Outside our window, Budapest has a sugar-coating of snow, the first to arrive all winter. In a few minutes we're off to Paris to spend New Year's Eve with some old friends (straight outta Chicago and Buenos Aires!) I'll take lots of pictures and write you in 2007. In the mean time, allow me to reccommend Bootsy Collins' masterwork "Christmas is 4 Ever." Seriously, folks. Made my December.
And now we have a little Christmas tree, which came to us all the way from Los Angeles, courtesy one Melissa J.M.M.
Even the elevator looks a lot like Christmas:
The Christmas gift-giving activity begins early in Hungary, on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. (One of my bluegrass bandmates informed me that Santa comes to Hungary on December 6 so that he has time to get to America for Christmas Eve.) In Hungary, children put out their shoes for Mikulás (Santa) to fill. Mikulás travels with a good helper and a bad helper. If the child has been good, the good helper gives them sweets and toys. Bad children fall under the juristiction of the bad helper, who leaves a bundle of sticks (I'm assuming this is theoretically meant for bad seed smack-down purposes.) I'm told that because Hungarians believe that no one is all good or all bad, most children get both presents and...stick-bundles. But don't worry, the stick bundles are painted gold. Because, you know, it's Christmas.
I'm also told that instead of going to the mall to meet Santa Claus, like one does in America, Hungarian parents get an adult friend to call their home, talk to their child and give the child a detailed year-end report: "You did well in Math this year, but you've got to be nicer to your sister. And for God's sake, stop putting your cereal up your nose."
When in Rome, right? Rick and I put our shoes out for Mikulás on December 6. (I know, I know, it's not really a tradition for adults...but it seemed like so much fun...)
Another Hungarian tradition is not putting up your Christmas tree until the 24rth. The children are taken to a puppet show or something, and when they return they find a special decorated room with a beautiful tree. Looks like my neighbor is getting ready to do this:
I'm also told that Hungarians exchange their presents on Christmas Eve, at a big family dinner. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is apparently fish. Check out the line at this usually deserted fish stand in the great market hall:
Rick and I have also been visiting Budapest's Christmas markets:
Where you can buy Hungarian folk arts and crafts:
Drink hot wine:
And sample tasty traditional street food:
This is kürtös (kürtöskalács?), delicious dough wrapped around an iron cylinder and then baked to crispy tender perfection, much like a pastry shwarma.
It's served with sugar or vanilla or cinnamon or walnut or cocount on the inside. YUM.
So hope you had a wonderful Hannukah, and have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, wherever you are. Kellemes Karácsonyt!
I remember my first conversation about religion. It was in my Berkeley preschool, as my friends and I punched holes in the walls with gender-neutral wooden toys and cheerfully defaced our childrens’ books about diversity. We all knew that there were Jewish kids and Christian kids. Kids who were half-and-half were the luckiest because they got to celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah, the three-year old equivalent of winning the lottery. I pitied my friends who only got one measly holiday.
My parents met at a meditation seminar. My goyish mom is really more Buddhist than anything else, and aside from a few Christmas Eve church services I really grew up Jewish. Bay Area Jewish. On the Camp Kee Tov bus we sang Hebrew camp songs, but also chanted “Me So Horny” and “War (huh) What is It Good For.” I studied Hebrew with a hairless, guitar-strumming reform rabbi who took me to services at the Berkeley Aquarian Minyan (“Now we’re going to sing the Tribal Sh’ma!”) and the East Bay Feminist Minyan (“And when G-d came down, she said…””).
When I moved to New York, where my religious activities included co-hosting the infamous Punk Rock Seder (AKA “The Hardest-Working Seder in Judaism.”) I searched for years for a synagogue that I really liked, and finally I settled on Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s Lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual conservative Jewish congregation. I started going there because they had free high holy days, and stayed because I loved the lesbian rabbi, who gave hard-nosed, practical, and inspiring talks. CBST had so many members that on Yom Kippur they had to hold services in the Javitz Convention Center, where during services you could look through the huge plate glass windows at the helicopters darting back and forth over the Hudson. I remember one invited Rosh Hashana speaker urging the congregation: “Perhaps you feel that you don’t have enough money to join CBST. I have some ideas for to help you save up and become a member. Guys, cut out a couple of your subscriptions to Maxim and Details. And ladies, on the second date, when you’re moving in together—don’t use a moving company, move yourselves.”
September: I go to the big synagogue on Dohany street for Yom Kippur. It’s a neo-Moorish building, with stained glass windows and a giant organ. The morning service is attended by a handful of older, conservative Hungarians. Whereas the gay New York Jews were really religious, crying and breast-thumping, the Dohany Hungarians talk incessantly, completely ignoring the prayers.
I notice five quiet college-age girls. In the sparse crowd of older Hungarians they stick out like a sore thumbs; they must be Americans, since the younger Hungarian Jews have apparently decided to sit this one out.
I break the Yom Kippur fast at Budapest’s only Mexican restaurant—where I see the five Jewish girls. They MUST be from California. Sure enough they‘re UC Berkeley students, originally from “So Cal,” on a semester abroad in Budapest. I realize that every Californian Jew in Budapest is probably breaking their fast at this restaurant.
Early November: I thought that I wouldn’t meet any Jews in Budapest, but I was wrong. Through fellow New Yorkers Inna and Ljova (Jewish musicians both), I meet Pablo, the Argentinian hurdy-gurdy player. He is an intelligent and passionate dude, who lights up like a lantern when he plays Brazilian music. And he only plays Brazilian music. Pablo is very clear about that.
He is also Jewish—everyone I’m meeting these days seems to be Jewish. But his Jewishness means something very different to him:
On Communication: “I am Jewish, you are Jewish. If you speak English to me I can understand you better than someone who is not Jewish.”
On Anti-Semitism: “I have faced this since before I can remember, and it will never change. When I was a little boy, they beat me, they tease me, they throw rocks at me. From the beginning, they saw me as different, and they will always see me as different. They wanted me to be an intellectual, a professor. This is all we are good for, to be a nice professor, an intelligent Jew. I do not accept this. I do not want to be an intellectual. I play music because it makes me feel like an animal.
“The possibility of integration does not exist, it is a myth. It is a disaster. It is not really possible. They hate us, and they will not stop hating us. Every 50 years or so they try to kill us all. I do not like Israel, I do not feel comfortable there, but it is the only thing standing between us and disaster. If they destroy Israel, then you and me and you will have to get guns.
“There is anti-Semitism everywhere. They tell me that in America it is different. You say this and so I must believe you, but I cannot accept it. It must be the same there as everywhere.”
On Language “I grew up speaking Spanish, I do not speak Yiddish, I understand Hebrew but it is not my first language. I have no language. This Spanish is the language of my oppressors, it is not my language. I have no language, and so how can I write?”
I meet Bob—fiddler, New York native, Budapest institution, walking encyclopedia of folk styles. Pablo grills him: is he Jewish, is he religious, why does he wear a kippah, and so on.
Pablo: Do you see much anti-Semitism in Hungary? Bob: Look, I’m from New York, I don’t give a shit. If someone starts shit with me I’ll kick their ass, I don’t care. I’m a New York Jew. They know not to mess with me.
Mid-November: Inna and Ljova introduce me to a new bar: Siraly, which they describe to me as “You know, Jewy.” This may be my new favorite word. The clarinet player from their gypsy band is in town, and they want to have a klezmer jam at Siraly. There seem to be two non-Jews in attendance. One is the saxophone player from Hungarian gypsy-jazz band Besho Drom. He turns out to be Jewish. There’s also a well-mannered blonde filmmaker from New York named Gregory Stewart Edwards. You guessed it, also Jewish.
I realize that I’ve never really played klezmer. Some of the melodies come, but from so far back in my brain that I don’t know how I know them. Later, at bluegrass practice, I talk to a bandmate:
Sarah: I’m a Jew who knows bluegrass but no klezmer. Is that weird? Bandmate: No, Matyas [our mandolin player] is the same. He is Jewish and he plays only bluegrass. Sarah:Matyas is Jewish?
Late November: I meet a music teacher from an orthodox Jewish school in Budapest. She’s very nice but in passing she refers to reform Jews as “not real Jews.” She ridicules John Zorn for wearing tsitsit but no kippah. I venture that maybe this is his way of sticking it to the man. She doesn’t laugh.
December: Why is everyone here Jewish? Didn’t I just come here from the most Jewish city on earth? I ask Pablo why he thinks that I have been meeting so many Jewish musicans. He tells me: “Of course, Sarah, you’ve returned to the scene of the crime.”
Everyone I meet says that Hungarian Jews are very removed from their traditions, integrated, with no real connection to their Jewishness. But all of the Jews I’ve met (granted most are not actual Hungarians) seem so much MORE Jewish than me. They speak Hebrew, they speak Yiddish, they play klezmer, they keep kosher, they move to Israel and back. I never used to doubt my own Jewishness. Now for the first time I feel how far away from my own tradition that I am.
