Regello to Florence/Firenze

July 7, 2017 at 3:32 pm (Uncategorized)

“Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes describes the hills of Tuscany in incredibly accurate detail. I can say this, now, as we’re staying in a home via Airbnb in the Tuscan hills of Regello. It was 95 F on a recent day, and the rolling hills of recently harvested wheat, trees in seemingly every hue of green, and large homes nestled in and among said wheat and trees verily radiated the sun’s heat, down into the shady interstices that nurture myriad hens and cocks, the latter of which indeed crow at the crack of dawn.

Every view from the Knudsen-Jones hilltop is picture-postcard perfect. And in the cities we’ve had the privilege to visit – Florence/Firenze and Siena, as well as the small wine-tasting community of Greve in Chianti and tiny village of Villambroso – everything is beautifully appointed. The shop windows and shops themselves are inviting in their display of their wares. The painted, wood-slatted shutters seem from some film starring a young Isabella Rossellini. Whether its knick-knacks in Florence, medieval seals in Siena, or olive oil and grappa in Greve in Chianti, commerce beckons. At least the admiration of it.

And the vistas cannot be beat. Even Alyssa, whose nose was in a book or glued to her phone on many of our drives, commented on the stunning nature of what we were seeing, as well as a tavola as two families at dinner, on our patio. (Hayley had comments, but given her age of inching toward 14, many of them were critical and not about the scenery. They don’t earn quotes for this blog post.)

But despite all that is so wonderful to look upon and soak in, in this part of Italy, anyway, France wins. Maybe I feel that way because I can get along with such ease in France versus here, where people speak excellent Italian but often nothing else (or too little English to make a dent in any question to which I’m seeking an answer).

The drivers – whether of buses, trucks, farm equipment, cars, bikes, scooters, or motorcycles – are scary horrible. I cannot believe we didn’t witness deaths on the “streets” of our little village or those of the bustling city of Florence/Firenze or Siena. I put “streets” in quotation marks because most of them are narrow like licorice ropes, and many of them look to be pedestrian-only. But guess again: Here comes a tour bus! Jump outta way!

Laws guiding anything on wheels seem irrelevant, if non-existent. There are seemingly no marked passing lanes, for example. Because everyone just passes, willy-nilly. Around a hairpin curve. Over a hill. Around to an imposing farm vehicle, navigating a blind corner. At high speed. It is a spectacle I’d rather watch in a movie (which I have), than in the passenger seat (which I’ve done for a week now. Dave is an incredible and brave rental-car conductor. For me: no grazie).

Also, as noted before, the French stereotypically are rude-ish people. I didn’t expect to encounter that here. I expected more happy-go-lucky folks, tipsy on brunellos or chiantis, and relaxed by the sun’s warmth. Rather, whereas the French can be nose-in-the-air snotty, the Italians seem to have an edge. Not the same edge as the Israelis; the sabras are more “direct” than “edgy.” But an edge nonetheless. Perhaps it comes from driving very angry or having to constantly dart out of the way of angry drivers.

And there also is a grand sense of chaos here. Not the organized kind. But the milling-about, nobody-knows-which-end-is-up type of chaos. Maybe that fuels the edge.

Did we interact with lovely, thoughtful people, despite the language barrier? Absolutely. But we also encountered very brusque waiters, ticket-counter folks at museums who clearly detested their jobs, and shop owners seriously pissed I asked to use my card when it was a cash-only establishment (unbeknownst to me before proffering my card). Feh.

Want more specifics? Wait for or click to the next post.



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July 6, 2017 at 4:18 pm (Uncategorized)

In Calvi, Corsica, I nearly got eaten alive. And I loved every second of it. I’ll explain.

Corsica is a French island in the Mediterranean but has a history of being claimed at various times in its very long history by different factions of Italians and French, as well as the Romans before that. It has its own language, Corsican. It’s a craggy, granite island closer to the shore of Italy than France and directly north of Sardinia. It takes one and a half hours by plane from Paris to reach the 3,350 sq. mile island, and it’s a four-hour ferry ride from its northern tip to Livorno, Italy.

The island of about 320,000 permanent residents is a place famous for many things both edible and historic. For example, it’s the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and has a fruit native only to it, the cedrat, a cross between a grapefruit and an orange or lemon.

When a beginning French student – 30-ish years ago – I learned the remote island also was Napoleon’s native land. Ever since then, I wanted to see the place at least partly responsible for the man who eventually declared himself emperor. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to Corsica; it seemed out of reach and even too small on which to land a jet, let alone have an airport of its own.

