Located near Veszprém and close to Lake Balaton is the abandoned city of Szentkirályszabadja (pronunciation here). About a 45 minute drive from our house, my friends and I visited “Hungary’s Chornobyl” on a sunny afternoon in 2020. One of many abandoned Soviet sites in the country, the largest ghost town in Hungary was a once-bustling city that included schools, a theater, pubs, hotels, and restaurants. There was no major catalyst or harrowing event that took place here; Szentkirályszabadja was simply and gradually abandoned by its inhabitants leading up to the fall of the USSR.
One of the most interesting aspects of living in eastern Europe–and especially Hungary–is seeing many of the then- Soviet sites during occupation (or maybe its just me as a Russian Studies nerd). There were a few locations close to our home that I attempted–and sometimes succeeded to find–in our four years there. The Hajmáskér Barracks, Fort Monostor, and the State Defense Authority (ÁVH)’s gulag in Recsk are upcoming posts.
Near Szentkirályszabadja is the “Little Moscow” nuclear storage site located in the densely wooded area of Urkut. The base included a sawmill, tea shop, general store, and even a cabbage fermenter; the nuclear warheads were transported to Urkut by truck and housed underground. Now uninhabited, there are two roads leading into the location that once included bunkers for Soviet soldiers and storage for nuclear weapons. Driving through Urkut, you would never know that the USSR hid warheads and stationed troops in the deep forests of western Hungary, but here we are!
My friends and I drove to the overgrown base in Urkut and found the still-guarded entrance; while I love a good light trespassing adventure, breaking into a former underground nuclear weapons storage site was a bit too much even for me; we stuck to wandering around the streets of Szentkirályszabadja instead.
However, there are a couple of great sites (here and here) of first-hand observations detailing all of the former Soviet sites in Hungary, including a great overview of Urkut if you’re interested in learning and seeing more of the former operations here.
A research caveat: finding information on a now-abandoned, somewhat secret Soviet base and city in rural Hungary is–as you can imagine–a little difficult. The research compiled here is mostly derived from on-the-ground folks and older US documents (the CIA’s Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO is a good one). This post is a combination of found research on Szentkirályszabadja and my own observations walking the city.
Where are we?
Located about 10 km from Lake Balaton is the airfield of Szentkirályszabadja. Near the airfield is both the Hungarian village of Szentkirályszabadja–still inhabited today–and the abandoned Soviet city of the same name. Prior to Soviet occupation, this area was used as an airbase with a training academy; you can still see a number of deteriorating buildings made of stone that stand in stark opposition to the massive Soviet structures of the 1980s. The Soviets decided to build an all-inclusive city for the soldiers stationed here (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) and their families beginning in the 1960s.
The entrance to the abandoned city is one long road–NOT a path through a field as we originally thought lol–without signage or any visible markers. Szentkirályszabadja was a Pripyat-style city meant to meet the needs of those who lived here without having to leave the area. Unlike Pripyat, there was no nuclear meltdown; residents simply slowly evacuated the city as it became clear that the Soviet Union was collapsing.
During the Cold War the base and airfield were used for major helicopter operations and roughly 6 – 8 thousand people lived here. At the time (and honestly today as well) Szentkirályszabadja was a pretty isolated location and not much was known about the base or its inhabitants, beyond that they were Soviet soldiers and their families. Similar to Ukraine’s Pripyat–marketed as a “city of the future”–Szentkirályszabadja and its amenities were considered a luxury for the standards at the time. In addition to the theater, schools, pubs, and restaurants, the city also included five blocks of flats, sports fields, a meat processing plant and farms, a post office, grocery store, and wine cellar.
The dismantling of the base was slow and secret; combat equipment including missiles were taken apart and driven through the dense woods to avoid satellite detection. The Soviets officially withdrew from Hungary in 1989 and Szentkirályszabadja was completely abandoned. In 1996, looting of anything of value (including building supplies) took place and not much of Soviet life (beyond the physical structures) remains here today.
Following the end of Soviet occupation, the Hungarians closed a number of military sites, including the airfield in Szentkirályszabadja (a watchtower remains so technically its an operational airfield, but flights are not landing and taking off from here). From what research I can find, the helicopters used here were moved to the nearby Pápa Air Base, a location with its own unique history. The now NATO reserve base was used by Germans and Hungarians during WWII–the largest air base of the Royal Hungarian Air Force at the time–then as a Soviet fighter base from 1945-1961, and the home regiment of the Hungarian People’s Army’s Air Force 47th Fighter Regiment in 1961; one of the MiG-21F aircraft is on display at a roundabout in Pápa.
Today, there is controversy over who “owns” Szentkirályszabadja; currently the area on either side of the ghost town is used by a privately owned transportation company. While we wandered the streets large semis drove past us from one side to the other. For folks who work here, the trip through a deserted and deteriorating city is just part of the commute.
While a little tricky to find, Szentkirályszabadja was such an amazing site to walk through. We mainly stayed on the paved streets and looked from a comfortable distance as many of the buildings are on the brink or in some state of collapse. As we walked the streets of the abandoned city, a number of large trucks drove through on their way to I can only presume transport their goods to their destination. Like many sites in Hungary, this juxtaposition of old and new is always interesting to experience.
Currently: Reading: The Sum of Us (Heather McGhee) Watching: The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+) Listening: Films to be Buried With (Brett Goldstein)
Atlas Obscura. 2021. “Soviet Ghost Town”. Atlas Obscura. Available here.
Carlo R. 2020. “The Red Army in Hungary – Airbases, Bunkers and Ghost Towns”. Sightraider. Available here.
Fechter, Agnes. 2021. “Abandoned Soviet Barracks in Szentkirályszabadja”. Totally Lost EU. Available here.
Herczeg, Mark. 2012. “Soviet Nuclear Charges Were Stored Here.” Index HU. Available here.
KG. 2019. “This is not Chernobyl, This is Szentkirályszabadja.” Index HU. Available here.
Kovács, Attila. 2019. “Ghost Town, Szentkirályszabadja – The ‘Hungarian Chernobyl'”. Napi Kinscek Tarhaza. Available here.
Simon, Jeffrey. 2003. Hungary and NATO: Problems in Civil-Military Relations. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: USA.
During our days at nearby Gdańsk, Poland, we visited Westerplatte [pronunciation in German and Polish here–phonetically sounds like “Ves-ter-plat-a” with a hard t and soft a vowels in Polish], a short drive from the city. The Battle for Westerplatte took place here on September 1st, 1939 — one of many during the Battle of the Border– and the first stage of the German invasion of Poland.
Where are we?
Westerplatte Monument / Monument to the Defenders of the Coast:
The short trip up to Westerplatte is worth your time if you find yourself in Gdańsk! We spent the afternoon here before returning to the city for gelato.
Currently: Reading: Under the Whispering Door (TJ Klune) Watching: Dopesick (Hulu) Listening: Slow Burn Season 6 (Slate)
I absolutely can not believe it has been TWO years since we visited Poland’s northern city of Gdańsk. Two. Years. How is time so slow yet going by so quickly? A post for another day.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts of my struggle to publish anything travel related last year and now in 2021; thank you for bearing with my absence as I’m continuing to work through those thoughts / feelings.
In 2019 we traveled to Warsaw and Gdańsk with our friends–Heather and Chris–and spent a little over a week wandering around Poland. The country was commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII and both cities included a number of memorials decorated in flowers, candles, and the Kotwica anchor, a symbol of the Polish Resistance and Warsaw Uprising.
Luckily for us, we also happened to visit Gdańsk during the St. Dominic’s Fair, one of the largest and oldest events in Europe; the fair was started in 1260! The 1000+ stalls of vendors and food, art, clothing, and other treasures line the city’s streets for over two weeks at the end of July.
We took the train up from Warsaw (highly recommend–get that 1st class ticket only around 30 euro) to spend a few days in the lovely Baltic city of Gdańsk. There’s a lot to see, plus the sweetest streets and coffee shops.
I’ll be discussing a couple of tough topics related to WWII in this post so please read–and feel free to skip–anything that you might not be able to handle mentally or emotionally at the moment ❤
Where are we?
Located in northern Poland on the Baltic coast, Gdańsk is the country’s main seaport and sits on the Gdańsk Bay, connecting to the Motława River, a branch of the Vistula. The city is named for another branch of the Motława, the Gdania, and was first recorded as a settlement in 997. A city (and country) with a history of complex borders and complicated history, my hope here is to provide a little context as to the how the area of Gdańsk became the unique city it is today.
I loved this quote from Timothy O’Grady:
“The first important event took place on September 1, 1939, when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein maneuvered into the Vistula River and began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, just northwest of the city. These were the earliest shots of World War II. After a monthlong blitz, Poland was subjugated and the war was well underway. The second happened at Gdańsk’s Lenin shipyards on August 31, 1980, when the Polish Communist government recognized the free trade union Solidarity, the first independent labor union in a country belonging to the Soviet bloc. Lech Wałęsa signed with a giant pen wrapped in an image of fellow Pole Pope John Paul II. It was the beginning of the end. After a bloodless decade-long revolution, Wałęsa became president of a free Poland. Two events, catastrophic and hopeful, the twin axes between which the country expanded and contracted at the behest of its voracious neighbors, like the bellows of an accordion.
These and other epochal episodes in Gdańsk happened mainly because of where it is, at the point where the Vistula enters the Baltic Sea. Ringed by Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, it was the gateway to the grain fields, forests, and cities at the heart of the European continent. The city took a cut of everything moving in and out, and became immensely rich. It was, in the region, the pivot point for the Hanseatic League, the merchant confederation that linked all of northern Europe from the 13th century until the mid-1800s. In its heyday, the city hosted more trade than even London. Magnificent town houses went up in the Dutch Renaissance style, festooned with reliefs and murals. Gdańsk built superlatives in several categories: largest medieval crane and mill, largest amber altar, most accurate clock, largest brick church (it could fit more than 20,000 parishioners). Frederick the Great said that whoever controlled Gdańsk would be ‘more master of Poland than any king reigning there.’ Napoleon called it ‘the key to everything.’
O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.
Now one of the top tourist destinations in Poland, Gdańsk is also known for its its unique position as a port city, although the current resurgence of xenophobia and anti-democratic actions threaten the once-admired diversity.
“’I walk in this wonderful place and think that through any laws of probability it has no right to exist,’ [scholar Jerzy] Limon told me. ‘Gdańsk is a kind of miniature of a united Europe. The city has always attracted different nationalities, different religions. Yet it’s also been a mutinous city. Changes started here. We had a bloodless revolution that set an example. This has alienated some people, but it draws in many more.’”
O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.
Brama Mariacka (St. Mary’s Gate):
Wielka Zbrojownia (Great Armoury):
Main Town Hall:
Dwór Artusa (Artus Court):
Kanal Raduni (Radunia Canal):
Bazylika Mariacka (Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin):
Museum of the Polish Post:
One site I wanted to visit but unfortunately ran out of time to see is the controversial Museum of the Second World War. You can read more about the decisions on how to present Poland’s position in history here.
Restaurants & Pubs:
Pierogi Making Class:
Pierogarnia Stary Młyn:
Z Innej Parafii:
Cafe Józef K.:
Reading: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (Jason Stanford, Bryan Burrough, Chis Tomlinson) Watching: Reservation Dogs (Hulu) Listening: Scene on Radio Season 5: The Repair (The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University & PRX)
You may have seen the red trees of Hungary on one of those “these look fake, but are real!” image galleries; at least that’s how I first discovered the Ajka red flood that tore through the Hungarian countryside in 2010. The disaster received a ton of press due to the shockingly visible impact of the waste on the landscape–trees, buildings, cars, essentially everything in the path of the 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave was marked with a deep red line–but I was curious as to how these spaces looked ten years later when the impacts were largely absent from the public eye and the crimson streaks had faded.
After moving to Hungary in 2016, I began researching the areas affected by one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the European Union. I realized that the severed MAL reservoir that caused the flood of toxic waste was possibly a mere 30 minutes from our new town and I wanted to find these spaces to understand more about the environmental injustices that impacted the communities here; ten people died, over a hundred injured, and even more were displaced in the small rural villages of Kolontár and Devecser.
Flashbacks to my days as a Geography undergrad student wandering around Charleston and the outlying areas recording field notes, as well as researching the origins of the food sourced by the College of Charleston for my graduate thesis–where I creeped on so.many.buildings over Google Maps / Street View trying to understand what took place inside.
This journey to see the village of Kolontár and the trees of Devecser was not a simple one; even after poring over maps in Google, outdated blogposts, and exhausting Street View, my friend and I eventually decided to literally drive around the villages and research the areas on foot to discover more of what took place here ten years ago.
