Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Greatest Hungarians Part II

[Warning: Long Post, but there is a prize for those who finish!]

Some Hungarians (Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome back to The Greatest Hungarians! As I mentioned in my last blog post on this topic, Hungarians are an accomplished people. Before I get to the stories for this post, I thought I might just list some of the greats who I did not write about, but who deserve recognition:

  • Ernő Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s cube
  • Béla Bartók, who collected Hungarian folk music and used it as inspiration for his innovative compositions
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor, a Hollywood actresses of the 1950’s known for her personality, extravagance, and marriages (9 in total)
  • Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer of the mid-20th century
  • Ferenc Puskás, one of the best soccer players of all time, who led the Hungarian national team to international dominance and even defeated the British national team 7-1 in 1954
  • Albert Szent-Györgyi. I had never heard his name before, but he discovered vitamin C by extracting it from peppers

Now, I’ll introduce two of the most influential people to come out of Hungary: Paul Erdős and Franz Liszt. Be sure to read—or skip—to the end, because there are some excellent piano pieces composed by Liszt I think that you’ll want to hear!

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The Prolific Mathematician

Paul Erdős (pronounced air-dish) is one of the most famous mathematicians of all time. Over the course of his career, he made major contributions to number theory, combinatorics, graph theory, and many other areas of mathematics. He also was a master collaborator: he would work with mathematicians at one university to discover theorems and write papers until he had exhausted his hosts, at which point he would fly to a new location and begin again. And while popular belief has it that a mathematicians’ ability to produce groundbreaking work slows or stops in middle age (the Fields Medal, known as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics” is the most blatant manifestation of this belief: it is only awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40), Erdős was developing novel mathematics until his death in 1996, two months before I was born. In all, he published over 1,500 papers, a quantity which has never—and possibly will never—be surpassed.

In addition to his mathematical genius and unparalleled collaboration, Erdős was well known for his eccentricities. He rarely talked about anything besides math, had no interest in romance or a long-term partnership, worked fourteen-hour days with the help of incredible amounts of coffee and amphetamines, and could barely take care of himself, relying on his mathematical colleagues and their families for room and board wherever he went. All he owned—clothes, toiletries, passport, and papers—fit into one suitcase.

This man is so fascinating, it’s too hard to resist elaboration. Here are a couple of illustrative stories from a book written by Paul Hoffman called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

Erdős was obsessive about his commitment to mathematical discovery. Once, a fellow mathematician confronted him about his frequent use of Benzedrine, an amphetamine, and told him that he should receive addiction treatment. Erdős disagreed, he was not addicted. The friend laughed and said he must be joking. So to prove his point, Erdős stopped taking any stimulants for a month. When he was done, he called up the mathematician friend, told him that he had completed the challenge, and asked if his friend felt guilty for setting mathematics back a month. Then, reportedly, Erdős took some Benzedrine and began cranking out mathematics like before.

Erdős was also notorious for his inability to do laundry, cook, or generally take care of himself. On one occasion, he was staying at a house of a mathematician colleague whose wife noticed something strange happening. One morning, his colleague’s wife came into the kitchen and saw the floor covered in cereal. It must’ve been difficult to make such a mess while fixing a bowl of cereal, she thought, but didn’t say anything because she expected this sort of thing with Erdős. So she cleaned it up and let the matter be. However, the next morning, she encountered the same scene in the kitchen. Cereal everywhere. She walked into the study where Erdős was working and asked him what had happened. He told her. Apparently he had wanted to help out, so he decided to feed the dogs. Not knowing what they ate, he took fistfuls of cereal and dropped them on the floor. His explanation complete, Erdős went back to work. Then he turned back. The dogs didn’t seem to want any, he added.


Perhaps my favorite characteristic of Erdős was that children loved him. When he visited colleagues, he often asked about and greeted their children first. He treated them as he did adults, and posed mathematical questions that challenged and excited them. Oftentimes, he said, they could come up with more creative approaches than their parents.

Erdős, lovably eccentric and incredibly intelligent, is one of the great heroes of Hungarians.

