Friday, August 13, 2010


It was a shock to everyone the day I announced that I was going to leave. I had told my housemates, and myself, that come sunday I was gone. Yet for none of us did it truly click until the night previous. Nothing had been absolutely, deterministically clarified until that day, nonetheless, I had felt it coming. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice had told me that my original plan of traveling to Sicily by myself were not going to work out. This made it all the easier for me to agree, with that sentiment, and when it was proposed that I visit a family friend in Budapest, I was quick to pounce. Through my travels I found having insider information from natives on any particular local was invaluable. Instead of being faced with the blank stare that foreign cities often give foreigners, I would be welcomed with open arms. This would in turn lead to a far deeper and richer understanding of the culture and history of a particular place. You have a greater opportunity to ask questions, which lets you borrow their eyes for a bit, and try to begin to see a city as they do. You are more effective in your search for what is worth your quickly perishing supply of time. These, and a host of other advantages, convinced me to visit family friends instead of traveling alone.

By 9PM on Sunday night, the train began to creek, squeak, moan, and give way, like a teenager who at first doesn't want out of bed, but after a little coaxing is well out the door. The car was without lights, but that was hardly necessary after the first few minutes when our eyes got used to the darkness.
I was seated next to a Scardinian
-I'm no italiano he said to me. It didn't make a difference either way to me, though he was adamant about that fact. I'm schardiniano, do you know where that is? I responded in the affirmative, and a grin broke from his face.
-I Pietro, as he puts fourth is hand. he was cordial, and friendly, and clearly had been drinking for some time before entering the train. He was not drunk, but only entertainingly tipsy. The conversation rambled on about many things he assumed we'd have in common, and I attempted to carry it with him. It was my knowledge of American rap music and Italian punk rock, or rather my ignorance thereof, that rusted the gears of cultural exchange, and before they became completely stuck, we were interrupted by some classmates of his.
Bacchanal cries issued fourth as the door was swung open. They carried on their shoulders what appeared to be plastic tanks, around the size of a gas tank for a grill in the states, the dark liquid sloshing about. After a bit of course joking I was introduced and immediately became subject to their requests to try their sardinian wine.
-We go to the agra-school of Sardinia, they said, justifing their school trip to the famous islands of the Dalmatian coast by the adriatic sea, as an exchange with a croatian agricultural university in Split. Having learned from wisdom that drinking on a long trip, especially one in which you are traveling alone, is a dangerous idea, I politely refused. At this, my new comrades became disheartened. I knew this day was bound to come, the day I was the party pooper. As they continued to the next train car, shouting in Dyonesian revelry, I began dialogue with the other members of our car.
What happens when you put two croats, a Portugese man, and a Spaniard in a train car? They argue about soccer.
What happens when you add an American to the mix? They argue about politics.
Perhaps this is just me, something to do with the kind of person that I am, but I have yet to meet a european that didn't have something, positive or negative, to say about American foreign policy. Usually, that opinion is either coupled with a severe lack of historical understanding or a deep cynicism. Often both. Sadly, those who are often a little better informed have become too cynical to hope enough to work for change. Those who are less informed are too poorly equipped to know the amount of difference that they can make. This was the state in which I found my traveling companions as they asked me about how I felt about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the debt crisis, about America's role in Europe.
Obama's health care plan was applauded by the EU citizens, who were in turn shocked by my negative response to our president's fiscal planning. They were eager to blame Bush for all the countries woes, but were perturbed by my unwillingness to defend our previous president. -If you all want Obama, I'd love for you to take him off our hands, I said. I went on to explain that his policies were not only taking more power than the government is responsible for, I believe they will cause greater problems than the ones he is trying to solve.
-That's just what the government is supposed to do, they said. They're supposed to take care of us. They are responsible for the poor.
When his words began to aim towards this, I saw as through a misty glass a hint to the problem. The words rang with the thud that comes when responsibility is dumped from one pair of shoulders to another. The clarity struck me then. We have lost our sense of personal responsibility. Poverty in our communities, cities, states, and nations is not just the responsibility of governments- it's our responsibility. Every one of us, individually, has a vested interest, an obligation morally to our communities. Governments can help, and have an important role in administering Justice, to see that no one is abused, fraud is not perpetrated, and contracts are upheld. Ultimately however the responsibility lies on our heads. When anything more than the minimalist state appears, problems like poverty are amplified in society.
At this a well-meaning Croat said to me, but what can I do? You mean well I can see, but how much can I change? What can one man do? his companion chimed in, his raspy voice stabbing cynicism.
So I said, I know I've made a difference. I know I can change things. I've seen it. In fact, whenever I've seen change, whenever I've seen people helped, it's been because of a few individuals, who have taken the responsibility. My boldness impressed the Spaniard, shocked one Croat, and the other Slav laughed in mockery. The disbelief in the stare the jovial croat reflected the social memory of his country, where, in the name of the proletariat and the state dissenters were brutally oppressed. Against the organization of a mobilized state, the strength of every man was sapped away.

