Outside our window, Budapest has a sugar-coating of snow, the first to arrive all winter. In a few minutes we're off to Paris to spend New Year's Eve with some old friends (straight outta Chicago and Buenos Aires!) I'll take lots of pictures and write you in 2007. In the mean time, allow me to reccommend Bootsy Collins' masterwork "Christmas is 4 Ever." Seriously, folks. Made my December.
And now we have a little Christmas tree, which came to us all the way from Los Angeles, courtesy one Melissa J.M.M.
Even the elevator looks a lot like Christmas:
The Christmas gift-giving activity begins early in Hungary, on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. (One of my bluegrass bandmates informed me that Santa comes to Hungary on December 6 so that he has time to get to America for Christmas Eve.) In Hungary, children put out their shoes for Mikulás (Santa) to fill. Mikulás travels with a good helper and a bad helper. If the child has been good, the good helper gives them sweets and toys. Bad children fall under the juristiction of the bad helper, who leaves a bundle of sticks (I'm assuming this is theoretically meant for bad seed smack-down purposes.) I'm told that because Hungarians believe that no one is all good or all bad, most children get both presents and...stick-bundles. But don't worry, the stick bundles are painted gold. Because, you know, it's Christmas.
I'm also told that instead of going to the mall to meet Santa Claus, like one does in America, Hungarian parents get an adult friend to call their home, talk to their child and give the child a detailed year-end report: "You did well in Math this year, but you've got to be nicer to your sister. And for God's sake, stop putting your cereal up your nose."
When in Rome, right? Rick and I put our shoes out for Mikulás on December 6. (I know, I know, it's not really a tradition for adults...but it seemed like so much fun...)
Another Hungarian tradition is not putting up your Christmas tree until the 24rth. The children are taken to a puppet show or something, and when they return they find a special decorated room with a beautiful tree. Looks like my neighbor is getting ready to do this:
I'm also told that Hungarians exchange their presents on Christmas Eve, at a big family dinner. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is apparently fish. Check out the line at this usually deserted fish stand in the great market hall:
Rick and I have also been visiting Budapest's Christmas markets:
Where you can buy Hungarian folk arts and crafts:
Drink hot wine:
And sample tasty traditional street food:
This is kürtös (kürtöskalács?), delicious dough wrapped around an iron cylinder and then baked to crispy tender perfection, much like a pastry shwarma.
It's served with sugar or vanilla or cinnamon or walnut or cocount on the inside. YUM.
So hope you had a wonderful Hannukah, and have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, wherever you are. Kellemes Karácsonyt!
I remember my first conversation about religion. It was in my Berkeley preschool, as my friends and I punched holes in the walls with gender-neutral wooden toys and cheerfully defaced our childrens’ books about diversity. We all knew that there were Jewish kids and Christian kids. Kids who were half-and-half were the luckiest because they got to celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah, the three-year old equivalent of winning the lottery. I pitied my friends who only got one measly holiday.
My parents met at a meditation seminar. My goyish mom is really more Buddhist than anything else, and aside from a few Christmas Eve church services I really grew up Jewish. Bay Area Jewish. On the Camp Kee Tov bus we sang Hebrew camp songs, but also chanted “Me So Horny” and “War (huh) What is It Good For.” I studied Hebrew with a hairless, guitar-strumming reform rabbi who took me to services at the Berkeley Aquarian Minyan (“Now we’re going to sing the Tribal Sh’ma!”) and the East Bay Feminist Minyan (“And when G-d came down, she said…””).
When I moved to New York, where my religious activities included co-hosting the infamous Punk Rock Seder (AKA “The Hardest-Working Seder in Judaism.”) I searched for years for a synagogue that I really liked, and finally I settled on Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s Lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual conservative Jewish congregation. I started going there because they had free high holy days, and stayed because I loved the lesbian rabbi, who gave hard-nosed, practical, and inspiring talks. CBST had so many members that on Yom Kippur they had to hold services in the Javitz Convention Center, where during services you could look through the huge plate glass windows at the helicopters darting back and forth over the Hudson. I remember one invited Rosh Hashana speaker urging the congregation: “Perhaps you feel that you don’t have enough money to join CBST. I have some ideas for to help you save up and become a member. Guys, cut out a couple of your subscriptions to Maxim and Details. And ladies, on the second date, when you’re moving in together—don’t use a moving company, move yourselves.”
