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A Rainy Night in…

Budapest.  Yes, rain.  For the first time on our study abroad we have been confronted with rain instead of snow…and temperatures in the low 40s instead of well below freezing.  It is also dark when we get up…even at a reasonable hour…and dark again by about 4:30 in the afternoon.  All in all, typical for this part of the world during this time of year. But it isn’t only the weather that has changed during our long trek across Europe.

Students watch the Inauguration

Students watch the Inauguration

For two-thirds of our trip, we talked about the elected leader of our country, George W. Bush. At  6 pm local time yesterday, that all changed for us as it did for all of you. Our students watched it all from the dormitories of Central European University hosted by a Russian Master’s Student, Marina, who spent one year as an exchange student at Elon.  Even our students who did not vote for President Obama and may not support him still admitted that it was a moving moment and an important time in the life of our country.  It was a moment that was more acutely savored from the distance of 6,000 miles and in the company of international students.

Today we had more politics…of the European kind.  The day started with a visit to the Hungarian Parliament, one of the most ornate and beautiful buildings in Europe.  Lots of gold leaf, huge staircases, incredible woodwork.  It is the fairytale palatial Hapsburg era central European showplace building.

inside the Hungarian Parliament

inside the Hungarian Parliament

Thanks to Dr. Morgan, our tour was conducted by two men who had decades of experience at the Parliament who got us into places tourists don’t usually get including sitting in the seats of Parliamentarians rather than just looking at those seats from the gallery. Our day concluded with briefings at the Foreign Ministry as they look forward to Hungary taking the EU Presidency in 2011.

In Parliament

In Parliament

On Top of Old Buda

Beautiful Budapest

Budapest is very special to me.  It is where my wife and I honeymooned a few years after Hungary became free of Soviet domination. There were a few good restaurants around at that time, many good coffee shops, and a Dairy Queen.  No one spoke English and few menus were translated into English.  Today, there are great restaurants everywhere with English speaking waitresses (most also speak another two or three languages) and English menus, there are still good coffee and pastry shops (some in business for the last hundred or so years) and more McDonalds, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts than any one city could possibly need.  Exported American culture–super-sized.  But this is still the special city we feel in love with all those years ago.  It reminds me of how lucky I am. It is still has great old world charm.  It is still someplace everyone should  visit.

In front of a replica castle in Budapest

In front of a replica castle in Budapest

Our visit today included a walk around the city, exploring the market, and a special  bus tour arranged just for our group.  We saw all the important sites such as St. Mathis church in old Buda , the public spa, the castle built 100 years ago as a replica of Dracula’s castle, the beautiful views of the city at night from atop the old fort on the tallest hill in Buda.  But we all saw some of the other sites that are special and  remind me of my good friend Tommy who grew up in Los Angeles.  We are the same age and friends since college.  But while I was a toddler in the suburbs,  parked in front of the television watching Sky King and Leave it to Beaver, Tommy and his family were fleeing the 1956 revolution in Hungary.  We have seen the pockmarks on the university walls from the bullets fired at student protesters and we are staying in the hotel where much of the student revolt was planned.  We’ve seen where troops looked down on unarmed protesters and opened fire.  And I think of Tommy and how lucky he was to get out and get the chance to grow up in LA.   And how many people could not leave and suffered all those years.  Budapest is a very special place to me.

Tomorrow: Barak Obama’s Inauguration from a European perspective

Bridge linking Buda and Pest (from Buda side)

Bridge linking Buda and Pest (from Buda side)

We are in Budapest!

Arrived safe and sound…all is well.  The plane was delayed by 90 minutes but there were no problems with the flight, all the luggage arrived and everyone is safely tucked in and looking forward to our first full day in Budapest tomorrow.

Leave it to Cole Porter to be perhaps the only English language songwriter to use Lithuania in the lyrics of a popular song.  It is a good way to wrap up this part of our course. We have seen the places where incredible acts of human cruelty were perpetrated.  It certainly was a time for reflection as we saw what governments did in the name of security and a time to wonder if this was an instance of evil triumphing because good men and women did nothing.  Of course we also saw the work of partisans and others who risked everything to try to change the world for the better.  Would we risk our lives for others that way?

Not everything we did was on that deep level.  We also saw museums, Churches and other places that only looked prettier in the light snow that fell many evenings. We were privileged to spend an hour with the US Ambassador to Lithuania, John Cloud.  We met people from all over eastern Europe.  That quickly reminded us that the world doesn’t start at the Atlantic Ocean and end at the Pacific.  We were joined on the trip by Associate Dean of Students, Rex Waters, who is looking at ways Elon might help in Lithuania.  We had lectures by Lithuanians and by Dr. Morgan whose love for this country is infectious.  We eat well.  We learned a lot.  Our lives changed.

