Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gunslinging


Late last month I wrote about a man here in Budapest repeatedly slapping a woman in public. I wrote that I was disappointed by my own inaction. I went on to point out that my lack of initiative may stem, in part, from my time living here in Budapest.

Dan quoted these lines from the post before stating his reaction: "The idea that one person's fortitude can change the way of the world has been pissed on by both history and politics[here in Hungary]. This has left an atmosphere of apathy that is hard to overcome."

Dan then went on to say, "Indeed. This is why-after the protesters have all gone home (or on paid holiday)-Europe needs the "American Gun-Slinger" after all."

The image of the American gunslinger is an interesting choice. As an icon, the gunslinger is forever taking the law into his own hands - but not necessarily because the law has failed. The gunslinger belongs to the semi-mythic untamed West, a uniquely American setting where the law has yet to catch up with evil-doers. This very American folk hero speaks to core beliefs that set the stage for one of the more interesting cultural conflicts between the US and Europe.

Since Antiquity, Europe has held that the government serves a vital role in the lives of its citizens, an irreplaceable role. Here in Europe, the idea that one person can step in to serve justice or offer protection to 'The People' is viewed as an American concept, as an overly-optimistic idea, and as somewhat silly. Even England's most famous outlaw was serving the establishment - protecting the Crown in the name of the true King.

Last week, when I failed to step in and stay the hand of that man, I noted that I was not alone. The tram was full of people, all of whom couldn't be bothered to raise their voices in protest. And why? Last month I blamed Hungarian history, but Dan's point about the gunslinger adds an interesting dimension. Keeping the peace on the streets of Budapest is someone's job. More specifically, in the case of the incident on the tram, it is someone else's job. You see, I pay an obscene amount of taxes so that the government will keep this city clean and safe enough for me to go about my business.

Budapest is struggling after a difficult half-century. We'll call it a work in progress.

Paris is an better example. Parisians are allowed to litter. Their dogs can defecate wherever they please. The Parisian government built a tremendous sewer system with open drains on every street; all day and night street-sweepers march through the city sweeping filth down the drains. The city is fantastically clean, but not because of the citizens. It is because of the government.

When I lived in New York, if your dog took a shit on the sidewalk and you left it there, you were likely to hear from one of your fellow New Yorkers. "Hey, fuckhead, clean up after your god-damned dog." Ah, New York. Good times.

But that concept, that it is a citizens' right to stand up for civil justice, that strikes me as an American conviction.

We love our gunslingers. We love the individual who will stand up against injustice when the establishment is corrupt, absent, or powerless. We can't get enough of our Dirty Harrys, our Martin Luther Kings, our Billy the Kids, or our Thomas Jeffersons.

They come in a range of beliefs and values, but their conviction that one person is enough to change things for the better sets them apart from what I witnessed last month on that tram.
I hope in jotting down these reflections I remember to hold onto some of that gunslinger justice.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Uncomfortable Realization


I was riding the tram home from work today when I witnessed a man beating his girlfriend in public.
When this happened I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" on my brand-non-specific portable listening device. "Wait, Wait..." is a show that not only keeps me smiling, it often gets me to laughing out loud. I take an extra bit of pleasure in listening to this show while riding BKV (Budapest Public Transit). It is uncommon to see a person over the age of twenty smiling while riding public transit in Budapest. The Hungarians are not a smiley people. So when Peter Sagal and the gang get me to laughing, I am reminded that while I have been living here for some time now, I still maintain some of the hope and optimism that history has robbed from so many Hungarians. I'm different from these people, and - at least in some ways - this is a good thing.
But when the raised voice of a twenty-something Gypsy intruded into my enjoyment of NPR's humorous news quiz, I was forced to face an uncomfortable truth. I wasn't looking when the first slap landed.
The woman stood next to me, but I took no notice until her boyfriend started yelling. He said something along the lines of, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" I looked up in time to see the follow through.
My blood started to boil.
Her grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the nearest door. And as everyone on the tram waited for the next stop, he gave her two more open handed smacks.
I wanted to act. I had at least twelve centimeters on the guy. Even if he was strong, I had physics on my side. But I stood, and I waited for the uncomfortable violation of human decency to get off at the next stop.
I've been kicking myself all day, and while I can't blame anyone other than myself for my own inaction, I can't help but feel that my time in Hungary has left me less likely to act in such situations.
So many of the people here fail to see the point standing up against what’s clearly wrong. The idea that one person's fortitude can change the way of the world has been pissed on by both history and politics. This has left an atmosphere of apathy that is hard to overcome.
Now, I realize that if I had stepped in today on the tram, I wouldn't have made that man a better person. He wouldn't have seen the light simply because someone stayed his hand this one time. But I would have shown him that such behavior cannot be tollorated in public. I would have shown him that for so many people to live together is such a tiny space, we must draw a line. I just wish I wasn't writing this in the subjunctive. I hope that next time I will act in the moment.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Post on Protests at Pajamas Media


I've been buried at work, and my folks have been here for visit. So my writing took a back seat for a bit, but I did find time to write up an article about the protests from the end of last month. It was published at Pajamas Media, and a few high profile blogs linked to it. I'm happy about the exposure.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Are you ready to MOCK?


Sony Bravia - Play Doh Ad
Uploaded by tvspot

Did you watch it?

I know, it's a load of consumption propaganda disguised as art, but it was still fun, right? Are stop-motion bunnies on the streets of New York any less cool because the artists who animated them are getting a check from Sony?

I do know people who will say yes - deeply cynical people who see everything through irony-colored glasses. To a certain extent, I count myself among such people, but...

Well, I think I may be growing cynical of cynicism - and it's hipper counterpart snark. The need to lash out against anything and everything with witty sarcasm has left my generation with little to value aside from sarcasm itself. And it's even worse among those in the upcoming generation. I see it in my classroom, on message boards, and with my peers; if anyone tries to get behind a cause or stand up for an ideal, those who see themselves as hip will condemn such efforts as either commercial marketing or government disinformation or bleeding-heart agendas or partisan hackery or whatever other faceless engine of distrust in en vogue at the moment.

Those who are plugged-in are ready to mock everything, but they are incapable of doing anything.

My students, for instance, are reluctant to believe in anything.

Story:
I have asked my class to preform a group research project on ecotourism. There's a bit of hand-holding involved because the class is meant to be an introduction to research. So, I'm walking them through the initial stages: concepts, definitions, background, and previous research. This is the stage when they start to wrap their heads around the idea of ecotourism. It all leads to this infuriating discussion where one of my students actually says, "It seems like these ecotourist people just want you to spend more money." Another student jumped on board with, "It sounds nice, but you're not going to solve the world's problems just because you don't litter while on vacation."

