Chain Bridge, Budapest

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Long Expired Colbert Bridge Joke Resurfaces on Google Maps -

Long Expired Colbert Bridge Joke Resurfaces on Google Maps -

Look out for a picture of me standing in front of Colbert Hid. ("Hid" means bridge in Hungarian) I remember when he tried to do that back in 2006. It was one of the first stunts he pulled with help from the Colbert Nation. I remember thinking what a silly country Hungary is to possibly name a bridge after Stephen Colbert. What goes around comes around, I guess. You can look up video clips from those old Colbert Report shows at

Final Math Schedule, Library, and Kadar Eatery

I'm now in the third week of math classes and the final week of the pre-registration period. I officially register for classes on Thursday afternoon. I plan on taking combinatorics, intro to algebra, analytical number theory, and mathematical problem solving for a grade along with auditing graph theory. I'm also going to take the intensive intermediate Hungarian language class for a grade. That may seem like a lot -- it is -- but the BSM class registration is super convenient. Auditing means that I have to attend most of the classes but don't have to turn in any homework or take any tests, and my transcript shows that I attended the class. Additionally, I can switch any class to audit up to the second to last week of class, right before finals. So, worst case scenario, I can't handle four math classes, then I switch one to audit and concentrate on the others. I still want to attend the classes since the BSM offers such a great opportunity to learn from amazing professors and be exposed to math topics that I couldn't get back at UT, which accounts for nearly all those classes listed above. That course schedule makes my school week look like this: 

10am - 12 noon: Intro to Algebra
12 noon - 2 pm: Mathematical Problem Solving
2pm - 5pm: Intermediate Hungarian

8am - 10am: Combinatorics
10am - 12 noon: Graph Theory (audit)

12 noon - 2pm: Analytical Number Theory

10 am - 12 noon: Graph Theory (audit)
12 noon - 2 pm: Analytical Number Theory

8 am - 10 am: Combinatorics
10 am - 12 noon: Intro to Algebra
12 noon - 2 pm: Mathematical Problem Solving

My Mondays and Fridays are going to be hard, but I have an easy middle of the week to make up for it. I got the last textbook that I needed today, so I'm ready to go.

Another thing that happened yesterday: my bed got fixed! I have an IKEA-style bed with a wooden bed frame that supports a ladder of wooden slats that the mattress rests on that rests loosely on the frame. The slats were shifting around while I slept and eventually fell through the bed frame. While I waited for my landlady to nail the slats to the bed frame I had put my mattress on the floor, cluttering my room as you can imagine. I came home Monday to find my mattress back onto my fixed bed frame and my room suddenly spacious and expansive. (So much room for activities!) My room was as good as new. About time too. My homework is getting incredibly hard and I can't think straight when I'm in a cluttered area. Some of you might not believe that having seen my bedroom from time to time, but trust me, I would go work in the library or a coffee shop whenever it was THAT messy. Anywhere but there.

Speaking of coffee shops, I'm in the middle of a quest to find a suitable location for studying and doing extensive math homework at late hours on weekdays and weekends. There doesn't seem to be a late night study area or cafe or coffee shop anywhere. All of the coffee shops here also serve hard liquor and beer and turn into beer joints or smoke filled lounges at night. For those familiar to Austin, I have yet to find an Epoch Coffee or a Cafe Bennu 24-hr coffee shop. The weather in Budapest has taken a turn for the better -- also, about time -- so it's more amenable to walking around outside aimlessly in search of a such a place. For the mean time, though, I've found a very acceptable temporary solution. 

The school where I take math classes is not a proper university. I think it used to be a school for Jewish deaf and otherwise handicapped students, and has its own interesting history. It has a small reading room, but no library. Plus the building closes at 6pm every weekday and isn't open on the weekend. While walking in between classes, I saw a flyer for a library near downtown and closer to where I lived. Yesterday I walked over there after class to check it out for myself. Turns out its not just any library, but the National Library of Foreign Literature and it has an extensive collection of English language books for loan. They charge a student reduced price of 3,150 forints ($15.80) for a year of use and access to the entire collection, which includes music CD's and DVD's, books, and a language studio, where you can use a computer and headset to practice over 80 different languages including Hungarian. The library is open until 8 p.m. on weekdays but is closed on weekends like everything else in this country. It's in a very old building and has wooden tables, a large reading room, and group study areas. Today I bought a library pass, did some math homework there, and checked out Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian author and one of the Jews profiled in Kati Marton's book The Great Escape, which I talked about in a previous post. 

The one weird thing about the library is their strict security. You must either have a membership card or talk to the registrar to gain access to the library at all. You must also check your coat and your backpack: no bags are allowed in the library. A few books are immediately accessible on the shelves, but for most of them you must fill out a request form and give it to the librarian, who then sends it down the book elevator chute to someone in the stacks who fetches the book and sends it back up the chute. The whole process takes about 6 to 10 minutes. I'm not sure if this is unique to this particular library, or its a Hungarian or European thing, or maybe these books are just valuable and they need to be protected. In order to get a library card I had to present my passport and have my passport number recorded into the system. I can imagine trying to leave Hungary and getting stopped at a border checkpoint for an overdue book. The border control officer would say "Sorry sir, but I'm afraid you have a bar on your travel privileges. You need to return Darkness at Noon or pay a $35 fine. No, we don't take Bevo Bucks, and don't even think about registering for classes next semester."

