Friday, March 21, 2008

Life Decisions

Hungarian for the day: Kellemes Húsvétot - Happy Easter!

As Easter draws near here in Hungary an important time of the year for SOL volunteers like myself has arrived: the time to decide whether or not to commit to another year in our posts or to mosey along. I've been thinking about this decision quite obsessively, and I hope I've made the right decision because as of this week I've responded to both my school and the SOL organizers that I'll stay for another year.

I believe a list of explanations is in order:
-First of all, I like my job more than I've ever liked any job. Not to say that I don't fantasize about throwing certain students out of the school's 4th floor window, I think every teacher does that. But most of my students are pretty cool and I enjoy our classes together and I think they do as well. It's not perfect, but then again a job is a place where you show up in exchange for money so as far as that goes I think this position is pretty good. Also I like my colleagues and as long as it took me to break the ice with them I don't want to start the process over again in another position.
-Probably the main reason for staying is that I feel like I've already been through the really tough part of the experience and I want to reap the benefits of having gone through it. What I mean is this: when I moved here I spoke none of the language, knew next to nothing about the culture and context of my new home, had no high school teaching experience, and had never lived alone. More than that all of little things are what really add up. I didn't know how anything around me worked, from the bus systems to ordering rituals at the local market. It was tough and it took about 6 months but now I'm, more or less, accustomed to this Hungarian life. I think next year could be a drastically different experience because I'll come in knowing the deal at school, with a wide network of acquaintances that I hope are turning into close friendships, and with much more useful linguistic abilities, bringing me to my next point...
- I tried to learn Hungarian in a year, I really did. I have countless flashcards all around my house, I've labeled everything in my apartment, I sit through Hungarian soap operas to try and absorb the dialog, I eavesdrop on my students to pick up how the kids these days are talking, I meet people to swap English for Hungarian conversation hours, and I constantly have my nose buried in a Hungarian grammar guide or exercise book. I'm not, however, going to be anywhere near the level of Hungarian I set out to reach by the end of this year, and because I don't want all of this hard work to amount to yet another language half learned and then forgotten, it's Hungary again for me. I think that life here in general has improved primarily as a function of how well I speak Hungarian so I think that a year here with the ability to to, you know, actually talk to the people around me will be a good time.
-I partly came over here for academic experience, but making progress on exploring Hungarian and Eastern European politics has been a slower process than I'd expected. Basically this is because the adjustment took longer than I'd expected and also because doing any sort of research into the politics and society of a country requires speaking the language. I'm hoping to make some connections through some of my Szeged U. friends with some political science professors to interview them for a real kick-ass paper to get me into grad school.
-Grad school is another good reason to stay here - applying to Ph.D programs is a tortuous and soul-crushing process that takes time and effort in huge qualities. Not only will I be much more likely to actually get into a grad school if I stay because I'll speak a rare language better and be able to do some research here, quiet little Szentes will provide me with the countless hours of silence and solitude that I'll need come fall to apply to school.

So that's my decision. I hope it's the right one and I guess only time will tell. The only think I really fear is that by about halfway through next year I'll go insane because of how quiet it is here. We shall see. At any rate I've got to jet and pack. I forgot to mention probably the biggest reason I'll return - life on this hemisphere means tons of incredible travel opportunities! I'm off to meet Josh and Alina (!!!!!!) in Prague for Easter break! Szia!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ski Break Part 3: Holland

No Hungarian for the day this time. Instead my favorite quote from the break. The scene: eating a maoz falafel on an Amsterdam corner before entering the Rijksmuseum, discussing how beautiful the city is.
Me: It would be such a shame if this place flooded, but it's surrounded by so much water I'd imagine it floods here all the time.
Taylor: Well, their dikes are really high here.

Unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time to explore Holland. We went up there on Friday but because of a late start and ridiculous traffic we didn't make it all the way to our hotel north of Amsterdam until pretty late. We did manage to go into the city however, and what an interesting place Amsterdam is on a Friday night. As we took the bus from our hotel's neighborhood into the city we read the police warnings posted prominently in the tourist guide and had a good laugh. Amsterdam's reputation precedes it and it seems that the police are used to dealing with some pretty ridiculous things. They do, however, seem to take a commendably patient approach to it: "Please do not use our streets as restrooms, there are designated free public toilets throughout the city, or just come by a police station and we will allow you to use the restroom," or "If you would like to hire one of Amsterdam's ladies, please only do so in designated areas, and remember that just because one looks like a woman doesn't necessarily mean that it is. Also, please remember that they are business women who deserve respect." We walked through the red light district when we arrived in the city and judging from the large proportion of women in windows decked out in leather and brandishing whips, they are unlikely to be disrespected without inflicting considerable injuries upon the offending party. A bit weirded out by this neighborhood where prostitutes aggressively beckoned from every window we wandered out of the area and grabbed dinner at a place called "wok and walk " (the name had me at hello) before relaxing in a hookah bar until we were too tired for any more touring and just made it back to the hotel.

The next day was Saturday and the day before Taylor and I had to return to Szentes so we were determined to see as much of the city as possible. Really our brief time in Amsterdam was not even sufficient to skim the surface and all it did was make me determined to return one day to explore it in detail. It's a remarkably interesting place and though it's reputation is mainly that of a wild place to party because of its liberal policies, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. We spent most of the day on foot just trying to see as much as possible.

Amsterdam is a city where bikes probably outnumber cars and pedestrians combined. This is the first time I had ever seen a bike parking garage.

Micha and Taylor navigating

Here is Anne Frank's house. We were planning on going in and this was the first place that we made our way to. Unfortunately there was an enormous line and we had to forgo the experience because we didn't want to spend our single day in Amsterdam in line. Next time!

After a time in the bustling center we made our way to the quite and artsy Jordaan area and enjoyed the views of beautiful architecture along the canals.

Cheese! One of Holland's best known exports and one of my favorite things. Taylor, however, bought some cheese that was so stinky I couldn't handle it, marking the first cheese I've ever been overpowered by. I was feeling slightly emasculated, but Taylor smelled like a goat's ass gone sour all day so you decide who the real loser was.
The main cathedral on Dam Square

Amsterdam, for good reason, is known as the "Venice of the North" because of it's numerous canals. The center of the city is made up of over 90 little islands! The canals lend a really unique beauty to the city. I only regret that we were there before the city's numerous trees and flowers were in bloom.

The Zuiderkerk, built in 1611, was a Protestant church and is one of the city's most famous postcard spots.

After walking around for many hours we decided we should visit at least one of Amsterdam's numerous world-famous museums. There were many to chose from, including the Van Gogh museum and the Rembrant House, but in the end we chose the Rijksmuseum because we figured it would be the broadest introduction to Dutch art and culture. It turned out to be a good choice, and we had a very enjoyable afternoon looking at works by the old Dutch Masters as well as taking in an exhibit about the rise and fall of Holland's empire that stretched around the world.

After we were finished in the Rijksmuseum it was getting dark so we caught a tram back to the train station to get a move on. I feel that the train station deserves some mention as it is by far the most ornate transportation hub I've ever seen, even including the "people's palaces" of the Soviet era metro stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Also interesting is that it was built over three islands.
A couple quick Holland observations:
1. Micha noticed this first, but after she pointed it out to me it was remarkably ubiquitous: the Dutch do not close their window curtains. Walking down the city streets you gaze right through large street level windows into people's lives. It doesn't seem to make them at all uncomfortable, indeed I think it was weirder for us to feel intrusive than for them. It's quite a nice idea, however, this general openness.
2. Amsterdam is diverse. Indeed, it is perhaps Europes most diverse city, and more than 50% of the children in Amsteram have some sort of non-Western background. After spending so much time in Szentes where diversity is a foreign concept, it was nice to hear many languages and smell different cuisines.
3. There really are windmills all over the place.

