Special Feature: Eastern Europe travelogue 2007

June 4, 2007

By hammersmith

Every summer the Flinn Foundation escorts an entire class of Flinn Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week intensive seminar on the unfolding democracies of Eastern Europe. Scholars meet with leading political figures, learn the local history and culture, journey to important locales, and live amongst the locals. They return as seasoned travelers with a broadened view of the world–and wonderful tales to tell. Here are their adventures in their own words.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

By Poorvi Patel

There’s nothing like an ice cold bear on a hot Christmas morning. Do or do not, there is no try. Life is uncertain, eat dessert first. I started the morning filling my dessert tummy with Bundt cake at my host family’s house. Need I say more? It was the start of a great, relaxing day. As evidenced by the above random quotes taken throughout the day, our day was quite personal and scattered because we basically had free time in Pecs the entire morning, then went on a train together and had free time in Budapest for the remainder of the evening.

The heat and humidity of Pecs was the only downfall to the wonderfully quaint college town. Walking around after relaxing sleep at a host’s house was nice, especially since it was impossible not to run into other Flinns since the center of town is fairly small. When we convened at a cafe at the center of town to walk to the train station, most of us had bags of trinkets and honey to bring back to Arizona. Pecs’ friendly atmosphere, wonderful architecture, and busy shops were just what were needed after several busy days of traveling and crazy nights in Budapest.

The train ride, on the other hand, was like stepping into a furnace. This trip has helped all of us appreciate air conditioning and cold water a lot more. Our section of the train was a dance of papers, as everyone attempted to fan themselves while listening to their iPods. All I could think of was the freezing cold baths in Gellert that I had to be forced into because they were too cold. The one upside to the heat was the greenery outside, which was wonderful to look at. By the time we reached Budapest everyone was ready for Radio Inn and cold showers, but most of us went to wine tasting in the castle in Buda. The rest of us went out to dinner and then had a fairly quiet night, at least until the wine tasters came back! I think this day was a much needed day of rest and free time, especially considering that we all have to be prepared for our last two nights in Budapest!

Monday, June 18, 2007

By Michael Mitchell

We began our day at the American Corner in Pecs. The American Corner is an organization funded and operated under the U.S. State Department to promote cooperation, interaction, and exchange between the U.S. and Hungary. Among other things, it organizes events in Pecs to share facets of American culture and provides services to help Hungarians access the United States through such venues as study abroad programs. While there, we heard a series of lectures about Hungarian politics and local politics and issues in Pecs.

We heard from Dr. Bretter Zoltan, who has served as the vice-mayor of Pecs as well as in the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 until 1998, and was able to offer much valuable information about the state of politics and political processes in Hungary and the development of the current political system after Hungary abandoned communism. We also heard from other speakers about plans and programs currently being developed and implemented to prepare Pecs for its year in 2010 as one of Europe’s Cultural Capitals.

We were unable to visit the Roma high school as originally scheduled, so after a delicious lunch we had some time to explore Pecs on our own. Although this was complicated briefly by some rather vigorous rain, we were able to see more of the beautiful and historic buildings of the city and to take care of some souvenir and gift shopping left until late in our trip.

Late in the afternoon, we reconvened to meet our host students for the final homestay of our trip. While experiences varied greatly—our hosts ranged from high school students on up to faculty members at the university in Pecs—I think I can say that most of us spent some very enjoyable and enlightening time with our hosts.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

By Wylie Timmerman

After being freed from MC Young and Aggi’s grip for almost half a day yesterday to roam the city, most of us somehow still made it to the IIE offices this morning at 9—unfortunately, Ke and Matt were laid low by illness back at the Radio Inn. The lecture this morning was one of the best yet, even though Roma issues already had been discussed during the trip.

The first speaker, Ferenc Zsigo, looked at the various ways to answer the question “Who is Roma?” and from there, “How numerous are they?” As a political scientist, the speaker was concerned here with how the size of their population was represented in the census and in election results, and the forces seeking to raise or lower these numbers for political purposes. As the ethnicity question on the Hungarian census is optional, the official estimate and reality are certainly off: Roma political leaders encourage those they represent to answer the question in order to demonstrate a larger base of support and attract more funds. On the other hand, having faced discrimination from centuries ago, through the Nazis, and into today, many other Roma may hope to escape some strife by remaining unidentified as Roma. Zsigo went on to discuss the ways Roma could achieve their political goals, including guaranteed political representation in the Hungarian Parliament or a place in the European Parliament.

His colleague, Rita Izsak, was all too familiar with the discrimination Roma face. She was forced from her job at the Hungarian Parliament after she revealed privately to a coworker that she was part Roma. Her lecture detailed with more case studies how difficult it is for the Roma to escape from the vicious cycle of poor education, housing, and employment opportunities. As she seeks to change the poverty that has become a hallmark of the Roma in some areas, Izsak’s ultimate hope is that “the socio-economic indicators of Roma-ness” will be eliminated. For once, questions were reluctantly cut short as we headed to the train station to hop on our ride to Pecs.

Wondering if anyone else would fall ill soon, the group said goodbye to Michael as she stayed to care for Matt and Ke. Just as it was the first time some Flinns had traveled outside the U.S., riding a train was a new experience for many as well. Our stop at Pizza Hut was a nice taste of home though, even if we didn’t get the “Arizona pizza” (onions and beans—mmm). The sweltering temperature on the train worsened our moods, however: When we disembarked and “counted off” to check our numbers, the mumbled mess of English, Hungarian, and Romanian (4, 5…nyolc!) words that occurred every time finally caused Alan to snap.

The place we were staying at was no respite. The heat at this dorm for male engineering students at the University of Pecs wasn’t a surprise, but the decor was a bit different. “My pillow smells like a man,” Noura said, and she was a little uncomfortable seeing a urinal in the bathroom. The mattress was a putrid shade of green, and the blankets brown with an orange tiger skin design on top. Bob was just impressed that it was “more colorful than Manzanita” at UA, and gave a taste of Hungarian student life.

