. I was impressed and humbled by their community spirit and the positive energy of their cooperative enterprises. I look forward to visiting again. Finally, as I passed through security at the Newcastle airport for my flight home, the sign below caught my eye (as it was surely meant to do). Leave it to the British to have a cartoon sewer drain telling us what not to put down the toilet! Love your drain, indeed.

Sign at Newcastle Airport
Sign at Newcastle Airport

Post Office: in any language it spells

Frustration! I’ve been in Hungary four months now, and I was starting to feel like I knew what I was doing. But then I had to go to … the POST OFFICE! Today started out to be relaxing after weeks of travel and presentations and exams, etc. Then I had to run an errand to the post office to send my German receipts via registered mail. I had found out ahead of time how to ask for that: “ajánlott.” So far so good. My first mistake was to go to the main post office. I went in what I thought was the main door, couldn’t figure out what line I was supposed to be in (all signs were in mystifying Hungarian, of course), finally got to a window and asked about my mission and found out I was in the wrong part of the building. This seemed to be where people were picking up mail only. I had to go outside and around the building to another office, where the signage was equally confusing. After waiting in a very long line for about 10 minutes, I decided it was hopeless. I didn’t want to wait 30 minutes and find out I was in the wrong line again. (Have I mentioned that I am not a patient person? A personal failing, to be sure!) So I went to lunch and figured I could go to the smaller post office by the university afterward.

That did prove to be a good decision, as there were far fewer people. I approached the counter and was given a form to fill out for the registered letter, and a pen to fill it out with. I moved over to the desk and filled it out with said pen, then turned to return it to the woman at the window, only to find that she had closed her window and departed. Unsure what to do with the pen, I left it on the desk and got in another line. I paid for the “ajánlott” with no worries, then asked in my broken Hungarian for ten postcard stamps. The clerk asked if I wanted regular or air, and I said air. This resulted in 3 stamps for each postcard and an airmail sticker; yep, more postage than postcard. There’s hardly room left to write! Paid for the lot, and went to leave.

Suddenly the first window opened and the first clerk started yelling at me, “toll, toll.” I wondered if there was another charge I was supposed to pay–was there a toll for using the post office, perhaps? I looked at her blankly, and by pantomime she finally conveyed that she was asking for the pen back. Ooops! I looked over at the desk in panic and of course, no pen. I apologized and tried to give her one of the pens in my purse as a replacement. No, she wanted the one that said “Fanta” (this wasn’t an official post office pen, as you can see). She would not accept one of the “gimme” pens I had in my purse. But she did let me go. So, when you are lent a pen in the Hungarian post office, even if it says “Fanta,” be sure to give it back. Actually I have to admit it reminds me of the frustrations we used to encounter when I worked in the bookstore in grad school. I do know what it’s like to have all your pens walk away, and I guess I should have tried harder to return it. We took to taping plastic forks to the pens at the registers, so that people would not just walk away with them. If I’d known how to say it in Hungarian, I’d have suggested that to her. I do wish she would have let me give her one of my pens.

Time will tell whether my registered mail gets to Germany, but I hope it does. The receipt has a number on it, but no website, so I am at sea as to how to check on it or how I will be notified that it was delivered. The receipt says many things, all in Hungarian. So I guess I’ll just email and ask the recipient to let me know. Speaking of being at sea, I did find out why it took my last postcards three weeks to get to the U.S. Yep, they apparently went by slow boat. Today I paid a bit more for the stamps for air (375 forints vs. 330 forints, or $1.30 vs. $1.15). So I guess last time I didn’t make it clear that I wanted air mail. I honestly thought all postcards went that way these days.

Okay, enough grousing for one day. I just had to get that all out of my system. I did manage to accomplish what I started out to do, and I will hope that my letter gets to Germany. And I don’t think I’ll have to go to the post office again before I leave–big sigh of relief!