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The Composer and Virtuoso

[Note on language: “s” in Hungarian sounds like “sh” in English, and “sz” sounds like “s”. Once you know this, you sound twice as Hungarian when you speak. This is why “Budapest” is “Buda-pesht” and “Liszt” is “List”. Look, you’ve got it—you sound Hungarian already!]

A moody older Liszt

Ferenc (Franz) Liszt may be the greatest pianist who ever lived.  Born in 1811 in Budapest, he began piano lessons in early childhood and was performing professionally by the age of seven. He was ambitious and talented, and attracted attention from several of the most famous composers of the era: Salieri was his piano instructor for a time and he met Beethoven and Schubert in 1822. At twenty-one, he found his professional calling when he went to a recital of Paganini, the great violin virtuoso. He decided on the spot that he would become as great a performer on the piano as Paganini was on the violin.

A moody younger Liszt.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Liszt crisscrossed Europe giving performances. He also composed some of his most famous pieces during this time (see the three pieces selected below, you’ll probably recognize them). In recital, he was known as a showman, taking liberties with music that many musicians would consider sacrilegious. He was also such a frequent performer that he was often the only pianist available with new music during his tours. With no one to join him on the program, he became the first concert pianist to give solo recitals. My piano professor at Whitman, Dr. Wood, has also mentioned that we owe the tradition of memorizing music to Liszt. According to Wood, he would show up in a town and ask what piece they wanted to hear, and then play it from memory. Concert pianists across Europe followed his lead and the practice took hold. Thank you Liszt, but for my brain’s sake, I wish that you hadn’t.

After traveling Europe for years, Liszt settled down in Germany. The Austro-Hungarian government was disappointed, and decided to lure him back to his home country. In 1871, the idea for a Royal Academy—with Liszt as its president—was conceived. He would perform, direct the national orchestra, and teach classes at the Academy for most of the year. Liszt took the position, but didn’t complete many of his duties (he didn’t direct the orchestra, and he left Budapest before finals were completed every semester). The prospect of recitals was simply too enticing. However, he did inspire a generation of Hungarian composers and helped to solidify a tradition of piano mastery that continues in Hungary to this day. He continued to perform for most of the rest of his life.

The Liszt Playlist (or should I say, Playliszt?)  Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (around 6:06 is when I began to recognize the melody—look at those hands!)  Liebestraum – Love Dream (possibly Liszt’s most famous piece) La Campenella (future hair goals)

If you want more, just visit Spotify’s Liszt page.

I’ve found that his music is excellent for studying—I listened to it while writing my blog posts.

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Shout out to those of you who made it this far! Until later, loyal readers. Thank you so much for learning about Hungary with me! During these next couple weeks, feel free to email me ( with topics that you’d like to hear about.

Next week, a tour of my apartment and a Hungarian lesson!


Living in History

A quick thought from my life before I add my post about more famous Hungarians (and give some song recommendations!).

As part of my language school course, we have visited some of the key historical locations in Budapest. Last week, we took a trip to Buda Castle, a citadel with a long and varied history located on the Western bank of the Danube.

Originally built by King Béla IV in 1265, it was the primary fortress of the Hungarian kings for several hundred years. Previously, the kings had traveled with their court from region to region, so the decision to construct Buda Castle ensured that Buda—and later Budapest—would become the center of political power in the country. In the mid-eighteenth century, the castle was rebuilt as a baroque palace, the structure that stands today.

The Buda Castle at night (Original Budapest Tours)

The palace is beautiful, but parts of it have seen intense history. In 1945, Soviets invaded the Pest (Eastern) side of the city. Nazi German and Hungarian troops retreated to Buda and destroyed all the bridges across the river. Over the course of months, the each army shelled the opposite city in hopes of gaining an edge. According to our tour guide, Emese, much of the palace, including a chunk of the ancient castle, was reduced to rubble.

All of the bridges crossing the Danube were destroyed during the Soviet siege of Buda

During the siege, 27 percent of Budapest’s buildings were destroyed, over 32,000 in total

Since then, the palace has been restored, but most of the original castle is in ruins that cannot feasibly be put back together. You could see the attempts of some curators in parts of the museum, where stones had been strategically inserted into a room to give the feeling of what the room may have looked like before World War II. But sometimes there wasn’t much.