However, before I went to library today I went back to the best, so far, food in Budapest at Kadar Etkezde. I first went to eat there four weeks ago with my Hungarian language class before math classes started. Our teacher took us there because it was an authentic place serving authentic Hungarian food at authentic prices. Last week my Uncle Ben Larry sent me a podcast from the Tablet Magazine website about Jewish-Hungarian food in Budapest, in which Kadar featured, not knowing that I had already eaten there. The podcast revealed how the history of Budapest's Jewish community is ingrained into the local food, particularly at Kadar, which is located at the heart of the Jewish Quarter and the middle of the old Jewish ghetto. I had only known about the amazing food on my plate, not the heritage behind it. I posted the podcast earlier in my blog and here it is again, courtesy of Uncle Ben Larry: Tablet Mag: Beyond Goulash.     

By coincidence, I'm wearing Ben's old Lone Star Beer "Texas Gold" t-shirt from 1976 that he gave me. You can see the spewing oil well of Lone Star on my blue shirt. "Etkezde" (ATE-kez-de) means eatery. To my right is Heidi from San Diego. To my left is Sarah Goldstein from Minnesota and Sarah Loeb from Washington State. If anyone want's to visit Budapest on a Tuesday, go to Kadar and order the vadas marha and the maglyarakas dessert. I dare you to leave not in a good mood. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Let the Sunshine In

Today is a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon in Budapest. For the first time since I've lived here, I haven't seen large amounts of snow or ice built up on sidewalks and building rooftops. The weather report says that it might snow a little bit more in the next week but the high temperatures will still be in the mid 40's Fahrenheit, a far cry from the 17 degrees and snowing that I encountered when I first arrived a month ago. It looks like last weekend's casting the coffin of winter into the Danube did it's magic. I can't wait until Spring rolls around for good. 

I've been reading a lot of fiction and non-fiction about Hungary and Eastern Europe while in Budapest. Its partially an effort to get myself into the local mood and partially entertainment since I don't have a TV. So far I've finished Enemies of the People by Kati Marton, which I started reading back in America. Its a non-fiction work about her family's life in Budapest in the 1940's and 1950's. Her parents were the last independent Western journalists operating in Hungary and they were both eventually arrested for espionage by the AVO secret police. While in Budapest I also read another book by her, The Great Escape, which has nothing do to with the movie of the same name. It chronicles nine Jewish intellectuals who fled Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s to escape fascism and their impact in their fields in exile. Right now, I'm currently reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It tells the story of a Jewish-American who comes to Ukraine to find the shtetl where his grandfather lived before the war. I hope once the BSM program is finished to conduct my own journey. I know that I have a distant relative living in Ukraine now. I'd like to visit her and the town where my dad's mom, Sadie, was born in Lithuania. There is a movie of the book which is good, but the book itself tells a much more complex story, woven through 400 years of history. I'm only 50 pages from finishing it and I don't think I'll be able to do any math homework until I do, so I might as well get it out of the way. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Solving My Math Problem

Looking back over this blog, I realize that I have only made one entry that actually deals with math. Since the "math" part of BSM is very quickly taking over my life, let me let you in on my math tribulations. We are almost done with the second week of classes, which leaves only one more week of the trial period before we have to register our classes for real. Previously in college, I had only taken at most two math classes at the same time, and even then that happened only once or twice. Now I have the prospect of three, four, or maybe even five math classes simultaneously. I could've done this before at UT, but (A) that would have been crazy (B) my liberal arts classes such as English got in the way, and (C) I hate taking a lot of classes at once 

My initial thought was to attend four to five math classes during the trial period and then decide to drop one before registration. However, I find myself not wanting to drop any of the math. They all look too interesting and important to drop. Here are my current options:

AL1 - Intro to Algebra
CO1B - Intro to Combinatorics
MPS - Mathematical Problem Solving
GRT - Graph Theory
NUT - Analytical Number Theory

And, oh yeah, I'm also taking the intensive intermediate Hungarian language class, HU2A. For the math classes, I don't want to drop algebra since that credit can directly fulfill a degree requirement back home at UT. Combinatorics, graph theory, and analytical number theory can all probably count for generic upper-division math credit, which I could also use. I'm not sure if MPS will count towards anything at UT, but its a signature BSM course developed specifically to introduce us to the Hungarian style of problem solving. I don't want to drop that class since it's so unique, plus the professor is really entertaining. He gives us a few minutes to silently work on a problem in class and when the time's up he plays a tune on a wooden ocarina that hangs from a string around his neck. I don't want to drop combinatorics either since Hungarian mathematicians are very well known for combinatorics. 