As always, remember that environmental disasters are not merely environmental; this toxic wave didn’t just occur in isolation — but was caused by human action. Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt (MAL), the alumina company that owned the dam that breached into the nearby villages, owned 4% of the world’s alumina market at the time (and refused responsibility). The rural villages in the path of the sludge are poorer communities and at the time dependent on agriculture or employment at the plant to survive. While fined 472 million Euros in environmental damages, the impacts of the MAL industrial waste remain both in the landscape (levels of toxicity are still considered dangerous) and socially, as survivors of the red flood continue to struggle with the financial, mental, and emotional impacts of the disaster.
“’These people are billionaires, and they couldn’t care less about the rest of us,’ said Fuchs, who was the first to launch a lawsuit seeking damages. ‘Enough is enough. Innocent people die while they live happily ever after?!'”
Marton Dunai. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
This environmental injustice is compounded by the anti-Roma sentiment in the country, particularly evident in Devecser, where one third of the village’s population is of Romani descent. A marginalized group in Europe–especially Eastern Europe–about 800,000 Romani people live in Hungary, a country with a population of 10 million. Historically discriminated against and frequently the target of hate crimes, Roma groups are disproportionally poorer, with less access to education and healthcare as their Hungarian neighbors.
“Devecser, then, serves as microcosm. It was like any other Hungarian town in Veszprem County before the great wave struck, a valley with deep agricultural traditions, in recent years wounded by crumbling job prospects. Locals also nursed antipathy for the Roma concentrated near the town center. That downtown is also home to what is known as a ‘black’ high school – meaning, ‘white’ Hungarians send their kids to school in larger cities nearby. Left behind, the Romanies are effectively segregated.”
Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
This post is divided into two parts:
I’ll start with an overview of the location, the disaster, the impact of the red sludge on the villages in its path, as well as updates since 2010.
The second half of the post is my own geographic fieldwork in the area ten years after the disaster (May 2020).
Where are we?
The small towns of Kolontár and Devecser are loctated in Veszprém County, Hungary. West of Budapest and north of the country’s largest lake–Lake Balaton–these villages are near the city of Ajka. The MAL Alumina Production and Trading Company is located just outside of Ajka, in between the city and roughly 10 km (6 miles) from Kolontár.
The Flood: “Everything is gone, everything we had.”
On October 4th, 2010 at 12:25pm CEST, the northwest corner of the number 10 containment pond reservoir of the MAL alumina plant collapsed, resulting in the release of over a million cubic meters of toxic, highly corrosive sludge. The wave of highly alkaline red “mud”–the waste product of refining bauxite into alumina, a form of aluminum oxide–destroyed everything in its path, flooding the villages of Kolontár, Devecser, and Somlóvásárhely. The movement of the flood was so powerful that it physically transported cars and vans in the village of Devecser.
The sludge contains a combination “of solid impurities, heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt and lead, and the processing chemicals” (Toth, 144). A study by Greenpeace found levels of chromium, arsenic, and mercury in the waste, although the Hungarian government stated that the liquid was not poisonous for people or the environment. Much of the human injures caused by the breach included severe chemical burns from the high pH of the waste; more than 100 people were injured, ten died (cause of death estimated to be drowning), and the flood killed all large number of marine, plant, and wildlife surrounding the nearby Marcal and Torna rivers. At the time of the flood, Tibor Dodson, a spokesperson for the Hungarian Disaster Management Agency, stated: “The Marcal River is dead.”
The 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave dyed everything in its path–leaving a trail of red throughout the countryside and villages. Over 250 homes, 800 people, and over one thousand hectares of land were affected.
“Still in pain from the death a few years earlier of their son, who had been hit by a train, the Juhaszes saw their home destroyed, watched Dora suffer severe internal burns after ingesting toxic sludge, and had to endure another death in the family when Angyalka, who was barely a toddler, drowned in it.
‘Our family is cursed,’ Mrs. Jushasz said, tears streaking her cheeks. ‘Tragedy follows us everywhere.”
Dimiter Kenarov. 2011. “Recalculating ‘Normal’ in Hungarian Disaster Zone.” Pulitzer Center. Available here.
As the wave started to reach (and eventually met) the Danube, large amounts of gypsum and chemical fertilizers were added to the Marcal and Torna rivers in an attempt to contain the chemicals from reaching other countries; the hundreds of tons of plaster and acetic acid successfully lowered the acidity of the water. Unlike the Marcal, where all fish were killed after the sludge entered the stream, the levels were low enough to be considered safe when merging with the Danube. While contained-ish in rural western Hungary, concerns were raised about the effects of breathing in these chemicals as the sludge dried and turned to dust; this could potentially reach other locations by wind. MAL resumed operations just ten days after the flood and implemented the newer “dry” technology that creates a red dust from the waste–rather than storing the sludge in an open air reservoir–that is then released into the atmosphere, furthering the concerns over respiratory issues as these new containment holds were also uncovered.
The Aftermath: “I was twice reborn last year… it is impossible to forget. But go elsewhere? I’ve never lived anywhere else. Where else would I go?”
One of the largest employers in the area, MAL took over the alumna plant in 1995; the facility was originally established in 1943 and the handover to MAL was part of a mass privatization effort by the Hungarian government in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In an effort to maximize profit, the company continued to produce large amounts of sludge with little implementation of technological advances (although many existed in the field), had minimal efforts to reduce the amount of waste created by their operations, and did not comply with its own standards of disposal.
In 2003, MAL reached an agreement with the government to change the waste created by their operations to “non-hazardous” and therefore, under less strict regulation. Despite satellite images of the reservoir indicating movement each year, the fact that MAL was not required to include a safety barrier to control movement of the sludge, and readings on October 3rd showing warning signs of collapse, the company was not obligated to pay the victims of the breach; their liability insurance was not required to cover the spill of toxic waste from the plant into the nearby villages. An article published by the newspaper Nepszabadsag stated that at least twenty plant workers testified to police that they notified management of leaks but were told to keep quiet about the issue.
On September 16th. MAL was fined 135 billion Forint (389 million Euro), a fine four times the cost of the estimated cleanup of the area (115 million Euro). On October 12th, the Hungarian government passed a law through Parliament allowing the government to nationalize the company; they took over MAL the next day. Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zolton Illes, noted before the seizure that, “the Hungarian government will support all the activities of the company, will stand behind this company, to keep its 6,000 workplaces in that region, and also to keep this alumina processing activity”. Also on this date, the director of MAL–Zoltán Bakonyi–along with several other employees, were arrested and charged with “criminal negligence leading to a public catastrophe”.
Cleanup and construction from the flood cost the Hungarian government (and the country’s taxpayers) over $166 million (2011). 112 new houses were built across the three towns and many of the remaining 300 families displaced by the disaster chose to purchase used homes (125) or cash compensation (80). In total, over 53,000 truckloads of sludge was removed from the nearby fields between the villages.
“His mother, living just down the road, drowned in the flood. Her body was found days later in a fishing pond belonging to another of her sons, Jozsef. Jozsef Fuchs’ Kolontár home was spared in the flood, but he lost much of his livelihood. The still-high toxicity of the pond water makes it unsuitable for fish farming and since the woods surrounding the pond were either destroyed by the sludge or cut down during the cleanup efforts, its attractiveness for weekend anglers has all but disappeared. ‘No one wants to come fishing here anymore,’ said Jozsef Fuchs, 58. ‘I have no use for the pond. It was beautiful, but now it could just as well be a desert… I was born in one of the houses that was demolished and my mother’s body was found at the end of my fishing pond,’ Fuchs said. ‘I want to stay here and I’m probably going to die here. But in the meantime, I still need to make a living.'”
The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here.
In 2013, a Hungarian court ordered MAL to liquidate. However, the company remains the owner of the storage facility near Ajka (although not as area of containment today as the waste has changed to the more technologically advanced drying method). In 2016, Bakonyi and fourteen other employees were acquitted of all charges. On December 13th, 2019, a higher court reversed the decision of the lower court, sentencing the former CEO to four years in prison, as well as the former technical director of the company to a three year sentence.
10 Years Later
Where to start? Devecser and the Search for the Red Trees
Our search for the red trees of Hungary began in Devecser. As noted above, while the flood is commonly known as the Ajka red mud disaster, this designation is due to the location of the plant, an area right outside the city of Ajka. After researching the impact of the sludge on the nearby villages–and scouring old blog posts and Google Maps Street View–I guessed that most likely the trees we were searching for would be somewhere in Devecser, as much of Kolontár was completely destroyed by the flood. The trees from the pictures of the disaster were also in a heavily wooded area, which looking at a map of the path of the red sludge, was a type of landscape closer to Devecser’s.
A blogger noted that red trees were located near a playground. Searching through images uploaded to Google Maps, I saw that a red-ish tree was located in a large park near the castle in 2017. Armed with a starting point and potential location, my friend and I parked at the gas station at one side of the park and walked the entire length toward the town’s castle.
We thought we noticed some red in these tree trunks, but nothing like the photos from 2010. Were we in the right place? Devecser’s homes were also absent of the tell-tale sign of the sludge–the red marker along the walls of the houses.
After making our way through the park toward the entrance of the castle, we stumbled on a memorial shrouded by trees. If we weren’t here specifically searching for impacts of the red mud we could have missed the painting and its significance altogether.
An informational display is located on the other side–near the entrance to the castle–but again, we would have missed it without traveling to this large park for this specific purpose. The display noted that the tree trunks were cleaned by volunteers and college students and the topsoil in the area was also replaced. The park was completely redone in the summer of 2014; over 140,000 plants were planted, including 176 trees that replaced the “felled” ones.
Okay–Let’s Drive to Ajka!
Thankful for a fellow adventuring friend always down for a good investigational hunt, Heather and I then decided to drive up to the city of Ajka, less than 10 kilometers from Devecser. We guessed that the containment reservoir may still be intact, as we had discovered a number of structures still standing in Hungary even after disaster–we just wandered around the nearby Soviet Ghost Town of Szentkirályszabadja after all–and found what we thought may be MAL’s reservoir.
We parked and I wandered closer–the height of this structure meant it HAD to be the number ten containment reservoir right? I snapped a few pictures but with signs everywhere stating “TILOS” (forbidden!) I didn’t push my luck. Workers were moving sediment and other materials so I also didn’t want to disturb them. This activity was also confirmed by visitors to the location in 2015.
Let’s Just See What We Find in Kolontár:
We then turned around in Ajka and drove back toward Devecser. As we passed the enormous structure again, we guessed that this had to be the MAL reservoir–geographically it made sense–but without signage we couldn’t be 100% sure. Like the park, this area underwent a massive overhaul of environmental mitigation.
Without a real plan in Kolontár, we chose to just drive around the small village. I knew that two streets were destroyed by the sludge, so we kept our eyes out for new houses that may have been built to replace them. Maybe this is it? we kept asking each other. We saw a church peeking through the treetops and Heather decided to drive in that direction.
From the road we saw the memorial to the Ajka red sludge disaster. Located diagonally from the church, this memorial sits next to the train tracks and is entirely alone in its surroundings. This house was completely destroyed by red sludge and is now a memorial to the lives destroyed by the flood.
We walked toward the train tracks, across the Torna and over a bridge.
We quietly left Kolontár, still in awe that we stumbled upon this memorial, a preserved lunchtime snapshot of October 4th in the Hungarian countryside.
Recovery & Future Concerns:
While Devecser has made commitments and sustainable energy progress, many survivors of the red sludge note that they have yet to receive settlements and many of the newer houses have a number of construction issues. The disaster caused a drop in home values and many cannot afford to move elsewhere. The main sources of income for this area have disintegrated along with the flood; the MAL facility is now closed and a ban on selling produce here was implemented. The population of both villages has dropped and many residents state they still suffer from the effects of the disaster both physically and mentally. The Hungarian government has instructed survivors to use the courts for retribution and many have pursued that route.
“’Healing is so complex,’ Tili said. ‘Those who lost loved ones will never forget. But those who did not have mostly got past the memories by now. We have had a psychotherapist on the scene for a year. Lots of people have visited her.'”
Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
Now that the visible aspects of the disaster have faded, how will the injustices suffered by the survivors be mended? Previously available jobs are now non-existent. Lower property values and less population overall make owning a business difficult. The increasingly growing sentiment against the historically marginalized Roma communities further compounds the injustices faced by the survivors of the Ajka red sludge. The amount of anti-Roma rhetoric has only increased since the 2010 disaster. In 2012, nearly 1,000 white supremacists marched through the small village, throwing rocks into the homes of Romani residents, and shouting: “You are going to die here”. After a number of Roma families re-located to Devecser after the flood, a dispute between families ignited the march. The same mayor who promised sustainable energy also stated that “what happened to some [of the Roma population during the Ajka red flood] was in their best interest”.
