Village Life/Mentality

February 16, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Uncategorized)

Agi read with more than a bit of disdain my blog post that called the town in which she spent her formative years and where her mom lives now a village. I stand by it. Turns out, she’s decided she does now, too.

I woke up the morning after my (revealing) massage to learn (thanks to Agi translating the conversation) that the masseuse had called Elvira to offer her opinion about me and my lifestyle. Turns out, jogging is very bad for me and/or I engage in it too often; my knee caps were “too loose.” Walking would be so much better for me, easier on the knees. Also, I am too tired and need lots more rest.

I wonder if the conspiratorial pair also expressed my rather small chest? Likely.

I learned, too, that my walking out of doors with slightly damp hair would result in my unfortunate and untimely death. So that’s why, one very cold morning, Elvira lent me her hat. She was so pleased when she observed it on me; it covered my head very thoroughly, as well as wide circumference around it; it surely saved my life (but not my fashion sense).


Further, one morning, a friend of Elvira’s of 62 years (!), paid a brief visit. She wanted to see Elvira and also meet The American. Agi, Kati (pronounced KAH-tee), Elvira, and I had a brief conversation, with Agi translating all the while.

A portly Kati, age 82, and dressed (indoors) in a heavy forest-green wool coat and snug-fitting white knit hat, loved that I was enjoying her village and Budapest, too, the gem of her country. She talked a bit about people from her and Elvira’s past (most of whom had become “fat”) and, despite solely feeling pride in Budapest, she and Elvira agreed the cosmopolitan city’s inhabitants are “sad.” While Agi translated, Kati and Elvira both looked at me with doe eyes; the village brings happiness while the big city is a den of depression.

Unfair or not, I just couldn’t help but draw parallels between what I imagined my great-grandparents’ societal outlook had been before they escaped Eastern Europe’s pogroms and those of the village folks with whom I had the privilege to meet and interact.


At the end of her socially inspiring visit, Kati clutched my arms, looked up into my eyes, and – with Agi translating into my ear – wished me and all my family the best in health and happiness. From the pictures I’ve seen of my great-grandparents (from Poland and Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia), she could have been them. I nearly cried.

And I could never live in a village. My breasts are far too small…and my kneecaps too wonky.


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The Hungarian language

February 16, 2017 at 5:24 am (Uncategorized)

I’ll frustrate Agi here, as she’s the fluent speaker and I am merely the auditory observer, so apologies in advance for my potentially disagreeable opinions about her unusual and believed to be one-of-a-kind langue natale.

Before I was able to detect even so much as one word in a sentence, Hungarian sounds like a combination of Japanese, Hebrew, and Slavic languages.

The staccato fricatives are what make the Japanese sounds; the “-am” endings of many words sound like Hebrew plurals; and the “dj” (as in the French “je”) and “sh” sounds could easily be mistaken for Russian.

Put them all together and you’ve got one unusual language. Practically indecipherable.

From listening to Agi, her friends, and her family members speak to one another for more than a week – in conjunction with trying to decipher billboards, store names, street signs, and even newspaper headlines – I learned Hungarian has an enormous store of suffixes and prefixes. Studying longer words, I was able to pick out roots and figure out which letter combinations had been tacked on to the front and/or back of words.


Looking up those suffixes and prefixes in an English-Hungarian dictionary, however, made my head spin; without a very slow-moving language class, I’d never understand how – for example – to write a message as simple as “to so-and-so” or “from so-and-so.” I know this because I tried writing “To Elvira, From Jenn” when addressing an envelope to Agi’s mom. I failed.

But, learn one word in Hungarian and – unlike, say, doing so in French while in France – the Hungarians break into a wide smile and tell you your Hungarian is “yo” (good). Never has the use of one word – “koszonom” (thank you) – made me feel so competent. And I’d milk it, repeating it about 50 times in the course of a single transaction; the recipients of my credit card made me feel like I was the country’s visiting linguistics scholar.

