Chain Bridge, Budapest

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I Sing of Arms and of the Man

I just got back from Prague this morning at 7 a.m. and I'm in the middle of packing for the rest of my European odyssey. The BSM farewell party is this afternoon at 3pm, two and half hours from now, and my train to Kiev leaves Budapest at 6:45pm. Needless to say, I'm in the middle of doing twenty things at once. I'll update yall as I go along, but the posts will probably be sporadic and brief and might not have pictures. In fact, I really won't stay still until I return to San Antonio on June 18. Expect a concluding essay with a deluge of pictures. 

BSM has been a great experience for me. I took my last final for combinatorics two days ago and just found out that I got an A in the class. Hooray! I find out the rest of my grades today at the farewell party. The rest of my time in Europe is looking great. I'll be travelling all over. Here is my itinerary: Kiev, Ukraine to Dniperpetrovsk, Ukraine to Riga, Lativa to Kaunas, Lithuania to Vilnius, Lithuania to Dublin, Ireland to London, England to Zurich, Switzerland and back to Budapest, Hungary before I fly back home to Texas.

I can't wait to get on the road again.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two Down, One to Go

I took my algebra and MPS finals back to back this past Friday. I had studied all week for them and I'm glad they are over and done with. I enjoyed both classes, but they both had their difficulties. Algebra is a course that every math major must take and is the foundation for much of high-level mathematics. I took it last Fall at UT, but dropped it halfway before the midterm because I couldn't follow the professor during lectures and the textbook wasn't a big help neither. My professor here was the exact opposite, writing detailed proofs on the blackboard and going through many examples. We covered a lot of material and at times it was hard to keep up at his pace, but at least he was thorough. I just hope I don't have to take it again next semester. Its the only class I took this semester that I needed for my degree back home.  

MPS is a whole 'nother story. The problems we had to solve weren't what I was used to at all and I didn't know what to do most of the time. Every now and then I would get one right without any help, but it was tough. It didn't help that half the problems we were solving were contest problems given to Hungarian high school students in the 1930's. The MPS professor is a teacher at Hungary's Fazekas high school, which  offers college-level math classes. The material in my MPS class was just as tough as anything I've taken at UT. I'm going to keep my Hungarian Problem Book, partly as a memento, partly to show it off to anyone who's interested.

And now, my days in the Budapest Semester in Mathematics are numbered. My last final, combinatorics, is at 8am on Tuesday morning. Later that day I'm starting a three and half week journey of European adventure. I'm catching an afternoon train to Prague to go see the Franz Kafka museum and the old town that everyone has been talking about. I'm taking a night bus back to Budapest on Wednesday night and arriving Thursday morning just in time for the BSM farewell party to get my transcript and say goodbye to all of the great friends that I've made here. Later that day I'm taking an overnight train to Kiev, Ukraine and then onto Dneperpetrovsk, Ukraine to see a distant relative, Nataliya Nechukhayeva, and her family. My travel plan after that takes me to Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, England, Switzerland, and back into Budapest to get few last licks before I jet back to San Antonio on June 18. I'm also meeting up with my mom in London, who is flying in to sightsee Europe alongside me.

Sounds epic? I know. The best part is that I hope to travel with only a backpack. I'm not known for travelling light, so this is going to be a real challenge. But that isn't anything compared to what this guy did: Here is a recent article in the New York Times about a guy who walked from Vienna to Budapest along the Danube River. Maybe I'll do that the next time I'm in Central Europe.

Now I have to study. It's 2 days until I'm done with school, 26 days until I return to Texas. Start the countdown. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Return

(Yaawwwnnnn....) Oh, hello. Good morning. Jo reggelt kivanok. It's so nice to see you again. I feel like we haven't spoken in ages. I'm on the home stretch for my semester with BSM and the finish line is in sight. The coursework has become harder and the weather has become nicer, which has lead to some inconsistent study habits to say the least. I've also been travelling a lot. Last time I checked in with y'all I was about to head to Krakow, Poland. I made it there and back with a detour at Auschwitz. I can write a whole essay just on that trip alone, but I'll jot down some thoughts now and save the exposition for later. Two weekends after that I rented a car with eight other people and drove to Croatia, stopping at the beautiful Plitvice Lakes and ancient Split on the Adriatic Coast. In between these trips out of town, I explored Budapest some more as well. On May 1 a May Day carnival was held in Varosliget (City Park). Last week I finally visited the famous Dohany Synagogue in Budapest. Two days later my roommate Andy and I rented bicycles and went statue hunting around Budapest to collect pictures for my Hungarian class project.