If I am being completely honest, the real problem, I fear, is my desire for perfection. If I wasn’t so afraid of getting it wrong, I’d go ahead and try to speak Hungarian more often. (This goes back a long way for me. My mother used to say that I didn’t talk until I was more than two years old, but then I used complete sentences.) When I do use my Hungarian and people don’t understand me, it frustrates and embarrasses me. So if I don’t need to speak Hungarian, I end up not using it. Therefore, I haven’t learned as much Hungarian as I could. And that is my failing. So I’ll keep plodding along in my last six weeks here, and try to force myself to speak as much Hungarian as possible!

Visiting Germany & Austria

I had a busy week the end of November. First a very quick trip back to Berlin to give a talk, then a trip to Innsbruck to visit friends, and then back to Germany to a conference at the University of Regensburg. Travel to and from Germany, as well as lovely hotels, courtesy of German Fulbright Kommission, Freie Universität of Berlin, and University of Regensburg–thanks!!!

Berlin, though brief, was better this time. No rain, for one thing! It was cold but not raining. I was invited to give a talk on my gift giving research at the JFK Institute for North American Studies, of the Freie Universität of Berlin. Turns out the prof who invited me  is a fellow graduate of UVA and we shared a dissertation director as well. Wahoowa, as they say there! This time I had smooth sailing with the public transit, as I had clear directions as to what to do. I arrived at the lovely hotel on the campus in the early afternoon. Jessica took me to lunch, and we were joined by some graduate students and post-docs. We had a stimulating conversation, as I learned about the fascinating research projects the various students and post-docs were doing. My talk went well, and we had some intense discussion afterward, which offered some new perspectives on my research.

The talk, Freie Universitat, Berlin
The talk, Freie Universitat, Berlin

The next morning I headed out to the main train station to catch the train to Innsbruck to visit Markus and Lori, whom I met on our Galapagos trip a few years back. I find the train so much more relaxing than taking the plane. And, unlike the shorter haul Hungarian trains I’ve been on, this train had a bar and food car, so you could get some lunch and a beer, which made the time more pleasant. My only complaint with the German trains was that you had to pay for Internet. I actually tried to do so, but it wouldn’t work, so I had to go “offline” for awhile (tragic, I know).  Reached Innsbruck that evening. What a beautiful town, nestled in the Alps (or perhaps the foothills of the Alps, I’m not sure). At any rate, the mountains loom over the city, as you can see in the photos. We wandered around the town, looking at the Christmas markets and checking out sights such as the cathedral and the “golden roof,” created for one of the Hapsburgs who spent time here. We also saw some “ogres” that seem to have something to do with Christmas tales. And we had hot chocolate to die for at a long-time confectionery/pastry place. They brought out a glass of steamed milk, a dish with a ball of dark chocolate (made in house), and a dish with whipped cream. You stir the chocolate into the milk, and top with whipped cream. Unbelievable!! It snowed that night, so the next morning I went for a short walk in the nearby park to see the snow. Then it was time to say farewell to Innsbruck and to Markus and Lori and the children, and head to Regensburg, again on the train.

At Regensburg, I checked into my fabulous hotel, the Goldenes Kreuz: complete with high ceilings, huge room, and four-poster bed. I was here for a conference on the history of the American family. Most of the conference attendees met up for a nice walking tour of the city in the evening before dinner. Regensburg is a lovely town on the Danube; it was spared massive destruction in WWII, so its old medieval/early modern buildings are still intact (including my hotel). We then had a fun dinner at the venerable Dicker Mann, a wonderful place with lots of little rooms, good beer, and some classic German fare. I had a German style beef tenderloin–quite nice.

Next day the conference itself, organized by the brilliant and energetic Eva and her team, began. The participants were from a variety of universities, mainly in Germany, but also England and Italy. There was another Fulbrighter there as well, from Sweden. The talks were all quite good, and we had great discussions on topics such as family planning, 1950s attitudes toward family, the family in action films, etc. I gave a special lecture in the evening, on the topic of Thanksgiving and the American family. It seemed to go well, and afterward we had another Thanksgiving dinner. This was prepared by the hotel cook (who is from Canada)–tasty turkey, dressing, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, etc. She even made a red currant relish that was a good substitute for cranberry (apparently not available around here).