“Anyone calling it ‘golden sludge,’ I’d be happy to change places with them,’ Horvath [his wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body] says. ‘Let them stand in it three-four hours and experience the same pain. We’ll have scars the rest of our lives. People already see our brown skin; now they’ll see spots and think we have an exotic disease, too.'”
Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
Although Covid-19 hit the country hard (at one time in 2021 Hungary had the highest death rate in the world) with lower access to healthcare, greater likelihood to live in communal spaces (often without running water) and distrust toward the Hungarian government due to their anti-Roma sentiments in the past, Romani populations were ravaged by the virus: “Just about every family got it. …People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”
In addition to localized concerns, many fear that the Ajka red sludge is just one of a ticking time-bomb of future problems in Eastern Europe; many warn that without proper waste disposal (and the funds to do so) there could easily be a number of events similar to the Ajka alumna disaster in the future. The WWF estimates the number of potential sites could be in the hundreds:
“Experts identify inadequate enforcement of inadequate regulations as a key issue in a string of spills in the area, of which two most serious were the Hungary mud disaster and an earlier cyanide spill from a tailings dam in Romania. ‘Our society expects that the facilities still in use are being exploited correctly and safety procedures are being observed. In reality this is not the case’, said Daniel Popov, a toxics expert from the CEE Bankwatch Network in Bulgaria.”
World Widlife Fund. 2011. “Little action apparent on toxic tailings six months after Hungary red mud disaster.” WWF Online. Available here.
“I believe the only positive development of the spill is to draw attention to the importance of such environmental ‘time-bombs’ hidden in the backyard of former communist countries. It is crucial that better environmental inspection standards are implemented by authorities to prevent similar disasters in the future.” — Dr. Szabolcs Lengyel
Currently: Reading: Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (David Roberston) Watching: Loki (Disney+) Listening: Un(re)solved (Frontline PBS)
Works Cited: The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here. BBC News. 2020. “Hungary Battles to Stem Torrent of Toxic Sludge.” BBC News. Available here. Cain, Phil. 2012. “Hungary Nationalists Whip Up Anti-Roma Feelings.” BBC News. Available here. ClientEarth Communications. 2020. “Two Recent Judgements in Hungary Clarify the Environmental Liability Regime.” ClientEarth. Availablehere. Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here. Environmental Justice Atlas. 2014. “Red Mud Disaster Kolontár-Devecser, Hungary.” Environmental Justice Atlas. Available here. Jordan, Michael K. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Availablehere. Kátai-Urbán, Lajos and Zoltán Cséplı. 2010. “Disaster in the Ajka Red Sludge Reservoir.” The Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents: The Hague, Available here. Lengyei, Szabolcs. 2010. “Hungarian Red Sludge Spill — Three Weeks Later.” The Freshwater Blog. Available here. Moseman, Andrew. 2010. “Hungary’s Toxic Spill Reaches the Danube, but River May Escape Harm.” Discover. Available here. Reuters. 2010. “Red Sludge Company to Resume Production.” Radio France Internationale. Available here. Reuters. 2021. “‘Falling Like Flies’: Hungary’s Roma Community Plead for Covid-19 Help.” VOA News. Available here. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 2010. “Hungary’s Red Sludge Spill: The Media and the Eco-Disaster.” Yale Environment 360 (Yale School of Environment). Available here. Taylor, Allen. 2011. “A Flood of Red Sludge, One Year Later.” The Atlantic. Available here. Thorpe, Nick. 2010. “Toxic Sludge Carpets Homes in Hungary.” BBC News. Available here. Toth, Janos I. 2013. “Key Actors of the Red Sludge Disaster in Hungary.” in Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse. Routledge: 2013. Available here. Turi, David, Jozsef Pusztai, and Istvan Nyari. 2013. “Causes and Cir Causes and Circumstances of Red Mud Reservoir Failure In 2010 at MAL Zrt Factory Site in Ajka, Hungary.” International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering (2013). Available here. World Wide Fund for Nature. 2011. “Little Action Apparent on Toxic Tailings Six Months after Hungary Red Mud Disaster.” World Wide Fund for Nature. Available here.
My very last Ashlyn Adventure in Hungary was a short trip to the floating houses on the human-created Lake Bokodi. Always at the top of my list of uniquely Hungarian sites-to-see, it was only fitting to stop by before moving to Germany. I recently finished High on the Hog (Netflix — WATCH IT) and was reminded of my afternoon here as I saw the floating village of Ganvie in Benin (located on Lake Nokoué) in the first episode of the series.
Opened in 1961 by the Oroszlány Thermal Plant, the artificial lake is located around 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) west of Budapest and only a 90 minute drive from our house. Visiting the floating houses was a pretty short trip–literally just taking in the landscape of this area–but I would recommend driving up to the Tata Castle, just 30 minutes north of this lake (and also the site of filming of the Witcher series) if you have time. Unfortunately for me, I was on the verge of a panic attack at the realization that YES YOU ARE MOVING and couldn’t stop by Tata or any of the sites of nearby Oroszlány.
You may have seen a few pictures of Lake Bokodi on lists of interesting landscapes in Europe (this and probably the Red Trees of Hungary–stay tuned for an upcoming post on that!) and I’m so thankful it was close enough to see in person because the space is such a combination of allthethings I love–unique story, quirky landscape, a level of trespassing / abandonment, etc.
Where are we?
Lake Bokodi is located west of Budapest and surrounded by two villages–Bokod on the west and Oroszlány to the east. The two miles of “floating houses” are actually small fishing cottages suspended over the lake.
This entirely floating village of roughly 2000 people are connected to the banks through a number of boardwalks.
Rapid industrialization led to the construction of the coal mine and operations in the area. The Által River (a tributary of the Danube) was dammed in order to create a cooling pond for the Oroszlányi Power Company. In the fall of 1960, the dam was completed and the nearby meadow between the two villages began to fill. Lake Bokodi was completed in 1961 and served two purposes: pump cool water into the Vertesi coal-fired power plant and serve as the exit point for the now-warm water from the coal plant’s boilers. Oroszlány became a powerhouse (pun intended) in energy production for Hungary through this coal plant and mine operation.
The lake is essentially cut in in half by an enormous conveyor belt; while in operation, this brought brown coal into the plant from Hungary’s only deep mining operation at the time, the nearby Márkushegy mining facility. You can see this conveyor belt on the following maps:
There are a couple of places I’ll be discussing in this post including Oroszlány (the nearby city that was once vital to Hungary’s energy production), Lake Bokodi (human-made lake created by damming and flooding the Által in the early 1960s), the Vertesi coal power plant (located on Lake Bokodi and can be seen in the pictures here), and the floating village (fishing houses located on the lake).
Unlike other Hungarian lakes, including nearby Balaton (known as the “Hungarian Sea”), Lake Bokodi never completely froze during the harsh winter months due to the continuous circulation of water from the power plant. As a result of this constantly warm water, a small fishing community arose in the area as fish could be caught year-round. During the winter visitors could even see steam rising up from Lake Bokodi.
Lake Bokodi became a “horgászparadicsommá” (fishing paradise) and fishing huts with wooden plank walkways to the coast began popping up along the lake. These homes were mainly used as vacation houses.
The combination of the never-frozen lake and the uniqueness of the houses made the floating village famous. In 2014, a shot of the floating village was featured on the Bing homepage, bringing sightseers to the small town known only until this point as one of the last coal communities in the country, greatly annoying the fishing population here.
Lake Bokodi Today:
While many websites still proclaim Lake Bokodi as “the never-freezing lake”, this is no longer the case as the Vertesi plant completely shut down in 2015. The final coal power plant in Hungary, operations began to phase out in 2010. The government-owned facility and nearby mine received $30 million in annual subsidies to remain afloat, one of the few subsidies allowed by the European Union at the time. Similar to coal communities in Kentucky and West Virginia, this area was highly reliant on the plant as more than 3,000 of Oroszlany’s 20,000 residents worked in coal-related jobs. The New York Times has an interesting slideshow on the closing of the plant and photos of the city. I was unable to find any research into the environmental degradation potentially caused by the dam, the flooding of the meadow, or the impacts of coal on the area–send me the documents if you see any! I’m really interested in the sustainability aspects (both human and environmental) of this area.
Oroszlany includes a number of Soviet-era monuments to coal and its workers in the center of town. One monument includes a mining wagon with the phrase “Jó szerencsét!” (good luck!)–perhaps a testament to the harsh and unsafe working conditions. The space also includes a memorial dedicated to the former labor camp where roughly 1200 people were imprisoned and forced to work in the nearby mine before escaping in 1956; many of the escapees traveled to Budapest to fight in the uprising later that year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to the city but you can see a few of the monuments here and here.
Recently, Oroszlány, along with three other Hungarian towns and four in Slovakia, opened a cross-border bikeshare program where residents can check out a bike for up to ten hours at a time.
Today, traveling to the floating houses of Lake Bokodi is definitely an off-the-beaten-path experience. It’s important to note that while the coast is owned by the power plant, the houses are privately-owned and people actually live there! A friendly reminder as a visitor to remain respectful of the space and its residents.
The north-eastern side of Lake Bokodi, coming from Oroszlány is the best location to visit (remember the coastline is over two miles!); this area has the prettiest view of the floating village and is reasonably accessible. I traveled from the west so I drove across the lake prior to reaching this particular site.
You can cross over Kecskédi út, a residential street, and take a right toward the direction of the lake. Here, the roads are not paved and are very rough. I ended up parking early and walking through a trail of long marsh-y grass before reaching the coastline.
The coastline included a number of benches and cute signs marking nearby cities. Here is where I saw one of the most unique aspects of this landscape: the locked doors on the wooden walkways leading to the houses.
You’d have to be brave to walk out on these planks. Not my jam.
While wandering down the road to see the other houses on this side of the lake, I was greeted by this lovely dog and goat, who are clearly best friends and in development with Disney to make their own Lake Bokodi BFF adventure series:
This visit truly was one of the best ways I could have ended my four years in Hungary. So much history, story, and uniqueness packed into this place. I wish I could have visited the cities or a few of the nearby (read: ruins) sites, but alas, ran out of time (and sanity–moving during a pandemic is not fun).
However, if you find yourself in the area, here are a couple of places to stop by:
Ruins of the Vértesszentkereszti Abbey (12th century–absolutely so cool, but may be closed to the public at the moment)
Várgesztes Castle ruins (also temporarily closed)
Oroszlány MiningMuseum (this just seems like the ultimate post-Soviet coal museum visit)
Tata Castle and Lake Öreg (gorgeous!)
And if you can’t visit, check out this lovely post of a traveler who recorded incredible drone footage of the area and was embraced by locals (as always, shots of Pálinka were exchanged).
Final pro-tips include packing a lunch, being mindful of the folks who live here, and always err on the side of safety (I know, rich coming from me, but you don’t want to get your car stuck or fall in).
Currently: Listening: Slow Burn Season 5 (Slate Podcasts) Watching: The Queen’s Gambit (HBO) Reading: The House in the Cerulean Sea (TJ Klune)
This year’s food-in-review will be slightly different from 2019–do we even remember dining out during pre-pandemic times–because of course it will. “Hmmm…”, I think as I go through pictures, “I won’t have too many from 2020.”
87+ photos later…
Despite nearly a full year on some sort of lockdown (give or take a few weeks and looser restrictions) 2020 included the greatest meal of my life (Hiša Franko) as well as some personal milestones (I finally became that bread baker that I’d aspired to for most of my adult life).
Hiša Franko, Slovenia:
We’re starting off with the best meal ever in the history of my life–dinner at Hiša Franko. If you haven’t watched Ana’s episode on Chef’s Table (its on Netflix what are you doing with your life if you haven’t seen it?!) you need to ASAP. Everything is sourced within 50 km of the restaurant (!!) and she and her husband have done so much to support local growers and biodiversity in the area around Kobarid. Chris and I went back and forth with whether we should make a reservation and I am so incredibly happy and thankful that we did. A perfect dinner and sendoff to four years in the wild wild east(ern) Europe. Literally had dinner in Slovenia and arrived back to Hungary the day before the borders closed once again.
Here we goooooo!