For your information, here are some sample combinatorics problems from my homework due tomorrow:
1. How many odd numbers between 1000 and 9999 have at least one even digit?
2. How many distinguishable permutations are there of the letters in the word optimization?

Those were the easy problems. I'll send a nice postcard to the first person who can email me the correct answers to either of them, and please include in your mailing address in the email.  

Back to the courses, that leaves me with only two classes to worry about: graph theory and analytical number theory. Both classes are a tie for the hardest class out of the five that I'm considering. One of them has got to go. This shouldn't be a hard decision, though. BSM has a very lenient system for dropping classes. You can switch any class to an "audit" which means that your noted for having attended the class in your transcript but a grade isn't recorded. You still have to attend class, but you don't have to do any homework or take any tests. Just sit and absorb information. The ultra-convenient part about the audit process is that you can switch a class to audit any time up till the week before school ends right before final exams. Sweet. I think the best way to get the most out of BSM without driving myself crazy is to take either 3 or 4 math classes for a grade and audit 1 or 2 other math classes in addition to taking the Hungarian language course. My hunch tells me to start taking algebra, combinatorics, MPS, and analytical number theory for a grade and audit the graph theory course. I would still have to attend graph theory, but that would be okay since I need to be at the school anyway on those days. I figure that I'll just keep attending and doing the homework for all the classes until the registration deadline next week. Hopefully a decision will become clearer by that time.

In a completely different vain, today the BSM group walked over the Renyi Math Institute near Astoria to watch a movie on Paul Erdos, the greatest Hungarian mathematician ever and an original founder of the BSM program in the mid 1980's. I didn't know much about the Erdos legend, except about the Erdos numbers. I knew that he was a very prolific mathematician; he published more papers with more people than anyone in history. Math people talk frequently talk about "Erdos numbers." They aren't something he discovered. It refers to the degree of separation you have as a mathematician to Erdos. Erdos himself has an Erdos number of 0. Anyone who published with Erdos has a number of 1. Anyone who published with those people have a number of 2, and so on. Most research mathematicians in the world today have Erdos numbers of 3 and 4. Erdos himself passed away in 1996 when he was 87 or 88 years old. His mind never faltered in old age and he still worked on advanced math problems until he died. In fact, he passed away while attending a math conference in Poland. What I didn't know about Paul Erdos was his transient lifestyle. He fled his hometown of Budapest in 1938 for America to escape from European fascists -- he was Jewish. He never truly developed a home life after that, constantly traveling from country to country to help his mathematician friends with problems wherever he needed them. He never had a real job and didn't teach consistently at any one university. He moved too much to be tied down for a whole semester. Judging from the movie and friend perspectives, he was also a very congenial person, willing to work equally with first-year graduate students fifty years younger than he was as older, established mathematicians. He used to give colloquium lectures to the BSM students in Budapest, and many of his colleagues still participate in the BSM program. The students in BSM are immersed in this close Hungarian mathematician community. I hope that I'll be able to take full advantage of this opportunity as the semester progresses.        

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kadar Eatery

My Hungarian language teacher took our class to eat here a few weeks ago. Yes, it is delicious. I look forward to being a regular.

Beyond Goulash - by Vox Tablet > Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life

Thank you, Uncle Ben Larry, for letting me know about this podcast.

Busójárás in Mohács

Holy Cow! What a weekend! Let me start at the beginning. Two weeks ago I looked the Funzine Magazine, a bi-weekly English-language publication of fun events happening around Budapest and Hungary. While browsing through the pages, I saw information about a goodbye-to-winter festival in a small town in southern Hungary called Mohács. It's called Busójárás. Every year there, the locals dress up in wooden masks and sheepskins to commemorate the revolution over the Turks in the 1600's. Sounds cool, I thought. Let's go check it out.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, February 13th. I arrived at the Keleti Train Station in Budapest at 7:10am to finish buying our group train tickets to go to the festival. There are seven other BSM'ers going to Mohács with me. We took the train from Budapest to Pécs and got an immediate connection (I'm talking seconds) to Villány where we had another connection to Mohács. We were only 90% certain that we were getting on the correct trains. I kept asking the ticket officers which were the right trains, but none of them spoke any English, so there was a lot of pointing involved. Luckily, when we arrived in Villány, we met a nice Hungarian couple who were on their way to Busójárás as well. They both spoke English and rode the final 30 minute journey to the town with us. The man, I forgot his name, told us all about the festival and what to expect when we got there. His mother (or grandmother, I can't remember) lives in Mohács and he goes to Busójárás every year to visit her. The town of Mohács itself has between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. The festival lasts from a Thursday to Tuesday, with the main events happening on Sunday. We arrived in Mohács on Saturday and had expected to not come back on Sunday, but we changed our minds after having so much fun. 
The train station was a small one-room nondescript building a little removed from the center square and when we disembarked we found a quiet little town nestled in the recent snow. Too quiet. For a small town in the middle of a huge festival we didn't see or hear anyone. Had it not been  for the nice Hungarian couple to show us the way to the square, we probably would have wandered around for a bit looking for all the action. After a ten minute walk we came up to the main street running through the historic center of town and saw street vendors catering to a few dozen people, not the hoards we expected. It was just after noon that day and we were hungry, so we found a pizza place opposite the main square and ate lunch. While we ate, a crowd gathered outside surrounding people playing music and dancing. Through the restaurant's window we saw people in sheepskin and wooden masks, the buso's, dancing and posing for pictures. They didn't look too scary and now I have a great idea for next year's Halloween costume.

