What a story! Trying to understand the heart of the heart of Europe

Our Hungarian friends in Ecoservice were hosting an Erasmus+ training course trying to combine storytelling, nature and political activism. Bára and yours truly were there as trainers. What a Story! was the title. And What a Story it was.

Hungary is an island, completely surrounded by Europe. This is the distinct feeling I have, every time I visit. It’s not only the language – a lonely, only child in the big European family, only loosely connected to Finnish and Estonian and apparently impenetrable – but also history, culture, and many other aspects of life in this country, that strike me with a very specific impression: Hungary is really, really hard to understand.

Which is peculiar, since the country is pretty much in the geographical center of Europe – well OK, that depends a little – and has always had such close connections with the history of the continent. First a Roman province, then a large independent kingdom, which became part of the Hapsburg Empire, then one of the Communist block, and now a member of the European Union. So, why is it that such a big part of the national sentiment spins around a sense of isolation and for lack of a better word, loneliness? 

This pic is not for “loneliness”. It was actually taken during an excursion, and people were happy to be there :) PS no-one is Hungarian in the picture.

The Hungarians I know are bright, intelligent, sensible, funny people. But “happy” would not be an adjective coming to mind. Actually when I think about it, each and every of them seems to have a sense of sadness buried somewhere inside.

Melancholy, maybe? I thought this was just my weird idea, but as I found out, I am not alone. There is a lot of literature dedicated to the topic of “Hungarian Sadness” and, I discovered, one of the national songs is lovingly nicknamed “The suicide song” (with 3.5 million views on youtube! I hope everybody is safe out there).

Gloomy Sunday, by Rezső Seress.

It’s famous for being “blamed for more suicides than any other song in history”. (Wait, does it mean that there are more “suicide songs”? Good lord).

It was even banned in Hungary AND the UK (a song? come on guys! cheer up somehow!).

Of course it has to do with the national history. But that cannot explain everything. We tried to understand more about it and in doing that, we also explored our own national identities and possibly, the common idea of Europe.

Gyula hosting his “Hungry for Hungary” workshop, which gave a deep insight and understanding on Hungary’s rich past and… worrying present.

True, Hungary has a glorious past as one of the most influential kingdoms in Europe.

Then they lost World War I and got really punished. Like, really bashed. Hungary lost approximately 2/3 of its territories in the infamous treaty of Trianon (France), which marked the end of hostilities on the eastern front.

Funny-or-not fact: Italy and Hungary were enemies during WWI, so “Trianon” is celebrated as a victory where I come from. There is a legendary pizzeria with that name in Napoli. If you go there: ultra recommended. One of the best pizzas in town. And as long as I know: it will still taste great, no matter where you come from.

But why all the hate?

Because the concept of Empire was built over so many different territories, and national identities were raging real high in the early XX century. So everybody wanted a piece of the Old Kingdom: Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, Slovakia (did I forget anybody?), all carved out what was once Hungary.

And laid the foundations for more divisions, of course.

The “Greater Hungary” so dear to nationalistic feelings today. It existed as a political entity – in different configurations and under different rule – between X and XX centuries AD. Croatia is also shown in pink since, although it was a separate kingdom, it was in a formal union since 1102 AD with the Kingdom of Hungary (thanks Gyula for the clarifications!). This shape can today be found as a car sticker, on shop windows, etc. And yes, it is a story.

Anyway, Hungarians (understandably) got really grumpy about it, seeked revenge, needed enemies. Back then, Jews were #1 on the list of public enemies.

So guess what? Hungary quite enthusiastically joined the Axis when WWII broke out.

Which as you can imagine, dear reader, didn’t turn out to be such a great idea after all.

So now we sit after a century – or more – of conflict and divisions. What can we do?

History can divide us, right. Or – we could use it to unite people, to bring about solutions to conflicts. After all, history is just a “story”, so a lot depends on the way we write it and tell it, right? We can also use history to do some good, no?

Mmm not always.

Right now, Hungary seems to be in the grip of a very aggressive and determined government, which is working very actively to suppress pluralism and freedom of information, create “public enemies”, and in order to fuel the feeling of national paranoia necessary to increase its power is not too shy to throw in the mix campaigns anti Europe, anti immigrants (or both, like that crazy, very expensive, failed referendum), and even agitates openly anti Semite ghosts that seemed to be buried in the past (hint: they are not, and they are as dangerous as ever).

Billboard campaign financed by the government, saying “don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”. George Soros, Hungarian-American of Jewish origin, is a controversial character. Multi-millionaire, philanthropist, some would say “finance shark”. He is not exactly popular among Orban’s government nowadays, and embodies perfectly the bad guy for a lot of conspiracy theorists.

Now, this was all very interesting to me, since I moved to Czech Republic (as you may know if you read this), and I am also living in central Europe. The feelings of “we are surrounded” and “they want to invade us” are also present in CZ, maybe to some lesser extent, but are there. And in election times, even more so.

