Sunday, March 19, 2006

W. Needs a History Book


Big week for Hungary, there was big national celebration over here. We even got a shout out from G.W. Bush himself. It is unfortunate that his staff lacks a fact-checker, but it was nice of him to think of Hungary.

It’s like this:

On March 15th the Hungarians celebrate the revolution of 1848. It was a revolution against the Hapsburg Empire. The history of that revolution is loaded with great stories, the best one being the life and death of Sándor Petöfi. He was a revolutionary poet, meaning he incited an actually military revolution with his poetry, and then he went to fight and die in that revolution. How many poets can claim that?

Anyway, on the 15th, while addressing congress, Bush thanked the Hungarians for their contributions to democracy. He specifically cited the Revolution of 1956. That revolution took place on October 23rd. It is another moment in Hungarian history filled with incredible stories. And although everyone over here was happy to get a thank you from the US, it did seem a strange day for Bush to be acknowledging the ‘56 revolution.

See, the Hungarian awareness of its own history is profound, and that is something of an understatement. This country’s history is one of the few things it’s got left. Less than one hundred years ago the winners of WWI took away 70% of Hungarian territory and 60% of the nation’s population. This affected the side they eventually took in WWII, the wrong side. And as a result they spent the second half of the 1900’s under Soviet control, and the last 16 years of recovery haven’t exactly been easy.

So when Bush spoke of the 1956 Revolution on the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, Hungarian’s were confused… Well, not really confused, they just assumed Bush had no clue about Hungarian history. Something most reasonable Hungarians could accept; it’s a small country without much clout. Still, the President’s gesture was read as inappropriate by most over here.

Hungarians like getting props from the Commander in Chief as much as the next NATO member. It is a shame, however, that this time it felt more like patronization then actual acknowledgement.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Gotta get learning



I have to arrange Hungarian lessons this week. Recently Dora rightfully pointed out that I have been here for nearly two years without putting in the appropriate language-learning effort. Although today I was able to ask a woman at the flower shop, “Do you have potting soil?” I think knowing how to ask for potting soil shows a certain degree of…

Okay, it’s a stretch. I’ve been putting off the Hungarian lessons for a while now. I stopped making excuses some time last fall. The truth of the matter is; I’m not looking forward to the baby steps of elementary language lessons. I don’t care if my teacher is Anne Sullivan, I’ve always struggled with learning languages, and Hungarian ranks up there as one of the toughest languages to learn.

Nevertheless, I’m a dumbass if I don’t make an effort. My life over here will be made much easier if I learn the language.

This is not so much because of the day-to-day things. I can get by with English in most situations. I don’t like doing this, and if I can piece together a few scraps of Hungarian, I prefer a broken version of the native language to the pomposity my fluent lingua franca. Still, English does serve as a nice lingua franca, if a lingua franca is what I’m looking for. (I do like using that term)

No, it is my social life I hope to improve with Hungarian. It’s like this: Dora’s job at KPMG puts a definite extension on our time here in Hungary. I don’t know if we were planning on leaving anytime soon. I’m happy here, and so is Dora, but if her new consulting gig is going to mean anything, she needs to put a few years of work in. Now, like I said, I’m happy here, but there is something missing. I have yet to really connect with anyone over here as a good friend. I think learning Hungarian will help.

There are a lot of Americans and Brits over here who can communicate on that level so important in a friendship, and there are a lot of Hungarians with enough fluent English to maintain a quality back and forth. Language is not creating its traditional barrier in my case. No, it is not an inability to communicate. It is the feeling that I am only testing the waters, that I’m holding back.

I’m not sure if others sense it (I doubt that), but I am certainly aware of a hesitance on my part. I want Hungary to be an adventure, and it is, but it should be more. I have been reluctant to commit to this place or to any of the people I’ve met here.

Dora doesn’t count. Our life together started in another place, seems like another universe, and the commitment that comes with that has traveled here with its own importance.

So I’m here, but I think I have to start acting like that means more than just a new address.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Angry With Yahoo 360


Yahoo 360 sent me a message stating that one of my blog photos was rejected. It was an oil painting. In the painting a woman's breast is exposed, but it is far from pornographic. (See here.) They listed a few possible technical reasons for the rejection. Then in parenthesis they told me that any pictures with nudity will be rejected. The following is the feedback I sent Yahoo:

I had an image rejected. I posted a reproduction of an oil painting by Giuseppe Tampieri. The title of the painting is “Gypsies”. I believe the image was rejected because in the painting a woman's breast is exposed. I am pretty upset that a painting of a woman would be rejected when other users post RSS feeds to porn cites, and not even good porn. Go see for yourself; one click away from 360 and you’ll find promises of deep anal penetration, tight holes filled, and large cocks sucked. None of these promises are fulfilled.
Now, I can understand Yahoo's desire to keep a clean forum. I’m down with the whole family values line, but some of your users are not the family values types. My posting of a painting is the least of Yahoo’s worries. You’re not going to get 12-year-olds jerking off to Giuseppe Tampieri’s Gypsies. (If you did, they would be very cultured little masturbators.)
And anyway, aren't you the guys who sold out that Chinese dissenter? I posted an oil painting, for Christ's sake! I didn't send any Chinese journalists to jail. I’m this close to pulling out of this 360 thing--- Oh, now don’t misunderstand my use of the phrase “pull out”. I wasn’t making a sexual reference. I was suggesting that I am unlikely to bend over and take Yahoo’s big pulsating concept of decency thrusting in and out of my content much longer.

Writing Woes


I told Dora about the novel I’m working on. She had an interesting response. She asked me if I was ever going to write something for her. She didn’t mean, “Are you going to dedicate a book to me?” She was implying that she is not my target audience, and she’d like to be.

It really is a reasonable request. She’s not asking me to be a better writer. Nor is she asking me to write more commercial material. Dora’s a good reader. She doesn’t read crap… Well, not all crap. She does like that Shopaholic series, but then, I’m a sucker for cheap sci-fi. Dora reads good stuff, and she was asking if my books would be on her to-read list if she didn’t know me.

Well, if I can get my stuff published, I hope all of humanity will feel compelled to read my work. Short of that, however, I’m afraid I am unable to pick my reader. No matter how much I love Dora, she doesn’t directly influence what I write. I don’t even directly influence it. I’m not trying to claim some muse-bullshit, like, “The material comes to me and I am but a conduit.” It’s not that at all. When I started “Mifflin” (By the way, an agent asked to see the full manuscript last month. Keep your fingers crossed.) I thought the book was going to be about a young man who truly wanted to become the Anti-Christ. As I wrote, however, the characters became more real than I had anticipated. Theo didn’t want to be the Anti-Christ. He just wanted to move on after a difficult break up, and it took the death of an old schoolmate to put the fire under his ass. It was a big change in narrative.

Now with this new project, I have these two brothers, twins maybe? I’m not sure yet. One lives in New York. He’s a divorced PR consultant with questionable moral practices. (He staged the terrorist kidnapping of two pharmaceutical executives in Iraq to create brand awareness.) He becomes involved in a large scale project that changes his worldview, involves him in a Budapest crime spree, gets him three years in federal prison, and changes the direction of globalization (not all in that order). The other brother is happily married with four children. He and his family run a small farm in Central Wisconsin that specializes in ethically-grown crops. He and his wife are also labor activists and non-violent anarchists. The two brothers have a father whose health is faltering, a fuck-up of a cousin, in-laws, and other issues. But in the end the sorry is about these two very different brothers finding some common ground and attempting to make the world a more interesting place.

I can’t say where it will go as I write, but even since its conception the project has changed a great deal. So in answer to Dora’s question, I don’t know if I’ll ever write something for her; for you, dear reader; or for anyone. It’s frustrating, but I do enjoy being dragged through the process.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Race in this Place




I was teaching an English lesson when the film Munich came up in conversation. I said I liked the film very much. One of the students said they thought it was okay, but you could tell it was made by one of those people.

Odd, right?

I’ve become obsessed with racism of late, not angered by it, or at least no more angered than I used to be. I just can’t stop thinking about it. This has a lot to do with the newness of the brand of racism I’m witnessing here in Hungary. I won’t say it’s better or worse than what I know from the States. It’s just different.

Anti-Semitism is rampant. People spit out the word “Jew” with distaste. The example with the Spielberg movie is only one of many instances when I saw an “us and them” attitude that rubbed me the wrong way.

Dora is half Jewish, on her father’s side, and she and Lili are often upset (but no longer surprised) by the comments they hear in bars or on public transportation. I asked Dora what she thinks the Jewish population did to earn this ill will. I know, loaded question, but I enjoy the role of Devil’s advocate. Dora told me it was jealousy. People think all the Jews are successful, and since the Jews are outsiders, that success is being stolen away from the real Hungarians. It sounds like the “Mexicans are taking all our jobs” logic, but here in Europe the roots dig deeper. This, I think, can be credited to the kind of Nationalism that people in the States have trouble understanding.