Now they're only 18 or 19 years old, so I would forgive such obtuse comments if they were coming from a naive place (If you don't see the comments as obtuse: everyone wants tourists to spend more money + ecotourism is trying to change more than one person's behavior). These students, however, aren't naive. They are some smart kids. They learn quick. They have learned to see everything as a ploy or a gimmick. They've also learned that the first person to shoot down an idea with the appropriate level of sarcasm becomes the cool kid.

I understand that my parents' generation didn't exactly deliver on the whole "We can change the world." thing, but when did that translate to, "We can't do a damn thing, so let's sit back and poke fun at the people who try."?

I realize this issue isn't helped by the increased level of radicalization in today's world, but let's face it; the two issues are in a codependent relationship.

A dialog:

Cynical Youth
I don't care about patriotism.

Potential Radical
What if someone from another country took your job?

Cynical Youth
Maybe they deserve it if I'm so lazy.

Potential Radical
If you're too lazy to defend our country, maybe I need to do more.

Cynical Youth
I'd like to see you try, nutso.

Potential Radical
While maybe I should take up arms and form a militia to protect our borders?

Cynical Youth
(Sarcastic)Yeah, that's going to work.

Potential Radical
All right, then. I'll do it.

A gross oversimplification? Sure, but you get the idea.

I believe my growing distaste for cynicism stems from my geographical location (and perhaps my age, but less stick with geography on this one).

You'd be hard pressed to find a region of the world populated by a more cynical group than those over here still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I'll admit the people here have plenty of cause to be cynical, the global pop culture's current existential funk has fueled the fires of sarcasm while squelching anything resembling confidence or hope. This has helped make politics more ugly and divisive. It has bolstered nationalists. It has reduced the public's already-weak faith in governments. It has helped to legitimize corruption. The list goes on.

And so I'm left asking, has the public fallen so in love with cynicism that it believes itself impotent? Have we become convinced that the world is so corrupted that only the powerful have any kind of control? Because if that is the case, isn't such cynicism just a pathetic surrender?

I won't be buying a high-end plasma TV, but I still think the rabbits were cool. I think whatever beauty, magic, or mischief we can believe in helps to make this life a better one. I hope I'm not in the minority.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bin Laden and Snake Oil


A friend wrote me yesterday and offered some food for thought. I've edited to protect the innocent, but here's the essence of it:
Two quotes and a question. The 1st is from The Chicago Tribune, the 2nd from the Sun-Times, both dated 8 Sept., and both are about bin Laden's new video-- 1) "Addressing economic globalization, he [bin Laden] says, "The reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real-estate mortgages, global warming and its woes, and the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa--all of this is but one side of the grim face of this global system." " 2) "He said "warmongering owners of the major corporations" would rush to appease voters who showed they are looking for an alternative, "and this alternative is Islam." Bin Laden frequently criticized capitalism, calling its leaders the real terrorists and threats to human freedom." My question this 9-11 is, "Why is bin Laden sounding like Bono?" And no, I'm not taking a cheap-shot here.

I don't think it's a cheap shot. I think this gets closer to the core of the issue than most people are comfortable with.

Bin Laden is exploiting a weakness of his enemy - his enemy being every sane person in the world. The weakness he's exploiting is simple: people's perception of the world is currently on some very unsteady footing.

Jason's comment on last week's post actually has had me thinking about this a lot recently.

The fight Bin Laden is engaged in should be familiar, but people can't figure out where the battle lines are drawn anymore. Global communication, global trade, and global economies have demolished the boundaries we were previously accustomed to. The world is changing faster than many people would like; faster than social conservatives, radical Islam, socialists, populists, traditional media, or even Lou Dobbs can deal with.

I think Bin Laden has got a few good points (I'm cringing) when he rattles off that list of problems in the developed world, but to say Islam is the best alternative? It's the same faulty logic employed by the anarchist who suggests we go back to hunter-gatherer days (there are anarchists who suggest this).

To me it sounds silly. That's right Mr. Bin Laden, I called your reasoning silly. What do you think of that?

However, I have to remember this Bin Laden guy is a well educated and talented rhetorician.

We know Islam is not the logical alternative to the woes of a society enduring the pangs of globalization, but not everyone has the knowledge needed to reach that conclusion.

Bin Laden is intentionally constructing his straw man out of the issues bandied about by prominent people. It's a clever ploy, and in a world where the conventional media, politicians, experts, extremists, academics, pop stars, and hotel heiresses are all competing for credibility, it's a ploy that will likely work on a few unwitting souls.

But Bin Laden's faulty logic shouldn't undermine the legitimacy of the issues he spoke about. Nor should it undermine the legitimacy of those who rally behind causes aimed at mitigating those problems.

I'll admit, I think Bono and DeCaprio are both a bit obnoxious. I also think, however, that poverty in Africa is a problem. And sure, I think climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed. These people are legitimately concerned about the aimlessness of corporate globalization. They are worried that if Milton Freedman wins the day, the world will become less humane. Remembering some of what happened at the begining of this decade, I believe they've got a point.

Your Bonos and DiCaprios may sometimes ride a horse a bit too high to stomach, but they aren't calling for fatwahs. They are actually trying to find solutions to the problems Bin Laden is exploiting in an effort to steel his followers and increase their number.

We won't win this by ignoring our enemy, but we can make progress if we listen critically.

And to remind us of how painfully complex our world has become, ladies and gentlemen, The Onion:

'Students First In Line' Program To Offer Job Training At Needy Schools

Friday, September 07, 2007

Taking Outrage a Bit Too Far


Late last month a group calling themselves the “Magyar Garda” held their inaugural ceremony here in Budapest. This stirred up a lot of controversy.

The group’s sizable opposition describes Magyar Garda as a racist neo-fascist militia. Indeed the militaristic ceremony, the circa-1940’s uniforms, and the group’s use of the Árpád Stripes give a lot of weight to such accusations (The Árpád Stripes originally come from medieval times, but they were adopted by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party in the 1940’s).

I should say here that I am uncomfortable with the formation of the Magar Garda, and the group’s allusions to a pure Hungary give me the super-creeps.

Here is a short video of the ceremony from last month.

But the controversy that has been stirred up and the very vocal opposition to the Garda might be doing more harm than good.

I remember when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Madison while I was at school there. The organizers of the rally assumed that in liberal Madison there would be a large counter-protest and the ensuing tensions would make the news. The citizens of Madison, however, had better things to do. Everyone understood that the Klan was nothing more then a fringe group. Their calls for racial and spiritual purity came from a mangled and anachronistic philosophy that America had all but squelched. As a result, the rally came and went with little fanfare.

Of course the situation here in Hungary is not the same as it was in Madison. What I’m attempting to say with that bit of extreme understatement is that the issues of race and xenophobia in Hungary reach deep into the history and culture. I’m not offering that as an excuse. I just want to ward off the admirably optimistic, yet naively Americancentric response, “Why can’t we all get along?”

