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.