Favorite Coffee Spots:
An avid cowboy coffee drinker–who has time for cream and sugar especially in a pandemic?!–here are my favorite coffee spots of 2020:
Breakfast & Brunch:
Most na Soči, Slovenia:
Most na Soči, Slovenia:
Lake Balaton, Hungary:
Most na Soči, Slovenia:
All the Tacos + Nachos:
Adventures in Homecooking:
Currently: Reading: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tokarczuk) Watching: The Americans Season 6 (Netflix) Listening: Slow Burn Season 5: The Road to the Iraq War (Slate)
My all-time favorite pastime, reading was a little difficult to focus on last year, but thankfully I read a TON of great books that I’m excited to share here. I made an effort to read more fiction in 2020 and this list (I hope) is a reflection of my favorite fiction and non-fiction titles over the past year.
I only included books published in 2020 on this list so friendly reminder to read The Nickel Boys as it truly is one of the great American novels and is an absolutely incredible book. I read it while in Zakopane last fall and I’m still thinking about it.
A bit of personal news before we get into the list; I was hired as a Librarian Technician here in Germany about a month after we moved. It’s been a lot of fun learning information science systems, altering operations to meet host nation guidelines (we are currently in “mega” lockdown but have stayed open to the public), and hosting book clubs. Plus I’m working on media literacy and growing my knowledge of cataloging!
My Favorite Books of 2020:
#20: Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford
#19. Uncanny Valley Anna Weiner
#18. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann, Kristen Joiner
#17: Untamed Glennon Doyle
#16. Leave the World Behind Rumaan Alam
#15: Just Us: An American Conversation Claudia Rankins
#14: Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes Bryant Terry
#13: A Black Women’s History of the United States Diana Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
#12. His Only Wife Peace Adzo Medie
#11. Fresh From Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking from the Old Country Michal Korkosz
#10. Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster John Barr and Dan Murphy
This overview of the Larry Nassar case is one of the best books I’ve read on the topic. Detailing the literal decades of abuse, the enabling, and the eventual arrest, Barr and Murphy do a great (and pretty thorough) job of providing readers with how the former doctor was able (I would argue, allowed) to sexually assault hundreds of women across thirty years at a number of prestigious institutions.
While providing space for survivor testimonies including Rachael Denhollander, Larissa Boyce, and Jamie Dantzscher provides context and narrative to the facts of the case, know that Start by Believing focuses on the trajectory of Nassar and the timeline of his abuse. The Girls (Abigail Pesta) is definitely more victim-focused (and referenced a number of times in this book) but the story of Nassar’s life and the focus on the institutions that enabled him–USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, Twistars–are detailed throughout this book.
Barr and Murphy provide a fuller picture of Nassar’s life and the effort needed to take him down. I would recommend Start By Believing to anyone looking for an overview of the case and the sheer force and unrelenting willpower required to put him behind bars. These women pursued justice on their own, facing backlash from members of their community and the public, as well as pushback from the institutions supposedly there to assist them.
#9. The Glass Hotel Emily St. John Mandel
“There are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life.”
This quietly engaging fifth novel by Emily St. John Mandel centers around the fallout from a financial crisis. While that’s the main-ish plot of the story, The Glass Hotel is so much more than a tale of neoliberal shortfalls. Instead, as noted by Beejay Silcox, “the financial crisis as a ghost story” that serves as the backdrop and connection among a number of characters rebuilding their lives.
The financial collapse of 2008 is a different kind of end-of-the-world crisis than we were experiencing in 2020 (and arguably, still living every day) but many of the emotions experienced by the characters struggling to find a new way of life resonated with me. There is truly no “going back to normal”.
I loved this quietly intense and brilliantly written novel.
#8. Transcendent Kingdom Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is one of my absolute favorite novels of all time, so I was anxiously awaiting Yaa Gyasi’s follow up to her 2016 debut. The unfolding story of Gifty, a neuroscience student researching the connection between addiction and depression, is similar to Homegoing in that the impacts of the past and family struggle are very much a part of the present. However, unlike her first novel where the family continued to grow outward, Transcendent Kingdom‘s is in fact shrinking; Gifty notes that soon she will be all that’s left.
“I would always have something to prove,” Gifty notes.
And as I followed her story through religion and science, racism, death and living, I too couldn’t wait to see what the young scientist built from her trauma. While she focuses her professional life on potentially assisting addicts, she very clearly states that it is because the work is hard, not out of any kind of desire to help others; that pharmaceutical companies banking off her data won’t save the world, that salvation is more complicated than narrow perspective of Christians and scientists. Gorgeously written, this novel asks a lot of questions, and was one of my favorite of the year.
#7. The Vanishing Half Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett is an incredible writer. In The Vanishing Half, she tells the story of Black twin sisters–Stella and Desiree–as they make their way through life on opposite trajectories. Desiree, with her dark skinned child, return to her hometown and continues to wonder what became of her sister. Unbeknownst to her and their mother, Stella has lived her life passing as a white woman in Los Angeles.
Centering on the paths of the sisters’ lives, Bennett does a great job weaving a number of storylines over different time periods. For the sisters, who escaped Mallard to New Orleans after the lynching of their father, processing this horrific event frames the lives they chose moving forward. The similarities of experiences regardless of their path demonstrates the very real impacts of race and gender on American life.
#6. Conjure Women Aida Atakora
This debut novel by Afia Atakora is so addicting and beautifully written that readers feel as if they are almost there with the main characters of the story, A historical fiction tale set both during slavery (centering on Miss May Belle) and after abolition (focusing now on her daughter, Rue), Atakora weaves both plots together to explore the lives of people struggling to survive during and after enslavement.
Atakora’s writing and storytelling skills are impressive and she successfully moves through time at a plantation in the heart of the American rural south. At times magical, at others heartbreaking, I loved this book.
Can we also just talk about how stunning this cover art is?
#5. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents Isabel Wilkerson
Everyone needs to read The Warmth of Other Suns. Now that I have that off my chest, everyone should also read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson’s follow-up to Suns argues that a caste hierarchy is the most accurate way to describe race in the United States. Powerfully written and one of the most necessary non-fiction books of 2020, Caste combines historical narrative and aspects of sociology and culture to formulate her argument: “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” For Wilkerson, the construction of a caste system–artificial in nature that ranks humans based on ancestry–presumes one group of people is higher than another and this idea is further ingrained institutionally, as well as legally codified.
For me, now living in Germany, the chapter detailing how the Nazis based much of the operations of the Final Solution on the treatment of Black people by the American government truly hit home; this was the first book I read after our move. The dehumanization of the “other”–even Adolf Hitler was surprised by the extent of the effort to separate the races–is a reminder of how truly deep racism and the structures built to uphold white supremacy have, and continue to be part of, American life.
In a discussion with a friend, Wilkerson is asked: “if people [Americans] were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” (352).
#4. Ana Roš: Sun and Rain Andrea Petrini and Kaja Sajovic
As I mentioned before, Kobarid–and specifically Hiša Franko–is my new happy place. I was incredibly lucky to order Ana Roš’s magical restaurant cookbook early in self-isolation. Never trained as a chef and inspired by travel and cuisine, Ana took over the role of head chef of her in-laws’ restaurant, much to the chagrin of her parents, who hoped their daughter would become a diplomat. After a time struggling to develop dishes, Ana embraced her Slovenian roots and utilized the unique landscape and bounty of her isolated area near the Italian border.
The result of this incredible work included Slovenia’s first and currently only Michelin star, although for Ana, the journey is much more than the reward. Her focus on hyper local sourcing–less than fifty kilometers when we visited in late August–embraces what makes the Soča River Valley truly unique. Hiša Franko’s popularity has helped with sustainable fishing, farming, and cheese for a number of small producers near Kobarid.
Simiarly to Kassabova’s work (see below), I am thankful to have the opportunity to receive and read Sun and Run at a time of strict lockdown. Gorgeously photographed with beautiful writing (Kaja Sajovic is an absolute talent), I felt as if I was in the Soča Valley. Incredibly, we were able to visit the restaurant literally the final day before the borders between Hungary and Slovenia closed once again. Even if you can’t cook like Ana (who can?), you can enjoy this breathtaking story of her little piece of Eastern Europe.
#3. To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace Kapka Kassabova
Our last year in Hungary was filled to the brim with traveling across eastern countries. I planned an adventure through the Balkans, centering on a long period of time at Lake Ohrid (located between North Macedonia and Albania) for my birthday. Of course with Covid spreading throughout Europe last spring, this trip was canceled–my birthday is in late March when we were already on a strict lockdown–and I was (selfishly) a little heartbroken. Wandering the Balkans was one of my top travel destinations not only because of the beauty of the area, particularly Lake Ohrid itself, but for the sheer amount of cultural and historical sites in the region.
Thankfully, I found To The Lake through The Main Street Trading Company, a locally owned UK-based bookstore, that shipped to Hungary at a time when most independent stores were not. I am so glad I found Kassabova’s work as I truly read this book exactly when I needed to most; funny how things work out that way.
To The Lake details the journey of Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova as she travels through Albania, North Macedonia, and Greece, in search of her ancestral home and heritage. A woman after my own heart, she details how human geography affects natural landscapes, borders, and memory: “Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historio-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways — because the local is inseparable from the global” (6). Beautifully written, this book details Kassabova’s journey through the physical landscapes of her heritage while understanding the human stories of her past embedded in these spaces. A beautiful and engaging book.
#2. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot Mikki Kendall
Hood Feminism is a reminder that mainstream American feminism has always centered around white women and has never been inclusive, even to the point of exchanging the rights / well being of Black women for the movement itself. The purpose of Kendall’s work is to outline how the many issues that exist in the United States today affect not only women, but marginalized women especially, and should be seen, deconstructed, and solutions developed through the lens of intersectional feminism. Hunger, education, poverty, housing, and reproductive justice are just a few issues that are often overlooked, but should be seen as under the umbrella of feminism, even as the movement has failed to do so in the past.
In “Of #FastTailedGirls and Freedom” Kendall outlines how Black women and girls have been oversexualized and abused in the past, with these stereotypes of “fast tailed girls” continuing to the present, complete with a lack of moral and legal accountability: “Despite the narrative espoused by lynching advocates, white women were not the ones who were most at risk from sexual violence. Black women were expected to adhere to every aspect of respectability pushed on them by Jim Crow laws as well as by community norms established in the wake of slavery” (52). Hood Feminism truly changed my perspective of how we need to fight social issues.
#1. The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories Danielle Evans
This gorgeous collection of short stories is my favorite book of 2020. Not particularly a fan of fiction or short stories, Evans’ novel completely blew me away and I finished the book in two days. Focusing on issues facing Black people in the United States–particularly classism, historical whitewashing, invisibility, friendship, feminism–I both burst out laughing and internally cringed reading Evans’ work. Her prose is unique, engaging, and has the ability to be downright hilarious and introspective.
“Happily Ever After”, the first story in the book, follows Lyssa, a woman who works in the gift shop of a Titanic museum, and includes my absolute favorite opening line of any book: “When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs, and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one. The whole ocean for one man.”
The final story centers around Cassie, a “public historian” who has the responsibility of correcting inaccuracies she sees in various locations (countering “the contemporary crisis of truth”); in a world where a lack of media literacy and rampant disinformation is taking over how Americans ingest and interpret news, this story had me absolutely reeling. It is a stunning final chapter to a collection of stories that I truly love. The Office of Historical Corrections has now been nominated for a number of awards including The Story Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, Read it.
On a more personal note:. If you’re anything like me right now, the 500,000 Covid deaths in the United States hits hard. This. Is. A. Lot. that we are all dealing with and it is completely understandable if you need more time and rest right now. As Lee McKay Doe notes, a symptom of internalized capitalism is “feeling lazy, even when you’re experiencing pain, trauma, or adversity.” These emotions can take a number of forms and I am one hundred percent guilty of attempting to prioritize my productivity over my mental health. This “milestone” or whatever you want to call it, hurts. Friendly reminder to be kind to yourself.
And WEAR A FUCKING MASK. OR TWO.
“Our world is unstoppably connected, yet increasingly self-fragmenting. Some might say ‘Balkanized’… Our tragedy is fragmentation. It begins as a state of mind and ends up as a tragedy” (5, 374). — Kapka Kassabova, To The Lake
Reading: Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison) Watching: Peaky Blinders Season 5 (Netflix) Listening: The Test Kitchen (Gimlet Media)
Queens You Should Know, in this case, let’s celebrate the many great American gymnasts of African descent; these women have done so much for their country, teams, and sport. For this year’s Black History Month I wanted to highlight contributions made by African American women to gymnastics in the US.