After our day in Amsterdam we drove out to the university town of Leiden where a friendly couchsurfer had offered to put us up for the evening and where we were also to meet a friend of Taylor's studying at the university there on an Erasmus scholarship. We rounded everyone up in Micha's car and then spent the evening enjoying a big dinner of more Asian wok food before stumbling upon a charming little pub populated mainly by Dutch good-old-boys. We got to know our kind host, Judith, over a few beers and eventually the singing of old Dutch folk songs broke out around us. Late that night we'd had more good Dutch beer and patriotism than we'd bargained for so we made our way back to Judith's to catch some sleep. The next morning we woke up with only enough to time to jump into the car and head for Cologne, where Taylor and I said our sad goodbye's to Micha and caught a flight back to Hungary.

Also, click here for my online ski break picture album.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ski Break Part 2: Germany

After our weekend in Vienna we drove up to Micha's home in Ludwigsburg, a town just north of Southwestern Germany's main city, Stuttgart. Micha had to get up early on Monday morning and fly up to Hanover for a series of business meetings but she generously left us the use of her apartment and her car during her absence. The first day we headed into downtown Stuttgart to explore the town. We procured a tourist map and flipped through it to find some things to do. It being Monday, most of the Stuttgart's numerous museums were closed. Then I saw that Der Hegel Haus, the place where one of the world's most important philosophical thinkers grew up, was open and free. For a nerd and philosophy major like me, this was thrilling.

Inside the Hegel house. It was good practice for both Taylor and I. Everything was in German so he got a lot of practice translating, and I had to strain to remember what I learned about him while studying philosophy in college.

"I wonder how many times Hegel tripped here..."

After spending a while working to understand the dialectic evolution of Spirit in the Hegel museum we decided to give our brains a rest with a stroll around Stuttgart. It was a beautiful, if slightly brisk, day so we had a nice walk. Then we stumbled upon something that we'd both been cruelly deprived of for 6 months while living in rural Hungary: Thai food! I had panang curry and it made me happy in ways words cannot capture.

The Collegiate Church is Stuttgart's most important Protestant church. A church of some sort has stood on this land since 1175AD.
Castle Square is the heart of downtown Stuttgart. Construction of the palace began in 1746 and the royals of Wuerttemberg moved between here and the below pictured Ludwigsburg palace multiple times. Palace choosing seems to have been a constant source of stress for the royals of Europe. Poor dears.

Speaking of the rich and powerful, after our walk around Stuttgart we made our way to the Porche complex to see the museum. It was little more than a room full of ridiculously nice cars, but that was cool to see. Stuttgart is perhaps best known today as the home to a lot of really cool cars - both Mercedes and Porche are headquartered here. Unfortunately the Benz museum was closed during our day in Stuttgart. Next time.

The world's first Volkswagon - or people's car - is in the Porche museum because Ferdinand Porche designed this vehicle in 1931. This is a particularly interesting factoid as Porche moves to become the majority shareholder in the VW corporation in the coming weeks.

After a full day in Stuttgart we made our way back to Micha's apartment in Ludwigsburg. We walked around the town's center for a while and then picked up dinner supplies from a grocery store. Back at Micha's we made a dish impossible to make with the ingredients available in Hungary: fettucine alfredo with sundried tomatoes. Parmesan cheese, high-quality olive oil, and sundried tomatoes all being unavailable in Szentes, the dinner was quite a treat. We spend the rest of the evening in trying to figure out what to plan the rest of our week on vacation.

The next morning we were up early to visit Strasbourg. Taylor had heard it was really beautiful and I knew it to be roughly the home of my ancestors (though I wouldn't learn until returning back to Ludwigsburg to read an email from my mom that I could have found records of my ancestors in the city library) so I was up for it. Strasbourg is in the Alsace region that straddles the border between France and Germany. The territory and the city have been banded about between the two powers throughout it's history, though since the end of the Second World War it has been French territory. It is one of the most impressive cities I've ever visited, both in history and beauty. Historically it has been an important place since Roman times and today is a world capital as the home of the European Council and the European Commission for Human Rights. Aesthetically, I think the pictures speak for themselves:

Our first view of central Strasbourg as we crossed the bridge over the Rive Ill, a tributary of the nearby Rhine that forms the modern border between France and Germany. Downtown medieval Strasbourg is situated on an island in the middle of the Ill. We divided our day between sitting in cafes sampling French specialties and strolling around enjoying the scenery. Below are pictures from our walk around the entire island along the Ill:

A tour boat continues via canal.