In addition to Israel, our month-long trip always was going to include Italy, and we planned to travel to that part of the world with the Jones family. When piecing together our trip and poring over regional maps, I was reminded of Corsica’s proximity to Italy’s west coast. So I threw out a trial balloon that turned into the first part of our sojourn: Not one of us had been to Corsica before and everyone shared in my intrigue (well, a least in a little bit of it). So, we made it a destination.).

Dave secured a villa for the eight of us just outside the city center of Calvi, which is perhaps the second most populace city on the island of almost exclusively French-speaking people.

I was – how can I put this delicately – comme un cochon jouant dans la boue. (Read: Similar to “a pig in shit.”) I had to pinch myself each day of our eight-day stay: I once again was in France, practicing my French while lapping up the natives’, and I felt I got to touch history and a different slice of French culture.

What made it different? No offense mainland France, but on Corsica, the folks ARE NICE. And patient. And very helpful. We encountered exactly one rude Corsican, and it seemed her rancor wasn’t directed toward us but toward her job as a checker at the German grocery chain Spar. (Who wouldn’t detest that job?)

I was prepared at every turn to encounter folks unwilling to work through my accent until they could understand me. Rather, we interacted with people pleased to not have to attempt to struggle in English (nearly no one spoke English). They let us use the restrooms in their restaurants…even if we weren’t eating there but merely passing by with a full bladder. They let us enter their stores and touch their merchandise without the expectation we’d buy something.

We always got a cheerful, “Merci, bonne journee, au revoir!” whether we left a small store with its goods or empty handed. When passing people on narrow sidewalks, they’d make eye contact, smile, even say “bonjour”! This behavior caught me by surprise, again and again. In case I haven’t been clear enough, the French – in the majority of my experiences – behave the opposite of what we experienced in the parts of Corsica we got to visit. Was it the island mentality? Was it their tourism-charged industry that put them all in a hospitality-oriented frame of mind? Was it simply that Corsica is French but isn’t *really* France?

Like mainland France, the pastries are beautiful, scent entire streets from boulangeries’ open doors, and aren’t expensive. Also like mainland France, the people love their dogs; they go everywhere their humans do (the grocery store, cafes…), and said humans often ignore their precious dogs’ refuse. That irks me to no end. Especially in the heat wave that occurred during all but one of our days in Calvi. Ewwwww.

The other thing the unusual heat wrought was mosquitoes. At all times of day and night. I usually don’t get bitten by bugs; or, when I do, they’re benign and few and far between. But the Corsican mosquitoes were having none of that. Each morning I’d awake to new, red, itchy-as-hell welts and bites. Not one in our party was immune. Along with our pastries, we purchased bug spray and a lovely gel to apply after bites became angry. One morning, I emerged from bed to realize my exposed, bitten skin looked like the starry night sky. I got eaten alive. And I loved every second of it.


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Part V: The cats

July 6, 2017 at 4:07 pm (Uncategorized)

My husband once bought me the book, “The Cat Who Covered the World,” by New York Times reporter Christopher S. Wren. At first I thought it would be a silly read, but instead I raced through it. I loved the terrific journalist’s color commentary about the areas of the world he covered on his foreign-correspondent beat, all while he peppered his reporting with ditties about his family’s cat and her antics. At one point, the cat disappears (in Egypt, if I recall) and the reader hopes for the duration of the book that the cat will reappear, no worse for wear. Indeed, she does.

I’d wondered if the cat surviving its walk-about was poetic license on the part of Wren. How could a cat deal on its own, in busy places, without regular water, let alone meals?

Then, we spent a week in Israel (Tel Aviv, Caesarea, Masada, Dead Sea, Tsfat, The Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem). It quickly dawned on me how Henrietta, the cat in the book, did just fine on her own.

At Ma’agan Eden at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, at a mediocre resort that once was a working kibbutz, a kitty visited us in the cooler temps of the morning and evening. The girls quickly deduced by its rounded haunches and even the placement of its back paws that we had as a new buddy a pregnant feline.

It looked rough, maybe even a little Haight-Ashbury hippy; its claws never had been trimmed, and she clearly didn’t groom herself enough. Pieces and parts of desiccated plants were stuck in her coat. That didn’t stop the girls from paying it loads of attention and feeding it tiny bites of the meats we grilled, along with little pools of water…from our bottled water….not from the tap. Feral, the cat clearly didn’t have a single owner, nor must it have had a name. But she does now: It’s Ma’agan. If you go to visit her and her kitties, she might come when called (especially if you have a piece of kosher steak in hand).