Our tour guide Peter, a local student, made Pecs seem like quite the Mecca for international students. Many festivals of wine and music come to the town, and even more events will likely happen while it’s the European Capital of Culture in 2010. The remains of the old city fortifications form the borders of the downtown, which was impressively full of sights and parks. Old churches that had been converted to mosques and vice-versa were standouts. Looking forward to exploring more of the town tomorrow.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

By Jay Thongkham

Today was opera day! Contrary to “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” the last stretch of the trip was kicked off by the opera. The day began very late, 11a.m. to be exact, the longest we’ve been able to sleep in. I know I was one to maximize my time sleeping in at the Radio Inn, our home away from home.

Coming out of the metro, I saw a crowd of beautiful people, especially the Flinns. As to not act like tourists, we lined up in front of the opera house taking pictures; first the girls, then the guys, then everyone, as the natives strolled by with gawking eyes. After receiving the tickets, we found out that it was harder for us to navigate in the opera house than it was Budapest. The seats were spread from the floor to the boxes, a new experience for most of us.

Everyone read the synopsis of Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” at the beginning of the trip, but unfortunately, most was forgotten when watching the opera. Instead, many of us created our own interpretations of what was happening onstage, only later to realize how abstract and wild our rendition was. To read a real synopsis of the opera, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_magic_flute. The music and acting was wonderful, definitely a delightful treat.

Afterwards, we went next door for ice cream and coffee. Ice cream in Europe is amazing! What’s great is that there are cafes and stands at every corner, indulging our desire for sweets. After desert, everyone dispersed—some to the mall to go shopping, some to the internet cafe to reconnect with the World Wide Web, and some strolled across town enjoying a relaxing afternoon.

Our night was as free as the afternoon, dinner and activities. A dinner on your own meant “eat something that you crave.” In my case, it was Chinese food. I had been two full weeks without Chinese food! A few of us enjoyed a nice Chinese dinner and, in that hour, I felt back home. As the rest of the night goes, everyone has his/her own story to tell. As for now, we are sadly counting down the last few days of the trip.

Friday, June 15, 2007

By Neeru Narla

Today marked our ascent into the final stretch of our trip, and proved to bring us yet another perspective on Hungarian economy. After breakfast we loaded the bus and headed for Ozd, where we were able to see first hand some of the opportunities made available under capitalism by touring the General Electric plant that had been built there in 1999.

As we toured the floor where circuit breakers were being manufactured, it was astonishing to witness the robotic, yet meticulous, assembly lines of people hard at work. On the surface, the excitement of instituting a GE plant in Ozd seemed apparent. The plant provided over 1,200 new jobs for the community, greatly contributing to increased employment rates in Ozd. Yet the more I assessed the situation and working conditions of the employees, the more apparent issues—like division of labor within the work (about 53 percent were women and 47 percent male due to the precision women are able to bring to the bench), wage distribution across the plant, and the balance between plant efficiency and expenses—became. An interesting question and observation that came up was the lack of automation of many of the seemingly monotonous tasks powered by human labor within the assembly lines. The answer Susana provided was that the complicated machinery it would take to perform these tasks would cost more than the employees’ salaries, and brought forth much debate as to the full reasoning behind a failure to invest in equipment. Did the plant have a responsibility to the surrounding community in providing employment opportunities? Or, is it easier for GE to remain mobile without such investments?

Discussion continued on into the bus, as we struggled to understand capitalism from the perspective of a community for which this economic lifestyle is still relatively new. Everyone seemed to have a diversity of experiences from which to pull examples and input (I suppose one of the neat things about discussion with a group of Flinns!). Our subsequent lecture on the economic development of Ozd and Hungary provided context for what we had seen earlier at the plant as we learned about the collapse of the mining economy in Ozd and transition through General Electric, as well as the continued need for infrastructure.

After lunch went a local meet with learn more available post-high-school opportunities, specifically Open Doors program offered through GE. As we engaged conversations, found immense excitement America culture both surprising interesting, gushed about shows Smallville Friends. When I asked any recommendations Hungarian films, simply laughed explaining how them ?boring? not good as something ?Pirates Caribbean.? It was interesting see great pride many students for education, drive had excel what they considered most difficult subjects, mathematics physics. Still, like majority samplings American students, some prejudices barriers discrimination were evident in their condescending talk of ?gypsies,? etc. The afternoon really taught me that high school kids anywhere across world exhibit similar tendencies and continue to find the same things interesting.

It was a sentimental time as we realized that today was the last day on the bus, which essentially had been our home (and only access to air conditioning!) for the past week. I’ll never forget the feeling of returning home as we entered Budapest and passed by Hero’s Square or the great rush of excitement I felt upon pulling up to the familiar neighborhood of the Radio Inn. Though we had only been in Budapest for a few days at the beginning of our trip, we had come to view it as our home base. We gave Bela, our wonderful bus driver, a soccer ball signed by all of us in commemoration of his favorite sport that he so willingly played with us rain or shine (there are mud stains to prove it) and for the faithful and friendly support system he had provided us with throughout our journey through Romania. With more than two-thirds of the trip over, we have exactly one week left as of today. I foresee minimal sleep for the next few days as we don’t plan on wasting a minute of what little time we have left. 🙂 See you all soon!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

By Lauren Myers

We began our day today uncharacteristically early, meeting in the hotel lobby at 6:30 a.m. Groggy and tired, we boarded the bus to begin our eight-hour trip from Romania back to Hungary. Though much of the ride was spent sleeping, we did have the opportunity to reflect as a group on our impressions of Transylvania.