This really got to me. I have not been to Europe before, and also haven’t seen destruction caused by any major war. I’ve only studied World War II in school, so it never really struck me how evident and intimate the aftermath of the conflict could be in a place like Budapest, where Russians and Germans fought block-by-block through the streets.

Maybe it’s partly because I’m American or Midwestern that I feel distant from violent history. Most of the war history that I was taught happened “over there” in Africa, Asia, or more often than not, Europe. If we studied armed conflict in American history, it was “over there” on the East Coast, except for the war on Native Americans that brought Minnesota into the United States. No place where I’ve lived has been a battleground in a very long time.

Now, I’m living in a city where its inhabitants live in apartment buildings damaged by bombs in World War II, or by the various protests when Hungary was under Soviet rule mere decades ago. Landmarks like the palace have pictures of buildings and structures that simply don’t exist anymore because of these conflicts. And on the street, one can see the evidence of war every day, not blatant, but visible.

A memorial near the Danube to victims of the Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II

One of the more clear remnants of war in the walls of Budapest (both: Wikimedia Commons)


I wonder whether proximity to these remnants of war affects Budapestians on a psychological level. When they see the physical destruction that a conflict like World War II has caused—not to mention unseen psychological and social impacts—do they tend to think twice about policies that could provoke a similar conflict? And have I, as an American and Midwestern, been conditioned to think that even if war happens, it won’t have an impact on my home? It kind of feels that way.

I don’t know if any of this has any psychological or sociological basis. (If anyone reading this has an idea, I’d love to hear about any studies or research you know of!) Regardless, living in Budapest and seeing the physical influence of History-with-a-capital-H every day is changing the way I think. I still haven’t seen that much, and I have a long way to go before I feel like I understand the Hungarian mindset and way of life. One thing is becoming more clear to me as I’m here: living in a new country is a culture shock, most often in ways I would not expect.

The Greatest Hungarians Part 1

This week, I wanted to write about some of the most famous people who have come from Hungary, in part to provide you with some background on the country and partly because these people have lived such interesting lives! Hungary has a population of about ten million, but it seems to me that its citizens are disproportionately likely to make a big splash. Zoltan Buczolich, the professor at Eotvos Lorand University who organized the hike I went on last Friday, told me that Hungary prides itself on its international competitiveness in several areas, including fencing, swimming, piano performance, chess, and of course, mathematics. We’ll cover some of these and more in…The Greatest Hungarians.

The Chess Champion

Judit Polgár is widely considered the best woman chess player of all time. She was the highest ranked female player from the time she was twelve, in 1989, until her retirement from competitive chess in 2015, except for a brief period in her final year of playing when she was outranked by the Chinese player Hou Yifan. She became the youngest grandmaster ever at the age of 15 years, 4 months, beating Bobby Fischer by several months. She is the only woman to have won against a reigning World Champion, and when she retired was the eighth best player in the world. Currently, she coaches the national Hungarian men’s chess team.

Susan, Judit, and Sofia (l to r)

One of the most fascinating parts of Polgár’s backstory is that she and her sisters were the subjects of an educational experiment by their father, Lászlo Polgár, an educational psychologist and chess educator. Based on his philosophy that “geniuses are made, not born,” Lászlo trained all three of his daughters to be chess champions. He and his wife, Klára, homeschooled their children, which put them in conflict with socialist public school officials, and entered them into traditionally male chess tournaments, which put them in conflict with the entire chess establishment. But in spite of this disapproval, there was something that neither Soviet administrators nor chess officials could deny: the Polgár sisters beat everyone at chess. Susan, the oldest, and Sofia, the middle sister, became international masters at an early age and won prestigious tournaments. They paved the way for Judit to become the youngest grandmaster ever and one of the strongest chess players in the world.


Judit playing several matches at once.

