Thursday, July 29, 2010

Waltz with Bashir

  It was movie night for the YSSP tonight, so again (as last time, with The Age of Stupid) we watched an uplifting, cheerful romantic comedy.  This week it was Waltz with Bashir, an animated movie about being an Israeli soldier in Lebanon at the time that a famous massacre occurred there, and about the difficulty of even remembering what has happened and what role one has played in past events.  A beautifully done movie, with a style somewhere between a dream sequence and a documentary.  Highly recommended.  In fact, it ought to be recommended viewing for anyone who is thinking of becoming a soldier.  Not just because it's anti-war; in fact, I'm not sure it is, exactly.  More because it raises big questions about moral responsibility, about questioning the chain of command, about thinking about the things that are happening around you instead of simply being carried along.  Important questions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


  One of the nicest things about the YSSP is how international it is, and how many different perspectives are represented by the students here.  I've had fascinating conversations with people from countries such as Iran, Senegal, India, and South Africa, to name just a few of the many countries represented in the program.  This morning I talked with a fellow named Igor, who is from Russia.  He was born in 1985, I believe he said; after perestroika had begun, in any case, so he doesn't remember the full-blown Soviet Union as it was in its glory days.  He also doesn't remember the wall coming down, but he says that's to some extent because that was not perceived as such a monolithic event within the Soviet Union as it was to the West.  We think of The Day the Wall Came Down, right?  In the Soviet Union it felt more like a gradual collapse.  His memories are of the adults around him being confused and frightened, and (I love this detail) of the television playing "Swan Lake" in an endless loop whenever anything bad happened.
  He also talked about the idea of Soviet culture in a way that was new to me.  The USSR made a deliberate attempt to essentially invent a new culture that was not Russian, or Ukrainian, or Georgian, or any particular country's culture.  This more or less invented culture lives on today, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists.  So there are drinks which are thought of as Russian, and drinks (such as a sort of alcoholic lemonade that used to be sold on street corners out of big barrels) which are thought of as Soviet.  There is a style of rock music that is thought of as Russian, and a different style that is thought of as Soviet.  There are cultural values (looking out for your fellow man, placing a high value on work) that are thought of as Soviet, and other values that are thought of as Russian.  Russians today think of themselves, in this sense, as bicultural.  The Soviet values and culture are often thought of nostalgically, even though few want to return to the politics of that era; a sharp distinction is drawn between Soviet-style politics and Soviet culture.
  Lots of other fun details: Stalin started out as a bank robber to raise money for the political group he was in, and rose in the ranks because he was very good at organizing heists.  Lenin hid out in Finland when the Russian government wanted to arrest him, before the revolution.  Etc. etc.  I love these kinds of details.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Budapest: Day II

  Day 2 was cooler and blustery, with a bit of rain in the morning.  Jack joined Hayley and I, having been a bit frustrated by the late start of the rest of the group the day before, I think.  We got out maybe 8 AM (?), since garbage trucks didn't wake us up, and since we were so beat from the day before.  We started out with a walking tour of Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest.  It's a green space, with some wooded areas and some open parks.  We began in a small Japanese garden that wasn't really that Japanese, but was a nice garden nonetheless:

  Margaret Island is nifty in part because it has some of the oldest buildings still standing in Budapest.  We soon reached a church originally dating to the 12th century:

  A rather blocky, plain edifice, but I always like the thought that a building has been there for so many centuries.  The next stop was almost as old, but in much less good shape: the ruins of a 13th century Dominican monastery:

  St. Margaret, the daughter of a king of Hungary, lived here from the age of nine; that's her sepulchre in the middle photo.  We had trouble locating the next couple of sights on the walking tour, and pretty much just ended up at the south end of the island after a bit of walking through parkland:

  There's a monument there dating from 1973, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the union of Buda, Pest, and Obuda.  It was a very odd monument, worth some photos.  All but the first photo are of the interior of the monument, which is a hollow shell:

  Now we got off the island to the Pest side, had some yummy cake (I demanded this pit stop because my feet were already hurting a lot; turned out I had two very nice blisters going), and went on to walk around the Parliament building:

  Just an amazing building, and an amazing monument to the sense of self-importance that government officials tend to have, as well.  :->  The flag with a hole in it dates to 1956, the end of the era of Soviet rule over Hungary.  Apparently the Soviets had put a crest of some sort on the center of the flag, as a symbol of their dominion.  When that ended, the newly free Hungarians cut the crest out of the center, and this flag still flies by Parliament as a reminder.

  Now we crossed over to the Buda side and walked up the hill to the Citadella, south of the palace complex, which I photographed from a distance the day before.  The Citadella was finished in 1851, intended to guard the city against insurrection against the Habsburgs, but the political climate shifted, and it became obsolete without ever having seen a battle.  Now it has some old artillery guns, and a bunch of tourist stalls, and the Liberty Monument, a monument with a complicated political history, intertwined with the Soviet role in Hungary, that has been reinterpreted as being dedicated to "those who gave up their lives for Hungary's independence, freedom and prosperity."

  At the time, I thought we were at a different monument, commemorating the spot where, in 1046, a bishop was hurled to his death inside a spiked barrel by pagan Hungarians resisting the Church.  Sadly, we were not at that monument after all.

