Sunday, February 21, 2010

Village Life

Though I am not sure I would qualify Hungary as part of 'the Balkans,' this short clip shows two Hungarian villages, one on the Ukrainian-Hungarian border, and one on the Romanian-Hungarian border. As Debrecen is located in the far northeastern corner of the country, these two villages are but a stone's throw away. Though the clothing has changed (they only where traditional costume for dance performances and festivals), the houses are all still standing and inhabitated. Cows still get driven down the roads, out in the morning, back in the evening. Horse and wagons are still used (see this post). Although I am happy to see so much culture preserved, it is a little frustrating to see such a blatant lack of development.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nyugdíjasok: Pensioners Waiting for the Doctor's Clinic to Open

Friday, February 19, 2010

Send us your poor, your long as they are registered voters

In American political circles, soccer moms, security moms, and hockey moms are the desired demografics. In Hungarian political circles, pensioners are the holy grail of politicians.

'Pensioners,' a combination of retirees and workers on permanent disability (there are a lot more of the latter than you would assume...), are similar to American Senior Citizens in their high voter participation habits and loyal allegiance to one party. For the last twenty years, or since the fall of Communism, their allegiance has remained with the Socialist Party (MSzP). The same politicians who were mid-level party bosses under Communism are now in charge of the Socialist Party, and they have been in power for the last six years.

The last six years have not been kind on the Hungarian populace. The Socialists ran the budding free market economy into the ground, and then lied about it. A $27 billion bailout was required, but still, the Socialists were kept in office. At this point, with Hungarian arch-rival Slovakia already on the Euro, Hungarians are starting to wake-up and realize that they are no longer the poster child for post-Communist states.

Hence, the Socialists, as I mentioned previously, are about to completely lose power. The one thing that could prevent this? A massive turnout of pensioners voting in favor of the Socialists. And how to ensure this happens? Thinly veiled threats, like the one above. A picture of a traditional sheepskin cap representing a male pensioner and a scarf for a female pensioner with the headline "We will guarantee the safety of the monthly pensioner's check." It continues

The world economic crisis drastically reduced state revenues. So that the pensioner's monthly check does not come into danger, the New Socialist government has assured the check has a solid base. We introduced a new premium on January 1st, which has increased monthly checks an average of 4.1%, and we will continue to make cost of living corrections to the program, too. The political left will not allow the needy elderly's subsistence to come into danger, even in times of crisis.

And if you vote for the other side, good riddance and good luck.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Hungarian Election is rapidly approaching. Though the Fidesz Party is expected to easily win - perhaps even with a two thirds super-majority - the campaign period up to the election will nonetheless be a bloodbath. Hungarians will shed their apathetic masks just long enough to sling sh*t at each other for two months (sorry to swear, but there is no better description).

As with any campaign, massive amounts of money is spent on advertisements. The first of these started appearing after the holiday season. MSzP (the Magyar Szocialista Párt), the party currently in power, has been running a series of baseball-card-style ads in which they show a portrait style photo of a politician (or two, or three), their name, and the party emblem all in front of a red, white and green striped background (the flag of Hungary - essentially an Italian flag turned horizontal). The design is quite simple and makes no mention of any platform or role the politician on display might hold, not even the word 'szocialista' is written out.
I took the above photograph a few weeks ago, after a few days of snow had left a quiet blanket over the city. It was still early in the election season (Hungary does not have a long, drawn out, eighteen month marathon but a quick, bloody six week battle), but Hungarians were still making sure their opinion was seen, and not heard. You may notice that the faces in the billboard above are pocked with snowballs.
Today I returned to the scene on my way to work (actually, I return almost every weekday). The snow has melted, but bright yellow paint was left in its place. Along the mens' chests, someone had spray-painted "HÁZA ÁRULÓK" - 'national traitors,' or more literally 'traitors of their own home.' By the time I walked home, the political advertisement was gone, an advert for Aldi's weekly special on chicken meat in its place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yet another advantage of living out here in Debrecen is the real estate prices. I have an American style two-bedroom apartment (actually, it is owned by a Hungo-American couple) in a brand new development, replacing a decrepid old mill, near the center of town. Of course, in the middle of developing the street, they ran out of money in the great economic "krizis" of 2008, which hit Hungary especially hard. So, next to my building is the ruins of a mill. If I wanted to stay in Hungary past June 1st, when my Fulbright grant runs out, I would try and open a "romkert" - a ruins beergarten, like the ones in Budapest. It is the one thing Debrecen lacks!
Although I wish I was having the 'genuine' experience of living in a pánellákas flat or the 'authentic' experience of living in a fin-de-siécle Hapsburg building apartment, my living conditions are quite, ahem, comfortable. Far more comfortable than anything I will be able to afford in the States in the next twenty years. If I were in Budapest, the same rent would get me a cubby with no hot water. I actually have a shower here! And functioning heat that I can control from within my own apartment. In Hungary, thermostat is worth its weight in gold - most communist-built cement panel houses have central heat controlled by the building master. He often turns up the heat past 80 deg F, as with bigger heat bills comes a bigger profit.Added to the fact that the Russian Gazprom controls all gas and gas prices, and it turns out most families pay more than their rent each month in gas heating. Shelter may not be expensive, but warm air is!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Debreceni Egyetem Botanikus Kertje