There were more conference sessions in the morning, then we all said our good-byes. A few of us had lunch at Dicker Mann (yep, we just had to go back). This time I had some pork, and more beer of course. After this I checked a few of  the Christmas markets in town, although there were so many people that it was hard to get near the stalls! Each square seems to have its own market, and they are open from about 1-9 pm. I also unsuccessfully hunted for some new boots in the many shoe stores there. I met up with one of the conference folks who was also staying Saturday night and we tried to go to a Thai place for dinner, but found out we needed reservations. And it smelled soooo good. We were sad! We made do with a French bistro, with a very sweet waitress, but it wasn’t the same. We had a pleasant dinner anyway. After a final night in Regensburg, I flew home Sunday with much fonder thoughts of Germany than after my first trip. I shall have to return one day to see more of the place. And I’ll definitely return to Innsbruck, in the summer, to explore those mountains!

Heading to Germany again

I’m off to Germany again, to give a couple of talks this time. Last night I celebrated an early Thanksgiving with the folks in the American Studies department. It was a great Hungarian-American hybrid feast–marinated and roasted turkey thighs with bacon and kolbasz (I have mentioned that they like meat and fat here, right?), bread stuffing (courtesy of yours truly), mashed potatoes, green beans with paprikas, wonderful pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, and apple tart rosettes (beautiful little pastries). And of course wine, beer, palinka, homemade Hungarian cognac, etc. It was a good party–great company and great food, my favorite combination!

Once I return from Germany and Austria, I shall blog about that and about what else I’ve been doing. I will try to catch up–so much still to blog about: mosques and Roman tombs and Zsolnay ceramics in Pécs, Art Nouveau in Szeged and Subotica, touring Eger, and of course wonderful Budapest, truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So never fear, there is more to come.  Til then, as they say here, “Sziasztok.”

Oktober 23 és November 1

It’s another foggy morning in Szeged. It’s been like this all week. Most days it burns off by late morning, but yesterday it never lifted. It was a bit spooky, like that Stephen King story where the fog moves toward the town, but there were no monstrous insects in this fog, thankfully! I find it unsettling, particularly walking around in the fog in the dark. I guess it’s just because I’ve never lived anywhere where there is much fog. People from San Francisco and London are probably wondering what my problem is!

Anyway, I’m hoping the fog will lift, since I want to go have lunch at the fesztival in the main square downtown, Széchenyi tér. Yes, it’s time for yet another Szeged fesztival. This one is the Mangalica Fesztival. If you recall from my last post, the Mangalica pig is a heritage Hungarian breed from the Puszta–the cute curly-haired fellow in the picture. (More on Mangalica pigs.) This festival is dedicated to these pigs and their breeders; it’s one of the many gastronomic festivals here, and I’m sure one of the main purposes is to promote this Hungarian product (or, as they call Hungarian products–Hungaricum). I checked it out last night in the fog, and there are lots of folks selling crafts, but the main highlight is the pigs themselves, all cleaned up and ready to be admired and, I suppose, petted. There are the usual food and pálinka stands, including my favorite Hungarian specialties, lángos and kürtöskalacs (I’ll be chowing down on one of the latter very soon!). [Aside: Oddly enough, there was a booth in the Galeria dept. store in Berlin selling kürtöskalacs. Turns out they are from Hungary–a branch of a place on Vaci ut. in Budapest. Was strange, but of course we bought one there!] There are also a large  number of booths selling Hungarian sajt (cheese) and kolbasz, presumably including some made from the Mangalicas.  And, of course, the usual bands. So that is the destination for this Saturday afternoon.

But what I want to write about today is the recent celebration of two of Hungary’s most important holidays, the 23rd of Oktober and the 1st of November. The 23rd is the anniversary of the start of the 1956 Revolution, and is also Republic Day, the day the Republic of Hungary was declared in 1989. November 1st is All Saints Day.