I've uploaded nearly 1000 pictures to my online Picasa album as evidence of these escapades. You can always view my entire photo library from time in Europe by clicking on the permanent link on the top right hand corner of this web page, or for convenience you can also click right here. Here are a few of the highlights from the past month:

Thousands of Polish law enforcement officers line the streets of Krakow in preparation for the funeral of a civic leader killed in the tragic plane crash two weeks prior.

At the loading dock inside Birkenau, where 1.1 million Jews and Poles were killed. 400,000 Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, the most Jews from any single country killed there. Most people were unloaded from the trains where I am standing.

Getting a picture with the conductors of the train right before we left from Krakow to Budapest.

Karl Marx greeting people near the literature tables for the local communist party on May Day in Varosliget

 One of the many waterfalls of crystal clear water at the Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

A view of Diocletian's Palace in the historic old town of Split, Croatia. We had just finished swimming in the Adriatic Sea, pictured in the background.

Inside the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest. It is the second largest synagogue in the world and the largest in Europe. As you can see, it has three tiers of seating.

Hanging out with Attila Joszef, the most famous Hungarian 20th Century poet. This statue is directly south of the national parliament on the Danube in Budapest. 

Already reminiscing, my trip to Krakow almost didn't happen. I had been taking my time finishing my homework and nearly flaked out on my buddy Dan to go visit Krakow and Auschwitz. I asked my roommates in passing if they wanted to go also, and they immediately jumped on the adventure. Their enthusiasm and Dan's encouragement got me back on the wagon and onto the train headed for Krakow. 

The four of us were in a 6-person couchette. There were two other people with us, filling up the tiny sleeper compartment. One was an American girl, a student at Smith College who was studying abroad learning computer science in Paris. She was on her spring break and was traveling across Central Europe. The other guy was a Hungarian in his late 20's, traveling in a triangle from Krakow to Ukraine and back to Hungary. He was a transport engineer working for BKV, the Budapest public transit company. He told me that the 4,6 tram line that runs around the big k├Ârut, the tram that I take at least once a day, has the highest traffic of any tram line in the world, and it even has more traffic than Budapest's Metro line 1, which is the second oldest in the world. 

This was my second time to Krakow and Auschwitz. (For reference, the Auschwitz death camps are located in the Polish town of Osweichem, which is an hour's bus ride east of Krakow.) My first trip was with the March of the Living back in April 2006, four years ago to the month. On this trip I saw many of the same sights. We strolled through Kazimierz, the medieval Jewish quarter of Krakow, and visited Auschwitz. By chance, the four of us walked the 3 kilometers from Auschwitz I to the larger Auschwitz II - Birkenau. I had made the same journey four years ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day with ten thousand other Jewish high schoolers from around the world. This time it was just the four of us. For me visiting Poland for the second time was much different from the first, particularly since I had been living in Central Europe for four months before this recent trip. The most lasting thought I had from the first trip was that I could never live in Poland, ever, and I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to live there. I had thought that living in Poland must be like living in a graveyard. Unclean and unholy. Many of my friends on the March of the Living felt the same way. 

Now that I have lived in Budapest, Krakow seemed really cool. I really liked the medieval architecture and the hip vibe that the city had. It was similar to Budapest, but much older and less urban. As I we drank coffee in an outdoor cafe in a small park on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I remembered my aversion to Poland from four years ago. I felt very hypocritical. Hungary experienced nearly as much death and destruction as Poland, and Budapest was nearly flattened during the war. In fact, Hungary was notorious for allowing the fascist Arrow Cross party to deport Jews to their deaths at an alarming rate, quicker than the Germans were doing in other countries. The exhibit at the Auschwitz Museum dedicated to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry was titled "A People Betrayed." The city of Budapest itself is covered with Holocaust memorials, remembering the victims of the Arrow Cross. Does that same gut reflex I had four years ago in Poland apply to my time in Budapest today? Not really. What does that mean? I don't know.

Okay. Must go to sleep. Will try to update more on the Krakow trip, as well as Croatia, and statue hunting in Budapest, and my inevitable trip to the Dohany Synagogue. Wish me luck on finals.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Off to Poland...

Hey everyone. I only have a few minutes before I must catch the overnight train to Krakow, Poland. I'm travelling with my two roommates Mike and Andy as well as my BSM friend Dan Munger. We are going to see the old city and the Jewish quarter of Krakow. Of course, no trip to Krakow would be complete without taking the short bus ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau outside of the city. I've been there once before, four years ago to the month with the San Antonio delegation of the March of the Living, 2006. It will be Dan, Mike, and Andy's first time to visit Auschwitz. I'm sure it will be a very moving experience for all of us. I will post pictures and full essay about the trip when I return. We are taking the 10pm overnight train back from Krakow on Sunday night to arrive at Budapest at 8:30am Monday morning. I have class the same day at 10:15am. Giddy-yap.

