New Year’s in Budapest

This year, I spent New Year’s on a study abroad trip to Budapest, Hungary, through the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business. I was with a group of about 50 students and we visited a few local businesses and checked out the local museums before celebrating the New Year with Budapest’s locals.

One of Budapest's City Plazas set up for New Year's Celebrations!

One of Budapest’s City Plazas set up for New Year’s Celebrations!

New Year’s is the perfect time to visit Budapest. This is because the city mostly shuts down for Christmas, but as a huge driver of the economy is tourism, it opens back up right after Christmas, with loads of shopping, food, and festivities, not to mention the fact that their famous “Christmas Markets” are open through the first day or two of the new year.

A Christmas Market in front of St.Stephen's Basilica

A Christmas Market in front of St.Stephen’s Basilica

Budapest Christmas Markets consist of small log cabin-looking booths where people sell yummy chocolates, mulled wine (red wine that’s served hot, it’s a bit like hot cider, but better!), and amazingly delicious baked goods. There is also a skating rink and some more booths selling Christmas ornaments and knick knacks.

Hungary is famous for some of it’s New Year’s traditions and superstitions. Most cultures have a superstition about money and the New Year. For Hungary, that superstition is that if you eat lentils on the New Year, then you will have lots of money. Gabriela Manuli explains this on her blog as being because lentils are shaped similarly to coins.

In a travel blog post, Roberta Gyori outlines the bulk of the Budapest traditions. For example:

On New Year’s Eve it’s customary to make a lot of noise to scare off the demons and the evil spirits. Traditionally a bullwhip with a cracker was used to make a loud noise, but these days horns and other noisemakers are just as effective.

Fireworks shot from the massive Marriot Hotel in Budapest

Fireworks shot from the massive Marriot Hotel in Budapest

One thing I found interesting was that unlike some capitals and larger cities such as Paris, Washington D.C., New york, or Tokyo; Budapest does not appear to have a coordinated primary fireworks display. You can literally walk around the city between midnight and sunrise and there are fireworks ALL over the place. The important thing to note about this is that you have to pay attention as locals enjoy shooting off smaller fireworks, and they don’t really care if you’re caught in the cross fire.

On New Year’s Eve there are also many concerts across the the city that you can attend. Some feature DJs, some feature local bands, or pop artists, some are operas, but I chose a classical music concert. A friend and I scored tickets to see a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at Saint Michael’s Cathedral.

While you’ve traveled half way around the world to  Budapest, you should spend a couple extra days there and enjoy the rest of what the city has to offer, regardless of the New Year. I found TripAdvisor to be the best way to find great activities with tons of user reviews. I will tell you about a couple of the things I enjoyed most.

The first, and this sounds sketchy but bare with me, is to wander around and sight see not just during the day, but at night. But please make sure that you do this while sober and with a group of friends, preferably with more than one of you being good with maps and the language. I say this because Budapest is an insanely picturesque city and everything worth seeing is beautifully lit at night.

One of Budapest's 7 Bridges with St. Stephen's Basilica behind

One of Budapest’s 7 Bridges with St. Stephen’s Basilica behind

The Buda Castle

The Buda Castle

The second big item that I recommend checking out is the Buda Castle, which houses the Hungarian National Gallery. Not only is the castle a world class museum, but the building itself is a true work of art and features some spectacular sculptures. When I was there, they happened to have assembled the most comprehensive exhibit of Marc Chagall’s work that will probably ever be put together, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Overall, the castle is quite large and houses so much art that seeing all of it could take up two or three days, depending on how long you wanted to ponder each piece of art.

Overall, Budapest is a great place to be on New Year’s. If you’re looking for someplace fun with a strong local vibe and a less commercial feeling than the likes of Paris or New York, Budapest is a great place to celebrate!

All of the photos in the post were taken by me. Feel free to share or use them, but please link back to this post!


A Film to Make You Stop and Think

Scarlett Johnasson’s most serious film to date is currently running its course in art house cinemas across the country. While some have criticised Under The Skin as being boring or not giving enough answers, I found it kept me on the edge of my seat and caused me to truly think once it was over.

