Cultural Exchanges


To top off a year spent hosting visitors of every type, I recently finished hosting the most important group: the family (családom, if my Hungarian is correct…which it likely isn’t, considering a spent the better part of their visit introducing my younger sister as my older brother. Jaj! Hungarian defeats me again!)

I won’t claim it was perfect — my family is as dysfunctional as the next, and I highly recommend against ever trying to share a bathroom with my older sister — but it was certainly special. Namely, what made me excited was getting to see my mother enjoy her first trip abroad.

My mom is, in a word, awesome. It sounds Hallmark-card cheesy, but she is my best friend: caring, loving and 100°% supportive of me, even in situations where many parents might put pressure on one (such as one’s Georgetown freshman child, who is currently sinking the family and herself into debt, calling to say she is dropping out of the business school to pursue the ever-financially unwise field of English literature. Most ‘rents would at least flinch. My mom? I want you to be happy. Simple as that).

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

But my mom and I are also extremely different in many ways, not the least of which is how we have approached our lives as women. Mom, despite coming of age in the hip-to-be-feminist 1960s, could be textbook Traditional Wife and Mother: married high school sweetheart, stayed at home for 12 years raising 3 kids, takes care of house and constantly self-sacrifices, and lives in the same zip code where she grew up.  Whereas Mom was all settled down with Dad by the age of 15, my life has been a bit more…well, un-settled (I suppose that is what you call more than 15 moves in less than ten years). As such, while for me, my greatest ambition in high school was to get a passport and stamps in it, mom’s was the white wedding she got as soon as she graduated college.  So, international jet-setting was sort of out of the question for her. At 57, then, this was her first trip outside the U.S., Niagra Falls notwithstanding.

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

And for me, being able to show her Europe for the first time was wonderful. Seeing the sights I have already become accustomed to — St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Chain Bridge at night, Castle Hill and the Central market — through her eyes made me love them all the more.  her excitement made mine increase tenfold. It also felt like I was able to “explain” myself to my family better. They know, and I know, that I am the black sheep. I always have been, from my decision to spend a high school summer taking extra school for fun to the fact that I am the only one who has not (and will not) settle in Pittsburgh, I stick out; I remain the geeky-bookish-city type in a family of suburban non-nerds.  By taking them through Budapest, showing off the new home in my ever-unstable existence, I feel like I was able to let them in, a little, on what makes me tick.

And, if they left with nothing else, I at least can say with certainty that they, too, are lovers of langós and pálinka.  What else would do for my “cultural ambassador” mission?

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… of Spring Break Reminiscence to bring you breaking news of a rare sighting in Budapest:

Today, at approximately 5:49 p.m., while on my way to catch the train home from a day at Pázmány, I spotted the POPPED COLLAR POLO SHIRT on a Hungarian.

The popped collar, or the collar of one’s polo worn flipped up, was a sad scourge upon my Georgetown education. Yes, despite an excellent education, a kickingly cool faculty (Madeline Albright, anyone?), great alumni network (our best native son, Yes-He-Was-Slutty-But-Still-a-Damn-Good-President-Hey-Remember-That-STRONG-Economy Bill Clinton?), Georgetown, as a wildly expensive school in a wildly expensive city still attracted its fair share of students known, for lack of a more diplomatic term, Over-privileged Tools.  Now, on one level, I appreciate the O.T.’s existence at such schools — hey, you pay full fare so I don’t have to — but somewhere around my sophomore year, the collars started to turn up.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I thought it was a joke, an bit of irony in a throwback to Zach Morris-style preppiness. But no. These kids were serious as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan is about his Terrible Towel: they meant it.

The collar-popping began to creep around, sucking more and more people into its vicious cycle. You’d be talking to a guy in class one day, he’d seem intelligent and interesting — then, come Saturday night, under the influence of Miller Lite and the glisten of the Potomac River viewed from a rooftop party, poof, you’d seem him: collar popped, and your hopes dashed, for he was one of Them. Despite heckling from some pretty harsh critics, the popped collar endemic seems lasting at my beloved alma mater. I once, as a graduate student, even saw one on a student working at my old student-run coffee shop, a place where we once had your respectable, crunch-alt-anti-establishment employees who would have seen a popped collar O.T. and refused him a caffeine fix. (I shed a single tear)

But I though Pázmány was better. European students are so much more sophisticated, on the whole, that us coddled Americans — and, even in a globalized world, I expected them to still have the market cornered on fashion.