I don’t want to hear that, because there are people in Hungary who don’t want to get along; there are people in Hungary who believe Jews, Gypsies, and Communists have stolen Hungary from the Hungarians. When you approach these people with evidence that contradicts such claims, they retreat into rote answers involving the liberal media and the socialist government.

I have been in lessons where students openly talk about the agenda behind the Jewish Media. While I am not stunned to learn such views exist, I am stunned to find people comfortable enough to express such views to their English teacher.

That comfort is why I am put off by the outcry against Magyar Garda.

The outcry is notable, and to a certain point it is justified, but in my opinion the opposition to Magyar Garda might be going too far.

Groups within Hungary are calling for the outright banning of the Magyar Garda. The Prime Minister has rightfully denounced the group, but he has gone the extra step of asking “the country's chief prosecutor to closely monitor the group for any violations of the Hungarian constitution (Spiegel International).” Shouldn’t everyone be monitored for such offences? But that’s not all. News of the Garda has crossed borders. Several international organizations have issued statements of concern over the formation of the group. The conservative German paper Die Welt used the formation of the Magyar Garda as primary evidence in an argument about inequities within the EU.

I think the issue may have been blown out of proportion.

The weekly Hungarian financial magazine HVG wrote an article that confirmed my suspicions. In it László Tamás Papp reminds readers that the popularity rating of Jobbik, the political party behind the Magyar Garda, is hanging around somewhere in the tenths of a percent. Of course now they are getting a lot of press, so that might change.

Even if it does, however, people should not flip out. The people behind Magyar Garda have used some offensive symbols, but they have been careful to avoid any official messages of hate so far. There is a well-written English response to those who question their aims on Jobbik’s website. In it the author clearly states that accusations of racism within the party are the fabrications of a liberal media and the socialist government.

In a section of the group’s charter translated by the Budapest Times, the references to fascism are oblique at best: “Conscripts will carry out physical, mental and spiritual training to help maintain public order, preserve Hungarian culture and defend the nation in extraordinary situations.” After reading the literature, it is clear to me that Jobbik has formed a guard that is barely attempting to veil its fascist overtures, but they are veiling them for now. In a democratic society we do have to stomach such crap. But do we need to pay so much attention to it? When we bring these fringe elements into our daily discourse we make them appear legitimate. In doing so, we make people think the racial stereotypes such groups promote are acceptable.

I’m not saying we should ignore these people, but instead of acting like they are some huge looming threat, couldn’t we just belittle them, laugh at their backwards beliefs, and point out their absurdly low polling numbers. It seems a more effective way to turn the population away from this garbage.

A little footnote: If you find it difficult to laugh at neo-fascists, just remember this little detail reported in The Budapest Times: "According to press reports, one of the original guard members had to be replaced at the ceremony after accidentally shooting himself in the face with a gas pistol."

Thursday, August 30, 2007

During the break


Yesterday I held my first lecture of the fall, but the starting gun really goes off next week. After Monday I will be extraordinarily busy for the next three months. It’s going to be my tightest schedule since moving to Hungary. But I don’t think I’ll have much to complain about.

The students I met yesterday were eager and interested. And while I realize week-one of your typical freshman year will result in an exaggerated state of eagerness and interest, the discussion I took part in during the break was encouraging.

The break was 15 minutes long. Students got up, went into the hall, got a coffee, stretched their legs, and then came back to chat. Some of them wanted to chat with me.

I had been checking my email, but I suppose if I had wanted privacy I should have gone to my office. So I negotiated some small talk for a bit. Then one student asked about a book on my desk, “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier. It is a book about poor countries and the effort to help them.

A ton of copies were sent to our university. The academic director left a copy in my mailbox. Of course to my student from El Salvador - the one with an Italian parent, a Spanish parent, and an American education - to her it looks like I regularly book up on global poverty and similar issues. I had accidentally performed that Gatsbyesque act of pretension, displaying a book that leads people to certain favorable assumptions about the book’s owner.

Don’t get me wrong, I might read the book. I am interested in the subject, but it isn’t my usual fare.

Anyway, the student, I’ll call her Sara, commented on how the subject interested her. She wanted to hear some new ideas on how to approach the issue of global poverty. This got a response from a Serbian student who had been listening in. Let’s call her Laura.

No solution brought from the wealthy nations will help poor nations.

That is the gist of what Laura had to say. She spoke of US intervention in the Balkan Peninsula, corruption in poor nations, and the failure of the rule of law. Her rhetoric could use some improving, but her ideas were well-though-out and backed with both experience and education.

Sara and I played optimistic devil’s advocates. Then more of the Serbs joined in the conversation. Someone brought up Iraq and Afghanistan. Distinctions were made, but there was a general feeling in the room that Western interventionism has failed at every task it’s ever set out on. No one seemed optimistic about the future either.

I managed to get people to agree that such issues cannot be stated in absolutes, and that part of the reason we were at a university was to give such issues a hard look before passing judgment. That felt like the professorial thing to do, but I wanted to dance on the tabletop.

A group of 18-year-olds vigorously debating the merits of Western intervention in the Balkans and the Middle East? These are not the apathy laden youth I grew up with. At eighteen they are already looking for answers to the questions at the top of the “perfect world priority list.” Beyond the joy of hearing such a discussion, I experienced a tiny bit of enlightenment. The classroom had twenty-one people in it, representing fifteen different nations. These specific kids might not solve the problems we were discussing, but if they continue to egg each other on like this, having them study together for four years can’t hurt. My task, as a result, suddenly took on a bit more weight.

What I mean by that is: most of these kids aren’t going to become academics. They are in business school. So my job is to get them to understand the heft of these questions they’re asking, get them to see that even when they enter the private sector, these questions shouldn’t fall by the wayside. It looks to be exciting work.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Shout Out to Chumpo

My good friend Brad went to great lengths to document the Funky New Year. Take a look-see.

Road Trip


In an effort to stretch out the season a bit – and of course to give out complexions a last kick of summer sun – Dora and I drove down to Croatia for a long weekend. We took Szóda, a tent, some sleeping bags, and a rough plan. We would camp for two nights near the Plitvice Lakes National Park, and then we’d stay for three nights on the island of Hvar in the Adriatic.

Camping didn’t work out. We arrived in the Plitvice Lakes region enveloped in a rather brutal thunder storm. I was very disappointed, but such is life. There was a time when I owned the kind of gear that would make camping in those conditions bearable, but after moving around so much, that gear and those days are gone. It didn’t take us long to find a little apartment that allowed dogs…

Which reminds me of something that needs explaining, namely the way rooms are rented in this region. I don’t see this happening in the States. The vacation destinations here in Hungary, in Croatia, and in a lot of other places nearby all have hotels of course, but the more common way to overnight is private accommodations. Home owners rent out rooms in their houses. Some people build a second building exclusively for renting, but you still end up paying the owner directly. Typically the accommodations are modest, but the simplicity of the arrangement gives that modesty a certain charm. In very popular destinations, travelers have to go through a “Travel Agency,” but this just means driving to the center of town and asking where you can stay the night. Such is the case on the coast, but in the Lakes region there were plenty of places to stay.

