Thursday, December 18, 2008

Liveblogging from the strike!

I’ve been meaning to write something about Hungary for a while now…you know, the type of entry that talks about the Hungarian things I’m beginning to love and the daily routines I’ve settled into, with witty anecdotal generalizations about the people and culture thrown in. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit Hungary. For the past semester, I lived at the Central European University, which operates something like the Vatican, as some form of sui generis entity within but apart from Budapest.

If I were to write about Hungary, I’d probably mention some things like paprika (the word is Hungarian, and refers to both the spice and bell peppers, the former which is on every table and the latter which is in every dish). There would probably be some mention of the numerous thermal baths (I can now provide instructions on proper loin cloth etiquette). And then I’d probably wrap up with something about the people, (if you’re a guest in a house, you’re likely to get fed a few meals, if you’re a guest in a restaurant, good luck getting a waiter). Maybe something cynical about the politicians (It’s a very hands-on approach to capitalism, by which I mean their hands are on EVERYTHING…politics: Blagojevitch style!)

Like I said, I’d like to tell you those things. But something else has come crashing so noisily into the forefront daily life, that it cannot be ignored. Transportation.

Now, I can understand that everybody wants a holiday. But recently, the entire transportation industry has decided that it wants its holiday NOW. Airport workers have been on strike since last week. Monday, the national train workers went on strike as well. Budapest public transit workers were clearly feeling a bit left out, so they thought they’d have a ‘half day’ strike this morning, (read: there was a killer party Wednesday night and the boss couldn’t find anybody to work Thursday morning, given that the strike didn’t materialize, I can only assume the party was lame).

On the upside, traveling around Budapest is quite entertaining, erm, I mean safe. Take for instance a tram accident a few weeks ago, when a fire truck was immediately present on the site of the accident. Never mind the fact that the fire truck had been the one to hit the trolley. Unfortunately, the department was a little slower to arrive last week when a bus spontaneously burst into flames. (Nobody was harmed, so it’s okay to laugh).

Luckily, the majority of my daily commute occurs via metro. The upside here is that compared to the numerous people hit by cars every week, it is harder to get hit by a train. It’s pretty obvious where the trains go, just stay off the tracks. (No word yet on how a passenger hit last week managed this feet when they were NOT on the tracks…)

Despite the strike, I nevertheless have made it to the airport, where I am now awaiting my departure for a much needed winter break (so far, we think the plane will depart, despite the fact that the entire ground operations staff is on strike…) My semester ended precisely 55 minutes before I left for the airport, by which I mean I submitted my last paper at 2:35 AM, and then left my place at 3:30 AM. I am on may way to Spain, where I will spend Christmas with Yeshe. To those of you I have ignored for a few weeks now, I apologize; apparently, ‘hell week’ on the semester plan lasts longer than a week, and it really is hellish.

Break should be conducive to more entertaining stories…stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Humanity in Action - testimonial

Having not posted in a while (and lacking the time to write something thoughtful on the direction a new U.S. foreign policy should take) I have decided to post a 'blast from the past.' I reference Humanity in Action (HIA) quite a lot, but you may wonder, what exactly is HIA? Well, the short answer is that HIA is a transatlantic network educating young adults on the issues surrounding democracy, minorities, and human rights. Building on humanism's core values of human dignity and moral responsibility, HIA is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that believes "a true test of genuine democracy is how it treats its...minorities."

Last summer, a fellowship with HIA took me to DC, Copenhagen, and Berlin, and challenged me at every step along the way to question my beliefs and consider what I can contribute to this world. I am now a Senior Fellow with the HIA network, a privilege which puts me in the company of many of the most amazing scholars, activists, and social entrepreneurs I have ever met. This weekend, I'll have the pleasure of joining many of these Senior Fellows in Berlin for a reunion focusing on migration in Europe (as well as some socializing, of course).

The rest of the post is from a testimonial I wrote, reflecting on my experiences with HIA. And should anybody be interested, applications for the 2009 summer fellowships in Europe and New York are now available here.

Stepping off the D.C. streets and into the Historic I Synagogue for Humanity in Action’s first session, I prepared myself for the small talk of typical introductions. Minutes later, I was instead embroiled in a challenging discussion on pressing global problems.

Humanity in Action first entered my life as a blitz email with a subject line promising “Free travel to Europe.” At the time, I was in my final semester at college, and found myself in the depths of a foggy limbo characteristic of college seniors trying to figure out the next step. My goal was to make a difference, and I was open to anything, but as every college senior knows, the possibilities for those holding a Bachelor of Arts are sadly limited.

