Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have very exciting news for you! I am now engaged to my fiancé Tony! We plan to get married next summer, after I finish my Master’s degree at U of T. Life is incredibly exciting!
It has been a while since I last wrote, so let me share some stories about the past few weeks. The weekend of March 23rd, I joined the Hungarian Scouts for a weekend close to Zurich. It was wonderful to be surrounded by lots of screaming monkeys again! It was great fun to sing and play games with them, and very nice to see that many of them spoke Hungarian perfectly, despite having been born in Switzerland! Their parents did an excellent job of keeping their cultural heritage alive in their families.
The weekend after, Lea and I went to Rome for Easter. We were very lucky to receive tickets from a priest friend of ours, to the Saturday evening Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica with the Pope! We stayed with various absolutely wonderful friends the whole time we were in Rome, and ETH paid for our train tickets (they were covered by the course we were taking at the FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization) so our trip ended up being quite inexpensive. It is incredible how cheaply it is possible to travel in Europe if you have just a bit of an adventurous spark in you…
You have probably seen Lea’s description of our fantastic experiences in Rome already, so I’ll skip to the week after: I went to Transylvania for a week with my then-boyfriend Tony. Transylvania is very interesting, since parts are still deeply rooted in Hungarian culture, and yet in the 1900’s was annexed to Romania. There are still hundreds of kilometers of towns where the population is largely Hungarian, except for the civil servants. Since Transylvania has all the salt mines, and much of the manufacturing and production industry in Romania, Romania has great interest in keeping this part as its own territory, despite some separatist movements. Anyway, it was very interesting to see the “invisible” conflict between the people: i.e. a constant competition of which nation had more flags up, etc.
I flew from Rome to Kolozsvar, where I met Tony. We slept at the house of a Pastor of the Reformed Church, and it was very interesting to talk to him and his wife about how they balanced parenthood with constantly serving the people of the church. They have 6 children, all of whom are musicians with perfect pitch! The next morning we went to Deva, to visit an ancient castle ruin, and an orphanage. The castle was beautiful; set at the top of a cliff with a sheer drop on all sides. It is inaccessible except for a winding, steep path up the slope. Naturally we let our imaginations run and came up with all sorts of stories about possible battles and sieges the castle must have faced in its long history.
But the orphanage was an even deeper experience, due to its fascinating story. There is a priest in Transylvania who recognized the need to give homes to children who come from starving and abusive families, so 30 years ago, he started the first “Arva Haz” (Orphanage). Since then, he has opened approximately one new house a year, each with a couple hundred children. The system is very well thought out: volunteer families move in to the community with their own children, and “adopt” (not legally, just practically) approximately another 10 children. So the “adopted’ children grow up in a family unit, although they all have their meals together in a big cafeteria etc. It is very difficult for these families, not just due to the emotional and physical stress due to caring for ~13 kids, many of whom bear deep psychological scars from childhood experiences at home, but also financially: they receive only 20 Euros per kid per month from the state. This means they have to somehow feed the children from about 50 cents a day. This is of course impossible, so they rely greatly on donations from local supermarkets, etc. but it is a constant battle to make ends meet. It is interesting to note that when we talked to many of the children, they all declared that they were quite happy to be living with their surrogate families. In fact when given the choice to go home to their biological families for the summer break, many children prefer to stay in the safety and loving surroundings of their surrogate families rather than return to the violence they experienced at home… It was heartrending to hear one of the 15 year old boys tell us he wants to be a priest, and that he’s glad that that he was born into such a horrible family, because this way he can commiserate with and have far greater empathy for all the poor he will serve when he will become a priest for these communities… Many of the youth end up going to college or university, and grow up to lead relatively normal lives as adults, thanks to the loving care they received from their surrogate families. It is truly an incredible sacrifice for the surrogate parent volunteers to devote their whole life to raising not just their own, but many other people’s children too while still working full-time. These moments make me realize just how much it is possible to give of one’s life.
After Deva we went to Zabola, to visit an old aristocratic family. They own about 10,000 acres, enormous forests, and live in a beautiful old renovated castle. In Canada, many people think that these old noble families have completely died out in Europe, but actually they still exist! The young couple has two small children, for whom life is a paradise: running around outside in the fields and forests all day, going horseback riding, etc. Although there is a huge difference between the income of this family (mainly from the business of sustainably logging their forests) and the average income of families in the villages surrounding them, they commit themselves to accomplishing so much good in the villages, raising the standard of living, providing cultural opportunities, etc.
We then went to visit the “Csango”, a group of Hungarians who still very strongly adhere to their own flavor of Hungarian traditions and culture. After the veritable palace at Zabola, it was quite the change to be in a village where over 80% of the families had no regular income, and just lived on subsistence farming. There were no paved roads, most people used horse drawn wagons instead of cars, and although the people dressed modernly, there were houses without running water. It was absolutely fascinating to speak with the villagers. 100 years ago, this community lived completely independently of its surroundings, producing all their own food, creating their own furniture, using sheep’s wool and flax for making their own clothes, etc. They had no need for and no dependence on the outside world. However, the youth of the village were taken to fight in the world wars, and then the Communists destroyed their mills, making them dependent on bread from outside sources, and bulldozed down their farms etc. The community tried hard to remain as independent as possible from the Communists, but over the last 50 years, the community has fallen prey to a more sinister danger: globalized culture through the TV. Today, the farmers come home from work, and instead of sitting down with their families around the dinner table to discuss a day’s work well done, they come home and plop themselves in front of the television set, and drool over the Hollywood stars. The effect on their lives is really terrible. Whereas for the last 400 years, their ancestors lived quite contentedly as a farming community, they now aspire to have fancy cars, they are no longer satisfied with small houses, they want to drink Coca-Cola and in fact spend hard earned wages to buy one cherished bottle. Altogether they want to pursue and implement Western society as quickly as possible. What they don’t realize, is that adopting Western society with its materialistic approach to life will not bring them more happiness than they currently have. Unfortunately, the splendid life they see on TV is a false chimera: they don’t know the gory details of life behind the Hollywood scenes; they simply allow themselves to be misled by what they see on the screen. The result of this is that many of the young people today leave the villages to go work in Western countries such as Italy, where they have the satisfaction that they are “working in the West” but actually usually end up working and living in awful conditions. Many of them are very lonely “out West”, through a lack of cultural integration and generally have worse lives than they would at home caring for their cows and sheep. The lure of a capitalistic glamorous life providing happiness is the greatest deception of our civilization today!
A few of the other highlights of the trip were horseback riding in Csikszerda, a concert by the famous children’s choir at Szentegyhaza, and best of all: we had the opportunity to go paragliding at Csiksomlyo! It was an incredible experience to be flying through the air over the beautiful countryside! After paragliding, Tony made a big show of having forgotten his passport in the Csango village, so we went back, and ended up going on a hike in the neighboring hill. At the top of a little Csango mountain, we found a tiny wooden chapel magically filled with roses, and Tony asked for my hand with a beautiful song he had composed. It was wonderfully romantic! After some minutes of crying and laughing from joy, I said yes! So we plan to be married next summer after I finish university. Life is so exciting!
That’s all for now!
Hanna and Lea