Flinn Scholars

On the Road 2012: Day Eight

June 3, 2012

By Flinn Foundation

Each summer an entire class of Flinn Scholars engages in a group study-travel seminar. This year’s seminar, held in Hungary and western Romania, runs from late in May to mid-June. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Dylon Gookin (‘11)

Something you learn about traveling with a flock of Flinns: there are two sides to every coin. We often agree on a lot, but it’s the same issues one would think we could all agree on we tend to find ourselves most divided over.

For most of us, every moment, every experience, and every memory is to be dissected, discussed, and debated for analysis, followed by reference and cross-analysis, and of course, further discussed in regards to whatever subliminal controversy must surely lay beneath. Needless to say, we seem to deeply discuss everythin on a daily basis. Not a single day has gone by without my own mind being stretched beyond whatever bounds I had only the day before deemed comfortable. Yet, however we call the spinning coin of reality from our perception of every day, the experience that tossed it still does what it’s meant to do – change us.

We opened the brisk morning in Pecs with a late breakfast followed by a lecture in the Porcelain Museum. We were led up to a generally inaccessible lecture hall (an occurance that is now becoming familiar to us) by Professor Frank Zsigó to discuss minority issues with a primary focus on the Roma community.

The vast room echoed with whatever sentiments we had to share, often solemnly turning to the disadvantages of minorities such as race, gender, sexuality and the like – and there was little argument over this. Yet Frank, always with a purpose, was keen to point out even our own most subtle stereotypes; facilitating criticism of our own thinking while keeping the discussion focused primarily on the Roma – their culture, trials, and small successes. Frank ended up joining us on our short drive to Alsószentmárton, a local Roma village past scholars have annually visited for the past twelve years.

At this point in our three week expedition, bus travels have begun to blend together, but even before we left our seats we could see a half dozen eager children sitting along the road, eyes wide-eyed and watching us through the windows as we pulled alongside their mess hall.

We got off the bus and were quickly ushered in where we promptly feasted on some sort of plain pasta, freshly woodfire-cooked bread, and plenty of tender boned chicken in broth. Delicious hardly describes the combination of all three in a single bowl. We spoke to Laci (read Lot-see) between bites who described his leading role in the village, his past experiences, and his numerous travels around the world. Even more curious though, were the dozen or so children with their fingers intertwined in the wrought iron window grate behind our new aqcuaintance, waiting and whispering in giggles, clearly eager to play.

Not fifteen minutes later, balloons, beach and soccer balls, chalk and hundreds of stickers were being tossed around as we were casually led through dilapidated buildings strewn with blanketed windows and weather-torn bricks. We juggled our attention between the natural vibrance of the children and an otherwise sobering tour of poverty, but one couldn’t ignore the overgrown flora the beach balls weaved through, or the battered buildings the occasional stray soccer ball would meet. Laci brought us to their local church which paled in comparison to most we had seen over the past days, yet stood majestic in its own right. It still held a certain importance for the Catholic based village, which held special sermons for the religious holidays, though they remarked on the bitter winters they trudged through each year to attend.

We met again at the main hall where we first ate. The number of children had at least tripled, though this wasn’t a problem once we had a game of soccer going, not to mention the other small games of tic-tac-toe, chalk drawings or the like being passed around.

I took a break from the games at one point to speak directly with Laci, thanking him for the food – a meal he revealed isn’t shared too often. He commented with a smile that they only eat like so for special occasions: Christmas and Easter for example, and apparently whenever we come to visit.

If you get a moment to speak with all twenty of us in the future about how we percieved that day, you’ll likely be greeted with twenty different answers. There were debates of interaction in comparison to voyeurism, confusion with our purpose in visiting them, and even some stated qualms of awkwardness and discomfort due to the language barrier. For every claim however, someone was sure to argue the opposite.

We can’t know how our visits will impact the Roma of Alsószentmárton. Beyond the coy smiles and mutterings of Hungarian from the children, all we could take from our day were our own freshly born perceptions, however they formed. In the case of the spinning coin, every Flinn called the day’s toss a different way, but only time and effort will tell how the coin will actually land. All we can know for certain is that our visit affected not only the Roma of Alsószentmárton, but ourselves as well.

For whatever impact it had, the hours we spent with the Roma slipped by in mere moments. Too quickly, it seemed, we said our scattered goodbyes and left.

We looked back as we waved goodbye and slowly settled in for the bus ride back to Pecs.