Chain Bridge, Budapest

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.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Memento Park

What a trip. I've returned to Budapest from a great spring break adventure. Back to the daily grind of math classes. I'll post the spring break pictures (there are A LOT of them) when I get the opportunity. Right now I need to get in the mood to learn some math. Today, however, wasn't one of those days. Kaitlin and Rob arrived in Budapest last night and today I took them to Memento Park in southwest Buda.

I had always wanted to go there myself, but never got around to it until today. It takes forever to get there by public transport. Memento Park is an outdoor exhibit of several communist statues that were removed from public space in Budapest after the fall of communism in 1989. The new government made the wise choice to preserve their history by saving the statues instead of following many of their eastern European neighbors who destroyed them, though they still located the park in the farthest, least accessible part of the city. I bought a guide to read about the statues, which is a history lesson in itself. I'm glad I visited Memento Park soon after I returned from western Europe to see the differences in culture relative to government of those countries. One interesting thing about this collection of statues, as opposed to the statues I saw at the Louvre in Paris, is that each statue at Memento Park is there because it was detested by the public, not honored.

There was a small indoor exhibit as well, the most intriguing park was a continuously playing clips from Hungarian Soviet secret police training videos. They showed how to properly search an apartment for contraband and how to discretely conduct surveillance of a suspect. The video is an eerie reminder of the paranoia and fear that Hungary and many Soviet countries endured under communist rule, the fear that Kati Marton's book captured in the true story of her family's experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. I read today that her book is set to be made into a movie. I can't wait to see it.     

I also thought of the Slavin Hill monument in Bratislava, Slovakia, which was built on the mass graves of Soviet soldiers who died liberating the city from the Germans in World War 2 and commemorates their sacrifice. The Slavin monument has the same Soviet imagery as Memento Park, though each serves it own purpose. There is clearly more for me to learn and discover about the history and culture of Europe.

But first, algebra awaits.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ma Vie a Paris (for a few days)

Its Easter Sunday in Paris and the skies have finally opened up and let sunshine into the city. It had been raining off and on in Paris since I got here on Thursday and when it didn't rain it was still very cloudy. Today, however, is an exception. As I sit in an interent cafe by the Pantheon using an American keyboard (win!), let me recap the past four days in the City of Lights.

I arrived in Paris on the TGV Lyria from Basel, Switzerland, at 1:30pm on Thursday afternoon. The train ride was nearly full and our seats were reserved. I happened to sit with an American family (mom, dad, and high school daughter) in a section of four seats. They were from Denver and had just stayed with relatives on the opposite bank of Lake Zurich and were now visiting Paris for the first time. The daughter is taking French in high school but claimed to be unable to translate what the French family across from us was saying. I told them that my mom and uncles attended Cherry Creek High School back in the day and the girl said that Cherry Creek is their main rival. The dad asked me if I had heard anything about the NCAA men's basketball tournament; we were both out of the loop. (note: right now the final game is between Butlter and Duke). We had a nice chat and watched the French countryside fly by as the train sped on. The train didn't travel very fast at first -- a litte faster than nearby cars, 70-90 mph -- but once we passed Strasbourg the track was straight line and the TGV started to mean business. We must have been going over 150 mph, but I'm not exactly sure how quick. I have a video I took of the farms speeding by so you can analyze it if you want to calculate the train's speed.

As part of the spring break adventure, I arrived in Paris without a place to stay for the night. I had booked a hostel for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, but they hadn't had any vancancies for Thursday, so I was on my own. I had planned to contact two very large hostels in central Paris for any cancellations. Out of hundreds of reservations there has got to be at least one cancellation, right? Wrong. Both hostels were completely booked. I asked the man at the Gare de l'est (East Train Station) tourism office where I could stay. He said the Hotel La Fayette was down the street as cheap as the hostel. I walked over there and booked their last single room for the night. After dropping my luggage, I walked toward the Seine waiting for my friend Alina from UT who is studying in Paris to get out of class at 5pm. We rendevous'ed at Notre Dame and walked around the Marias, stopping in the Luxembourg Gardens. Its amazing how the hustle of bustle of a huge city like Paris can dissapear once you step into a park. 
The next day I met up with my Budapest roommate Andy who was in Paris visiting his cousin who was getting married that weekend. We went up in the north part of the city to Montmarte, which is a neat little area on top of a hill with a big cathedral and lots of little shops and cafes surrounding it. It was cloudy but we got a great view of the city. I had to leave Andy to meet my other friends who were also visiting Paris, Rachel (from UT and studying in Dublin) and Kaitlin and her boyfriend Rob (both from Baylor studying in Scotland). I've known Rachel and Kaitlin from high school and it was great seeing them again in Europe.  Together we went inside the famous Notre Dame cathedral, on Good Friday no less. The place is huge. Paris is filled with old cathedrals, but this one takes the cake. Hundreds of people walked around inside the building as well as sat in chairs and silently prayed. Multilingual priests were available for people to give confessions. I learned that the building is over 650 years old and it took 200 years to build. No matter what religion you may adhere to or lack thereof, its hard not to be overwhelmed with awe at Notre Dame's grandeur. Afterwards, we split up; Rachel and I went to the Louvre and Kaitlin and Rob took care of their hostel and train bookings. 