I also realized something else on that train. Americans have a large reputation in europe. We're arrogant and opinionated. We're lazy and overachievers. Most of all, we're fat and uneducated.
It was on this train ride that I realized that there was something missing from all the insults europeans can throw at us.
They call us anything, but no one will ever deny we're powerful. We've pulled Europe out of two world wars and three huge economic crises. We have our military bases all over the world. Our navy protects the world's shipping. Our air force protects the world's skies. Our citizens die on the front lines of the world's fight against the spread of terrorist organizations and we uphold freedom and justice while most of them sit on the sidelines. That is not to say that many other nations have not contributed to our effort. Many european nations, especially the UK, have seen the danger that faces all of us, and have been a great help. Many others fail to see their responsibility to the world around them. But I digress.

All this, before we were but meters away Trieste, on the slovene border. The lamps in the train cars were needed for the passport control officers in the other countries we'd be traveling through. Although the train makes the same trip back and fourth from Venice to Budapest, the Italians didn't trust the slovenes, croats, or hungarians with their lamps. So they had them removed at trieste, and we reached the border in the dark. When the Slovenes saw this, they decided it was not possible to check for passports without the lights so we would need to wait before entering their country. We were then asked to enter the dining car so that our train car could be detached and a new one added on. My proximity to the door allowed me to get my bags quickly, and soon find one of the few open seating areas at the furthest end of the dining car. That car was packed. People were sitting on tables and on the floor, and there was neither space to move nor breathe. At first, the excitement awakened us all. Groans and loud talking erupted and bubbled from within the crowd, but before long, the late hours depressed the temperature of the conversations, falling from a rolling boil to simmer. My new conversation partner was a croatian girl named Anga Hula. She was nice and talkative, and taught me some croatian. The first word she decided to teach me was Otoreindaningdag, chosen because of it's notorious difficulty for non-croat speakers. It means ear-doctor. In response, I taught her the spectacularly long adjective, supercatafragelisticespialidoscious. She was dumfounded, the conversation moved on, and clearly, in this contest, I won.

At zagreb my croatian friends left me behind after traveling through slovenia. I was very lucky. They were a nice group, cordial and friendly. Full of smiles, even when not talkative. Not that any of us were in the mood for talking by 3 AM when we switched train cars, again. After a few much needed hours of sleep I awoke at the slovene border, and entered Heratzska. When she and the other croat girls in our cabin departed, I was joined by what appeared to be a clean euro-hippie, or a moderate 70's refined-ish rocker- long strait dirty hair in girlish s hoops hung past his shoulders and bell-bottem faded jeans. Rusty wheels screamed as a freight car cluncked on by. We were off again by 5:27Am, with the sun's first fingers attempting to color the sky anew, clawing at the bluegray canvascutting the mist with a painter's knife. Most of the homes appeared modern and stark.
6AM- The sun has risen and I'm speeding past Vrbovec.
6:11 Now at Krizevci, and I realize a very brutal fact: Hungarian trains are slow. very slow.
9 Am. I'm joined by an elderly woman and her son, attempting to communicate a question about our expected arrival time. Despite the language barrier, I was able to understand we'd be an hour late. I have not seen a land so green, lush and fresh, in a long time. Venice's blue lense has been stripped of it's potency as I'm pulled by it's shore and surf. Entering the carpathian plain, green now dominates my sight. Though the old lady and I couldn't talk, her unspoken kindness was plain. People look you in the eye and smile at you in this country. What a welcome to the old, eastern, block.
While on the train I made called my Uncle Adam. To be clear, he's not a biological uncle. When he was in high school, at the same time my mom was in high school, he went to America. He became a part of the family, and considers Pops, my grandfather, one of his closest friends. He told me where to go from the station to get to his appartment saying which sign I should look for on the tram car. I did find a tram car with the same name on it. However, it was going the opposite directiion. At the opposite end of Buda, Adam came and picked me up. After lunch we went to a bookshop where I sought out a complete history of Hungry. It difficult I have found to appreciate what you see if you don't know what you are looking at. Of all the countries of Europe, I knew hardly anything about Hungry, and I needed to fix this immediately. When I was tired from walking and taking photos over the next week, I was tearing through pages of The Hungarians, by Paul Lendvai. Tracing the history from the first migration to the Carpathian basin by Hungarian tribes to joining the E.U. I felt I gained a great understanding for the culture of Hungry over this week.