If you already plan on seeing the film, please pause here and continue reading after you’ve seen it, as I do not want to sway your opinion. Also, there is a rape scene in the film, so do consider this your trigger warning. If you don’t plan on seeing it, let me tell you what it’s about, so the next time you’re having coffee with some intellectuals, you can pretend you saw a real horror film. Or maybe you’ll want to see it for yourself. The film is based on the book, by the same title, written by Michael Faber.

In Under The Skin, Johansson plays a strange woman who drives around a Scottish city in a cargo van all day pretending to be lost until she finds a man with few personal relationships, lures him back to her house which her sexuality, and traps him in a black murky pool where he slowly dies, after undressing to have sex with her.

Johansson’s character, who by the way, is unnamed in the film, seems to have an alien perspective of humanity. Throughout the film she is followed by a man on a motor cycle who disposes of evidence that the men Johansson’s character preys on even existed.

One of the men being trapped by Johansson.

One of the men being trapped by Johansson.

The turning point in the film comes when Johansson preys on a disfigured young man who has never even had a girlfriend. After trapping her in the black pool like the other men, a sense of reluctance and reflection overcomes her and she sets him free, only to be killed by the motor cyclist. Johansson, in the meantime, runs away, presumably to avoid being killed by the motor cyclist. Her identity as an alien being is perpetuated to the viewer when she chokes and spits out a bite of chocolate cake at a restaurant. She’s then taken in by a man she meets on a bus, but runs into the forrest after he tries to have sex with her. What follows is an attempted rape of Johansson’s character, who we then discover is not actually human. Or is she?

Johansson in the woods in Scotland

Johansson in the woods in Scotland

In reflecting on the film, I found a great deal of meaning in it; more than any film I’ve seen in several years (and I see about 100 films per year). On surface it’s a weird, if not horrific film, whose soundtrack and plot are almost on par with Kubrick’s The Shining. But dig deep and the film tells us what it means to be human. The first half of the film illustrates, specifically to men, what it’s like to be raped. The second half then shows how women are treated like objects by men in our society. The end, as well as a handful of moments throughout the film, show us how anyone can be made to feel alien and question their own identity.

If you did see the film and are still confused on the plot, Alex Jones actually explains it pretty well (despite seemingly like a Rush Limbaugh style commentator):

iO9’s Charlie Jane Anders blogged about her interview with director Jonathan Glazer. Apparently the public scenes of the film were really shot in public and secretly so that people wouldn’t notice. While the men Johansson did abduct were actors, there were interactions with men she didn’t abduct, and Glazer said those were surprisingly hard to get:

“Scarlett Johansson pulls up, [and] in you get… some were suspicious. Some were wary. Some were frightened. You see a whole range of complexity of how men do respond to that scenario.”

Anna Beddeley blogging for the UK site The Spectator makes a good point about how certain aspects of the film are hard to follow:

“In the film, Scarlett tricks the men back to her house on the promise of sex, and does a striptease while her victim unknowingly wades into a dark pool. It is very stylised and lovely to watch, but you have no idea what the point of it all is, apart from an excuse to see Scarlett’s bum. There is a fine line between ambiguity and laziness.”

I, however, disagree with Beddeley’s assertion that Glazer is being lazy with the ambiguity. As I stated earlier, I think the film is meant to make you think about the role women play in society. It is not meant to make you think about sexy aliens coming to eat you, which is why Glazer takes that detail out of the film.

Emulating Germany’s Automotive Success

Photo from

Photo from

When people in America say “The BIG Three” you know they’re talking about GM, Ford, and Chrysler. But use the phrase  anywhere else in the world, and no one will even think of those American automakers. As of 2013, the largest automotive company in the world, by revenue, is the Volkswagen Group with $270 billion in revenues. Daimler AG (i.e. Mercedes-Benz) comes in 3rd with $162 billion and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (i.e. BMW) comes in 7th at $106 billion. What I’m getting to is that Germany is the world’s largest and most influential car manufacturing economy.

Germany alone produced over 5.6 million cars in 2012, putting them in 4th place behind China, Japan, and the US, though that discounts the fact that the German firms listed above produce a considerable number of the cars in aforementioned countries as well as in Mexico, France, and many others. The true “BIG Three” are thus, VW, Mercedes, and BMW.