During our travels in this region, one of the recurrent themes we encountered was the importance of ethnic identity to the people that live here. Transylvania is a very mixed region, predominantly populated by Romanians but with significant Hungarian, German, and Roma minorities. In contrast to the United States, ethnic identity seemed to be one of the most important methods of organizing society here. Both the educational and political systems tend to separate along ethnic lines, with the privileged minorities (particularly the Hungarians) running their own schools and voting for their own political parties. Disadvantaged minorities, specifically the Roma, are also separated from the majority, but are forced to attend terrible schools and are poorly represented in the political process.

From an American “melting pot” perspective, it was surprising to discover that ethnic groups that have lived alongside each other for centuries have not achieved a greater degree of assimilation. As Americans, we all came to Transylvania with the assumption that assimilation and cultural diffusion are desirable goals. Now as we leave, we have discovered that in many parts of Europe, and indeed the world, this is not the case. We have learned that in this respect, United States is an exception; here in Central Europe, as elsewhere, ethnic identity is an extremely important and often divisive force in society. This perspective of course has important implications for the possible development of a “European” identity. Can a broader European identity replace narrow ethnic identities? Can the two coexist? Is it even possible to develop a pan-European identity?

After engaging in both somnolent and scholarly activities on the bus ride, we finally arrived back in Hungary in the village of Aggtelek. Here, we visited an impressive cave system reminiscent of Arizona’s own Kartchner Caverns. One of the cave’s largest rooms had been turned into a concert hall, with a field of red plastic chairs arranged under the arched roof of the cavernous space. We were treated to a short concert program in this subterranean vault. The concert was accompanied by a light show that illuminated the impressive formations at the front of the cavern. The effect was otherworldly. The arch of the cavern walls became the stage proscenium, and the cave formations became both actors and set pieces as the light show played across them. It was certainly one of my most unique experiences in Hungary

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

By Connor Mendenhal

Despite all the absurd follies of state socialism, there is no question that some Soviet accomplishments deserve their place in history. A nation of peasants shot the first man into space. The military might of the USSR terrorized the world, and the Red Army grew into the largest ground force of all time. Soviet planners embarked on public-works projects so huge that even ancient Egyptian pharaohs would have requested a feasibility analysis. But if there is one enduring legacy of Soviet hegemony behind the Iron Curtain, it’s not the concrete-block buildings that sprout among secessionist and art-nouveau facades in Central Europe, nor the giant social-realist sculptures of party leaders and monuments to the workers, most of which have been torn down and hauled out of town. It’s the god-awful elevators they left behind.

Capitalist elevators are models of stability and efficiency—boxy little microcosms of our way of life in the West. They whisk passengers from floor to floor with an orderly, well-oiled system of picking up and dropping off additional passengers at each floor. All the while, comfortable, nonthreatening music plays in the background. The whole ordeal is a safe and reassuring experience—after all, it’s not called “elevator music” for nothing.

The elevators in the Hotel Napoca, in Cluj, Romania, are an entirely different story. I’ve read that many Romanians, with the unique national humor wrought by years of psychotic dictatorship, refer to these elevators as “coffins.” Whether or not this is true, it’s an apt description. Built to exacting Soviet specifications, Eastern European elevators are dim, claustrophobic steel death-cages. During a typical six-story ride, your life may flash before your eyes up to six times. This is not to say that the elevators are slow enough to allow a leisured recap of your childhood, but rather that they shoot from floor to floor at such speed, and with such a magnificent racket, that each ride becomes a harrowing and helpless flight of predestination, and each floor a new opportunity for blunt head trauma. All the while, a single light bulb, usually flickering, casts a greenish glow through the car, giving each passenger the pallid skin tone of the recently departed. Perhaps the goal was to smash the class system by making bourgeoisie and proletariat equally terrified.

Although Western elevators may be uncomfortably full during peak periods of the day, Romanian elevators are guaranteed to be uncomfortably full all the time. Despite a purported “six-passenger” capacity, you’ll be lucky to squeeze in four fat-cat capitalists (or two with luggage). Six passengers is also a strict weight limit, enforced as harshly as any Leninist party-line. If, by some feat of American ingenuity, you manage to fit more than four passengers, the elevator will refuse to budge. Although Western elevators generally sound a happy little buzz, resign themselves to carrying an overweight load, and continue on their way, Romanian lifts offer no such convenience. Instead, they will wait patiently at the ground floor until each passenger has been silently shamed into trudging up the stairs.

Of course, trudging is often an appealing alternative to an elevator ride, especially when one is waiting for an elevator to stop and pick him up. Classic logic holds that a passenger must push the button, wait for the elevator to stop at his floor, and step on. Romanian elevators are more forward-thinking and postmodern, rejecting classical reason. As many times as one may push the button, the elevator will almost always whiz past the requested floor. Floor 9! Floor 3! Floor 12! Mezzanine! Meanwhile, one is left standing, waiting, impotent in the face of sheer mechanical power. Consider bribing a commissar to get one to stop. Otherwise, trudge up the stairs.

The stairs were where my day began June 13, as I ran down six flights to our morning lecture after waiting ten minutes for the da*n elevator. Sitting in stiff chairs, in a dreary conference room, in an old concrete-block hotel, we were given a fascinating presentation on the state of the Romanian economy. The irony of the setting was not lost on anyone. In fact, the hotel and its elevators embody the state of modern Romania—a nation with one foot stepping into a future of European integration and economic growth, and one foot firmly planted in a tragic past filled with terrible elevators.