After we finished eating, our group split up to walk around town until a wreath laying ceremony in the center square an hour later. I went to the local busojaras museum, dedicated to all things buso-related. The museum was fairly small. It was built into a house and only had a few rooms, but each room was stocked with costumes, clothes, masks, books, and all sorts of trinkets. The museum employees were very nice but didn't speak any English so we had a walk ourselves through the rooms. The items on display were labelled in what looked like Hungarian, Croatian, and German, but again no English. We walked in ignorance through the series of displays ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the outrageous clothes that most likely have some sort of cultural or historical significance it we only knew what it was.
We left the museum and went back to the square to watch the wreath laying ceremony. We waited for it to begin by watching some locals do some folk dancing to Balkan music. Then we started to hear drums coming from behind us. A column of busos with a drum line and people dressed as 1600's Hungarian soldiers (I think) marched into the square up to a memorial statue. The crowd gathered around the soldiers and busos, who laid the wreath at the base of the memorial to volleys of gunfire from the soldier's muskets. I had to take a step back and think about where I was and what I was watching, since I had never really seen anything like it before, at least not while people were wearing sheepskin. It was almost silly. There were even busos -- and child busos -- throwing wooden clubs at an effigy of a Turkish soldier. The busojaras festival is supposed to be based in the legend of the local Croatian population's revolt against the Turks, which isn't true at all. According to pamphlets I picked up in the tourism office in Mohacs, the Turks were expelled in 1687 and Croatians didn't begin settling the area until ten years later. This makes the effigy beating even more disturbing, one of those "never in America" moments. More likely, the festival stems from an old Balkan tradition that the Croats brought over, a tradition that has changed over the years to blend with other Hungarian and European customs including saying goodbye to winter, welcoming spring, and encouraging fertility. In the end, its just a whole mess of fun and shenanigans. It's kind of like Roundup Weekend at the University of Texas meets The Fourth of July. Why do we act crazy? Who knows? Have some palinka.
After the ceremony, we retreated into a nearby cafe to escape from the cold. Once we had drank some hot chocolate and played a few games of Set (more on that later), we ventured forth in search of the night's primetime event: the Queen cover band playing in the town recreation center. Looking at the tourist map that I had, I saw that the rec center was located somewhere beyond the boundary of the map to the left. Alright. How hard could it be to find? 30 minutes later it was dark and the group had lost hope in finding it. I had to ask someone for directions. An Emergency Medical Services station was next to us, and a paramedic was taking a break outside. I went up to him and pointed at my map where I wanted to go. He invited us inside the station -- not by speaking in English but by waving his hands -- to talk to his colleague who could speak English. That person, who looked like a skinny Kevin Smith from Jay and Silent Bob, told us that were in fact right next to the rec center, but that it was closed. He said that a member of the cover band had gotten sick and the show had been cancelled. The important thing is that I found where we had to go. The band member's health was out of my control. Nevertheless, Distraught, disinterested, and plain 'ol exhausted, we walked back to where we came from to catch a bus back to Pecs to stay in our hostel.  
The hostel arrangement turned out to be a pleasant surprise, which I welcomed after a very long day. Earlier that week once it became apparent that availability and price would keep us from staying in Mohacs for the night, I looked for hostels in nearby Pecs. The Olive Hostel showed up on many online searches, receiving mediocre reviews. However, they did have several beds availble for cheap and were located very close to both the bus and train stations. I called the hostel on the phone a few days before we left and made a reservation. The price was 3000 forints a night person, which is $15. We had two rooms with six beds each. Each room also had a TV, DVD player with a stack of three dozen DVD's, computer with internet, and a little refrigerator with a Sport bar (Hungarian chocolate bar) inside. It was exactly what we needed. The man who ran the hostel was in his forties and had a little 10-year-old son with him, who followed us around while we settled in. He didn't speak any English, but watched 20 minutes of a Jet Li movie with us before we all had to go to bed. 