Dora and I just drove up to a house with the sign “Apartman” posted outside, asked if the dog was allowed, and with a ‘yes,’ we had a room + breakfast for $40 a night. Firm mattress, room for the dog, shared bathroom, and kitchen facilities.

Of course, as soon as we unpacked the clouds broke up. (While it did rain again later, I was kicking myself for giving up on camping so easily.) So we went for a walk. The countryside in that part of Croatia is magnificent. The foothills were just starting to give way to mountains. The homes were surrounded by gardens giving way to deep forested ravines. The chickens out in the backyards drove Szóda crazy. We got to a huge sloping open field full of late summer wild flowers where we let the dog run off the energy she’d pent up during the long drive. It was quiet, and after the rain the air felt cool and pure.

The next day we got to the park by nine. Beautiful doesn’t begin to get at what there is to see at the Plitvice Lakes. It is a chain of sixteen lakes all closely linked by waterfalls formed by some unique sedimentary rock. Some lakes have the color of glacial pools. Some are the deep blue of the sea. I have never seen anything like it, and the Croats have done a great job preserving the lush foliage that makes the self-guided hike a near-mystical experience. Dora said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a fairy poked its head out of the forest right now.”

It wasn’t perfect. It was crowded. Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, English, more Italians, Serbs, and a few Croatians. The self-guided trail was a perfect illustration of all the problems and advantages facing the EU. The boardwalk was not designed to handle heavy traffic. It was structurally sound, but at every turn there was another family posing for a photo. The rain started up again just as Dora and I finished our picnic lunch. By the time we got to the electric boat that would ferry us back to the entrance, it was a downpour. We brought an umbrella, but not everyone did. And that ferry was a serious bottleneck. We waited on the dock for over thirty minutes. Peak season can be trouble.

With the rain coming down and the park checked off our list, Dora and I decided to head for the coast a day early. The drive was pretty. Between the two mountain ranges, Croatia looks very Mediterranean, rocks, low-lying bushes and trees, scattered lakes, but nothing that made us want to pull over… Until we got to Split.

You come out of this tunnel and the Adriatic opens up in front of you. This huge city is tumbling down the mountainside and into the sea. The center is on the water front and contained within a stone fortress.

Unfortunately the rain was still with us. We were tired of being wet and found a hotel.

The next day we jumped on the 11:00 ferry to Stari Grad. It’s the second largest city on the island. It is the historical center of the island Hvar and is perched on the waterfront at the end of a huge natural harbor. Stone buildings, beautiful water front, and boats bobbing in the water.

We found the apartment I had reserved online, and as the rain started to dissipate, we walked around trying to get our bearings. We cooked ourselves an incredible dinner made from what would have been camping food, plus some farmer’s market spinach.

The sun was out the next day. We drove to the city of Hvar, walked around, climbed up to the fortress, and then went swimming.

The beaches are rock on the island of Hvar. Not rocks, mind you, the beaches are solid slabs of rock where you lay out your towel. It isn’t California, but once you’re in that blue blue water, looking at a town that has been populated by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, gold sand seems to be a bit overrated. Hvar is a bit more crowded than Stari Grad, but it has more sights to accommodate the crowds.

We went back to Stari Grad in the evening. We had a nice dinner out on the town. I had a fish soup that tasted fresher than any I’ve ever had before.

The next day, was our last before we had to drive back. We didn’t have a room reserved. So we drove around the island, exploring and maybe hunting up a place for the night. We swam near a town called Jelsa. This was our best beach day. Szóda was in and out of the water for hours. The water was perfect, and the view was really something else.

At the end of the day we ended up back in Stari Grad, because we wanted to catch an early ferry.

I will finish this long entry with a quick retelling of the story of Phillip. Our room on that last night was tiny. To the point where it was uncomfortable, but we’d be up early, plus there was a rooftop terrace. I grilled sausage and zucchini for Dora and me. Szóda slept off the day’s activities, and we all met Phillip.

He is Swiss. He has to be well into his fifties. And he kind of creeps Dora out. He chatted with us while I grilled. He never said or did anything that made us uncomfortable, but there was something we couldn’t pin down before he went of to dinner and left Dora, Szóda and me on the roof for a romantic last night.

We got to bed by ten, because we would have to be up before six. Unfortunately, we weren’t meant to sleep well that night. It was close to three in the morning when Phillip started banging on the front door. He’d lost his room key. When the angry owner let him in, he went to the door of two young Croat girls, girls he had apparently shown an interest in during his stay, and Phillip started pleading his case. He wanted to sleep in their room. One of them got a bit freaked out (understandably) and left the apartment building. When we left the next day, she was still AWOL. Phillip ended up sleeping on the hallway floor, chair cushions from the terrace serving as his mattress. That where I found him at six when I went to brush my teeth. He said, “Good morning.” I did not.

Dora and I made the ferry with plenty of time, and discussed the Phillip events for a good portion of our boat ride back to Split.

Szóda slept for the entire car trip back to Budapest. She was exhausted.

It was a great trip.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Absurdity


Last week’s subject got some strong responses from my three regular readers. So, this week I’d like to share something about Hungary and attempt to link this cultural note to last week’s debate.
The map above is what Hungary looked like in and around 1900. When that map was current, the Hungarians were doing well. They had recently won something close to autonomy from the Austrians, giving them title credit in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They held sway over a vast amount of territory. There were natural resources, a flourishing art scene, a developing intelligentsia, and there was money.

Then, however, there was World War One. Hungary and her allies lost. That led to the Treaty of Trianon. Through that treaty, the victorious Allies of WWI stripped Hungary of its status as an empire, handed two-thirds of its territory to rival neighbors, and effectively halved the empire’s population.

The nation of Hungary was outraged and humiliated. People here saw Trianon as a slap in the face, a slap that must eventually be answered in kind (thus they joined the Axis in WWII). Hungarian students used to start the day with a prayer appealing to God to reverse the treaty. God declined to do so.

It's been a rough century ever since. Things didn’t get better until very recently.

What stuns me today is the tenacity of many Hungarians’ anger over Trianon. In the streets, I often see bumper stickers in the shape of pre-Trianon Hungary.
This picture is from just outside my apartment building.

There are Hungarians who still believe the territories of Greater Hungary ought to belong to the nation of Hungary.

There are several sticky issues there. First, it is difficult to take back territory that changed hands in an internationally recognized treaty. Second, Hungary has not done much to sooth the often troubled relations it has with its neighbors. Third, Hungary was an Empire when it held those territories. Now it is a nation-state. The antiquated form of government it once used to rule Greater Hungary is no longer a tenable possibility. Forth, and for me the most important, the international systems of governance that are now in place, such as the EU, NATO, the WTO, and the UN, cannot be dismantled or ignored. These institutions would not allow Hungary to take back old territories through negotiations or force.