So I say this to you, young Hungarians: one popped collar might not seem like a big deal. But it takes just one bad seed to start a cascade of tool-ish dressing. Soon, your hip bars, your grungy-proud Szimplas and unassuming Potkulcs could be filled, not with people dressed in the requisite crumpled black of Euro cool, but in the over-J.Crew-ified world of well-pressed polo shirts.

And need I even warn you about the evil which is soon to follow the popped collar? Yes, even to you, the Critter Pants could emerge.

Let’s not take any chances, shall we? Should you find my rogue collar popper, kindly turn it down for him. Then slap him upside the head.  I — and your country — shall thank you for it.

One thing which caught my attention as an immediate difference between Hungary and Bulgaria was how each approached their Communist past. Of course, I know I am speaking about this as an outsider, and as someone who is not trained, schooled or otherwise an expert in any way about this history. But, when Carolyn took me to the main city park in Sofia, we were greeted with this:

Socialist Realist Statue

Socialist Realist Statue

close-up

close-up

It was strange, for me, to see these Socialist-Realist pieces right in the “regular” city.  In Hungary, the statues were all pulled down, and now most of them reside at Memento Park, an outdoor museum located outside the city center. We also have the Terrorhaza, or House of Terror, museum in Budapest. Located at the former headquarters of the secret police, this museum is an excellent walk through the two oppressive regimes in Hungary, the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and the Communist party. With extensive descriptions of each time, the museum is as informative as it is moving (I particularly like the room dedicated to propaganda, where one is literally surrounded by the ideology, as the whole room is papered in advertisements. A clever curatorial decision, to make literal the feeling many must have had).

For American visitors to post-Soviet countries, there is a whole market of “Commie Kitsch” — tours in Traubis, the ability to buy giant Lenin-shaped candles, and oodles and oodles of stands at the flea markets offering vintage pins from the Socialist era. (Berlin, for instance, really capitalizes on this in certain places). And I suppose I can understand why, from a certain angle, people might “sell” this idea: it does indeed sell, because for a certain age group (of which yours truly belongs) in American/Western society, the Communist countries are that recent past for which we have such big blinders – that time too “new” to make the canon of compulsory history lessons like the Revolution or the Civil War, but still having occurred so young in our youth that we remember only blurred news photos, if we remember it at all. Yet, that kind of thumbing-your-nose at the idea still leaves me feeling a bit creepy, a bit put-off, as if we who didn’t suffer are getting our giggles of those who did. It is kind of like how I felt about that certain set of Serious Graduate Student who would self-proclaim themselves “Marxist” because it was seen as a super-hip, anti-establishment stance.  (more…)

Coming back from 10 days of Spring Break-ing, which came on the heels of a short jaunt to London, means the old blog has been pretty thin on the ground, particularly as I have tried to catch up in terms of my “homework” and other responsibilities. But I have returned, with some lovely stories from Bulgaria, and from Istanbul.

To start with, Sofia, Bulgaria — where I met up with, Carolyn, another Fulbright ETA (and the main reason I have my Fulbright, as she was our fellowships advisor at Georgetown. img_1666 Before I came to visit, Carolyn had blogged about wanting to “sell” Sofia to me, worried that the city — and indeed the whole country — were viewed negatively in the imagination of Westerns (and particularly us hard-to-please Americans).  Well, after looking at some of the material published on Bulgaria, I have to say Carolyn’s worry is valid: it doesn’t seem those who are supposed to be promoting Bulgaria do all that good a job of it. Her Lonely Planet guidebook is full of negative comments and asides about the country, claiming you can see Sofia in a day. The only English-language magazine, Vagabond, which I perused while sitting in Carolyn’s apartment, was liberally sprinkled with cutting jokes and Debbie-Downer-style language about the country.Now, I know I have been prone to pointing out my beloved Magyar people’s seeming inability to say anything nice about their own country, but the things written about Bulgaria make the Hungarians look cheerful in comparison.

And, what is more, the claim isn’t true: Sofia definitely deserves more than a day!

