Author Archives: nathaniellarson

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!