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Posts Tagged ‘Mitteleuropa’

Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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[A Hungarian friend and journalist colleague, Gabor Miklos, responded to my Sept. 1 Mantle post “Mitteleuropa: Not Just a State of Mind,” with this Oct. 22 piece, “A Virtualis Retesbirodalom,” in the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.]

BUDAPEST — Mike amerikai, és Pozsonyban lakik, ott találkoztunk. Régi az ismeretség, hiszen vagy tizenöt éve még Pesten élt. Vannak ilyenek. Járják a világot, de a valódi otthonuk az óceán túlsó oldalán van. Azt fejtegeti, hogy most rájött, a régi Közép-Európa újra létezik. Azt tapasztalta, hogy a szlovákok szívesen vesznek házat Magyarországon, az osztrákok a magyar oldalon esznek, és mind a három nemzet együtt fürdőzik a határhoz közeli osztrák vagy magyar termálfürdőkben. És ehhez jön még a rétes.

Különösen a mákos. Mike ugyanis magáévá tette az elméletet, miszerint Közép-Európa ott van, ahol rétes van. És mák. Mert például mákos ételeket – bejgli, rétes, metélt, guba, nudli és társai – szerinte kizárólag az egykori Monarchia utódállamaiban fogyasztanak. És ő ezt most kiválóan tapasztalja, sőt megéli. Hiszen Pozsonyban lakik, s Szlovákia sokszorosan utódállam.

Pár évvel ezelőtt néhányan megpróbáltunk utánajárni ennek az ügynek. Létezik-e valóban a virtuális mákosrétes-birodalom? Szóval, hogy ahol kilencven-egynéhány éve még egyforma indóházak épültek, és Fellner és Helmer építette színházakban bécsi és pesti operetteket játszottak, ahol tükrös kávéházakban friss nyugat-európai újságok várták a feketére betérőket. A felfedezőút kiterjedt még némileg irodalomra, kultúrára, hangulatokra és nosztalgiára. Szép kalandozás volt, jó könyv született belőle.

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Old Town Bratislava is filled with peaceful spots. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – It’s been nine months since I left Hong Kong and returned to Slovakia. I continue the blog I began in HK – “From East to East” – when I documented my shift from 16 years spent in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, to a close-up view of still-Communist China.

This is part journalism, part travelogue: it tracks my journey as a foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Aside from the Slovakia posts (begins Feb. 2, “Hello, Old Friend”), visit my posts about teaching journalism in Hong Kong, plus my dispatches and photos about the region’s unique Roma minority.

Spliced in are my recent articles, from various publications.

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (more…)

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