Around the Region


I have just returned from my second trip to the “ocean” of Hungary, Lake Balaton. While I had already visited this lake once, with the whole Fulbright group, this trip had an extra-special element: I got to stay in the hand-built family weekend house of my dearest Hungarian friend, Veronika.

The House Dad Schandl Built!

The House Dad Schandl Built!

I am not exaggerating when I say hand-built either: Veronika’s dad literally did just this, starting the plans back in 1969. First, as a “boat shed” (this was during Communism, and they could not get a permit for a house, but could get one for a boat shed. Party inspectors even came to check that the structure met acceptable boat-shed-ness, Veronika explained,) and then later added on to make a bigger house, it is quite impressive — a cute, snug whitewashed structure that seems to emit a feeling of summery relaxation.

The house is located in a smaller town on the lake, called Balatonmáriafürdő, one that is not super-heavy on the German pensioners that so love Lake Balaton. Veronika and I also were lucky to have a fabulous chauffeur and chef, in the forms of the Dávids (no, they’re not some Hungarian band or something — just two great guys, both named Dávid). The Hungarians, I soon discovered, would get along very well with my mom and dad, for they both take the same approach to spending a weekend at the lake: pack enough food for at least three weeks. (Seriously, Veronika had a whole duffel. And the feast one Dávid cooked us for lunch Saturday was similar in size to the meals of My Crazy Great Aunts, little Italian ladies famed for feeding). (more…)

…because it looks like the gas isn’t coming towards Europe today as expected.

As the BBC reports here, Russia claims it has turned the gas back on, but that the Ukraine has not opened pipelines. The EU monitors placed along the pipeline — a move Russia demanded as part of the agreement, saying it worried the Ukraine was siphoning off gas — say that while gas is flowing, the levels are very low. As the BBC reporter puts it, there is “no trust” between the two countries, a very troubling relationship for two countries so close together.

And, of course, the story is already off the New York Times and Washington Post main pages. You can find it if you search, but there are other interests there: Israel and Gaza (understandably), whatever Clinton has to say about her job as Secretary of State (hey, Hils, here’s a message from the Bulgarians: they are cold), and what Sasha and Malia Obama wore on their first day of school (yeah, I love the Obamas, but seriously news media. Now is not the time to comment on any seven-year old’s backpack keychain. Actually, NEVER is the time to put that in the media. Leave the child alone — it isn’t like there isn’t enough real news to be had).  So, many parts of East Europe shiver, many more are at risk for going cold, too, but the American mind will already be closed to that “other” across the sea.

My parents can talk about the Cold War, but all that is to someone of my 20-something generation is a brief memory of practicing air-raid drills in the elementary school basement (tuck and cover your heads). Indeed, my first memory of seeing anything on the news is my dad pulling me out of my bedroom to see the Berlin wall fall. But this latest snafu over here  — and, especially, the potentially explosive friction between the Ukraine and Russia — is again a reminder that foreign policy has to be more than the Mideast. If Russia or the Ukraine … or, more likely, both Russia and the Ukraine … blows up, it’s going to be one big worldwide mess.  Too bad that might be the only way it will get attention.

Well, I just returned from a not-very-long walk home from my yoga class here in Budapest … and had to spend a good while defrosting myself in an as-hot-as-my-Soviet-studio-will allow-shower.

It is cold, cold, COLD here in Eastern Europe. We’ve been below zero for a good month, it seems (and I haven’t seen more than two sunny days since November), but I’m still not used to it. I used to whine about wind-whipped walks over the Key Bridge in the winter; this is something different. To illustrate said cold for those of you in warmer climes, try this example: the ends of my hair were a bit wet from said yoga class, so I piled my braids up into a big fuzzy hat, then made the 15-minute or so walk home … and when I got there, my hair actually had ice on it Yup. My HAIR FROZE. Brrrrrr.

Now, the cold alone is no big news for my side of Europe (there is a reason behind the American stereotype of the old Easter bloc as being filled with people in big boots and fur hats … it is colder here than many regions of the U.S.) What is a problem is the fact that most of Europe is now mired in this cold snap, and Russia has shut off the gas which flows through the Ukrainian pipelines due to a price dispute.

Hungary is faring fairly well: the country, while dependent on said Russian gas for about 40% of its supplies, can still get gas from elsewhere and has alternate sources of heat. My apartment, thankfully, is OK: my stove is electric, and we use radiators here, so I am fine. Most homes and small offices are warm here, too, although big businesses have been forced to stop use of gas. The one difference I noticed as I walked through town, however, was a distinct burning smell and a thick (well, thicker than usual, anyway) patina of smog. My Hungarian colleague, Nelly, says this is because the power plants are now burning more oil and coal to keep our lights on and houses as warm as possible.

Other Eastern European countries have it worse. As today’s New York Times reported, Bulgaria is particularly freezing. My good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Carolyn, reports from her home in Sofia that while Bulgaria gets ALL of its natural gas from the Russian-Ukrainian pipeline, people are surprisingly calm about it.  She is fortunately staying warm in her electric-heated apartment, but braved a pretty frigid meeting at a Sofia university today (Read her excellent commentary about the situation herehere and here).

