Posts Tagged Europe 2010

Budapest, Hungary – part 3

Attila and Magdy invited us to borrow a car and drive in to the Hungarian countryside. The car we borrowed (from a Brother that works in an Audi dealership) turned out to be a new convertible Audi!

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Traveling north we visit a few old towns with ancient tile roofed homes and even older cobble stone roads. Life seemed very slow here but I was surprised by the number of German tourists snapping photos and drinking espresso.  That is the cool thing about Europe….drive a few hours and you find yourself two countries over.

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Driving further up North we reached the old Frontier of the Empire and the Danube River. A large well maintained castle was our next stop. This was a important fortification for some king of some kingdom around the year something. I just liked the drawbridge and stone walls.

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I was able to talk the group into traveling a bit further north so that we could enter the country of Slovakia. Seems like half of these countries around here were not countries when I was learning my geography! Slovakia is a slower, more mellow version of Hungary (from my 90 minute examination) but has some strange laws. It is illegal to speak Hungarian here….good thing I barely know English. We got some ice-cream and headed back.

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It was so fun to hang out with our Friends. Our upbringing was so different but we still have so much in common. What great people!

Back in Budapest, Tamara and I went to have lunch in a Jules Verne themed restaurant. He is one the first authors I remember seeking out when I was a kid. I have yet to see anything like this place. A complex  door takes you down into the Nautilus from “20,000 leagues under the sea” (1870). The steampunk décor was wonderful making you feel like you were really in the story….and the Hungarian food was good but the beer was better.

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Tamara had some ulterior motives for wanting to visit Budapest and this was because of the 2500 year anniversary of the original “Marathon” (in Greece) celebrated here at the Budapest Marathon. It had 15,000 runners but only 3000 (including Tamara) were running the entire 26 miles.

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The weather has been wonderful for us the entire trip but today it decided to punish the marathonistas with rain and stiff wind. Some people dressed up in costumes, the Rubic’s Cube was my favorite. The route took the runners past the many celebrated buildings and structures of Budapest, including the amazing Chain Bridge.

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In the end, Tamara won…with a time somewhere around 4 hours and 47 minutes. She was a bit sore but we were still able to walk around a few museums the next day; Tough Woman!

(You can go to this link and fast forward to 4:53 and see Tamara finish. They announce her name 30 seconds ahead of her finish. She is wearing black shirt and blue hat with a red sock monkey pompom on it.)

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OK…..our time as ended in Hungary…..time to catch a train…. Next update from Croatia!

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Budapest, Hungary – part 2

Budapest is quickly becoming our favorite city in the world. The language and signage is indecipherable, the people slightly distant and the food strange (ie; goose liver with plums) yet Budapest and it’s people have a dignified cadence that seems to sync with both of Tamara and I. Hungarian is a lingual anomaly. English, German and French have more in common with Hindi than Hungarian, causing confusion for Europeans and North Americans alike. Hungarians themselves don’t know who invented the language yet have a statue erected to him with the name that translates to “anonymous”.

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The metro is another thing that is unique to Budapest. Being the second metro (subway) in the world, it was originally pulled by horses under the streets of Budapest. Now it shakes and rumbles  at speeds and conditions that resemble a Six Flags ride. The ancient doors close with a quick sharp “snikt”, daring you to lose track of your hands or feet. Following the example of the locals we stood clear of the snapping doors and clung tightly to the worn leather straps hanging from the roof. A rumbling engine below our feet revs up, vibrating the floor  and suddenly we are hurdling  down a black tunnel, just wide enough to fit the small chain of cars. As I start to wonder why the locals are tensing up, someone stands on the brakes, lurching us into the 150 year old white tiled station. Before the train has even stopped moving, the doors snap open, suggesting we make a jump for it. I tried to take photos but my “Fright/Flight” motivations always got in the way.

The Hungarian Bethel cares for the 263 congregations and 22,000 publishers in 10 languages. Our Friend Attila helps direct the Kingdom Hall construction groups that are rushing to keep up with the growth.

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A room in the Bethel documents the oppression and growth in Hungary. Here are some highlights; The growth of Jehovah’s people in Hungary really started in the early 1900’s and the government resisted the expansion by claiming that Jehovah’s Witnesses were Communists, then during the 1930’s the government claimed that they were Capitalists.

Once the Nazi’s took power, the gloves came off and in one instance 160 Brothers were sent on a Death March that took many lives. Even when the Brothers were put in death camps, the growth continued albeit slowly. Here in the show cases were miniaturized bibles that were smuggled into the camps and life experiences of those (some still alive) of remaining politically neutral. The JW’s were the only oppressed group that could have left the camps just by just renouncing their faith and signing a form stating that they supported the government. We have seen these forms in Dachau, Germany.