In Jerusalem, we stayed in a terrific two-bedroom Airbnb that included a lightening-quick cook top, remote-control air conditioning, and a small balcony on which we dried our clothes (the apartment was furnished, as is typical of so many places outside the U.S., with a washer only). Our unit was part of a huge apartment complex in the center of the New City, just blocks from Jaffa Gate on one side, and a 10-minute walk to Mahane Market on the other.

The religious and secular cats of the city seemed to congregate in the complex’s outside foyer, where residents parked bikes and motorcycles, adjacent to a small enclosure in which to dump garbage and recycle plastic bottles (but no other item gets recycled there. Odd). The girls didn’t seem to have enough time in Jerusalem (three days) to tell apart the myriad cats, one from the other, so they never bestowed names on them. But every time we left our apartment and returned, the girls made sure the cats seemed happy; the girls found an area – by a tangle of electrical wires – where kind souls always left food and water, and they frequently checked it. Based on these cats’ very-loungy posture throughout the day, every day, they clearly were very well taken care of.

[Cat photo to be inserted here, once I have consistent internet coverage. Dave swore like a sailor throughout our entire trip due to unbelievably poor connectivity via wi-fi.]

And then on to Tel Aviv. It’s rife with cats, likely the majority of them feral. They reminded me a bit of the Hasids: They were everywhere and darted in and out of bushes, from behind light poles and garbage bins, from under cars and behind shady shrubs… And Hayley especially – but Alyssa, too – wanted to adopt each and every one of them. We really put our proverbial foot down and said no. We’re that tough.

(Teaser for next blog post: In Calvi, Corsica, three cats visited our rented villa, off and on [but mainly at breakfast and dinnertime]. A beautiful, sleek, gray, slinky number with green eyes the color of the Mediterranean at its most shallow, she didn’t have a name before the Knudsens got there. She now answers to Minerva.)









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Part IV: The soldiers

June 30, 2017 at 4:55 pm (Uncategorized)

It seems to the outside observer that there are many layers of law enforcement within Israeli society. Perhaps there are myriad, or perhaps the armed folks all make up the same agency but with different levels of security clearance or arms-bearing rights.

There are the young soldiers dressed in olive-green, armed with assault rifles that they wear seemingly very casually slung behind their backs. Their pants always are tucked into boots. Frankly, I find that look very cool. Most of the soldiers we saw also had ear buds stuck in their ears. What were they listening to? Messages from central command? Rather, it likely was Katy Perry. There also are uniformed police officers, in blue, similarly armed (minus the ear buds), but also with what look like glocks holstered on their right hips. And they wear bullet-proof vests.

We also saw what looked to be plain-clothed men with those holstered glocks. (I didn’t observe women in that role.) The sun always shines, so they wear reflective sunglasses to keep out the rays. Or to keep one guessing as to where and at whom they’re looking.

Each of these folks described above – both the men and women – are the epitome of health and vibrancy and bad-assness. Bond, James Bond, has nothing on these warriors. And they are everywhere. Their presence at first really stunned me. Then, it made me feel very safe. As a white American Jew, that is.

Where I a Muslim spending time or living in the Muslim Quarter, however, I’d either feel under siege…or I’d have to learn to ignore the ubiquitous Israeli law-enforcement presence in and all around that small piece of real estate. I’m not making a political statement. Rather, I’m simply reporting what it looked like.

For example, one can freely enter and exit the Muslim Quarter. But to enter the Jewish Quarter, one goes through a metal detector station that includes machinery to check into bags’ contents and the scrutiny of a number of heavily armed Israeli officers. And when their shifts are over, they don’t casually clock out; rather, they appeared to come to and leave from their positions en masse. I’d tried to take a photo of them in action, but I never was quick enough to do so. I’m not exaggerating when I say that their movements appeared straight out of a shoot-‘em-up action thriller.

But I repeat: I felt so safe in Israel. Way more than I expected to. And more than the media made me believe I would. The armed-to-the-teeth, highly trained personnel there made me feel amazing to be a Jew; those folks have a singular goal: To protect every second of the day or night the right for their Jewish nation to exist and exist and exist.