If you want to count being the biggest auto manufacturer as producing the most cars, that’s fine, but it means having razor thin profit margins when compared to competitors and it means cutting corners. Toyota tops VW in the number of cars it produces, but the fact that they brought in $60 billion less in 2013 shows that people are willing to pay a premium for a better car. The VW Jetta, for example is aimed squarely at the Toyota Corolla and VW tries to keep the Jetta’s price the same as the Corolla’s . However when customers didn’t like the 2012 Jetta’s torsion beam suspension, VW threw it out and began offering the car with a more expensive fully independent rear suspension and sales picked up.

Photo from

Photo from

During the recession, VW focused, not on austerity or cutting corners, but on developing new models and opening new plants. This helped the company substantially to maintain year after year growth even in Europe, where car manufacturers have been struggling to keep their heads above since 2009. An online post from the British magazine Autocar highlighted the point back in 2009 stating:

“In the first nine months of the year, VW Group’s sales were up 34 per cent to 622,853 units. This has been helped by the launch of new Golf and Polo models, with sales of these up 54.1 per cent and 56.2 per cent respectively.”

Forbes interviewed Mercedes-Benz vice president of marketing and saw a similar trend in their strategy:

“Mercedes still managed to emerge from the recession with renewed momentum, launching five new models and building share of market, as it is looking to its 14th consecutive year of sales growth in 2011.”

This success has not gone unnoticed. The Fiat group which owns the brands Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and now Chrysler (they sound like a HUGE and important company, now, don’t they?) is now only afloat because they purchased a controlling interest in Chrysler right before the European economy tanked. For Fiat executives, turning Chrysler around was a fairly easy job, turning around the Italian side of the family is turning out to be a much more difficult task. Fiat is now looking at the VW Group as a model of how to succeed.

One example of how the Italians are taking their cue from the Germans is the way that Fiat is rebooting Maserati. Maserati is an old company with a racing heritage. A good comparison to Porsche, where VW has found a balance between catering to the masses with it’s Cayenne SUV (which literally doubled its sales), it’s Panamera Sedan (which was meant to double sales, but fell a bit short), and it’s lower priced Boxter roadster, while maintaining it’s company heritage with 16 variations of it’s 911 on offer. Porsche is now releasing a small SUV called the Macan. Porsche sold 160,000 cars to Maserati’s 15,400, last year, as Reuters pointed out.

The upcoming Maserati Levante at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show. Photo by David Villarreal Fernández

The upcoming Maserati Levante at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show. Photo by David Villarreal Fernández

So, the Reuters article notes, Maserati released two new sedans (the Ghibili and the Quattroporte, the blog Jalopnik has a great review of them) that share various components with other Fiat group vehicles, the way Porsche gets the same air-conditioning or window motors in it’s vehicles as say the VW Jetta. Following Porsche’s strategy, Maserati has an SUV and a sports coupe in the works.

Fiat is catching on. They are realising why it is that the Germans are propping up the European Union. The only question is will other European car makers catch on before it’s too late?

This post is for the Germany in Europe Campus Weeks initiative, information can be found at the German Information Center website.

Winning International Cinema’s Beauty Contest


Photo from Janus Films

The most beautiful films are always, in my opinion, the most thought provoking and tend to only do well on the art house cinema circuit. Think films like Melancholia from the controversial director Lars Von Trier, the enchanting yet, at times depressing, Bill Cunningham New York, or the quirky Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The most beautiful film of this category got its due at this year’s Academy Awards where Italian director Paolo Sorrentino‘s La Grande Bellezza (English translation: The Great Beauty) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

On the surface, the film is about Jep Gambardella, a society writer (played by Toni Servillo) turning 65 and reflecting on his lifetime living among the intellectual and powerful of the beautiful city of Rome. He considers himself the king of “the High Life” as he attends and comments on grand parties, theatre, and watches performance art. He does this while rubbing elbows with Catholic clergy, famous authors and actors, and important members of political parties. The film alternates between Jep dealing with growing old, his flashbacks to when he was young, and him doling out witty attacks on people who he believes to be utterly non-sensical.