The next day we slept late and woke up wanting to go back to Mohacs to see the rest of the festivities. Sunday was supposed to be the main day of the week long festival and we all wanted to see it. The hostel's internet unfortunately was not working, so we had to go look up the train and bus schedules in person. Our hostel was nestled in between the train station and the bus station, but neither was more than a 5 minute walk away. We first walked to the train station and were told the next train left at 2 o'clock. It was already 12 noon and the busos were going to row across the Danube in boats at 1:30 p.m., so we went to the bus station to hopefully hop on a bus to get there ASAP. We weren't the only ones in Pecs with that idea, though. The next bus to Mohacs left in only 20 minutes, but when the time came twice as many people lined up for the bus as could fit in the seats and in the aisles. At this point, half of our group of eight decided to call it a day and remain in Pecs for an hour before catching a train to Budapest. It was Sunday and we all had class the next morning a 3 hour train ride away. The remaining four, including myself, waited at the bus station for the next bus to Mohacs, which came in ten minutes, and then another immediately after that. I think the transport people may have re-routed buses or something since none of the buses that left to Mohacs listed Mohacs as a destination on their above window panels. While we were waiting, I overhead people speaking an American-accented English and went over to say hi. It was a group of five Americans who were in graduate school in Pecs. They were heading to Mohacs also, and helped us get on the right bus. I wanted to get their names or emails but in the hubbub I couldn't find them again. But thanks to them we made it back to Mohacs. 

We didn't get there in time to see the busos cross the Danube, but we did get prime spots for the parade. The town had been filled with people the day before, but on Sunday it was absolutely jam packed. At least five times as many people were there making walking around a time consuming navigation through crowds. The parade alone was worth the trip back. About 500 busos waltzed and danced down the street towards the square carrying a variety of accessories. I should probably take some time and describe the dress and mannerisms of people wearing the buso suits, who are primarily men but some are women. The main part of the buso costume is the wooden mask with the sheepskin hood covering the head and shoulders and usually painted with the blood of animals. The busos also wear a wooly coat and baggy white pants filled with straw. Around the cloak there is a leather belt suspending cowbells, causing busos to make lots of noise wherever they go. Each buso of course must have a large noise maker (think gragger like in Purim, except a lot bigger) or some sort of wooden mace or stick. The idea was that the original buso scared away the Turks in the dead of night by rowing across the Danube from their outpost and making all sorts of noise and other intimidating expressions. On top of their appearance, the busos also act a unique way. The festival also celebrates fertility, and the busos are supposed to be good luck for women. This custom results in busos chasing down everyone from teenage girls to adult women, hugging them tightly, dancing with them, petting their face, and even sticking their wooden maces or sticks towards the girl's you-know-where. The most bizzare part of this routine is the local girls acceptance of this tradition. They try to run, but not that fast. My American friends, however, wanted none of that. Of course, even though I was a guy it didn't stop them from doing the same to me. I couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculous this must look. On the right is Reggie, another BSM'er from Illinois.
After the parade finished, the mayor of Mohacs started speaking on the stage, but left towards the river to get a glimpse of casting the coffin symbolizing winter onto the Danube River. We picked up some hot wine and palinka from a street vendor to warm us up, and then hurried to the river bank to catch the tail end of the event. Thirty busos along with cameramen and other people were on board an automobile ferry in the middle of the wide river. They lowered the ramp and shoved the coffin into the water. 
People cheered and somewhere a cannon fired. Winter was officially over. Triumphant over nature, we walked back to the train station, stopping to help a lady push her car out of the snow. After making two more train connections, at 10:40 p.m. Sunday night, we returned to Budapest. What had started out as a neat trip idea had turned into an amazing adventure through sight and sound. No, we weren't in the Twilight Zone, but we were close.

Check out the complete set of PICTURES from the weekend in Mohacs and Pecs. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oh, That's Right, I'm Here for Math.