A note for my fellow men reading this blog. Judit Polgár says of her male peers, “my colleagues have finally accepted me, but years ago they did treat me differently. Susan once said she never won against a healthy man. What she meant was that men always had some excuse after losing a game to a woman: ‘It must have been a headache.’” What I want to say to you guys is that when she—any woman—beats me, it’s probably because she’s better than me. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to ask if she has advice or if she could teach me anything. So let’s pledge to eat our quinoa and get proper sleep so that we can avoid headaches, become healthy, and learn more from her lessons.


After winning an international tournament in the 1990s.

The Progressive Investor

George Soros is one of the most successful investors of the past century. His story begins in Budapest, where he was born in 1930 to a non-practicing Jewish family. When he was young, the Nazi party in Germany occupied Hungary and initiated the systematic persecution of Hungarian Jews. As Soros describes, he and his family survived by purchasing documents certifying that they were Christian and occasionally hiding with sympathetic friends and businesspeople. After the end of World War II, Soros traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics, where he developed an understanding of capitalist markets and eventually constructed his theory of reflexivity, which has driven his investing strategy ever since.

Economics students reading this may have already heard of reflexivity. It is the notion that different economic principles will apply to markets that are close to equilibrium and those that are far out of balance. Relatively intuitive, right? At equilibrium, prices accurately reflect a commodity’s value. Bias pushes markets out of equilibrium, which poses a risk to investors—or opens an opportunity, depending on one’s perspective. What Soros observed, among other things, was that when markets are changing quickly they are disproportionately often out of equilibrium.

George Soros speaks during a forum at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington.

Soros used reflexivity theory to make investment decisions—including a highly publicized $10 billion short sale of the British pound in 1992—eventually building one of the largest personal fortunes in existence. While his investing strategy is impressive, I am most intrigued by how he has spent the money he makes. In the past couple decades, Soros has become one of the biggest donors to progressive causes and liberal candidates in history. He has spearheaded education and healthcare initiatives across the world, supported both Obama and Clinton in their presidential bids, and even played a role in the Rose Revolution for Georgian independence. Some people wonder if he may have too much influence campaigns and progressive international organizations.

In Hungary, Soros has funded the Central European University (CEU) and is an outspoken supporter of immigration, which has put him at odds with Hungarian political leadership. A bureaucratic squabble initiated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing nationalist, over CEU’s license to operate in Hungary has become one of the most closely watched political bouts in Hungary. The fight is unlikely to be resolved soon, as it has become a proxy for  some of the critical issues that Hungarians face, including growing nationalism, the influence of the United States and the EU in domestic affairs, the rise of consumer culture, uneven modernization and threats to traditional institutions.

The American Magician

Harry Houdini was one of the most talented escape artists in the world. He was born to a Jewish family with the name Erik Weisz in Budapest in the year 1874. Just four years later, he and his family moved to New York, where he became a U.S. citizen.

While he didn’t have much of a connection to Hungary for most of his adult life, he is certainly one of the most famous people to be born in Hungary. One of the reasons that I mention him is because in 1899 he was performing in my hometown of the Twin Cities when he made his big break. That was when Martin Beck saw Houdini, was so impressed that he offered to become Houdini’s manager, and set him up on the national Orpheum vaudeville circuit.


Houdini was born in Budapest and found success in my hometown. Fingers crossed—it could be time for my big break when I’m in his…

Below are a couple of his famous acts. He performed many of these until he collapsed on stage in 1926 with a fever of 104. He was rushed to the hospital where he was told he had appendicitis. He refused treatment, performed another show, and died later that night.


The so-called Chinese Water Chamber escape.

An upside-down suspended escape Houdini performed many times, sometimes from the building housing the local newspaper.


Houdini in a cute family photo with his wife and mother.

The second installment will come at the end of the week.

See ya later!


A Walk In the Woods

Szia! Jó napot. Hello and good day! Your report from Budapest is ready. Tomorrow, I’ll start my short series on famous Hungarians that I’ll finish at the end of the week. But first, an update from my life.

This Thursday, something magical happened. For the first time in a week, the sun appeared. It was gorgeous.

I realized that the previous week was possibly the longest time I had gone without sun before. Isn’t that odd? While it can get quite cloudy in Minneapolis, during the winter it usually is cold and clear. I don’t think it’s ever been a full week before. I honestly like the new experience of being in a cloudy city, but occasionally, ah, the sun does feel nice.