The presentation, prepared by the Romanian Central Bank, was a blur of pie-charts and line graphs and economic statistics, dense with information even for an econ-junkie like myself. The report’s conclusions surprised me—by almost every measure, Romania has a relatively healthy economy, and the EU accession process that the nation completed this year will (hopefully) only lead to further growth and stability. Concerns today are mainly about overheating, not stagnation. The numbers are startling—Romania’s GDP grew by 7.7 percent in 2006 and 8.5 percent in 2004, the sort of growth most would expect from an Asian tiger, not a state in post-socialist transition. Yet the nation is still troubled by its communist heritage, struggling to build transparent institutions and ensure political stability, both obstacles for the Romanian economy. These problems sound detached on paper, but we experienced them firsthand, bumping along potholed Romanian roads in the tour bus. Despite years of economic growth and a rising standard of living, the politicians haven’t stopped squabbling long enough to repave the highways.

After a free afternoon to explore the city of Cluj (and an optional scavenger hunt designed by our esteemed chaperones), it was time for a closing dinner and farewell to Romania. Nobody believed how quickly our week in Romania had gone by, but our surprise was a testament to just how much we had seen and done—scaled mountains and climbed castles, swapped stories with villagers and ideas with academics, visited tiny towns and huge cities. Our dinner served as a good-bye and thank you to Zoltan and Mada, our Romanian guides, as well. Without their extensive education, cultural knowledge, linguistic abilities, and, most importantly, their sense of humor, our visit to Romania would have been a shadow of the trip that it was. Zoltan and Mada, with us every step of the way in Romania, may have begun our trip as tour guides, but now many of us are proud to call them friends.

Celebration of the last night in Romania continued long into the night, as we took our guides out on the town one last time. Late that night, I walked into the lobby of a dark, empty Hotel Napoca with the other Flinns, looking for the well-worn circular button in the wall. Someone pushed it, and we waited in silence for one last elevator.

Monday, June 11, 2007

By Michelle O’Shea

Today was a relaxing balance of education and a beautiful taste of nature distributed between Targu Mures and Torocko, with a lecture in the morning followed by a two-hour bus ride to the peaceful Transylvanian countryside. We opened the day in Targu Mures with a presentation on ethnic relations in Romania by Maria Korec, with an emphasis on Roma and ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, each with their share of historical interethnic conflict.

The political and social situation of the Roma people has been among the most fascinating topics on this trip thus far, and one that is explored further in every lecture and discussion. Their dilemma is reminiscent of the racial prejudices that infected America especially leading up to the civil rights movement, and serves as evidence that these strains of stereotypes still exist and thrive in areas where the problem does not attract enough activism to seek new solutions.

From an educational perspective, less than one percent of Roma students graduate from the 12th grade. What I found most interesting and perhaps equally as frustrating was that a main cause of the enormously high dropout rate of Roma students is that many Roma children lack the fundamentals taught in kindergarten, which few attend. I was instantly reminded of the smiling faces of the children who cheerfully danced for us at the Roma women’s center in Timisoara, and wonder what the future holds in store for them.

Following the presentation, the group visited the Teleki Library, founded by Samuel Teleki, who was once chancellor of Transylvania as well as an apparent bibliophile. Filled with 250,000 volumes of rare Transylvanian books, multilingual dictionaries, and an ancient scientific database behind locked shelves, you could sense the remnants of a quiet intellectual excitement still present in the air.

After a free lunch period (which for my particular group included a bakery followed by a conveniently located gelato stand) we departed for Torocko, a former mining town in Transylvania facing the gargantuan 1,128 meter-high Szekelyko, which we were set to conquer the next day. It is said that only those who climb to the top of this mountain will ever find their purpose in life. The view was astounding from the balcony of the Tobias House dormitory, with the clouds gently sailing across the emerald mountain, spilling rain over a group of us that played a grueling game of “swamp soccer” in the backyard of the house. Being a less-than-skilled soccer player myself, I had the fortune of having Bela, our bus-driver-slash-former-pro-soccer-player, as a member of my team.

After we launched the soccer ball into the neighboring yard for the final time, we were served a delicious and balanced dinner of fried steak, potatoes, and cake. This, by popular demand, was followed by scrumptious steaming tea brought back from the village of Homorodszentpeter. Later that night, the group went out and explored the town, which essentially meant a deck of playing cards and good conversation at the local (and only) pub. Though the bonfire was no longer a possibility as a result of unfortunate weather conditions, the night served to be a perfect opportunity to bring the group closer together through the games we played much, much later at the Tobias House. What is amazing so far about this region as a whole is the unique charm found in both the city and the countryside, and the people we have met that have helped to strengthen the bonds of the group, as well as paint for us a lively and accurate picture of Transylvania as a whole.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

By Yichao Wang

Beams of sunlight crept across the hand-laid wooden floor of the house, tickling my fingertips. The song of a crowing rooster beckoned me from the realm of sleepy dreams. Half closed eyes fell on the portable alarm clock on the floor next to me——5:25 a.m. I yawned, stretched—and promptly rolled over and fell back asleep. Three hours later, Jay’s foot in the small of my back unceremoniously announced the official start of the day.

Today began at the small village of Homorodszentpeter, Romania. The previous night we were greeted and welcomed by the minister, Ms. Kinga, and met our host families. Four to six Flinn students, along with adult chaperones acting as translators, were each assigned to different host homes. The hospitality with which we were greeted was unparalleled; the people gave up their rooms and homes for us to stay in, and when we awoke this morning we all were greeted with breakfast already on the table. The food was simple yet delicious; slices of cucumbers, tomatoes, salted cold meats, fresh cheese, and coffee quickly banished the remnants of sleep nipping at our minds.

At 9:30, we gathered at the church of the village where the minister gave us an introduction about the village, the effects of Romania’s entrance to the European Union on the village, aspects of the church (which is Unitarian), and a little bit about herself. Afterwards, a service was held in both English and Hungarian, with some Flinns participating by either leading prayers or singing hymns. Bob and Julie sang a beautiful duet of “Amazing Grace,” and Nora said a prayer in Arabic, then translated it to English. It was an amazing experience to see so many people with such varying backgrounds and differing connections to their respective faiths share in spirituality and religiosity with such open honesty and compassion.

