On the Road 2011: Day Twenty

June 13, 2011

By hammersmith

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

Tina Cai, Rae Anne Martinez, and Bethany Vu, at the opera in Budapest. (Photo by Tina Cai)

Tina Cai (’10)

Back in Budapest, today was our first free morning to explore the city that we have come to consider our own. Last night, one of our first speakers, Ferenc Zsigó, offered to have coffee with anybody interested in continuing the discussion on the Roma and minorities in Hungary. So, at 10am, about half of us sacrificed the rare chance to sleep in for the chance to learn more about issues that many of us had become passionate about.

Ferenc, who has been a part of the Flinn family for years, shared with us his knowledge on everything from human trafficking, Roma women, the prospect of a Roma nation, segregation among the Roma, identity politics, homelessness, and the status of the disabled in Hungary. As you can tell, we’re a curious bunch with diverse interests and passions that make for some of the most stimulating conversations I have ever had the good fortune to participate in.

After coffee, our group had an incredibly satisfying meal at the one and the only Hummus Bar. That falafel hummus plate is even more delicious the third time. Then, we split up to either do some shopping or rest at the Radio Inn. I picked the latter. And before I knew it, it was time for the fanciest part of our itinerary – the opera.

For most of us, this was our very first opera experience. The opera was Rossini’s renowned comedy, The Barber of Seville. Not only was the plot filled with characters in disguise plotting an intricate plot of deceit, but the opera was performed in Italian with Hungarian subtitles. So, most of us were unaware of the jokes and the subplots and even which character was who. But in the end, I think I can say that all of us acutely felt the beauty of the music, a universal language that transcends borders and unites us all.

It’s funny, because less than two years ago, I was writing an essay on the power of music to unite people, to be submitted for my application for the Flinn Scholarship. And looking back on our trip, music and art have forged pathways to deep connections both within and outside of our group.

Some of our fondest memories include listening to Bob Cohen’s fusion of Roma, Jewish, and American music and dancing to traditional Hungarian music in a field by the Danube. And following Flinn tradition, our introduction to the Roma students of Ghandi high school formed through music. All 20 of us were joined by the Ghandi students as we sang and clapped to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. And in return, the students treated us to a beautiful Roma musical performance followed by a rendition Feliz Navidad on the guitar, to which all the Flinns sang along. Despite differences in language, nationality, ethnicity, social class, economic status, education, and lifestyle, we all clapped to the same beat, we all sang the same words, and we shared a bond that was stronger than those things that might divide us.

In my last Flinn essay, I wrote, “People can communicate through music when they fail to communicate through language.” Those words ring truer than ever.

As much as this trip has been about discovering the differences in culture and life between Americans and Central Europeans, I have found that it is the similarities that have allowed us to connect with our hosts and our friends in ways that I never could have imagined. I have found families with warmth, openness, and love that remind me of my own family. I have met youth who are passionate and curious about the world who remind me of my Flinn family. I have befriended individuals who share the same fears, insecurities, and hopes who remind me of myself.

And we are all tied together by this common thread of humanity and this common fate. Sometimes, we forget that. But tonight, after witnessing the way that music was able to touch each and every one of us, uniting us in a common passion, I remembered.

For me, the most salient issues we have discussed have been cooperation among the Central European nations and the future of minorities in Central Europe. If politicians and citizens would just remember that as people, we are connected by this common thread, then maybe governments would care more about people and less about petty political arguments. Maybe the Roma and other minorities would be viewed as equal people and not be treated as scapegoats or second-class citizens. Maybe extreme nationalism would give way to international cooperation. Maybe….

But I do know that while we were savoring our ice cream sundaes in the cool night breeze just across the street from the opera house, our Flinn class bond was strengthened by a renewed appreciation for European culture and art. Together, we opened our minds and our hearts, united by a shared experience and touched by a language we could all understand. And that, to me, is what this adventure is all about.