On All Saints Day Hungarians visit the cemeteries and decorate their relatives’ tombs with flowers and candles. It’s a beautiful sight in the evening as well as the daylight. I’m intrigued by the links between the Hungarian All Saints, Halloween, and Día de los Muertos, and in fact talked about these with both my students and the high school students at the Csányi Foundation. These three “days of the dead” have a common foundation in the Christian celebration of All Saints & All Souls Days, while fusing these in Mexico with indigenous traditions regarding the visiting spirits of one’s dead relatives. Some say Halloween is a similar fusion of the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain with All Saints/Souls Days, but other scholars say there is no evidence to support this. At any rate, the Hungarian All Saints Day seems wholly of the Christian tradition, while Halloween and Día de los Muertos are fusions of various traditions that have developed (and are still evolving) in interesting ways over time. Halloween is not really celebrated here, although Hungarians certainly know of it. Indeed, there was what the students called a “zombie” parade on the night of the 1st. I saw this, mostly young people, many in some sort of costume, walking along one of the main streets with a police escort. My camera didn’t cooperate in getting a good picture of this, unfortunately! Here are a few pictures from the temetó (cemetery) near my apartment in Újszeged, including one with a bit of Halloween fusion:

As for Oktober 23, this is of course one of the most important days in Hungary’s civic calendar. I’ll attempt a brief recap, but send you to two sites that have longer summaries of the 1956 Revolution, should you be interested in learning more. It seems that after Stalin’s death in 1953, things loosened up a bit in Hungary, and Nagy Imre became prime minister. Hungarians began to assert more freedoms, but the communists reacted and removed Nagy. Nevertheless, the border controls were lessened in the summer of 1956, prompting large numbers of Hungarians to flee West. What had begun could not be stopped with Nagy’s removal, and the universities became centers of revolutionary activity, including my very own University of Szeged. The  Association of Hungarian University and College Students was founded at a meeting in the auditorium of the Arts Building at U-Szeged on Oct. 20, and drew up a list of 16 points describing the political aims of the protesters.

On Oct. 23, college students in Szeged and at universities around the country held demonstrations and read the 16 points, kicking off the 1956 Revolution. Among these was the demand that Nagy be returned to office. The protesters took symbolic actions as well. In Budapest, they toppled and destroyed a statue of Stalin, and cut the communist coat of arms out of the middle of the Hungarian flag (so the flag with a hole in the middle became a symbol of the revolution). Nagy was reinstated as prime minister, and tried to negotiate the removal of Soviet troops from the country. Cardinal Jozsef Mindzenty, head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, who had been arrested and sentenced to life in prison for “treason” in a show trial in 1948, was released from prison.

But then the reaction came. Soviet tanks rolled into Kossuth Lajos tér (named, of course, for the Hungarian revolutionary leader of 1848) outside Parliament on Oct. 25 and troops began to shoot peaceful demonstrators, killing some 800. Revolutionary protests were attacked by troops in other cities across the country, and on Nov. 4 the USSR sent its army in and began a war that crushed what remained of the 1956 Revolution. Nagy was arrested and executed, as were some 400 others alleged to be leaders of the revolution. Nagy was buried in an unmarked grave, and in 1989, he was reburied after a huge ceremony at Heroes Square, marking the symbolic end of communist rule in Hungary.

In all, more than 2000 Hungarians were killed during the Revolution, and more than 20,000 were imprisoned. Another 250,000 or so Hungarians fled through the (relatively) open border before the communists shut it back down in January 1957; about 35,000 Hungarian refugees were accepted by the United States. Cardinal Mindzenty fled to the U.S. Embassy for refuge, and ended up living in there under self-imposed “house arrest,” until 1971, when he finally left the country (after a papal-engineered compromise that annulled Midzenty’s excommunication of communist officials, in exchange for which they allowed him to leave the country). A local Dunkirk-Fredonia note: the (now closed) Cardinal Mindzenty Catholic High School in Dunkirk was named for him, and he visited Dunkirk before he died in 1975. He left instructions that he was not to be buried in Hungary until the last Soviet troops left the country, and when that happened in 1991, he was entombed at the Basilica at Esztergom. (I’ve included a photo of his tomb below.) (For more on the Revolution, see here and here; for more on Mindzenty, see this.)