Friends involved with HIA strongly urged me to apply, and glowing testimonials encouraged me. Nevertheless, a nervous skepticism lingered: HIA seemed like a good fit for me, but I feared my academic interests were too economic, and that I might not be a good fit for HIA. Over the following months, a barrage of preparatory articles held my fascination. But the question lingered, could HIA really live up to those testimonials?

No meaningful confrontation of human rights issues can ever be rosy. HIA earns glowing testimonials because of its profound effects on lives. Reflecting on this fact, I am struck by the irony of the flippant “Free travel to Europe” subject line. Would-be sightseers be warned.

Back in the Synagogue making introductions over politics and philosophy, I quickly realized that the diverse group of fellows surrounding me included some of the most brilliant and dedicated people I have ever met. In every corner of the world, they pursue unique initiatives, the kind you read about but never think yourself capable of. That feeling has stuck – HIA continues to introduce me to incredible individuals and challenging opportunities.

HIA became the opportune next step, showing me that active advocacy can take more forms than imaginable. Beyond teaching me a great deal, HIA helped me put things in perspective. The transition from the foggy limbo could not be greater; I will never again be short on ideas to pursue, and I know there is a network of people behind me ready to support in any way they can. The specifics of one’s studies and experiences are not the critical factor in whether HIA is the right fit; it is one’s devotion to protecting human rights and promoting democracy, the very values HIA embodies.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On my "Slavic features"

In my time here, I’ve more or less become accustomed to Europe’s quirks and conventions. Yet there is one particular habit that continues to take me aback. It normally begins with the question, “where are you from?” This alone is not so odd. Rather, it is the pervasive follow up, “So what is your heritage?” that is indicative of a mindset completely foreign to my thinking about national identity.

Now, the technical answer to this question is: predominantly German, secondarily French and English, with the French having a Belgian influence and the English having a Scottish influence. In reality, however, the adoption of my paternal great-grandfather and the unconfirmed possibility of a Jewish great great-grandmother mean there’s a lot up in the air when it comes to that question.

Heritage aside, I seem to blend in almost anywhere. Eating dinner in Dubrovnik last summer, an English woman craned over and asked if I was English. When I detail my heritage to Germans, they normally nod their heads and say something to the effect of, “Yes, that makes sense…you look German.” Hungarians have mentioned I blend in very easily here…yesterday, a Georgian told me I look Georgian.

Just a few minutes ago, I was moved to begin writing when a woman knowingly looked at me, gulped down the last of her coffee, gave a single crisp nod, stood and decisively walked across the café towards me. Afraid I’d somehow offended her, it was my surprise when she asked if I’m Russian. Not deterred by my answer in the negative, she mused, “hmm…you have Slavic features.”

Perhaps the most amusing part of these anecdotes is that the nationality people project onto me always seems to be their own. It’s like I’m some kind of mirror.

As an American, this obsession with heritage borders on the bizarre. I’m accustomed to the follow-up to “where are you from” having to do with a sports team. Outside of family gatherings, heritage hasn’t been a topic of discussion since a first grade unit on familial histories. In the States, if there isn’t something to mark you as an “immigrant” (darker skin, accent), you’re considered American. There is, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy and irony in this particular construction, but leaving such tensions aside, the point is that in general, once you loose the accent, heritage doesn’t play a huge role in the U.S.

National identities have been a core theme of my class on Central Asian politics. Some of my colleagues from the region consistently defend a primordial view of what it means to by Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, etc. To them, their nationality runs back hundreds of years, rooted in a stable and essential conception of identity. Our professor consistently disagrees, instead arguing that the identities have repeatedly shifted in response to pressures from the outside world and the efforts of elites to define their peoples.

As an American, I’m predisposed to the position of my professor. In the States, we live in a society where identities are constantly changing. Of course, given our history this is not surprising. Indeed, part of the beauty of being American is that the requirements don’t run in your blood, but in a common set of values. While Gov. Palin has sought to define this set of values rather, shall we say, narrowly in the past week, mainly equating American values with Republican values, I believe truly patriotic individuals (who come from both sides of the aisle) reject this conflation.

When people look at me and see Slav, Georgian, Hungarian, English, etc., they do so based on some essential conception of what that group is supposed to look like. But by miscategorizing me, they prove the fluid construction of their own identity. Generally, I bite my tongue and refrain from pointing out this irony. People are so concerned with defining their own culture, a process inherently wrapped up with marking off the differences of other cultures, that they loose the ability to see the similarities. Every time I hear about my Slavic features, I become even more convinced that there can be no such thing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Birthday Fun and Neo-Nazis

Well, as promised, a birthday update is in order. Generally, last Friday was one of my best birthdays ever, and it far exceeded my expectations (which I had purposefully pegged pretty low, under the assumption that I wouldn’t yet know many people). That much of this post will examine one negative aspect of the day should not obscure its overall greatness, but to skip over the low point would be to miss an event that will affect my long-term thinking far more than the trivialities of parties and presents.