Monday, February 8, 2010


I love the fact that I live five minutes away from the biggest fresh market in town. It runs every morning, and I see fruits and vegetables I cannot even name in English, let alone Hungarian. I now have the reverse problem: there are several fruits and vegetables I can name in Hungarian, but not English. I buy milk that was taken from the cow that morning, and I have to boil it before I can drink it (mmm pasteurization). The colors of all the produce are amazing... and it is all grown locally, as there isn't enough money to import anything (the one exception: oranges at Christmas time are a very important tradition, and I just bought some of the first batch this morning). I love going there, as the old women who man the stalls call out to me, "Drágám! Szivem! Tessék!" (My dear, my sweet, how can I help you?). There are a few produce consolidators, but most vendors are the widowed grandmothers of the farmers, dressed in all black with headscarves. They get dropped off at 5:30 am from the village and sell until 1 pm, when their sons and grandsons come back to pick them up and whatever produce wasn't sold. I've made lots of fun things (lots of Hungarian recipes too): this morning I made a meringue pavlova from fresh egg whites, butternut squash ravioli by hand (including making and rolling my own pasta from scratch!) in a browned butter sauce, quince tarte tatin, tons of roast vegetables with garlic,...the list goes on.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Nádudvar Update #1

According to Huba, the Head of the Hungarian Fulbright Commission, the Nádudvar story isn't so cut and dry. Apparently, they haven't actually been making the black pottery for hundreds of years – instead, it is a more recent development, and thanks to Huba's very own aunt! The nádudvari potters supposedly once made painted Hungarian pottery just like everyone else, until the 1960s, when they went to Huba's aunt to ask what they could do to improve their business. She told them to alter their product from the Magyar mold. Instead of colorful paint, why not use the old-fashioned technique from Karcag, another small town about 15 kilometers away, to make black pottery. The tourists, who were just beginning to pour into the geothermic spas of nearby Hájduszóbószló from Budapest, would be more interested in a unique product. Ference Fazekas' grandparents obviously thought this was a good idea, and the rest is history. Nonetheless, the 1960s capitalistic specialization that brought Nádudvar its famous black pottery could not be a bigger contrast to the other development in the village during the 1960s. Nádudvar, with its prime location in the middle of the puszta (Hungary's extraordinarily fertile steppe), was developed into a highly successful farming cooperative. So successful, in fact, that communist party bosses tapped the leader of the farm cooperative to become a 'representative' in 'parliament.' Since 'the people' always love a man of the earth who knows how to work with his hands, he quickly became the type of folk hero depicted in Soviet realist murals: shirtless strapping man carrying a bushel of wheat on his back while three kerchiefed barefoot women nearby toil with their hoes.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ködős Reggel

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


In an effort to procure some meaningful birthday presents (and maybe a sacrifice to the pagan ikon Valentin), I took a short field trip this afternoon to Nádudvar, a small village about an hour outside of Debrecen. When I got on the bus, it was cold and cloudy, just as the weather report the night before had indicated. When I got off the bus in Nádudvar, I found myself in the middle of a blizzard.

Nádudvar is famous for its black pottery. Though the shape and patterns might otherwise resemble the prototypical Hungarian pottery, in lieu of a white background glaze and colorful painted flowers, the pottery is black. In fact, so black, it resembles lead. Folk-art flowers are drawn into the black glaze with the aid of several types of pumice stones that create a matte, shiny, or textured finish.

After walking two kilometers through the blizzard from the bus stop, I finally arrived at 152 Fő utca. Err, what was supposed to be 152 Fő utca (152 Main Street). In actuallity, it was 152 Vörös Hadsereg utca: 152 Red Army Street. Perhaps the street name has been changed on the map, but it looks like someone forgot to change the street signs and address tiles. Ajaj!

With two inches of fresh snow on the ground, 152 Red Army Street looked just like every other house on Red Army Street (surprised much?). But instead of curly-haired Mangalica pigs inhabiting the old adobe shed's thatched roof, the windows revealed tables and table of pottery. The shed was empty and locked, so I crunched through the snow over to the main house's steps to ring the bell. A middle-aged man answered the door, and I stammered out as fast as possible, “HelloSir,IamsorrytobotheryoubutIamlookingforsomeblackpotteryDoyouknowhereIcanfindsome?”. He took one look at me, the frizzy-haired American covered in a centimeter of snow (I had been walking for over thirty minutes!) wearing bright blue rubber boots and ringing his doorbell in the middle of a blizzard, and said “ I will be right out, just let me grab my coat.”