September: I go to the big synagogue on Dohany street for Yom Kippur. It’s a neo-Moorish building, with stained glass windows and a giant organ. The morning service is attended by a handful of older, conservative Hungarians. Whereas the gay New York Jews were really religious, crying and breast-thumping, the Dohany Hungarians talk incessantly, completely ignoring the prayers.
I notice five quiet college-age girls. In the sparse crowd of older Hungarians they stick out like a sore thumbs; they must be Americans, since the younger Hungarian Jews have apparently decided to sit this one out.
I break the Yom Kippur fast at Budapest’s only Mexican restaurant—where I see the five Jewish girls. They MUST be from California. Sure enough they‘re UC Berkeley students, originally from “So Cal,” on a semester abroad in Budapest. I realize that every Californian Jew in Budapest is probably breaking their fast at this restaurant.
Early November: I thought that I wouldn’t meet any Jews in Budapest, but I was wrong. Through fellow New Yorkers Inna and Ljova (Jewish musicians both), I meet Pablo, the Argentinian hurdy-gurdy player. He is an intelligent and passionate dude, who lights up like a lantern when he plays Brazilian music. And he only plays Brazilian music. Pablo is very clear about that.
He is also Jewish—everyone I’m meeting these days seems to be Jewish. But his Jewishness means something very different to him:
On Communication: “I am Jewish, you are Jewish. If you speak English to me I can understand you better than someone who is not Jewish.”
On Anti-Semitism: “I have faced this since before I can remember, and it will never change. When I was a little boy, they beat me, they tease me, they throw rocks at me. From the beginning, they saw me as different, and they will always see me as different. They wanted me to be an intellectual, a professor. This is all we are good for, to be a nice professor, an intelligent Jew. I do not accept this. I do not want to be an intellectual. I play music because it makes me feel like an animal.
“The possibility of integration does not exist, it is a myth. It is a disaster. It is not really possible. They hate us, and they will not stop hating us. Every 50 years or so they try to kill us all. I do not like Israel, I do not feel comfortable there, but it is the only thing standing between us and disaster. If they destroy Israel, then you and me and you will have to get guns.
“There is anti-Semitism everywhere. They tell me that in America it is different. You say this and so I must believe you, but I cannot accept it. It must be the same there as everywhere.”
On Language “I grew up speaking Spanish, I do not speak Yiddish, I understand Hebrew but it is not my first language. I have no language. This Spanish is the language of my oppressors, it is not my language. I have no language, and so how can I write?”
I meet Bob—fiddler, New York native, Budapest institution, walking encyclopedia of folk styles. Pablo grills him: is he Jewish, is he religious, why does he wear a kippah, and so on.
Pablo: Do you see much anti-Semitism in Hungary? Bob: Look, I’m from New York, I don’t give a shit. If someone starts shit with me I’ll kick their ass, I don’t care. I’m a New York Jew. They know not to mess with me.
Mid-November: Inna and Ljova introduce me to a new bar: Siraly, which they describe to me as “You know, Jewy.” This may be my new favorite word. The clarinet player from their gypsy band is in town, and they want to have a klezmer jam at Siraly. There seem to be two non-Jews in attendance. One is the saxophone player from Hungarian gypsy-jazz band Besho Drom. He turns out to be Jewish. There’s also a well-mannered blonde filmmaker from New York named Gregory Stewart Edwards. You guessed it, also Jewish.
I realize that I’ve never really played klezmer. Some of the melodies come, but from so far back in my brain that I don’t know how I know them. Later, at bluegrass practice, I talk to a bandmate:
Sarah: I’m a Jew who knows bluegrass but no klezmer. Is that weird? Bandmate: No, Matyas [our mandolin player] is the same. He is Jewish and he plays only bluegrass. Sarah:Matyas is Jewish?
Late November: I meet a music teacher from an orthodox Jewish school in Budapest. She’s very nice but in passing she refers to reform Jews as “not real Jews.” She ridicules John Zorn for wearing tsitsit but no kippah. I venture that maybe this is his way of sticking it to the man. She doesn’t laugh.