But below the surface the film really reflects on the lines between vanity and beauty; truth and belief; honesty and reputation. The film simultaneously tells us that we need to enjoy the small (and great) beauties in life while not getting too big for our britches.

The film features the best soundtrack you’ve ever heard paired to a film. Not to mention stunning visuals of some of Rome’s lesser known features and the way the city blends with nature.  The film is full of art from sculptures, clothes, buildings, performances, writings, and plays, to a flock of flamingo’s who stop on the main character’s balcony during their migration.


Photo from Janus Films

In December, Sorrentino sat down with the Guardian to talk about the film. He said that it was a commentary on Italian society and the film’s main character is meant to express Sorrentino’s own feelings:

“There is a precise correspondence between him and me. The way he feels about people and the heart and parties are very close to me. I am not usually a guy that goes to parties, but many of his ideas are exactly mine.”

Despite being a film that critiques Italian culture, there was much excitement in Italy when the film won its Golden Globe. La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno quoted Rome’s Mayor as saying that

“The triumph of The Great Beauty at the Golden Globes is a source of deep pride for our country and in particular Rome, portrayed in all its extraordinary charm, despite its contradictions”

There was a great blog from Serena at who actually polled a handful of her Italian friends who has seen the film and was kind enough to translate their answers. The answers varied from people loving the film, to being confused by it, to thinking it was overly critical of Italy. The general consensus, though; it was beautiful, but “too long!”


Photo from Janus Films

My suggestion: make yourself a dry gin martini or grab a crisp bottle of Chardonnay and make an evening out of watching the most beautiful film you’ll ever see. Whether you buy Sorrentino’s critique of Italy or not, you’ll definitely end the evening with a sense of cinematic satisfaction.

The Great Beauty can be streamed from Amazon or downloaded on iTunes. Though if you have the opportunity to see it at a theatre, it is an absolute MUST.

Few Choices for Merkel in Russian-Ukrainian Conundrum

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is between a rock and a hard place these days. Being the leader of the country that’s financially propping up the European Union is tough enough without throwing in a balancing act when the Russian president flies off the handle while holding the EU’s natural gas pipes in one hand and Ukraine in the other.


If you have had a hard time following this whole ordeal with Ukraine, here is how the whole thing got started, in a nut shell. Late last year, the Western half of Ukraine wanted to become more integrated with the European Union -you know, break down some trade barriers and sell some grain to their neighbours (Ukraine is the world’s 3rd largest grain exporter)-.   The Eastern part of Ukraine is very pro-Russia and no so very pro EU. Viktor Yanukovych was the president at the time, and he was from the East and has a lot of Russian Support. (For a much more analytical, visual, and rather pro-Western Ukraine explanation, check out Max Fisher’s blog post for the Washington Post)

Clashes between Western protesters and the government get out of hand and Yanukovych flees (deeper explanation on Fisher’s Blog). The Ukrainian parliament decides to make the chairman of parliament the acting president. Putin decides that Yanukovych is still the president, and that parliament’s actions are unacceptable; so Putin gets the Russian parliament to grant him permission to use military force. Russian troops move into Crimea (a section of the Eastern part of Ukraine), in order to “quell protests,” but also to set the scene for Crimea to be annexed by Russia (something that the Ukrainian parliament is now set t vote on).

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, and the US president, Barack Obama, are working with Chancellor Merkel in trying to find a way to deescalate tensions in Crimea.

Merkel’s Dilema

Obama has already put a hold on bank accounts and travel documents for Russians and Ukrainians who support Putin’s actions and undermine Ukrainian autonomy. Merkel, on the other hand, is in no such position to hold Russia accountable.

As you can see from this lovely map that Wikier Samuel Bailey shared on wikipedia, most of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia. This means that Merkel has to be very careful in dealing with the man who has his hand on the tap.As NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, pointed out on The Rachel Maddow Show that this dynamic was forcing Merkel to play “good cop” to Obama’s “bad cop.”