I am preparing for a Hannukah concert, playing Hannukah songs, niggunim (wordless songs) and Arabic songs with an Israeli hippy named Yonathan. He is a lovable young ragamuffin, but going through a serious quarter-life crisis. He spent some years bumming around the Mediterranean without a care in the world and without a sheckel in his pocket—doing the real hippy nomad Uncle Carl thing. Recently it occurred to him that he ought to devote his life to something. He has a lot of anxiety about this, and every time I see him he announces a new major life decision. He will only play bass, and not violin or guitar. He is giving up music. He will get a degree in computer science. He will become a professional musician. He is perpetually lovestruck and flits hither and thither through the bars of Budapest, charming the pants off hapless Hungarian chicks and then wandering off in a fog of big questions and existential angst.
Pablo: He is charismatic, you know? He is Israeli. They are not like us. They are…pushy. Yonathan:(suddenly materializing) Sarah! Can I borrow your violin? Pablo: He has chutzpah. Not like you. (points to Rick.) Rick: Me? Pablo: You have no chutzpah. It’s OK! This is the way you are. I have none either. We are chutzpah-less. Yonathan: Sarah! Let me borrow your violin. Sarah: Sorry. Yonathan:(leaves, dejected, then suddenly returns) I just want to hear someone play the violin with these people downstairs. Sarah: Yonathan, I just don’t lend out my violin. Yonathan: Then you go downstairs and play. Pablo: You see? Yonathan: See what? What? Pablo: You are charismatic. Yonathan beams, does a handstand. Yonathan:(upside down) Hello! (coming back up) Really, give me your violin.
The rehearsal process with Yonathan is hard for me. The forms are different, not American, and while some of these songs are easy to pick up others are so unfamiliar. It’s hard to get used to the idea that the melody is not to be tampered with. Yonathan criticizes my inability to pick up the melodies as quickly and accurately as he does. Of course he’s right, I don’t know this music, but it makes me feel deeply, inordinately ashamed, like somehow I’m being exposed as not a real Jew.
Rick has become the token goy. At Siraly one night, over kosher palinka (I thought all palinka was kosher, but I was wrong) someone asks him in all seriousness: “Isn’t the fish a Christian symbol?” Rick, bewildered, says something about bumper stickers.
It makes me miss California. It even makes me miss the Tribal Sh’ma.
So to add to my technological woes (RIP ipod: your memory lives on!) I have been unable to post youtube videos to my blog. This is seriously annoying because there are two amazing videos you must see. Would you mind following links to see them?
The Good: Viorica in Clejani I've been trying to post this for at least a month. My friend Ljova recently helped score a big Hollywood movie in Romania. Before returning to Budapest, he went with the film's director and composer to Clejani, the home village of world-famous gypsy band Taraf des Haidouks. (If you don't know Taraf, you should. When I was working as propsmaster for Big Apple Circus I used to listen to their album over and over while we "made the jump" from race track parking lot to race track parking lot.) Ljova took this video during an all-night jam with the guys from Taraf (my dream of dreams!) The singer is one of Romania's most famous gypsy performers, and for good reason. Daaaaamn!
The Amazingly, Amazingly Bad: Speak the Hungarian Rapper We've had occasion to speak before about Hungarian rap. This out-craps the crappiest. It's as if Puff Daddy mated with a cyborg and produced a retarded son. Enjoy!
Rick may not be able to walk on water or cure leprosy, but he brought my ipod back from the dead. I tried everything on the apple support website, called Apple in Cuperinto or wherever the hell they are, brought it to the Budapest apple store--nope, sorry, see ya. Everyone told me it was a lost cause. But through my faith in Rick, I have my ipod again.
He told me to put it in the freezer for two hours.
That's right. I froze my ipod and now it's as good as new. I can't pretend I understand, but I'm not arguing. A good miracle is hard to find.
Yesterday Rick and I trekked out to the one movie theater playing Casino Royale in English. It was a sold out show and EVERYONE in the theater spoke English—it was so strange to eavesdrop on multiple conversations. These weren’t tourists—tourists weren’t wasting their Saturday in Budapest going to see Casino Royale. There were English-speaking teenagers, kids, old people, businessmen, and students. It was exciting to feel like an unwitting part of one of the city’s subcultures.
During the movie I made a shocking discovery: I have developed Expatriate Tourette’s Syndrome. Now Rick knows I’m an idiot, so it doesn’t matter what I say around him. But in English-speaking countries I usually try not to subject innocent bystanders to my idiocy. I don’t say everything I think in public; I keep the stupider shit under my hat. In Budapest, however, I’ve gotten into the habit of talking with my mental filter off. What comes out is plain embarrassing.
Sarah:(commenting in a half-whisper on a Bond villain who keeps jumping off things, like in the video for “Jump”) Who is that guy? Madonna? Rick:(whispering): Sssh! Sarah: What? Chill out. Rick: People can understand you! Sarah: Oh, right.
I don’t know much about Mormons. Do you? We know they wear special underwear, and we’re fascinated. We know their temples look like Disneyland rides. We know they have an angel named Moroney, which sounds like a type of enriched pasta for retards. (Sorry, Mormons. It’s just true.)
In high school I had a pal who grew up in Utah. She told me two more fun Mormon facts: 1) if you’re really broke, they’ll bring you groceries, and 2) they all have trampolines. “All of them?” I wondered. “All of them. All of them!” “But why?” “No one knows.”
A year or two later my high school took me to Belize. As a friendly, tropical, English-speaking country, Belize is crawling with Mormon missionaries. In Orange Walk, we stayed in a little budget hotel where the only other guests were two middle-aged Americans. And you know, I was in high school, so I was kind of a rude little punk. We started talking:
Sarah: Where are you guys from? Lady: Utah. Sarah: Oh! Are you Mormon? Lady: Yes, yes we are. Sarah: Really? Do you have a trampoline? Lady:(clearly annoyed) Well we don’t just have a trampoline. We have go carts, snowmobiles, jet skis, sleds, skis, snow tubes, mountain bikes, we have soccer goals, we have a parachute, we have billiards, paintball, foozeball, snorkels … Lady’s Husband: Handball. Lady: Handball… Sarah:(fascinated) But you do have a trampoline? Lady:(defensively) Well…yes.
I’m not gonna lie, I thought it was pretty funny. Now this all happened before my family had internet. I told Inna this story a few days ago, and she had the good sense to google “Mormons and Trampolines” (duh, I can’t believe I never thought of that.) It’s an actual thing, mormons and trampolines, it’s a stereotype. There are jokes about it on the internet. Holy Moroney! I’ll be damned.
We never had TV in New York, just a lot of DVDs. Here we watch TV in very small doses. There are two English channels, CNN and BBC News. After five minutes they get depressing or start talking stocks. After 9 pm, Turner Classic Movies shows WW II movies and Westerns. The rest is Hungarian. Mind you, there’s not much original Hungarian television, except:
--20 Hungarian News and Politics channels, handy in a riot --A Hungarian “Newlyweds” reality knockoff (Most Boring Ever) --A sketch comedy show starring 5 wacky transvestites -- Hungarian music television. Features touchingly wholesome hip-hop videos. Hungarian rap videos are still about putting on some big pants, shaking some ass, and smiling for the people. Hungarian rappers have not yet started to dress in Gucci and lounge around rented Frank Lloyd Wright houses, rap in a haute couture fashion show, drive a steam roller around Toyko, or rap in a space ship.
The rest of Hungarian TV comes from Spain or France or Germany or America, and is either nonverbal (opera, sports, Canadian Candid Camera) or dubbed into Hungarian. Oh My God, you guys. There is SO MUCH television dubbed into Hungarian. Hungarian Simpsons, Hungarian I Love the 80’s, Hungarian Sex and the City, Hungarian Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Hungarian Alien vs. Predator! And shows I’ve never seen before, including:
--A soft-core porn show about topless girls running around a rent-a-mansion. It’s shown on prime-time TV. We call it “Sluthouse.” --There’s also “Sluthouse: Bloopers!” (Its actual name is “Naked and Funny.”) Guys, imagine you went to the doctor’s office, and she asked you to undress, and when you turned around the doctor was a naked lady! What capers! --“Sluthouse: The Obstacle Course!” which I’m not going to bother to explain.
The point I’m making here is that the Hungarian dubbing industry has got to be huge. I mean, gigantic. They dub EVERYTHING, and their dubbing is GOOD. People speak for the right amount of time, they interrupt eachother at the right moments, there’s no disconnect between image and sound. At times I’ve caught myself thinking “Wow, Sigourney Weaver is Hungarian! I didn’t kn—…oh.” Or even, “Morgan FREEMAN is Hungarian?”