That’s why I am really motivated to understand what is going on, and if the heart of Europe is really so dark as someone says.

To understand better the present situation, we watched a very interesting movie: Keep Quiet (2017), the real story of how a leader of the far-right Hungarian party found out… that he was a Jew. Very good story, and very informative.


“If your government just lies and oppresses you for 50 years”, as was shared in the course, “people are left without critical sense, and there go memory, and the ability to make sense of history. But people still have the need for shared identities. And they will be willing to fill that empty space it in the easiest, most convenient way”. The discussions around the topic were very deep and always interesting.

But complaining on how bad things are is not enough.

We moved on to try and understand history, and the reasons for people’s cultures and behaviors. And then, to work on how to build more positive, constructive counter narratives.

The stories we surround ourselves with end up shaping our sense of reality. And so if we want to build a more positive future, we can start from there: more positive stories, and choose our words wisely.

So let’s start changing these toxic narratives!

The course was a fantastic experience, I was honestly surprised by the passion, honesty and willingness of everybody in the group to be challenged and dive really deep in the topics of the course.

We were hosted in the Három Kincs Völgye (which means “Three Treasures Valley”), a place modeled like a Confucian Temple which serves also as a retreat, spiritual and martial art center. It was really a great inspiration for us and the whole group.

The Way of Council was also a strong element of the program. Here a session is graciously hosted by Rob. Thank you!

We felt surrounded by nature – well, because we were – and it was really easy to encounter animals,

which sometimes led to positive surprises,

Like our friend, here, who was ready to take notes.

and sometimes not so pleasant ones.

Like Freddy who met his evil twin and was not so happy about it.

Yes, Freddy the cat was our fifth team member, and was happy to join all our meetings, giving us ideas and inspiration. Above all, he knew when it was time to end a meeting, have some cuddle and go to sleep (good thing, because we didn’t). 

The program included many elements of Storytelling in theory and practice,

Kriszta hosting “Muhammed and Leyla”, a session on intercultural understanding and bias. Can you also spot Freddy as an added – and very interested – participant?

and we had a super guest, Maja Bumberák, a professional storyteller who works to preserve oral stories from everywhere, and uses them regularly in her work and practice, combining stories, music, singing and well, her own particular kind of magic.

It was really an outstanding experience, as we could feel on ourselves the real magic and power of stories.

“See this scarf? It’s not a scarf anymore. What will it be?”

We built the program together with the group, day by day making changes according to what was more needed,

which is an approach that can cost long night meetings (oh, yes), but is also powerful and rewarding.

There is no better way – I think – to follow and support the group dynamics in a residential training.

The connection with nature was very present throughout the whole course, also thanks to the special nature of the place that was hosting us.

We were leading once more an “Earth Walk” – someday I will have to write something more about it. Environmental awareness and education is becoming a very strong priority for me.

and we included strong inputs on public speaking (to help storytellers bring out the first tool of their trade: their voice!)

working to understand the functioning of different media,

This was my famous “Ask me about my T-Rex” gig session.

and the role we have in them,

including a constant work on understanding “fake news”, and debunking them. We need to start by asking ourselves: who has an interest in creating these stories? Who profits from uncertainty and chaos?

And then. How can we protect ourselves and our communities – both in the physical, and the virtual world?

This is tremendous FAKE NEWS! So sad! #100percentfakestory

Thanks to our group, we also had a very rich experiential phase, which allowed us to have an amazing variety of contributions coming from very different fields of work.

Just two examples. Forum theater was hosted by Ana and Adele.
And Cate offered “Body Mapping”.

I managed to sneak in a good degree of Star Wars references (especially when talking about gamification and game design),

“Now listen, everybody. The Dark Side is not stronger. It’s quicker, easier, more seductive. And votes conservative“.

and of course, us being who we are, we included a strong phase dedicated to the Hero’s Journey,

With such a smile, how to resist a Call to Adventure :)

which had an exhilarating adventure phase, including a boat and a talking barking dog

Picture of the Reward, after the boat challenge! Notice the dog, clearly proud of the achievement.

and also gave great material to the “fake news”, as you can see here:

Before: a team challenge.
After: it becomes a pro Brexit propaganda poster.


With a metaphorical “walk on fire”, the adventure was approaching its end.

This challenging passage represented the Death and Rebirth.

In conclusion, it has been an eye opening experience,

Ah-ah! Sorry :)

a deep and rewarding journey that was at the same time very personal,

and a collective experience,

The brave team of Ambassadors, who will be in charge of collecting all the dissemination material produced after the course.

with some scary challenges to overcome,

This was me during a night hunt game. I got a real kick from it!  (in the face) #totallynotfakenews

and as a conclusion, a huge reward to collect. What a story!

Group photo! Very well done, everybody!





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