Sunday, December 16, 2007
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
Friday, November 02, 2007
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
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.
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.
I don't care about patriotism.
What if someone from another country took your job?
Maybe they deserve it if I'm so lazy.
If you're too lazy to defend our country, maybe I need to do more.
I'd like to see you try, nutso.
While maybe I should take up arms and form a militia to protect our borders?
(Sarcastic)Yeah, that's going to work.
All right, then. I'll do it.
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
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
Late last month a group calling themselves the “Magyar Garda” held their inaugural ceremony here in
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
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
Of course the situation here in
I don’t want to hear that, because there are people in
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.
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
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
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
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
Sara and I played optimistic devil’s advocates. Then more of the Serbs joined in the conversation. Someone brought up
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
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
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
Camping didn’t work out. We arrived in the
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
The next day we got to the park by nine. Beautiful doesn’t begin to get at what there is to see at the
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,
You come out of this tunnel and the
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
The beaches are rock on the
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
Szóda slept for the entire car trip back to
It was a great trip.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Last week’s subject got some strong responses from my three regular readers. So, this week I’d like to share something about
The map above is what
Then, however, there was World War One.
The nation of
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
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
There are several sticky issues there. First, it is difficult to take back territory that changed hands in an internationally recognized treaty. Second,
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,
All that said, calls for the expansion of
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
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
What do you think?
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
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
Friday, July 06, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”
“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
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
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
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.
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.