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Part III: The Muslims

June 27, 2017 at 3:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Perhaps the most satisfactory part of our time in Israel – other than our fantastic time with the generous, hilarious, and simply fun Hagin-Metzer family – was Hayley’s recognition that it is a land of Jews and Muslims. (She understood beforehand there also are Christians there; as a group, though, they don’t distinguish themselves by their appearance, save for in the Armenian and Christian quarters of the Old City.)

Hayley had believed that only Jews lived within Israel and that Muslims lived everywhere outside the country’s borders. Yet every day of our trip she saw Jews and Muslims. Walking past one another. Doing business with one another. Eating in the same restaurants. Riding to work or school on the same above-ground subway/train.

There likely is a code of conduct among certain in the Muslim population and certain in the Jewish population; I’m not adept enough to have noticed or to have known in advance if this is the case. Did I see religious Jews and Muslims interacting? I don’t believe so. But since the secular Jews are everywhere, too, we saw plenty of Muslims and Jews side-by side, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Then, there’s the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. That is a universe unto itself. We’d first walked through it while on our guided tour of the Old City’s four quarters and their history. We then accidentally entered the Muslim Quarter on a second occasion, when on our own and when we’d wanted to access the Old City via Damascus Gate. I say “accidentally” because the girls really got ogled in that cramped quarter, and they understandably hated it and would have preferred avoiding it. Especially the part where they knew they were being catcalled…in a language we couldn’t make heads or tails of.

I had so badly wanted that the obvious ogling wouldn’t occur; I’d wanted them to experience the Muslim Quarter as I’d remembered it when a college kid: It seemed to me then as just another bustling place, like the main street of Ben Yehuda or the New City’s famous and awesome Mahane Market. It’s possible our experience was colored by our timing: We were there during Ramadan, the holiest month on the Muslim calendar, when observant Muslims don’t eat a thing or drink a drop as long as there is light in the sky. In June, their days without sustenance were long. So, those poor folks were hangry to the extreme.

Perhaps as a result of it being Ramadan, the mornings in the Muslim Quarter – not long after their early morning meal – felt like jostling matches; they had energy. But by later in the day, as the heat swelled and afternoon prayers came on, the quarter was demonstrably calmer and less populated. Many shop owners stuck to the back of their narrow places of business, napping on carpets. Other proprietors hung limply near their wares.

Religious Muslim men seem to have it right in the clothing department. To the Westerner’s eye, they wear the equivalent of long-sleeved dresses; on their feet are sandals. The women, however, cover from head to toe; some wore the face veil, and some even wore gloves to conceal their hands. I truly cannot imagine wearing that level of clothing, particularly in the rising heat and while rubbing elbows with every passerby and being unable to drink water until sundown.

Twice in the Muslim Quarter we came across very heated arguments. Both appeared to be between shop owners trying to protect their own turf. Both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, thus guttural; when spoken in the midst of an argument, it seems the only thing we Westerners hear is the glottal fricatives, no vowels. So the shop owners’ arguments were very, very angry-sounding. More likely, they were hAngry-sounding. Regardless, their disputes clearly caught the attention of their fellow (probably bored) shop owners; the once-languid folks would get up and peak out of their stations to follow the drama.

Once we’d passed out of the Muslim Quarter, it felt like we’d left behind another world.

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Part II: Religious women

June 25, 2017 at 2:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

There are a number of ways the religious Jewish (married) women clothe themselves, but to my eye, the most evident way to tell apart certain groups of them is via their head coverings.

Their vestments are much less specific, with the exception that they are required to dress modestly. And by “modest,” that means their hair is covered, as is every inch of their bodies, too. Thus, at least slightly billowy dresses and skirts are the order of the day, as well as long sleeves, of course. Shoe wear varies; some wear slightly funky clog-ish items on their dogs; others wear the female equivalent of the Hasids’ tennies.

Again, it’s the headwear that distinguishes them, one from the other. (“Where’s the Religious Woman?” series would not be a success.)

Some of these women wear wigs. These human-hair items often are placed ever-so-slightly askew, such that they indeed look like wigs. For example, their parts are just too-too perfect. Their bangs don’t blow in a stiff wind.

Others wear turbans, in varying hues and they look to be silk. As opposed to Indian turbans that go wide, these go high.

Still others wear simply gorgeous wraps. They make it look like they have gracefully and artfully hidden within their many-colored wraps Rapunzel’s hair itself. And they may have. The religious teenage girls and young women who aren’t yet married wear their hair very long; it would take a lot of practice and long bolts of fabric to gather up all that hair to hide from the world outside the home.


