Monday, September 21, 2009

Residency Permit, Round Two

The battle for the residency permit continues tomorrow. I only need about twenty different types of paperwork, signed by a myriad of characters. Once I have all this (hopefully by 2:30 pm today, as the office is only open 2:30-4), I need to go to the Foreign National Office. Where is that you ask? Why the local refugee camp of course!!! If I don't want to go all the way to Budapest, I have to take a bus 45 minutes out of town to the refugee camp in the suburbs at an old Soviet barracks encampment. I ran into the American Corner rep, Dora. Dora told me not to go alone, and to wear conservative clothing as I would likely get heckled by the Afghani, Georgian, Albanian (kosovar), and Iraqi inhabitants. Even when I went to get signatures from landlady mother in law, she said not to go alone. She then told me that she would try to go with me (so nice!). Now I am not sure what a 5'4" seventy-year-old woman will be able to do to help me, but I'm willing to find out.

If you don't hear from me soon, please come looking for me in a burqa in a tent on Samsoni Ut.

Egy lépés elöre, két lépés vissza.

I am trying, rather desperately, to perfect my Hungarian. It is not working well, and I feel mostly like the frog in sixth grade math class who climbs two feet up the side of the well, then slides down three ( many feet did she climb?). Wading through Hungarian bureaucracy has theoretically been good practice, but has only served to confuse me more This has been well-documented previously, unfortunately.

However, there are occasionally bright spots. This morning I had my first department meeting conducted entirely in Hungarian. I somehow lived to tell the tale. I was able to answer specific questions when asked, and, believe it or not, I could even volunteer for the specific time slots they needed! All while understanding most of what was going on...I think.

The best part came at the end of the meeting, when one of the senior psychiatry researchers came up and asked me, "So, are you second or third generation Hungarian?," with the emphasis indicating it was clearly a one or the other question. When I responded that I neither, solely "száz százalékot amerikoi" - one hundred percent American - she tried to clarify.
"No, I mean your parents or grandparents. When did they come over from Hungary?" I again insisted they were from America - perhaps a few generation back from Ireland and Alsace-Lorraine. She was dumbfounded.
"But then how did you learn Hungarian so perfectly?"

Dear senior researcher: you have just made my week. I will pass out however many surveys you want me to, at whatever ungodly hour you desire (7 am on the other side of town?!? Really?!?). Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Just call me "Palmolive"

A quick vignette: at 8:05 am last Tuesday, the two-person work crew from TvNetWork (the only cable company in town willing/desperate enough to give me a ten month internet contract) rang my doorbell. Why they were fifty-five minutes early, I do not know. Obviously, the punctuality of workmen is yet another addition to my list of Hungarian American cultural differences. Nonetheless, I was far from awake, and attempted to get myself and my apartment in order as they climbed the five flights of stairs to my door.

For some reason, in every Hungarian handyman/service crew I have met (sample size of n=3), there always is a tall, husky gentleman with a hefty voice, and a short, thin gentleman with a much more wiry voice. They are always very kind, and laugh heartily - if not politely - at my hysterical attempts at Hungarian. I would probably find it funny too.

This crew was no different. One asked for dish soap, to grease the coaxial cable he was shoving through the drywall. I brought it to him, and he pointed to the bottle (or so I thought) and said, "Hogy hivja?," meaning 'how do you call it?"
I responded, "Dishwashing Fluid."
He snarled his nose, and responded, "Tényleg? A nevéd deesh-vash-ing flooid?"
- 'Really?Your name is deesh-vash-ing flooid?'

I had made an incredibly stupid linguistic mistake (but hey! it wasn't the first of this year! cf. the end of this post): though 'hogy hivja' does literally mean 'how do you call it?,' it is the third person singular conjugation. Like many other languages, Hungarian uses a different conjugation for formal of second person - it uses third person. So, since I was apparently someone worth sucking up to in this situation, he was addressing me formally. In my defense, I am not addressed in the second person formal often, if ever. And, it makes no clear sense to use third person singular for formal of second person singular - most other languages (cf. French) use the second person plural. I rest my case.

Nevertheless, for the next week, I will be responding to the name "Palmolive" in addition to Barbara.

And on the way home...