December: Why is everyone here Jewish? Didn’t I just come here from the most Jewish city on earth? I ask Pablo why he thinks that I have been meeting so many Jewish musicans. He tells me: “Of course, Sarah, you’ve returned to the scene of the crime.”
Everyone I meet says that Hungarian Jews are very removed from their traditions, integrated, with no real connection to their Jewishness. But all of the Jews I’ve met (granted most are not actual Hungarians) seem so much MORE Jewish than me. They speak Hebrew, they speak Yiddish, they play klezmer, they keep kosher, they move to Israel and back. I never used to doubt my own Jewishness. Now for the first time I feel how far away from my own tradition that I am.
I am preparing for a Hannukah concert, playing Hannukah songs, niggunim (wordless songs) and Arabic songs with an Israeli hippy named Yonathan. He is a lovable young ragamuffin, but going through a serious quarter-life crisis. He spent some years bumming around the Mediterranean without a care in the world and without a sheckel in his pocket—doing the real hippy nomad Uncle Carl thing. Recently it occurred to him that he ought to devote his life to something. He has a lot of anxiety about this, and every time I see him he announces a new major life decision. He will only play bass, and not violin or guitar. He is giving up music. He will get a degree in computer science. He will become a professional musician. He is perpetually lovestruck and flits hither and thither through the bars of Budapest, charming the pants off hapless Hungarian chicks and then wandering off in a fog of big questions and existential angst.
Pablo: He is charismatic, you know? He is Israeli. They are not like us. They are…pushy. Yonathan:(suddenly materializing) Sarah! Can I borrow your violin? Pablo: He has chutzpah. Not like you. (points to Rick.) Rick: Me? Pablo: You have no chutzpah. It’s OK! This is the way you are. I have none either. We are chutzpah-less. Yonathan: Sarah! Let me borrow your violin. Sarah: Sorry. Yonathan:(leaves, dejected, then suddenly returns) I just want to hear someone play the violin with these people downstairs. Sarah: Yonathan, I just don’t lend out my violin. Yonathan: Then you go downstairs and play. Pablo: You see? Yonathan: See what? What? Pablo: You are charismatic. Yonathan beams, does a handstand. Yonathan:(upside down) Hello! (coming back up) Really, give me your violin.
The rehearsal process with Yonathan is hard for me. The forms are different, not American, and while some of these songs are easy to pick up others are so unfamiliar. It’s hard to get used to the idea that the melody is not to be tampered with. Yonathan criticizes my inability to pick up the melodies as quickly and accurately as he does. Of course he’s right, I don’t know this music, but it makes me feel deeply, inordinately ashamed, like somehow I’m being exposed as not a real Jew.
Rick has become the token goy. At Siraly one night, over kosher palinka (I thought all palinka was kosher, but I was wrong) someone asks him in all seriousness: “Isn’t the fish a Christian symbol?” Rick, bewildered, says something about bumper stickers.
It makes me miss California. It even makes me miss the Tribal Sh’ma.
So to add to my technological woes (RIP ipod: your memory lives on!) I have been unable to post youtube videos to my blog. This is seriously annoying because there are two amazing videos you must see. Would you mind following links to see them?
The Good: Viorica in Clejani I've been trying to post this for at least a month. My friend Ljova recently helped score a big Hollywood movie in Romania. Before returning to Budapest, he went with the film's director and composer to Clejani, the home village of world-famous gypsy band Taraf des Haidouks. (If you don't know Taraf, you should. When I was working as propsmaster for Big Apple Circus I used to listen to their album over and over while we "made the jump" from race track parking lot to race track parking lot.) Ljova took this video during an all-night jam with the guys from Taraf (my dream of dreams!) The singer is one of Romania's most famous gypsy performers, and for good reason. Daaaaamn!
The Amazingly, Amazingly Bad: Speak the Hungarian Rapper We've had occasion to speak before about Hungarian rap. This out-craps the crappiest. It's as if Puff Daddy mated with a cyborg and produced a retarded son. Enjoy!