On a happier note, I met another AEPi brother today. I wore my burnt orange AEPi hoodie to school and AJ Trenk from California State University-Northridge saw me and introduced himself as a fellow brother. He's in the McDaniel College pre-medical program here for the semester. McDaniel College, which is in Maryland, has a Budapest campus which uses the same building that BSM uses. AJ is a junior at CSUN. I've met many Californian AEPi's from previous conventions and conclaves on the west coast. They are always the most spirited and are the strongest chapters in the country. I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ran into a Pi. On a similar note, last Monday Leah texted me that she spotted a guy wearing a Texas Longhorns baseball shirt at the KFC (yes, thats Kentucky Fried Chicken) by the Keleti train station. I was down the street at school with a minute to go before my Hungarian class started. I briefly, but thoroughly, considered skipping the first part of class and running down the street to say "hook 'em" to the fellow longhorn. I was wearing my Hex Rally shirt at the time and I thought it was appropriate. Alas, just then Erica the teacher walked in to say jo napot kivanok! and class started.

'Till next time, may the eyes of Texas be upon you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Szeged, a Brief Look

This past weekend I went with a small group of BSM students to Szeged, a small college town in southern Hungary. We traveled there to hear a math lecture from a professor of the local university. In case you're wondering, the lecture was filling a two dimensional space with disks (like putting pennies on a table top) and filling a three dimensional space with spheres (like stuffing a shipping box with baseballs). Interesting stuff and worth the 2 and 1/2 hour train ride. Here are some pictures from my weekend at Szeged to tide ya'll over until I have time to write a much longer post.

Lucas and Brittany shop for cool antiques

Waiting for the lecture to start. More people showed up a minute later.

Lucas, Mel, Sam, Mike, Thomas, and Troy at Genius Music Bar

Me in Klauzal Square in Szeged. People are sitting outside eating cake and ice cream behind me.

 Me and Andy at the Pick Salami and Paprika Museum.

View the whole online album of my pictures from Szeged by clicking here.  

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yom Ha'Shoa

Monday was Yom Ha'Shoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli Student Organization in Hungary (ISOH) sent me a Facebook invite to their ceremony held in the original Pava utca synagogue next door to me. After my long day at school, I met Rebecca Garber from BSM at the synagogue to attend it together. The fold-away seats set in the restored synagogue were nearly full of people, young and old. Everyone wore white, which is what the event's organizers had encouraged people to do. The room was about two-thirds full of college aged students with the remaining third made up of families and even some Holocaust survivors. Unfortunately the hour long program was entirely in Hungarian and Hebrew, so neither Rebecca nor I understood anything. After the ceremony ended I looked around for any of the Jewish Hungarians I had met earlier at the community Friday night services, but I didn't see anyone.

I went home quickly to change back into street clothes to go to the Balint Haz. The ISOH had also sent a mass Facebook invitation to watch the movie Europa Europa, the true story of Solomon Perel, a German-Jew who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Poland, becoming a Russian Komsomol youth officer, was captured by the Germans but hid his Judaism by convincing the soldiers that he was an ethnic German living outside the fatherland. He served as a German-Russian translator on the front and helped capture Josef Stalin's son. Later he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth back in Berlin and fell in love with a teenage girl who was a fervent Nazi. His story is too crazy to be true, and the movie is carried by the nearly fantastical series of events that eventually led to his liberation. A large part of the movie deals with Solomon hiding his circumcision from his friends, which would have immediately given him away. I couldn't help but remember the endless discussions on Philip Roth's The Counterlife that my Jewish literature class had last semester. I would highly recommend The Counterlife for anyone not looking for a simple, straightforward, easy, and certainly not introspective read. 

I had never been to the Balint Haz before. Its only one block off of Andrassy, the famous boulevard for Hungarian aristocrats under the Empire. The Balint Haz is a sort of small Israeli/Jewish community center. Rebecca didn't come to the movie with me, but she was at the Balint Haz anyway participating in her weekly Israeli dance group. Once I found were the movie would be shown, I introduced myself to the few people from ISOH who were setting up snacks. They were all Israeli and spoke English very well and made me feel at home. I had arrived ten minutes early and soon twenty other Israelis had come upstairs to fraternize and watch the movie. Everyone chatted away in Hebrew, and I didn't want to be that guy that made everyone speak English, so I waited for the movie to start. Afterwards 15 people hung around to have a discussion about the movie. They encouraged me to stay, saying that there was a Hungarian man who didn't speak Hebrew so the discussion would be in English for our sakes. 