Yesterday was the first day of math class, the primary part of the BSM program. There was a buzz at the College International Building, as everyone mentally prepared for the start of actual schoolwork. If people still used regular pencils, they would have been sharpening them. I arrived at the school for my 10 a.m. class AL1: Introduction to Algebra. The class is scheduled for two hours from 10 a.m. until 12 noon on Mondays and Fridays. The professor informed us that there wasn't as much class time as there appeared to be, since the slotted four hours per week includes three 15-minute breaks and a 45-minute period for the professor's office hour time.
The Algebra class looks promising. Its the only class that I need to take; it's fulfilling my Algebraic Structures I requirement back at the University of Texas, which I dropped this past Fall semester after I couldn't follow the teacher at all. It wasn't just myself, either. That class started with 13 people and when I left it was at 8, and I don't think I was the last to leave. The other person in BSM who is a student at UT, Christy, took that Algebra class a year ago at UT from the same professor and got an A, though she is so uncertain about what she learned that she is also in the BSM Intro to Algebra class with me re-learning everything anyway. So I guess I had made the right call. This BSM professor seems nice, well-prepared, and matter-of-fact, which are all good things when you are teaching a course as fundamental and important to math majors as college algebra.
The other class that I had on Monday was MPS: Mathematical Problem Solving, scheduled between 12 noon and 2 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays. I had tried to rush to get a quick sandwich during the 15 minute break between classes, but showed up to MPS five minutes late. I walked into the small room filled with a dozen students and the professor, who handed me a problem sheet and asked me to work on the first three. Everyone else was hunched over the problem sheet also, working out the simple number theory problems. As I caught my breath, I thought back to Professor Starbird's number theory class at UT that I took my sophomore year. I thought about the prime factorization of numbers and wrote down some answers when suddenly the professor played a little tune on the tiny wooden ocarina flute that he had hanging around his neck on a string the whole time. Time was up. We went over the problems as a class, the professor keeping us transfixed on the math at work. While I had stared at the clock during algebra, I didn't notice an hour and a half go by at all. At first I had my suspicions about registering for MPS, since I'm a senior and the problem solving techniques would be more beneficial for underclassmen or juniors. I was so impressed that I've considered keeping it which means taking five math courses along with intensive intermediate Hungarian. Looking back after a day I don't think I can handle all of the schoolwork, and if I had to drop a class it would probably be MPS even though its by far the most fun, but I would at least try to audit it.
After MPS I went up to Anna's office to talk to her about my bed frame. My IKEA bed doesn't have attached planks to lay the mattress onto. It comes with loose "ladder" of planks that are laid onto the frame to support a mattress. The problem is that the planks on my bed have been whittled down and are falling through the frame onto the floor. Now my mattress is on the floor next to my couch. But I'm not complaining. It could be worse. I could be in Serbia. Anna will talk to my Hungarian landlady and have it fixed soon.
At the end of the day several dozen BSM students sat in on the optional classical algebra review course. The review is taught Monday and Thursday afternoons for the first three weeks of class and no grades are assigned. The professor described the material as "everything that Gauss knew when he was 19" and publishing some of the most important theorems in mathematics. I thought I know what was up, so I went. Plus my algebra is terrible anyway.
I went by the post office after school to mail in my Texas absentee ballot application to the Travis County Clerk. I had already sent one last Friday, but a subsequent conversation with my Uncle Ben Larry and Papa Max enlightened me that I had forgotten to write in which party's ballot I wanted to receive for the primary election. I asked Ben Larry if the county office would do me a favor and send me both ballots. He said "No way, Jose."

Tuesday, today, ran very similar to Monday. I got to school at 8 a.m. for my CO1B: Introduction to Combinatorics. The "B" signifies the normal pace of the course, as opposed to the other "A" course which is fast paced. I initially thought I should take the fast paced course, but then I realized that I might end up taking four or maybe five math classes instead of just three, so I'm opting for the slower scenic route that takes me around the mountain instead of through it. The class appears alright. The professor likes to illustrate how the theorems work instead of just showing us the formulas, which he had given to us in the handout anyway. This class meets from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The second class I took today was GRT: Graph Theory. I had heard that the class was very interesting, that the professor was great, that graph theory is really important and applicable somewhere, and that the class was really hard. So I wasn't surprised when it all turned out to be true. The professor walked into class, said hi to everyone, and quickly passed out his contact information. He said that "students always ask me 'how hard is your class?' but I don't like answering that question because I can't give an accurate answer. It's hard for me to think like I'm in your shoes. So, let's begin." and he started lecturing immediately. He didn't speak so fast as much as not take any rest in between topics. His chalk writing kept up with his speech and I took notes as fast as I could while trying to understand what he was saying. I've had teachers that move through material quickly before, but I don't think two months of slouching over winter break got me in the mood to focus. Once I've had a few days of math class, I'll be able to keep up with him. Plus the material is all new to me. I've never learned anything close to this before so its all fresh. I definitely want to keep this class even if it means dropping something else.
I only have two more new classes to take this week. Tomorrow I have NUT: Topics in Number Theory at 12 noon and on Friday I have my first HUN2A: Intensive Intermediate Hungarian at 2 p.m. Today Christy gave back my Literary Austin anthology that I had lent to her. She said it made her homesick and couldn't read it anymore. I looked in it just now and I completely understand.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Sorrow and the Pity and the Opera

Wednesday night after I received my residence permit and toured the Holocaust Museum I met up with ten other BSM'ers to go to my first opera. We saw Tsiacovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Hungarian State Opera House, which is located right at a stop on the yellow metro line. The yellow line is one the second oldest subway line in the world and is only behind London's Metropolitan Railway. The Opera House itself was built in 1884 and dedicated by Emperor Franz Josef I. Going to the opera felt like traveling back in time. The stations and trains for the yellow metro are much smaller and quainter than the ones for the red and blue lines, which look very industrial. Its akin to go from riding a double-decker Amtrak train between San Antonio and Chicago to a miniature train than circles a zoo. I wore a button-down blue shirt with Wranglers and nice slip-on shoes. I thought about wearing my boots, but decided to save that for the second opera visit. Back in America, I had joked with some friends that Budapest has a surplus of great opera and theater which makes individual ticket prices very cheap. I found out that this is very true. The central upper level tickets to the State Opera House are 1200 forints each, which is $6. This Wednesday, however, they were running a half-off special, so the tickets were 600 forints, or $3. Not bad. I would've even bought popcorn if I saw any, but I didn't.