The other night we were at the bar with a 21-year-old Hungarian pal, Peter, and dubbing came up.
OUR ACTUAL CONVERSATION WITH PETER
Sarah: Hungarian dubbing is amazing! If I was Hungarian I would become a voice-over artist. Peter: Yes, but it is not so easy, you know? Every actor he has only one man who says his voice on the television. Sarah: Wait, what? Explain. Peter: For example, who is this man, he is in the car, it talks, and it is so fast, so loud. Rick: Night Rider? Peter: Yes, and the man he drive it The Night Rider? Rick: David Hasselhoff? Peter: Yes! Yes! He is to have only one man, only one Hungarian actor who is to say his things. If another voice say it, the people they do not accept. They say “What is this? This is not sound like The Night Rider!” Because he is the voice of this David Hasselhoff, this Hungarian actor, one man, only one man. And if David Hasselhoff is in another show, like this show where they are always run, so slow, so slow? Rick: Baywatch? Peter: Yes! Yes! This voice is same voice, same man, Hungarian man, from The Night Rider. Sarah: So every American actor has their own Hungarian voice doppelganger? Peter: I don’t know this word. Sarah: When someone looks just like someone else? Like a double? Like a twin? Peter: I am very drunk. Sarah: Like I look the same as you? We look the same? We sound the same? Peter: Oh, I see what you are say. Not all actors, but say Robert…DeNiro. Or Keanu Reeves. Rick:(trying to speak simply for Peter, who is very drunk) In America, David Hasselhoff, he is like joke. Peter: Yes! Yes! Rick: But like, joke of country. National Joke. Peter: Also in Hungary. But here, in Hungary, we have special kind of joke, we say always about one actor…it is very funny…always one man, so many jokes…this actor...do you know Walker Ranger in Texas? Sarah: Walker Texas Ranger? Peter: Yes! Yes! Rick: You mean Chuck Norris? Peter: Chuck Norris! We make it the joke about Chuck Norris, all the time, so many jokes about this Chuck Norris, in Hungary. I don’t know why it is this man, this Chuck Norris, but his eyes are like suns, and his fists are like the bomb, and so many things. Everything! He do it everything this Chuck Norris. He like God. Chuck Norris like the Jesus! Sarah: Tell us a Chuck Norris joke! Peter: I don’t know in English, but, you know you count to one million, count it beyond, count it beyond, count it beyond, so many times? You cannot stop the numbers they go they go? Sarah: Infinity? Peter: Yes! Yes! Chuck Norris, he count it to Infinity three times.
At this point Peter started to explain there was a government contest to name a new Budapest bridge, and they asked people to vote on the internet for someone to name the new bridge after. The most popular choices were Chuck Norris and Eric Cartman (from South Park). Then Stephen Colbert got involved and won. I can’t believe I never heard about this. I’ll try to find out more and post it for you. Chuck Norris: spanning Buda and Pest.
You guys, I’m sorry I’ve been a crappy blogger lately. To tell the truth it hasn’t just been laziness. My birthday came, and then Thanksgiving, now the holidays are staring us right in the face. I’m feeling emotional. Realizing we don’t know when we’re coming home.
I’m finally starting to feel at home here. I know where to get my milk and bread, I can give directions to Japanese tourists. I see familiar faces in restaurants. But now that the newness is gone I start to feel how far from home I am; how lonely, how American. My friend Ruth, spending this year in Buenos Aires with her new husband, echoes my feelings exactly: a little pride, a lot of homesickness. A petty comfort that points to the deep discomfort beneath. One minute I’m so in love with Budapest’s grace and beauty, so grateful to be here. The next I’m reduced to tears by an NYC trivia quiz on internet radio. What a mess.
On Thanksgiving we cooked, we cleaned, we had Inna over for chicken (no turkey) and biscuits and potatoes. I even managed to scare up some yuppie salad—mixed greens with feta and baby tomatoes and roasted walnuts and even some dried cranberries. (As a California girl, the salad was what made it feel like home.) It was a great meal, a great conversation. But of course, it wasn’t really Thanksgiving. No crowds at the supermarket—just a couple fellow Americans looking for hard-to-find stuffing and yams at the Chinese-run Aszia Szupermarkt. No Black Friday stories about people mobbing shopping malls. No movies opening Thanksgiving weekend. No family, no friends home from far away.
Of course it takes years to fully know a city, to build a life there, to understand its mindset. I know that. Lately I’m thinking a lot about how Budapest’s surface similarities to New York—to any other big city—mask real cultural differences, a completely different, completely Hungarian way of thinking and living.
Sunday was my debut at the Acoustic Club my bluegrass band holds once a month in an old warehouse/bar/theater/movie palace/cultural center near my apartment. Three bands including mine played; bluegrass, country, and blues. I was most certainly the only American there (besides Rick). It was so bizarre to see all these Hungarians “szuper” excited about “Sweet Home Chicago.” There was something so jarring about it. It’s not that they’re not fine musicians—they’re really good. It’s more that they play with a Hungarian accent. The phrases are too long, or not syncopated enough, or not executed with the right attitude. Technically correct, but culturally wrong.
It made me think about all the “Balkan” or “gypsy” bands I loved in New York—Zlatne Uste or Slavic Soul Party—full of very great and very earnest American jazz musicians. If I was an Eastern European at those shows, would I feel the same way? “Who ARE you people? What the hell is going on here?” I talked this over with guitar player Tamasz, one of my Hungarian bluegrass buddies. He told me about one American band determined to learn Real, Authentic Hungarian folk music. They had a recording of some tiny Transylvanian village band, and they worshipped this recording and learned it note for note. Finally they made a pilgrimage to the village, found the son of the band leader. “We’ve learned straight from your father’s recording, we haven’t changed anything,” they told him, and proudly their whole repetoire for him. “Oh yes,” the son remembered, “my father was so drunk that day, he was out of tune, it sounded awful...” The American band had spent years perfectly learning a drunk and incorrect version of the tune. Moreover, they loved it.
Of course. Music belongs to a time and a place and to people, it belongs to a way of life. Taken outside of that world, its meaning changes. Learning to play a certain style is learning a new way of thinking. Translating yourself into that language, imagining yourself in that world and that world in you.
Mozart means something different in New York in 2006 than it did in Mozart’s Vienna. The same applies for blues in Budapest. The music is translated as it moves; and it takes on a new meaning in the translation. I wish I really knew what the blues mean here.
Coming soon, Lost in Translation II: “Do you have jokes about Chuck Norris in America?”
In Summer 2005, Rick and I went to the Guca Golden Brass Festival in Serbia. This is the summer we fell in love with Budapest, the summer we decided to flee the States, the summer we permanently damaged our digestive systems with homemade liquor and pork.
In Belgrade, our Serbian friend Sasha bought us an album by a Romanian gypsy brass band called Fanfare Ciocarlia. At the festival, everyone was talking about Fanfare Ciocarlia. On the long drive back from Guca, our ride (Belgrade’s best classical trumpet player) was rocking out to Fanfare Ciocarlia.
We were hooked. This Thursday Rick and I got to see them live in a nightclub on a boat on the Danube. It was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. I captured some of it on my wee camera:
Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (1)
Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (2)
Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (3)
At one point, we were jumping up and down so violently that my camera flew out of my pocket and got lost among the trampled beer cups. I didn’t bother to look for it until after the set. So I didn’t get to record the band’s third encore, when they took their instruments down into the center of the crowd, wedding-style. Ecstatic sweaty dancers fought their way up to the band and stuffed bills between the keys of their trumpets, slapped bills on the players’ sweaty foreheads, threw bills like confetti into the air, not caring where they landed. Everyone was singing, the foreigners in the crowd looking around bewildered and delighted, the real hard core fans bellowing at the top of their lungs. I wish I could have recorded that for you.
The lovely Miss Inna of Barmaljova fame recently blogged about our amazing Jam Session last Saturday. Check it out (you can click on the pictures to see more of her budapest images.) I can't say enough good things about the folks who played...at the end of the night I was thoroughly humbled and very happy. If you get a chance to see any of them play in New York, grab it.
Someday I really will learn Hungarian. In the mean time, ignorance is sometimes bliss.
Vintage Hungarian Sausage Commercial
This sausage makes you strip to your skivvies and sing like the chipmunks… and that’s the type of sausage I like to eat. Good times!
80s Hungarian cmmercial - Stzer?
Rick: Is this a commercial for nuclear power?
Sarah: I’m guessing it’s advertisting a Lord-of-the-Rings Stag Party package for Brits. Elf sex tourism. Huge in Budapest.
Hungarian 80s commercial - shopping center?
Rick: This was made by futuristic robotic overlords to entice humans into their reprocessing plant. Listen to those creepy, artificial keyboards. Something really bad is about to happen to that little guy.