There’s a joke:

A little baby mole is digging around underground when something strange happens. He runs out of ground to dig. He has come up to the surface for the first time. He calls out to his mother, and he asks her, “Mom, Mom, what is that big blue space up there that seems to go on forever?” The mother replies, “That’s the sky.” The little mole says, “Wow. It’s beautiful. And Mom, what is that huge yellow ball up in the sky shining down on everything?” The mother says, “That’s the sun.” The little mole says, “Amazing. And Mom, what are those huge green giants standing up tall from the ground?” The mother says, “Those are trees.” The little mole says, “They’re wonderful. Mom? Why don’t we live up here instead of digging through the dirt all day?” The mother takes the little mole by the arm, yanks him back down into the hole, and she tells him firmly, “Because this is your home, and you like it!

When I tell that joke to Hungarians, they laugh out loud. I laughed too when I heard it, but I wasn’t laughing from a personal place, like you do when a joke really hits home. I was laughing as an outsider seeing the humor, but not feeling it.

Nationalism is a strange thing. Hungarians who feel comfortable with me will often ask why on Earth an American would want to live in Hungary. They see their country as poor and problematic, no place for someone from the West. Don’t mistake this for an inferiority complex, however. The same Hungarians who ask me that question will be the first to point out that the world would be a complete mess without the many invaluable contributions made by the Hungarian people. They will argue, in fact, that if you consider the entire 1000 year history of the nation, Hungary is probably one of the most influential nations in the western world.

I often walk away from these conversations thinking that that first question, the one asking why I would want to live here, is something akin to an invitation to leave.

The Hungarians, not all of them, but certainly a good number of them, want Hungary to be a place for Hungarians. They’re angry about the number of Chinese immigrants and the inexpensive goods those immigrants sell at the no-frills markets they set up (of course, that doesn’t stop anyone from shopping there). They are upset by the Africans who come here to study, and to make their way into the more prosperous parts of the EU. I have a Nigerian student who was told to go back to where he came from. I almost laughed before I realized that the phrase “Go back to Africa” isn't really cliché over here.

Something I find particularly interesting is the attitude toward the Muslim people. There is not a strong Muslim population here, nothing like Western Europe. And as a result, there isn’t much anti-Muslim sentiment. Of course the more ignorant people think, “They’re all terrorists.” But that’s true everywhere. The reason I find this interesting is how clearly it illustrates what is already evident. People need a tangible thing to hate.

That simple and, I’ll admit it, obvious point explains a lot of motivations behind the current state of affairs in the world. Extremist clerics have to dig up Danish cartoons to drag the EU into the East-West battle they want to stoke. Danish cartoonists have to draw sacrilegious images to drum up readership in a country where the extreme-right is gaining ground. The US has to brand the Iraqi insurgents as terrorists because that’s the only enemy the voters understand as tangible. The Iraqi political parties fan the flames of tribal warfare, because political stability may dissolve their grip on things. And that doesn’t even include Nigeria, Central Africa, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, China, or South-East Asia. These people wanting power simply point to an ethnic group and lay the issue of the day on that group’s shoulders. It’s a cheap shot, but cheap shots work.

Here in Hungary, like I said, the Jews take a lot of shit, but it’s the Gypsies that really get it.

People hate the Gypsies over here. I mean really hate them, like think of them as subhuman. And a lot of these people are very open about it.

We have a cleaning lady (which is weird for me, since I’ve never really had a cleaning lady). Her name is Margitka [quick Hungarian culture point: Margit is the Hungarian equivalent of Margaret. The –ka makes the name diminutive, and the Hungarians use the diminutive with everyone]. Margitka is a gypsy. She’s worked for Dora’s family for years. She’s an unbelievably cheerful woman. She talks a lot, all in Hungarian, and she is certain that I can understand every word of it. The first time she came to our new apartment, she brought her brother to help her clean the windows. We asked them to leave the keys in our mailbox. They did. When we got home one of our neighbors stopped Dora in the stairwell. He told her that he “almost caught the thieves”. Dora was confused. The man explained that two thieves were doing something to our mailbox. When Dora told him that they were not thieves, that they were cleaning people the guy told Dora, “But they’re Gypsy. Can’t you see that?” Dora assured him that we could see that, but he wasn’t convinced. Why would we allow those people in our home if we knew they were Gypsy?

This attitude rears its head in a lot of situations. Hungary’s poor economic status: Gypsies on welfare. (Never mind the clear examples of government corruption at every level from Parliament to law enforcement.) The petty crime problem: Gypsies. (Of course, the Hungarian and the Ukrainian mafia are active, but forget about that.) The garbage in the streets: Gypsies. (See entry for Feb. 16th)

Yeah, so in Hungary the need to pin problems on a tangible minority is normally an excuse for apathy. But for me this little fractal has pointed to how troubling this laziness can become.

So, now you know what’s been on my mind.