For context, Friday marked the last day of the CEU pre-session. The university celebrated this occasion with the official opening ceremony. No university operates in a political vacuum, but as CEU’s President explained, our mission here is more overtly political than most institutions; George Soros founded the school shortly after the collapse of European communist authoritarianism, giving it “the explicit aim of helping the process of transition from dictatorship to democracy…and to nurture respect for diverse cultures and opinions, human rights, constitutional government, and the rule of law.”

The ceremony was followed by an open reception, at which I received birthday salutations from practically every person I’ve met over the past two weeks. These good wishes were in addition to the numerous messages I received from other corners of the globe (thank you friends and family!)

That evening, our residence center also marked the end of orientation with a dorm wide party – complete with chocolate fountain, dj, and open bar. By the time 11pm rolled around, I was feeling awfully lucky that my birthday fell on the day it did, and everybody else was feeling pretty good too. Needless to say, under the pretext of my birthday, it wasn’t very hard to round up a large group to take the party downtown.

We caught a bus to the local transit station, where we needed to transfer to a night bus. We must have stuck out as an odd group, but frankly, I was paying more attention to a new romantic interest than the other people waiting to catch busses. My bliss was shattered when shouting drew my attention to three men who were advancing on my friend Som, corralling him in the direction of a busy street.

The aggressors, sporting black leather jackets emblazoned with Hungarian flags, all had shaved heads. Som, of Indian origin, happened to be the only member of our group of a darker complexion. They were drunk skinheads, Som was the easiest target.

By the time I saw what was going on, a number of guys from our group had already put themselves between Som and the skinheads. When the rest of our group joined the others, the skinheads backed down quickly. Apparently, they liked the odds of 3 to 1 a lot more than the odds of 3 to 30. Some Hungarians helped pull the skinheads back – their association with the racists was never fully clear, they calmed the ringleader down, but didn’t appear to be friends.

A few minutes later, one of these Hungarians tried to apologize for the skinhead who had provoked the confrontation. In a broken mix of German and English, he stumbled to explain that the provocateur was a “good man, he just had too much to drink.” Then he switched the subject to rock music.

I tried to sympathize with this lame apology, recalling lessons from a Humanity in Action session last June when I met an ex-neo-Nazi who had grown up with a tough family situation in an even tougher region. People don’t become violent racists randomly – it’s a insidious blight with complex social causes. This skinhead must have had a rough past too. But as I looked at Som, one of the brightest students to befriend me here, a scholar deeply committed to conflict resolution and a caring individual who has been more supportive of my sexuality than any other classmate…as I looked at him, I found myself totally unable to even attempt understanding the difficult past of the cowards who attacked him.

After boarding the night bus, my thoughts continued to take me back to my time with Humanity in Action, where we spent a lot of time discussing the role of bystanders. In a group of thirty people, it had been easy to step in…the odds were pretty favorable to us. But what would have happened if there had only been a few of us? As it was, plenty of our “friends” stood idly by. Sure, a couple Hungarians had stepped in, but many more looked to the ground and “minded their own business.”

For the past four years, I lived in Colorado Springs, the heart of conservative American fundamentalism and a dangerous breeding ground for virulent homophobia. As a teenager, my last family vacation to our favorite summer retreat near Laramie, Wyoming, had been tainted by the recent murder of Mathew Shephard. Still, I’ve always refused to hide my sexuality in public. On board the bus, I wanted to take the hand of my date and find solace in his presence. But with the skinheads right behind us, I was not about to even try. Our relationship had quickly become more of a liability than a reassurance, and all of a sudden, I lacked the courage acquired from years in Colorado Springs.

Earlier in the day, CEU’s president had challenged us to consider how we could make a difference in those societies that remain oppressed, the connotation being those “other” societies in underdeveloped corners of the world. Our run in with the skinheads served as a sharp reminder of just how far we still have to go in the most tolerant societies.

This date, a Romanian born under the brutal dictatorial regime of Ceauşescu, would probably laugh at the triteness of that statement. But to those of us who have grown up in the comfort of liberal democracies, it is difficult to realize how quickly advocates can become bystanders when personal safety is at risk. Faced with this same risk, I myself quickly jettisoned “queer” behavior.