Sarah: According to the folks on youtube, he's saying “I go in, I come out, but how well I come out…if I go in.”
There have been many musical adventures to report in the past week or so. Blame it all on our lovely new friends Barmaljova, who are incredible at seeking out live music. We finally met legendary American-fiddler-gone-native Dumneazu. We’ve met an Argentinian Jewish hurdy-gurdy player who lives in Budapest but only plays Brazillian music. Thursday we went to hear the Ukranian gypsy Tecso band, and ran into Matt Dariau (who I’d never actually met before but have been to hear play a million times in NYC.)
But alas, not all musical adventures are positive. Last night we went to see a jazz band.** Now, I love a nice, active drummer. I love drummer toys like llama toes (llama toes!) But last night’s drummer, well… it wasn’t just that he had a lot of geegaws: chimes, rattles, woodblocks, bells, a triangle, an ocarina—no snare drum, mind you—a metal water jug, and, of course, llama toes (llama toes!) That wasn’t exactly the problem. He was just so busy picking up geegaws and putting them down that he couldn’t be bothered to listen to anyone else. If I was playing with him, I would have been furious:
----- IMAGINARY BANDMATE: Say man, I don’t want to be a drag, but you gotta lay out a bit, brother. I’m over here trying to solo on “The Days of Wine and Roses,” and every time I look up you doing some other type of ridiculous shit. You got sticks, brushes, a piece of rebar, you got some piece of metal tied to a pipe, you got a turkey call, you got a dreidel spinning on the snare, you hitting the wall with a whip, you chewing a bunch of sugar cubes with your mouth open, you got a can of peanut brittle that shoots a snake out of it. Then you gonna act like the snake surprised you. You know you did that on purpose!
My lady just left me. I mean, I loved that woman, and I’m trying to capture a moment, and you’re over there hitting the cymbals with a Styrofoam pool noodle. You’re dragging a chain over the cymbals, like the jazz is in hell trying to escape! I’m trying to play my heart out, and you over there hitting a watermelon with an icepick. That’s some Gallagher shit! You like Gallagher in prison, killing his old comedy partner in the shower! Damn.
Are you trying to make fun of me? I don’t get it. My lady walks out, I’m trying to express my sorrow, man, I’m trying to communicate it. I’m trying to do something sparse, like Miles, you over there tapping a cheeto with a thimble. And don’t try to help me out by running outside the club, calling your friend’s cellphone in the front row, shouting “bap bap bap bippity BAP!” crinkling some cellophane to make it sound like a long distance call, that’s not helping express the distance between me and my lady.
And I don’t care how good you think it sounds, you don’t bring a washing machine on stage, throw some rubik’s cubes in them and let them bounce around. It don’t matter if they’re solved when you pull them out. That’s not the point, man, that’s not the point. I’m over here trying to paint a picture in sound, the audience wondering about the state of a bunch of wet Rubik’s cubes. I try to block it out, and just go back to the changes, then I look up and you ain’t even playing the drums, you just silently juggling! It’s distracting, man!
You don’t need to use a turkey call on Autumn Leaves. You over there using the turkey call, I look up and we got seventeen wild turkeys in the club! They knocking over drinks, flying all over the place, and instead of trying to rectify the situation you grab one and start making it peck on the snare! How you gonna destroy your own snare with a wild turkey? It ain’t practical! You sold all your ADD medication to buy that snare! You ain’t got no more, that much is obvious. How you going to finance another snare? Don’t hold up those llama toes, man, that ain’t no kinda answer. -----
Anyway, the night wasn’t all for naught, as Rick got his first glimpse of a tanchaz, a type of crazy folkdancing party where Hungarian hipsters, dancers and party animals drink and smoke and perform complicated folk dances:
Sing-along outside Tanchaz at Reviczky in Budapest
This is actual video of what we saw at the tanchaz Friday. High tech!
P.S. Hooray America!
**(Our friends in Barmaljova and their visiting bandmate, great musicians all, did NOT second my emotion about this drummer, and they probably know better than me. So comedy aside, there is controversy on this point.)
Rick and I didn’t always have a lot in common. When we first got together, he was fronting a punk band called Weeping Anus. I was staging a whimsical clown show in which people salsa danced with six-foot-tall forks. But we’ve always had Halloween.
Rick inherits his love of Halloween from his dad, who at the ripe old age of 50 was still buying mortician’s wax and yak hair for his Wolf Man costume. For me Halloween has always been about costumes that felt like a good idea, but never quite got off the ground: a horse (first grade); a mini-refrigerator filled with popsicle boxes (third grade); and “Budget Dracula” (junior year college), a costume consisting of a pink wig, magic marker unibrow and moustache, and wool blanket.
In New York, Rick was always a zombie. Over the years his costume grew more and more elaborate. Fake blood, latex wounds, sodium bicarbonate to simulate foaming at the mouth, rice krispy maggots feasting on rotting flesh. When the costume couldn’t get any more elaborate, we mustered a Zombie Army to march in the Village Halloween Parade. A team of scientists from the Center for Zombie Control, equipped with white jackets, Zombie Zappers, and So You’ve Been Attacked By a Zombie pamphlets, herded a mob of the undead. When the zombies attacked the crowd, the scientists controlled them the only way they knew how: by playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The best part was, every single time the Zombies performed their Thriller dance, some random fellow-parader threw caution to the wind and joined in. Over the course of the parade we danced with two hoochies in devil horns, Luigi from Super Mario Brothers, a naked guy, Ace Frehley from KISS, and a roller skating chicken.
How do you follow an act like that, a continent away from home, in a country where no one gives a rat’s ass about Halloween? You go to Transylvania.
And Transylvania is beautiful. The Carpathians are covered in autumn leaves. The train takes you through little towns where horse-drawn carts draw loads of hay, shepherds pipe in distant fields, and people harvest by hand. There are crumbling factories and commie apartment blocks, the color of grey October. You eat stag stew and drink homemade liquor out of plastic water bottles.
Like most visitors, we went to Bran (“Dracula’s”) Castle and browsed its kitsch carnival of a souvenir market, where vendors make a killing on Dracula’s Blood wine and Vlad the Impaler coffee mugs. Later we hiked up a steep, winding path through thick pine forest to reach nearly deserted Rasnov castle. At the top of the mountain, a horse wandered through the ruins, grazing beneath a crow’s cage swinging in the wind.
The history associated with these castles is important enough regionally, but it’s not what tourists come to see. The American image of Transylvania has nothing to do with reality. Transylvania is the magical realm of the horror movie, land of dark monsters and blackest night. It is the opposite of historical—it’s timeless. To their great credit, Transylvanians are amused and intrigued by the American obsession with their land. They’ve graciously left history out of their attractions, to let the imagination roam wild. Bran Castle is furnished with a hodgepodge of baroque chairs, twentieth century bearskin rugs, medieval candlesticks, anything grotesque and foreboding. Let’s be clear: this castle has nothing to do with Dracula, who never existed, and nothing to do with Vlad the Impaler. The Romanians know this, they know you know—and they know you don’t care, because imagination is a million times better than dry reality.
Halloween found us in Sighisoara, “Pearl of the Carpathians,” supposed birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. All day long we saw Americans on Dracula Tours: a plump girl with pink hair and glasses, bikers in Halloween Beer Fest t-shirts, a long-haired man in a black silk frock coat, a couple of trenchcoated D&D kids bemoaning Romania’s dearth of Guiness and Cheetoes. I’m not going to lie: I sort of fell in love with them as a group. I mean, you NEVER see Americans like that in Budapest. We wanted to hang out with them that night—if you can’t do it on Halloween, when can you?—but when night fell, Sighisoara was completely dead. Silent. Nothing happened. Crushed, I dragged Rick back to the hostel and made him tell me scary stories.
The next day was an idyllic, sunny November 1. We wandered around the old Saxon graveyard and hiked along the medieval city walls, talking of cabbages and kings. We told ourselves that even if we hadn’t partied on Halloween, at least we were in Transylvania.
And then night fell.
On the way back from dinner with a nice Swiss backpacker, we heard distant screams. I rushed through the gate of the clock tower and found a mob of people in medieval garb, beating drums and hauling around a terrified woman in a torn shift. Three film crews eagerly recorded it all. Naturally I had to know what the hell was going on. A drummer in a bald cap and peasant shirt explained that this was a reenactment of a witch trial in 1026, but it was over now. He sounded a drumroll to emphasize his point. Disappointed but undeterred, I looked around for someone who might know more. One quiet, solitary man with an air of authority was hiking off towards the main square.