Rick may not be able to walk on water or cure leprosy, but he brought my ipod back from the dead. I tried everything on the apple support website, called Apple in Cuperinto or wherever the hell they are, brought it to the Budapest apple store--nope, sorry, see ya. Everyone told me it was a lost cause. But through my faith in Rick, I have my ipod again.
He told me to put it in the freezer for two hours.
That's right. I froze my ipod and now it's as good as new. I can't pretend I understand, but I'm not arguing. A good miracle is hard to find.
Yesterday Rick and I trekked out to the one movie theater playing Casino Royale in English. It was a sold out show and EVERYONE in the theater spoke English—it was so strange to eavesdrop on multiple conversations. These weren’t tourists—tourists weren’t wasting their Saturday in Budapest going to see Casino Royale. There were English-speaking teenagers, kids, old people, businessmen, and students. It was exciting to feel like an unwitting part of one of the city’s subcultures.
During the movie I made a shocking discovery: I have developed Expatriate Tourette’s Syndrome. Now Rick knows I’m an idiot, so it doesn’t matter what I say around him. But in English-speaking countries I usually try not to subject innocent bystanders to my idiocy. I don’t say everything I think in public; I keep the stupider shit under my hat. In Budapest, however, I’ve gotten into the habit of talking with my mental filter off. What comes out is plain embarrassing.
Sarah:(commenting in a half-whisper on a Bond villain who keeps jumping off things, like in the video for “Jump”) Who is that guy? Madonna? Rick:(whispering): Sssh! Sarah: What? Chill out. Rick: People can understand you! Sarah: Oh, right.
I don’t know much about Mormons. Do you? We know they wear special underwear, and we’re fascinated. We know their temples look like Disneyland rides. We know they have an angel named Moroney, which sounds like a type of enriched pasta for retards. (Sorry, Mormons. It’s just true.)
In high school I had a pal who grew up in Utah. She told me two more fun Mormon facts: 1) if you’re really broke, they’ll bring you groceries, and 2) they all have trampolines. “All of them?” I wondered. “All of them. All of them!” “But why?” “No one knows.”
A year or two later my high school took me to Belize. As a friendly, tropical, English-speaking country, Belize is crawling with Mormon missionaries. In Orange Walk, we stayed in a little budget hotel where the only other guests were two middle-aged Americans. And you know, I was in high school, so I was kind of a rude little punk. We started talking:
Sarah: Where are you guys from? Lady: Utah. Sarah: Oh! Are you Mormon? Lady: Yes, yes we are. Sarah: Really? Do you have a trampoline? Lady:(clearly annoyed) Well we don’t just have a trampoline. We have go carts, snowmobiles, jet skis, sleds, skis, snow tubes, mountain bikes, we have soccer goals, we have a parachute, we have billiards, paintball, foozeball, snorkels … Lady’s Husband: Handball. Lady: Handball… Sarah:(fascinated) But you do have a trampoline? Lady:(defensively) Well…yes.
I’m not gonna lie, I thought it was pretty funny. Now this all happened before my family had internet. I told Inna this story a few days ago, and she had the good sense to google “Mormons and Trampolines” (duh, I can’t believe I never thought of that.) It’s an actual thing, mormons and trampolines, it’s a stereotype. There are jokes about it on the internet. Holy Moroney! I’ll be damned.
We never had TV in New York, just a lot of DVDs. Here we watch TV in very small doses. There are two English channels, CNN and BBC News. After five minutes they get depressing or start talking stocks. After 9 pm, Turner Classic Movies shows WW II movies and Westerns. The rest is Hungarian. Mind you, there’s not much original Hungarian television, except:
--20 Hungarian News and Politics channels, handy in a riot --A Hungarian “Newlyweds” reality knockoff (Most Boring Ever) --A sketch comedy show starring 5 wacky transvestites -- Hungarian music television. Features touchingly wholesome hip-hop videos. Hungarian rap videos are still about putting on some big pants, shaking some ass, and smiling for the people. Hungarian rappers have not yet started to dress in Gucci and lounge around rented Frank Lloyd Wright houses, rap in a haute couture fashion show, drive a steam roller around Toyko, or rap in a space ship.
