Chain Bridge, Budapest

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March Madness

Hey, hello! How are you? It's been a long time since I last posted anything substantial. The month of March was unexpectedly hectic with math homework and a little longing for Rudy's BBQ, but I think that's over for now. Well, the math homework will keep coming but I'm looking forward to it now believe it or not. I've been out and about around Budapest and central Europe (Bratislava!) and have a lot to share. Here is a quick rundown.

On the night of Purim, I dressed up in costume and went with Rebecca Graber to the White Angel club to go to a costume party. The party was sponsored by the Israeli Student Organization in Hungary. The club was packed and several people wore Israeli-themed costumes, such as a Bamba snack bag. I took advantage of being outside of Texas for Purim and went as a cowboy. I had my new boots and beltbuckle as well as my burnt orange UT button-down. I had to go to a costume store to rent a pathetic excuse for a cowboy hat, though I know I really shouldn't be talking. I'm not an authority on the subject. Rebekah (my cousin) if you're reading, I know. You don't have to say it. 

Hag Samay'ach and Hook 'em Horns!

The next day I went to eat a hearty Hungarian Sunday afternoon lunch at Agi Angyal's home in Buda. She is the cousin of George Fodor, a Hungarian man living in San Antonio whom I met through my Grandpa Max. Agi, her husband, and her friend treated me fantastically well. The food was delicious. It was also really cool listening to them talk about their lives in Budapest and the differences between the Hungarian and American cultures. Thanks again to the Angyal family.

Me with Agi Angyal

The following weekend I took the plunge and visited Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. I went with my roommate Andy and my friend Tao. We took the train early Saturday morning and two and half hours later we disembarked in another country. It was my first time to travel outside Hungary since I arrived in Europe in January. Overall the trip was amazing. It was full of adventure, spontaneity, and mystique. We met up with another group of BSM'ers Madav, Will, and Paul. Of course, it takes travelling between countries to see just how much cultural diversity there is in Europe. After spending two months desperately trying to learn Hungarian, I get to Slovakia and have to start from square one. Slovak and Hungarian have nothing in common; Hungarian doesn't really have anything in common with any language except Finnish and even then only a little. Plus, there is some strife between Slovaks and Hungarians from the history of the Hungarian Empire, which once extended into Slovakia. The Hungarian Empire even moved its capital to Bratislava, then Pressburg, when the Turks invaded and controlled Budapest. So not only didn't I speak Slovak, but I was trying not sound Hungarian (can you imagine?) to the locals.

Bratislava is definitely a hidden gem to Americans travelling in Europe. Its relatively small and compact with only 500,000 people. Anywhere in the old town and around the castle overlooking it is within a 20 minute walk from the nearest hostel and/or bar. We toured the Old Town, saw both funny statues and somber monuments. 

By the castle next to Old Town. The "UFO" Bridge is behind me.

Most inspiring was the Jewish Museum located in one of the last remaining original buildings below the castle. The only other original building houses the Museum of Clocks. We went there too, and it was exactly as advertised. The Jewish Museum holds hundreds of artifacts and mementos from Bratislava's once large Jewish community. There are dozens of Torah scrolls, siddurim, tallit, and Torah pointers. There were even pictures of the large synagogue with the castle in the background. The synagogue was torn down in the 1960's or 1970's along with much of the historic Jewish area of town to make way for the "UFO" bridge across the Danube. Next to the bridge at the site of the old synagogue is a black memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims and a relief of the synagogue that used to stand there. 

The museum guide directed us down towards the river to visit the Mausoleum of Chatam Sofer, who was a well known orthodox rabbi in Bratislava in the early 1800's. His sons were the rabbis of Bratislava until the 1940's. The mausoleum has been recently renovated and is housed in a new easily accessible structure just off of the main road along the river. Tao, Andy, and I walked over there and luckily found a person inside working as a guide. He told us about the history of the Bratislava Jewish community and about the history of the mausoleum. It is all that remains of the old Jewish cemetery. During World War 2 and the communist era of Czechoslovakia, many efforts were made to protect the graves. They were even entombed with a concrete shell while construction went on around it to build a tunnel for trams. The guide told us that after the war a few thousand Jews survived in Bratislava though nearly all of them emigrated after the war. Today the community has only 300 people.

After we had toured the mausoleum, we had only an hour and fifteen minutes to get back to the train station, which was a thirty minute walk away. No sweat, I thought. Let's go check out the Slavin war memorial on the way to the train station.... Not so fast, my friend! The Slavin memorial was dedicated by the Soviets to the Russian soldiers who died fighting the Germans to retake Bratislava in World War 2. The bodies of a few thousand Soviet soldiers are buried at the memorial, which is at the top of one of the tallest hills in Bratislava. While the memorial wasn't very far as the crow flies from the train station, we had to walk switchbacks through residential neighborhoods to get to it. Meanwhile the clock was ticking and we were running out of time until we had to catch the train back to Budapest. We started jogging up the hill and, exasperated, we reached the top with only 30 minutes to spare. It was worth it.