MY ACTUAL CONVERSATION WITH THIS ROMANIAN GUY
Sarah: Excuse me, sir, but are you involved in this? Is it over? Romanian Man: Yes, now the witch will be kept in the tower dungeon, until it is her turn to burn at the stake. Her journey is finished. But now…now we go underground, to the cellars of Sighisoara. And there, at midnight, the new Countess Dracula will be crowned. (Sarah gapes, dumbfounded.) Romanian Man: If you like, you will join us. Sarah:(hastily) Yes, yes, we would love that! Romanian Man:(stopping in his tracks) We are the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. (bows) You are Welcome. Sarah:(mouths silently) YESSSSSSSSS!!!
And so we descend into an ancient cellar. There are Americans there in full-on, elaborate costume: not just vampires, but Scooby Doo, a headless man and a mad scientist. A female monk explains that tomorrow, God willing, they will all be inducted as knights of the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. The film crews are already drunk and dancing. The anchorwoman of the Filipino crew (“Miss Universe 1999! A very intelligent woman!” someone tells me) boogies with an elated Romanian waiter. A cheerful reporter from Bucharest shouts “If you think this is good you should see the party next door! There are some real freaks over there!”
And indeed there are. In the cellar next door are scores of completely blasted Americans: cowboys, jesters, princesses, vinyl queens, Elvira. Beneath the fake cobwebs and dancing fake skeletons, they’re dancing their hearts out to Love Shack, La Isla Bonita and Up In the Club: “Go Shorty, it’s your birthday, we gonna drink Bacardi like it’s your birthday...” Prince comes on. An obviously straight, Midwestern transvestite dances on a chair. The helpful hotel staff—safety first—brings him a table to dance on instead. A man in a top hat clambers onto the table and the crowd cheers as the two bump and grind. Our Swiss pal flees in horror. An elf swing dances with a break dancer. A mental patient does the twist.
Rick observes sadly that these people have come all the way from America to transform a real Transylvanian cellar into a New Jersey rec room. But it’s something more than that. These are the people who always had the most fun at the costume party, the people who dressed up for Halloween at the office. They’re not cool. Their costumes have always been a little bit too elaborate, a little too thought out. They try too hard. And here, for the first time, there’s no one to spoil the party. They’ve all brought their costumes thousands of miles, they’ve all scrimped and saved, and here they all are, for one night only, dancing the night away in Transylvania. This is what we’ve all come for, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: a Halloween Hajj.
Back at the Dracula party, Countess Dracula—an airhead Romanian teenager—emerges from the shadows, languidly showing off the new bite marks on her neck. “Was it good for you?” Scooby Doo shouts, and the Americans cackle. The journalists eagerly interview the Countess. Now a team of Romanian teenagers in medieval garb rushes into the room and starts square dancing to a techno version of Cotton Eyed Joe. The Bucharest journalist yells over the din, “Romania is the Fifty Third American state!” A vampire with shaved head, painted contacts and glued-on fangs flirts with the Countess. There’s a conga line. The electric slide is danced. The Macarena. And suddenly, the party is over.
The next day, we take the train home. In the dark countryside out the window, we see the flicker of candles in a graveyard. All Saints’ Day. Back home at last, I look at my calendar: November 1. We had totally screwed up the dates; we never missed Halloween at all. “Rick! Yesterday was Halloween! Yesterday really was Halloween!”
Rick and I are off to Romania, and doubtful we'll get a chance to update. Tune in, same bat time, same bat station, after November 3.
If you are in NYC, make sure to catch (or join) the Zombie Army as it terrorizes the Village Halloween Parade, rocking the Thriller dance all the way. We'll be there with you in spirit, guys . . . Stay Sick.
Rick and I are in the process of planning our Halloween trip to Transylvania. We're heading to Dracula's home town, and so perhaps we should have expected that even in the process of planning, we would be sickened. Horrified. Frightened. Even disgusted. Yes...yes...perhaps we should have expected that. But we never could have expected THIS:
From the website of the Kismet Dao Hostel, Romania:
Why not try The Shagging Room? A private room with a queen sized metal framed bed, dresser, TV and a balcony. The Sun rises on this side for an easier morning shag. Many Towels provided. 3rd floor.
Eeeeeeew. Many Towels...
OK, I'll make the joke so you don't have to: "Children of the night. What Music they make."
Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. It’s a big, big deal. Every museum in town is hosting an exhibit on the revolution, people everywhere are wearing the Hungarian colors. The city is covered in symbols of the uprising: Hungarian flags with a hole cut where the hammer and sickle had once was.
The anniversary also falls in the midst of a major political crisis, originally provoked by leaked tapes of the Socialist PM admitting he and his party lied . The conservative party Fidesz wants the Prime Minister to resign. At the very least they’d like a national vote to recall him. The Prime Minister says this would be anti-democratic. Fidesz calls the Socialists the spiritual heirs of the Soviets. The Socialists portray themselves as enacting tough reforms, bringing Hungary up to EU economic code.
It’s no surprise that Fidesz wanted to hold a rally today. The government tried to get them to change their minds. They refused. I can’t pretend I fully understand the situation. Here’s what Rick and I have witnessed:
-Yesterday we visited a 1956-themed street fair in a part of town. It was by Corvin circle, right near our house; somehow I never associated the plaques adorning this circle with past tragedies. It was a great event: accordions, classic cars, a 1956 museum, kids playing on giant Soviet guns. There was even a “movie-shoot” vacant lot. Kids dressed up in “revolutionary” style jackets that hung down to their knees and climbed on old Soviet tanks. Parents snapped photos. Adorable. Rick and I reflected that this was the best possible use for tanks.
-Today the mood was different. Around noon I returned to the same spot, where there was either a rally or official commemoration. Hundreds of people. I saw a pack of about 10 skinheads. Lots of Hungarian flags, including one with an outline of “greater Hungary” and one paired (bizarrely) with a confederate flag. People were shouting “Kossuth Ter!” That’s the name of the square in front of Parliament, scene of recent protest activity, which police cleared for today’s commemorative events. I got creeped out and turned home. It seemed like some protesters were trying to inspire the crowd to march towards Parliament. There was an angry mood in the air—excitable and nervous. A little later on television, I saw police and protesters clashing on this street.
-Also on Hungarian TV: police lob tear gas at protesters and shoot rubber bullets. Usually the Berkeley in me knee-jerks “pig!” at this kind of news, but I am so clueless (and so freaked out any time I see skinheads) that I actually don’t know who to be more scared of, police or protesters. Also on TV, protesters steal one of those Soviet tanks (!) and drive on police. I actually found that reassuring. In America if someone stole a tank they would be killed. The fact that they got away with it here made me feel like the violence can’t be so extreme.
-Not weird enough for you? Also on Hungarian TV: official 1956 commemoration ceremonies, much like the opening ceremony for a summer olympics. A ballet dancer in a silver unitard, suspended from a hot air balloon, floats in front of Parliament, photographs of doomed 56 protesters projected onto her bubble.
-Rick and I took an after-dinner walk. Do these protests just feel like a bigger deal because they are closer to our apartment? At the main intersection near our house (home of our metro stop) there’s a phalanx of policemen with riot shields. We walked a bit towards the center of the city and ran into a big protest at Ferenciek Tere. Huge flags, floodlit streets, lots of people. We hear the pop of what we think are tear gas canisters, yet folks seem to be running towards, not away from the scene. No one seems very scared (although many seem drunk.) Later, back at home, we see this scene repeated around the city on television.
Hungarian, they tell me, is full of word play and double entendres, almost impossible to capture in translation. But I sure do love it when they try.
From a free Budapest weekly magazine with a couple English articles:
ONE SWALLOW ISN'T ENOUGH FOR SUPPER
Women tend to do things they have no stomach for. At least, it is said so. According to the rules of evolution, doing things you have no stomach for should result in growing that stomach, shouldn’t it? Anyway, certain women should really have more than one stomach to have enough place for all the things they eat. For example, men. They do have the stomach for them!
I cannot think of a more dangerous creature than a woman yearning for a poor and unsuspicious creature, a man. At first she has butterflies in her stomach, then she butters the man up, then comes the phase of flying into a rage (it is not done by the butterflies!) and in the end comes the attack! Sometimes this process makes men happy. Sometimes not.
If you ask me, there are few things more exciting than sneaking behind a woman who is standing barefoot in front of the open fridge, with a pickle in one hand and a chicken leg in the other. I am very hot on meeting this type of women, even though they might eat cold stew right from the pot. I’ve also got to confess that watching a woman biting grape off the bunch fires me up. A woman with her mouth full of food means not only a good company, owing to her being unable to speak at that moment, but also a pleasant spectacle. Don’t you believe me? Then believe your eyes.
According to the old saying, the way to a man’s heart leads through his stomach. Chefs know that it goes for the way to the woman’s heart, as well. Should you be in the black books of your beloved one or wish to pick a chic chick up—take her to a restaurant. Though eating out only once might not be enough, you can be sure she swallows the bait and a supper together will surely be super.