Carolyn and I started, after she picked me up at the strangely-bare airport (it was actually nice not to have so many stores calling for your attention, but it was kind of eerie to walk through such open halls — not like at Ferihegy in Budapest, where you HAVE to walk through the giant Duty-Free store to even get to your gate!), by heading back out for some shopping around Carolyn’s  neighborhood. Sofia, it turns out, has an abundance of great stores — in the picture above, yours truly is wearing a scarf (bought for us 4 Bulgarian lev…or something like $2.50).

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

The scarf, however, is not the true story — that is the Scarf Lady, who sells them. A thin, willowly older woman, topped with a beret, and, of course, a jaunty scarf, this woman greeted Carolyn and I as if we were visiting dignitaries, clasping both of my hands in her wrinkled ones while Carolyn introduced me. We bantered a bit in French — she speaks only Bulgarian and French — and then she began to display her wares. Carolyn, through her previous talks with scarf lady, had discovered she was once a ballerina, and she moved with all the grace of one. While her scarves are in expensive polyester (Dolce and Gabbana this is not), she treated each as if it was a precious piece, walking outside to fling the scarves we chose over her shoulder and show flashy ways of tying them. I’d defy anyone to not be charmed by her!

Following scarf lady, we enjoyed some more shopping, particularly Paradise Garage, a store which displays the work of young Bulgarian designers, where we each picked up some hip, urban-chic gear and had a lovely chat with the fashionable owner (check out Carolyn’s review here)

Relieved of some lev, we began doing the more “touristy” things, including checking out the town’s main cathedral. Since Bulgarians tend to be Orthodox, I found peeking in churches here particularly interesting — the Orthodox style, all covered in gold. In the plazas nearby, vendors sold scores of gold-painted icons, and the last of the martenitsas, a Bulgarian tradition for spring. These are little pins and bracelets made of red and white string, which one picks up on the first day of March and wears until one sees the first blossoming tree. Then, you hang your martenitsa up on the flowering tree, bringing in good luck for the new season.

(more…)

Maybe the New York Times is reading my posts about being too down on Hungary, because the front page, around 11 a.m. Hungarian time, today, had this upbeat story “Hungary’s Spirits Are Back Up, on a Horse,”

The writer here tries to draw a parallel between America’s Seabiscuit and a Hungarian winner called Overdose.  It is too simple a comparison, to be sure, but it is an interesting story.

And it even brings up Trianon and the loss of Greater Hungary. Of course. Because I haven’t heard about that enough in my 7+ months here …

As I’ve probably mentioned before, this semester I am teaching a class on Journalism History — it is an attempt to teach American history through journalism, as well as try to explain what about American journalism is unique/ how journalism makes America unique. While I was, once upon a time, a journalist, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a historian. Truth be told, the last U.S. History class I took was in high school — AP with Mr. Andrews, a lovable mullet-ed tattooed type (this was Pittsburgh, after all) prone to snapping a plastic model of a toilet in the face of a students who offered (his words) “crappy answers.”  Hence, in my search for creative pedagogical techniques, I hit upon using what I know: specifically, journalists. I’ve been interviewing some journalist friends of mine and using Skype to record the calls, making for guest lectures that don’t require the physical presence of said guest. I started with my former roommate, Amanda, who works for the washingtonpost.com as a Senior Producer.  Although she is now in Arts & Living, and more likely to follow, say, movie stars than international issues, she started on the night news desk and was able to give a lot

Anyway, one of the questions my students had was “How does the paper decide which foreign countries to cover”. And, specifically, why does Hungary get in the news (or, as is more likely, not get in the US news?)

We looked at the homepages of several US papers in class, trying to figure out what their layout had to say about American concerns yesterday. No Hungary to be found, I asked why the students through this was. After all, the country is currently in a weird flux limbo state: their Prime Minister resigned, then said he didn’t really mean it, then resigned and appointed another guy, to the screams of the other party. I mean, in my opinion, a Prime-Minister-less country is headline worthy. So why no news love? One student had an answer It isn’t sensationalist enough yet, he said. Someone needs to do something crazier, or things need to get worse.

And today, it looks like he might be right.  When I logged on for my daily morning scan of the New York Times, I was greeted with the front-and-center story being on Hungary: “Politics Add to Turmoil in Hungary.” Complete, as you will see by clicking on the link, with the saddest-looking shot of an old Magyar lady you could imagine.  (she’s even got the babushka on, just in case you weren’t sure if she was “other” enough).

