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.
Matt Rolland (’05)
Days up and down they come
like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some,
oh, but don’t turn none away
Everything is not enough
Nothing is too much to bear
Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there
-Townes Van Zandt, “To Live is to Fly”
These lyrics were floating in my mind as we left our cabins in Targu Mures. What a wonderful day and night it had been. The bonfire smoke clinging to my skin, the taste of fire-baked apples on my lips, memories of late-night philosophizing and cafeteria sing-alongs in my mind. We were all slow to let June 12 go. But as Townes sang, “where you’ve been is good and gone.” It was time to look ahead to more adventures further into Transylvania.
Sunday, June 13th saw us rising early for breakfast and a bleary-eyed bus trip. The drive to Torocko, called “Rimitea” in Hungarian, was a bumpy and quiet ride except for the occasional snore. By the time we arrived mid-afternoon, the group was ready for some movement. Despite the oppressive heat, a volleyball game was quickly struck up behind our cabins.
But not 30 minutes later, already overheated, we decided to head to the cool waters of the babbling creek. We threw off our shoes and cooled our toes in the frigid water. The adventurous rolled up their pants and waded to the deeper area of the stream. I say adventurous because wading quickly transitioned into playful shoving, which then turned into light splashing and soon morphed into a full-blown water fight. No one was the loser during the hot Romanian summer day.
Soaked and chilled, we oozed our way to the cafeteria hall for lunch and a lecture. Lunch included a new dish for our palettes: bean soup with sour cream. While the food in Targu Mures presented new experiences in general – pink sausages, white bean soups, sour cabbage – it was good to have our food comfort levels challenged.
After lunch, our Romanian guide, Zoltan Soos, gave a lecture on ‘Modern Romania’. Zoltan provided a helpful historical perspective to understanding Romania as a confluence of many empires and cultures; Byzantine, Turkish, Russian, and Hungarian powers had all at some point controlled all or part of what we call “Romania.” Providing a new perspective on ethnic relations, Zoltan pointed out that ethnically homogeneous nations are a relatively modern phenomenon. During the Medieval period, empires usually included ten or twelve ethnic groups. Ethnically charged nationalism is a consequence of the French Revolution and the events of the 19th century.
In addition to being an ethnically complex country, Romania is a country in political and economy transition. Zoltan emphasized that even though modern Romania is a member of the EU, it is a weak and centralized economy. With the highest number of police, army, and secret-service employees, per capita, of any country in Europe (40% of Romanian public expenditure), the Romanian public sector is bound for budgetary problems in the same way that Greece and Spain have suffered during the last year. The government has announced an anticipated 25% reduction in government employee salaries. Watching Romania’s response to this budget shortfall will be an interesting mirror to how we are dealing with our own budget problems in Arizona.
The presentation was interrupted by deafening claps of thunder. Heavy drops of rain began to pound the pavement outside the cafeteria. The wind howled through the lace window curtains, like rain on a conga drum. Crowded around like desert rats at a puddle, we stared out the windows and stuck our hands into the rain. Three Flinns even dashed outside to drench themselves in the deluge. With more black clouds on the horizon, our hike to the mountains had to be canceled.
Not to be deterred, the Flinns found a way to make the afternoon memorable. I looked around after lunch, frustrated by the rain. What I saw lifted my spirits as a chaperone. Everyone was playing rain volleyball, reading, playing cards under the ramada, taking group pictures. I smiled, it was almost as if the rain had been a planned activity. If there is one thing this class does really well it is to make the most of any situation, together. Forget most, remember some, oh, but don’t turn none away.
When the rain subsided an hour later, we walked the mile into town. Walking through the cobblestone streets, admiring the towering cliffs, the village was a destination unto itself. After the sky continued to clear a bit, about half of the students, myself, Am, and our two Romanian guides, Zoltan and Unige, decided to hike to a castle more accessible than the mountain top. A cool wind blowing, the mile to the trailhead passed quickly. As we began to ascend the gravel trail, our spirits were soaring. High up on the hill, we could see a silhouette of a crumbling castle. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds, pushing us onwards and upwards. We were soon sprinting up the ridgeline, surrounded by wildflowers of purple and gold. Reaching the first plateau, we exchanged high fives all around and a few hollers ripped out from our chests, ringing out across the verdant hills. On the next hill over, a herd of white, brown and black cattle ambled over the crest, as small as specks of brown sugar and salt and pepper.
After a breather, we decided to push on to the castle. We picked our way carefully down the steep slope, Galen munching on clover and leading the way with Zoltan. The next hill would be the toughest. Heaving and dripping with sweat, we scrambled up the rocks, wondering how in the world the original inhabitants made a daily routine of this slope. After a tiring 20 minutes we emerged onto the grassy crown. I put my hand against the stone wall, dusted with age but still standing for all the world to see. What a view. I breathed in deeply, and then shouted down to the rest of the group to cheer them on. One, and then two, and then three. Gradually, all in the group pulled themselves up to the castle, panting and sweating, but beaming. Everything is not enough, Nothing is too much to bear.
While only half the group hiked that day to the castle, we carried the spirits of the group with us to the top: the spirit of camaraderie, the spirit of challenges met, and the spirit of making days worth remembering. And while words can convey the events, and pictures can paint the scene, each of our individual memories of that day are a souvenir that can never be given away. All you keep is the getting there.
We hiked home slowly, soaking in every turn of the village and moment with each other. Stopping for a bathroom break halfway, I looked up to see a word strung up in lights across the road: “Gonduzo.” I asked Unige what the word meant. She said that is was difficult to translate, but means loosely ”letting your worries go” and was a common word for celebrations. I liked that and repeated the word again. Gond?z?.
As we walked the final stretch towards the cabins, we linked together, arm-in-arm. Compelled by the day and the night, we let our voices ring into the air, “We are the champions….” That’s exactly how we felt at that moment: champions, conquerers. What’s more, we were excited to be sharing the night as friends and travelers. We were all smiling because, after a long hike, nothing could have been a better sight than to be greeted by our fellow travelers and the warm glow of a cafeteria where the accommodation staff had insisted on waiting for us to serve us up heaping servings of Romanian cabbage and chicken.