Central Europe, Summer 2011, Part 2

Each of us was assigned a “blog date” for the trip. Mine was June 2nd, which turned out to be one of my favorite days. Below is my post. You can read all of our entries at http://www.flinnscholars.org/author/8/articles 

1 June 2011

Pécs, Hungary 

We rolled into Pécs around 12:45, sleepy, starving and sluggish. The city greeted our droopy eyes with crumbling brick facades and shady trees, houses nestled into rolling hills. Immediately, I knew I wasn’t in Budapest anymore. Our walking tour of the city revealed a youthful, fresh atmosphere and a feeling of optimism that was absent from the capital. Many people in Budapest still carry the weight of communism like mud caked on their shoes. It seems the sun shines a little brighter in Pécs.

After the tour, Carter and I explored Király utca, or King street, which features most of the pubs and restaurants in the city, including a McDonalds and a place called “Arizona Ranch.” We walked until we thought there was nothing left to see, finally stumbling upon Sufni Art Pub. This unique café sits inconspicuously at just about the end of Király. Inside, the walls are covered with handwritten anecdotes, signatures and cartoons left by the people who have passed through. Exhausted umbrellas hang from the ceiling and antiques clutter every available space. We settled into a pair of decaying chairs and had a relaxing evening- chatting, writing emails, and listening to the gentle rain. All too soon it was time to return to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group, but not before leaving a part of ourselves behind in blue sharpie.

Arizona Ranch? In Hungary?

Inside Sufni Art Pub

Strolling down Király utca under my Walmart travel umbrella, I felt an overwhelming feeling of contentment. Here I was with an extraordinary friend splashing through the streets of one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever experienced. And it only got better.  We walked onto the main square and turned to face a perfect double rainbow stretched across the evening sky. City Hall glowed in the setting sun and the rain pattered in the cobblestone streets.

These were my first six hours in Pécs.

I know it all sounds terribly cliché, but I’m not exaggerating. This simple, unexpected experience is going to be one of my most treasured memories. And I’ve learned that it is these instances that make an experience not only unique, but yours. Whether it is dancing to traditional Hungarian music, playing with children in a Roma village, discovering a cool pub or merely a rainbow, an experience is memorable because you make it yours and you make it new.

We’ve colored this trip with our own palette and it can never be recreated; this truly is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. In fact, over the past few days I’ve realized that everything in life is. Every conversation, interaction, all of it is distinct- so own it. Invest yourself in each day, because there will never be another one like it.

Carter in the main square

These two entries reflect my almost immediate reactions to two very significant events. I’d say my first impressions are optimistic, even a little romantic. The high from having such rare experiences was legitimate, but it also kept me from seeing the more harsh reality. I reflect on it all a few days later from a new perspective. But for now, here is the “AAAAAAAH! I can’t believe how cool this is!” version. 

3 June 2011

Pecs, Hungary

This morning we visited Gandhi High School, an exclusively Roma institution whose goal is to provide Romani students with the educational opportunities they are often denied in the Hungarian school system. If you’d like to learn more about the school, there is an adequate article here. Part of the visit included a sort of music swap between us and the students. So, we performed the American classic, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. Being the singer in the group, I was given the task of soloing in the beginning…just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely WOR-R-LD! This song is still stuck in my head. Man! Was I nervous! It’s tough performing in a different country. After our fabulous show, several of the Roma students played and sang traditional gypsy music, after which all of us joined together to sing “Feliz Navidad.” To top it all off, we went outside with one of the English classes and had a short of show-and-tell question-and-answer session. Naturally, this led to Ryan and Jonah breakdancing.

Being able to share something with these students was unique, something most American tourists don’t get to experience. And even though we all came from such drastically different backgrounds, I still found copious similarities between these students and those at home. Clothing. Music. Dating. Even attitudes regarding school. Yet another reaffirming cross-cultural encounter: we are all one race.

4 June 2011

Leaving Alsószentmárton (a Roma village in Hungary)

Just now, I had one of the most priceless experiences ever. For about three hours, we visited (meaning lunched, played, talked, and connected) a Roma village just south of Pécs. Our group was welcomed into the village with their traditional meal of stewed chicken accompanied by a loaf of bread that was not only delicious, but the size of a small child. This is not an exaggeration. This bread was extraordinary in both taste and size. After lunch, Laslo, a prominent leader in the community who was the Flinn Foundation’s first connection to Alsószentmárton, took us on a walk throughout the village. On our way, children joined us, attracted by the toys and trinkets we had brought from the States. Soon, we were like a traveling circus, throwing frisbees, painting faces, and making friends. Once we returned to Laslo’s house, the games continued. Jonah started racing with the boys and I couldn’t help but join in. I got my ass kicked, by the way. After a water break, I sat down on the driveway with Angela and a couple little girls who were drawing in chalk on the cement. The four of us began a language game in which Angela and I would point to one of the pictures and the girls would tell us how to say the word in Hungarian. They giggled as we tried to pronounce the words for “flower,” “tree,” “heart.” It was adorable, to say the least. By the time we were supposed to say our goodbyes, none of us wanted to leave. 

