I just sent off the copy-edited and corrected manuscript of Freedom Evolves. All my part is done except the index. It's a great feeling, of course. We've lived in (grocery shopped in, learned the tramlines in, . . ) and thus "collected" quite a few cities over the yearsOxford, Bristol, London, Rome, Athens, Paris, Canberra, for instanceand now Budapest, which feels all the more like home now that we've gone away to even more foreign places on the weekends: Belgrade two weeks ago and last week Sofia. In Belgrade we were the guests of Nikola Grahek, an alumnus of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, and professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade. In Sofia, I gave two lectures at the New Bulgarian University, to their Cognitive Sciences Institute, of which I've been a member of the Advisory Board since its inception a decade ago. In both Belgrade and in Sofia we found excellent researchers doing wonderful work under incredibly straitened circumstances.
When all the communist governments in Europe collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, for instance, had a gentle, bloodless transition, but that didn't mean that people didn't die. They did, by starving. A few people have become rich capitalists (mainly by bribing the police and the other officials) and most people are as poor as everor even poorer. Most people live in huge apartment blocksten or fifteen stories high, all the balconies with laundry hangingthe sort of housing project apartments that have mainly been torn down in America because they are so depressing to live in. Everybody but the 3% who are wealthy live in such apartments in the city (and people are leaving the beautiful countryside and coming to the city, looking for work). A university professor makes now about the same salary as a bus driver. When the communist regime collapsed, real prices replaced the artificial prices the communists had maintained, and people found that their salaries were almost worthless. As one of them said, a professor who made $600 a month, now found his salary was worth about $60 a month. And we were told about the brilliant young computer scientist who has just left for the USAlured by an offer of $60,000 a year salary (can you imagine such wealth!) In Sofia, he was already very highly paid: $6000 a year. They couldn't raise his salary any higher than that, so no wonder he left. So even though the prices of most things (not gasoline) are amazingly low to us, they are still high for Bulgarians.
In this setting, the amazing activities of George Soros, of whom one hears almost daily, are a beacon of hope. Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who made many billions of dollars in financial wheeling and dealing (mostly in currency speculation, I gather) is now single-handedly doing hundreds of things to put Eastern Europe back on its feet. First, and best known in the USA, was his decision, when the Soviet Union collapsed, to provide decent salaries for the hundreds and hundreds of Soviet nuclear engineers were suddenly found themselves unemployed. Soros saw that these folks would be easily tempted to work on nuclear bomb projects in many countries so he simply guaranteed their financial well-being first, then began looking around for constructive work for them to do. Then he built a new university, the Central European University in Budapest, and another smaller one in Sofia (which was our host). He has started a major initiative to provide free access to scientific and academic journals to all the people of the world, provided airlifts of medical supplies to Sarajevo when the US and WesternEurope turned its back, and build 300,000 houses for blacks in South Africa. Meanwhile, his new book on globalization has had excellent reviewshigh on my reading list, now. If there is a serious downside to George Soros, it is not easy to find. The world could do with a few more like him.
Belgrade, June8-9: On Sunday we went across the Danube to Zemun, for a leisurely lunch in a riverside fish restaurant run by three jolly sisters. I had "sterlets"half a dozen young sturgeons, fried with their heads on and served on Bibb lettuce. Pretty good fish. Walked around in the very interesting old town after lunch, seeing the bombed-out Air Force headquarters (hit by NATO bombs in 1999-2000, as Milosevic was being driven out) and the fresh plaque to those who died theremore enlisted men than officers, of course. On our cab ride later in the day, we passed the bombed out police headquarters and the perhaps thirty-story office building that had been Milosevic's headquarters, which was seriously damaged by NATO bombs and is being repaired by a Japanese consortium for use as an office building. The other bombed-out military and police buildings, hit with pinpoint accuracy right in the middle of city blocks, have been left unrepaired, untouched, while the life of the city goes on. No sense of reproach from our hosts; they were thrilled to get rid of Milosevic.