Me with the medieval Ponts bridge behind and the cathedral in the distance. This picture was taken from atop a huge barrier bridge that spans the Ill in front of where the island of downtown Strasbourg begins. In medieval times to defend the city the barrier's gates would close to flood the area in front of the city, acting as a defense against invasion.

Strasbourg's location on the border has sometimes meant great tragedy during wars. This statue commemorates those who died in the First World War. A mother is depicted mourning for two dead sons: one who died fighting for France and one who died fighting for Germany.

Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, made Strasbourg his home for much of his adult life. Unfortunately some sort of carnival market seems to have ruined the solemnity of my shot, but you get the idea.

The Strasbourg Cathedral is one of the most important High Gothic structures in the world. Construction upon it began in the mid 12th century and it's northern tower was the tallest building in the world for over 200 years.

First view of the interior upon entering the cathedral.

Looking up the Nave to the huge Rose window. The stained glass in the cathedral was removed by the Germans during the Second World War and then sent for safe keeping to a mine in a small town near Micha's home. After the war the US military discovered the treasures and sent them back to Strasbourg.
Speaking of the US military, the cathedral has a dedication to the American soldiers who fought to free France from the Nazi occupation.

One of the world's largest astronomical clocks, just in case you were wondering not only the time but also Jupiter's location.

After a full day of walking around the downtime historical section of the city we decided to get out of the center to see the new European government complex.

The main building for the European Council, headquartered in Strasbourg. This is just one of many huge shiny glass buildings in the European complex in Strasbourg. When asked why the European bureaucrats need so many huge shiny glass buildings, Micha unenthusiastically replied "for meetings."

That night we arrived home just in time to meet Micha and create a big dinner consisting mostly of resurrected leftovers from the previous night. The three of us sat around for the rest of the evening discussing our trips and then catching up. The next day Micha had to make it through one more busy day of meetings and such while Taylor and I set out to explore some more of the local scenery. We made our way first to Schwäbisch Hall, one of the oldest cities in the region, founded on this location in the 5th century BC by the Celts. It was once one of the regions most important centers because of its designation as capital of Schwäbia. The town's long history has seen devastation during the Thirty Years War and blights of the bubonic plague, but now it's a charming city full of beautiful German medieval buildings and lively street scenes.

St Michael's Church standing over the city's main square.

The town hall was built in Baroque style after the destruction of the medieval style buildings in one of the huge fires that swept through the city in the 18th Century.

Views of the city from the river at the bottom of the valley it's built around:

After spending a lot of the day strolling around Schwäbisch Hall we bought a picnic lunch in a supermarket and hit the road to visit a few other small cities in the region and find a nice view to enjoy during lunch.

Our golden chariot and a really big bridge
After a nice drive through the countryside we made it to Langenburg, another small town with a nice castle. It seemed like a pretty touristy place and it being February still it was mostly a ghost town. We ate lunch on the patio of a closed cafe on the side of the castle and enjoyed a nice view of the valley below.

Langenburg's castle, unfortunately closed for the off-season when we visited.