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Then Stalin took power and the oppression continued. The underground printing and distribution continued on until 1989 and we saw some of the miniature equipment used by the Brothers and Sisters.

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The Bible that they used at that time was a Hungarian version originally translated in the early 1500’s. This translation had Jehovah’s name in it thousands of times but the language used was archaic and difficult for the modern Hungarians to understand. It took many years but Jehovah’s Witnesses produced a modern language version, the “New World Translation”, by 2003. This made understanding the Bible much easier for the people and likely explains much of the rapid growth in Hungary.

We spent quite a bit of time looking around the historical room in Bethel and there was one photo that I asked our friend to explain to us. Here is the photo

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The snap shows a work camp during the governments repression of the “Bible Students” as they were called. If you look closely, the guards/taskmasters were Nuns from the Church that supported the government, not just the Hungarian Empire, not just the Nazi or Communists but the current government also. Sure does show how true political neutrality is something rare in religions.

One thing Tamara and I wanted to do was visit the “Memento Park”, a park outside the city where the communist monuments were taken…at least those too large to destroy. I am fascinated by propaganda, manipulative imagery and language; here you see the classics of each of those fields, in imposing chunks of brass and stone.

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As we left the park, they were showing some of the Secret Police’s training films on Surveillance, Interrogation and searching for hidden evidence. Wow….they had this down to an art form. One film we watched taught us how to use hidden cameras to take photos of people and how to search for illegal literature inside a suspect’s home.

There is so much to see and learn in Budapest!

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Budapest, Hungary – part 1

Having never been in Eastern Europe, I was a bit surprised by the stoic nature of Budapest. “She” (Hungarians refer to Budapest as a beautiful yet neglected woman) was the capital of the Hungarian empire, that took the Great War (WW1) to tear apart. Now Hungary is a small country with a giant capital city, filled with monuments to a lost Emipire.

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After WW2, the Soviets took their turn to rule Hungary. It never got the hang of how to break the spirit of this proud people and there were many bloody revolts and subversive resistance to communism. Massive apartment blocks impose themselves on the wide streets. Each building looks like a museum from the outside, yet the crumbling steps, rusted hinges and weathered doors tell a tale of decades upon decades of neglect.

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Attila and Magdy (friends of friends) invited us to stay in the Bethel for two days. They spoke English (along with a few other languages) and were great fun to spend time with. One night they had us over for tea and snacks with some friends of theirs, Istevan and Edit. Istevan and Edit also work in the Bethel as translators for Bible literature and go to the Spanish Congregation.  As we visited about their lives before the “liberation” of 1998, when the communist powers receded, it struck me, that they had these struggles at the same time I was enjoying my teenage freedom. I really should learn abit more about the soviet culture….As the evening got late, they invited us to go to meeting with them the next night.

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Public transportation in Budapest is great: trams, metros, busses….yet it is expensive. That must have been part of the reason that they loaded us up on bicycles the next evening for a exhilarating 60 minute ride through the brisk traffic, solemn monuments and ending up at a Kingdom Hall deep inside Budapest.

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The Spanish group meets in a converted communist party education center, where the soviet government tried to teach belief in God out of the Hungarian people. Most of the oppressive/abusive history that I have learned about in my reading is hundreds of years in the past…yet here in this building it was only 20 years ago.

The Spanish group was a diverse group of Cubans, South Americans and Spaniards who found themselves in Budapest and were very happy to find a Kingdom Hall that spoke their mother language. I was able to understand 35% of the discussions and both Tamara and I were able to answer at least once in Spanish.

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The ride home as similarly frightening except for the pitch black streets and aggressive drivers. Istevan detoured us past some amazing castles and Hero’s Square, where Tamara’s marathon would start and finish. They suggested that we pick up a pizza for dinner. It was only after we took delivery of the massive pizza, that the reality of transporting the largest pizza I personally have ever seen….on a bicycle, in the dark…. dawned on us. I won’t go into it here but the next 20 minutes was as fun as it was challenging.

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I wanted to end this post with some photos of some equally confusing posters. Both were near one another and I think explains a bit about Hungary.

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Consider yourself “Rick-rolled”.

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Seville, Spain (part two)

Seville, Spain (part two)

The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic Church and the third largest Church in the world with priceless artwork and South American gold pieces of metal work. The inside of the building has high arches and domes (42 meters) that are awe-inspiring and the outside is a tour de force of Gothic architectural mastery. Inside of the 80 chapels (small sub rooms for worship) are different idols of a saint for people to pray to. These idols are the focal point for all worship in the religion. After being in Africa, Asia and South America….I think Spanish Catholicism is the most idol centric religion we have ever seen. One night, a multi-hundred person procession carried a giant idol of Mary, on the backs of dozens of well dressed Spaniards, to a distant convention center so that Mary could preside over the Sainting (?) of a famous nun from Seville.