Still, anti-Trianon sentiments remain strong. The voices have been marginalized, but there are a lot of voices. You see the stickers. You can buy maps of Greater Hungary as a souvenir. It comes up in political speeches. It continues to affect international relations. A couple years back there was even a referendum that would’ve, if passed, offered Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.

The sentiment is very real, but it is misguided.

I don’t want to condemn the concept outright. There is a lot to this that I cannot describe here. Just to scratch the surface, Hungary lost most of its natural resources and has been economically handicapped ever since. Also, ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia have been persecuted, often violently. And of course, there is a lot to national pride and heritage that I cannot understand because my country is so young compared to Hungary.

All that said, calls for the expansion of Hungary are absurd. I choose the word absurd very carefully: Absurd (adj) ludicrous; ridiculous because of being irrational, incongruous, or illogical.

It can’t happen.

So, how does this link to the debate over American health care?

Well, I read a lot of opinions on the great injustice of private health care in the US. The solution often put forward is: “The government should run health care.” That solution, in my mind, is like asking for Hungary's territory back.

1) Like Hungary trying to take land back from its neighbors, it would be very difficult to take health care away from the gigantic industry that has been built up around insurance and hospitals.

2) The American government hasn’t exactly proven itself capable of handling large logistical problems. I imagine the people calling for government health care were not in the post-Katrina Superdome.

3) American political history is one that has resisted socialist reform (for better or for worse). We have little-to-no experience dealing with large scale social programs.

4) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the institutions that are in place now (insurance companies, HMOs, state and federal government) won’t allow the transition.

I like this last one because like the EU, NATO, the WTO, and the UN, the institutions currently in charge of health care are inept and sloppy.

This does not mean there is no way forward. The US government does have a responsibility to its citizens and their health. I firmly believe that. For this reason the federal government should pass firm and unforgiving regulations on any company that makes money providing health care. Here are some rules I'd put in place: doctors and patients decide treatment, everyone is insured, and a percentage of profits must go toward research. Beyond that, offer tax breaks to companies that offer low-cost/no-cost insurance. Give hospitals subsidies for providing preventative care. And bolster the non-profits already out there in the trenches.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wounded


I should start by saying I was drunk when I first triggered this series of events. So I'll admit, I probably could have avoided the entire ordeal had I been leading a more conservative lifestyle.

That said, a couple of months ago Dora and I came home after a late night and took the dog out for a walk. On my way down the stairs I cut my hand. The banister in our stairwell is made of metal. A few of the supports have snapped, and one of them caught my palm while I was descending the stairs.

At the time I though nothing of it. The cut was about an inch and a half long, but is was not deep at all. The next day, however, I noticed a stingy pain, not like the pain of a cut. I got to thinking about infections, gangrene, and amputation (I may be a bit of a hypochondriac). After I whined about it for a while, Dora and Lili called their uncle. He's a doctor. He felt I should go see someone, get it looked at, and get a tetanus shot.

This is how I was first exposed to socialized medicine. I want to write about this today because I'm fascinated by the e-debates that “SiCKO” has ignited.

Dora's uncle Peter told us that his brother-in-law was on duty at an emergency room in Ujpest. Peter said he'd call and let the doctor know we were coming. Dora, Lili, and I got in the car and were off to the ER. The hospital looked like a university building, brick and mortar, small entrance, tiny parking lot. We parked across the street in a massive lot serving a complex of panel apartment buildings. Free parking.

Inside we found a older woman in a nurse's uniform sitting in a glass reception box. Dora handed the woman my passport and explained that the doctor would probably be expecting us. That was the case. Even the glass booth lady was expecting us. She gave us some instructions and sent us in the direction of the ER. We walked into the hospital proper. It was a bit confusing. There was no waiting room, no signage, no help desk. There was just a hallway full of people in various states of disrepair, all of them standing and trying to stay out of the way of the occasional rushing paramedic. The lighting was industrial, but not as bright as I'd expect in a hospital. The three of us actually doubled back and asked if we might have taken a wrong turn, but we had been in the right place. We were told to wait there in the hall. My name would be called.

Lili hates hospitals. So right away my empathy nerves are tingling, but a few minutes in that hallway sent me spinning. It is the sight of the sick and injured that gets Lili uncomfortable, but Lili's discomfort was dwarfed by the guy rolled in on a stretcher. He was in a neck-brace and underwear. He had clearly lost a fight with either a big man or a motorcycle. He was lucid, even talking with the accompanying paramedic, but the cuts on his neck and his smashed up face had me a bit embarrassed to be bringing in my little scratch. The other people in the hall were wrapped in red gauze, holding wounded limbs, or displaying open sores. I was taken aback by the the lack of... well, shame. No one seemed ashamed of the rather horrible state they were in.

In my limited experience with US hospitals, it seems to me that the wounded and sick are allowed at least some level of privacy. Even if that privacy is nothing more then their own seat in a waiting room. It was unsettling to be surrounding by peoples' medical problems, but the people out there in the hall didn't appear to think anything of it. I guess it's the norm. I have been told that in most hospitals here, even in private ones, people staying in hospital cannot get a private room. There seems to be a dignity disparity between the US and Hungary there, but I suppose dignity is expensive, and Hungary is not a rich country.

After a short time, maybe ten minutes, I was called into the office. Peter's brother-in-law took a look at my hand. He made me fell better about coming in, told me the cut needed to be reopened and cleaned. I was definitely in need of a tetanus shot. He was worried about my health care status, however. He asked if I had any kind of ID that would suggest I am insured. I pulled out a cardboard card I obtained during the lengthy visa process, and my doctor couldn't have been happier. It was my government-assigned health care number. No one had to work in the gray. I was treated on the books.

The visit, the care, and the shot cost me a total of 300 Hungarian Forints = $1.50 US. That was what we had to pay for the actual tetanus vaccine. Strangely enough, they don't keep tetanus vaccine on-site. Dora and Lili had to run to the pharmacy for a vile of the stuff. I thought that was odd, but I'm not a doctor.

I got the shot in my butt cheek, and the young female nurse seemed a bit embarrassed when she asked me to pull down my pants. Then, less then ninety minutes after we walked in, Dora, Lili, and I walked out. And for the next ten years I can cut myself on all the rusty metal I want. Thanks Hungarian health care.

So whenever I wonder about health care in Hungary – a country that is not on the list of developed nations, a country with a per capita GDP of around $17,000, a country enduring tremendous pressure to reduce government spending – when I wonder why this country chooses to provide health care to all its citizens, I remember those people in the ER enduring what I would think of as embarrassing. Maybe their country can't afford to offer them much in the way of dignity, but their country would be truly ashamed to take away basic health care.

What do you think?