The next day Uncle Adam took me to visit his lakeside apartment at Balaton. These two places seem to characterize much of Hungry: busy, bustling, modern Budapest, and laid-back, country Lake Balaton, with the former quickly taking over the latter. The lake, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in europe, had dozens of boats on it and new development along its shores. It was beautiful, but exhausting, and we both felt like we were going to fall asleep in the car. That niight we went out to dinner with Sabine on a boat on the danube. It was beautiful, and after the walk around the city, I was sure I was going to love my week in Hungary.

Buda- Pest. The Twin-Souled City. What comes to mind at night on the Jewel of the Danube? Where sitting in a beautiful square, in front of St. Stephen's Basilica, a steel and glass modern on left, Art Noveau on right, overhearing an Aritha Franklin-playing piano-singer duet. Just after sampling an hungarian-alll-you- can-eat restaurant that served venison in a red currant sauce, red wine braised beef, tandori turkey, profierols, a variety of soups, all of it excellent - I had the equivalent of probably 5 full meals of food, a beer, and two 2 bottles of water for 20 bucks! Just one of those plates would have cost more than that in the states. The long and short of it: Hungarian food is delicious and cheep.
Budapest is in almost every fashion a capital city. It has the history, art, and architecture befitting the capital, long, wide streets, piazzas and public gardens. It has roman ruins. In the Szepmuveszeti Museum, there was a latin inscription saying, "Ars longa, Vita Brevis"- Art Lasts, Life is short. I was surprised by the number of italian artists, especially venetian ones (Veronese or Canaletto). In addition, Budapest also has a number of elegant bath houses, where club members and tourists can swim, get massages, and bathe comfortably. Their public monuments were incredibly impressive, and one of the most attractive things about the city. If one was to take the time to read up on the names engraved in marble and bronze around the city, there's no doubt they would have a fairly complete understanding of Hungary's history. Hero's square was magnificent. Larger than life size statues of the chiefs of the Hungarian tribes are saddled on their horses, led by Arpad, the first Hungarian king. On the pavilion surrounding the square stand the statues of other notable Hungarian leaders, prime ministers and Kings. On the hill near the church named after him is St. Stephen, the first Christian King of the Hungarians. In other places around the city there are two statues of Sisi, Elizabeth of Austria, who convinced her husband Joseph to create a dual-monarchy and the state of Austria-Hungary. There are generals who fought Turks, Austrians, and Russians, the three conquerers who oppressed the Hungarians most. Every morning I bought a light breakfast (a couple pastries, a bottle of water, and a banana) and some tram tickets from a convenience store and was off. I wasted little time and took hundreds of photos. I became a little obsessed with the Hungarian Parliament building, of which I probably took 100 photos. Its absolutely spectacular, and I encourage all of you to go there.

My train ride back home was sincerely less eventful. I rode from Budapest to Venice, got the rest of my stuff from the house, walked back across the city, got on another train to Rome, arrived in time to run through the station to the furthest platform away, to catch another train to Orte. From there Alba picked me up, and we went home. My second extended trip to europe came to an end, but I have certain brought back much with me. This world is getting smaller by the minute, and we ought to embrace this change. We have much we can learn from their history, and much we can gain from their present to mutual benefit. We ought to present the nations of central and eastern Europe with more than an offer to become part of our treaty organizations. The best way to encourage them to continue on the path of liberty so newly started would be to spur trade. This could be done by offering to diminish or forego all tariffs of goods from countries that also will agree to forego all tariffs on US goods. The economic growth this would cause would certainly be to the envy of other nations, who hopefully will be inspired to create freer borders themselves. How well this will work with many countries is not certain, but in a modern country with a highly educated workforce and a good exchange rate compared to the dollar, like Hungry, this could be to our mutual benefit.
As a last word, I would like to say: "a magyar nok nagyon csinosak"- Remember that.