In case you don’t remember what cloudy Budapest looked like (well, and looks like again)

Yesterday, about fifteen BSM students joined Zoltan Buczolich, a professor at Eotvos Lorand University, and a number of Hungarian faculty on one of their biweekly mathematics hikes. The route Zoltan chose was a long one: a 12-mile trek along a chain of hills to visit the Budapest’s highest point. It took most of the daylight hours to make our way from outside the city limits through the forest and brush to the watchtower that marks the highest elevation in the city.

Our approximate route to the watchtower of Budapest

My roommates, Alex, from Whitman, (middle) and Sam (right). And me. At the highest point in Budapest. 

The hike was great exercise. I also found it extremely comforting. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve had to get used to the differences between Budapest and American cities—remember to weigh your vegetables before you go to the checkout counter, Nathaniel!—and it has taken some concerted effort to adjust. Out in the forest yesterday, I suddenly felt that I was back in Minnesota and I could relax. The variety of trees, the snow, and the trails felt the same. It was nice to feel at home away from home for a while.

Speaking of home, I made quite a stir at the beginning of the hike because of my Minnesotan attire. We were told that “the temperature on Saturday should be about 32 degrees at the beginning of the hike, warming up to around 40 by the afternoon.” Logically, I wore my boots, various jacket layers, and regular athletic shorts. Normal Minnesota outfit. But my fellow BSMers and the Hungarian faculty were worried for my poor bare legs. “Don’t you feel numb?” one of them asked, clearly unsettled.

Contrary to most predictions, the outfit worked fine. At one of the last stops, two female Hungarian professors approached Zoltan, talking rapidly in Hungarian and looking at me. He laughed. “They’re impressed,” he said. And then, “it’s not always easy to impress Hungarians.”

At a wine tasting event the other day with some BSMers. Szia!

Catch “Famous Hungarians Part I” tomorrow!


The Top Ten: First Impressions of Budapest

Yesterday morning, as I was walking around Budapest with Alex Shaw, the other Whittie on BSM this semester, we discussed which one word we would use to describe the city. We were along the Danube at the time, on the Buda side of the river. Looking out across the water, everything was gray. “Squat,” I said. “Brooding,” was his answer.

His adjective is the right one for the city. As we pass by people, they seem intent and thoughtful, as if they are working on some difficult problem in their heads. The clouds press down on the city—I haven’t seen any of the actual sun in the city yet—and the apartment buildings rise up to meet them, all stone with baroque filigree and large windows. The entire city really seems to brood.

On this, my second full day in Brooding Budapest, I thought that it would be a good time to go through my first impressions of the city.

Here are the top ten:

  1. It’s so warm! It may be gray, but it is certainly not cold here. At least to me. Yay!


  1. Building Height. One of the most remarkable things in Budapest is the complete lack of a skyline. It looks flat, simply because nearly every building in the densely populated Pest side of the river, called “City Center,” is between 4 and 8 stories tall. While there are several explanations, one of the primary reasons is that all of the buildings are old and haven’t been demolished. Many of them were built around the year 1896, when the government  commissioned the Parliament, museums, and other projects in honor of the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars entering Hungary.

Church steeples are the highest points in most Budapest neighborhoods. Full disclosure: the city actually does not look like this right now… credit:


Yeah, that is more like it.


  1. Ceiling Height. In stark contrast to the height of buildings, the ceilings everywhere are incredibly  tall. I noticed this phenomenon when I entered my apartment, where I will be living with Alex, Sam (who goes to Macalester) and another student. This is what I saw:

The front entryway.

While we may have a conventional horizontally-compact apartment, we are certainly not struggling for vertical space.

The door to my room!

A lone Hungarian “in uniform.”



  1. The Hungarian Uniform. Around the city, it’s easy to pick out the Hungarians, or so I think. They wear black jackets, and black hats and shoes. Except for the young, hip people, who wear sweatpants and white shoes (no pictures because they became elusive once I noticed the trend).

Several Hungarians in all black.


