Flinn Scholars

On the Road 2009: Day Two

May 26, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Alice Cai (’08):

The day began at 8:58 am with a sprint to breakfast after I had pitted an exhausting but exciting night against my small travel alarm clock. Ten came and we were settled into the IIE office preparing for our first speaker of that morning, Károly Pintér. Károly Pintér is a professor at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University; he gave us first a geographic overview of Hungary’s ethnic, religious, and physical divisions, past and present.

We learned of the shrinking Hungarian kingdom that used to preside over the Carpathian basin. A series of historical events sliced Hungary’s territory into small countries after WWI. Hungary’s loss of pride and former territory jumpstarted the country’s participantion in WWII as they sought to regain their land. However, Hungarians found they lost even more as Soviet Russia overran the country, and they also found that they picked up the stain of the extermination of Jewish and Roma peoples during the German occupation.

In Pintér’s explanation, blame for these events danced around the Hungarian authorities but still landed mainly on the Germans. Pintér also gave us an idea today’s Hungarian politics and monoculture. He answered our questions about their ideas towards homosexuality and xenophobia, as well as complex questions regarding the lingering effects of communism in the population today and anti-Semitism in Hungary’s past.
After a relaxing lunch at the Fészek restaurant, we headed back to IIE for our second presentation of the day. Our second speaker was Tibor Frank, a Professor of History at Eötvös University. He gave a talk titled “Hungarian Talent: what is it and why is it unique?”, which fell directly under the overarching theme of the trip for this year, which is Hungarian talent. He began with an overview of famous Hungarian people, starting from the revolution of 1848, including Hungary’s “Washington”, Kossuth, and he also spoke of the Eötuös Collegium that was established to train special talent in Hungary.

A major problem he addressed was the intellectual drain of young people and working people out of the country. These people are mainly motivated by money and the dream of coming to the US. This seems to be a global phenomenon; when I heard him say this, I immediately drew a parallel to the situation in China, where students and young job-seekers will do anything in their power to go abroad and become permanent residents in other western countries, including Australia, Canada, and the US. These people do not return to their homelands until they are old.

The problem looming large on Hungarian economics and politics involves the support of their welfare system: with a shrinking population, and an exodus of capable workers, heavy taxes of 50-60% of income on only about 30% of the workers will not support the entire state. Policies whip back and forth as every election a new party takes power and reverses the deeds of the previous party. The situation seemed darker and darker as Tibor spoke on.

However, hope for Hungarian talent took the form of two writers, a couple with two children, who performed their work to us in a park. Anna Szábo was a poet who read to us a piece of her original work in Hungarian, then two different translated versions. The translation altered the rhythm and alliteration of the original work, but the students definitely grasped the meaning of the poem via the avenues of sound and literal meaning. Anna’s husband, György Dragomán, then read us an excerpt from his book, The White King, and answered our questions about writing in multiple languages and writing for children.

To close the day and prepare for an early start the next day, we went to the medicinal Széchenyi baths. The outer baths varied in temperature, from around 25°C to 37°C. After a series of whimsical switching of pools, photos, and fast revolutions in a whirlpool driven by strong, massaging jets, our muscles were thoroughly transformed to mush. The boneless feeling I experienced personally nearly prevented me from climbing the stairs to the hotel. The baths had definitely lived up to their name.