Black gymnasts often suffer from discrimination and racism from coaches, judges, competitors, and viewers. Historically underrepresented in the sport, Black gymnasts have fought for their place on American teams, with Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino becoming the first African American women to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics when the team placed third at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
The sport is now dominated by Simone Biles, who has revolutionized gymnastics due to her mastery of seemingly-impossible skills and impeccable form. With more medals than any other gymnast in history, Simone is the Greatest Of All Time. Off the mat, she has used her position to fight for survivors of sexual abuse. Many of the athletes in this post came out as survivors of The Guy I Won’t Name Here; they won despite an immense amount of abuse at the hands of a predator, coaches that enabled him, and an organization that valued medals over their well-being.
While I profiled many gymnasts here, I of course can’t cover all of the greats in one post. I’ve highlighted a number of elite and NCAA athletes who made history in the sport with milestone wins, as well as a couple of my favorites that set the bar with their creative skills and innovative choreography.
There are also so many wonderful athletes currently competing at the elite level and in the NCAA; I definitely encourage anyone remotely interested in the sport to get into NCAA (SO MUCH FUN) and follow elite this year during the lead-up to the Tokyo Games.
A note before we get into this celebration for those that may be unfamiliar with the sport:
Elite is the highest level of competition in gymnastics. Think Olympic and World Championship skills and composition. In the United States, the elite level is divided by age–juniors are below the age of 16 and seniors are older than 16 in the competition year.
Level 10 is one step below elite. These athletes still adhere to the “perfect 10” scoring guidelines. NCAA athletes also use this Code of Points.
Most (99%) athletes compete elite and then NCAA if they retain their status as a an amateur athlete. For gymnasts like Simone Biles or Gabby Douglas, who went professional (earned money through endorsements, etc), they are unable to compete in the NCAA (I think this is extremely unfair but this is another rant for a different post). Some athletes choose to return to elite following the end of their NCAA careers, but this is rare. Equally rare is to compete in both the NCAA and elite simultaneously; this means athletes have to learn routines to two different Code of Points standards while adhering to the very strict NCAA limited training hours.
Other questions? Leave a comment and I’ll try to answer!
Luci Collins is the first Black American gymnast to be named to an Olympic team (1980). Although the US boycotted the Moscow Games that year she still earned her spot, and along with Ron Galimore for the men’s team, were the first Black American athletes on Olympic Teams for gymnastics. Born in Los Angeles to Creole parents, Luci was deemed “too light” to be considered African American and although her local community celebrated her success, the national coverage for her milestone was largely ignored due to her skin color.
See her floor routine at the 1980 National Championships:
“At the 1980 Olympic trials, there was a lot of attention on Ron (being the first black Olympian) but not a mention of me as African-American. I was devastated by the non-coverage because of the way it affected the little community (Inglewood) that strongly supported me…
Dominique and Betty and all who followed me have created a wave of cultural support in the African-American community and a wave of African-American youth to dare to dream of trying gymnastics.”
Hersh, Philip. 2016. “Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas are just the Latest and Greatest Heroes in a Storied History of African-American Gymnasts.” Available here.
In 1983 Dianne Durham became the first African American gymnast to win the all-around title at the US National Championships. Later that year, Dianne beat future 1984 Olympic Champion Mary Lou Retton at the McDonalds International Gymnastics Championships. A knee injury would prevent her from competing at the World Championships that year, although her ultimate goal was to make the Olympic Team in 1984. Finally healthy, Dianne placed sixth on the first day of US Team Trials, but injured her ankle on the second day of the competition. Under the assumption that she could petition onto the team due to her past successes, she learned after the competition that she was ineligible due to the fact that did not compete at the World Championships the prior year; she did not know at the time that the only way to be considered for the Olympic Team was to finish the trials on an injured ankle. Dianne retired from the sport in 1985.
Here is Dianne on bars in 1983:
And on beam in 1984 before her ankle injury:
Sadly, Dianne passed away this month. But her contribution to the sport and the inspiration she gave to the generations of girls competing after her of course continues her legacy.
Born in Uganda, Betty moved to the United States and began the sport at the age of nine. Only four years later (!!!) she made her way to the highest level of competition (elite) and as a senior athlete, placed second in the all-around at the 1990 National Championships. Betty is the first Black woman of any nationality to win multiple individual medals in gymnastics, an accomplishment completed in 1991 (bronze on balance beam) and 1992 (balance beam silver). Despite a very serious spinal injury that kept her from competing at the National Championships and Trials, Betty (along with teammate Dominique Dawes) became the first African American gymnasts to win an Olympic medal when they helped the team place third (also the first US team medal in a fully attended Olympics) in 1992.
Betty is known for the incredibly difficult triple turning pirouette on balance beam, a skill that is rated at one of the highest difficulty levels (E) even today. Only a handful of athletes have ever successfully competed the Okino.
Here is Betty competing her famous skill for the first time:
Known as “Awesome Dawesome”, Dominique Dawes is one of the greatest gymnasts to compete for the United States. Along with her historic medal with Betty Okino in 1992, Dominique is the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in the sport, the first Black person of any nationality to win a gymnastics Olympic gold medal, as well as one of only three American gymnasts to compete in three Olympics, winning medals in each team competition. Dawes has a number of amazing performances including sweeping the all around and all four events at the National Championships in 1994–the first woman to do so since 1969–although she could never put together an error-free all-around competition at the World Championship level.
After placing second in the 1996 Olympic Team Final, Dominique had a legitimate chance to win the all-around title. Leading after two events, Dominique fell on floor, thus taking her out of the top ten; she later came back to win an individual bronze on the event, her first in a World or Olympic competition. In 2000, she returned to competition and earned a spot on the Olympic Team, where she helped the US win a bronze medal.
“I only take pride in knowing that I was blessed to have opened doors for other minorities to see the sport of gymnastics as an avenue for them to reach their full potential in sport and later in life.”
— Dominique Dawes
Alternate to the 1995 World Championships, Andreé competed at the 1996 Olympic Trials, finishing 12th. After finishing her elite career, she competed for the University of Alabama, becoming one of the most decorated gymnasts in the history of the program. Andreé is a two-time NCAA Champion, 2002 SEC Female Athlete of the Year, and was the NCAA Regional Gymnast of the Year all four years she competed for Alabama.
Here she is competing a MASSIVE vault at the 2002 SEC Championships:
A teammate of Dominique Dawes, Schwikert was a last minute addition to the 2000 Olympic Team. After being named as a second alternate weeks following Olympic Trials, Schwikert was substituted into the competition for an injured teammate (Morgan White), jumping the named alternate, Alyssa Beckerman. During the Sydney Olympics, Tasha competed exceptionally and delivered for her team, eventually earning a bronze medal. In 2020 Tasha’s coach Cassie Rice noted that Tasha, then age 15, had competed on a torn hamstring after National Team Coordinator and child abuser Bela Karolyi pushed her down so violently into an split that the muscle completely ripped, an injury unknown to anyone outside of the training staff at the time
Here is Tasha on beam during the Team Final:
Tasha later became one of the leaders of the American squad between 2001-2003 when the team won two World Championships medals. In the leadup to the 2004 Olympics, Tasha unfortunately injured her ankle and was named an alternate to the team. Following her elite career, she won a number of NCAA titles for the UCLA Bruins including two individual all-around titles.
Known for her unique style, Tasha had one of the most fun elite floor routines ever:
Tasha later came forward to describe the racism and abuse she suffered at the National Training Camps at the Karolyi Ranch. At the time Bela Karolyi was given complete control of the team, their training, and who would ultimately compete for the United States in 2000:
“We were all sitting around after a practice and Bela stood up. A gymnast who was very, very thin at the time and said, ‘I want all of you guys to look like her.’ She had a thigh gap. I remember her standing there and you could like see through her, her thighs when she did gymnastics. She had very thin lines. They always thought my lines weren’t as straight. And, you know, my gymnastics wasn’t as pretty, because an upside down handstand should look like a straight line. Well, my line would be, there’d be a little curve where my butt is and there might be a little curve where my chest is. So, my straight line naturally is just very different from some of my white teammate’s straight lines. And so I internalized that and I’m like, ‘gosh, like, you know, I guess I’m just not good enough.’ I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘Hey, look, 15 year old Tasha, you are half African-American. You have different genetics. You will never have a thigh gap and that’s okay.’
Asley Miles burst onto the elite scene and earned a spot on the 2001 World Championship Team, where she won a team bronze medal. In 2003, she began competing for the University of Alabama, where she won the NCAA National Vault Title in 2003, 2004, and 2005. She was named the National Collegiate Gymnast of the Year in 2006; Ashley earned eleven perfect tens in her career and helped her team earn second place in the 2003 and 2005 National Championships.
Here she is just casually being perfect at the NCAA National Championships:
A member of the National Team from 1997-2004, Ashley Postell was the first woman of African American descent to win a world title, earning the gold on balance beam at the 2002 World Championships.
Here is Ashley winning her title, only the second woman for the US to do so:
Known for her unique skills and gorgeous form, Ashley was also the first African American gymnast to compete for the University of Utah (2005). During her career she earned a record 20 All-American awards and finished in the top three of each year she competed at the NCAA Championships.
Born in Cuba, Annia Hatch won her first Cuban National Championship at the age of 10 (!!) and would later win the title seven times over her career. She became the first Cuban gymnast to win a World Championship individual medal in 1996 and qualified for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, but lack of funding prevented her from competing. After retiring the following year, she married an American and moved to the United States, where she became a part owner of a gym and coach; in 2001, she earned her American citizenship and decided to start training as a gymnast once again.
Just a year later, Annia won the US Classic, beating Olympian and National Champion Tasha Schwikert; she was also one of the best vaulters in the world at the time. Although a US citizen, Annia was unable to compete internationally as Cuba refused to grant her permission as needed by Olympic regulations. In 2003, Annia earned a spot on the World Championship team, but tore her ACL before the start of the competition. Remarkably, she was able to recover from her injury, competed in all four events at the US Nationals in 2004, and was named to the Olympic Team. In Athens, AT AGE 26 (!!) Annia competed on only vault, and won a team silver and individual silver on the event; this was the first American Olympic medal on vault in twenty years (Mary Lou earned a silver in 1984, although that was not a fully attended Olympics).
Here is Annia’s vault event final in 2004:
In 2009, Kayla Williams was still a Level 10 athlete, one level below elite; later that year she later moved up to elite, winning the vault title at the National Championships and earning a spot on the World Championships team. There, she became the first American gymnast ever to win a World title on the event.
Here is Kayla’s historic World Championship win:
Kayla retired from elite in 2010 and competed for the University of Alabama, where she helped the team earn their second consecutive National Championship in 2012.
Born in 1992, Mattie began her senior career in 2008, placing seventh all-around at the National Championships qualifying for Olympic Trials, and later the team selection camp. Hindered by a a leg injury, Mattie didn’t make the team and injuries kept her from competing for a spot at the 2009 World Championships. In 2010, Mattie placed second in the all-around and first on floor, earning a spot to the World Championship Team.
Mattie competed one of my favorite floor routines of all time at the 2010 National Championships:
Unfortunately, at the World Championships, Mattie fell in both the team qualification and finals. She was essentially shunned by the National Team staff and retired soon after the competition. She competed as a Bruin for two years before retiring from the sport completely. In 2018, Mattie read her victim impact statement, where she told her story of extreme mental, physical, and sexual abuse suffered as a member of the National Team. This statement helped lead to further investigation into the Karolyis, her coaches, and USA Gymnastics staff. You can watch her harrowing statement here.
As an elite athlete Kytra was known for her floor exercise and intense tumbling. In 2009 and 2010, she finished fourth all-around at the National Championships, but did not make either World Championship team. In 2011, Kytra began her reign at the University of Florida, where she became a TWENTY-FIVE time All-American and FOUR-TIME National Champion, including winning two all-around titles and national vault and floor gold medals.
Here is Kytra killin it on floor:
Kennedy Baker competed as an elite from 2009-2013 and finished eighth in the all-around at the 2012 Olympic Trials, although she was not named to the team. In 2015, Kennedy started her NCAA career with the University of Florida. Known for her power, including her amazing floor exercise, where she competed the incredibly difficult double Arabian in the piked position (double salto with a half twist in the first salto, legs straight); it is rare to see at the elite level, much less in the NCAA. Kennedy competes one of the best of all time.
Here is Kennedy earning a perfect ten on floor:
As a Florida Gator, Kennedy is an 11-time All American, three time SEC champion (all-around, vault, and floor) and was the 2015 SEC Freshman of the Year. Unfortunately, her career was cut short when she ruptured her Achilles tendon while competing floor against the University of Arkansas.
