Today was a very busy day – perhaps the busiest in terms of number of people we met and in the amount of time spent on the official program.
We started the morning with the President of the Csongrad General Assembly. We talked about the expectations each county has for the sister-county relationship. Csongrad and Lucas are very similar. Both have a major city (Toledo and Szeged) with smaller suburban cities and villages. While Lucas has townships, Csongrad has the rural, undeveloped areas. All of Hungary is in a process of change as they more closely align with the policies of the European Union. A lot of time is being spent on developing priorities for how the country will spend their allotment (or grant) from the EU. The purpose of the monies is to bring the infrastructure and roads up-to-date…but every county and city is lobbying for their project over the others. And there is a lot of room for improvement in creating highways and installing sewer systems.
Like Lucas, Csongrad faces an unemployment rate that his higher than the country’s and the issue of how to more effectively market the products. They are concerned about bird flu, dioxins, ensuring the safety of the food products made/grown in the county or imported (due to their closeness to the border. Diabetes is a problem with a significant number of people and, while they have developed food products to address such issues, they have no willing investors to help manufacture them in sufficient quantities. Market demand for such products is also an issue. Just about every conversation with elected leaders ended up in a request for, or encouragement of, private investment in their country.
There are many positive things about the county as well, but like in any society, the problems seem to dominate the conversations. It gave me some comfort to find that Hungary is considering eliminating the county governments in favor of regional governments which would cover an area equal to about three counties. There is significant opposition to this from county government, but the larger cities believe it is a way for them to gain more influence within their regions as well as on a national level. The smaller communities are not very much in favor because they already feel dominated by the larger cities and believe that power and funding will flow to the larger cities to their detriment. Sounds a bit familiar….
We also met with the city of Szeged and had a short but very informative power point presentation on the city’s current attributes and planned developments. They are strategically located on the main route into Romania and they’d like to take better advantage of their location for warehousing and transportation industries. They are working on a small airport and on a technology park. They have a highly educated workforce because of the success of the University of Szeged, but many of the degrees are in areas where there is an abundance of graduates.
Interestingly, they have a publicly owned company which is run independently of the city government. This company has a contract with the city to do economic development and long term planning. Their goal with this company is to provide continuity to the community in terms of the strategic planning and to take advantage of the willing involvement of the education and business community. I think we could learn from this arrangement.
We then walked to the University of Szeged and had a presentation from the Vice Rector (equivalent to a vice president) and met with the dean and former dean of their pharmacy college. If I understood the translation properly, the University of Szeged has been ranked among the top 300 universities in the world for the last 4 years. I also learned that their pharmacy college and the College of Pharmacy at UT have agreed to the details of an international exchange and credit program. They expect to the sign the agreement in the near future. We also had a tour of the University’s new library/student center. It is open and spacious. There are computer terminals for about 400 students – and their study tables have room to seat 4-8 and include a computer.
Our next stop was a visit to a culinary and services school. The students range from 14-22 years, with the school serving as a high school and certification program. The kids learn service (wait duties), cooking (chef), baking (pastry chef), economics and management. We were treated to a delicious dinner prepared by the teaching staff and served by their most recent winner in an international competition. Their students are required to learn two languages in addition to Hungarian and their final examination, as well as the competitions, must be performed in a language other than Hungarian.
Our final stop was a musical concert at the Jewish synagogue as part of the synagogue’s festival (which is not a festival as we have them – rather, a month of activities coinciding with certain holy days in the Jewish calendar). The group was a cross between traditional Jewish music and – believe it or not – Dixieland jazz. There were terrific and the synagogue, at 103 years old, was beautiful.
Our delegation was also very appreciative of the kindess expressed as this was September 11th. All our hosts mentioned how shocked they were five years ago when they learned that terrorists had crashed planes into our buildings. Most of them knew people in America or had friends who knew people - and they expressed their sympathies at our losses as remember those who died on that date.
As I’m still having some problems with the internet here, I won’t be able to publish the photos. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do so tomorrow when we arrive in Budapest. Thanks to the mayor of Szentes and the deputy mayor of Szeged, both of whom are members of Parliament, we’ve been allowed to visit Parliament tomorrow and observe their ‘discussion’ of the new prime minister’s first 100 days. They promised it would be interesting!