We walked over to his shed/studio, where he proceeded to give me a twenty minute tour of his operations. He showed me the pottery his direct ancestors had made in 1772 – they have passed down the craft since the beginning of the eighteenth century. He showed me his family tree, and gave me the lowdown on each of his family members and their skills. He showed me the whole in the ground where he stores the wet clay before use. He showed me his kiln, essentially a closed adobe beehive fireplace. Only then did he ask what type of products I was looking for. But instead of showing me something he already had in stock, he started writing notes. Then he asked me to write down the name of the person it was for, and what designs I was looking for. At first I didn't understand – was my Hungarian that bad? Could he not understand me, so was resorting to hieroglyphics? I had no idea that my trip to buy some pottery would require a second trip to Nádudvar: he wanted to make the pieces specifically for me, so they were exactly what I wanted. When I asked how much it would cost, I almost felt guilty accepting such personalized work for such a low price. But then he asked me to drink some of his házipálinka (homemade fruit brandy fire water) with him to celebrate the I quickly forgot any such guilt whatsoever. A burning throat and a buzzing head is rather distracting.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Székely Gate to Heaven

According to the EU, the UN, and the Treaty of Trianon, Debrecen sits less than thirty kilometres from the Hungarian-Romanian border. According to most Hungarians, Romania doesn't start for at least another 800 kilometres. The region in question, Transylvania, has been disputed for several hundred years. I do not dare dip my toe into the pool of Hungarian revisionism, so to sum up, Transylvania has a mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians, Saxon Germans, and Roma. The proportions of each population ebb and flow as time marches on. Today, the Romanians are numerically the majority.

Believe whatever you want to believe about Transylvania: the culture of the region remains inherently unique. One facet of the region's folk architecture is the Székely Kapu, or the Székely Gate. The Székely are a group believed to have been sent to the outer eastern reaches of the Transylvanian Carpathian mountains to guard the border. According to Hungarians, they were guarding the border of Hungary. However, until the Ausgleich of 1867, Transylvania was a separate principality - a separate entity from the rest of Hungary. Hungarians also like to claim the Székely as 'true Hungarians,' it the more likely version of events is that they were a Turkic tribe 'Magyarized' in the Middle Ages. I do not profess to be a Historian, so I will end my explanation here.
No matter where they came from or what their blood line is, the Székely gates are a beautiful example of folk architecture. In 1920, after the Treaty of Trianon ceded Transylvania to Romania, many Hungarians left the region as refugees. For many, the destination of choice was Debrecen: a market town near to the new border. In addition, several faculties of the university in Kolozsvár, now Cluj-Napoca, were transferred into the university at Debrecen. As refugees, they brought only their most important possessions - often-times including their gates. Hence, Debrecen has quite a few of these old gates built into 1920s-era homes. I walk past two daily: the one pictured is a block over, and a second is right below my living room window. Unfortunately, the second gate's ancient cultural origins are somewhat occluded by modern Hungarian cultural norms: affixed to the Székely Kapu below my window is a neon sign for the "Erotika Barlang" - "Erotic Cave."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Szabolcsi Snow

I had a busy day up in Tiszavasvári today. Though it was an early morning in the snow (almost two feet of it in Szabolcs Megye), the day was actually quite sunny and nice. The train up there was even almost on-time! What a concept!
Baba the horse, of Tiszavasvári
I walked around a bit before my meeting began, and I was surprised to see how little had changed. Sure, the old library was closed and a new town hall expansion was added, but otherwise, the town looked exactly the same. Some stores even had the same window decorations still up from five years ago.
Baba asking, "Does this wagon make my butt look big?"
Nonetheless, time goes on, and some things indubitably will change. The schools I worked in have now been centralized under one principal, a great guy who was the gym teacher when I worked there. Part of one school has been contracted out to a private foundation. Let's hope it is for the best. I was floored - FLOORED - by how many people recognized me. Everywhere I went, people were doing double takes and then exclaiming, "Baaarrrbbaaarraaaaa! [nearly wailed] Is it really you? Can it be?" I took the train back from Tiszavasvári to Debrecen with Zita-néni, a teacher who I sort of remembered (she used to take me out for ice cream), but who DEFINITELY remembered me. We chatted in Hungarian the whole ride back, and she even called her daughter to tell her who she had seen, and made me talk on the phone with her (I have never met her daughter before, though she is my age). Zita also offered me some of her házipálinka to take home to my boyfriend. I miss Tiszavasvári. There is no comparison for their kindness to me.