John Cassidy, a political blogger for The New Yorker, seems to think Merkel is the key fixing this situation:

If there is a solution to the crisis, it may lay in Berlin, in the personage of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and the de facto leader of the European Union. Since the Russian troops moved into Crimea, Merkel has said little publicly, confining herself to a few anodyne comments about “preserving the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. Behind the scenes, though, she is at the center of things. And, if anybody can persuade Putin that it is in his interests to order his soldiers back to their barracks, she might be the one.

On March 12th, Merkel quit playing “good cop” and gave a speech making it clear that military intervention would not be an option on the side of the EU or its member states. She did, however, say that it Russia were to take Crimea away from Ukraine, it would severely impact the relationship that Russia has with the EU and that Russia’s economy would suffer.

A video with English subtitles of her speech can be found here (unfortunately not many sites have an English translation because American media is currently focused on the disappearance of a Malaysian airplane). If you sprechen Sie Deutsch, you can watch Merkel’s full speech, below.

As you can imagine, the whole situation has been cause for great angst all over the world, and European bloggers have been particularly vocal about it. Many are vocal purely in the sense that they are history buffs or news junkies and unlike the media, who recounts the events of the day, they want to give you a holistic picture of the whole affair. One such blog was written by Jean Quatremer, with help from Lorraine Millot, of the French news site Liberation. The duo try to present the facts of the entire situation in an unbiased manner for their readers.

Other blogs offer less of a picture and more an opinion. A user called vincimus, on the German blog site Terra-Germania, is outraged. He (or possibly she) plays the  role of the conspiracy theorist. He writes in short sentences with vague references to different events and explanations of the situation. Vincimus asserts that Americans and Unkrainian “oligarchs” stormed parliament to overthrow the elected president and states that 10o,000 voices have been allowed to make the decisions of 44 million people.

In a political blog post on, Von Lutz Kinkel agrees with Merkel, for the most part, but asserts that she’s just going through the motions. He believes that essentially, Crimea has already been lost to Russia. He says that Merkel can’t admit this, because if she does it essentially tells Russia that annexing other countries is acceptable and they can continue doing such things with no consequences. Kinkel appears to support the idea of the EU and Germany sanctioning Russia, but balances this thought by asking if they can morally implement sanctions when Germany has gone against international law in the past.

As for you, Dear Reader…

If you were to ask me, I would actually advise not to read any blogs about this situation. The fact is bloggers (including myself) get things wrong. If they had the necessary expertise to tell you the whole story, they wouldn’t be a blogger; they’d be a journalist, historian, or academic. Bloggers have interesting opinions, but they often like to present them as fact.

What you should really do is follow a news service like the BBC, who covers the context of the situation, the politics involved, and gets the first hand interviews with the people -from the politicians to the refugees- on the ground. Alternatively, you could follow Human Rights Watch, who has boots on the ground during situations like these and aggregates first hand accounts into reports and press releases.

Blogs, in these situations, are really just a bunch of noise; and it makes me hate to read them. 

True/False Doc Shows Physicists Hot For Answers

Missouri Theater being used for True/False

Missouri Theater transformed for True/False

Each year, during the last week of February, Columbia, Missouri is home to its largest annual arts event, the True/False Film Festival. The festival boasts a plethora of documentary films and over 35 bands from around the world.

True/False technically starts on Thursday, but really kicks off for local students on Friday, which was marketed this year as TGI T/F (Thank Goodness it’s True/False Friday), which featured a free screening of Particle Fever, by director Mark Levinson, for students and festival volunteers. The film was a good choice for the student kickoff, particularly as it’s a film about people’s excitement and got students excited about the festival.

The film follows the excitement of the scientists involved with the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN (the name of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, Switzerland) from the startup of the LHC through the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle (a.k.a. “The God Particle”). The film leaves after the discovery which yielded inconclusive results on which of two theories explain the existence of the universe.

At one point in the film, one of the theoretical physicists involved with the LHC is asked by an economist what the economic incentive for the roughly $10 billion project is. I won’t spoil the film by giving you his fantastic answer, but Pauline Gagnon, a quantum physicist, gives a greater explanation to the question than just finding the the origin of the universe, on her official blog on CERN’s site.  Gagnon explains that

the LHC could be opening the door to parallel worlds, extra dimensions or the discovery of as many new particles as the ones we already know. These are but some of the exciting questions we are trying to address.

