Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Folk dancing is huge in Budapest, especially among young people. Hungarians have some very beautiful whirly twirly couple dances and virtuousic (sometimes comical) male solo dances. These dances have fascinating histories--something I know I'll be blogging about later. But for the time being, here's some images and video from the Tanchaz (Dance House) we went to last week...

(Apologies for the sideways video...)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Little Black Egg

My brilliant boy Rick is always talking my ear off about music. His musical taste is wide and his appetite for musical anecdotes insatiable. Now you can share the joy. That's right, he's finally started a blog. Announcing...

The Little Black Egg

Go check it out! Hooray!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Szia, Masta Killa!

The Magyar Ramone
Before leaving New York we spent about a month poring over Time Out Budapest. This excellent guidebook features a half-page article called “Meet the Magyars: Tommy Ramone,” revealing that Tommy Ramone is half-Hungarian. Rick, the universe’s hugest Ramones fan, was enchanted.

In a strange twist of fate, our last week in New York found my bluegrass band opening up for Tommy Ramone’s bluegrass project Uncle Monk. Tommy played mandolin, and his wife (?) played guitar. Disturbingly, Tommy Ramone’s wife looked and sounded exactly like Joey Ramone. They played original bluegrass songs about going through the mountains, or drinking moonshine, or whatever, that sounded exactly like Ramones songs. Same three chords, same “wanna wanna wanna” choruses, same catchy lyrics that you can kinda sing along to, but not really, because you can’t actually understand the words. If you can imagine the music then imagine it being played by Gandalf and a Ramones-themed garden gnome.

Rick brought his Time Out Budapest to the show and asked Tommy to sign. Tommy sort of grumblingly signed it, completely unimpressed with the weirdness of him being in this book. We were telling this story to Bob Cohen the other night. ”Did you know that Tommy Ramone is half-Hungarian? We read it in Time Out Budapest.” “Yeah,” Bob Cohen says, “I wrote that.”

In a lot of ways it’s a small city, and once upon a time there weren’t many Americans here. Those who arrived early met everyone, wrote everything, brushed by every passing star.

Nuthing to Fuck With
Expat American Sue is one of those ageless elegant women with white hair and zero wrinkles. She speaks gently and precisely, as if being in Budapest for so long (over a decade and a half) has given her a slight accent. She is many things: dance ethnographer, swing dance instructor, translator….

SUE: I was a translator for a rap group here a few years ago…Oh dear, I’m going to forget their name… It wasn’t just one guy, there were a lot of rappers. They had strange, strange names. Their group had some sort of Chinese name …
SARAH: Uh, could it be…WU TANG CLAN????
SUE: That sounds right... I remember one was named “Masta Killa”?
SARAH: Yes!!!
SUE: That’s them, then. I remember being in the lobby of the hotel and I had to call up to his room: “Hello, may I speak with…Masta Killa?” “That’s me” “I’m sorry Mr. Killa, but we’re going to be late to the venue …” The organizers asked me to show them around the city in this mini-van. I was pointing out the sights: “And this is the Opera…”

Despite the fact Rick and I were panting, eyes agog, mouths unhinged, standing puddles of our own drool like golden retrievers, Sue was reluctant to say more. Our questions about the Rza, the Gza, the Old Dirty Bza (RIP) were gently brushed aside.

File under More Reasons to Learn Hungarian, cross-reference: KILLA BEES!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bright Sides

So I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately from lovely people afraid I am suffering from “heimweh" (Goheen tells me this means homesickness.) But actually we’ve been having a lot of fun.

--My darling Barmaljovans debuted my first-ever original lyrics (to a gorgeous instrumental by Ljova) at Joe’s Pub! You can hear the version with Ljova’s intro to the song here and the intro-less version here. Also, check out the review of their show, and the photographic proof that Inna and Ljova have indeed run back to NYC.

Hungary’s loss is your gain. Check out Ljova's myspace page and go without fail to his next gig. You have not lived until you’ve seen Inna and Ljova live. Here's a youtube clip of the three of us jamming in the basement of Sirály.

