Friday, January 19, 2007

Talk of the Nation

Well boys and girls, I’m back. I’m sorry that I’ve been AWOL; I’ve been working through some issues (“homesickness”) and just haven’t felt like touching the blog.

Here’s my issue: I loved being in France. Besides the incredible beauty of Paris and the joy of seeing old friends, I have never been more grateful for my 12 years of French class. After months in Hungary, it was like a miracle: I could talk to strangers… They understood me…I could understand them! Like discovering a superpower. In Hungary I am just a mute asshole, but in France I am…Communication Girl!

So returning to Budapest was a bit of a let-down. Especially when, just a few nights later, a pimply Hungarian scooping popcorn at the movie theater cursed us out.

SARAH: (speaking timidly in wretched half-Hungarian) Jó Esztet. Large popcorn keret?
SARAH: Uh…excuse me?
Awkward silence while Popcorn scooper scoops popcorn. Sarah turns, bewildered, to soda jerk girl.
SODA GIRL: I am sorry…it has been a long night.
SARAH: Do you know what that means?
SODA GIRL: Ha ha, I am sorry.

They weren’t that rude in PARIS! What the fuck? All of my perverse New Yorker pleasure in plotting revenge on strangers came rushing back. During the movie I forgot about the dueling magicians onscreen; I was imagining all the awesome caps I should have busted on him. Unfortunately the best revenge scenario involved cursing him out in Hungarian. By the next day I was in a full-fledged funk.

I have traveled a lot. Wherever I go, I always try to learn a little of the language, to learn a little of the music, to learn as much as I can of the history. When I was in Norway for two months (my longest previous stint in another country) I learned to speak and understand quite a bit of Norwegian, read Norwegian folktales, learned a little Norwegian fiddle. More importantly, I was living and working with a Norwegian group in a part of the country where there were no other Americans. But here, I feel cut off from Hungarian culture.

Why? I suppose because Rick and I saw ourselves originally fleeing New York, not necessarily moving to Hungary. We were just going somewhere where we’d have the time and space to write, away from the demands of super-absorbing overtime jobs, social obligations, the draining pace of the city. It didn’t help that our friend Ben, our original Budapest host and the generous facilitator of our move, lived in monkish isolation from the rest of the city, living and breathing his studies, sometimes barely even eating. In two years in Budapest he learned just a handful of Hungarian words and sometimes didn’t venture out of his apartment for months at a time. Hungarian culture was just not a part of his life. We admired his focus and concentration and wanted to emulate it. And then, everyone we met discouraged us from trying to learn Hungarian: “Listen, unless you’re planning on being here three years or more, don’t even bother.”

So somehow this January I woke up and realized: I don’t understand the first thing about Hungarian culture, it’s still a total mystery to me. I know the barest amount about Hungarian history. I don’t understand shit about the language. I know some good music venues, I have some favorite Hungarian musicians, but I don’t really understand how to listen to Hungarian music yet. I finally realized that the only way for me to stop being homesick—to make my living here more than just an exotic artistic retreat—is to learn the culture here. To learn to love it.

So I have broken out my long-neglected Hungarian language courses (two of them). I’ve decided to stop thinking of Hungarian as impossible and start thinking of it as bad ass: I’ve heard it called “the only language the Devil respects.” And I’ve started quizzing my Hungarian friends about their culture. Here’s some tidbits I’ve picked up so far:

1. Longest Word
When I asked Matyas to help me understand Hungarian culture, he immediately rattled off the two longest Hungarian words. They are so long that Eszter, who wrote them down for me, not only had to stop for breath in the middle of one, but actually had trouble remembering all the parts of the words.

--Megszentségtelenűthetetlenségeskedéseitekert *: “for your ability to not be able to be sacrificed or desecrated.”
--Elkáposztásithatetlanségokkodóseikbét*: “for your ability to not being able to be made cabbage.”

SARAH: Those are AMAZING words. I am appalled and fascinated.
ESZTER: But they are not real words. In Hungarian you can make words out of many parts. You can never use these words in real life.
RICK: What are you talking about? Of course you could.
ESZTER: Oh, come on. For your ability not being able to be made cabbage?
RICK: If you were being pursued by an evil witch-step mother, who had the ability to wave a magic wand and make people cabbages, then you somehow had the presence of mind to reflect her magical curse-ray back at her using a mirror, and you turned her into a cabbage instead? Then I could praise you for your elkáposz…elká…
ESZTER: Ha ha, yes.
RICK: Or let’s say that a nemesis of yours contrived to get you committed to an olden-timey insane asylum and a cadre of evil psychotherapists put you on the list to get a lobotomy, but you somehow managed to smuggle a handcuff key in the top of your denture plate, and you thereby unhandcuffed yourself, unstrapped yourself from the gurney they’re wheeling down the hallway with one flickering fluorescent light, and incapacitated them with the electro-convulsive therapy prod and escaped the asylum, pursued by dogs into the night, I would commend you on your eggamcsheggavashtyvashty.
ESZTER: Elkáposztásithatetlan…ségokkodóseikbét.
RICK: Elka-pos-tash-it…
ESZTER: Elkáposztásithatetlanségokkodóseikbét.
RICK: Elka…Elka…

2. Horse Crazy
Horses are really big in Hungarian culture—a reminder of the Hungarians’ mysterious nomadic origins. My Jewish grandma used to say “What am I, chopped liver?” Hungarians apparently have a saying that roughly translates to, “What do I get, horse dick?” The horse dick (Lófasz) of course means “nothing” or “jack shit.” It’s my new favorite word. Since I don’t speak Hungarian yet, I’m practicing using it in English. “What was your bluegrass band paid for that gig, Sarah?” “Horse dick.” “Is there anything in the fridge?” “Horse dick.” “What have you got planned for tonight?” “Horse dick.” See?

*Disclaimer: I would be astonished if these words were spelled correctly here.


jessamynit said...


And this is how I can tell you truly grew up in basically Berkeley and neither New York nor true core Oakland: the correct response to being told "fuck you" by the popcorn jerk is, of course, "Fuck YOU, asshole!". In English.

I'm not tryina dis though: you are too sweet to be a dick! It's not in your nature.
Next time, though, bust it right out. Maybe go back to the movies just to order popcorn again...?

sasha said...

please keep writing more...
it is the only thing that cures my gancher missing
when i come to the page (yes that's right i check it everyday) and there is nothing new
i secretly curse you

i mean i have to live vicariously through you


plankface said...

You go on with your bad self and stick it to that Hungarian shit. I know you will come out victorious in the end.