The rest of Hungarian TV comes from Spain or France or Germany or America, and is either nonverbal (opera, sports, Canadian Candid Camera) or dubbed into Hungarian. Oh My God, you guys. There is SO MUCH television dubbed into Hungarian. Hungarian Simpsons, Hungarian I Love the 80’s, Hungarian Sex and the City, Hungarian Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Hungarian Alien vs. Predator! And shows I’ve never seen before, including:
--A soft-core porn show about topless girls running around a rent-a-mansion. It’s shown on prime-time TV. We call it “Sluthouse.” --There’s also “Sluthouse: Bloopers!” (Its actual name is “Naked and Funny.”) Guys, imagine you went to the doctor’s office, and she asked you to undress, and when you turned around the doctor was a naked lady! What capers! --“Sluthouse: The Obstacle Course!” which I’m not going to bother to explain.
The point I’m making here is that the Hungarian dubbing industry has got to be huge. I mean, gigantic. They dub EVERYTHING, and their dubbing is GOOD. People speak for the right amount of time, they interrupt eachother at the right moments, there’s no disconnect between image and sound. At times I’ve caught myself thinking “Wow, Sigourney Weaver is Hungarian! I didn’t kn—…oh.” Or even, “Morgan FREEMAN is Hungarian?”
The other night we were at the bar with a 21-year-old Hungarian pal, Peter, and dubbing came up.
OUR ACTUAL CONVERSATION WITH PETER
Sarah: Hungarian dubbing is amazing! If I was Hungarian I would become a voice-over artist. Peter: Yes, but it is not so easy, you know? Every actor he has only one man who says his voice on the television. Sarah: Wait, what? Explain. Peter: For example, who is this man, he is in the car, it talks, and it is so fast, so loud. Rick: Night Rider? Peter: Yes, and the man he drive it The Night Rider? Rick: David Hasselhoff? Peter: Yes! Yes! He is to have only one man, only one Hungarian actor who is to say his things. If another voice say it, the people they do not accept. They say “What is this? This is not sound like The Night Rider!” Because he is the voice of this David Hasselhoff, this Hungarian actor, one man, only one man. And if David Hasselhoff is in another show, like this show where they are always run, so slow, so slow? Rick: Baywatch? Peter: Yes! Yes! This voice is same voice, same man, Hungarian man, from The Night Rider. Sarah: So every American actor has their own Hungarian voice doppelganger? Peter: I don’t know this word. Sarah: When someone looks just like someone else? Like a double? Like a twin? Peter: I am very drunk. Sarah: Like I look the same as you? We look the same? We sound the same? Peter: Oh, I see what you are say. Not all actors, but say Robert…DeNiro. Or Keanu Reeves. Rick:(trying to speak simply for Peter, who is very drunk) In America, David Hasselhoff, he is like joke. Peter: Yes! Yes! Rick: But like, joke of country. National Joke. Peter: Also in Hungary. But here, in Hungary, we have special kind of joke, we say always about one actor…it is very funny…always one man, so many jokes…this actor...do you know Walker Ranger in Texas? Sarah: Walker Texas Ranger? Peter: Yes! Yes! Rick: You mean Chuck Norris? Peter: Chuck Norris! We make it the joke about Chuck Norris, all the time, so many jokes about this Chuck Norris, in Hungary. I don’t know why it is this man, this Chuck Norris, but his eyes are like suns, and his fists are like the bomb, and so many things. Everything! He do it everything this Chuck Norris. He like God. Chuck Norris like the Jesus! Sarah: Tell us a Chuck Norris joke! Peter: I don’t know in English, but, you know you count to one million, count it beyond, count it beyond, count it beyond, so many times? You cannot stop the numbers they go they go? Sarah: Infinity? Peter: Yes! Yes! Chuck Norris, he count it to Infinity three times.
At this point Peter started to explain there was a government contest to name a new Budapest bridge, and they asked people to vote on the internet for someone to name the new bridge after. The most popular choices were Chuck Norris and Eric Cartman (from South Park). Then Stephen Colbert got involved and won. I can’t believe I never heard about this. I’ll try to find out more and post it for you. Chuck Norris: spanning Buda and Pest.
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?”