Only when the opera started did I fully realize that I wouldn't understand any of it. The opera was sung in Russian with Hungarian subtitles displayed above the stage from an LED display. There a lot of people dancing and singing and men and women running to, and then away from each other. During the intermission after the first act, I bought a program which contained a one-page synopsis in English. I now had the gist of what was happening, but the intricacies of the dialog were lost. I had to rely on the actions and intonations of the actors for the changing tide of emotions that the characters were experiencing. In the end I was glad that I went, but next time I'd like to go to a show where I knew what was happening. Sitting through three hours of gibberish isn't fun the second time, even if you're wearing nice clothes.

The next day, Thursday, I finally mailed my Texas absentee ballot application to the Travis County Clerk. I went to the Posta three blocks from my apartment and found that post offices are the same wherever you are. There were about fifteen people waiting in line and I'd thought I'd be there forever, but the line moved quickly. There were four post office employees manning booths to help people and a queue formed behind each one. I got into a line with three people ahead of me and in five minutes I was standing at the counter. I handed the post office employee, who spoke no English, the pre-addressed post card-sized application. I said, "America." She seemed to understand and put a little sticker on the mail and asked for 330 forints ($1.60). In broken Hungarian I asked her how many days it would take to get to Austin. She held up all five fingers on one hand. Later the next day I asked Anna, the BSM student coordinator, what the standard delivery time was. She said with the Hungarian postal service they say it takes a week, but it could take anywhere between one week to two months. I don't even know who's still running for Texas Governor, but if he/she wants my vote they better hope for the best. UPDATE:  After talking on skype to my Uncle Ben Larry, who has been encouraging me to vote or register to vote since I was 17 and 10 months old, I realized that I had forgotten to write down which party's ballot I wanted for the primary. I asked him if Travis County would send me both, just in case. No, he said, acting like I was telling a joke. I mailed completed application for a absentee ballot a few days later. 

I hustled from the post office over the river to Buda to get to the French Institute to see a Hungarian movie called Mephisto. The Institute had paired with the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center to show four films, two French and two Hungarian, that were about life in Europe during the Holocaust and Nazism. I had read a short blurb about the event in the Funzine magazine. The movies would be shown in their original language with English subtitles and there would be a panel discussion about the film an hour before screening. The discussion would be in both French and Hungarian. I got to the French Institute fifteen minutes before the movie was screened. The building's modern style stood out among the standard hundred-year-old Hungarian architecture that I'm used to. Once I walked inside I realized that I had no idea where the movie was playing. All the signs and posters that could have pointed me in the right direction where in either Hungarian or French. I thought it was strange that out of two language options I looked to the Hungarian signs for direction. I went up some stairs and found a couple of college-aged students milling around what looked like the entrance to the event. Trying to just blend in and not look like a complete foreigner/American, I walked past everyone and opened the door to what I thought was the film discussion. Two steps later a young woman said in a French accent "Excuse me, please don't go in there." I stopped and asked her if this was the way to the Mephisto screening. She said it was but that the panel discussion was going on and she asked me to enter through the back of the auditorium which was up another flight of stairs. I had ridden the subway, taken a bus, and walked through the cold just to find this place, so I was too tired to ask any more questions. She offered me a set of headphones connected to a radio for a translation of the discussion. I took it graciously, hoping that it included an English translation. One floor up I did not see any indication of the door to the auditorium. I found a man walking out a library down the hall and asked him if he knew where the auditorium was, but he immediately begin speaking in French and shrugging his shoulders; he didn't speak any English. "Italiano?" No, I shook my head. I tried to think of the word for theatre or movie in Hungarian, but it escaped me -- I should've known them, too; Szinhaz = theatre, Mozi = movie. We both stood there, dumbstruck, utterly unable to communicate. I thought about my friend Alina in Paris who can speak both Italian and French and about the immense help she would've been at the moment. I said thanks to the guy and walked downstairs where I chanced opening a door which turned out to be the one I was looking for.

The auditorium was a college lecture-style room. There was a long table down at the stage where four people sat. I had entered at the top of the room behind everyone in the stadium seats. I took a seat in the middle of the last row and relaxed. The panelists were alternating between Hungarian and French and the headset that the woman had given me gave real-time translations of what they were saying in the opposite language. I couldn't listen to them in English, since the device had only two working channels: one for Hungarian and one for French. Looking around the room, it seemed as if half of the people were wearing their headsets at any given time, so half of the students must have been French and half were Hungarian. When the panel discussion was over, a stream of a few dozen students entered the room immediately on the right hand side of the stage. That must have been the entrance that the young woman stopped me from going into. I felt a huge sigh of relief that she had saved me from looking like an idiot, walking out on stage wearing two jackets and looking like hell in front of everybody. After the show I tried to find this person to thank her but I couldn't.