[Even if you don't like Michael Moore, when you have 15 minutes watch this video. The Lou Dobbs Tag at the end is the craziest shit I've ever seen. ]


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Funked Up


During my junior year of college I lived with Dave Burck in a god awful apartment. One night the two of us were smoking cigarettes and listening to an unfamiliar LP, a collection of disco hits. My sister had found the record in a pile of albums left out on a New York City sidewalk. She gave it to me because I was the only person she knew who still listened to vinyl. For the most part, the album was cute singles that failed to impress. Then came “Flashlight” by the band Parliament. I hadn't heard music like that before. Disco music always seemed like candy to me, something of little substance. But that line “Everybody's got a little light under the sun” hit me hard, and the bass in the song didn't obey the rules I had previously associated with dance music. The song seemed to demand a good time. I was awestruck.
I told Dave I thought more people should hear this song, and that's when my mind started spinning. I started talking about creating a new holiday devoted to funk. Dave egged me on. The holiday would be called “Funky New Year.” We would find more of this funk music, and we would celebrate the feeling it created by ringing in the new year every month. I told Dave that when the date and the month were of the same number, July 7th for example, that would signify the Funky New Year. This meant that the night before such a matching date would be Funky New Year's Eve. We would gather people, dance to funk music, we would count down at midnight, and then ring in the funk.
The idea stuck. Over the next year I started collecting albums: Parliament, Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Commodores, Funk Inc., and more. The music strengthened my resolve. When the next academic year rolled around, I was living on my own in a spacious place on the corner of Dayton and Francis. I held the first Funky New Year party on September 8th, 1997. It was a Monday night. It was a raging success. I emptied the living room of furniture, created a dance floor, installed lighting effects, set up the turntable, got a keg of good beer, and welcomed friends and friends of friends. I also wore a dress. During the course of that academic year I held nine Funky New Years. The party became an event, and people spoke highly of the spirit of the celebration. The party's success was largely due to the nature of those in attendance. I was fortunate enough to consort with some shady folks back then. These people brought the appropriate amount of danger and fun into my little apartment. By midnight the place was dark, smoky, drunk, and dancing. Together we struck a chord in each other and got close to the meaning of funk.
I was proud of the parties thrown that year, but I had trouble maintaining the tradition when I moved in with roommates the next year. The Funky New Year fell into disrepair.
This year my younger brother Myles announced his intention to resurrect the Funky New Year. I decided 7/7/7 was reason enough for me to travel back to Wisconsin and help Myles ring in an ultra-funky Funky New Year.
We succeeded in ways that went far beyond any of my expectations.
My folks were good enough to allow us to ring in 7/7/7 at their house, a place built for impressive parties. Those in attendance included several Funky New Year alumni, my brothers and sister, my father, neighbors, old friends, and a lot of new friends (my mom babysat for Courtney and Terry, bless her soul).
We had some live music early in the evening. This music was decidedly unfunky, and it had me a bit nervous. Around 9:30, however, we switched to a mix Myles put together, a special blend that was very much in tune with the funk. He and I started dancing, and after a time, out there in the vanilla suburbs, others got up and joined us.
Somewhere between 9:30 and 10, my brother Drew put on a dress, put his hair in pigtails, and joined us on the dance floor. To some this may sound extreme, but Drew's dress played a key role. People have to free their minds if the Funky New Year is to be successful. The man in a dress helps other people loosen up. And Drew managed to do that in spades. Plus, he was quite striking.
By eleven the dance floor was full, and things didn't let up. At midnight I pressed play on the traditional “Tear the Roof Off The Sucka,” and the most amazing thing happened. Everyone on the dance floor lit a sparkler, in the distance my cousin Brian set off fireworks, the funk rang out, and the crowd went nuts. All was on the one. It was one of those perfect moments that you cannot anticipate but always hope for. Spectacular in the truest meaning of the word.
For that, I want to thank Myles, Drew, Courtney, my folks, Dave Burck, George Clinton, and everyone who has ever attended a Funky New Year.
Stay funky.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Wisco


I’ve been stateside for a week now. I miss Dora. But I am having a good time.

A flurry of events would best describe my time here so far. Last Friday I saw my brother Drew’s show down in Chicago. “Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical” I liked seeing Drew on stage again, and his girlfriend Steph was fun to see in the lead role - here’s the word I’m afraid to write – but… the show was not something I could rave about. While the performers clearly knew how to make their roles enjoyable, the writing and direction was choppy at best.

If you want to know the real drama you have to go behind the scenes. On Saturday one of the actresses was jacked up on something during the show, and when it came time for a fight between her and Debbie (as played by Steph) the drugged-up actress decided to throw real punches and then head-butt Steph. Steph ended up singing her final number with blood in her mouth.

I, however, was not there that night. I spent the weekend in the North Woods with Myles and my dad. The three of us drove up to Perry’s cabin, where we visited with friends, played sheepshead, hit the casino, swam in the pond (I love saying I ‘swam in the pond’), played washers, and told some great stories. My father finally cleared up the confusion Perry had sown by mis-telling the story of my family dog’s passing. Highway was not buried in our backyard because my dad thought the cremation was too expensive. How Perry ever constructed such a lame-ass ending speaks to how much poorly written television he must watch. My dad’s version was much truer to the real events, and it was considerably funnier. And, yes, Myles did get naked while we were Up North.

Since getting back from that I’ve helped to set off an impressive firework display in the name of Independence, I’ve visited with family and friends, and I hit Summerfest. I was pleasantly surprised at the good times to be had on the lakefront. The park was full of granola, Bob Weir, Rusted Root, Keller Williams, and that’s all you really need to bring out the crunchy side of southeast Wisconsin. After a night with those people, I have to say that they are a pleasant group to share space with. For instance, I tend to use “Excuse me” while shuttling beer through a crowd. This is mostly from my days as a waiter when I often needed a way to tell people to get out of my way. At the concerts last night, however, people took notice of the effort at etiquette. Three actually offered sincere “thank yous” when I said “Excuse me.” They actually stopped me and said how nice it was that I would say that. This is not the response you get at a Deep Purple concert in Budapest (yes I have been to a Deep Purple concert in Budapest). It is not a response you get very often at all. The feeling was very relaxed and free spirited. Lots of dancing. Lots of pot smoke. Lots of skipped showers. I enjoyed the crowd. Although, I eventually snuck off to watch some less-than-granola music. The band Spoon is more in line with what I listen to these days.

The past week has been great, but maybe more importantly it has helped me to define what it is I like about the States. It is not something we can export or enforce. It is not particularly American. It is the intangible something that hangs in the room when people with similar backgrounds and education, yet divergent views and tastes spend time together. Try as I may, that is not something I can get a lot of in Hungary. While I get just as much out of the time I spend with people who do not share my cultural mores, I did miss this feeling. It has been pleasant to wade in it for the past week.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Getting Hot


July is rearing its hot and humid head a bit early this year, and the sauna of a summer in Budapest is accompanied by a certain occurrence that I have previously avoided reflecting on. I’ve avoided reflection on this subject in an effort to hide a dark secret of mine, a proclivity that I know might make some uncomfortable. Despite my best efforts, however, life here in Budapest means I cannot deny my own urges. So I’ll admit it.