In 2020, Kennedy, along with fellow UF athlete Kytra Hunter, came forward with experiences of racism during her time as a Gator:
“During Baker’s freshman season, she described an incident in a car when a teammate called her a racial epithet, with several other teammates also in the vehicle.
‘I froze in complete disbelief,’ she wrote. ‘Did she really say that? I looked around the car, almost all upperclassmen, and no one said a word. They awkwardly laughed, and then we drove in radio silence after that. I immediately notified Rhonda after the incident occurred and she put together a ‘meeting.’ In this meeting, one of the first things that was said was, ‘What is said in this meeting should not leave this meeting,’ immediately silencing me, and my fellow teammate Kytra [Hunter].'”
2020. ESPN. “Ex-Florida Gymnast Kennedy Baker Details Alleged Racism in Social Media Post.” ESPN. Available here.
She also shared her experiences at the gym Texas Dreams. Kennedy, along with former TD gymnast Ashton Kim, stated that their coach repeatedly made racist jokes toward their athletes. Kennedy detailed this horrifying incident with head coach Kim Zmeskal:
“My first championships of the USA was in Dallas Texas… I was sleeping, when Kim shook me awake and demanded that I start getting ready for the competition. She was so pissed, and just started going off, and I remember I was so confused and didn’t understand what I did wrong. Then, she took me in the bathroom, and grabbed a pair of scissors. She told me that she thought my hair was too long for the meet, and she cut my braids, without my consent.”
Baker, Kennedy. 2020. “An Open Letter to My Gymnastics Experience.” Available here.
Four time Junior Olympic Level 10 National Champion (2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015) Alicia Boren is one of the most successful gymnasts for the University of Florida. Known for her power, Alicia was the 2019 NCAA National Champion on floor exercise, earned two bronze medals with the team (2017 and 2018) and ended her career as an 18-time All-American.
Here is Alicia winning floor exercise in her final performance as a Florida Gator:
Elizabeth “Ebee” Price was a member of the elite Senior National Team from 2012-2014. In 2012, Ebee finished a surprise fourth place all-around at the Olympic Trials and was chosen as an alternate for the London Team.
Known for her power on vault and wonderful form on bars, Ebee won the 2014 American Cup before retiring from elite competition. She began her NCAA career at Stanford University in 2015 and was one of the most (if not THE most) successful gymnast in the history of the program. The National Champion on bars (2018) and vault (2015), she is also a 19-time All-American and the winner of the AAII Award (2018) for most outstanding female senior in the country.
Here is Ebee earning a perfect ten and winning bars in her final competition:
Gabby Douglas is the first African American gymnast to win the Olympic All-Around, a feat she accomplished in 2012. Also at the London Olympics, Gabby became the first U.S. gymnast ever to earn gold medals in the Team and All-Around.
Gabby finishing an incredible four event performance to win the All-Around in 2012:
During the London Games Gabby was criticized mostly for her hair as “unkempt” and “messy”, even as her white team members had similar buns. Gabby later had to explain that the sport has ruined her natural hair.
After taking a break from the sport, Gabby returned to elite in 2015, placing second to Simone Biles at the World Championships that year; she later earned a spot on the Olympic Team. One of the few American athletes to ever compete in two Olympics, Gabby also became only the second reigning Olympic All-Around Champion to return to her second Olympic Games (the first being Nadia Comaneci) and the first American (and currently only) gymnast to do so. Placing third in the world, Gabby was unfortunately unable to compete in the all-around final as only two athletes per country can qualify. She also suffered an onslaught of racist and sexist backlash during these Games, as she was accused of not being patriotic enough, smiling enough, or providing enough support to her teammates. I wrote about her unfair treatment here.
Gabby performed one of the most beautiful and intricate bar routines in 2016:
Kyla “Boss” Ross is one of the most successful gymnasts in elite and NCAA history. Born in Hawaii (her mom is Filipino, German, and Puerto Rican, while her did is of African American and Japanese descent), Kyla was a member of the National Team from 2009 to 2016. She earned a spot on the 2012 Olympic Team and competed for the US in the Team Final on uneven bars and balance beam.
Here is Kyla on beam, competing like a badass in her first big international competition:
Following the London Games, Kyla continued to compete as an elite, earning three silvers in the 2013 World Championships (all-around, bars, beam) and a bronze in 2014 (all-around); this is the beginning of the Simone Biles reign and even with her much lower difficulty, Kyla was able to consistently remain one of the top gymnasts in the world. Due a number of factors, including her height–gymnasts are not allowed to raise the height of the uneven bars at the elite level, making the event increasingly difficult for a 5 ft 7 in athlete–Kyle retired from elite and focused on NCAA in 2016. During her time at UCLA, she earned the fourth most perfect 10s in NCAA history, She is only the second NCAA gymnast to earn two “Gym Slams”, a perfect ten on all four events. Unfortunately her NCAA career was cut short in 2020, when her senior year ended early due to Covid-19. With NCAA titles on all four events, Kyla is one of the most successful athletes to compete in both elite and NCAA.
Here are all of Kyla’s perfect routines:
Kyla is the first female gymnast to win a World, Olympic, and NCAA championship title.
Known for her incredible and unique floor chorography, Lloimincia Hall competed as a level 10 gymnast before starting her career at LSU in 2011. She became one of the most accomplished floor workers in the school’s history including four straight SEC titles on the event and seven perfect 10s. Truly one of the most creative and engaging performers in NCAA history.
Here is Lloiminicia’s amazing routine where she earned a perfect 10:
Just bringing the crowd to their feet in 2015:
Born to an African American mom and Puerto Rican dad, Sophina DeJesus is known for one of the first viral floor routines. Prior to her NCAA career, Sophina was named to the Junior National Team in 2009 and later competed elite before deciding to start for UCLA in 2013. As a Bruin, Sophina is a three-time All-American on the uneven bars and had one of the most popular NCAA floor routines in 2016.
Hallie Mosseett is one of my favorite NCAA gymnasts of all time. A member of the National Team in 2008 and 2011, she started competing for UCLA in 2014. As a Bruin, Hallie was known for her beam and floor routines, including Beyonce-inspired choreography in 2017:
Before her career at the University of Oklahoma, AJ Jackson was the Junior Olympic National Champion on vault three years in a row, and earned a bronze in the all-around, bars and floor. Known for her vault and floor, AJ earned the Big 12 Event Specialist of the Year in 2015, the first and only freshman to win the title. Throughout her career, AJ continued to win titles on her specialty events and finished as a six-time All-American and two-time Big 12 Champion on vault.
Here is AJ competing floor, with her signature “chalk blow” at the beginning of her routine (this was later banned by the NCAA, although crowds at home competitions would continue imitating her iconic choreography):
One of the most successful gymnasts in LSU history, Kennedi Edney won a number of Junior Olympic Level 10 National Championships including beam (2013), all-around (2014, 2015), vault (2015), and floor (2015). In 2017, she became the first freshman in LSU history to win multiple national championships and ended her career with the fifth highest number of national titles. She is an 18-time All-American (fourth in school history) and she won vault in both 2017 and 2019, along with silvers with her team.
Here she is on vault at the 2019 National Championships:
Niaaaaaaaa! One of my favorites competing today, Nia is known for her big personality and unique floor choreography. As an elite gymnast she was a member of the National Team from 2012-2016. After turning senior in 2015, Nia finished ninth at the 2015 National Championships and in 2016, was chosen to compete at the Stuttgart World Cup. Early that year however, she tore her Achilles and was forced to withdraw from the competition. Despite this potentially career-ending injury, Nia was able to compete on the uneven bars at the National Championships later in the year, although she was unable to move forward to the Olympic Trials.
After retiring from elite, Nia began her NCAA career with the UCLA Bruins. Currently a senior, Nia won gold with her team at the PAC-12 Championships (2018, 2019), a gold at the 2018 National Championships, and silver in 2019 (team).
Here is Nia’s incredible (and now viral) 2021 floor routine:
A National Team member from 2017-2018, Margzetta “Marz” Frazier won a silver at the 2018 Birmingham World Cup before committing to competing for the UCLA Bruins later that year. At the request of National Team Coordinator Tom Forster, who felt the team needed her on the elite squad for that season, Marz un-retired and competed at the National Championships in 2018, accompanied by her coaches from UCLA. Limited to mostly bars and floor for the Bruins in 2018, Marz helped her team earn a bronze at the NCAA National Championships.
Here is Marz’s “vogue” routine from 2019:
Trinity Thomas is one of the few gymnasts in US history that competes in both the NCAA and at the elite level simultaneously. Currently competing for the University of Florida AND making a run for the 2021 Olympics, Trinity is an incredibly talented athlete with great power and gorgeous form. The ability to compete under two different Code of Points in addition to full college classes is impressive and insanely difficult; she is the only gymnast currently competing both today.
Check out the height on this first pass:
A fou-r time member of the National Team, Trinity won a silver in the all-around at the 2018 Tokyo World Cup before going on to win vault in the 2019 SEC Championships. Hard to pick just one event for Trin, so here she is earning an incredible 39.9 (highest she can have is 40.0) in the all-around:
Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time and one of the best of any sport in history. I’m ending with Simone because there is just so much to say about her incredible skill and form; she has absolutely revolutionized the sport. With 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Simone has more World Championship medals than any other athlete, along with the most golds and most individual all-around titles. Unbeaten in the all-around since 2013, Simone can essentially fall a number of times and still win a competition; she demonstrated this in 2018 as she won her title while suffering from kidney stones (she still managed to compete a new skill and one of the hardest vaults in history).
Here are Simone’s original skills:
In her first Olympic Games Simone won the all-around, vault, and floor finals, a bronze on beam, and a gold with her team. Here is her incredible all-around performance:
Even Simone hasn’t been immune to racist comments in the sport. During her first world championships–the first Black woman to win the all-around title–Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito alleged in a racist comment that Simone’s wins were related only to her skin color: “I told Vanny (Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too”. While she later apologized after her statement received a ton of criticism, her federation doubled down on the racism: “Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of color (well-known for power) while penalizing the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years. Why aren’t there blacks in swimming? Because the sport doesn’t suit their physical characteristics. Is gymnastics becoming the same thing, to the point of wanting to be colored?” Just, ugh. In 2013.
Simone responded in 2020:
“Other than that, it happens every day, and I feel like every Black athlete or colored athlete can say that they’ve experienced it through their career. But you just have to keep going for those little ones looking up to us. It doesn’t matter what you look like. You can strive for greatness, and you can be great.”
Roscher, Liz. 2020. “Simone Biles Opens Up About her First Brush with Racism in Gymnastics.” Yahoo Sports. Available here.
In addiition to her amazing athleticism, Simone has advocated for survivors of sexual assault and held USAG responsible for their role in allowing predatory behavior to thrive in the sport. She has spoken out against the continued use of Karolyi Ranch as the National Training Center (later closed), the CEO of USA Gymnastics, and protecting athletes.
Simone has said that she will retire after her second Olympics, so enjoy watching the GOAT compete while you can.
Here is Simone competing at the 2019 World Championships:
How can you advocate for Black gymnasts? Be an ally and call out racist comments if you hear them in the gym, reject commentary that prefers “the European look”, and advocate for NCAA programs at HBCU colleges. There are currently zero in the United States!
Currently: Reading: His Only Wife (Peace Adzo Medie) Listening: Ok Computer (Radiohead) Watching; The Americans Season 1 (Netflix)
Locked down with nothing to do except watch tv–reading and being productive were beyond my mental capacity for most of 2020–I, like most of us self-isolating at home, spent a lot of last year binging tv shows.
I definitely appreciated the distraction great tv provided me from my usual activities of panic-checking Covid-19 numbers and reading disinformation-filled, ignorant, and hate-laced comments on news publications (repeat after me: never read the comments).
I’m forever grateful for the ability to shelter in place for most of last year. And now, moving from one hard-lockdown to another (and yet a another– hello “mega” restrictions!) if the greatest thing I can contribute to stopping the spread of a global pandemic is to stay at home, I’m definitely your girl.
A few honorable mentions before I get into my top fives:
For All Mankind (Apple TV+): I love alternative realities (I’m officially a Sliding Doors-stan) so I was intrigued by the plot of For All Mankind: What would have happened if the Soviets had reached the moon before the Americans? A friendly reminder that the space race was never about humanity or exploration, but “proving” the might of the United States over the Soviet Union. Worth a watch.