After the service, the students returned to their host families for lunch, which again was absolutely delicious. One of my own personal favorite aspects of traveling is experiencing the cultures through the food lore, and it was fantastic to enjoy the food of Romania beyond the restaurants and to bask in the authenticity and hospitality of each bite. Conversations bridged by translation about village life peppered the meal with warmth and laughter. Afterwards, we presented our hosts with gifts—books about Arizona, t-shirts, and dreamcatchers. Then it was back to the house of the minister, biddings of farewell, and onto the bus for our next destination—Targu Mures, the hometown of one of our adult chaperones, Zultan.

Upon arriving in Targu Mures, we had the opportunity to explore the Palace of Culture—a building constructed in 1910-13 by one of the city’s most famous and popular mayors as a sort of cultural center. It was intended to house symphonies, theater performances, and cultural events, and today is commonly used as a performance space as well as a place for politicians to meet. The halls glowed with mirrors and beautiful stained-glass windows, and we had the chance to admire the paintings and archeological displays before our departure.

After stopping by the place we would be staying for the night, the students and chaperones walked to a nearby park where Zultan met us with pizzas and water. A pizza-picnic ensued—and within half an hour, all of the pizzas were inhaled by hungry Flinns (it was quite an impressive feat, although I suppose pizza and college students have a natural affinity for one another). The rest of the evening consisted of free time, which many students spent at small cafes enjoying hot chocolate and one another’s company.

Today also (roughly) marked the half-way point of our trip. It is difficult to imagine that we have already been here in Hungary and Romania since May 30. Each day we are inundated with a flurry of new information, new places, and new people, and each night we fall into bed exhausted but all the richer from the previous day’s experiences. This trip has served to both fill our minds with knowledge and experience as well as induce our hunger and thirst for further exploration; I look forward to the second half with eagerness and excitement.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

By Am Norgren

Many of the students in my class, including myself, have felt as if parts of this trip are extremely surreal. The events of Saturday, June 9th, added to this feeling. First of all, we went to Sighisoara, a town spotted with shops brimming with “Dracula” apparel and souvenirs. This city was, for lack of a better description, a tourist trap, but provided a good contrast to the towns we visited later in the day.

After having a few hours of free time in Sighisoara, we traveled to Szekelyderzs, a small Hungarian village in Transylvania, to learn about its fortified church and to eat dinner. I don’t think I can do this experience justice in words, but I will try. The second we walked through the gate of the fortifications, it felt as if we were transported into another century, perhaps in the Middle Ages. We had the chance to see the church, a world heritage site, which contained frescoes that were preserved on its walls and a brick inscribed with ancient Hungarian script. Also there was a collection of farming and household tools, which sat under the cracked, dusty walls of the fortifications. As if these sights weren’t surreal enough, we also had the opportunity to see the church’s bacon tower—a room full of bacon slabs and sausage links that hung from its ceiling. The smell was pungent, but it was a smell new to our twenty-first-century noses. It may seem like this “bacon tower” was a trivial detail of the trip, but experiencing the life of peasants living in Transylvania hundreds of years ago (and still today) was not trivial at all.

After climbing the church’s rickety bell tower, we migrated into a cool, candle-lit room that was tucked in the walls of the fortifications and was furnished with simple wooden tables. We ate various cheeses and sausages—fresh and flavorful reminders of peasant life in Transylvania. With full stomachs, we drove to Homorodszentpeter, another quaint Hungarian village. On our drive to the second village, we were somehow energized by the sight of cows obediently returning to their homes. As soon as our energy was captured, it was channeled into a dance party on the bus, in which our whole class, our chaperones, and our guides danced to Credence Clearwater Revival’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Apparently, living in a bus with 25 other people causes strange things to happen….

In the village of Homorodszentpeter, we met our host families and divided up for the night. My group did not have a host living at the house we stayed at, but we went to the homeowner’s father’s house for schnapps and conversation, which was only possible through a strange series of translations of words in Hungarian, Romanian, English, French, German, and even Spanish. The sheer beauty of using multiple languages, awkward hand motions, and exaggerated facial expressions to express sentiments that all of us shared was an experience that I will never forget.

Traveling from the tourist trap of Sighisoara to two isolated Hungarian villages in the middle of Transylvania was a journey back in time. On Saturday, June 9th, I experienced something unknown to me previously—the sense of living in a different time and place—and this experience, above all, allowed me to truly appreciate the beauty of traveling.

Friday, June 8, 2007

By Julie Swarstad

Our second day in Sibiu, Romania proved to be a lesson in flexibility and patience as we encountered major difficulties in completing our scheduled activities for the day. Sibiu is a beautiful city with roots as a medieval German town, a distinctly Italian flair, and status as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, all while it occupies a position almost dead center in Romania. This mix of identities can be almost overwhelming at times but creates such a wild mix of events and sights to see.

We began the morning with a short walk through the city to the town’s largest church in the oldest square. Walking through the dramatically Old World space of a medieval church was for me the fulfillment of a childhood obsession with the architecture of the Middle Ages; the soaring ceilings and beautiful stonework seemed surreal as actual objects rather than glossy photographs in textbooks.

We ran into our first bout with canceled activities when we left the church to visit the Bruckental Museum only to find that the museum was closed to us due to the surprise presence of a delegation from the EU. Returning to the church we made the best of our now available time by climbing up a dizzying amount of stairs to the top of the bell tower for some incredible views of the city.

Looking out of the small windows at the top you could feel a refreshingly cool breeze and see beyond the twisted streets of Sibiu to the distant blue of the Carpathian Mountains. We braved the stairs again to return to solid ground and then attempted to visit the Pharmacy Museum only to find that it too was inaccessible to us, leaving us to relax with coffee and ice cream in the main square before a picnic lunch on a grassy knoll just outside the farthest remaining ramparts of medieval Sibiu. The chance for a picnic is one we all happily take and a short rest in the shade of a tree gave us the drive to continue on into the afternoon.

