Friday, May 25, 2007

Bad Boys

My friend Dan Lueth recently asked “What’s up with your police?”

He is referring, I assume, to the recent set of horrific scandals that have plagued the Budapest Police Department. In case you haven’t heard, the two big stories are:

1) A late night traffic stop went sour when a group of police raped the female motorist they had stopped.

2) After a truly brilliant display by the police in their foiling an attempted bank robbery/hostage crisis (no irony there, it was great police work), an officer was caught on CCTV taking money from the till of one of the bank’s tellers.

So, to repeat Dan’s question, what is up with the Budapest police?

I can’t go into too much detail, as I have been fortunate enough to avoid contact, for the most part, with Budapest’s finest. My closest encounter was when I taught English to a detective who was studying to pass a language exam in order to qualify for a raise (she passed). She was very nice and quite intelligent, but that is just one person, not the entire police force.

What I can say about the police force in general is that they get very little respect. But as evidenced by the recent stories coming out of Budapest, the police themselves are often to blame for this.

It is common knowledge in this country that if you are pulled over for a traffic violation of any kind, you can get out of trouble with a bribe to the officer. Unfortunately, even the smallest violation often gets the cops talking about how they are going to have to haul your car in, suspend your license, take you into court… and until you say the magic words, “Is there some other way we could settle this?” you are stuck listening to a bitter, poorly-trained, underpaid, armed civil servant indirectly solicit a bribe.

Example: Dora’s co-worker Dani (English speakers: say Donnie, think Danny) is driving his boss’s car home after a business dinner. Dani’s got the car because there is a zero-tolerance rule on drinking and driving here, and the boss had wine with dinner. Dani did have one glass, but it was more then three hours earlier and with food. When he gets pulled over (probably because the car is a nice one), there is a breathalyzer. Dani is not allowed to see the results, but the cops tell him he is in trouble. Then the talk begins. When Dani eventually offers a bribe of everything he has on him, the cops say it isn’t enough and accompany Dani to the nearest ATM.


Wait. It gets better.

Later that month, Dani’s mother is at a social event where she corners an acquaintance who is a former high-ranking official from the police department. She tells him the story, and justice is served – Budapest style. Rather then going through official channels, the ex-official threatens the offending cop and makes him pay Dani back and apologize in person.

And that sheds some light on what is up with our police. As a resident of the city, you hope the men and women in uniform who are corrupt will draw the line before resorting to gang rape and bank robbery, but what’s to stop them? Decency? The city gives these people the authority of a handgun, but can’t pay them decent money while the civilians offer them little-to-no respect. Who in their right mind would take such a job? Answer: Someone who wants the authority of a handgun OR Someone who really cares about this city and would like to make it a better place.

The police department here has both. Unfortunately the latter don’t make for interesting international headlines.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Gem is Truly Outragious

Dora and I had house guests this weekend. Jamie and Pete came in from London and we all spent a few days wandering about the city. They have been fabulous house guests, and if they ever read this, please know that Dora and I hope you will visit more often. I know we will try to get up to see you in the near future.

Showing the city to guests gave me the opportunity to consider Budapest from the perspective of an outsider for the first time in few years, and this weekend I was struck, once again, by a certain something about Budapest.

Say you’re a curious traveler walking through the smaller streets of Budapest’s Seventh District. It’s got some nice old turn-of-the-century buildings and a few cobblestone streets, but for the most part the place is ragged at the edges. It is clear on these streets that Budapest is a once-great city that has slipped slowly into disrepair. Perhaps you will leave Budapest and go tell your friends back home that this is a nice little burg, but still a far cry from its former glory.

Interestingly, if you had been less curious and stuck to the more-maintained Castle District or the walking streets near the river, you’d head back swearing up and down that Budapest was a cultural gem preserved with the tenderest of care.

If, however, before you decided to explore the district that once housed the Jewish Ghetto, you thought to ask an honest concierge or an English-speaking resident where to go or what to visit, then you might be lucky enough to stumble into one of the places that illustrates just how subtlety Budapest has linked its past, present, and future. For reasons that are difficult to explain, this city is keeping its real recovery a secret.

The places have unobtrusive signs hung over non-descript doors: Lampas or Szimpla. (In other districts the entrances are the same but the names change: West Balkan or Pot Kulcs) If no one told you where to look, you would walk right by. If you were told where to look, however, then you would step into the Budapest only spoken about in hushed tones, a Budapest full of lively bars filled with young people and artists, a Budapest where folk musicians open for rockabilly blues bands, a Budapest where video art and cutting-edge paintings adorn the walls of pubs, a Budapest where classic movies are shown on the brick walls of vacant buildings.