News Flash: Our Budapest friend Inna’s mom just bought a ticket, non-stop from NYC to Budapest, for $500. Another friend has found a March ticket for $400…
So yesterday was my “day off” from writing and I spent most of it at the Szechenyi baths in City Park. For those of you who don’t know, Budapest is famous for its natural thermal baths. Going to the baths is a national pastime—Hungarians are serious about it. Each bath has a menu of options, not just swimming pools, saunas and thermal baths but massages, mud baths, and a whole universe of treatments that I have never heard of, but which sound like they might involve electricity. The beautiful part is the baths are incredibly cheap, so anyone can and does go: grandmas, tourists, mechanics, businessmen, young mothers, teenagers. In fact some Hungarian companies give employees bath vouchers as a benefit (jealous).
This was my second Budapest bath experience. The first was the Gellert baths—those are the ridiculously lavish baths in Buda where Matthew Barney filmed the last installment of the Cremaster cycle.
Here’s what they have going for them: -Crazy elaborate mosaics, gorgeous statues, sculpted pillars, painted ceilings, fancy wallpaper -Art nouveau overload -Pool of sparkling water -Turn-of-the-century outdoor wave pool -Classy sunbathing terraces -Feeling like you’re in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion
The Szechenyi baths are a tiny bit more proletarian, but still housed in a palatial building in the center of a peaceful park.
Advantages: -Beautiful outdoor swimming pools, complete with neoclassical sculpture fountains -Old Men playing chess in the hottest outdoor thermal pool -Amusement park whirly ride periodically appears above bath roof -Current pool that carries you around in whirlpool style -Labyrinth of indoor pools and indoor saunas, all different temperatures. I couldn’t find the end of the baths. Perhaps they don’t end.
I’m just saying, bring your swimsuit.
Post Script: The other day we passed by some Americans, having the Quintessential American in Budapest conversation:
American Dude 1: So, the bar was like, three bucks. Dinner was…what, that whole dinner was, fuckin', seven bucks. The ice cream is… American Dude 2: 50 cents. No, less. American Dude 3:(drunk) You guys, my dad is like, really rich. He’s really…he’s just rich.
It was sort of charming, in a way. At least it wasn’t the Quintessential British Stag Party in Budapest conversation:
British Bloke 1:(drunk) Did you see the teats on that one? I like that! Fancy a shag with her, mate. British Bloke 2:(also drunk) They do dress like sweet whores here, don’t they? Jesus, Mary and Joseph. (vomits.) British Bloke 3: (of course drunk) Better go to the baths tommorow lads, do a bit of a detox, wot?
And so the summer finally dies away, our neighbors break out their fall jackets, the days grow shorter and the leaves start falling. At three months in Hungary, I’ve reached an important mile-stone: my first non-embarassing encounter with the Bakery Bitch.
Hungarian is hard. It’s harder than most languages. It has eighty million vowels and words ten miles long. It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to learn enough Hungarian to get through simple shop transactions. Most vendors are good enough to bear with me while I grunt, point and draw pictures in a desperate effort to communicate. The Bakery Bitch, in contrast, appears to take great pleasure in my discomfort. She rolls her eyes, smirks, and and makes snarky comments to her coworkers with. Imagine her shock when I rolled in this morning, told her exactly what I wanted, gave her correct change without checking the cash register, and thanked her politely in perfectly functional Hungarian.
TODAY’S COMPLETELY SILENT AND SUBTEXTUAL BAKERY DIALOGUE
Sarah orders in Hungarian
Bakery Bitch: (taken aback) Well, surprise, surprise. It talks!
Sarah: That’s right! You heard me! You know what that was, that was flawless Hungarian! You Know How We Roll! BIOTTTCH!
Bakery Bitch hands Sarah her rolls.
Bakery Bitch: She seems pleased with herself. But what will she do when I ring her up…in Hungarian?
Sarah: Sucka! I already added it up in my head! I KNOW the price, I don’t HAVE to understand you! UHHH! How’s it feel? How’s it feel? Oh, you got served! (Sarah mentally does the cabbage patch)
Sarah pays. Bakery Bitch hands Sarah her change.
Bakery Bitch: Whatever. She still talks funny.
Sarah: I am the Ruler of the Universe.
As the bard says, Today Was a Good Day. Rick fixed our window and figured out how to turn on our heat. I wrote freelance stuff, ate a delicious restaurant lunch with Rick, and went to bluegrass practice. God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world.
My dear friend Colleen is currently in her last year of graduate school, earning an MFA in choreography at a very prestigious school. She recently wrote:
“It's been an exciting two years and I've come a long way with my work as an artist. My long time collaborator, Karen Ivy, and I have been dabbling in the art of dance videos. We recently finished a project we've been conceptualizing for quite some time. We feel it has real promise. I've included the link below for you all to view, what I feel, is my best work yet.”
The video she sent was, quite simply, stunning. I decided that it had to be shared.
As you all know, I hate pretentiousness. But the power of this video demands serious discussion. Colleen’s postmodern critique of workplace culture deconstructs the physical language of the office environment by juxtaposing it with raw urban culture and colliding it with traditional gender stereotypes (giggling, jiggling, wiggling). The exuberance, the spirit, and the unbridled energy of the movement is a searing commentary on the taylorization of the workplace. The use of mass media uncompromisingly condemns the society of spectacle. When the only possible expression is the meaningless, when only the ironic is heartfelt, when only the commercial is touching, when only the irreverant is relevant—what then of mens' souls? This is a grim yet Important work that should send shockwaves through the dance world.
Please, take the time to watch this very important video:
Advanced choreography at OSU
Colleen is the performer wearing the striped costume. And to think, my last collaboration with her was a clown piece about rubber chickens! How far she’s come.
In honor of Friday the Thirteenth, I’m posting something I wrote just before the demonstrations and then never posted. Enjoy. Halloween is almost here! Transylvania here we come!
One of Budapest’s many pleasures is the Dracula building. Walk along almost any alley and you’ll find blackening old buildings slowly crumbling into dust. Oxidizing in the sun, caked in pollution, they drop cupid limbs like lepers. In neighborhoods of perky, pastel, disneyified restored buildings, Dracula buildings are menacing and ancient and evil. Suitable headquarters for the local gang of comic book villains, a good place to launch the neighborhood Satanic Youth Center.
This one is Dracuguese.
But without question, one building reigns supreme as Budapest’s Most Draculish Building. That building is Hungarian Parliament.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Hungary is run by a Parliament of Draculas. They flock to this, their stronghold, by night. Millions of flapping bat wings resound through the city as they shriek through the Parliament’s belfries. Some waft beneath the heavy oak doors in a sickly green fog. Others, taking the form of enormous wolves, leap through the arched gothic windows and land wild-eyed, snarling and slobbering in their seats. In the dim artificial light of the dome, a million red slitted eyes glint sinister. Thin red lips smile curl into contemptuous half-smiles. The air resounds with the sound of air hissing though a thousand sets of small, sharp fangs.
“I protesssssst. Thisssss bill is pure pork-barrel politicsssss!” “Oh pleassssse. What about your highway bill last Sssssseptember? If it hadn’t been an election year, that never would have passsssssed!” “Gentlemen, pleassssse! Remember, the Blood Bank is this nation’sssssss most vital ressssssssource…for DRACULAS!”
The gentle citizens of Budapest huddle terrified behind their sturdy doors, clutching rustic braids of garlic, waiting for the danger to pass. One day they will finally rise and march in a great, pale, torch-lid mob towards Parliament’s forbidding doors. Till then, we shudder when we look towards the horizon and see its dark towers jutting like fangs towards the night sky.
Just before I left New York, Garth gave me a going-away present. It was a little book called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. He told me perhaps you will like this book, it is all about being a writer in Europe and knowing terribly interesting people and having terribly interesting conversations and then writing all about it. And it is a charming book to read on a Sunday first in bed and then on the porch and later in bed again. In this book Gertrude Stein tells about her famous friends Picasso and Braque and Juan Gris and Apollinaire, and how they came over for dinner and said something very witty, and how they remembered it years later when they met again in Italy. It is all amusing and very good gossip but the problem and it is a big problem is that one starts to think like Gertrude Stein. It is all well and good for Gertrude Stein to think like Gertrude Stein but it is somewhat less appropriate for others who are not Gertrude Stein to think in her voice. One gets to look at the little episodes in one’s life as if they were stories being told by Gertrude Stein in this book or in any other book any book that is written by Gertrude Stein.
For instance just yesterday Rick was at his computer where he is very often and as he often does he said listen to this, I have found something to listen to. It was a song about The Blob called Beware of The Blob sung by The Five Blobs. It was a very silly song with silly words about how The Blob creeps and creeps and seeps. It was in short utterly charming and I sang it to myself for days afterwards. Then again today Rick at his computer said look at this you must come look at this I have found something else. Do you remember that song about The Blob and of course I did remember that song about The Blob well that song was written by Burt Bacharach, he said, that is why you remember it so well.