Now it is on to Budapest.

All You Need is Love…

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Student Cameron Miller and new friend

(UPDATE WITH PICTURES)

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student Mike Moore never let go of that little hand

The minibus picked us up at the hotel around noon for the one-hour ride into the countryside.  We had no idea what to expect.  All we knew was that we were going to an orphanage housing 24 boys and girls ranging in age from 1 to 17. Visions of Dickens with an eastern European accent swirled in our heads.  The ride took us way off the freeway, onto secondary roads and down some unplowed roads that lead to the small village (population: 300) where the orphanage is located.  Absolutely nothing other than this little village (1 road, 2 stores) is in the area.  It is truly the back of beyond.  We fully expect to see a concrete building filled with sad faces asking for more gruel.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  Smiling children greet us at the door and welcome us into the big, rambling farmhouse where the children live.  There are toys, flat-screen televisions, exercise gear and a computer with Internet connection.  If they have all that what do they need us for?  As our students quickly realized, this wasn’t about “stuff.” As soon as we walked in, little children attached themselves to us.  They wouldn’t let go.  These were children who had parents but those parents were addicted or abusive or just couldn’t afford a child.  So these kids wound up here.   They have stuff but they need love.  They need to know they can overcome their circumstances.  They need to break the cycle.  They need our help.  We were quiet on our return to the hotel.  We were also different people than those who left Vilnius just hours before.

Associate Dean of Students, Rex Waters and Dr. Betty Morgan

Associate Dean of Students, Rex Waters and Dr. Betty Morgan

student Scott MacDougall being worn out by his new friend

student Scott MacDougall being worn out by his new friend

Sacred Ground

Yesterday we walked on sacred ground.  We did the same thing the day before.  Let me explain.  Europe, especially this part of Europe, is full of the ghosts of innocent people caught in the evil spawned by generations of fights for land and power.  Scapegoats, dissidents, those whom the powerful termed “threats to national security” are all among the dead who still haunt this area.  Yesterday we went to the Ninth Fort outside Kaunas.  Like so many sites the name seems innocent enough. Forts historically are used to defend areas.  But when the Nazis were occupying this area innocence was no where to be found and this fort, which had protected the area for centuries, became part of the holocaust.  Tens of thousands of people, mostly Lithuanian Jews, marched through the gates of this fort and were soon slaughtered.  They were forced to dig trenches.  They stood in front of those trenches as Nazi troops shot them.  The dead would fall back into the trenches.  This coldly efficient process was then repeated.  On one day 10,000 people were killed on this site.  10,000.  One day.  We stood on this site.  Under our feet were the bones of as many as 100,000 unknown victims of the Nazi killing machine.  One a cold, snowy Lithuanian day we stood silently, hearing their screams.

As our students learned the previous day, the Nazis did not hold a patent on unspeakable inhumanity.  We visited the former headquarters of the KGB in the middle of the old town part of Vilnius. Before entering, students looked at the memorial plaques attached to the side of the building, each with the name of someone scooped up and dragged into the building never to be seen alive again.  Students read the names and looked at the birth dates and the date of death, carefully doing the math and quickly realizing that the KGB didn’t grab a bunch of old dissidents.  Many of the dead were the age of our students.  Their crimes were generally that they were a threat to the state, a threat to law and order, a threat to national security.  Most of the prisoners were tortured before they were killed.  We walked into their cells, we saw their torture chambers, we stood on the spot where they were killed.  These were Lithuanians who only wanted to be free of foreign domination.  But in so many ways they were just like us.

We walked on sacred ground.

img_0095img_0132(left: a memorial outside the former KGB Headquarters)

(Below: the Ninth Fort with the Memorial to the Dead in the Center)

Vilnius Protests

As our students have been studying, there is a new government in Lithuania with the Prime Minister in office about one month.  There were anti-government protests in Vilnius today.  We were not anywhere near there. Today was the day we spent outside of Vilnius at a castle and in the second largest city in Lithuania…more than 100-kilometers away.  The protests had not started when we left and were long over by the time we returned.   The protests were also well away from the hotel and from where we spend most of our time touring and eating. At no time were any of our people anywhere near the protest area.  It is doubtful the protests got coverage in the USA though I suspect CNN International may have covered them and European media have covered the protests, too. By the way, in case you are also wondering about the on-again, off-again issue of natural gas flowing to the area,  the hotel and the indoor places we have been touring and eating at have all been toasty warm so we have had not any problems.