Friday, December 01, 2006

Lost in Translation (Part I)

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?”


dumneazu said...

Hey, pipe down, I'll bring you some krispy kremes in January. You shoulda gone to Tom Popper's for Thanksgiving. Darn. At least go for Xmas. And maybe the Fono for New Years' Eve. Stay busy. Everybody gets culture shock half a year through. And don't take the story about "they learned wrong" too literally until you've heard a band like Paltka (last week of every month at Fono.) Even most hungarians can't wrap their minds around it.

Garth said...

My old Tai Ji teacher used to tell the Tai Ji equivalent of the story of the band that learned the song wrong. I wonder how prevalent this myth is in different cultural traditions.

Homesickness sucks, but just remember how envious all your American friends are of your boho expat lifestyle.