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Also in the Cathedral of Seville is the remains of Christopher Columbus in a venerated position. He helped Spain become what it was. All the gold, silver and riches of the Americans, came straight to Seville…then out to the rest of Spain. Funny how in school I never hear about his diligent efforts and success in killing off entire islands of indigenous people. There are few truly genocidal individuals in history, but he ranks as one of the most admired. Not that I can judge him by my values/time period…but there is a reason that Central Americans still think of him as a evil person.

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We slowly walked up the massive bell tower, around and around til we could see the entire city. It is a converted minaret from when the Moors ruled the area.

If the Church is a religious focal point for the city, the Bull Fighting Ring is it’s entertainment center. You can see it in the distance of the photo below. We stayed clear of this important cultural activity and location for more reasons that we could count. Our sightseeing was cut short by a ringing in our ears…ringing of giant bells above our head. Time to get something to eat

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Following a group of local college students, we find a sandwich shop with 100 different sandwiches. They cost 1-2 Euros each, are almost undecipherable and come with a large mug of “Cervesa Clara”. The “Claraita”, as the locals call it, is half local light beer and half lemon soda water. Wow, it was delicious, I can’t believe that this is the first I have heard of this!

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One of our final “must visit” locations is the Alcázar. A ancient castle/fortification/royal residence that has history reaching back to 1180. The current King and Queen of Spain call this their home. Mixing Moorish and Christian styles with generations of designs it stretches for acres. In one of the rooms is where in 1492 Christopher Columbus presented his crazy plan to sail to India via a western route, to Queen Isabella. No photos could ever capture this pinnacle of design, but here is a weak attempt.

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On Saturday, we joined the local English congregation and offered bible studies to those in the local area. Our focus was on the English speaking African street vendors. We would ask if they had time to visit about a particular point in the Bible. Almost all gladly accepted and we would visit with them and share a few points from the Bible. Simon, a local Brother has many Bible studies and does a great job of showing how Bible council can help the immediate and practical issues that his student is having. It was great fun and it was only the afternoon heat that drove us back to our apartment in the late afternoon.

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Seville has been great to us, sharing its beauty, food and friends with us. Having said that, there is ugly here too; from the “African Brothel” down the street, the chronic smoking (even with little children in their arms) and rampant alcoholism.

The part that sticks out the most to me is the streets at night. The Spanish culture doesn’t even think about dinner til 9-10PM, after which they walk and enjoy the city. We must have walked miles around the city, getting lost, finding our way only to take a turn so that we could get lost again. We hope to visit Seville again someday….if for nothing else to visit our new friends and to get me another mug of Lemon Beer!

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Seville, Spain (part one)

Seville, Spain

Our arrival into Seville from Fez was like stepping into another world. Everything I have ever heard about Europe is here, the history, the food, the drink and the culture. Narrow streets zig back and forth then suddenly explode to a plaza or park dedicated to a long forgotten King/Prince/Conqueror or forgotten Hero. Existing for over 2000 years has created a layer cake of sorts, with the new Seville, pressing down on the old Seville, itself compressing the older Seville.

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Having put Tamara into third-world hostels and pensions for most of our life, I surprised her with renting an apartment for the week in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of Seville. The “Feria Attic”, as it is know was small, modern and came with a large private deck. It was so nice to be able to retreat to our personal environment when the heat, noise and commotion taught us the value of the Siesta. Not that you had a choice as everything in the city closes from 3-6PM.


The Plaza de Espana is a beautiful, if gaudy,  complex in the middle of the city. Surrounded by an extensive and intricately design park, this building is the current seat of government for the area and is a bizarre mixture of historical styles.

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Later that night we take a local bus outside the city to a Kingdom Hall that has an English congregation. There we meet lots of great friends and spend quite a bit of time visiting. The English territory is mostly made up of Spanish, British and African immigrants from Sudan and Nigeria. The Africans come to Spain to make a new life but end up selling tissue and flowers at the intersections of main roads. Often these men fall into drug abuse, alcoholism and depression. What a difficult life these “economic refugees” live. Having become comfortable with African culture, I quickly made friends with a few of the African Brothers. The warm brash nature of the Nigerians is muted and stifled by not being able to speak the language. Even after years of being in the country, most cannot speak Spanish.

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After meeting a group of friends invite us out to a Tapas restaurant and help us make sense of the menu. Sitting at a table of Nigerians, Spaniards, British and Peruvians it amazes me how much we have in common because of our goals in life. The focus of everyone at this table was not to get rich, not to gain some position of power but to help whoever they could to know the truth about the Bible and improve their quality of life for the long run. It was a great night that was only possible because of our real Brotherly love. It is something that most people in the world will never experience.

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More about Seville in my next post.

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