On the Road 2010: Day Twenty

June 15, 2010

By hammersmith

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.

Dawn Cole (’09)

Today was our last day in Cluj, and everyone was feeling a little gloomy as we began to realize that our time together was quickly coming to an end. Add to that the exhaustion and sadness from the previous night–it was Katherine’s last night with us, after all–and we were a shabby looking group I am sure.

The talk on environmental issues was unfortunately cancelled, but the final question-and-answer session with Zoltan proved to be a very good wrap-up of what we encountered in Romania. I am still amazed by people’s attitudes when they talk about the past–even as Zoltan described the oppression and fear of his childhood, he expressed no sense of need for revenge or retribution. It’s as if the people are just tired after so many years of suffering and would rather save the energy to try to improve things than complain about things that cannot be changed. I really appreciate this because, although it is so logical, I personally have not encountered this mentality very often.

During the several hours of free time in the afternoon, Laurel and I visited the Botanical Gardens.  An explosion of 600 varieties of roses separated the present from the past as we left the crowded and noisy street and entered a full rain forest. I felt as though I was back in Costa Rica as we wandered through this temporal oasis. We also found statues of Ceres, the god of grain and cereals, keeping watch over traditional peasant gardens from the Roman age.

Zoltan told me later that much of the nearby Romanian countryside used to be covered by similar forest vegetation, but with the expansion and industrialization of cities, much of it was lost. It is hard to imagine that such serenity once existed in those now-hectic spaces stained by years of human inhabitance.

We walked through the cemetery on our way back to the city, and we took time to notice the birth and death dates. When I think of a cemetery, I have the somewhat “romantic” idea that the people buried there represent the “everyman” who worked and suffered alongside everyone else (I guess any concept of someone being “normal” is somewhat romantic in and of itself, but still).  But upon reflection, I realized that with so many people and so little space, and the size and spectacle of the headstones, these were no ordinary men and women.  They represented the elite, the well-connected, and the wealthy.

And again, pardon the pun, even here there is buried so much history. In one place we saw a set of at least eight graves sharing the same name. As we looked closer, we saw that they were all brothers, born in 1916, 1918, 1919, 1921… and they all shared the same fate, dying in 1944, 1945. Of the eight, only one–the sister–was spared. She still lives today, her gravestone just sitting there waiting to be finished.   

For me, this day just showed that the history of this place is everywhere–you just have to look a little closer to discover the story. It all makes me wonder–how aware are people living in these ancient cities of the history of the places that surround them? Does their knowledge of the past increase their sense of nationalism, or are they like the many Arizonans who have never visited the wonder of the world that sits in their backyard (the Grand Canyon)?  How much of their identity as a Hungarian or Romanian is tied to the physical infrastructure and how much is simply rooted in the culture of the people that surround them?  Do Hungarians miss their beloved land lost in the Treaty of Treanon with such passion because they lost those physical monuments that embody the past, or because of the lifestyles and peoples those lands supported?   And finally, just as the forests were transformed first to agricultural lands and then to cities, what will these cities eventually become? How will the complex histories of these lands shape their future?