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Nathan LaFata: A Few of My European Experiences

In the spring of 2015, I was given the opportunity to study abroad at Szeged University in Hungary. All my life I have wanted to be a student abroad, last spring my dreams came to life. I chose Hungary because I wanted to experience Central/Eastern Europe. I knew very little about the nation of Hungary: its people, culture, history, economy, and its geography. However, I was aware of Hungary’s history as it relates to the fall of the USSR, and the fact that Hungary was located behind the Iron Curtain. I wanted to see with my own eyes how these ex-soviet nations were moving towards the European Union. The focus of my studies at West Virginia University are the histories of Western Europe and the United States. As such, I am familiar with the inner workings of Western Civilization, but upon my arrival to Szeged I quickly realized how drastically different this part of Europe was. Everything was so new, different, and completely not what I was used to back in the United States. During my travels I was able to visit nine countries, as I spent most of my time in the city of Szeged. I learned more and more everyday with friends, common everyday interactions, and if I traveled outside my city it was a plus. I arrived knowing so little and left realizing there is so much more to learn about this region. 

The first thing that stuck out to me as soon as I touched down was the language. Never having heard Hungarian before, I thought it would sound similar to Russian. This was clearly not the case. Hungarian’s sister languages are Estonian and Finnish, just like how Spanish and Italian are related. This fun fact blew my mind, it showed me how culturally and linguistically diverse Europe actually was. Another trait that these groups have in common is a hot bath/ sauna culture. Hungary is a landlocked nation, yet has great amounts of freshwater underground and in Lake Balaton Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. This bath/spa culture was brought by the Romans who settled in this region. These hot baths were then later expanded during the Turkish occupations. I never made it to the famous baths in Budapest, but I did enjoy this Hungarian tradition in my city of Szeged.

The Hungarians were a nomadic horse people from the Ural Mountains in today’s Russia. Hungarians or the Magyar tribes settled in the Carpathian basin, like many tribes before and other peoples after. Hungary was a crossroads for many groups of people over time. It was these Magyar tribes who decided to stay and make the land their own. While in Hungary I went with one of my Hungarian friends who was studying archaeology. He granted me the chance to see a dig site near his home in Bekes. Him along with a coalition of Hungarians and Americans would be excavating that next following month. The feeling I felt standing on an ancient bronze age burial ground was fascinating. Underneath my feet was a site where a people predated the Magyar tribes and Jesus. These peoples were divided up between cultures I would learn, little is known about them. This sensation of understanding how old these lands were and the amount of people who have gone back and forth over history amazes me.

Every country was unique in its own way, and I learned much from every location. Serbia was a true eye opener for me, despite being there a few days I experienced Novi Sad and Belgrade. Serbia is not in the European Union, and I could notice harsh differences between Hungary and this former Yugoslavian country. Here it seemed the USSR was still around, in some odd way, like a time machine. Pro Putin T shirts, anti-American graffiti, churches, synagogues, mosques, stray dogs, masses of refugees, poor infrastructure, dilapidated buildings all added to this truly foreign forgotten world. On the bus I made a friend who would tell me about living in Yugoslavia (even though he was ethnically Hungarian) which after the fall of the Soviet Union shattered into what is today Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. When passing a small town he pointed to the bullet holes in the walls from the wars just 25 years ago. He explained to me the NATO intervention during the 1990s painting a horrific situation of ethnic genocide, religions and foreign powers. I was only a child when these bombings were occurring and was never taught about this former state of Yugoslavia. Later on this adventure me and my friends would make time out of our schedules to see the bombed buildings in the heart of Belgrade. All the buildings were hollow on the inside, leaving the skeleton of the structure behind. In addition, all were strategic government buildings to my surprise. These people just let these carcasses of destroyed buildings continue to rot for the everyone to see. I was shocked the government never got around to fix these buildings, yet looking around they seemed to compliment this intriguing abandon environment. Serbia really felt somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe.