If there was a ranked list of things to do in Paris, visiting Notre Dame and the Louvre Museum would take two of the top three spots. Among other things, the Louvre is the famous home to the Venus de Milo, Hammurabi's Code, and the Monna Lisa. We decided to head for all three and stop along the way if we saw anything else interesting. Even just sticking to that short intinerary, the quantity of paintings, sculptures, and ancient objects we saw was exhausting. We left the museum at closing time and reconnected with Kaitlin and Rob to go find a pub. Looking at the trusty Lonely Planet's Guide to Western Europe Guidebook, we saw a music pub in the Latin Quarter which looked interesting. We were almost there when we came across a roundabout lined with pubs and a college crowd. Good enough, we thought, and picked one out. The pub was small and catered to a young adult crowd with plenty of tables. Budapest is filled with pubs like this one, except that there they are filled with cigarette smoke while in Paris you can breathe easy: there is no smoking in bars. We had a lot of fun unwinding from the day's sightseeing and we agreed to start the next day at the Eiffel Tower.

That night was my first night in the hostel, and unfortunately I didn't get that great of a sleep due to the big guy snoring in the bunk below me. This guy was loud. If I had wanted to talk to someone I would have had to shout over his snores. Then he started talking and yelling in his sleep. Here was the dilemma: what is the proper etiquette for sleeping in a dorm room with four beds and one guy is severely disrupting the others with his snoring? Do you wake him up? Shouldn't he know that he snores that badly and therefore booked a single room as a courtesy? I decided to let him sleep and I woke up the next day perturbed. Oh well, time to go see the Eiffel Tower! 

Before I knew it I was standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It is one of the few tall buildings that dominates the Parisian skyline. Thousands of tourists from all over the world crowded around its base waiting in line to go up to the top. We decided against waiting to go up the tower since it would have taken all day and it could've started raining at any moment, hardly ideal conditions. Instead we visited the original Moulin Rouge and tried to go the catacombs on the southern side of the city but there were closed when we got there. As a replacement, we went to Montmarte, the second time for me, and when the subway car came above ground the sun had come out and a rainbow appeared over the city. My return visit wasn't a waste since it was much more enjoyable due to the better weather conditions. Later the four of us and Alina had a beer in a cafe near the Bastille. The next day Rachel, Kaitlin, and Rob were due to leave Paris. Rachel was going back to Ireland while Kaitlin and Rob were continuing east and will be in Budapest on Tuesday morning. I plan on taking them to Kadar with my usual lunch group for their first taste of Hungarian food.
Today I have been on my own so far. While everyone went to church for the Easter Sunday service, I slept in. The night before I met my roommates before I dozed off. The snorer was still there -- turns out he is Italian -- and another guy named Fernando was from Monterey, Mexico. I told him I had been there a few years ago and still talk about going to Papa Bill's Restaurant and Bar to eat chicken fajitas and drink Indio. He said he had been to San Antonio as a kid and remembered going to Fiesta Texas and taking a riverboat ride downtown. The three of us talked for a while, but I intentionally dozed off mid conversation in order to fall asleep before the snoring Italian did. My plan worked and I didn't wake up the next day until he had gotten up and left the room. My first stop today was the Rodin Musuem, which is filled with statues and sculptures by Auguste Rodin. His most famous work is The Thinker, which sits on a tall pedestal surrounded by green trees and bushes. The weather today has been great and it was very relaxing to walk through the museum's garden admiring the sculptures. Afterwards I got a Nutella and banana crepe and headed to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is over 200 years old and was first built as a holy place but is now used as a national shrine to commerate the famous people throughout French history. Many famous French men and women are buried underneath it in the crypt, including Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, and Lagrange, a famous mathematician whose theorems I need to learn for my algebra midterm on Friday. Thanks buddy. The Pantheon looks like an American-style capitol building and has a large columned dome. I took a tour up the top of the dome to get a panoramic view of the city. The relatively nice weather has been worth the wait. 

My trip to Paris isn't finished yet. I will post a final update as well as pictures from throughout my spring break once I return to Budapest tomorrow. Until then, au revoir.