Dave (Hulu): The Hulu series starring Lil Dicky is an unexpectedly damn good show. Of course there’s a ton of penis jokes, but a genuine plot and great character development–especially the friendship between Dave and GaTa–lies beyond the dick humor. Episode two (“Dave’s First”) has one of my favorite celebrity cameos of all time.
The Good Place (Netflix, Season 4): The series finale of The Good Place–“Whenever You’re Ready”–is one of the most beautiful episodes of any tv show, ever. As Vulture noted:
“The final ten minutes or so of the final The Good Place really brings home one big thing this show has been about: how important it is to understand and appreciate each other’s stories, while trying to be a positive influence on how they go.”
Murray, Noel. 2020. “The Good Place Series-Finale Recap: The Good-bye Place.” Vulture. Available here.
The characters choosing to leave the Good Place for the beyond had me sobbing alone on my couch. A perfect ending for the show and also a reminder to find joy in the small things.
Let’s get into it.
Here are my favorite TV shows (in order) of 2020:
Never Have I Ever (Netflix):
Never Have I Ever is an incredibly sweet and funny show centering on Devi Vishwakumar (played wonderfully by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her life as a nerdy high school sophomore attempting to have sex with the class hottie, “Jake Ryan vibes” Paxton. I loved the family aspects of the show the best, with so much sincerity between Devi, her mom, and her cousin. Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever was a lovely break from the world that gave me faith in humanity once again.
Favorite Episode: “Never Have I Ever… Felt Super Indian.”
Dash + Lily (Netflix):
I am absolutely not a fan of the cheesy Hallmark holiday movies (alarming considering I adore the tacky-af Fast and the Furious franchise) so I was skeptical when Dash + Lily popped up on my Netflix homepage. Hooked ten minutes into the first episode, I adored this charming take on a holiday romantic comedy. Set around The Strand bookstore (🤍), the plot follows a love story between high schoolers Dash and Lily and is just delightful, lovely, and perfect for a weekend at home on the couch.
Favorite Episode: “Dash”
High Fidelity (Unjustly the Only Season):
The remake we are HERE FOR, High Fidelity stars the incredible (and so fucking cool) Zoë Kravitz as Rob, the self-absorbed record store owner, as she struggles with overcoming the breakup with her ex-fiancé. Obsessing over her top-five lists (clearly a passion I can identify with), the show follows Rob’s romantic misadventures as she continues to self-destruct throughout the ten episodes. Kravitz is stunning in that you both empathize with her but at the same time annoyed at her egotistical and immature choices.
Cherise, played exquisitely by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, is such a highlight that I hope they give this character her own spinoff. The soundtrack–how can I not love a show that consistently plays Prince, David Bowie, and has a “Come On Eileen” dance party–is incredible; High Fidelity is worth a watch for the music choices alone. One of the best episodes stars Parker Posey–in a scene cut from the 2000 film–who sells her husband’s extensive record collections a revenge for his cheating ways (originally Beverly D’Angelo played this role in the movie; truly there is no justice in the world that we can’t watch the scene). This was one of my favorite episodes of any season this year.
Favorite Episode: “Uptown”
The Great (Hulu):
This absolutely delightful and hilarious interpretation of Catherine the Great’s reign was (far and away) one of my favorite shows of 2020. A dark comedy, the series centers on the “occasionally true story” of Peter III (played magnificently by Nicholas Hoult) and his wife Catherine (the incomparable Elle Fanning) in 18th century Russia. The series builds around the idea that Peter is actually the fucking worst and Catherine, although Austrian, would be a much better leader for the country (no spoilers here, but in actual life, she was).
One of my favorite exchanges between the couple:
Peter III of Russia: I don’t want to kill you. You’re not a bad person.
Catherine the Great: I could kill you. You are a bad person.
Episode Three: “‘You Sir, are No Peter the Great'”
The seventh episode takes on smallpox inoculation and alarmingly (albeit, not surprisingly) demonstrates just how politics can interfere with actual science. In a time where conspiracy theories surrounding a global pandemic and disinformation runs rampant through social media, Catherine’s choice to inoculate herself while Peter bans the practice hit way too close to home. Belinda Bromilow, who plays Peter’s batty Aunt Elizabeth, is an absolute highlight of the show (I put my favorite gifs of her at the end of the post). Just watch The Great.
Favorite Episode: “Meatballs at the Dacha”
Schitt’s Creek: (CBC Television, Season 6):
Schitt’s Creek is perfect. The show is perfect. The season is perfect. The finale is perfect. I can’t be swayed otherwise. I actually put off watching the final three episodes because I knew how sad I’d be for the show to end. The entire cast, but especially Catherine O’Hara, Dan Levy, Eugene Levy, and Annie Murphy, (who all won Emmys for their roles) are just so engaging and wonderful that its hard to not root for this family–even if they can be insufferable at times–to win. Patrick and David’s relationship is central to the show and demonstrates that a queer couple can be positively represented and not end in a tragic way:
“Speaking at a cast roundtable, Levy said, ‘We learn by what we watch. And even if you’re presenting someone who puts out that energy, there is someone who will watch that and side with it’.
As long as homophobia persists, there will still be TV shows dismantling it, but too many shows don’t know any other way to find drama in LGBTQ stories. In relegating bigotry to the shadows, Schitt’s Creek leaves room to focus on the interior lives of all its characters, regardless of their sexuality, which does more to humanize those characters and make their experiences real. ‘If you take the hate out,’ Levy said, ‘if you take the rules that are dictating who you can love, how you can love them, what kind of people are good people, what kind of people are bad people, you’re only left with joy, which can only have an enlightening effect on whoever’s watching it.'”
Connolly, Kelly. 2020. “Schitt’s Creek Captures the Unexpected Joy of Being Seen.” TV Guide. Available here.
How can you not absolutely adore a show that includes Catherine O’Hara in this season finale outfit:
Favorite Episode: “Moira Rosé”
Lovecraft Country (HBO):
For me, the main argument of Lovecraft Country is that actual people are way more terrifying than any monster. A perfect combination of my and Chris’s favorite genres–sci-fi, social justice, historical drama–we started the HBO series when we moved but had to pause until all the episodes were released because we couldn’t wait a week for the next show. This absolutely gorgeous and at times, horrifying, series centers on the story of Atticus, a Korean War veteran, as he returns to the United States and discovers his familial connections to an area known as Lovecraft Country. Each plotline aligns with stories of real-life racial injustice including references to J. Marion Sims, the lynching of Emmitt Till, and the Tulsa race massacre; these horrific acts run parallel to the science fiction magic and monsters of the show. For me, the strength of the series falls on the actresses, particularly Wunmi Mosaku, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jurnee Smollett. Despite the nightmare fuel of many of the scenes (hi, race-switching Ruby) I genuinely enjoyed this interesting rendition of the book written by H.P. Lovecraft, himself a staunch white supremacist.
Favorite Episode: “I Am.” ( Me: “GIVE ME HIPPOLYTA! PUT IT ON A T-SHIRT”)
Ozark (Netflix, Season 3):
I need a nap. That’s my main reaction after watching the season finale of Netflix’s Ozark. The tumultuous drama centering around Marty and Wendy Bryde (Laura Linney, always incredible, is IT in this season) as they attempt to continue to survive as money launders in a small town. Wendy is continuously pushing forward as Marty conservatively holds back, scared of becoming even more entangled with the drug cartel. The introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey, in a holy shit performance) as he immediately entangles himself into the family, community, and illegal operation is, for me, the best and most agonizing aspect of the season. Wendy and Ben’s diner scene is so incredibly brutal and heartbreaking that I don’t know if I’ve even emotionally recovered from it.
Julia Garner (Ruth) deserves more credit as she continuously plays this difficult role with such intensity, rawness, and strength. This was her best season in a series that she has consistently been one of the greatest aspects of.
Favorite Episode: “Fire Pink”
The Plot Against America (HBO):
Who is “really” American? One of the first shows I watched in 2020, The Plot Against America was also one of my favorites of the year. Adapted from the 2004 novel by Philip Roth, the story tells the alternative reality of Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency over FDR in 1940. Based in New Jersey, the show focuses on the Levins, a Jewish family, as the Lindbergh presidency becomes increasingly xenophobic and fascism proliferates throughout the country. The rise of a dictator at the expense of marginalizing and demonizing people–specifically Jewish populations here–starts slowly, and hate casually grows and becomes more accepted; there is no “battle” among waring factions here, the actions stemming from that xenophobia is rationalized over dinner tables, in the streets, and in the legislation passed to “Americanize” Jewish children. The show builds slowly (The Handmaid’s Tale vibes) and ends with a brutally suspenseful finale. Zoe Kazan (Elizabeth), Morgan Spector (Herman), Winona Ryder (Evelyn) and especially Jon Turturro (Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) are superb.
The podcast hosted by Peter Sagal and show creator David Simon is great and I highly recommend listening to the recaps following each episode.
Favorite Episode: “Part 4”
Better Call Saul (Netflix, Season 5):
One of the best dramas on television, Better Call Saul has historically exceeded expectations each season, but oooooh season five is, I believe, absolutely iconic. Due to Breaking Bad, we know what happens to Saul Goodman and many of the other characters in the show, but the buildup to that is so magnificently well done in this season that you feel both shocked and uneasy at the end of every episode. Of course, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito are amazing–particularly Odenkirk, who just embodies Jimmy so well–but it is Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler) that steals this season. Kim, the one who always “pulls Jimmy back” when he goes too far, who built her career from nothing and is in this position because of her incredible work ethic, is potentially transitioning further to the legal-ish side of the law. While she’s demonstrated that her con-(wo)man skills are at times better and more conniving than even Jimmy throughout the seasons, here she stands up to the cartel and contemplates going further than she ever has as retribution for the resentment felt from years of men who easily received the same things that nearly killed her to achieve. The impeccable delivery by Seehorn in the season finale was one of my favorites of the year.
Jimmy: “We’re not talking about a bar trick here. We’re talking about scorched earth. We would have to hurt him. Hurt him bad. To get a bunch of lawyers to run for the exits Howard would have to have done something unforgivable. At the end of it he might never be able to practice law again… you would not be okay with it. Not in the cold light of day.”
Kim: “Wouldn’t I?”
Episode 10: “Something Unforgivable”
Favorite Episode: “Something Unforgivable”
Mrs. America (Hulu):
Phew, Mrs. America. I know there are some issues with the show, but for me, this was one of the best of the year. A friend halfway through the miniseries said to me: “wow its crazy how much shit the equal amendment had to go through before it was passed.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the ERA actually failed to ever be codified. The Hulu show featuring a number of wonderful actresses, centering around Phyllis Schlafly, the driving force behind the undoing of the ERA ratification in the 1970s. Played by the always flawless Cate Blanchett, Phyllis turns to undermining the second wave of feminism after she’s dismissed by political representatives in a meeting where she hoped to contribute to the conversation of dissuading Nixon from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. With a background in nuclear politics, Schlafly is told to take notes, largely ignored on the subject in which she is actually very knowledgeable in, and instead is only acknowledged as a (semi) part of the political conversation when talks turn to the ERA. For her, the only way to be taken seriously is to align herself with the same men who just seconds earlier dismissed her because she was a woman. Phyllis chooses to argue against the equal protection of women in the United States and notes that, “some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough” much to the agreement of the men in the room.
I won’t go into all of the political arguments for both sides, but the show does a great job depicting the competing agendas of women at the time: ardent feminists who still trivialize their Black counterparts’ experiences and Schlafly’s absolutely ironic position of activist among her army of housewives. When Jill Ruckleshaus, a conservative pro-ERA activist, tells Schlafly, “You want to get ahead climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis, fine. Just know, they are looking up your skirt” she is essentially summarizing the entire fight by Phyllis to be taken seriously by her male counterparts. After Phyllis helps Reagan win the election, she is expecting some kind of appointment or at least a consulting role in her field, but is left in the same position as she was in the original first scene of the series: at her kitchen table, desiring for a place at the table. Even after all she did to extend the arm of the patriarchy, she was dismissed as easily as Shirley Chisholm and the other women she viewed as the enemy by those in power fighting to maintain the hierarchy and their position at the top.
The finale left me sobbing for just how far we still have to go for gender equality in the United States.
“What we’re trying to say with the series is that when you are complicit in the oppression of women, it doesn’t ultimately help you when you align yourself with the patriarchy. [If you’re] protecting white male patriarchy and you’re a woman, ultimately you also lose.”
Bentley, Jean. 2020. “The ‘Mrs. America’ Finale was Always Going to be a Tragedy.” The Hollywood Reporter. Available here.