Once again our plans were thwarted as our planned visit to the city hall for a lecture on Sibiu’s tourist-development plans was canceled again because of the EU delegation. We instead returned to Bruckental Museum and toured the exhibits as it was now possible for us to enter. The museum houses an eclectic mix of art ranging from renaissance to contemporary and everything imaginable in between in a sometimes strange hodge-podge of very different styles and eras all hanging in the same room. The collections were very impressive but the heat of the afternoon started to catch up with the group. We had a free afternoon following our visit to the museum and tired as we were most of us took the opportunity to catch up on emails with family and friends followed by rest at our hotel.

This day was Alan’s twentieth birthday and so in celebration we had an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant complete with tiramisu cake with singing candles that the whole group got to enjoy. We continued to celebrate Alan’s birthday into the evening with dancing and fun for all. Our days in Sibiu were overall wonderful despite the many changes of plan and this lovely evening spent with friends was a fitting farewell to such a unique city.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

By Darryl Davis-Rosas

We climbed a mountain in Deva today. Zoltan, our athletic and friendly Romania travel guide insisted that it was only a hill, but my aching calves would beg to differ. As arduous as the ascent may have been, the experience was quite enjoyable though. We followed a series of narrow, winding cobblestone paths through a dense forest until we reached the summit and the Deva Castle ruins. Every so often, we could pause to take pictures of the gorgeous views offered through breaks in the foliage, but mostly we would stop just to catch our breath. All of Deva could be seen atop the mountain. Atop the ruins, our eyes could feast upon the beauty of Transylvania. Although the cool breeze and spectacular view had a calming effect on the body, the sheer physicality of the climb build a very strong sense of camaraderie within the group that could only be captured and cherished longer apparently by taking hundreds of wacky group photos in various medieval style poses. It was a very fun and cheerful experience, and I’m proud to say that all twenty of us made the ascent together.

In the afternoon, on our way to Sibiu, we visited a Transylvania castle that had survived the test of time and was converted into a museum. Faced with the sheer beauty and magnitude of the structure, I was immediately set back by feelings of grandeur and nostalgia. The theme from “Lord of the Rings” played in the back of my mind during the entire experience, if that helps to describe the feelings.

We then boarded the bus to Sibiu. The ride was rough and bumpy, so I was excited to get out and play some ball when we picnicked for lunch. The sandwiches were good, the sun was warm, and the people friendly. Most played soccer or I guess it’s called football now, but a few of us, including myself, started a game of quasi-baseball using a tin can and a big stick. Don’t worry though, we walked softly, and we threw the can away when we were done.

So far I’ve really enjoyed Sibiu. It seems like a very relaxed town that still knows how to have fun. Hearing from local students about their excitement to join the EU during lecture, as well as simply conversing with them about day-to-day life, the people seem surprisingly optimistic. It showed once again when the town square was filled nearly to capacity for the 2007 MTV Europe DJ Awards. June 7th was a very fun day in Romania.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

By Ke Wu

If it wasn’t for the overhead sign that read “Asociatia Memorialul Revolutiei” we would never have known. This gray rundown building is the singular place in all of Romania that aims to commemorate and record seven days of life-altering history. This is it. As we piled into the courtyard, I noticed the contrast between renovated courtyard walls and interiors much in need of a paint job. The building wasn’t grand, there was no ticket booth, and there was no “Do not touch” sign in sight. I couldn’t help but think, “The revolution of 1989 must not have been that magnanimous if this it the museum for it.” However, as we walked through the room of children’s drawings and then the room of black-and-white photos, that thought was quickly overtaken by shock, empathy, and great sadness. Though Romania’s revolution was successful, the brutality that ensued to reach such an end was and still is horrifying. Dead bodies on the street, guns pointed at civilians, tanks patrolling the streets—horrifying.

The subsequent videos shown on Ceausescu and the revolution brought power and corruption to a whole new level. Along with his wife, this communist leader fabricated extensive webs of lies and deception. World players fell for his lies; the United States fell for his lies. By the time Romania realized they made a mistake electing Ceausescu into power, it was already too late. Thus the defeat of years and years of suppression was glorious in the sense that the people of Romania have finally dismantled communism, but the detrimental effects of communist years cannot be completely erased.

Currently the museum is troubled by building rights. All buildings by the communist regime are being returned to their previous owners upon request and it just so happens that the building the museum is in was seized and now the owner wants it back. He refuses to sell the property and all renovations done on the building will not be reimbursed. We were made aware of this situation by the Mr. Orban, a survivor of the revolution and the man who pursued the preservation of all documentation of the revolution by starting the Asociatia Memorialul Revolutiei. As he continued his presentation I felt growing anger and growing sadness. He started this memorial from the remains of a fairly destroyed building given to him by the town mayor. It is meant to be a place for the people, free to all who want to learn about the revolution. The common feeling amongst us was that to close such a resource would be devastating and detrimental and after all the effort Mr. Orban has put into this place, it would be unfair. What can we do? Is there anything we can do? What can I do?

As we left the building there were scattered conversations as we reflected on the presentation. The pictures, the lies, Mr. Orban. I became quiet for a while just thinking about the pain in Mr. Orban’s eyes as he spoke of the revolution, his voice trembling at times as he paused to relive moments. In a conversation with Michael during lunch, she revealed that the movies were fairly recent and that in the part Mr. Orban would give a complete narrative of his experience. She said at times he would have to excuse himself—It was too painful. I could only imagine, but even in that short interaction with him, I could already feel the emotional strain. What can I do? How can I help?