  Now we made our way back down the hill and had lunch at a random restaurant we located by chance.  It seemed like a pretty typical Hungarian neighborhood restaurant; we were pretty much the only people there.  I had a nice meal of beer, fish soup, and fish; not sure why I was craving fish so much:

  I thought my meal was pretty good, but I'm not sure the others were as happy.  It may have just hit the spot because I was utterly exhausted; I was almost so tired and sore that I was no longer having fun, although I wasn't quite to that point.  After lunch, Jack took off on his own to explore southern Buda, I think, and Haley and I rediscovered the meaning of life by spending pretty much spent the rest of the day at Gellert Baths.  Gellert is more upscale that Szechenyi, part of a ritzy hotel, and is decorated in an art nouveau style with lots of stained glass:

  Its main indoor pool is particularly photogenic:

  Photography is not permitted at their other indoor pools, for whatever reason (everybody has suits on), so you will just have to visit Gellert yourself to see them.  They have two thermal mineral pools, and maybe another pool or two somewhere, but it's not nearly as extensive as Szechenyi.  They have an outdoor pool area as well, with a wave generator for added fun, but I didn't spend any time outside this day, since I was already quite sunburned enough:

  Overall, I liked Szechenyi rather more than Gellert.  That one amazing indoor pool at Gellert was just blissfully ornate; as my guidebook says, it feels like swimming in a cathedral.  But overall, Szechenyi had more choices and options, and it felt more "real."  Anyhow, after a good deal of soaking, it was time to go catch our train at the rather palatial train station:

  We caught the right train this time, and there were no breakdowns, and we got back to Vienna quite uneventfully.  And then I worked really hard all week, and am working much of this weekend (I have a presentation on Wednesday for which I'd like to have a particular chunk of work done), so this is the last you're likely to hear from me for a bit!  It feels very odd to actually be home for a weekend, rather than zipping off to some foreign city.  But I can sure use the rest.  We're heading into the home stretch in the YSSP, and there is a whole lot to do: finishing our projects, writing them up, presenting them, working on publications stemming from them, etc.  It's going to be a crazy month!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Budapest: Day 1 part II

  OK, wrapping up day 1 now.  We walked around City Park a bit, which has a small castle of sorts (the moat was drained, sadly), and various monuments and pretty buildings:

  Photo 1 is Vajdahunyad Castle.  Photos 2 and 3 are of Jak Chapel, apparently a replica of a 13th century church elsewhere.  I just loved the statue of the horsemen with big mustaches; the way they have strapped antlers onto the horse's head is amazing.  What a style.  The next photo, the tall monument, is the Millenary Monument, a rather huge monument to the seven chieftains of ancient Magyar (9th century), as well as various other important movers and shakers.

  Now we took the metro back downtown, and visited the Basilica of St. Stephen.  It is huge, and ornate beyond belief.  I'll start with some detail and interior shots:

  We went up to the base of the dome at the top of the building; here's the spiral stairs up, and the inside of the dome, which looks like it is made of wood but has been reinforced in more modern times with metal:

  Quite interesting.  We walked around the railed walkway on the outside of the dome.  Even at the base of the dome, we were way above the city:

  The first two photos are zoomed in: a pretty tile roof, and Parliament.  The third is an adjacent tower of the basilica.  The last is what Budapest actually looks like, zoomed out, in pretty much all directions.  It's a very flat jumble.  Not only is it built on a very flat plain, but it has very little architectural height differential.  It seems to lack a skyscraper-filled downtown, and although there are certainly churches and buildings with towers, it doesn't have the tower-and-dome-filled feel of Prague.  It is also very architecturally inconsistent compared to Prague; compare this photo to one of my Prague photos of the endless spread of red-tile roofs.  It is not a pretty city from the air.

  We descended and moved on; here's a parting view of the basilica from the outside, finally:

  We walked on a bit more:

  Until we reached the Great Synagogue.  This is the largest synagogue in the world outside of New York City, built in 1859.  Budapest today houses the largest population of Jews in Europe, I believe I read somewhere.  Its architecture has a strong Moorish influence, for reasons I don't understand:

  Unfortunately, it being Saturday, the synagogue was closed, and we didn't make it back the next day.  Definitely at the top of the list for the next time I'm in Budapest!

  And that was just about it for day 1.  We covered a lot of ground!  We planned to eat at a restaurant near our hostel called Karpatia, which my guidebook led me to believe had authentic live gypsy music.  The music may or may not have been authentic (what do I know), but it was very disappointing; saccharine and boring.  I thought it would be like the soundtrack to Latcho Drom, a movie which, if you haven't seen it, you ought to run out and watch it.  That, to me, is real gypsy music.  Anyhow, we regrouped and went instead to Klassz, some 15 or 20 blocks north of our hostel in a very posh restaurant district.  It was great, but I decided I was too tired to bring my camera and do the food blog thing — I was just about dead on my feet at this point — so you don't get foodie photos.  Funnily enough, I remember that Hayley got a sweet corn risotto that was very tasty but very rich, but I have no recollection of what I ate.  Whatever it was, I enjoyed it.  Ah well, you can never step in the same river twice.

  And then we went back to the hostel and slept very soundly.