Hungarians have, not surprisingly, many memorials and monuments to the heroes and martyrs of 1956. In Budapest, there is a nice statue of Nagy Imre on a bridge, facing the Parliament Building. Underneath Kossuth tér is a free museum and memorial to the martyrs of 1956, which Carol and I visited in October. It had multimedia displays showing where protests and deaths occurred across Hungary, and film of survivors discussing the Soviet attacks in front of Parliament, as well as the parents of some killed, speaking of how they were hounded by the police when they went to the cemetery to visit the graves. There was also a memorial tomb and the massive flag with the communist coat of arms cut out. I found it to be a particularly effective and moving museum, which left me wanting to know more about the history of the revolution. Szeged has several monuments to 1956 as well, including one honoring the U-Szeged students who helped spark the demonstrations of October 23, in front of the Arts Building auditorium. There is also the Hungarian Pieta, a Madonna grieving for the victims of 1956, outside the Dom (Cathedral). My own favorite, however, is the marble statue in Rerrich Béla tér, which depicts the revolutionaries of 1956 bearing the dead butterfly of freedom–an artistic statement that is at once beautiful and heart-breaking. These monuments and memorials were appropriately adorned with wreaths, flowers, and the national colors during Oct. 23 ceremonies (which I unfortunately missed as I was returning from Budapest that day). Below are pictures of some of the monuments and memorials to the heroes of 1956.

So that’s the scoop on these two important Hungarian holidays. Now it’s time to visit the pigs and get some kürtöskalacs and maybe some kolbasz (sorry, pigs) and, of course, a sör or two. It’s still foggy, but I will just have to cope!


The Puszta: Hungary’s Wild Northeast

In early October we had a Fulbright trip to Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, which is in the northeast part of the country very close to the Romanian border. I took the train there, transferring in Cegléd, and met the other Fulbright folks who had come from Budapest. It was great to see everyone again!

Our first stop was the University of Debrecen, which must have one of the most beautiful main buildings of any Hungarian university. It is airy and has lots of stained glass and skylights. We learned about the university’s role in the 1956 Revolution, and saw the great maces of all the faculties; I’d hate to have to carry one of those around! We also got to see the room where the Faculty Senate meets; now this is a place for a Senate meeting, with lovely stained glass to look at during interminable debates!

Next we headed to the Reformed College, where we learned some history about its links to the 1848 Revolution (meetings were held in the chapel, for one thing). We toured the museum and the library, which had great collections of historic manuscripts and books. We also looked at the beautiful Reformed Church, and climbed the tower to see the view of the city. This has become one of my favorite things to do everywhere–climb the towers for the view! (Below is a gallery of pictures from Debrecen; if you scroll over them, you’ll see descriptive captions. I am trying this method for a change of pace, as it gets messy to insert a lot of photos!)

Our second day we headed to Hortobágy National Park, one of Hungary’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, which preserves and presents for tourists the traditional way of life on the Puszta, or Great Plain. (For more about the park, see this.) We toured the Herdsmen Museum, which exhibits the lifestyles and work of sheepherders, cattlemen, and the famous horsemen of the Puszta, as well as the crafts such as the distinctive hats and honey cakes. Next we watched the horsemen who ride standing on the famously handsome Hortobágy horses, and also get their horses to lie down and sit up (really). Then we took a carriage ride out to see the sights of the Puszta. The park preserves and showcases not just the traditional Puszta way of life, but the (now) heritage animal breeds that were raised there. These include longhorn gray cattle, Mangalica pigs with curly brown hair, water buffalo, and hairy sheep. These animals are said to produce superior meat, which is, of course, now very expensive and sold at fine restaurants only. There was a festival going on at the park as well, so we got to see people making goulash the traditional way, in a big pot over the fire. We then ate our goulash at the park’s traditional restaurant, followed by giant donuts for dessert! After this, I rolled back onto the train and headed back home to Szeged, happy to have had another fun adventure with my new Fulbright friends. Below is a gallery from the park. The herder is my favorite face of Hortobágy, although the pig is a close second!