Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving message US Passport

Looking through a current U.S. passport you see a lot of pictures of amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, and yes of course some fruited plains.  Most of the quotes that accompany these pictures speak to some combination of manifest destiny, nationalism, and freedom.  One quote, though, speaks to the natural world that the first pilgrims likely encountered and on which they relied to survive and celebrate that first Thanksgiving.  I'm not saying it's the most profound thing I've ever read about Thanksgiving, but I think it's worth sharing since it's the only quote in the passport that is about giving thanks and the only one to include the people who lived in the US before it was the US.
We send thanks to all the animal life in the world.  They have many things to teach us as people.  We are glad they are still here and we hope it will always be so.   Excerpt from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version

Today didn't feel like Thanksgiving until our group of 5 volunteers encountered an American who is studying in Wales and spending this week in Central Europe.  He heard us speaking English as we boarded our train headed for Bratislava, Slovakia, and greeted us with, "Happy Thanksgiving!"  It was a little bit of a gift that none of today's trains had wi-fi which left us with 6 hours of great scenery and conversation.

In Bratislava we were welcomed Miriam, Jeremy, Ursula, and Esme to begin our Thanksgiving weekend.  Last Thanksgiving I never could have guessed that I'd be here in Bratislava celebrating with my new Central Europe family.  And even though things haven't been smooth for all of us all of the time, there is a lot to be thankful for.  Today presented many moments to be thankful, enjoy the ride, remember past feasts with friends and family (of course this includes the annual Augustana Thanksgiving Dinner), and look forward to Thanksgiving to come!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's in a day?

I was planning to share a picture with you this morning of my temporary residence card for the EU that will allow me to stay here until August.  But, the immigration office is closed for some reason.  So a celebratory picture will be up as soon as I have the card in hand.

My YAGM coordinators Miriam and Jeremy, and their family, recently visited me and my host family in Gorogszallas.  It was great to share small pieces of my daily life with them, and to have some time to catch up with them.  You can see some great pictures from their visit on their blog at

Amidst a lot of travel with the church, some sense of a routine has started to take hold.  That feels good.  An English-speaker I met in Piliscaba last weekend asked me, "so what does a day look like for you?"  Good question. (This will fill in with some color what I could just briefly sketch in black and white in my newsletter.)

My day starts with AlJazeera International news at 7:30.  It used to be BBC, then it changed; I'm just glad to have some international news in English.  Then it's time for breakfast and a brisk 5 minute walk to the Children's House.  Dogs aren't really cute, members of the family in Hungary, but rather guard dogs.  All that to say that the dogs in Gorogszallas haven't really warmed to me yet and they all acknowledge my presence on the morning walk.  I adhere to Dr. O'Hara's idea that you should speak to unfamiliar dogs with an affirming voice and refrain from touching them.

some kids come and go, but Levi rarely misses a morning at the Children's House

Children start arriving at the Children's House a little before 9.  By that time we have a fire going in the wood burning stove which is a welcome feeling coming from a cold, damp Hungarian morning.  I definitely feel welcomed there each morning kids who are excited to play and have me be part of that.  Amidst fighting over toys and running noises there's a lot of good that comes from playing and watching them play.  With Advent and St. Nicholas Day just around the corner (December 6), the children and parents and I have been making stockings and other decorations for the Children's House and their homes.

visiting a high school English class in Nyiregyhaza - we spent most of the hour hour and half talking about what they want to do with their futures - they were a very bright group with fascinating interests and plans

By noon, we're cleaning up from 3 hours of intense play and I head home for lunch with my host family.  Mondays and Tuesday I eat quickly and get on a bus headed for Nyirtelek where I help in the schools.  Wednesday-Friday I have the afternoons to myself.  Having this much down-time is weird, especially since I don't have internet.  But it's also been incredibly good.  I can spend time around the house with the host family, study Hungarian, read, roam the village.  There's always interesting work to check out and help with at the greenhouse.  Incidentally, they just finished their heating house which will make it possible to continue their garden work throughout the winter.  This type of tangible progress and literal growth (of seeds and the new building) give an incredible sense of pride to the people there, and rightly so.

Late afternoon I head to the church and community building where I spend time with teenagers as we play foosball and do homework, and with adults who stop in while they're waiting for the school bus to bring their kids to the village or who come to practice the songs for Sunday and have bible study.  I feel lucky that in the course of a day I can interact with such a large span of ages in the village.

I get home around 7 or 8 to have dinner and relax for the night.  There's a reality TV show kind of like the Real World that takes place in Budapest.  The family and I watch this most nights.  Even though the show unfolds very quickly in Hungarian, the drama is pretty transparent and amusing.  I also get compared to one of the show's characters--Lali--for my curly hair.  I promise people that the similarities end with curly hair.

That's a day.  Each day is a little different, and my Hungarian ability is also a little different depending on the day.  

In a few days, I'm on the road again to meet up with the other four YAGM volunteers as we spend Thanksgiving together with Miriam, Jeremy, Ursula, and Esme in Bratislava, Slovakia.  

