Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reflections on the First Week in Budapest

My wife Marilyn and I are spending the next five months in Budapest, Hungary. I teach at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I will be directing Calvin’s Semester in Hungary Program. Nineteen Calvin students will be coming to join us on August 22. We are looking forward to our time together, as we seek to learn more about the people, history, and politics of Hungary and Central Europe. In so doing, I imagine we will learn more about ourselves in the context of discovering other people and places—both our similarities and differences in how we think, what we value, and how we go about doing things.

Certainly the first challenge that confronts a visitor to Hungary is the Hungarian language itself. Its alphabet, accents, and sounds make it difficult to read and translate. In fact, it is said that the closest language to Hungarian is Finnish. Hungarians supposedly originated on the East side of the Ural mountains, many of whom later migrated west into Central Europe (with then possibly other bands continuing to move northward eventually arriving in what is now known as Finland). Exact dates of migration are not known, but they transpired primarily sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. Aspects of its language are Asian too, as even today in Hungary one’s family name is pronounced initially, and then one’s “first or Christian” name follows. Fortunately, many people in Budapest speak English; certainly many youths are fluent in the language.

I have been in Budapest several times previously. The first time was in 1993 when I spent a week attending a conference that focused largely on religion and society and at which I presented a paper. Much has changed since that time. In 1993, relatively few people in Budapest spoke English; German was the second language of communication. There were many beggars and people seeking to sell a few goods at the entrances to the subway system. There were few restaurants that had any menus in English and few tourists. Much has changed in those 15 years. Budapest in August is full of tourists. The English language is spoken by most service people. And, menus have English translations.

I teach primarily American politics, with a research interest in the area of religion and politics. During my semester in Hungary, I am to teach a course on “The Politics of Hungary and its Neighbors” as well as direct a course on “The Culture of Eastern Europe.” Since the latter course will consist of some group travels (with planned visits to Transylvania, Krakow and Auschwitz, the Ukraine, and Croatia), museum visits in Budapest (e.g., the National History Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, and the Holocaust Museum), as well as some guest lectures, it is a course that I will direct more than I will teach—and the course will consist of a good deal of reflection and discussion as well. But it is the former course which requires considerable preparation on my part. I have been reading about Hungarian history and politics over the course of the past year, and while I have learned a great deal and have come to appreciate more both the historical legacy and complexity of Hungary politics, I am far from an expert on the topic. So it will be a challenge to teach the course with adequate depth and certainty about the workings of Hungarian politics today.

Nevertheless, even in my feeble attempts to become knowledgeable about Hungary politics, there is much that one learns that places facets of American politics in new light. Consider the debate over making English the only language instruction in U.S. public schools. Previously, I had thought that Hungary was composed of Hungarians. Well that is true if you think in terms of citizenship. But, if you think in terms of ethnic heritage, there are many different ethnic groups that comprise the people who live in Hungary. For example, in 1867, after the territorial integrity and political unity of historic “territories of the Holy Crown of Hungary” were restored, only 40 percent of the Hungarian population were Hungarians. The rest comprised people of different ethnic origins. These included Germans (10 percent), Slovaks ( 9 percent), Rumanians (14 percent), South Slavs (14 percent) and Ruthenes (Carpatho-Russians and Carpatho-Ukrainians who comprised 2 percent of the population), as well as those from some other ethnic groups. How does one go about creating political unity, let alone communicate, across such a diversity of ethnic and language groups? One of the means (perhaps the principal means) employed by the Hungarian government was mandating educational instruction in Hungarian. Of course, it was not a perfect means, as it did privilege those who already spoke Hungarian in terms of filling governmental and civil posts, but eventually it also did seemingly allow for some social mobility among members of the other ethnic groups as well as provide some basis for a national identity. Still there were lingering ethnic resentments about this imposition and periodic calls for greater accommodation to ethnic diversity—particularly among the non-Hungarians. I am not advocating for English only instruction, but I find the historical parallel at least interesting and wonder whether there may be any lessons learned from this effort should one be able to study the situation in much greater detail and attention than I am able to give it.

A day or two ago, we visited Statue Park, a site outside Budapest, in which many of the statues and monuments from the communist regime were placed after the fall of communism in Hungary. This forty “pieces of art” serve a reminder of times when Hungary was locked behind the Iron Curtain. The park attracts foreign tourists as well as Hungarians, particularly school children who visit this museum as a means of understanding facets of their country’s history. It is now nearly two decades since the fall of communism in the Central and East European countries. For many, it is a distant memory, and for those under 25, it holds little, if any, memory.

Certainly, one of the aspects of the contemporary world that is far different than even three decades ago is the globalization of communication. My wife and I were in the Netherlands in 1974 when Ford pardoned Nixon. There were big headlines across the Dutch papers with pictures of Ford and Nixon, but it was difficult for us to determine just what was happening in America. It took a couple of days, as I recall, for us to realize just what had happened (perhaps we finally found an International Herald to read). However, here we sit in our apartment in Budapest and hear CNN and the BBC talk about the conflict over South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia. I can read about the conflict in the New York Times or the Washington Post through my internet connection, and I receive e-mails from my family, friends, and reporters from back in the States. In one sense, I am in a different cultural context. Yet, in another sense, I am hardly outside my own familiar context. We live in world of instant communication and perhaps information overload. I hope that this entry has not contributed to the latter.

Corwin Smidt
August 13, 2008

1 comment:

hope2cu2003 said...

Thank you for sharing your research and experiences, I've much enjoyed your first post.
If you guys go up to Miskolz at any point, look up the small reformed seminary, Károlyi Gáspár Institute of Theology and Missions, near there. I have friends who live and teach there, and they are very special people.
Enjoy Hungary - I loved it when I was there, and I'm looking forward to reading your blog!