One of the girls in charge asked people to share stories about the war from their own family's history. This is where I felt really out of place. Almost everyone had a story about how their family traveled around Europe or went to Israel to escape the Nazis and later the communists. Luckily, my grandparents and great-grandparents left Europe in the 1920's, before the rise of Nazism. The discussion then turned to Jewish identity under communism and in today's Hungary. The topic was particularly on people's minds since the day before was the national election in which the extreme right wing party won a 16% share of Parliament. The question of Jewish identity (what is it? how do you define it? can someone be "more" Jewish than another?) never has a clear answer. The conversation among the Israelis and Hungarians became a little heated and comments were flying across the room so fast it was hard to keep track. I wanted to throw in my two cents, but I struggled to find a significant American perspective that I thought they would like to hear. Let's face it, American Jews have it pretty well off compared to other Jews around the world, including Israel. As Americans we thoroughly exercise our First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech nearly everyday. Its very rare that I hear stories of true anti-Semitism in America and many of my Jewish friends aren't afraid of displaying their religious observance openly in society. Its taken a while, but today religious discrimination in America is regarded as taboo, something that's archaic. 

In Hungary, however, I have heard a few Hungarian Jews tell me about their fear of openly displaying their Judaism, or telling new friends that they are Jewish. This issue dominated the discussion for a while and several people volunteered to share their own stories and observations. I hadn't realized just how widespread this phenomenon is. Everyone agreed that the situation for Hungarian Jews was improving in spite of the rise of European anti-Semitism. Much of the community's increased strength in the face of intolerance is due to many young and old adults suddenly discovering their Jewish heritage from an aging grandparent's revelation of Jewish blood in the family. A representative of the Jewish Agency who took part in the discussion said that for the past few years, the majority of Taglit Birthright participants from Hungary have been young people who just discovered their Judaism in their 20's. These fundamental differences separate the community that I'm used to in America with that of Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe. Our backgrounds are totally different. I learn so much from each new person I meet here. Its a little overwhelming.

Now its late again and I have to go to bed. I hope that my blog doesn't reek of "Jewishness." I've tried to post on a variety of subjects about my life in Hungary, but I keep getting drawn back into talking about Judaism. It was already such a big part of my life that its hard to ignore it. Plus, its turning out to be hard to ignore it in Budapest. As one Israeli who I met at the movie screening told me, "everywhere you look in Budapest has some sort of Jewish element to it." He is completely right. As if by natural instinct, nearly all of the bars, dance clubs, music clubs, and restaurants that the BSM students go to are populated by Budapest Jews or are located in the Jewish district. The Israeli said that Budapest has been the most Jewish city he has ever lived in.  Pretty remarkable, eh?

As a throwback to my DJ'ing days at the student radio station KVRX, I'm now taking requests for blog topics. My English teachers would call this a very uncreative move. I call it giving the power to the people.

God Bless America.     

Monday, April 12, 2010

Election Day

Another weekend has ended. How productive was I? Depends on your prospective. Many of the math kids had midterms and homework due on this past Thursday and Friday. I myself had my algebra midterm on Friday. Let's just say that I'm glad its over with and I can move on to making a strong second-half semester push towards that A. While I studied for test in the days leading up to it, I realized that I had clearly allowed the lecture material to slip away over the past few weeks without understanding it. I will try not to make the same mistake in the coming weeks. So, after the test was over I joined dozens of other BSM'ers letting off steam around the 7th district on Friday night.

Our first stop was the "basement bar." It was a tiny, smoke-filled room with a couple of tables occupied by students. There are many places like this all around the city. They are characterized by their claustrophobic interiors, disregard for second-hand smoke, and cheap drinks. Many people were drinking pints of Arany Sozok, the Hungarian Bud Light (but worse), for 200 forints, 1 dollar. I sipped on a shot of Johnnie Walker Red for 350 forints, $1.75. It was severely watered down which made it taste too-smooth-to-be-true. Later we left the basement bar to go to our old favorite, Mumus, which had just opened up its courtyard for the Spring. The Mumus courtyard was a real treat. There were many tables with heat lamps positioned alongside a long bar with a handful of bartenders. A projector displayed static psychedelic images onto the blank wall of the adjacent apartment building, casting a trippy glow over the crowd outside. Cool. Just one more reason why I love coming here.