The movie itself was very interesting. It was about an actor in 1930's Germany, who is virulently against the Nazi Party, but allows himself to become involved in state-sponsored theater even though his friends are being rounded up for anti-Nazi activities. It's about complicity in the face of evil. Its about silence. I had expected to see something about Jews or the crimes of the Holocaust, but the film focused on the actor in Germany. In fact, the entire movie was in German with English subtitles. What? So the same people who sat for a discussion in French and Hungarian were now watching a movie in German with English subtitles? Did everyone in the room speak at least two languages? Europe is crazy. The movie is a famous Hungarian film, made by a Hungarian director, but there was only five minutes of anything Hungarian in the movie. The main character was in Budapest filming a new movie and it showed a panorama of the city and the river during the day, but that was it. It was still great to watch. I think that the story followed Goethe's Faust, though I have never read it.

One thing, though, that I thought was great, were the people who sat next to me in the auditorium. A guy had clearly brought his girlfriend to see a movie about the Nazis. They were holding hands and hugging throughout the two-hour movie. Why did I keep looking? Who takes his date to see a movie about Nazis? Oh, yeah. Alvy Singer. I couldn't believe that I was seeing life imitate art. I immediately recalled Alvy Singer taking Annie to go see "The Sorrow and the Pity" repeatedly in the movie Annie Hall. Wow. I had to restrain myself from laughing. After the movie I walked back to Deak ter across the Chain Bridge. I love the bridges in Budapest. Here's a parting shot.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Residence Permits and Holocaust Museum

Today the whole BSM group went together to the local Hungarian Immigration Office to get our residency permits. We had all applied for and received visas from the Hungarian Consulate in New York before we had left, but now we needed to get the proper documentation that made our 5 month stay in Hungary legal. We went to the math school at Bethlen Gabor Ter at 8 a.m. to Anna's, the BSM student coordinator, office to print and fill out any last remaining paperwork. We left the school at 9:30 p.m. to hop on a bus at the nearby Keleti Train Station to go the immigration office in Buda, across the river and on the other side of town. There were about 30 of us in the pack and the first 10 people were able to catch an earlier bus while the rest of us, including Anna, waited at Keleti for another bus which came in 5 minutes. Meanwhile, Anna got a phone call from Brittany, who had gotten on the first bus. Apparently, for whatever reason, the public transit employees had ordered everyone off the bus after just one stop. The Hungarian passengers started yelling and cursing at the employees while the Americans walked off the bus confused. Anna laughed at this information, but wasn't surprised. "This happens from time to time," she said. We met up with the rest of the group and took the tram to the immigration office.

The immigration office wasn't such a painful experience. There were only three other people in line when we arrived, so we took up essentially the whole office. Anna did a great job talking to the immigration officers and handling all of the paperwork. All we had to do was take a seat and wait for our name to be called. They had plenty of comfortable chairs and tables so it wasn't a problem. Some people read, others conversed, a few twiddled Rubik's cubes. Not a big surprise there; turns out several of the BSM'ers can solve a Rubik's cube. The real question is how fast can they solve it? or have they ever done a 4x4 cube? Ranjan, from Philly, said in his prime he could solve a cube in under 25 seconds. Today he did one in about 35 seconds. I have never solved a Rubik's cube, or even solved one side. While we waited, David Stapleton, from Minnesota, quickly taught me how to do one side. Once you know the right way to manipulate the cube, its surprisingly easy to get one side. I felt like I had earned half of my math degree right then and there. After struggling to finish solving the remainder of the cube, I asked Kira, who was sitting next to me, if she had ever solved a Rubik's cube. She said she had not, so I let her try to finish it. She quickly solved 90% of the cube without hesitating. I said, "I thought you couldn't solve a Rubik's cube?" "I can't" she replied, "I can never get the last few pieces." She still was a helluva lot better than me. David, Kira and I fiddled with the cube for while longer, solving it then making a few turns and trying to fix it. The experience makes me want to get my own cube and try to solve it. It would be appropriate since I'm living in Budapest, the home town of the inventor of the cube, Erno Rubik.

After getting my residence permit, I headed home where I collapsed on my couch for an hour long nap without taking off my shoes. When I woke up, I headed outside to check out the Holocaust Museum next door. I had received my International Student ID Card yesterday and I wanted to use the discount to finally visit the museum. There were nearly no other people in the museum besides a handful of employees. The museum itself is very new, modern and well designed. The complex is built adjacent to an old existing synagogue, which was donated to the museum in 1999. The entire area is about half of the small city block, which is relatively little space compared to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and especially Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Its amazing, though, how the designers were able to pack so many meaningful exhibits and monuments into such a small place without feeling cramped. It had snowed all week making the courtyard a clean blanket of white powder, and the high walls of the complex prevented outside traffic noise from seeping in. I was completely alone in the snow. I had read about what had happened to the Jews in Hungary before, but I had never learned about it in this way. I wasn't looking for it, but the exhibits and the building itself forced introspection onto me. Even without a tour guide, just wandering alone through the exhibits provided insight and was a very worthwhile experience. Here is the link to the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Center, and here is another link within that website that talks about the building.

It's late and I have to go to sleep. Here are the pictures I took today. I also went to the State Opera House to see Tsaikovski's Eugene Onegin. It was another amazing experience that I'll relate tomorrow, but feel free to check out the pictures.