After a day of driving around and seeing the little towns we retired back to Micha's to wait for her to be done with work. After she escaped from her 11 hour board meeting we geared up for a nice dinner in Stuttgart with Gert, a friend of Micha's who I also knew as he studied at William and Mary. We went to a local restaurant and had a big dinner of Maultaschen, a local specialty that is like mushroom ravioli. After that we hit a few bars and just relaxed and talked for a few hours before heading back home where Micha had been promised a day of sleeping in until whenever the hell she wanted. After our sleeping in we got up for a day seeing Ludwigsburg itself with our qualified native tour guide. Ludwigsburg is home to one of Germany's biggest Baroque Palaces. Indeed the city was pretty much built to support the monarchs who built the palace and ruled the surrounding Wuerttemberg from there. When we arrived we discovered that we had a few hours before an English tour began so we went outside to see the gardens. Outside of the palace is a really cool fairytale garden which Micha had shown me a few years ago when I'd visited and I thought it would be great to see again and relearn all of the Grimm's fairy tales. Unfortunately it was closed for the summer, so Rapunzel's tower was all we could see:

Rapunzel's tower
The park was closed *sad music*

Instead of reliving our childhood fairytales we walked around the mostly muddy gardens for a while before going to a really good pizza place Micha new. By the time we finished lunch it was getting close to tour time so we made it back to the Palace.

The courtyard of Ludwigsburg Palace

Construction on the palace started with Ludwig (hence the name) but Frederick I elevated it to the huge structure that remains today. He was a husky fellow and stood over 2 meters tall. He gained much power and territory by allying himself with Napoleon. Just imagine little Napoleon meeting with this giant of a man.

Our tour guide was a (perhaps over)enthusiastic British woman who liked telling funny stories about the palace's history and inhabitants. My favorite story involved some Duke who was a notorious philanderer and eventually had to resort to crude tactics to see which ladies he had already been with in the royal court. Those who he had "known" were to come to balls wearing blue shoes, while the unexplored were to wear pink.

While our rotund King and womanizing Duke were living the high life, an enormous army of servants were there to attend to their every need. The palace is designed so that the outer rooms (with the nice big windows) are for the palace's regal inhabitants, while the core of the palace consists of dwelling space and passage ways for the numerous servants. Here is a dim servant gathering room behind the King's quarters.

The palace's ball room
The Ancestor's Hall, where one finds a plethora of ugly rich people on the walls of a very pretty passage way.

After finishing our tour of the drafty palace (marble is not good insulation) we warmed up in a nearby cafe and planned our next step. We wanted to go to the Mercedes museum but we didn't have much time before it closed, so instead Micha suggested visiting another well-preserved town nearby. We hopped in the car and soon made it to Besigheim.

Micha and I in Besigheim's little main square

As we walked around the town Micha's eyes narrowed and she began exuding signs of immense anger. She had spotted her enemy. Micha, you see, has a Big Important Job with the in the upper echelons of the gardening supply company that her father started. They produce mostly potting soil and sell it to stores, and she just had been in countless hours of tedious board meetings trying to figure out what to do about one popular German store chain that was fighting dirty and trying to seriously undercut them. And here, right in front of us, was one of their chains. We decided to stride in and check out how much they were really selling her products for:

Always cool under pressure, Micha smiles for the camera and poses with one her company's products in the location of a very difficult distributor. "They will pay for their insolence" she warned when the cameras were off.

Indeed Micha's Big Important Job was really going into overdrive the week that Taylor and I visited her. She's been working with her father's company for some time now - officially for over a year and she grew up in the business. As her father steps out of the spotlight she is taking the helm. The press loves the story: pretty 23 year old assumes dominant position in the board room. That week 3 large German national papers covered her story, one calling her "Die Torf-Prinzessen" - "The peat moss princess." Hilarious (sorry Micha). Then she was one the cover of a financial magazine. Then, perhaps most insanely, on Deutsche Welle, the German CNN. (click here it's the first segment of the show).

The Micha Media Maelstrom


But even with all of the glamor of being one of the Goddesses of the fertilizing world, she still has her feet on the ground. She's the kind of person to have a nice laid back dinner with and discuss anything and everything, which is precisely what we did. Micha was happy to have won 4 days off from work and life in the fast lane, so after our day around Ludwigsburg we relaxed over dinner and prepared for the next day's journey to Holland.

Dinner at Micha's after a long day of sightseeing and before a long drive up to Holland.