Uzo Aduba is absolutely brilliant as Shirley Chisholm and in a cast of amazing women, my favorite role of the show.
Favorite Episode: “Shirley”
Non-Fiction / Documentary Series:
The Netflix documentary series on the cheerleaders of Navarro College is both intense and heartbreaking. Following a number of cheerleaders focusing on making the team and also bringing home a national championship, one thing I love about the show is that it–at times brutally–shows the amount of work and pain that these athletes suffer for their sport. I found myself cringing and hiding my face at a number of the horrific injuries; form is a huge issue in cheerleading and most athletes are merely chucking their skills because they can, not because they can well. Landing in deep squats, suffering concussions, twisting into the ground, falling face-first, arm-first, chest-first onto the floor (let’s be real a mat on top of a basketball court offers little support) proves how tough these athletes are, although I was constantly wondering why it needed to be that way. The percentage of injuries on the Navarro squad are alarming. Don’t forget that cheerleading falls under the National Cheerleaders Association, not the NCAA, and therefore an alarmingly lack of safety rules and procedures.
One of the storylines of the series follows the increasingly yikes relationship between the athletes and their coach, Monica Aldama. For many of these students, she is the first positive influence in their lives, a person who demands the best out of them, and gives her all in return. However, this blind dedication is mostly cringe-worthy. When a number of girls continually suffer concussions, they are told to sit at home in the dark. Rather than question the number of injuries and the impact this is having on her athletes’ mental and physical well-being, Aldama merely replaces the injured girl with the next one. The desperation to not disappoint their “mom” leaves many athletes willing to sacrifice anything, and rather than discourage that behavior, Aldama embraces it. I found myself more relieved at the end of each episode that everyone survived, rather than hoping for them to win. Cheer is a series that should have you thinking about athlete safety and despotic coaching. Oh, and also that argument made by a history professor on how Tex-Mex is “a way better version of Mexican food” among other terrible ideas.
Favorite Episode: “God Blessed Texas”
Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Last Children (HBO):
While there are issues with HBO’s Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Lost Children, I thought the miniseries did a great job conveying the absolutely horrifying two year experience of the Black community in Atlanta and how the work of grassroots organizers pushed the police to take the murders of 29 children and adults seriously. The series takes on whether Wayne Williams, who was convicted of one murder and therefore the rest of the cases were closed, is actually the perpetrator of all of the deaths during that time period. Camille Bell, whose son was nine years old when he was murdered, does not believe Williams committed all of the crimes. The footage used in the series shows her dignity and dedication to finding justice; the organization she formed, the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, struggled to be taken seriously by local police but she continued to persevere even in the face of both sexism and racism. The show also introduces the very real possibility that many of the crimes could have been committed–and at least were in fact praised by–the Ku Klux Klan.
Similarly to OJ: Made in America, context is everything, And this series does a decent job describing the cultural and political setting of the city leading up to the first murder in 1979. This show depicts, again, how Black women are not taken seriously. While Williams was convicted, most of the evidence is circumstantial; the police believe he was responsible for the other murders, including the deaths of 13 children. However, for many in the Black community-including Bell– this was not justice served.
Favorite Episode: “Part Four”
The Ripper (Netflix):
The Ripper is less about the man who committed the brutal murders of 13 women in the 1970s and more about the victims themselves. Too often true crime centers around the killer, elevating them to a level of celebrity–John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, etc. etc.–rather than truly understanding the lives of the people murdered. This Netflix series doesn’t even introduce Peter William Coonan until the final episode and instead focuses on the gender bias of police officers and investigators in the deaths of his victims. Framing each murder as due to a “hatred of prostitution”. police are only mildly driven to find the now serial killer only when he takes the life of an “innocent”. As if sex workers don’t deserve justice too? Even the first victim, Wilma McCann, who was bludgeoned to death, was seen as merely a “divorcee prostitute”; after leaving her alcoholic and abusive husband, McCann was struggling in an economy with few jobs available to earn enough money for her and her children to survive.
The hell that unfolds is not only the unchecked string of murders committed by Coonan, but the response by law enforcement. Officers failed to listen to victims or even include attacks that met his MO into the case if the women weren’t seen as sex workers. Unable to end his killing spree, police implement a curfew for women rather than the men in Yorkshire, leading to a number of Reclaim the Night marches where women asserted their right to walking alone at night, same as any man. The focus here on the women–not just the victims, but the journalists too–are what set this documentary series apart from other true crime series.
“This idea of the prostitute killer was absolutely at the heart of the police theory. They are imposing this identity on the victims because it fits their idea of the case. I thought: ‘how can a police force, which is so full of horrible judgements about dead women, possibly understand this kind of killer and identify him?'”
Joan Smith, Episode Three
Favorite Episode: “Reclaim the Night”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO):
Michelle McNamara’s haunting and tragic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is one of my favorite books of all time. The HBO series on McNamara’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer, along with her struggle with finishing the book, is absolutely one of the best miniseries of 2020. Spending years as an “amateur investigator”, it was McNamara who first coined the name for one of California’s most prolific serial rapists and killers– the Golden State Killer. This obsession with discovering his identity ultimately led to her own death as she passed away due to a lethal combination of prescription drugs used to help her sleep, stay awake, and stay focused.
Michelle herself took a great deal of time and effort in speaking to and understanding the victims of the Golden State Killer. Many survivors and family members of the deceased only spoke to her. She also successfully predicted how the former police officer would be caught–through at-home family member DNA tests–although she didn’t live to see the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo. The miniseries touches on a number of aspects of her life including the struggle with her mother, her own insecurities, and the death of her father, along with ways victims of sexual assault are treated and continue to struggle.
Favorite Episode: “Rat in a Maze”
Taste the Nation (Hulu):
I absolutely love Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation. Asking the question “what is American food anyway?” she explores a number of different regions in the United States searching for the stories behind the dishes. An immigrant herself, her exhaustive search to understand the idea of “American food” leads Padma to deconstruct the notion of what it means to eat in America.
Thai women who married American soldiers, German immigrants in Milwaukee, her own mother’s decision to bring Indian cuisine to the United States, are just a few examples of how the idea of “American food” is not merely based in “America”. The line between assimilation and survival is thin; the episode on tacos at the American / Mexican border shows how tricky and delicate the issue between who (and what) defines not just our food, but people, as “American” matters. War, colonization, and legislation have shaped the food we eat and the people who plant / pick / process / cook it. There are politics in every plate, regardless if we want to acknowledge that or not when we pick up our fork.
For me, the heart of the series is in the the episodes on communities that did not willingly immigrate to the United States or were here prior to colonization: the Gullah Geechee and the Navajo. Cooking with chefs Michael Twitty and BJ Dennis in the heart of South Carolina was amazing to see; the descendants of enslaved people forcibly brought to America, the cuisine of the Gullah Geechee has survived due to the sheer strength and fortitude of their people. Similarly to the Gullah Geechee episode, which not only connects the historical and cultural context of place to current issues of climate change and environmental racism, the Navajo episode echoes similar struggles with an added twist: as indigenous to the United States, shouldn’t Navajo food be “American food”? And yet, how many of us know, understand, or even appreciate their dishes? Food sovereignty, decolonization, and fighting for the survival of culture are at the heart of the series.
“When you scratch the surface, everybody’s story is compelling. All you have to do is listen.”
— Padma Lakshmi
Favorite Episode(s): “The Gullah Way” and “The Original Americans”
If you made it this far, please enjoy this gem of a character:
Currently: Reading: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Jenny Odell) Watching: WandaVision (Disney+) Eating: Meryl’s Baked Banana Bread Oatmeal (here)
Oh 2020, the year that… was. There’s absolutely too many things to say about last year in one post (maybe ten blogs?) so I’ll be sticking to discussing allthetravelthings here.
Like so many, 2020 was a year of uncertainty, growth, and change for me. In terms of travel, in a pre-pandemic time we essentially had April-August booked to the brim with adventures in new places (the Baltics, Slovenia, the Croatian coast, Scandinavia, the Balkans) before our move from Hungary to Germany. As Covid-19 began spreading throughout Europe in the spring, those plans virtually disintegrated with each passing week.
I’ve always felt incredulous and grateful for the opportunities to see new places while living abroad and this year I was especially appreciative of the experiences I enjoyed in between lockdowns, uncertainty, and preparing to move to another country. Maybe it was the possibility of never seeing these places again or the looming date of the end of my time in Hungary creeping up the calendar, but I think this year was my proudest for saying yes to hard things and pushing myself to always be in the present.
The uncertainty, coupled with the overall feeling of “final-ness” of seemingly every moment, made me even more thankful for both the limited opportunities I did have and the amazing people in my life that encouraged me. Reflecting on 2020 I am sad for the broken plans but absolutely in love with all I did see and experience my last few months in Eastern Europe, truly the “wild wild east” of the world, as a friend noted over drinks in Budapest three years ago.
So this super-long post–mostly photos I promise–is a celebration of the wonderful places I saw, the amazing folks I spent this year with, and of course the best libraries and light trespassing opportunities I could find.
While 2020 was a dystopian hellscape in so. many. ways., I am grateful for the obstacles presented to us travel-wise in that I spent a great deal more time in nature and national parks and less in crowded places talking myself out of a maintaining-the-required-two-meters-from-the-nearest-person-panic. The restrictions forced me to rethink planning, wandering, and adventuring.
The extra lockdown time in my house–I am truly grateful for the ability to stay at home–was frustrating at times but also an opportunity to rethink new ways to interact and build community. The monthly-ish movie club I hosted transitioned from my living room to the AIM-esque Netflix Party (which I actually found to enjoy almost as much), my wonderful friend Bri–who normally organized in-person discussion groups with a group of women–thankfully continued our meetings on Zoom, and my March birthday, while at first seemed sad and depressing, was unforgettable; my Pápa friends created Tik Tok videos for me and my best friend reenacted her own version of Say Anything by playing Peter Gabriel in my front yard while chucking presents over the fence.
While feeling cooped up could be stifling at times, I was also grateful to be in a house we loved. This was the longest Chris and I ever lived in one home in the fifteen years we’ve been married and I truly adored the space we had in our little town. In this house I said goodbye to my Boston Terrier Ike, sipped wine while reading for hours on the back-porch, schemed new travel plans, hosted impromptu Beyonce dance parties, and baked bread, fried wings, mixed pimento cheese, and failed at making proper buckeyes yet again. I met some of my favorite people while in Pápa and while it was incredibly hard to say goodbye as so many moved on to new places as we did, if 2020 has taught me anything, its how to stay connected from afar.
Reflecting on travel in 2020 reminds me of just how little I wrote or published last year. Food Writer Alicia Kennedy spoke my feelings to paper in her most recent newsletter:
“…while trying to write during a pandemic, the inspiration needs to be strong. The world isn’t giving me the usual constant sparks. The world is only taking my energy from me.”
Alicia Kennedy. 2021. “On Crisis.”
I promise-ish to publish complete posts on each place (I know, I know, I am at this point two years behind… eeeeek) eventually. I do want to provide a warning that this post does contain photos and descriptions of places including memorials of concentration camps, forced labor camps, and references to the Holocaust and WWII.
I am so. fucking. grateful. for my health and the well-being of my friends and family. I am so incredibly thankful for the privilege I had to self-isolate, quarantine at home, and travel while adhering to safety measures meant to keep myself and others safe.
Here is my 2020 Travel Year in Review:
Hiša Franko (Kobarid), Slovenia:
Kanal ob Soči, Slovenia:
Kraków-Płaszów Camp Memorial, Poland:
Lake Bokodi, Hungary:
Liban Quarry, Poland:
Metelcova (Ljubljana), Slovenia:
Most na Soči, Slovenia:
Recsk National Memorial Park, Hungary:
Bükk National Park, Hungary:
Anna Sinter Cave, Hungary:
Hámori Lake, Hungary:
Kościuszko Mound, Poland:
Lake Balaton, Hungary:
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia:
Lake Czorsztyn, Poland:
Lake at Most na Soči, Slovenia:
Lepena Valley, Slovenia:
Siklawica Waterfall, Poland:
Soča River, Slovenia:
St. István Cave, Hungary:
Szinva Waterfall, Hungary:
Tatra National Park, Poland:
Tolmin Gorges, Slovenia:
Triglav National Park, Slovenia:
Ljubljana Castle, Slovenia:
Zlin (Oravský Podzámok), Slovakia:
Stay safe and wear a fucking mask 🤍
Currently: Reading: They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Stephanie Jones-Rogers) Watching: Bridgerton (Netflix) Listening: Good News (Megan Thee Stallion)