On Slavin Hill overlooking Bratislava

After 10 minutes of sightseeing, we only had 20 minutes until our train departed. Like in a scene from the Bourne Identity we ran down the hill. I glanced at my tourist map and yelled out directions to Tao and Andy, telling them to turn onto streets and go through unmarked pedestrian walkways. The sprint down the hill reminded me most a level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 where you get trapped unarmed in a dangerous favela in Columbia and must sprint though houses and from roof to roof to reach your escape helicopter. It's a lot more intense in real life than on a video game I'll tell you what. Somehow, we made it down the hill and found ourselves where we had started the morning before in front of the train station. We collapsed on the station platform at 3:47pm for our 3:54pm train. At 3:51 the train arrived and at 3:54 the train left with us on it. We had escaped from Bratislava. I can't wait for the sequel.         

That was almost three weeks ago now. My weekdays are spent doing math homework and pretending to do math homework. I like all my classes and find combinatorics and mathematical problem solving especially nifty. I have, however, slacked off on my Hungarian learning. I only have Hungarian class on Monday and we had the March 15 national holiday two Mondays ago and before that I had skipped class since I wasn't feeling well. I had Hungarian class yesterday and the next two Mondays we have off due to spring break and Easter Monday. That means I'll have had one Hungarian class over a span of five weeks. Yikes. I'm going to do my part and back on the Hungarian wagon as soon as I can. Part of that involves me switching my analytical number theory class to audit. Its by far my hardest and most advanced math class. Its basically a graduate course and requires a lot of time put towards the homework and understanding the lectures, time which I don't have right now. Tomorrow I'll turn in the requisite paperwork and that'll be that. Once that is done I will have three math classes for credit, one for audit, and Hungarian for credit, which is still a decently packed schedule. I've been staying in town for the past two weekends to do homework while everyone else has bolted for weekend excursions. 

The Hungarian Parliament on March 15, 2010

I am glad, though that I was in town for March 15, which is a national holiday for Hungary and marks the start of the failed revolution against the Austrians in 1848. Its the Hungarian 4th of July and there is lots of flag waving. All the museums put on special presentations with re-enactments of events during the revolution. The thing to see, though, didn't have to do with Hungary's past. It had to do with Hungary's future. All the major political parties use the national holiday as an opportunity to put stump speeches in anticipation of the April general election, particularly the nationalist right wing party, Jobbik. We had been warned by Dezso, the BSM director, to watch out for rioting crowds and police riot controls. I had been hearing a lot about the growing extreme right wing in Hungary, which is partly based in the Jobbik political party but also in the Hungarian Guard, a citizen brigade of supporters. I rolled out of bed Monday afternoon, secured my passport on my person, and headed out to Deak Square to look for the hubbub. I found it. Too late maybe for the active demonstration in the cordoned-off street, but there were plenty of Jobbik supporters walking (or marching) with flags and banners.

By Deak Square, March 15.

Jobbik supporters with the Arpad Stripes.

The Holocaust Memorial Center had a temporary exhibit discussing the misuse Hungarian nationalist images for the extreme right wing movement. One of the images is the Arpad Stripes, which are red and white horizontal stripes. They have been used to represent the Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years, but also recently has their use invoked xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. A few hundred people in the crowd were wearing matching army fatigues and combat boots. I wasn't in any danger downtown walking around. Everyone was walking around amicably and quietly as if taking a stroll. In fact, the atmosphere seemed eerily peaceful, and a bit unnerving. I don't think there were any riots that day, but the rally was still a sight to see and I'm glad I was a witness to it. The opposition Fidesz conservative party and the smaller Jobbik ultra-right wing party are expected to win big over the ruling democratic socialist MSZP, which has been plagued with a lot of public incompetency and corruption. Yes, I am paying attention to Hungarian politics. Once you have the bug, you can't stop it. For more info, check out the Budapest Times or

That was two weekends ago. This past weekend was spent more light heartedly. For the first time since I arrived in Europe, Budapest had a truly gorgeous day with an afternoon high temperature of the mid 60's Fahrenheit; I couldn't let it go to waste. I finally made it out to Margaret Island to play some touch football with a few BSM'ers and some Corvinus friends. Margaret Island lies in the middle of the Danube north of parliament and is an oasis of greenery in the urban jungle that is Budapest. Its a well deserved recreation hot spot of the city. We found an open field and played some scrimmages. At first we only had five people: myself, Dan, Will, Paul, and Rebecca. After an hour and half of running around aimlessly, Kumar and Neal and ten of their Corvinus friends showed up and we played an actual pickup game. Corvinus is a university in Budapest and they offer many classes in English for international students. The BSM'ers know them since Kumar, who goes to Corvinus in Budapest, attends Denison back in America with some of the other BSM students. It felt great to play football on such a beautiful day. I hadn't had physical exercise for a while, and it showed. I'm still sore from all the running. I need to treat my body right from now on. Seriously.

Whew. A big update. Sorry for the massive blog cliffhanger this month. I'll be better at updating my journey's more regularly from now on. Promise. Scout's honor (Full disclosure: I was never a Boy Scout). I'll leave you with something to look forward to, as I am looking forward to it very much. This Friday is the beginning of spring break for us and I'm heading to western Europe. Civilization at last. First I'm taking an overnight train to Zurich, Switzerland, to stay for five days with the Schlessingers who are family friends with my mom back in day from Del Rio, TX. After that I'm taking the TGV to go to Paris to see a duo of UT friends who are studying abroad in Paris and an extra flying in from Dublin, Ireland. 

Until then, viszonlatasra. 

   In front of the Dohany Synagogue, representing Texas AEPi.

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