With the museum still fresh in our minds, we continued the afternoon with an introduction to Transylvanian history by the one, the only, Zoltan. The presentation was extraordinarily comprehensive with pictures and maps, but, I know for me, I was still too distracted by the thoughts of the revolution and of Mr. Orban, particularly because we had the history lecture in the museum. I cannot completely comprehend the caliber to which Mr. Orban’s words have affected me, but I personally feel connected. We left Timisoara that afternoon, but I’m sure that will not be the last time I will see Mr. Orban.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

By Marianne Go

After being curled up in the fetal position on the bus after leaving Debrecen, we crossed into Romania. Although I needed the sleep, I somewhat regretted the decision because I couldn’t more carefully observe the transition in landscape between both countries. It’s not an understatement when previous Flinn travelers have likened the verdant expanse of Romanian countryside to the idyllic Shire in “Lord of the Rings.” After crossing the border, there was a group reflection on our past week spent in Hungary. As a past participant in this program four years ago, I am continually impressed by how perceptive and articulate the group observations are on issues including (but not limited to) Hungary’s accession to the European Union, shifting conceptualizations of national versus transnational identity, and comparison and contrast of their Budapest homestay experiences.

After the group reflection, we arrived at the Hotel Central in Timisoara. Following lunch, we received an orientation from Zoltan and Mada. Other than the importance of learning “hello,” “thank you,” and “ice cream,” we received a briefing on Romania. My past memories of Zoltan have included my utter amazement while struggling down a mountain, as he flew past us while carrying an injured Flinn on his back down the mountain like some half-man, half-billy-goat hybrid. I had never met Mada before because she started working as a Romanian guide the year after I first went on the trip but my immediate impression of her is one of humor and generosity.

Following our orientation, we visited the Roma Association Women’s Center, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the status of Roma people. The center provides such valuable services as a free kindergarten, which is particularly important for giving an educational head start for Roma children, who face higher drop-out rates than their counterparts. A question-and-answer session allowed us to learn about the center and about the hardships facing the Roma. For example, Roma children often face intense discrimination in school and, often, non-Roma parents tell their children not to associate with Roma children. In many ways, the discrimination facing Roma is similar to the discrimination and segregation of African-Americans in U.S. history.

Nevertheless, our speaker informed us of the challenges of mobilizing the Roma for collective action. One obstacle is that there is difficulty in creating a universal identity for the Roma, an umbrella for multiple tribes or subgroups, with some of these subgroups being antagonistic towards one another. The visit to the Roma Association Women’s Center was important for giving us a more holistic picture of the Roma struggle and the burgeoning movements to fight such overwhelming discrimination.

One of the amazing parts of the visit was that the children at the center performed some traditional dances for us. Then they invited us to join them and we formed this crazy conga line around the room. We brought toys for the children and some of the Flinns began making balloon animals and increasingly elaborate and multi-tiered balloon hats.

The rest of the evening was free. I went with Matt and Noura for some Italian food and afterwards, we made our way to the main square to absorb the nighttime atmosphere of Timisoara over coffee. A jovial Zoltan and Mada later joined us. As I looked over the scene in front of me, I couldn’t help but smile at that certain slant of light reflected by the rain-slicked cobblestone.

Monday, June 4, 2007

By Navid Askarinya

Hello everyone!

Things in Hungary have been amazing thus far, and being in Debrecen has allowed me to see a completely different side of the Hungarian landscape! Below is my blog, along a picture of the day. I hope you enjoy them and the best of luck in your summer!

Today the group went to University of Debrecen to meet with English professor Zoltan Abadi Nagy to discuss and learn about higher education in Hungary, as well as the EU as a whole. Being a teacher who focuses on American works and culture, and having taught at American universities himself for years, professor Nagy seemed to be the perfect choice to find a way to link Hungarian and American systems of higher education. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two systems is the final exams: In Hungary, the final exam period is well over a month long, because every student takes the majority of their exams orally, one-on-one with their professors. Initially I cringed at the thought of being drilled privately by my professor to determine my final grade, but at the same time I later realized that with such large classes, perhaps the best way for a teacher to see each student’s knowledge personally is by a one-on-one session.

Professor Nagy also explained the bologna process in which all EU universities are joining together to make their credits and degrees interchangeable. Needless to say that by linking all of its higher education the EU would gain so many advantages by having such a broad range of student and faculty backgrounds, but in an area where higher education systems outnumber the number of member states, its easy to see how complicated and tedious this process of globalization can be. Already in the States credit transfer between colleges and universities is such a difficult, complex issue, and that’s in a system where every school speaks the same language and is part of the same country!

Afterwards the group had a picnic lunch at the nearby park. It’s obvious to tell where I am from when I say that the first thought in my mind was, “Oh my! How were they able to plant all these trees?” Living in the Arizonan landscape so long really allows one to marvel and feel peace in the sight of such a green paradise. But peace was short when the group turned the quite picnic into a loud, gritty game of the playground classic: red rover!

After working up a sweat I headed back to the hotel with some of the group to cool off in the hotel pool while the rest walked around a bit, but we were all joined for a walking tour of the city with a local who showed all the city’s historical sights, including the great church, where Hungarians first cried for independence from the Austrian empire.

After Professor Nagy’s lecture and exploring the city I came to reflect how today can best be summed up as a day of looking further in. In seeing a city a tenth the size of Budapest, but is still the second biggest city, I saw an aspect of a rural and nature-filled Hungary I had previously not known. The same occurred when learning about the bologna process then playing my childhood favorite game of red rover (as odd as this pair of events sounds). I was reminded that joining another is not always as straightforward and simple as just grabbing another’s hand, because its often very hard to make the right kind of lock to make sure the two are actually gripping on and locked tight: Though it is tedious and sometimes hard to find the right lock, once finished both sides are always stronger for it.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

By Beryl Jones

Still recovering from the time zone difference, jet lag, and a severe lack of sleep (not to mention too much excitement), we took a day of relaxing to calm down and enjoy more of Budapest. In the morning we had the opportunity to listen to and share Hungarian folk and classical music with a Hungarian composer and music guru. His love of music was clear and we enjoyed the traditional music as he sang and danced along. It was interesting to hear some folk songs that we all knew and recognized and then also learn about some different styles that we are not so familiar with.