I like looking at scantily-clad attractive women.

I know, and I’m sorry. Know this, if it helps console you, Dora is aware of my nature, and she is doing her best to understand. She helps me in ways I can’t describe. The woman really is something; I’m a very lucky man to have found her. All that aside, today I’d like to share with you the conditions that have brought me to this admission.

You see, when the mercury rises in Budapest, the women of this city unveil what I like to call the “Nearly Naked Fashion Show.” While many people will rightly extol the beauty of Hungarian women, what such praise fails to make clear is how the display of that beauty is amplified in the summer months.

It may not always be tasteful, but in Budapest the ladies’ warm weather attire screams sex. The clothing in this city is not clothing much. Midriffs are exposed by tube tops that don’t really qualify as tubes, and would be more aptly called “band tops.” Short shorts are painted on in such a way that I often see skin where the leg meets the crotch. And sometimes those shorts surprise you by turning out to be skirts, flipping and a flapping in the breeze. As a result, I see the bare curve of an unfamiliar woman's cheeks nearly everyday. Then there are the breasts. They are everywhere - and just barely covered in most cases. Popping out, hanging out, and plain old out. Don’t get me wrong. The women are not topless. They are simply as close to topless as one could get.

So a man with my condition has little choice but to walk around the city wearing sunglasses and trying not to hurt my neck. But don’t feel sorry for me. This was not a cry for pity. I only write this so I might deal with my issues more openly.
Now watch this, because it will make you smile:

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pointing Fingers

I want to address a comment from last week’s post. The comment was made by Bradley, friend of the blog.

AMERICA, FUCK YA! but seriously no matter how good service gets, you always have some people that will find something to complain about. you are seriously justified in your "angry" as this story is pure steven king grade a+++ horror.
i'm sorry to hear about all the crappy commie-left-over social economic failure. perhaps in 50 more years all the companies struggling in bungary can be bought out by att, walmart or exon mobile for the win.

While I understand the irony in his comment and its concerns with global corporations, I think we are missing a major point here. T-online is a subsidiary of Deutsch Telekom - a huge global corporation, westernized in every possible way. AT&T is not getting a shot at them.

Deutsch Telekom is a company that knows how to train employees as well as any American company, but they aren’t getting that job done in Hungary, because... well, I think it has a lot to do with what I wrote last week, but there are other factors, factors that speak to Bradley’s comment: people’s need to complain, capitalist greed, socialism’s failings, and so on. And while these issues all frustrate me, there’s one finger I’m not going to point.

I’m not going to throw all the blame at corporate driven globalization. That argument is tired. I think the anti-globalization crowd is holding an umbrella before a tidal wave.

What gets me upset is consumer apathy. If we want to channel the forces of globalization, I think efforts to stem consumer apathy will be more effective then marching whenever the G8 holds a meeting.

It is a lack of consumer awareness and consumer assertiveness that allows the T-online Customer Service Center in Hungary to be managed by morons.

That is only one instance, but it is telling. We get walked on because we don’t know we’re being walked on - or else we just don’t care. This passive attitude, illustrated by the employee I wrote about last week (and by my own actions during the whole ordeal), is pervasive in this country. Hungarians love to complain, but they complain to themselves. They rarely take their gripes to an authority that might make changes.

That seems backwards, but when I look at the bigger picture, I can see that this is not just a Hungarian trait. Blaming Coke for ruining the world hasn’t switched that many people to Shasta. Only the finger pointers participate in those boycotts.

If you want to steer this ride, I think the answer is in customer education. Here in Hungary, and really everywhere else, people don't understand the rights and responsibilities of the consumer. This is not unimportant. The consumer is the market, and the market drives corporations, and corporations are stoking the fires of globalization.

While I think there is a role for governments in all of this, I don’t think they’ve got all their ducks in a row just yet. The US seems to have all the carrots, while the EU favors the stick. It would be nice if they could get together on that, but democracy is slower then business. This is really in the hands of the consumer.

What we can do as consumers is communicate, vote, and consume wisely. With the kinds of communication now available, we should be capable of relaying this information, but the key is acting on it.

Do you use energy-saving light bulbs?

Do you avoid companies with poor human-rights records?

Do you write a letter when you feel your rights as a customer have been violated?

Do you tell your friends when you learn/experience a company’s failings?

Maybe we should.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Acceptance


Dora and I have come to the end of a long and trying road, a road that clearly illustrates the hurdles placed before anyone who lives in Hungary. While it may sound trivial, the act of moving our internet service from our old apartment to our new apartment proved to be the single most infuriating experience I have endured since arriving here in Hungary.

Understand that for Dora and me, our link back to life in the States relies heavily on the Internet. It goes beyond email, this blog, and Skype. We listen to weekly podcasts from NPR news, Fresh Air, Lake Wobegon, This American Life, Wait Wait…, and America Abroad. We try to keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” over Comedy Central’s website. And while we don’t watch TV in the traditional sense, through the use of torrent networks, Dora and I are up-to-date on “Heroes” and “Prison Break.” And we are only a season behind “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” and “24.” I can, by the way, heartily recommend all of the above.

That said, we were quite frustrated when our ISP told us that it would take four weeks to move our ADSL signal to the new apartment, but we took that in stride. You have to let some things go in this country.

Let me take this opportunity to say a word or two about the failings I will not address in this entry: 1) the problems with customer service in Hungary and 2) the issue of efficiency in Hungary. These are the topics most often bitched about among ex-pats. The local English-language newspapers include at least one editorial a week on customer service nightmares or inefficient episodes involving bureaucracy. So, while these issues help to keep my blood pressure up, I believe they are only symptoms of the problem that led to me screaming and pleading with a T-online phone representative last month.

The problem: an unshakable unwillingness to step outside of institutionalized thinking.

The example: my interaction with T-online while I tried to shut down the ADSL signal at our old rented apartment.