So like I say, Rick and I just got back from Vienna. I have to say that traveling with the boy is a completely unique experience. He’s willing to go to palaces and to the opera as long as we can also check out the collection of medical oddities on the outskirts of town. But whatever we see, he always has a verdict that catches me off guard.
A few days ago we saw Roberto Devereaux at the Vienna Staatsoper. Great opera, retarded production. You could practically hear the director thinking: “It’s definitely about Queen Elizabeth, so I can’t just set it on Mars like usual. But period is so dull, dull, dull. I’ve got it! The main characters will wear Elizabethan costume. But the CHORUS will wear bowler hats and suits! They’ll stand around with creepily, like a bunch of narcs going to a Magritte costume party. And we’ll set it in …in…a parking garage! It’s brilliant!” The opera’s final image was a three-story clear plastic sculpture of Queen Elizabeth, all lit up like a Rite Aid Santa Claus, which rattled and lurched towards the alarmed front row.
Rick’s verdict: It reminded me of playing pinball when I was little. You know, you have those favorite games. And my favorite game was Pinbot. I got really good at it, and I scored a lot. Then they came out with Bride of Pinbot. Sarah: Wait, why did this remind you of pinball? Rick: The big statue at the end. Bride of Pinbot. That’s all I could think about.
The next day we went to the Imperial Treasury to see the Hapsburgs’ crown jewels. Highlights: the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the spear that poked Jesus on the cross, and a 9-foot tall Unicorn Horn. Not to mention a fuckoff amount of gold and jewels, the type of jewels that have names.
Rick’s verdict: To tell you the truth, I just kept thinking about Santo Gold. Sarah: Wait, what’s Santo Gold? Rick: He was this 80’s conman who figured out a way to gold-plate things. He started a company called Santo Gold that sold gold-plated chains. He made all these cheap late-night infomercials for Santo Gold. Then he spent 2 million dollars to make a movie about Santo Gold. He wrote it, directed it, and starred in it, as rock star Santo Gold, who sings the theme song, entitled the “Santo Gold Theme Song.” Sarah: What was the plot? Rick: Well no one’s ever seen it. I don't think it ever got into movie theaters. But it was called Blood Circus and apparently it was a “science fiction comedy” about wrestling.
Interested? So was I. Don’t you love how you can find anything on You Tube?
The Hapsburg Treasury and Santo Gold: you know, without Rick I never would have made that connection.
Rick and I just returned from a short jaunt to Vienna, the “Paris of the East.” It’s chock-full of palaces and castles and museums—much larger, more elegant, and expensive than Budapest. Of course, Austria is a Western European, wealthy, capitalist state, while Hungary is an Eastern European, post-communist, poor state. Both cities have their charm, but their cultures are very different. It’s kind of like—well, let’s just let the wildlife speak for itself.
Vienna bears enjoy fanciful tea parties dressed in colorful folk costumes.
Budapest bears are pressured from childhood to win Olympic glory…
...or sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, simply for looking too much like wolves.
Vienna bears promonade happily hand in hand, showing off that extravagant little parasol they picked up somewhere.
Budapest bears are forced to the front before they’re even big enough to hold a gun.
Vienna bears enjoy forming pop bands with precious miniature musical instruments.
Budapest bears crouch in the corner, wearing the helmet and gas mask they stripped off a dead Nazi, just praying they get a chance to take some fascists down before they die.
Callous Vienna bears run happily over the proletariat.
There are no more bears left in Budapest. Only frightened dolls…
...and bloodthirsty, man-eating horses.
All photographs taken on location in Vienna and Budapest. No bears were harmed in the making of this post.
Last night approximately 50,000 protesters demonstrated in front of Hungarian Parliament, demanding the resignation of the entire cabinet. So how can my life remain so unaffected? The protests—and especially the few violent clashes—have been all over Hungarian TV. But most of the action is on the other side of the city center, far from our little apartment. (Imagine there are protests in Union Square and we live near South Street Seaport.)
We’ve walked down to Parliament to see the handful of daytime protesters, but most of the protests are at night. We’ve seen TV crews interviewing students near the main University. We’ve heard sirens during the night. But other than that life is normal. The line at the Szuper Dizscount is too long. You’ll encounter the random marching band or wedding procession on back streets. You still have to hunt for seats at Szimpla. People go about their business calmly. It’s possible that everyone is talking about nothing but the protests—but I’d really have no way of knowing that.
Intrigued by the contrast between street reality and TV pageant, I’ve been interrogating all English speakers I know. “Is it true that a lot of these protesters are right-wingers?” Hungarian Zoltan: Oh yes, they are all right-wing. The socialists and the left wing are also angry, but they would rather have the left in power than these conservatives and nationalists. They are all liars anyway. UK Ben: My English students are all upset, no matter what their party. I don’t think it’s sectarian. Then again, they’re teenagers. Hungarian Zoltan: All the violence is from football hooligans who just want to fight. They don’t need an excuse. These reforms will need to be made no matter what. The budget needs to be cut, and the economy has got to be reformed. The socialists say that they need to raise taxes and cut benefits. The right wing says it will cut the budget by cutting taxes and raising benefits. It’s impossible.
It gets more complicated the more you learn about it. It doesn’t help that Hungarian political parties don’t necessarily mirror their American counterparts. Here’s what I’ve gleaned: the nationalists are socially conservative, sort of like our Republicans. But they are for the welfare state and giving hand-outs. The socialists are socially liberal, like our democrats, but are allied with free-market liberals—they want to remove government controls on the economy and say that the welfare state as it exists now is not sustainable.
Thank god we’ve found Pestiside.hu, a sort of English-language Village Voice for Budapest.:
We’ve been watching a lot of BBC. They seem to be as puzzled by the situation as we are, and have concerned themselves mostly with how the press is covering the event.
Serious Blonde BBC Anchorlady: One side says one thing, one thing says the other. Who is telling the truth? Only one thing is certain, 50 years after the uprisings against communism, there are rioters in the streets of Budapest once again. I have here with me the Hungarian ambassador to the EU. Ambassador, what do the protestors want? Ambassador: They want the prime minister and cabinet to resign. BBC: And why haven’t they resigned? Ambassador: Well, it is a complex situation. The Prime Minister feels— BBC: There ARE thousands of people in the streets, aren’t there? Does the government not care what the people want? Amassador: Yes, but we have to see that this is all happening within a context. The economy— BBC: In a sense, this is much like Hungary’s 15 minutes of fame, is it not? This is your country’s time in the sun. Ambassador: Some type of coverage is the wrong type. This is a very complex story and— BBC: A complex context, too often ignored by the press. Everyone has an opinion, and there are many sides to the story. Is the international press doing its job? Are we really getting the full story? Ambassador: We are getting…one side of the story. BBC: Indeed. Will there still be international interest in this story when the protesters are gone? Will the press disappear the moment the story is over? I, for one, don’t intend to follow it.
Coming Soon: Rosh Hashanah in Budapest and Sarah’s First Hungarian Bluegrass Gig
Why did people riot in the streets of my new city last night?
So the Hungarian Prime Minister was caught on tape admitting that he and his socialist government flat-out lied to win the recent elections—not just lied once, but lied repeatedly, lied about everything, “lied in the morning and lied at night.” Moreover, he said it was completely obvious to anyone paying attention that he had been lying. He basically confirmed that all of his political opponents’ criticisms of him were correct. He said himself that his government had not done one positive thing for the country during their entire time in power. According to him, only sheer, dumb luck had kept the nation’s finances from completely collapsing. The tape is full of obscenities—the PM swears like a sailor.
It’s really hard to imagine the magnitude of this. What is this like?
Imagine Bush was caught on tape talking to the cabinet. “Well, boys, it’s a damn good thing we paid off those crooked veterans to lie about that assfucker Kerry, otherwise we never would have won the fucking election, no matter how many dicklicking votes we stole. We’ve been lying through our teeth day in and day out about Iraq, which is so far up shit creek it’s hit shit glacier. Invading Iraq was one of the stupidest and worst thought-out things anyone has ever done, ever. Talk about lack of planning! Whoa, Nelly! We don’t know how to get out, we never did, we never will. Of course we’ve been lying about the economy, which we’ve fucked so hard it needs surgery. And the war on terror! The stupidest hillbilly in Texas can see that the cocksucking war on terror is just an excuse to seize totalitarian executive power! I just can’t believe we’re actually getting away with it all! This country is our bitch, boys, and we’re putting her on the stroll...I’ll tell you one other thing too, she’s going to stay on that corner until I get my motherfucking money!”