--Before Barmaljova flew the coop, they threw a going-away party which climaxed in an incredible three-fiddle jam. Ljova wrecked shop on his viola, Inna radiated song, Yonathan laid down fluid accompaniment, and a cat named Zoltan Lantos melted his borrowed fiddle like it was a plastic sax and he was Charlie Parker. Last night we heard him play in a duo at Sirály, and once again he blew our minds with his sick fiddle skills. Zoltan spent 10 years in India studying Indian music, and you can really it in his music. His phrasing reminds me of my first really serious jazz violin teacher, David Balakrishnan of Turtle Island String Quartet. When I started with David I was so new to jazz that I associated his sound with bebop—but last night I finally realized “THAT’S the secret ingrediant in David B.'s sound...it's an Indian inflection!” David Balakrishnan and Zoltan share a clean, precise yet complex bowing style that I absolutely covet.

Zoltan has this incredible prototype Indian fiddle, with five strings and sympathetic strings (strings tuned to a certain pitch which are not played, but resonate in “sympathy” with regular strings when a true pitch is hit). The fiddle is actually Spanish, not Indian; it was created by a crazy wealthy hippie Spanish hobbyist obsessed with fusing western and eastern instruments. I meant to take a picture of Zoltan and his incredible fiddle but I forgot my camera. So I drew a picture for you.

--My quest to learn about Hungarian culture continues. This week I visited Budapest’s ethnographic museum (News Flash: Hungarian Nativity Play includes Devil Character. More at 11.) Rick and I also visited the amazing history museum with our young friend Peter. After staggering through 1000+ years of Magyar history we had a long post-museum roundtable covering Las Vegas, Tiki Bars, the Revolutions of 1848, Hungarian Literature, and American vs. Hungarian senses of humor. Peter found dead baby jokes funny, and agreed that blondes are stupid, but did not understand lightbulb jokes. In a moment of misguided optimism we made him watch Stephen Colbert’s address to the white house press corps. We averaged three minutes of explanation to one minute of joke. Peter gamely kept trying to understand and we gamely kept trying to explain the humor, but I felt like I was writing a masters’ thesis.

In other humor news, Rick, who has an even harder time with Hungarian than I do, made his first Hungarian pun. This is a big deal since the Hungarian love for punning rivals my Uncle Jimbo's. The Hungarian word for “Cheers” is “Egészégedre.” We were discussing West Coast hip-hop while wine shopping at the 24 hour deli, and Rick observed that if Dr. Dre came to Hungary, and you were drinking with him, you could slap his back and say “Egészege, …DRE!” I didn’t know whether to be encouraged or appalled. I decided on encouraged.

Last but not least, have you seen the Hungarian hip-hop cops? No? They still haven't been caught. My youtube account will still not let me post video, so click here. You're welcome.

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.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Guest Blogger: Rick on Paris

Well, well, well. Bon soir, Monsieurs et Mademoiselles! I hope that you are all looking good and feeling fine, and have been keeping to your New Year’s resolutions. I know I have.

Qu’est que ce your New Year’s resolution, Rick?” Well, I’ll tell you. My New Year’s resolution was to be an unstoppable force of joy and mirth. It’s been working out well, thanks. This resolution was made while Sarah and I were trying to exterminate our holiday homesickness by decamping to Paris and experiencing its storied delights.

Accompanying Sarah and I on this amazing mission was our ever-delightful pal Jackie. She was great company, even after I accidentally dumped a glass of wine on her lap.

The storied delights:

The Arc de Triomphe

Hey, it’s just like being at Grand Army Plaza, except I don't have 20 pounds of overdue library books I’m trying to return. I tried hard to feel a sense of triumph. But you know, I kept thinking about that song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by that guy Napoleon XIV. Man, that was a good song.

The Arc de Triomphe is surrounded by a three-lane traffic rotary, so you have to find you way through these underground walkways to get there. In a display of brazen assholery, a tourist dad made his tourist wife and tourist kids hold hands and ran through the traffic, prompting irate French commuters to honk their horns.

We rendezvoused with our pals Ruth and Morgan, who we hadn’t seen in a while. Then we all went to go look at the sewer.

Paris Sewer

Did you know that you can pay to go see the sewers of Paris? Voulez vouz, mes amis , it’s all true! The Paris sewers have long been a tourist attraction, and French society ladies used to ride gondolas through rivers of French effluvia. I can’t imagine what crippling ennui would drive the idle class to seek out such a revolting diversion, but I ponied up a few Euros to check out this disgusting miasma of waste product myself, so I’m not one to judge.