Gagnon, and Levinson aren’t the only people trying to explain the LHC to the public, either. In fact, CERN has made numerous websites that cater to students trying to spark young peoples’ interests in science. CERNLand, a spanish language site encourages children and their parents to get involved in science through contests. They also encourage visitors to check out this “Taking A Closer Look at LHC” blog, which gives easy to digest explanations of what CERN does.

Part of the Large Hadron Collider

Part of the Large Hadron Collider

CERN’s next step is doubling the power of the LHC to conduct experiments that will hopefully determine which theories about how the universe is held together are supported by the Higgs Boson particle. To do this, the magnets, the main pieces of the LHC, needed to be strengthened. On their official organisational update blog, CERN announced in February that 1,000 of the 1,695 magnets have been upgraded so far.

After the film, theoretical physicist David Kaplan, whom the film followed, stuck around with director Mark Levinson to answer questions from students. The Q&A is a major part of the festival and someone who starred in or made a film is required to be present for the Q&A after each film.

Check out the website for Particle Fever and find out where the film will show next.

Chrysler Shouldn’t Take Aim at Germany

Chrysler’s Super Bowl Ad for their updated Chrysler 200 sedan was a disappointment. In part, it felt like they recycled the main elements from the 2011 Chrysler 200 commercial, which featured rapper Eminem. But mostly, it was the fact that rather than just using their “imported from Detroit” slogan and talking about their brand or their cars, they took several entirely unnecessary jabs at German car makers.

The first instance was when the commercial’s narrator, Bob Dylan, says “…because what Detroit created was a first and became an inspiration to the…rest of the world.” As he says this there’s a shot of a highway and then it cuts to a sign that says “Autobahn.” Now, either they were saying that Detroit was first to make a car or first to make a dedicated roadway for cars, but either way, those accomplishments belong to, respectively, Mercedes-Benz (who were first to build what we consider a car), and the Italians (who built the first “Autostrade” connecting Milan and Varese).

He then talks about how you “can’t import the heart and soul, of every man and woman working on the line,” as though somehow Germans don’t have humanity either. Funny, since one of Mercedes selling points for their AMG line is that only one person builds your engine and their name is laser engraved on it. Chrysler (and GM), on the other hand, actually uses more robots and only lets humans only interact with specific vehicle parts that weigh below a specified amount.

Dylan goes on to suggest that you “let Germany brew your beer,” “Switzerland make your watch,” “let Asia assemble your phone,” and “We will build your car.”

James' BMW 3 Series

James’ BMW 3 Series

As the owner of two cars that were imported from Munich, I was offended, to say the least. Both of my BMWs were sold and re-sold only to Americans and serviced by Americans. And from a cultural perspective, both of them offered technology that American manufacturers simply did not offer during the periods when they were made.

Today, two German car makers are actually VERY American. Volkswagen is committed to making as many of its US sold cars as possible, in the US. They happen to have chosen Tennessee as the home of the most sustainable car manufacturing plant ever made, which is staffed almost exclusively by Americans (many of whom were laid off by Chrysler and GM). The new Chrysler 200 may be made in America, but it relies on designs and technologies developed by Fiat (an Italian firm who…you guessed it, owns Chrysler).

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz is actually widely regarded as one of the top 100 employers in the United States and also has a large plant in Georgia (another employer of workers laid off by Detroit’s Chrysler and GM) where it makes its best selling cars for US buyers. Toyota and Honda, Japanese manufacturers, also have plants in the US. Furthermore, both Mercedes and Honda house their primary design studios in California.

All in all, I think Chrysler was perfectly capable of making a case for their new car and their patriotism without knocking Germany. Since when did being a proud American require you to bring down someone else?

In an increasingly globalized society, you have to walk a fine line if you want to push patriotism as a selling point. Luckily for Chrysler, their cars sport Lancia (an Italian brand owned by Fiat) badges when sold overseas; so hopefully buyers in Europe won’t notice their “Lancia” is made by the same company that just insulted them.