Things were different in 1983 when Gyuri Petruska and I first discussed the idea of St. Olaf undergraduates studying mathematics in Budapest; no internet, no e-mail, no fax machines (very few phone lines!), a Warsaw Pact, rent and heat at essentially no charge (in Budapest) and a world class opera absolutely anyone could afford. But, some things were not so different; powerful and distinctive intellectual communities, deeply rooted traditions of ferreting out and developing mathematical talent, colorful and effective institutions maintaining world class standards in the face of forbidding obstacles, a common opinion that soon all would be lost. I had spent several extended stays in Budapest doing research with the real analysts and by 1983, Petruska and I knew each other pretty well. So he really got my attention when out of the blue he asked:
If there was a mathematics program in Hungary for St. Olaf students, would anyone come?
This question contained the electricity of a real idea. First, it was a very good question. Certainly in 1983, the popular press in the United States was so convinced of U.S. preeminence in mathematics and science that excellence in other programs was all but invisible. Moreover, Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain and parents would be wary of allowing their children to live there. More to the point, the fact that Petruska had asked me this particular question meant to me that he and probably his Hungarian colleagues as well were serious about creating an international opportunity for North American undergraduate mathematics students.
At that point, Petruska and I were thinking in terms of a small scale semester exchange program between St. Olaf and Eötvös University. But things were afoot that we had no idea about.