We may never understand why some choose to intervene on behalf of others in these situations…so far, the best catalyst seems to be the strength found in numbers. So stand up, don’t look to the ground, and make sure you’re numbered amongst those who won’t stand by. There are more like-minded people around you, they just need to know they’re not alone. Challenge the banal events of daily racism – those who rely on intimidation are cowards, so confronting the small instances forces the reality that they are a minority fringe. As to the times you’re alone, well, I haven’t come up with much yet other than knowing the signs and paying attention.

Truly, it was a birthday I won’t forget.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New ways to get in touch

Hello all, and a happy weekend to you! As a mark of my becoming more settled in Budapest, I thought it is high time to provide an update on my contact info.

My mailing address is:

Falconer-Stout, Zachariah
CEU Conference Center, Room 414
Kerepesi ut 87
H-1106 Budapest

My cell phone is: +36 (70) 654 7457
Not that I'm expecting frequent calls, but I figure it's good to know in case anyone needs to get in touch quickly.

I'll leave you with this picture showing the view from my room in the X. district (Kőbánya).

(looking towards the center, Buda hills in the background)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Finding footing in the deep end of the pool

As my first week in Budapest draws to a close, life is going along swimmingly. True, the swim is at a Michael Phelps’ pace, but overall this first week has been quite enjoyable.

On Monday we began our orientation. In practical terms, that has meant a week of administrative laps back and forth across a swampy bureaucracy. I have stood in a diverse group of queues, been orientated, de-oriented, and then reoriented on practically every aspect of university life, and completed a novella worth of paperwork. They REALLY like paperwork here.

The positive result is that I now have a bank account, health insurance, stipend, public transit pass, access to the Open Society Archives, university ID card, student card, and temporary student card. (And yes, apparently it IS necessary to have all three versions of the student card. Redundant you say? Don’t ask…) For much of the week it seemed that I was barely staying afloat in this deluge of paperwork and bureaucracy, but looking back I can now breath a sigh of relief at my highly productive week.

Most of my limited free time has been spent in the library, reading the news, perusing journals, and wrapping up some tasks for Humanity in Action. I’ve actually had the energy and drive to read an article from Foreign Affairs each night this week. More surprising still is that I’ve actually found myself wanting to spend my evenings this way. In the depths of my thesis writing tension last winter, I felt burned out on school – this burnout was one of my prime worries heading into this year. But the respite of summer seems to have provided the needed break, and I’m now feeling more engaged as a student than ever before.

Time not spent in the library has been filled with making new friends and settling in at the university residence center. My accommodation in this residence has been the least enjoyable part of my new life. Forty-five minutes removed from the main campus in the heart of Budapest’s 19th century baroque beauty, the residence is in a suburb still bearing signs of the Communist era – while the car dealership beneath my window marks the gilded age of capitalism, the grey high-rises surrounding it are a reminder of grim Soviet blocs.

Yet even here, the negatives are fading as life settles into the comforts of this new home. The residence center is quite nice, and amongst its various other amenities it includes a pool and sauna. I’ve begun swimming as a workout again, something not done since my lifeguard training eight summers ago. True, it’s not the mindless fun of splashing around aimlessly, but just as my studies are finding new focus, so too am I finding new wells of energy for swimming as exercise.

As to new friends, I’m surrounded by interesting people from every corner of the globe. It’s wonderfully intriguing to be immersed in a group of students who are primarily from the region my studies emphasize. As of yet, they are still a bit baffled by what they view as my “excessive” library time. But just as those who know me back home will certainly not be shocked to read of my time in the library, I’m sure my new friends will soon accept that it’s simply who I am.

I may not have my footing yet, but then, life is too interesting, and the water starts to feel cold if one stands still too long. For the time being, I’m just enjoying the swim.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Travel by Train!

I have now arrived in Budapest. Despite my strong desire for a shower, I am first posting this entry, written this morning while onboard a train.

Train is perhaps my favorite mode of transportation – the futuristically sleek ICE that glides across Europe at 200+ km/h, the festive Denver-Winter Park Ski Train, the obsessive punctuality of the German DB, and even the dated happenstance of Amtrak, (which is as obsessively late as the German trains are punctual) – I love it all. At present, I am watching the plains of Hungary glide by under the early morning sun, keeping my eyes peeled for the first signs of Budapest.

Yesterday morning (Friday), I left Switzerland to meet up with Conny’s youth group in Munich. Serendipitously, they had a prearranged trip in Munich, and I needed to be there to catch the train to Budapest. Conny’s group had left the night before; I was supposed to be with them, but a silly mistake on my part delayed me until yesterday.