Right now, the BBC and the NYTimes both report that Russia and the Ukraine have reached a deal. However, even if Russia truly has pulled the switch back on, so to speak, as the BBC notes, it could take up to three days for gas to reach all parts of Europe (like Hungary and Bulgaria).

While I’m cautiously optimistic that this is all solved and I won’t have to face a cold apartment or office, one thing kind of sticks in my throat:  as Carolyn mentioned, many Eastern Europeans think  “…it’s pretty lucky that non-Eastern block countries (aka France, Austria and Germany) have been impacted by the reduced gas flow from Russia to Ukraine or no solution would be on the horizon.” And I, unfortunately, have to agree with her. If the Western side wasn’t in trouble, it might not be priority number one on the EU list … and, I have to wonder, how much response America would have, too. How long would Bulgaria have to freeze? Would they wait until all of the old Eastern bloc was cold? And then how long?

It is not that I don’t realize that the big powers of the West have a lot to deal with right now. Yes, I understand that Israel vs. Gaza is a bigger political (and human) mess right now. But the West … and American in particularly … has had a very nasty tradition of ignoring abuses in areas which don’t immediately impact them financially and politically (and shutting off gas in the middle of winter is a human rights abuse in my book). Hungary is no big power player economically; winning the love of the Hungarians doesn’t carry the hugest strategic import for a U.S. president or politician. Some Americans, I am frustrated to report, actually still believe Hungary is in Russia (I’m not naming names here, but this was actually said to me before I left). One need only look at the staggering non-response of the U.S. and Western Europe to Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution: the West was on a Red Scare binge, but when a small country finally tried to shrug off said Communist rule, we were too busy protecting our interest in the Suez to bother with any aid (save the iconic Time cover … some consolation prize, eh?)

In any case, I hope that the EU together has fixed this. And I hope as we rapidly approach a new era in America (8 more days! only 8 more of Bush!), Eastern Europe’s concerns finally get a more fair hearing, and realize that foreign policy means more than what to do with Iraq. It’s a big world, with big troubles.

Wow, I just signed on to my main blog dashboard today — to begin making blogs for two of my courses at Pázmány Péter in the spring — and realized I haven’t posted in almost a month!

Mostly, my holiday abscence can be blamed upon an American invasion of sorts: I’ve been either playing hostess or traveling since the 19th of December, so this is my first week without a house filled with excited (if jet-lagged) American friends.

While having visitors can certainly be stressful, I’m glad so many of my friends made it over here (and I have three more coming next week! Hostel de Russo, indeed!) because I find it hard to accurately describe Budapest to people who have not been here. I know, it is a shameful admission for a once-professional writer and a current writing teacher to admit an inability to use her adjectives well enough to conjure up a city in the minds of far-flung friends. But Budapest is, simply put, one stunning whirlwind of contradiction. Travel guides, travel writers, the best and brightest of foreign correspondents … and yours truly … never get it fully right. It has to be seen to be known.  Having people from my “old life” visit me during my adventure makes me feel that I can more fully share a new place I have grown to love.

I also feel really lucky that so many were (and are) willing to trek to Eastern Europe in the dead of winter. Despite growing up in the most solid, stable, born-and-raised-in -the-same-house lifestyle, my adult life has been one giant streak of transience. (the move here was the 14th move in 9 years; the move back to D.C. area in July or August will make 15).  When there is no set “home” in the physical sense, friends become home in the metaphorical.

So, to make up for the writing abscence over the past three weeks, a little pictoral evidence of holidays and a new year in Budapest and beyond.

 

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

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Bazilika, Esztergom

Bazilika, Esztergom

Just another pretty something to start the week off – a view from inside the basilica in Esztergom, the seat of Catholicsm for Hungary.

My very good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Carolyn — or, Karolinka, as she is re-named in her new country — is leaving today for Sofia, Bulgaria today. She’ll be an English Teaching Assistant as well, working with students to improve their speaking and writing skills. We toasted her last weekend in D.C. on Saturday with a “Stoop-A-Q” or an evening of BBQ-ing on the stoop of her large, lovable and eclectically-inhabited group house in the U Street neighborhood. Friends, food, a stoop, and a rare-for-a-Washingtonian-summer, warm-but-not-overly-hot evening made for a perfect goodbye. (she’s the lovely blonde lady in the lovely Obama tee in this photo).

In addition to the many other fine qualities that make Carolyn such a good friend, she is also responsible for my own soon-to-be adventure in Budapest: she was the Fellowship Secretary at Georgetown, so she helped me with my essays and other application materials (and she helped students win dozens of other fellowships at Georgetown this year, because she’s just that good at her job!)
But beyond her formal, professional role in the Fulbright process, Carolyn also served as a constant source of personal encouragement for me over the past year — and without her help, I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to go.

I’m so excited for Carolyn’s adventure to begin, and I can’t wait to visit her in Sofia later this year! It’s exactly 3 weeks to my own departure date now, so we’ll both be on European soil soon. Good luck and bon voyage, friend!