Now, Hungary is in bad straits, yes. The country has problems. Big ones. Another student, hearing my protests that I do really like Budapest and I am not just saying it to be polite, reminded me that Foreign people always love Hungary. That’s because they aren’t from here.  It was a statement that jarred me, but that I also know is true. I am living in Hungary, but not as a Hungarian. I have one “job” with the Fulbright, and it pays me enough to live quite comfortably on. I have another job to count on back in the U.S. I know who my president is.  I am a lucky little being, to be sure.

But, at the same time, I have to cringe a bit when I see Sad Magyar Lady gloaming out from the Times front page. Because if this is all your average American sees, then they do get this negative impression of the country. That is not to say this isn’t a fair or good article, or that it isn’t needed: Americans, mired in our own economic crisis, need to understand how much worse it can get elsewhere, as well as how our actions reverberate (because, indeed, the troubles of Europe our intimately tied to the grandiose screwups of our own greedy moguls and bad policies). But (and there is always a but), part of me still itches to add a paragraph reminding the US reader that Hungary isn’t a gray, backwater place, and that today, even with the resigned PM and low forint exchange rate, the sun is shining, people are out, enjoying the warmth in the cafés (some even … gasp …smiling!) and I just finished talking with a very happy student who succeed in getting into a medical school in New York. So good things happen here, too.

And, just to prove that point, the # 5 most e-mailed story on the New York Times at 1:35 p.m. Hungarian time is a happier Hungarian tale: the resurgence of the Mangalitsa pig (written by our Fulbright exchange teacher, Amy’s, husband!). 

So, Hungarian life can be hard. But delicious too.

I come from Pittsburgh.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t want to say that, when I had a very Andy Warhol-ian approach to my hometown (for those that don’t know, Mr. Pop Art is from my humble village — and his name was actually Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire…. further proof that Hungary is all over America. But he rarely admitted this, choosing instead to say that he was from New York or a “citizen of the world.” That Pittsburgh turned and both built an awesome museum for his work and named a bridge shows how hard it is to get away from the city. Go on and reject it — Pittsburgh will still claim you back). Like Warhol, I didn’t see being Pittsburghese as an advantage, particularly when I finally left the area and entered Georgetown with a sea of Califorinias, New Yorkers and people from “just outside the city,” Bostonians and other New Englanders.  There was a reason, I thought, why Pittsburgh was the butt of jokes in movies: Auntie Mame is from there to showcase her brashness, when Dr. Teeth and his band need to land somewhere pathetic during The Muppets Take Manhattan they land there, and so on. Mullets and man-jewelry run free there. We even have a less-than-charming local dialect.

But I got older. I took a hiatus from D.C. for a year-and-half long stint as a reporter in the Pittsburgh suburbs. I rediscovered the city. I wised up to the fact that all those fancy-pants Georgetown kids who were “from just outside the city” were really just from Jersey after all.

I still went back — and will go back — to D.C.  In the end, I do fit in there far better than I do in Pittsburgh. Yet, when it comes to where I am from, it is still Pittsburgh. Which is why I will miss the city tomorrow, when that great symbol of Pittsburgh — the Pittsburgh Steelers football team — will attempt to win its sixth Superbowl.

Taking my Fulbright role as “cultural ambassador” seriously, I attempted to endear my new Hungarian friends to my homes by giving away Steelers and Hoyas gear for Christmas gifts. This may have worked: yesterday, the head of my university department, András, e-mailed me this Newsweek story, where Howard Fineman speaks about the Steelers fandom as an imagined community, as a tribe that serves to makes us feel part of a group even when the traditional notions of “neighborhood” and conceptions of “place” and “home” break down in an increasingly transient society that America is.

da' burgh ahn' at

da' burgh ahn' at

In many ways, I have to agree. The Steelers, after all, just aren’t about football. Indeed, no sports team is: in grad-school speak, the sporting event is the liminal moment, more about the ritual than the outcome. But I believe that, more so than in the newer and brighter and shinier cities, the Steelers have had to stand in for hope in a city that lost so much when the industry for which the team is named — steel — fell in the 1980s.  People had to leave, an economy had to restructure. Some parts of the city have improved; others haven’t.  But in any case, Pittsburgh now has a diaspora —  people who have full lives in some other city, but still have the sense of from Pittsburgh.

Like girls who live in Washington for nearly 8 years, but would never, ever cheer the Redskins (and not just because of the shamefully racist name). (more…)

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