The most fascinating part of our stay were the last few hours before our evening departure on the overnight train back to Budapest. We strolled through the neighborhood where Milosevic, and before him Tito and Tito's chief of secret police, and all the dictators' cronies have built their ultra secure mansions. The Residence of the American ambassador is there as well, and the Canadian Embassy and the (new) Chinese Embassy. The Iranian ambassador's ultra-modern residence is there too, but all of these are now put in the shade by the brand new mansions built by a "businessman" named Karic, who is buying out all the real estate in the neighborhood. One of these looksand is meant to looklike the White House, and is being built by Karic because he believes his son will someday be President of the United States! When I tried to take a photo of the front, a young man who had been quietly following us down the sidewalk quickly intervened to prevent me. The back of the "White House" can be seen, however, behind Karic's sister's house, the one with the copy of Michalengelo's David among the statuary gracing the frieze over the front door! (see photo attached) I did manage to take a few discrete dusk photographs of some of the other houses in the neighborhood. These mansions all have high walls and guardhouses at the gates, with closed circuit tv cameras staring down from the trees and walls, and mirrored armored glass in the guardhouse windows. Presumably machine guns are trained on you as you stroll by, but these Milosevic cronies are now maintaining much lower profiles, not quite as flamboyantly disregarding the law as they recently did.
Bulgaria, June 15-16: In Sofia and in the countryside there are horse drawn carts (with car wheels, rubber tires) among the cars and trucks, and out in the fields you can see teams of people with hoes weeding huge fields of corn, tobacco, and vegetables, and men and women with scythes cutting hay, and then gathering it up using three-pronged wooden pitchforksmade from natural forks in tree branches. Up ahead of us on the highway, we saw a huge hay wagon moving along on rubber tired wheels; we thought it was a truck till we passed it and saw that there was no cab, but also no horse, just two old folks, a man and a woman, pulling it along the highway, heading home with their load of loose hay.
The menus in the restaurants were huge, with dozens of entrees, salads and appetizers, some of them not terribly appetizing sounding: stewed duck's tongues, tripe in copper bowl, lamb's balls in sauce. On the other hand, Snezhanka, or "snowflake" salad, is a delicious Bulgarian version of the Greek tsaziki or the Indian raita: yoghurt and cucumbers and garlic and dill, with the yoghurt made thick by hanging in cheesecloth to drain off the water. I tried some "boza" (Susan made a face after taking a sip and declined the rest). Boicho Kokinov, our host, describes it: "It is made of rye or other grain culture. It is a very thick drink. It is sweet, but when it stays for a couple of days (or even for one day in the hot summer) it becomes tart since it becomes alcoholic (low alcohol - 3 - 5%)." Definitely an acquired taste.
the communist era, Sofia's public buildings were laid out on a grand
scale, with huge wide squares and boulevards (for staging parades
and popular demonstrations of love for the government); they now
look a little barren and lonely. The huge red star that used to
grace the tower of the main government building was spirited off
by a giant helicopter after the transition, but a few monuments
to the Red Army martyrs, etc., still surviveunlike in Budapest,
where all these have been destroyed or carted off to a tacky park,
a weedy warehouse crowded with Stalin statues and the like, kept
as an ironic reminder. We haven't been there, but have read and
heard about it.
Back in Budapest, life seems almost indistinguishable from life in Vienna or Rome or Munichexcept for the baffling and unpronounceable signs. Hungarian apparently has no cognates with any of the other European languages. They have a wonderful new exhibit in the Ethnographic Museum (housed in the opulent former High Court), and we Maine farmers, missing our fields and flowers, also took in the Agricultural Museum in Varosliget Park, where I spotted a magnificent poster. I wish they had had repros on sale in the museum shop.
Yesterday I gave my Inaugural Lecture as an Honorary Fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and received a handsome scrolled diploma, in Hungarian and Latin with a seal attached. Our friend Stevan Harnad was inaugurated last month, one of four members elected this year, and it was particularly pleasing to me to be honored by the Academy in the land of von Neuman, Erdos, Czontvary, Judit Polgar, . . . . .Lots of brilliant Hungarians. This evening we're off to Miskolc, in eastern Hungary, for a philosophy conference on intentionality and a Puccini opera at the festival.