During my spring break I was given the opportunity to stay with my friend’s family in the Belgium. My friend and his family were located in Michelin, about 30 min train ride from Brussels. The train transportation was superb, and I would learn Belgium even though quite small is a very dense country. The infrastructure of this region truly impressed me with the roads, trains, and buildings. While here I discovered that Belgium is divided between a French quarter and a Dutch quarter. Two different linguistically, and culturally different peoples working in unison for their shared nation state. In Michelin, we rode bikes often, as our means of transportation. I couldn’t help but notice while exploring this small town the amount of solar panels on people’s houses, including my hosts house. Between the bikes, solar panels, windmills, and small cars I was enchanted with the Dutch and their environmentally friendly culture. Discovering Brussels was absolutely thrilling, seeing churches, drinking the famous beer, seeing foundations of Brussels beginnings and the modern European Union buildings. Brussels was an overload of ideas, history and culture. Being at the heart of Europe added a certain feeling, only Brussels can provide. My mind could not stop thinking of the 2008 crisis and what was going on in Greece at that very moment with the bailouts and here I am at the center of it all. My friend’s father would take me on multiple siting’s like the Atomium in Brussels and the famous battlefield where Napoleon met his fate, Waterloo. Also on this break I would experience Bruge and Amsterdam both providing me with all sorts of knowledge of the greater Dutch community. The conversations in the car rides or over a cold beer from basic income, education, apps, technology, agriculture, politics etc, granted me a greater in depth understanding of western civilization. 
I want to take a moment to discuss a crisis going on now just as it was then. This dilemma being the refugee crisis happening in Europe currently as you read this post. I have been following the Arab Spring and especially the Syrian Civil War quite closely since 2011. It pains me to see the atrocities going on in the Middle East and all over the developing world. While I was in Hungary, and the Eastern bloc countries for that matter, I couldn’t help but notice so many Middle Eastern peoples with nothing more than a back pack with look of hopelessness in their eyes. At many of the train stations and bus stops there would be a host of refugees waiting. I usually saw groups of men but sometimes I would see families. Witnessing this situation and following the wars and revolutions on social media it was a whole new astonishing stage of realization. Szeged is on the border with Serbia which as I stated is not in the EU. Thus once refugees set foot on EU soil crossing other European borders becomes much easier. One can travel from Estonia to Spain with very little time wasted at the border. This easy access to travel is one of the pillars of the EU. The refugee crisis is changing this, every nation is taking a different stance on tackling the problem. I read an article by the Guardian, and in the article it said that twenty-two refugees were caught a few miles outside of Szeged where I was staying. One of the issues is that once these refugees are caught, Hungarians or whomever catches them must register them and get them in a EU refugee database. This issue makes the situation more confusing. Adding to this, those not in the EU, like Serbia, kick them out of their towns and tell them to keep moving to Hungary. This places more pressure on the Hungarian security forces. The train station in Szeged was a straight shot to Budapest. As the winter snows melted and spring bloomed, more and more refugees would be seen at the train station in larger numbers. The refugees are not coming to stay and set up shop in Hungary, they are moving west to the UK, Germany and France for a better life. As I left my wonderful study abroad experience, I read that Hungary was going to be building barbed wire fences along the Serbian border to halt the incoming refugees. Within a few weeks, Croatia, Slovenia, and others were following suite. Just twenty-five years ago these people were tearing down the walls of Communism for freedom, only to build them up again from fleeing men, women, and children. I am shocked, but speaking to my Hungarian and other Europeans friends only made this dilemma more confusing. The rise of islamophobia is very real in Europe currently, and there is a clash of civilizations. This significant issue is just as important for the locals of Europe as it is for those fleeing Assad’s bombs or ISIS’s knives. I still follow the current crisis in Europe and the Middle East doing my best to explain the various points of views.

These are just a few experiences I was able to soak in as I studied in this remarkable country of Hungary. I would end up seeing parts of Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania. Every nation offering me another contrasting view of the world. This experience would not be the same if it were not for the people I spent it with. From my three French flat mates, to the company of eleven we called ‘Malakes,’ to my Hungarian and Turkish friends. Everyone contributed to my experience by sharing their culture and their view of the world. I was able to learn so much in my stay here. Arriving with such a limited amount of knowledge about Europe and its people. When leaving those endless flat plains of the Carpathian Basin I realized there was so much more to this country and this region. I left satisfied that I witnessed so much history in the making. I got to catch that moment in time to see Hungary and the surrounding ex-Soviet states adjust into the 21st century twenty five years later.

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