At least in the Hungarian tape, the PM says that he’s tired of lying and that the country has got to be turned around in a major way—it’s so candid that some have even suggested he leaked the tape himself. Can’t imagine that ending to the hypothetical American version.
Last night at around midnight, Rick was taking a walk and saw fire trucks and policemen headed towards Heros' Square. He grew uneasy, and wondered if he should go up there, but decided not to. A little later he saw a bunch of kids with Hungarian flags and figured it must be a soccer rally. Remember, we just got here and we know barely any Hungarians--we don't speak the language and watch, but can't understand, Hungarian TV--we've had no time to learn about politics here. In the middle of the night last night we heard fire engines and then heard our neighbors' TVs being switched on. This morning: "wait, What????"
From the BBC's website today:
Budapest clashes as protest grows
Police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators Police in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, have used tear gas and water cannon against protesters who threw bottles and stones and set cars alight. Thousands of demonstrators had gathered in the city, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. After several hours the police withdrew, allowing protesters to break into the state television headquarters.
The protests follow Mr Gyurcsany's admission that his Socialist government told lies to win a general election.
The BBC's Nick Thorpe, in central Budapest, says the trouble at the state television station began when a small group of protesters who had spent the day outside parliament tried to hand in a petition. A clash with riot police ensued and the square rapidly filled with mainly young people, some waving Hungarian flags.
"Nothing like this has happened since 1956," one young protester told Reuters news agency, referring to Hungary's failed uprising against Soviet rule in October 1956.
[...] Mr Gyurcsany's comments were heard in a tape of a meeting he had with his MPs a few weeks after April's election. It is not clear how the tape was leaked. In excerpts broadcast on state radio, Mr Gyurcsany says harsh economic reforms are needed. He thanks "divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks" for keeping the economy above board. In a speech sprinkled with obscenities, Mr Gyurcsany says: "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening." The prime minister has received the backing of Socialist MPs who on Monday voted unanimously to support him.
However, Hungary's President, Laszlo Solyom, said Mr Gyurcsany had created a "moral crisis", and opposition parties have called for his resignation.
Matyas Oersi, an MP with the Free Democrat Party - the junior coalition partner in the government - told the BBC: "It's a surprise - though understandable - that the people are angry at a political leader who, for the first time, is telling the truth: that the whole political class was lying."
Local elections are scheduled in two weeks' time. The Socialists and their liberal coalition allies are trailing Fidesz in the polls.
I visited Budapest two times before moving here. The first time was in 1999 with a certain Emily J. Farmhouse. After our previous two stops, London and Amsterdam, Budapest felt like the end of the world. It wasn’t prettified or squeaky clean. The train took us past blackening communist block houses, and boarded up factories. The old mansions we saw were crumbling in the heat, the streets were wide but quiet, empty. There were graffiti murals—good ones—on the cement trainyard walls. Because I am a sucker for anything that smacks of Indiana Jones, we laid down good money to visit the Labyrinth, a maze of secret medieval tunnels hidden beneath the castle district. All there really was to discover down there was a series of awkward life-size “spiritual” dioramas (for instance, “The Court For Shadows” and “Spirit Hunt”). Mud-colored mannequins tried desperately to look medieval while tinny speakers piped in synthesized flute. It was all fun and games until the lights went out. We were caught in the pitch pitch dark, groping along walls and calling out for help. After a half hour I was convinced we’d have to spend the night down there. Luckily the resourceful Farmhouse located some German tourists who had paid extra for the Lantern Labyrinth Experience. They took pity on us and lighted our way to the exit.
I’m making the city sound horrible, but it actually just felt undiscovered, off the map. The second time I visited was last summer, when Rick and I stayed with Ben, who was in his first year of the master’s program at CEU. Living alone in a palatial apartment, he was eating and drinking very little, but reading and smoking a lot. He took us on a series of long curlicue walks—really jogs—through the city. Down to the Danube, back up to city park, over to the synagogue, to the island park, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Crazy outdoor club/sculpture garden, bar in a bombed-out warehouse, talk, talk, talk. Medieval guilds, Derrida, Palestine, Artaud, Is Johnny Depp Actually a Good Actor—it was hard to keep up, both mentally and physically. Ben had done no sightseeing and had no interest in starting. We brought him to what may have been his first Budapest tourist attraction, the communist sculpture park. It turns out that after communism, the city tore down the bulk of its soviet monuments. They would have been sold for scrap metal, but luckily one enterprising businessman bought them all up, put them in a fenced-in park, and started charging western tourists money to see them.
Those two big trips were all about big differences. Now that I’m living here I love the process of discovering the small but subtle differences. We’ve gotten used to living a couple blocks from the Danube, seeing eye-bleedingly beautiful buildings on every corner, walking to the 19th century thermal baths—now it’s the small things that seem exotic. A partial and incomplete list:
-Budapest is full of ice cream. Everyone eats it, and it is dirt cheap and good.
-People have no understanding of how to walk in crowds here. They ride bikes through huge crowds of people, don’t watch where they’re going, stop dead in front of busy metro doors.
-Because it’s so cheap to fly to Budapest from London, the city is full of British stag parties every weekend. Often, the bachelors dress up in matching t-shirts (“Craig’s Last Stand”) or even outfits (superheroes, transvestites, janitors, deer.)
-The school next to our house has no bell; it signals the end of periods by playing little opera arias on what sounds like a car horn.
-Cherry juice, cherry soup, cherry soda. Paprika in everything.
-Dixieland is everywhere.
-Fooseball in most bars.
-Some Budapesters (I’m reluctant to even write this) put ketchup on their pizza. Eeew!
-Assigned seats in movie theaters.
-Underpasses not crosswalks. Most underpasses have casino/bars.
-Dental Tourism. It’s major.
-All apartments have lofts.
-Exhibits on theater history in multiple metro stations. (!!)
-If you want to find the closest violin store (like, say, yesterday) just walk out your door and head in a general direction. When you see someone with a violin case (and you will, guaranteed, within 10 minutes) just ask them where the nearest violin shop is. They will give you 2-3 options.
Why must posts have an ending? This one could go on for months.
Today Rick told me one of the best stories I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s about one Ms. Pam Grier (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Foxy Brown, Coffey, Scream Blacula Scream). Apparently back in the 70’s, Ms. Grier was shooting a movie called The Arena, in which she played a badass sex bomb gladiator. In the movie’s finale, she was supposed to ride a giant horse up to the camera, with no bit and no reins.
Pam rides her horse up to the mark and stops. A cheeky crew member decides to play cute by smacking the horse on the ass. The horse freaks out, gallops off the soundstage, and starts streaking through the studio. Pam, who is riding bareback in a tiny leopard skin bikini, must grab the horse’s mane and hold on for dear life.
In a sublime coincidence, FELLINI is shooting Amarcord on the studio that day. He’s shooting some very subdued scene, when suddenly the now-topless, afro-ed, leopard-skin bottomed Pam Grier charges onto his set on a rearing white horse, screaming at the top of her lungs. Fellini stops the shoot, falls to his knees, and screams “My dream come true!”
It’s pretty strange to live in a place where you absolutely do not speak the language in any way shape or form. Here is my acquired Hungarian vocabulary so far:
Good Morning (but not good evening or goodbye) Thank You (but not please) Do You Speak English? Yes/No/Good Hello/Goodbye, for use on telephone (cheating, as it’s actually just “Allo”) Pardon (“pardon”) Soda (“szoda”) Sex (“szex”) 1, 2, 3 (but not 4-10) I would like…(point to the thing you want) Tomato Milk Pancake
This actually gets me through a surprising amount of interactions. The language barrier, however, keeps rearing its head in other ways.
For instance, on the second floor of our building is a mysterious office. It advertises itself with a cartoon of a smiling dinosaur in running shoes, but is constantly haunted by miserable young people. They smoke cigarettes sullenly, tag up the first floor stairwell, and avoid your gaze when you pass them in the courtyard. Outside the door, boys get in shouting matches with their fathers, couples comfort eachother, and young girls hiss urgently into their cellphones. Rick and I decided early on that it must be a rehab center or a parole office. I’ve even wondered if it was a family planning clinic. Well, yesterday we saw our landlady and asked her to solve the mystery. “It is a lady,” she started confidentially, “She helps the young people…with these things…how do you say this…where you give the money to the state…the tax. She helps easy with the taxes, for all the people. Her sign say, so easy the taxes, so quick, I make you good price, please I am better than the other lady.”
Today Rick reported that a woman in front of him in line at the Diszcount ABC bought 20 candy bars, all different brands and prices, then tried to pay with Hungarian food stamps. RICK: The checker started yelling at her. SARAH (not thinking): What did she say? RICK (giggling): VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY VASHTY!!!
At least we can’t hear anyone making fun of us as we stumble and fumble our way through life’s simplest interactions. Thank God for small mercies.