This experience was incredible because when you have something cool and shiny, there is absolutely no language barrier with kids. We may have been from different countries, even different worlds, but for those few hours, we understood each other. 


Walking through the village

8 June 2011

Leaving the farm; Near Novi Sad, Serbia

Much has happened since I last wrote.

The Roma village, for instance, has taken on a new meaning in my mind. It wasn’t merely wonderful- it was eye-opening. We were told that aside from government employees, we are the only outsiders who visit, or take any interest in, Alsószentmárton. Knowing this made me understand what it truly means to be impoverished: it doesn’t simply mean hunger, disease, ignorance, or disempowerment; it means insignificance. To be impoverished is to be irrelevant. To be invisible…

We arrived in Novi Sad sometime in the evening and sort of haphazardly determined who our hosts would be for the night. Carter and I ended up with Dragana. From first glance she looked artsy and interesting- hair cut short, bright (hipster-esque) clothes, and holding a bag of sketches. During the bus ride home, we compared our countries, our interests, our lives. It was clear from the beginning that we had a lot to give to each other. Once we got to her house, Carter and I met her mother, two younger brothers, and the girl friend of brother number one. They all live together in a modest house in the suburbs, and grandma and grandpa live next door. The three of us hurried through dinner and hurried back to the bus stop, ready to get a taste of Novi Sad night-life… which was, eh hem, quite fun, to say the very very least. 

Dragana gave me some new perspectives on the U.S., on creativity, and really, on the way I live my life. First of all, I’m filthy rich. Many people in Serbia have hardly any money compared to most Americans. I make more money in a week than some Serbs make in a month. On top of that, I don’t have to leave my country to find a job. I don’t have to worry about the system failing me…This new awareness of how fortunate I am is something I pray I don’t ever lose sight of.

Secondly, Dragana provided some insight into what it means to be creative in today’s society. She is pursuing a career in art and we connected over the struggle of making a living out of our creativity. At some point in our conversation, I said “it’s hard to be creative.” Profound, Savannah. Dragana responded with a much more perceptive statement: she said “no, it is hard to remain creative.” This resounded in my mind for days. It had never occurred to me that being artistic, or musical, or dramatic, isn’t the challenge. Instead, the battle is sustaining that part of your identity. And that requires sacrifice, sometimes more than you are willing to give…

Yesterday, we left Novi Sad and drove about half an hour to a farm where we would camp out for the night. This experience is up there with the Roma village. There was grass and trees and goats and horses (!!!) and archery and dogs and food! It was fanfuckingtastic. Being out there in what was surely the middle of nowhere was so necessary after too many endless days, sleepless nights, and spinning daydreams. I needed a chance to get back to myself. We did everything from playing with farm animals, to learning traditional Slovakian dance, to sitting around a campfire. That night we went to sleep with the rain spitting on our tents and another handful of priceless memories locked away, in our minds, our cameras, and our hearts.

Talking with the horse

14 June 2011

On our last night in Belgrade, Ryan, Brandon and I stayed with Blazo. Blazo lives with his mother and younger brother in New Belgrade on the 6th floor of a leftover-from- communism apartment building. His mother greeted us with open arms and a bottle of homegrown wine, made by Blazo’s father in Montenegro.

The wine smelled like it had been poured from the vineyard right into our glasses. It was a deep deep purple and it tasted like grapes, earth, and alcohol all at once. Once we finished our wine, we headed out to the splavs. Splav = club on a yacht.  We ended up at Plastic, which was packed and pulsing with energy. It was nearly impossible to move in the ocean of people, much less dance. Yet, somehow, we managed to dance for several hours, partying all the way into the morning. By the time we started the journey back to Blazo’s apartment, the rising sun had turned the sky a greyish sort of blue and the birds had begun to sing.

The next morning, we slept in and ate breakfast with Blazo’s family. I am amazed by how warm this family is. The love and appreciation between them is tangible. It is remarkable to see how invested they are in one another and comforting to witness such devotion.

The three of us with Blazo

We left Belgrade and started toward Stara Moravica, a Hungarian minority village in the north of Serbia, where we would stay with families for the night. The following morning was Pentecost, a religious holiday. Somehow, word had gotten to the minister of the church that I was a singer and he asked me to sing at the end of the service. I was reluctant at first, but in the end I conceded, singing “Amazing Grace.” Hearing my voice fill the entire church was incredible. I felt honored to have performed in such a place.

I feel like I have so much to tell! Yesterday we attended “The Barber of Seville” at the opera house in Budapest. I had never seen an opera before, and being a singer, it was quite a treat. The show itself is hilarious, and the personal touches this cast added, such as microphones and credit cards, made it even more so. After devouring very large, scrumptious bowls of ice cream with the group, Carter and I took at tram to the Buda side of the city and climbed up Gellert Hill. From the summit, we could see for miles into the scintillating lights of Budapest, the glistening Danube, the glowing bridges. We opened a bottle of wine and talked there in summer wind. Before we left, we stood in silence, amazed at the beauty, the serenity, and the wonder of it all.

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