Saturday I woke up late and went with Christy and Mike to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art to see the Glenn Brown exhibit. Glenn Brown is an artist from the UK that I had never heard of until two months ago when prints of his paintings started appearing at tram stations advertising the special exhibit at the Ludwig. This was the last weekend of the exhibit so I wanted to go check out the guy who had the weird paintings. See for yourself.

Suffer Well

His paitings are full of swirls of color, providing a sense of motion to the pictures. Many of the scenes and objects he paints are surreal or futuristic, and in fact he mimicks Salvador Dali's technique and expands on it, at least that is what the brochure said. I had a great time spending a Saturday afternoon looking at pretty pictures and checking out a neat museum on the Danube. 

The Ludwig Museum

View of the Danube from the Ludwig Museum

Hey! You found me!

Sunday was election day in Hungary. Since I've arrived here I've tried to understand Hungarian politics in order to gauge how people view policy here. There are campaign posters scattered throughout the city. Hungary has a parliamentary government so there are many political parties each vying for your vote. On the sidewalk outside my apartment in the 9th district there are campaign posters on every street lamp and every kiosk. Many posters are ripped down overnight and a rival party's poster is put up the next day. I have been looking at online news and blogs about Hungarian politics to get a feel for the local political climate. A good website is

However, I couldn't vote and had different priorities on Sunday afternoon: cleaning my apartment and my room and finally washing a load of laundry out of desperation. For those in America reading this blog: appreciate the convenience of your huge washers AND dryers. I do now. My room now clean, my clothes now hanging on the drying rack, it was time to do some homework. I had to catch up on some combinatorics and attempt the MPS homework so I headed out with Andy to eat, study, and check out election day festivities. We stopped by the Humus Bar first to eat some falafel, then went to Deak Ter to see if we could find some political rallies. By now it was 7:30pm, thirty minutes after the polls should have closed, but all we found at the city's main square were a some couples sitting on park benches and kids rolling around on their skateboards. We went by parliament and found nothing there as well. Hmmm. We decided to find a coffee shop, do some work, and then come back and look for a rally. Of course, as we searched for the California Coffee Company, our favorite study area, we ran into the Fidesz rally in Vorosmarty Ter. There was a big TV screen and a stage set up for a band. There were about a hundred people milling around but nothing was happening at the moment. We left the rally, found the coffee shop, got our homework done, and returned to Vorosmarty Ter to catch the start of the election results on the TV. I suppose it was just our luck to run into the rally of the victorious political party. For more information on the recent Hungarian election, check out these links.

The second time we came to the rally there were many more people. Many were waving Hungarian tri-color flags and Fidesz flags. Fidesz won the election with 52% of the vote. They are the center-right party, not to be confused with the extreme nationalist Jobbik party that I profiled earlier. Jobbik came in third place with 17% and the Socialists were second with 19%. I'm glad that Jobbik didn't do as well as some predicted, but its still scary to see an outwardly racist, anti-Roma, anti-Semetic, homophobic political party do so well in the first place. Many of their votes came from rural areas which have been hit hard by the economic recession. 

The Fidesz rally in Vorosmarty Ter

Me at the Fidesz rally

A political campaign poster for the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), a conservative Christian democratic party. Here they are comparing the other parties, MSZP (Socialists), Fidesz, and Jobbik to cigarettes. I don't think this sends the same message in Hungary as it does in America. I'm not sure about the exact translation. I'll get back to you on that.

Political poster for the winning Fidesz party. April 11 is election day. The caption reads: "Only the Fidesz!"

Andy and I stayed at the rally for a while to soak up the political fervor many of the supporters around us were expressing. As we left to go home I saw a guy selling various Hungarian pins. I wanted to buy one but many had the Trianon-era Hungarian Empire or the tural bird on them, both of which can conjure up some nationalist images. While I thought about which pin to take we met some American college professors who were looking to buy pins also. One professor asked the merchant how much for a Hungarian flag he was selling. He said that the Hungarian flag costs 2000 forints, the Fidesz flag costs 1000 forints. The market has spoken. The professors were from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, and were looking to open up a Hungarian campus in a town near Lake Balaton. They all taught in the liberal arts and were a little shocked when Andy said that we were in Budapest to learn math. Some of them picked up a Fidesz button and stuck it on their coats. I wasn't ready to choose sides yet, so I chose a politically neutral pin with Petofi Sandor on it commemorating the 1848 Revolution. Maybe Austrians might take offense. Just don't tell the Governator. 

For more pictures of the Ludwig Museum, the election night rally, Memento Park, Paris, or Switzerland, check out my Picasa Web Album here or click the permanent link in the upper right-hand corner of the blog.