After the morning music session we took a few metros to the thermal baths on the Buda side of Budapest. It was definitely shocking (at first) yet incredibly rejuvenating to step from the fiery sauna to the 8 degree Celsius water. It was a nice change of pace from the lectures and walking tours that we had taken in the previous couple of days. I think it’s safe to say that everyone enjoyed the thermal baths and felt refreshed and ready for more of Budapest afterward.

The rest of the afternoon was free to pursue our personal wishes and we broke into groups. My group headed deep into Buda to find a nice restaurant for lunch. We ended up at a very nice place (forgive me for not remembering the name) where I had goulash and the rest of the group sampled most of the other main dishes on the menu. Everything was quite tasty and a great representation of traditional Hungarian food. We then walked around Buda and then Pest, and took a tour of the “House of Terror,” a museum dedicated to the history of communist and Nazi oppression. The exhibits were very eye-opening and I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever find yourself in Budapest with a free hour or two.

The day ended with my favorite part of the trip so far: the home stays. We were each paired up with a host—usually they were students, but some were just friends of the IIE office who were willing to take us in for the night and show us more of what Budapest and Hungary is all about. Some ended up many miles from the heart of Budapest in the countryside and saw some of rural Hungary. I personally ended up being hosted by a third-year student at one of the universities in Hungary who stayed in a two-room apartment about 15 minutes away from the center of the city. Over dinner we talked politics, food, perception, art, lifestyles, and pretty much anything you can imagine. It was fascinating to hear her views of Americans and what has been going on both in the U.S. and in Hungary recently. As a university student, she had great insight to many of the questions that I had thought of before and during my time here in Hungary. It was also very interesting to talk with Kata about Transylvania, a region where we will soon be traveling for about a week. Most of her family lives there and she visits often. She had very strong beliefs about the Hungarian influence in Transylvania and the strong ethnic ties to Hungary that many people and villages in the region share. After our dinner conversations we got ready to go out for a night in Budapest. We met up with many of the other students and hosts at a couple of the popular “hang out spots” for people our age. There we all chatted about various things and gained even more insight to the Hungarian lifestyle and beliefs. The night ended far too quickly, and we all split up yet again with our respective hosts to spend the night full of thought and the realization that we were having some of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

Friday, June 1, 2007

By Alan Mackey

Yesterday, we explored Budapest; today, we learned about its culture. The day consisted of three lectures: one given by the former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S., one by a philosophy Ph.D., and another by a professor of literature from the Institute of European Studies.

As an economics major, the lecture I found most appealing was on the biggest political and economic differences between America and Europe, with emphasis on Hungary. Presented by Gyorgy Banlaki, the discussion of historical factors affecting the development of the United States relative to Europe (and vice versa) was extremely helpful in terms of understanding Hungary’s current economic situation. Banlaki’s thesis on economic development in Europe versus the United States was similar to some ideas I had encountered previously, but he also included many I hadn’t ever heard or considered. Much of the discussion involved the influence of communism and feudalism on Central end Eastern Europe’s transition from command economies under socialism to private economies under democracy. The question of how to “properly” privatize a country is a big one on the current international scene; additionally, the need for such a process is relatively new and so there are several theories about the best way to deal with the issue. I liked the discussion because it also applied to what I knew about privatization under similar circumstances, like in China and Russia.

The other two lectures, on Hungarian theatre and poetry, were also very interesting. A very large portion of Hungary’s population goes to see at least one play per year, and theatre played an important role by allowing for intellectual freedom of expression under Hungary’s communist regime. The Hungarian language is very unique and difficult to translate, and so we read as many as six translations of an individual poem, each with its own distinct feel. The session ended with groups of two to four students each writing an original poem. The selection ranged from

“One by one
Done, what fun”


“There is meat on my seat
Now I must eat on my feet

to more…elaborate poetry.

The day ended with an attempt to wash some of my clothes in the sink of the hotel, though I’m not sure they’ll have enough time to dry; it rained again today as it did yesterday. I’m looking forward to staying with a host student tomorrow night and living the life of a Hungarian in college…today’s lectures inspired many questions I want to ask. Aside from that, Budapest is an incredible city and I’m looking forward to the visit to the thermal baths tomorrow. Beryl Jones will tell you all about it….

Thursday, May 31, 2007

By Paul Schaffert

Greetings from the future.

Budapest is an eclectic city. This is most visible in its architecture: Gothic arches and flying buttresses reach up across the Danube from Eastern domes and spires. Interspersed are styles from the neoclassical columns and facades of the museums and the opera house to the more traditional stone (or fake stone) buildings that line the streets. There is even a bit of Moorish architecture in the old synagogue.

The multiple traditions of architecture reflect the nature of Budapest. The streets are filled with visitors and residents from across the world. Aside from the tourists the city has more than one role to play. It is the western end of Eastern Europe and the eastern end of Western Europe. This shows up in the food, where a lasagna-like spinach dish cohabits the table with sour yogurts, stuffed cabbage leaves, sausages, cheeses, and salads of several stripes.

There is clearly some remnant of the prior eras. Some of the newer buildings are bland, brutal reminders of the two oppressive rulers of the 20th century. Fascist buildings, with their strict order, and communist buildings, with their tired exteriors recall a state not in control of its destiny. The newer buildings, the modern apartments springing up within the menagerie, remind us that Budapest is alive once more.

With best wishes for those living nine hours in my past,