While the government, UNESCO, and private investors renovate the tourist attractions in an effort to make the city more lucrative, the citizens here are working to make the city more livable.

It’s a slow process. There is an ongoing effort to teach people to clean up after their dogs (and themselves). The homeless don’t have any significant support system, so they sit on the street and drink the days away. The political situation is a disaster, and the economy could use a jump start. Still, the young people wanted a vibrant scene they can call their own, and they’ve built it on the ruins of a once great city. Artists wanted unique places to display their work, and they’ve hunted through the abandoned courtyards and cellars to find those places. Musicians wanted to play for a young excited crowd, and they’ve built stages in the tiniest corners of the city – covered the walls in spray-painted egg-cartons to dampen the sound – and started playing music to people who feel like they are in on a special little secret.

Budapest may be a far cry from its former glory, but something precious remains; even if the word gem, with all its showy connotations, fails to depict the source of that nature.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Good Question

Kelsey Madges is an old friend of mine who also keeps a blog. Our subject matter doesn’t cross paths very often, but our reasons for writing are similar. We’re both keeping friends and family abreast on our lives.

Anyway, she wrote me recently and asked an interesting question, and I thought I’d address it here.

She asked: “What do you think about the idea that what people think of America(ns) comes largely from our exported media? Can better communication between cultures at a younger age make a difference?”

I believe that for me to best address this question I should start with the song that has been stuck in my head for the past three days. The artist is Akon, and the song is titled “Smack That.” While the catchy nature of the tune is a credit to its producer, the lyrics make me angry. I mean that literally; when I hear them I actually wish physical harm upon their singer and author. In his opening verse Akon finishes five of the eight ‘rhymed’ lines with the word “now.” The other three lines end with the word “down.” Now that’s just lazy. Do we really need to explain the concept of rhyming to the hip-hop artists of today? This is particularly frustrating when the artist’s father is a highly respected Senegalese percussionist.

Anyway, back to Kelsey’s question. Very few American artists or consumers think about how our highly contextualized pop culture is interpreted by the rest of the world. And why should they? It’s our pop culture. Our market is huge, and the consumers want to feel like the message is directed at them. So when Akon suggests we “kick it, like Tae bo,” it doesn’t really matter whether or not people dancing in a Hungarian club have ever heard of Billy Blanks. They are going to hear the song and think one of two things:

1) “I don’t understand any of the words this man is saying.”


2) “Yes, I am kicking it like Tae bo. Very much like the Tae bo.”

Here is where that becomes a problem for America’s image abroad: Record companies, television syndicators, and movie producers all love the foreign markets. Places from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe all devour American media products. Everything our media outlets produce is shinier and more polished than the domestic stuff.

The message being espoused by our media products, unfortunately, is little more than an afterthought. Akon could sing about his dream of becoming a certified public accountant, and the majority of Hungarians (or any other foreign market) would never blink an eye.

So what American media does my part of the world consume? The answer isn’t going to help improve America’s image.

Movies/TV: Forget wide distribution for any American movie that does not involve explosions or fat-suits. If you can get both into one frame, all the better. This is because the Hungarians have become convinced that Hollywood peaked with “Armageddon.” Most Hungarians know the movie is awful, but they do not believe Hollywood can do any better. They’ve decided Hollywood panders to the lowest common-denominator, and we produce enough crappy movies to drive the point home. If they want smart cinema, they will turn to other countries.

Music: As far as I can tell, in order to sell a significant number of records in continental Europe, you must include a synthesized drum n’ bass track on every song. Madonna, Britney, Justin, and Akon all do very well in Europe, but our clever lyricists and intelligent signer/songwriters are less then insignificant over here.

Can we solve this problem? I don’t know.

Kelsey’s suggestion is a good one. Every student I teach who has visited the States has a much more realistic idea of what the US is all about. It would also help if American children became a bit more aware of what’s happening beyond their own borders. Ask 10 kids where Hungary is – No, better yet, ask 10 adults. The results would be interesting.

It frustrates Europeans when they find out that America doesn’t know anything about the rest of Western Civilization.

I’m not so sure how much can be achieved, however. The US markets its media products with an aggressive savvy, and explosions and fat-suits are what sell US movie tickets. Smacking asses is what sells dance club singles. So that’s what gets exported.

If we really want to improve America’s image abroad, we need to improve American taste.

“Norbit” topping box office sales didn’t help.

Beyonce singing “I could have another man in a minute / In fact he’ll be here in a minute” isn’t helping either.

But both have made their way across the pond, and now we look like gluttonous adulterous sex-fiends who can’t find anything to rhyme with the word minute.