Two years ago I found out that my family is Hungarian, and since then I’ve tried to learn everything that I can about our heritage.
Perhaps one of the most fun things I’ve learned is that Hungary has a birthright program (apparently birthright isn’t just for Jews)! Every year, Hungary brings dozens of young professional Americans and Canadians of Hungarian descent to the country, subsidizing almost all of their travel, food and lodging costs for 2 1/2 weeks. I went this summer, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life!
The program prides itself on offering experiences of Hungary that aren’t available to mere tourists. We did everything from meeting with startup entrepreneurs and young diplomats to exploring museums on our own private tours.
We were lucky enough to meet with top Hungarian leaders, like Árpád János Potápi, the State Secretary for Hungarian Dispora Relations. His department funds a large portion of ReConnect Hungary, so we are very grateful to him!
We also attended seminars and talks discussing a vast array of Hungarian topics. One of my favorite panels dissected current affairs in Hungary, and we were able to learn more about political, economic and migration situations in the country. The panelists discussed the implementation of democracy after communist rule, the challenges over integrating the Roma population, and what the future looks like for Hungary and Hungarian businesses.
On one of the afternoons we attended a private screening of Son of Saul, the Hungarian film that won the Academy Award for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars. It portrays the Holocaust in one of the most powerful ways that I’ve seen, and I highly recommend it. After the screening, the lead actor, Géza Röhrig, met with our group and discussed the film as well as his opinions on current Jewish, cultural and international issues.
We had a professional photographer follow our group for most of the trip, and she took a lot of pictures at these talks. Without fail, this is my face in most of them! I enjoyed the programs, I promise!
(No comment on Noel’s face…)
Don’t worry, we didn’t just listen to panelists every day! We also explored a lot of Budapest as well as Hungary’s surrounding countryside.
I loved visiting Parliament. The building is absolutely beautiful, and reminiscent of the Palace of Westminster in London.
All around Parliament you can see markers of bullet holes from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The revolution was primarily student driven, and was an effort to remove the Soviet influence in Hungary. While not ultimately successful, Hungarians take great pride in their efforts, and commemorations of the revolution are everywhere.
The inside of Parliament is just as beautiful as the outside.
In fact, it’s the world’s third-largest parliament building. Built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it reflects Hungary’s size and grandeur at the time. Now Hungary only has a population of 10 million after the Treaty of Trianon after WWI stripped the country of 70% of its territory.
After exploring Parliament, we walked along the river to the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, which remembers the Hungarian Jews who were shot into the Danube during WWII.
On another afternoon we visited the Zsámbok Biofarm which produces organic food using sustainable methods.
We were given a tour of the farm’s operations, and learned about how Hungarian organic food is produced and sold.
Even though it was pouring rain for most of the tour, we still trekked around the muddy grounds of the farm.
We’re not going to let a little rain stop us!
This picture is one of my favorites from the visit. You can take the girl out of New York City…
After the tour, we sat down to a dinner made from the fresh food that the farm produces.
The rain finally stopped, so afterwards we were able to hang out and enjoy the fresh air.
Remember those private museum tours I told you about? Well many of them involved some form of dressing up, which made the visits much more fun. At the Sziklakórház Múzeum (Hospital in the Rock Museum), we dressed up as doctors, nurses and soldiers. We learned about how the hospital was built into 6 miles of interconnected caves beneath Buda Castle Hill, and was used during WWI and the 1956 Revolution to treat wounded civilians and soldiers.
During the visit, the guide talked about how the exits were often sealed during bombing raids, which led me to ask the question, “what did they do with the dead bodies?” After that, in every room we went into, the guide would talk about the people treated in the room and then pointedly look at me while describing what they did with any dead bodies from that room. How did I become the dead body girl?!
The museum is fairly dark, and has many wax figures of doctors and patients which are very creepy looking. Sean, dressed as a soldier and not wanting to miss this golden opportunity, took to freezing in position when other tour groups of young students would pass us. Then, when they got very close, he would move, and they would run screaming out of the room. It was the most hilarious thing!
At another museum Sean and I also dressed up. Too bad these outfits are much less scary!
The ReConnect Hungary program also strives to give back to the community, so we spent one of the mornings volunteering by sorting donations for impoverished men, women and children.
We also visited the Kesztyügyár Community Center, which offers activities, programs and courses for young children and adults in Budapest’s poorer communities.
Our ReConnect experience also included a visit to neighboring Slovakia, where there is a large Hungarian community. The Hungarians there are working to get equal rights in the country, particularly equal language rights. Their goal is for the public signs in their community to be written in both Hungarian and Slovak.
We loved Slovakia.
That evening we stayed at a winery, and it was my favorite part of the visit to Slovakia. When we got off the bus, Paola loudly proclaimed: “guys, look at that giant ass!” to which we all whirled around only to see this guy:
Disappointing Paola, disappointing.
Our daily ventures were led by native Hungarians who are our age, so not all of the programs were serious learning experiences. The guides also took us to watch Hungary play in soccer’s UEFA European Championship (Euro 2016). These matches were screened in open areas all across Budapest, and there were massive crowds everywhere we looked celebrating each Hungarian goal.
We watched Hungary play Portugal in Szabadság Tér and it felt like all of Budapest was there!
Fans cheered Hungary on, throwing drinks and setting off red, white and green fireworks which seemed to be very close to the crowd!
We joined everyone in chanting: “Ria Ria Hungária!”
It was SO much fun (minus the beer being thrown)!
If you’re of Hungarian descent and in your 20s, I highly recommend ReConnect Hungary. You can find more information on the program, as well as eligibility and application procedures, here.
And be sure to check out my other Budapest travel posts (which are much more on the fun side than the educational side!):
As well as my other Hungary travel posts:
And of course, here’s What to Eat in Hungary!
Thank you ReConnect Hungary for an amazing experience.
If you’re lucky enough to be Hungarian, you’re lucky enough!