Imagine when I strung together “nem, koszonom,” (no, thank you), or “nap, szep” (sun, pretty)! And, yet, communicating solely via nouns and adjectives only goes so far. I learned nary a verb, save for the expression, “I know” and “I don’t know” “tudom es nem tudom,” which includes one of the words that sounds like Hebrew’s todah, “thank you.”

In addition to shelves and shelves of books, Agi’s mom also had two dictionaries, one volume English-Hungarian, the other Hungarian-English. (Yes, two tomes were required where previously I’d seen only one edition necessary for dual-language dictionaries. Hungarian is special indeed.)

Thank God Elvira had these editions! She and I experienced a number of moments together where our professional translator – a.k.a. Agi – was unavailable (the nerve!). So instead of simply smiling stupidly and gesturing like windmills at one another to communicate things as simple as, “I’d love one egg,” and “This necklace was a gift from my grandmother,” we’d dive quite fiercely into the appropriate dictionary – turning pages at a furious clip – and point to the foreign words we wished we had on the tip of our useless tongues. In an effort to avoid attempting to pronounce the desired words, we’d rotate the dictionaries toward one another, pointing with gusto at the word or sense we hoped to communicate. (Still, we did plenty of gesticulating. And, on countless occasions, Agi filled in all the gaps.)


Elvira thus understood perfectly well when I desired an egg for breakfast. And after admiring my dainty “lepke” (butterfly) necklace, I was able to express “grandma,” “onyx,” and “gift”; she was very impressed and pleased I had such a beautiful item from a grandmother (she has five grandchildren). And she told me a bit about what magazine images, photographs, and art styles from other European countries influenced the myriad paintings she’d created over decades and that adorn every possible wall surface in her immaculately appointed one-story, two-bedroom home.

Picture the scene in the George Clooney film, “Up In the Air,” when he and his lover are seated at a table, facing one another, typing furiously on their laptops to schedule their next tryst. While we had no such immoral goals in mind, our furtive, simultaneous paging through hardcover books as thick as bricks felt like the desperation the actors had depicted.

On one occasion, I told Agi how excited I was to have been introduced to a verb. “To eat.” Turns out, Elvira hadn’t exactly taught me how to say “to eat”; rather, she’d shared the equivalent of “num-num,” like what a mommy would coo to her baby, perhaps at snack time. I’m quite sure she used that word with me, as my Hungarian fortitude mimics that of a baby.

In any case, Elvira is my new best friend. And she makes a mean fried egg (“tojas”). Cooked on a single burner, in a small sauté pan, with just a small sizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt. “Finom” (so yummy).

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House of Terror/Terror Haz

February 13, 2017 at 10:15 pm (Uncategorized)

As a kid, I played Risk. I remember the 1970s game board depicted the Soviet Union and its many satellite nations. Hungary among them. The red landmass tentacled out from Mother Russia into what seemed like nearly all of Asia and Europe. Indeed, after its 1956 revolution, Hungary was a Communist country and remained so until the bell-weather year of 1989. [I have no idea what the Risk game board looks like today.]

Communism, we learned as kids in the U.S., was bad. It was a system completely against the American way of Democracy and free-market capitalism; it called religion “the opiate of the masses”; and it worked surreptitiously and via espionage to control nearly all aspects of said masses’ lives.

The theory went that the state existed for and thanks to peasants and laborers’ loyalty, via collective hard work in agriculture and industry. The absence of the masses’ loyalty spelled the destruction of the state. Their presence meant a better and better life for all.

In theory.

What we hadn’t necessarily learned as kids was the process by which the masses were controlled…and many of them even brutally killed. Many perished simply upon suspicion of being disloyal to authority. If the state says it is so, then it is.

I spent a couple hours at the Terror Haza – House of Terror – which is a museum established in 2002 with government funding. There, I learned about and witnessed footage of that process and the horror it wrought.

A worm's-eye view of the building's modern awning.

A worm’s-eye view of the building’s modern awning.