There is a tour, in French, that is probably very informative. I don’t know French, so I can’t say. There are exhibits and little informational placards, all suspended from the ceiling by counter-weighted pulleys. Why? Because the floor of the museum is a metal grating a few scant feet above a raging torrent of sewage. Should there be a sudden rainstorm, or if everyone in the city flushes their toilets simultaneously, the exhibits can be raised out of the way of the swelling fecal tide. Museum patrons are left to fend for themselves.

There were displays of all these medieval-looking devices that work to clean the sewer when it’s clogged. According to the little information placards, the sewer is most commonly clogged by . . . “hybrid mixture.” That’s how it was described. Kind of an awkward phrase, I thought, but the placard made it out to be the nemesis of your average sewer worker. I checked out the French half of the informational placard to see what hybrid mixture translated to in French. The French word for it is batard.

Much like zeitgeist is an untranslatable German word meaning something along the lines of “the collective culture and spirit of the German people,” I assume batard is an untranslatable French word meaning “the collective fecal matter of the French people.”

Needless to say, the smell was so strong that my eyes were watering. In the space of thirty seconds, I was lucky enough to witness poop, a used condom, and a few q-tips float by. I stopped looking after that. I still sort of can’t believe that I paid to go down there.


Stretching for several kilometers, the catacombs house millions of Parisian’s bones.

To get down there, you have to descend a circular staircase. The catacombs are really fucking far underground, so this takes a while. Then you get to an antechamber, with info about who is actually buried in the catacombs, and then you pass through this creepy doorway.

When I say there were a lot of bones, I mean there are a lot.

A seemingly endless amount, actually.

It took about two hours for us to walk through the whole thing. And that’s only the part open to tourists.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that many of Budablog’s faithful readers are fans of, or at least vaguely acquainted with, the contemporary art world. Most of you have probably been to museums, galleries, etc., where you have come across installation art. The most poplular kind of installation is the “get a lot of something and put it in a room” installation. The artist takes a bunch of telephones, shoes, crayons—anything—and puts it in a room. Voila! It’s an installation. An insta-llation, really.

Still, for better or worse, there’s something inherently interesting in multiplicity. I’m no Jean-Paul Art History, but I think Warhol was the first guy to make a point about this. You can’t help but think differently about a whole lot of things. Even if those things are human bones.

I don’t know what other people were thinking (except for a pair of bovine Floridianoids, who announced to anyone within earshot that they thought catacombs were “a real hoot.”), but after climbing all the stairs to get out of the place, and emerging into the light, I found the experience strangely elating. It was a new year, and me and everyone I loved was alive. That’s a good feeling. Onward into the year with joy and mirth and etc.

* The Dick Clark moment occurred at Sacre Coeur. We watched all these fireworks explode and made a great number of champagne toasts. None of us knew the words to Auld Lang Syne, but it didn’t matter. People were singing, laughing, drinking, crying, and throwing their arms around one another. The whole year should be like that.

Friday, January 05, 2007

City of Lite

Friends, Colleagues, Members of the Society for the Study of Stuffed Wildlife,

Not long ago I presented my findings on the stuffed bear populations of Budapest and Vienna. I argued that stuffed wildlife can teach us much about a nation’s character and history. The smug, bouregois bears of Vienna:

contrast sharply with the traumatized soldier bears of Budapest:

On my recent scientific expedition to Paris I discovered stunning new proof of my theory. Gentlemen, I ask you, could a deer be more French?

This deer clearly belongs to a great nation of lovers, of courtesans, of fabled beauties. But beneath the deer’s allure lurks a mystery. How did it get so slim? Why is it so much lighter than the robust bears of Vienna and Budapest? Could Americans benefit from its diet secrets? I had to find out.

Gnetlemen, I set out to study this deer’s diet and discovered...a conspiracy. I will spare you the details, passing over the car chase, the race through the sewers, the leap off the Eiffel Tower, and my discovery of the true tomb of Mary Magdalene. At journey’s end, I finally understood the horrifying reason why French Women Don't Get Fat. The French government, obsessed with keeping its reputation for slimness, is destroying its pâtes, its chocolate croissants, and its tarte tatins, and replacing them with a brave new food… genetically engineered…guaranteed to scare citizens skinny … Le Diét Mùtânt Française!

Those that can't stop snacking are punished...

Devoured by their own picnic blankets! Not even the buildings are safe:

We can’t be sure, but I’d guess this maison had one crêpe too many. Gentleman, no one could deny that Paris is beautiful. But at what price?