Returning from Budapest this weekend, I was surprised - if not frightened - by the police presence on and around my train. As I climbed aboard, two armed Budapest policemen followed me, and proceeded to check or lightly search the entire length of the train. It wasn't clear what they were looking for, or if they were looking for anything at all. As they worked, ten to fifteen other cops stood alongside the train car armed and dressed in full riot gear. In these situations, I try to normally take my social cues from the Hungarians around me: if the nénis (old ladies, literally "aunties") are whispering wildly or if the old men stand up and puff their chests, it is generally a good idea to get anxious. But no one on the train looked too worried - so I tried to forget about it and continue puffing away at my book. After all, several of the policemen were puffing away at the Hungarian hobby of choice, Marlboro Lights.

About half way through the three hour ride, I got up to stretch my legs. As I walked to the end of the car, I noticed three men (all in the nascent beer belly stage) wearing black cargo shorts,
boots, and black t-shirts - with the Árpád zászló across the chest.

A quick note: The Árpád zászló (the Arpad flag) was the flag of the first Hungarian dynasty, the Árpád dynasty. Though the dynasty only lasted about three centuries, the flag is in use today as a small part of the
Hungarian state seal. According to the state, the four silver stripes represent the "four rivers of Hungary - the Duna, the Tisza, the Dráva, and the Sáva." No official explanation is given for the four red ones between them...
The Árpád flag was also used by the Arrow Cross Party in the 1940s - Hungary's equivalent of the Nazis. Though is disappeared after World War II, it has returned to popularity in recent years as a symbol of the right-wing, which is increasingly synonymous in Hungary with the ultra-nationalists.

The Magyar Garda, a nascent 'militia' of formed by ultra-nationalists to "defend a physically, spiritually and intellectualy defenceless Hungary," is perhaps the most fervent user of the Árpád flag. Their goal has also been summed up as keeping "Hungary for the Hungarians," and they act as the uniformed arm of the rising political party Jobbik (which loosely translates to "Better"). They have been swearing in new members at induction ceremonies around Hungary (often in places of historical and cultural significance) for the past two years, though they were recently outlawed by the Supreme Court on July 2, 2009. Technically, since the group's prohibition by the court, they are no longer allowed to congregate or wear the uniform in public. However, their activities have continued (albeit on private property), and often involves the donning of the official uniform: black combat pants, black boots, white shirt, and a black vest with an Árpád-style shield on the left chest and back.

This brings us back to the three men on the train: wearing all black with the Arpad flag t-shirt. While an uncommon t-shirt design (for that matter, it is very popular on all types of consumer products: bumper stickers, pins, necklace and bracelet charms, bandannas, coffee mugs, etc...the direct Hungarian equivalent of the Stars and Bars), it is uncommon to see three men all wearing the same one at the same time. Was this what the police were looking for?

When we arrived in Debrecen three hours later, I hopped off the train and to my surprise came face-to-face with another Hungarian policemen: except this one was completely covered in Teflon (even his steel-toed boots had their own covers) armor with a bullet-proof motorcycle-style helmet. He too was holding a rather large gun, and had a truncheon attached to his leg armor. He had brought his friends, too: about twenty-five of them, spaced every two meters along the side of the train. They looked like a row of transformers (woo hoo early nineties toy shout-out!). I walked through the ranks, and proceeded on my way home, unstopped, though saw more cops, cop cars, and army vans in the parking lot.

I still am unsure if the police presence was actually linked to the three men in pseudo-Magyar Garda uniform. As I mentioned above, it is truly a common symbol in contemporary Hungary, for better or for worse (probably worse). Nonetheless, as I was out on my evening run/jog/walk/crawl, I noticed the stadium and bars filled for a soccer match. Apparently, it was the Ferencvaros (also known as "Fradi," a Budapest team) versus Debrecen game. Though I don't know exactly where the Venn diagram of soccer hooligans and ultra-nationalists meets, it is a safe bet there is quite a bit of overlap.

Relevant Links:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“The State Department spokesman described the meeting as 'frank and candid,' the diplomatic vocabulary for 'brutal.'”

- Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga (Page 120)

I have just finished reading a fantastic book, and I feel the need to scream from the mountain-tops to tell everyone to read it. Therefore, prepare your ears for some serious yodeling from the vicinity of Hungary until you go pick-up and read Boutros Boutros-Ghali's Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga. I picked this book up from the bargain book box on the porch of the House of Our Own bookstore a few days before I left. As I was in need of cheap books to read on the plane/train/horse-cart that did not need to be returned to a Penn library, the $2 price tag seemed appropriate for a used hard-cover book that most likely last saw use as some grad student's doorstop. However, when I finally, albeit reluctantly, started to read it, I felt like I had immediately made a new friend in Boutros. I even kept saying in my head, “Maybe I will go spend a little time with Boutros; see what he has to say” the next couple chapters. Did I mention I was a diplomacy dork?

My two favorite distinguishing features of the book were the enlightening descriptions of Madeline Albright - “Albright rolled her eyes and made a face, repeating what had become her standard expression of frustration with me” - and the incredible portrayal of just how destructive Great Power politics were to the Yugoslavian peace processes between 1991 and 1996. Although I recently took a class of Great Power politics and the Balkans, I had not come to realize how closely linked the more personal aspect of diplomacy – specifically its failure – was to the actual length of the 1990s Balkan War. Heretofore I believed that the three year length of the initial Serbia-Croatia-Bosnia war was linked to the internal players: Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić, Franjo Tudjman, Alija Izetbegovic, and the like. However, Boutros-Ghali portrays continued combat past 1992 as a symptom of the George H.W. Bush – Bill Clinton political hand-off. Clinton and his newly appointed Department of State were loathe to support the Vance-Owen plan, which had been created only a few months earlier by Bush's State Department. Nonetheless, it still represented the best chance at peace – both at the time, and over the entire three year period.

“Worse [than rejected the Vance-Owen plan], the chances of peace being thrown away, as Clinton and [Warren] Christopher, using strong language, attacked the Vance-Owen plan as appeasement of the Serbs. They were wrong. The plan delineated a ten-province structure that would reflect all groups fairly, reconstituting Bosnia as a multiethnic and progressively demilitarized state. It would have blocked the Serb goal of creating a 'Greater Serbia.'” (Page 69)

The idea of the 'Greater Serbia' was espoused first in Ilije Garašanin's Načertanije, a mid-nineteenth century document written to solidify the idea of a Serbian nationality and identity in the face of the Ottoman Empire. It was pretty much forgotten for much of the twentieth century until the late 1980s, when Slobodan Milošević dredged from the annals of national memory. At the time, the Federal Yugoslavian state was waning in the decade after Tito's death. Milošević used the ideas inherent in the document to awaken the Serbian nationality that lay dormant underneath the 'Yugoslavian.' It worked: he became President of Serbia, and the Serbian nationality was so awake and alert it attempted to conquer the rest of Yugoslavia to create the 'Greater Serbia' mentioned above. The wavering of the Americans only helped the Serbians in the long run:

"Asked to explain what the United States intended [in lieu of the Vance-Owen plan], former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger said he thought the United States wanted to reduce the 43 percent of the territory that the Vance-Owen plan gave the Serbs. It would take two and a half more years of bloody war and war crimes before the United States, at Dayton, would give the Serbs 49 percent.” (Page 71)

Boutros-Ghali portrays the Clinton administration as inconsistent, unprofessional, and difficult to deal with in nearly all aspects of foreign affairs. While this might be rather severe, he makes a pretty good case. It is also not altogether too surprising, considering Clinton was elected solely on a domestic issues platform. It's the economy, stupid!

Another fantastic quotation from the book:

“Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” (American military expert Elliott Cohen, as quoted by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Page 142)

And, to end, a short story on the hazards of multi-linguistics:

“Our conversation was conducted in French...After we hung up, Fulci [Italian Ambassador to United Nations at the time], at a noon press conference, declared that I had 'suspended' my candidacy. In French and also in English the word means a provisional hiatus, or interruption. But the American media immediately took it to mean that I had dropped out or removed my name from consideration...commentary indicated that I had withdrawn entirely...I disagreed. But the damage was done.” (Page 324)

Unfortunately, this story is rather apropos in my life, considering a recent specific personal/professional problem caused by a hole in the language barrier. I feel your pain, Boutros. The damage was done. I can only hope that I too will be 'unvanquished.'