I awoke Friday morning to a picture of green Alpine meadows and craggy peaks jutting through the mist. As Conny’s mother drove me down the mountain to the train station, we descended through the clouds into the valley of the Rhine River headwaters. It was as if I was returning to earth from a dream – a fitting image for my time with Conny.

We have had a great time together this past week and a half. We dozed away a day on the shores of the Caumasee, only daring to dip into the chilly water once. Later, Liliana and AnnaMaria (Conny’s sister and mother, respectively) explained that scientists have been unable to determine the lake’s water source, despite great effort. Last Sunday, I joined Conny’s family for her grandfather’s 90th birthday. There was good food, good company, and a small choir recital. We have taken hikes and went to a dinner party, and throughout the entire week I have met Conny’s friends and extended family, who always took an interest in my presence.

In Munich, we got a tour of the Paulaner Brewery; this was especially exciting for me as Paulaner is one of my favorite German beers. I had heard the tour included a tasting…I later discovered that “tasting” meant over half a liter of beer. Munich is in Bavaria after all…and the home of Oktoberfest. Afterwards, we sat in the beer garden, enjoying wurst and fries. If ever in Munich, skip the tourist-packed Hofbrauhaus; the locals are all at these beer gardens. (From a previous visit, I also recommend the Augustiner Keller.)

Then it was back to the main station, and onto the train! For the 9.5 hour haul from Munich to Budapest, I have enjoyed the comfort of a sleeper car shared with one other person. This afforded me a private cabin with a sink, a pre-made bed, snacks, and a morning coffee brought to my door by the steward. All this for only 69 Euro! For all those traveling in Europe, I highly recommend looking for specials offers from die Bahn.

That’s all I got written on the train, but it’s probably plenty for you to read. Last Saturday, I was helping Conny move to Basel, where she will soon be starting University. A week later, now it’s time for me to unpack in my new home. So, I will end where I began: travel by train!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Herzlichen Wilkommen in der Schweiz!

Hello from across the pond!

As the title ("a heartfelt welcome to Switzerland") indicates, I have arrived safely and happily in Switzerland. After a good 13 hour sleep, I have showered my jetlag away and am now ready to go out and tackle the Swiss Alps.

As with my last visit two and a half years ago, I am staying with the ever gracious family of Conny. They live on the side of a mountain in a tiny village in Graubunden, Switzerland's largest kanton (like a state). This is the kanton famous for mountains, Davos, San Moritz, and the birth of the winter resort, but there is no shortage of summertime adventure. I know cliches make for bad writing, but if you think of the cliche image of Switzerland, that pretty much exactly describes my present location.

The local language (by which I mean in this valley), is Romansch. Along with German, French, and Italian, Romansch is Switzerland's fourth official language. It is only spoken by about 50,000 people in the world, and is the closest living equivalent of Latin. Luckily, everybody who speaks Romansch also speaks German, (though Swiss German is practically its own language...)

Conny was an exchange student during my senior year of high school; some of you had the pleasure to meet her last fall. Conny's two older sisters (Patricia and Lilian) are also visiting right now, so there is no shortage of excitement here! I met them all during my last visit, and always enjoy our adventures.

Speaking of adventure, we are about to go hiking, so I will end here. I miss you all dearly, and promise to respond to all letters once I have made it to Budapest.


Saturday, August 16, 2008


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Welcome (to a place of in-betweens)

As I sit down to welcome you, I am immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the point in my life from which I issue the welcome, and the particulars of this blog to which I am welcoming you.

My own life is at a crossroads – recently graduated from Colorado College (CC), I’m setting off to give the expatriate life a try. Having just completed a six week fellowship in Europe with Humanity in Action, I’m now back in the States for just long enough to put my life in order (deep storage) and say some goodbyes. Then it’s off to Budapest for a year at the Central European University (CEU). After that, who knows? The only thing that seems certain is that the coming years will bring constant transition.

As a blog, these words exist in no fixed place – the words, like everything else on a computer, are endless 0s and 1s that can be assembled in any place, but are anchored in no geographic point. I am reminded of the double-entendre Sir Thomas More penned with the creation of the word “utopia,” the Greek roots of which imply both a “good place” and “no place.” Find a word for both “no place” and “any place” and that would be this blog.

As a window into my life, this blog will reflect this transitory phase by offering a place from which one can catch a glimpse of the various paths leading towards and away from the present crossroads. As such, the topics will be eclectic. This page will host everything from travel blogs and photos to reviews and political essays. Someday, maybe even advice for other young internationalists. Like my own life, however, the content won’t be fixed.

So, as I stand at these crossroads, I welcome you to this virtual space – both no place and any place. To friends, family, and the random passerby: WELCOME!