Starting in 1944, when Hungary’s metamorphosed Nazi Party – the frightening Arrow Cross Party – coalesced, it turned an otherwise beautiful and stately building on one of Hungary’s main thoroughfares into its headquarters. The crisply uniformed party leaders aptly named the multi-story building “House of Loyalty.”

No pictures are allowed within the museum (which struck me as a bit controlling, don’t you think?) so I don’t have images to help illustrate the exhibits I walked through very slowly. My mouth literally hung open in some of the dimly lit rooms.

For example, one is called “The Beating Room.” It is claustrophobic and has hanging on its back wall a few period whips and brown, Billy club-like sticks. A tape of dripping water plays in an endless loop the background. A large, circular drain is in the center of this room. This was where Party leaders and loyalists literally beat “confessions” out of their prisoners.

In other rooms, continuous-loop videos reel of survivors (subtitled in English) remembering atrocious crimes against them or family members. Thus not only the visual but also the auditory experience – of, for instance, being whisked away in the wee hours from homes, families, the world itself – are ubiquitous. Many survivors cry on tape as they recall parents spirited away in the black of night, never to be heard from again. Perhaps they were hanged (a basement room includes a gallows) or killed in other torturous ways inside Party headquarters.

One room, uplit in red, sticks with me still: It features an actual black sedan from Hungary’s Communist years, and along its walls, black, rotary-dial phones. A tape intermittently plays the telltale ring of such antiquated phones. I hung back in this room (after I’d figured out the point of the tape), wanting to see others’ reactions to the ringing phone. People looked about furtively and fearfully, and one young man even approached a phone and picked up the receiver, likely wondering if there was a person on the other end. What could it possibly have been like to have received “that call” at home?

Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians from every hamlet in the country died within the very tall walls of Party headquarters. I shiver still, reflecting on my time within a building once sinister and now a rich multi-media history lesson.

So sickened by the House of Terror (and the Communist propaganda machine that propagated the ongoing existence and growth of the erstwhile “House of Loyalty”), I decided to bypass visiting the Holocaust Museum during this Hungary adventure. The * Shoes on the Danube Bank – coupled with the House of Terror and also the ** Hospital in the Rock – about did me in. A few people told me I’d made a sound choice.

Before exiting the House of Terror, I of course went to the gift shop. I find these little houses of tchotchkes fascinating. Who the hell buys some of the objects? Better question: Who the hell selects them?

Appropriate objects included books in Hungarian, such as George Orwell’s “1984,” and a tome about Ronald Reagan. (Hungarians revere Reagan as the destroyer of Communism; Reagan’s statue in a Budapest public square rivals his steel likeness in downtown Rapid City, S.D., whose streets are adorned with a steel depiction of every United States president.)

Wanna revere Reagan in Hungarian?

Wanna revere Reagan in Hungarian?

Appropriate, too, was a German-language section larger than its English counterpart.

Inappropriate, however, were cigarette lighters – in both red and black – with the House of Terror’s logo emblazoned on them. Like, “Whew, I’m so relieved I made it through that exhibit of death, totalitarianism, and destruction alive. I need a smoke! Oh – looky here – I’ll flick my Bic with my commemorative House of Terror lighter!”

Walking the streets of a couple villages in Hungary and in Budapest itself, this American was reminded again and again that the locals simply don’t smile in acknowledgment of making eye contact (if eye contact is achieved at all). A cousin of Agi’s told me that many


Shoes on the Danube, on the Pest side of the city.

* Hungarians still feel the weight of their country’s Communist past. A past that’s not terribly distant. He said folks still haven’t shrugged the yoke of wondering who is spying on them. And what the consequences may be.


The juxtaposition of these items – gas mask and sweets – is just a tad strange, non? These are found, displayed as such, in the gift shop, of course.




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My Hungarian massage

February 9, 2017 at 10:49 am (Uncategorized)

I get a massage about four times a year. It’s such a luxury, and I treat massage as such; I indulge only rarely. But the runup to my 10-day trip to Budapest was so stressful that I thought perhaps I could squeeze in a Central European-style massage while abroad.