YAGM Mari (middle), her supervisor Erzebet (right), at the home of Erzebet's mother (left) for lunch.  This elderly women grows lemons in her sun porch, makes her own palinka, grows enough grapes to produce 100 liters of wine, tends to several dozen fruit trees in her yard, grows a huge quantity of vegetables, and raises the 20 or so chickens who roam the yard.  What a great afternoon!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thanksgiving in Gorogszallas

On Friday we celebrated a special kind of Thanksgiving in Gorogszallas.  The European Union in partnership with a Catholic volunteer network delivered 5 tons of food to the village.  The church I work with created packages for each family and distributed them after a Thanksgiving church service.  

This struck me as an interesting and powerful moment because of how I'm used to celebrating Thanksgiving.  Typically, we celebrate by preparing more food than we can possibly eat and give thanks for the abundance in front of us.  There's probably more to say about this, but I'll let it sit for now and think about it until I celebrate American Thanksgiving with my colleagues in a few weeks.

On an unrelated note, snow is in the forecast here and I couldn't more be excited!  I don't think the volunteers from Arizona and Louisiana are as excited...

A few days in Ukraine

 with my host dad, Sandor, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains

I just returned from three days in the Carpathian region of southwestern Ukraine.  A story relayed to me by a Canadian-born Hungarian missionary tells the story of the region well:
An elderly man who lives in the southwest corner of present-day Ukraine recalled the many places he's live in his lifetime: the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kingdom of Hungary, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine.  When someone said to him, "You've moved around quite a bit!" he replied, "No, I never left home."  By this he meant that the same area has been under the control of half a dozen sovereign governments in the last century.  As I've said before, the layers of nationalism and identity in this area are thick and fascinating. 

Our group of 13 included Pastor Misi and his wife, some women from the Nyirtelek church, four of us who live in Gorogszallas, and a Lutheran pastor who lives in Nyiregyhaza.  The objective of the trip was to worship with and learn about Roma outreach activities in the Carpathian region.
one of the impressive greenhouses

We stayed in the town of Nagydobrony at an orphanage operated by the Reformed church, whose historic presence in Ukraine remains strong.  The orphanage is home to 45 girls, many of whom have some physical disability.  In addition to being a place to live and learn, the facility also provides various vocational opportunities for people in Nagydobrony.  On-site they have 10 greenhouses, a bakery, the guesthouses where we stayed, a mechanic shop, and a farm that raises pigs and cows.  

our tour bus/tank

The leader of the institution, Lotsi-bacsi, took us around the region on Tuesday to give us a sense of how people live in Carpathia.  In the 13th century, the Hungarian King Bela IV had a fortress built ever 40 kilometers to defend against invasions from the east.  We explored several of these, some of which lie in ruins while others are preserved and display various pieces of local history which reflect the Hungarian identity still held by many Carpathian people.

an abandoned fort built by Bela IV of Hungary in the 13th Century

The vast majority of people in Carpathia speak Hungarian and go so far as to observe the Hungarian time zone instead of that of Ukraine.  Before the 1940s, 44% of people in the region identified as Jewish; roughly 65% were ethnic Hungarian or German.  The Soviets sent the Jews to work camps and death camps; many of the Hungarians were sent to Siberia and never returned.  Some were forced to work in the immediate area and eventually killed and buried in mass graves. As an outsider, it's impossible to even imagine these atrocities and their lasting effect on the region and its people.  
a memorial for the Hungarians who disappeared under Soviet rule

Wednesday morning we visited a Roma camp on the outskirts of town.  We delivered toys to all of the children in the Children's House after we sang some songs and listened to Misi speak.  The joy in the room was overwhelming when the stuffed animals appeared.  It was a scene I won't soon forget.

The few days away from Gorogszallas provided new material for how I think about the expanse of Hungarian nationalism and the conditions of Roma people in central Europe. For today, it feels good just to be back in Gorogszallas, get back into the routine, and get back to learning Hungarian!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

WSJ's Emerging Europe Blog

Central and Eastern European countries are places of unexplored mystique for many Americans who would rather travel to more iconic European countries.  Germany and France dominate international headlines for their political strength in the EU; the UK continues to be a very visible American partner and hub for international business.  Until a few months ago, I counted myself among the many who just don't know much or follow what's happening in Central and Eastern Europe.  One of the reasons I was interested in the YAGM program in Hungary was what I suspected to be its interesting location on the fringe of stronger European countries and its fascinating history.  

I recently stumbled upon the Wall Street Journal's Emerging Europe blog which provides in-depth and up to date context for what's happening in these emerging countries.  Even if you're not interested, it's worth scrolling through the page to glance at the headlines to note social issues, politics, business, and other things American cable news never mentions.

On this subject, I'll be in Ukraine for the next three days visiting several Roma camps as well as an orphanage and recovery house for people with addictions.  There will be more to come on all of that.  

As always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Newsletter Time

I just sent out my first newsletter for the year in which I talk about where I am, what I'm doing, what I'm thinking, and my first experience at a public bath house.  Shoot me an email if you'd like me to send you the PDF!