Let me explain. When we left our apartment on March 31st, we had informed T-online that we were moving and we wanted to bring our ADSL account (still under contract) with us. They told us about the delay, we accepted that, and on the 31st we left. On the first of April the new tenants moved in, and we discovered a problem. T-online hadn’t stopped the ADSL signal at the old apartment, and the new tenants had a different service provider. The two signals could not share the same line. To me it sounded like a simple problem to solve. I called T-online and told them they had to turn off that old signal. Problem solved, right? That’s what I expected to hear, but instead the rep told me, “Um, I’m sorry sir, but until your new signal is in place we cannot stop the old signal.” My pulse sped up just a bit. I was asking my service provider for something relatively simple, but the request was refused. I calmly explained that a third party was now involved, and it was no longer an issue between me and T-online alone. I told the rep that the signal had to be stopped or we would be wasting someone else’s money. The answer came back the same. I mean, exactly the same. He repeated his previous sentence verbatim. Creepy, right? So I asked to speak to his supervisor. (You’re going to love this.) He said I couldn’t speak to his supervisor. I asked why. He told me that his supervisor could not change the company policy, so it would be pointless to speak to him/her. At this point I was mad. I told the rep in no uncertain terms that while the supervisor may not be able to help me, I still wanted to speak to him/her and express my disbelief and disgust at the inflexible and seemingly irrelevant policy I had come up against.

“He’s not here. Can I have your phone number so he can call you back tomorrow?”

Those were the words I heard. I objected - strongly - but was made to understand that this jackass was not going to transfer me.

Anger.

Over the next week or so I experienced some variation of this conversation daily. Sometimes I would get transferred, but never to anyone with any real authority. I was told that someone would call me back at the end of each call. No one ever called back. So after 10 days of this, I told the latest rep that I would not hang up. I said, “No. No one calls back. So I would like you to put me on hold. I will wait for your supervisor.”

“He’s not here.”

“I’ll wait”

“You can’t. Please. My supervisor will call you back.”

“No he won’t. I will wait on hold.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Please put me on hold.” And I looked at the clock. I was on the phone for fifteen minutes, but I was not on hold. I was going back and forth with this rep. He told me to hang up. I told him I would not. Over and over. Voices were raised. I explained, pleaded, and voiced frustration. I only wanted to be put on hold. I was speaking to T-online, a subsidiary of T-com, the largest communications company in Europe; certainly they had they had call waiting. “Right? You do have that button on your phone, don’t you?”

He did not think that was as funny as I did. We continued. He eventually hung up on me.

The problem was solved only after another week of going through the proper channels, and this leads me to my conclusion: thanks to 40 years of institutionalized thinking under the Soviets, very few people here are willing to take up the reins, even if doing so would actually make the job easier. That young man wasted 15 minutes of both of our lives. But T-online reps are not trained to use the hold function, so even at my insistence he refused to step outside of protocol. He was powerless, something that might have gained my sympathy, but did not because he chose to be powerless. No one would have fired that kid for putting me on hold. There would have been no punishment for doing what the customer asked. But he looked at his backwards set of standards and practices (A customer calls with a complaint and you say, “We’ll call you back tomorrow?” What is that all about?) and he accepted it as law.

This acceptance is what I believe to be at the heart of so many of the other issues that hold the service sector back here in Hungary.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Little Travel Writing




Last week Dora and I traveled to Valencia, Spain where we were guests at a spectacular wedding, tourists, sea-side sunbathers, witnesses to the beaching of a corpse, and participants in the miraculously fashioned Spanish lifestyle.

We traveled to Spain for the wedding of Nick and Maria. Nick went to college with Dora in Southern California, but he is originally from Montana. He met Maria while traveling through Europe. They fell in love. After Nick spent some time back in the States, he returned to live with Maria in Madrid, and last weekend the two of them were married in Valencia, Maria’s hometown. It was an incredibly festive blend of two cultures where family and friends from all over America came to offer their fun-loving spirit to the culture and traditions of family and friends living on the Continent.
If this story doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you do not know me very well, do you?
I was deeply touched when mid-way through the reception, Nick told me that he drew a lot of inspiration for his wedding celebration from the wedding he attended in Hungary nearly three years ago. This complement was particularly poignant because the party going on around me was absolutely stunning in its every detail.
Five-star hotel on a quite Mediterranean beach outside of the city. Ceremony under a crisp blue sky. Moments and dedications that brought those in attendance to tears. A cocktail hour with, among other things, a guy carving jamon (Spanish ham that you must eat before you die). Then a buffet diner with food that went so far beyond my expectations I couldn’t properly express my shock: crabs, shrimp, pâté, a range of meats grilled to order, and this mousse thing with citrus custard that blew my mind. And there was the band.
Oh, the band. They played jazz standards during dinner, but when the last course had been served they returned from their break doing a New Orleans-style funeral march in white straw hats. They proceeded to stake their claim as one of the most authentic Dixieland bands in Spain (I’m not sure what such a title imparts, but be certain, they were damn good). I eventually got rather enthusiastic about the dancing. I think the call-and-response version of “Oh, When the Saints” is what did it for me. I had worked off most of dinner on the dance floor when the party moved to Maria’s family beach house - a ten-minute walk down the beach.
There Maria’s ultra-hip friends deejay-ed an outdoor dance party until sunrise. There were moments when I looked around at the group of us, dressed up and dancing, and felt I was witnessing the Plutonic ideal of the word “party.”
So, that was nice.
However, it was not the whole trip. Dora and I arrived a week early and rented an apartment in the center of Valencia. It’s a nice city: lots of young people, hip storefronts, a beautiful central market, great museums, a diverted river that has since been turned into a park that surrounds the old city, and much more. After two days our friend Kat joined us, and we toured the city streets, drank Spanish wine, and ate wonderful dinners late at night - as the Spanish would have us do.
They’ve carved out a nice lifestyle for themselves, those Spaniards. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m jealous.
The beach helps drive that home. Valencia’s coast is an endless stretch of fine gold sand. The water was chilly, but great for swimming once you were in. And then there are the topless women. Now, I did not ogle, but I didn’t shut my eyes either. Coming from prudish America, it was nice to see so many… women feeling comfortable enough to avoid tan lines.
At one point I was on a walk, just stretching my legs and admiring the… women feeling comfortable enough to avoid tan lines. On this walk I encountered an older woman and her dog playing in the water. Dog aren’t allowed on the beach, so the two of them got my attention. She must have been in her late sixties and, judging by her matted hair, either a hippy or homeless. Then I noticed that she was completely nude, no bikini bottom for this lady. She was going commando in the truest sense of the word. I thought I would return to Dora with the “Strange Story of the Day.”
Dora trumped my story before I was in earshot. She was sitting up on her beach towel, looking away from me. I followed her line of sight and saw several policemen on quads riding toward the shoreline. When I caught Dora’s eye, she mouthed the words, “Is that a dead guy?”
Sure enough, the body of a man in swim trunks had washed up on shore just 50 meters from where we'd laid out our beach towels. He was not a natural color, and his limbs were stiff - held in the position of a man following through on a basketball lay-up. It was unsettling, but what really struck me was the group of women laying-out on their towels less then 10 meters from the body. They did not feel compelled to move. They were laying in a spot just outside the cordon the police eventually put up, and apparently that was good enough for them.
Dora and I called it a day.
The next day Kat arrived, and we have since told the story a dozen times or more. So, now I’ve told you, but don’t let it discourage you from heading to Spain if you ever get the chance. It is an amazing place.