  1. No smiling. Hungarians rarely smile on the street. As Alex and I were walking, he mentioned something from our student handbook: culturally, smiling openly might be seen as a sign that one is slow. We decided to test this. He tried smiling to an older woman. She looked at him, but gave no response. I smiled politely to a fast-walking businessman, and he scowled back. So hypothesis tested. I might be a little slow.


  1. Smoking. Everyone smokes. It was so common on the street that I looked up some stats from May of 2016. While the smoking rate has dropped since 2009, apparently 41.7 percent of men and 28.5 percent of women are regular smokers, giving Hungary the dubious honor of having the highest age standardized rate of lung cancer in the world.


  1. Green Crosses. They stand for pharmacies. I was wondering too.


  1. Public Transportation: Trams, Busses and Metros, Oh My. I’ve heard that Budapest’s public transportation is good, but this is ridiculous. There is a bus or tram nearly everywhere, and the metro crisscrosses the city.


…and the metro (credit: Travel Budapest)


  1. Gyros Stands. They’re everywhere, and delicious.

  1. I’m Here. What? I’m in Budapest! Honestly, it hasn’t fully set in, but it’s been a great experience so far.

Me on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge!

Feel free to subscribe to get an email when I post each week. I think that I’m going to post some advice for other students studying abroad soon, in case you want to see that.

Safe and sound in Budapest,



A Week to Go: Hungary, Here I Come

Well, it’s not exactly warm in Budapest, but better!

Almost everything is in place! As of this post, I have just under a week left in Minnesota. Packing is underway, I have begun preparing for my intensive Hungarian language course, and every time I check, the temperature in Budapest is over thirty degrees warmer than in Minneapolis.

I think that I’m ready.

Ah, Hungary the Beautiful

My First Post!

For this inaugural post, I thought that it would be fitting to discuss some of the important background information that I’ll need when traveling to Hungary. So, let’s begin with…

Where is Hungary, again?

I doubt that many of my friends and family (yes, that might mean you) would be able to identify Hungary on a map. Want to guess? Try here:

Guess where Hungary is–and don’t scroll down!

Did you guess right?

If you did, congratulations! That’s uncommon knowledge. If not, it’s certainly not your fault. It’s just another small, gall bladder-shaped, central European country. If you want to remember it, here’s my mnemonic device. I usually find Germany, and then to the east I find Czecho…slovakia (now, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and immediately below, Austria-…Hungary (now, Austria and Hungary). Both were once unified countries, but split for various political reasons.

A handy mnemonic, right?


Hungary is a country of about 10 million people. The official language is Hungarian, and has a majority ethnic Hungarian population. Located on the river Danube is the capital of Budapest, a major European city that, despite the fact that it contains only a fifth of Hungary’s people, accounts for about half of its economic output. The city was unified in 1873 from two cities on either side of the river: to the west is Buda and to the east is Pest.

A street of the so-called Jewish quarter, where BSM is located

The division of Buda and Pest

The Hungarians

One of the most interesting questions that I’ve encountered in my research of Hungary is: who are the Hungarians? Unlike nearly all their neighbors in central Europe, the Hungarians are not Slavic. The Hungarian people, also known as the Magyars, are descended from nomadic tribes that invaded and settled in the Carpathian Basin around the year 900. While there is significant recorded history of the raids and battles they had in Europe, there is uncertainty as to their original homeland. Most scholars believe that they came from between the Volga River and the Ural mountains (as depicted in the map below), but others speculate that they may actually have Iranian origins, or were once related to the Huns of Western Asia.

The most widely-accepted theory of Magyar migration

Hungarians, who are they?

 The Hungarian Language

Next week, when I arrive in Budapest, I will begin my classes in Hungarian, a fascinating language. It has the distinction of being the most common Uralic (derived from the Ural mountains) language in the world, for the simple reason that there are very few languages in this family. Hungarian’s most widely spoken relatives are Finnish and Estonian, and these are not even very similar.

I’m sure that I will write more on the Hungarian language in the near future, but suffice it to say that I am in for a linguistic treat!

Next time I write, I will probably be leaving—so, köszönöm és viszlát!