“Be fruitful and multiply” is a Biblical phrase these folks take very seriously. Most of the younger (and some not very young anymore) religious women we saw were either pregnant, or pushing a stroller, or pregnant and pushing a stroller, or pregnant, pushing a stroller, and herding a gaggle of small children, or wearing babies in front packs while holding the hands of toddlers, or… you get it.



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The people of Jerusalem (and elsewhere) Part I: The Hasids

June 25, 2017 at 1:51 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve been working through in my mind a new genre of the “Where Is?” books. The most famous of this genre is “Where’s Waldo?” where the astute observer tries to pick out the wiry, dorky guy in a horizontal red-and-white striped shirt, white ski cap, big round glasses, and blue pants from a sea of myriad objects and people, all of which and whom are similarly colored or attired. Waldo himself is at a packed beach, or at a busy train station, or in a park full of picnickers, or… For the uninitiated, you get it.

My new concept is “Where’s the Hasid?”

I once was in Jerusalem before this trip. I was 21. That was 24 years ago. I’d come for four days from Toulouse, France, where I was studying abroad, to visit my UCSB friends who were spending the year at Hebrew University. It is not precious to say the world was a different place then. It was. And much has changed for me in the nearly quarter century since I first got to dip my toe in the Middle East. Including my memory.

For example, I hadn’t recalled that the religious also are everywhere outside Jerusalem’s neighborhood specific to the ultra-Orthodox, the Mea She’arim, through which I’d taken a brief walk.

(Nor had I been aware of how religious Jewish women dress. I’m so much smarter now! But I’ll talk about them later.)

Men in the Hasidic community hit a certain (middle) age and then – poof! – morph into the same religious man. So you can imagine how one even slightly differently attired would be hard to find in a crowd.

Here’s how they all seem to look, from the top down:

Big black hat. The girls have been referring to these alternately as “cowboy hats” and “Lincoln’s hat.” Neither is an apt description. The round, flat-across-the-top hat is worn tilted slightly forward, revealing the bottom crescent of a black kippah (skull cap), seemingly well-secured to the back of the head.

Thick, gray beard. Worn long and fairly askew. Side curls, which fairly cover the ears, are called payot or paies. They’re a little scraggly.

Boxy black outer layer. Hayley is calling it a trench coat. It is decidedly not a trench coat. It’s like a robe. But not made of terry cloth. It’s like a jacket. But it’s not. They go down past the derriere and have the option of being cinched at the “waist.” That word is in air quotes because these portly men no longer have “waists”; many, thus, don’t bother to cinch their overcoat, so the tie just hangs limply. (Perhaps like another undergarment. …)

Four sets of white strings swish beneath the coat, over the tops of the black pant legs. These are tzitzit and are part of a white undergarment stating these folks’ religiosity. The modern Orthodox (men) wear them, too. But over jeans. Not black slacks over indeterminate waistlines.

Black slacks. I’ve already lambasted them enough, but I’ll add their bottom cuffs tend to be frayed.

Tennis shoes. Black. Not Nikes. That’s probably why the pants’ cuffs are so frayed.

Plastic bags. I don’t believe one must be religious to carry a plastic bag, nor must the religious carry one – or many – to demonstrate their belief in HaShem. But, just like Waldo wears glasses (and any schmoe – religious or not – can don glasses), the Hasids seems to have plastic bags tightly secured to the wrist opposite the hand carrying a cell phone or miniscule prayer book. What’s in those plastic bags? I haven’t been able to figure that one out. I don’t imagine they do the family grocery shopping; that’s for the wives to take care of. I also don’t believe they carry their tallit (prayer shawl) in them, for those have their own special bags. It’s likely they have their day’s lunch in them – prepared, of course, by the wife or an older daughter. Regardless, it’s clearly part of the uniform.


And these folks are everywhere. They dart onto and off of buses. They walk in a straight line with their heads buried in reading materials. (How do they do that?) They run across streets. They crisscross alleys. They stand in lines, prayer book in hand, like at the (heavily guarded) post office near our AirBnB. They scuttle out of tiny shops, carrying their plastic bags!

If I were of their movement, I’d want to live here, too. No one (save stupid American tourists) would stare and everyone can tell them apart instead of musing that their very existence should be a fun new “Where Is?” book series.

But I do enjoy having a waistline, so I guess I won’t make Jerusalem my home.

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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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