My dear friend Agi (who also is my tour guide and translator) and I are staying with her mother in a town quite close to where Agi grew up, in the town of Gardony. Any way you try to pronounce it, you’ll be wrong. It’s about 45 minutes outside of Budapest, and Agi won’t let me call it a village, but to this American, it has the feel of what I believe is a village. So there. So I also figured that any request for a massage would land me in a Budapest spa. I figured incorrectly.


This closeup of the village map includes where Agi’s mom’s house is, at No. 7.


Gardony, despite its very small size, seems to have everything, including, of course, about 5,000 individual churches, as many roosters, seriously mangy dogs, and bicycles, and at least one place to get a massage. I can’t call it a spa. I can’t call it a parlor. I can barely call it a storefront.



The slightly portly, rather short massage therapist (with a seriously horrid hairdo: fluffy bangs parted in the middle with the length at the back of her head wrestled into a ponytail) greeted me brightly as I entered her place of business. In enough English to instruct this dumb American how to prepare for my treatment, she told me to “leave my clothes everywhere” while sweeping her arms around her very small and brightly lit lobby. No incense here. No mood lighting. No tea or small bits of dried fruits and nuts to be found. Nor a robe.

Just a coat hook.

I didn’t want to act like my children do and literally scatter my discarded clothing “everywhere,” so I peeled off my multiple layers (it’s freezing here; there was a thin layer of ice on the ground this morning) and hung my three tops, jeans, thick socks, hat, wrap, and winter coat on a single, sturdy wooden hook. When I’d de-onioned myself to my final layer, I asked the masseuse – while looking around a tad wildly for a robe – “I take off this layer, too?” “Ever-ee-sink,” she said, by now looking a little impatient.

OK. I stripped down and noticed a few pair of Communist-era-looking sandals by my feet. I motioned to them. She nodded. So I slipped on a pair of silky plastic sandals and skimmed my way into an interior room, where exactly one thin towel was awaiting my pale body’s tense arrival.

She told me to/gestured that I should start on my back. I felt entirely exposed until she took that single towel – which had been ever so slightly warmed, perhaps, on the lowest-power fluff cycle – and covered my nethers up to my breasts. Oy vey. I tried to relax. She told me to “reelex ent enjoi.” So I used my extensive Hungarian vocabulary to reply, “Igen, koszonom.” (“Yes, thank you.” I think I could write a how-to guide on making it through a country on exactly two words. I’ve also learned “no.” That’s a helpful one, as well. So my guide would be for a three-word vocab.)

The massage table was simply that: a table. There was no head rest to use once it was time to “tern over, pl’ez.” So I spent the otherwise wonderful time the masseuse unknotted my back and upper arms putting serious strain on my neck. I kept reminding myself the statue of Stalin just outside Budapest had been torn down only in 1989. A massage table in any form may not have even existed under the Communist rule this country was ravaged by after its horrid WWII experience, let alone a head rest.

But the massage therapist had a solution to my kinked-neck problem. As the treatment wound down, she had me sit up…rather rapidly. I nearly fainted but then recovered in time to realize she’d situated me directly in front of a full-length mirror. I’ve mentioned the towel was small-ish. As she started to unkink my neck (her fault) I did everything I could to NOT look at my naked, seated self in the mirror. To no avail. So I futzed with the “towel” a bit: I pinioned it under my armpits and it thus just barely covered my breasts and abdomen. Thangod. But in that position, I could not fully relax my arms, and the masseuse was working my neck and deltoids in such a way that I was forced to let loose my muscles. But not enough to allow the (by-now-room-temperature) towel to drop into my lap. I’m nothing if not determined. I also don’t have Eastern-European-style breasts, so I was a little embarrassed to expose my genetically inferior self to my much more well-endowed counterpart.

The massage – which was more than an hour in length – cost exactly $20 and was awesome (even despite the strain required to keep a thin piece of textile from slipping past my “breasts”). A robe really would be a great investment for this masseuse.

I left the “storefront” and walked back to Agi’s mom’s house. My frigid amble took 5 minutes. This indeed is a village.

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