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!