Where some previous American generations could not go

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August 11th 2009
Published: October 23rd 2009
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The Republic of Hungary - former member of the Soviet Bloc, current member of the European Union. A little more than twenty years ago, as American citizens, we would not have been allowed in this country. Likewise, Hungarians could not leave. The Warsaw Pact of 1955, which created economic and military alliances with the Soviet Union, raised the Iron Curtain in Europe, dividing it into two distinct and antagonistic entities. Immigration and media in the Eastern European countries were severely restricted. However, while the western NATO states flourished, the cooperating Bloc countries stagnated and floundered. In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reform ideas of perestroika, and in 1988 Hungary, always the most liberal of Bloc members, officially eliminated all travel restrictions, even removing its border fence with Austria, effectively revealing the many cracks that had developed on the Iron Curtain. Fifteen years ago, armed guards would have still viewed our entrance with suspicion. Today, however, we walk out of the airport just outside of Budapest without even a passport check, the customs officials waving us past so as not to interrupt their lively conversation.

My wife and I have come to this country with my Hungarian-born friend, Gabe,
The carThe carThe car

Gabe, Feri, and Jozsi inspecting the borrowed ride.
and his mother, Klara, and older brother, Feri, to enjoy a two-week sojourn in their home country and attend the wedding of Gabe’s cousin. Their last trip had been four years prior, for Gabe’s father’s funeral.

This will be Kristen and I’s third trip to Europe, having been to Paris and Rome, but our first into Eastern Europe. As we awaited our connecting flight in Rome, it was clear to us that we were now in Europe. After being herded haphazardly to the x-ray machines, we then hit a wall of harassment as the Italian security doubted Gabe’s family’s American citizenship. Finally making it through, we sat at our gate and waited for our departure. I instantly felt out of place. The Italians that were taking the same Malev flight were impeccably groomed and fashionable, and I could not help but stick out as an unkempt American. The evenly-tanned men tried their best to look prettier than their very attractive girlfriends, and their attire was complete with fauxhawks and gold “DG” buckles on their Dolce and Gabbana belts. In America, it would be safe to assume these men were gay. However, in a European city, metro-sexuality (derogatively called “euro-trash” in Europe), is commonplace. Having recently seen Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” this summer, I clearly saw where the readily available inspiration for his fictional fashionista lied. Anyone who has seen my picture knows that I would not be mistaken for being a practitioner. Make no mistake: this is not a prejudiced judgment, merely an observation. Wearing cargo shorts and a generic tee-shirt, I clearly stood out, and I silently hoped that Hungary would be more laid back in its fashion approach. As we exit the Budapest airport we meet up with Gabe’s oldest brother, Jozsi, who is wearing old plaid shorts, a Harley Davidson tee-shirt, and an old cap over long hair which is pulled back in a ponytail. I instantly feel more at home.

We pile into the van that Jozsi had borrowed from his friend (Klara rides with her niece, Edit, who has also come to greet us) and begin the hour-and-a-half drive to Kengyel, Gabe’s hometown and where we will be spending most of our nights. As we leave the airport parking lot, Jozsi hands me the change after paying the parking attendant, saying: “A gift for you.” The bill is for two-hundred forints, the Hungarian currency. “How much is this in American?” I ask. “About a dollar,” Feri tells me, chuckling.

Despite my determination to enter the country wide-eyed and alert, taking in every precious second, the drive is mostly a blur. The long hours of travel begin catching up with me in those comfortable seats, and I drift in and out of consciousness most of the way. My window’s view alternates between endless sunflower fields and rundown buildings, though some recent gentrification seems on the rise, many of which house neighborhood bars. Most structures are single-story and all have terracotta roofs, some reinforced at the edges with concrete. It is not until Feri mentions it that I realize that we have not hit a single red light, as most areas in the countryside have replaced their streetlights with roundabouts, proving both cost-effective and time saving.

Before leaving for Hungary, Gabe had painted a mental picture over my many years of knowing him of his homeland as being a near-feudal peasant society lacking nearly all modern conveniences. He seemed at times convinced that my spoiled and delicate American sensibilities would be offended and culturally shocked by the poverty of Eastern European village life, including dangerously narrow roads and potholes large enough to lose a car in. I had told him that I mainly imagined it being like the American Mid-West - flat and sparsely populated. He had shaken his head and said that the Mid-West at least had Wal-Marts. This prospect far from deterred me in taking this trip, but rather made me ever more eager to experience it. I am therefore surprised when after an hour of driving I awake again to find us pulling into a mega-sized supermarket parking lot just outside of the city of Szolnok, about twenty minutes from Kengyel.

Cora, a French supermarket chain, has begun building stores in Hungary. This one is massive, complete with a dessert bakery and Chinese takeout, and flanked on either side by competing hardware stores, the equivalents, even in color scheme, of Home Depot and Loews. This looks more like the capitalist overload of America than the remnants of a former Soviet Bloc. After consulting with Jozsi, Gabe explains that theft is a problem in these stores, as many locals cannot afford the merchandise. Whereas an American can fill up a shopping cart, Hungarians typically buy only a few things. Feri
Magyar VizslaMagyar VizslaMagyar Vizsla

One of the oldest breeds of hunting dog in the world.
informs me the average Hungarian earns only about $300 a month, and unemployment is high. Most Hungarians seem to feel that America has the ‘best of the worst’ deal in the current economic recession, while in Europe Hungary has been hit the worst. We use the ATM, taking out 20,000 forints, which is about $50, and I know for sure that I will be brushing up on my math skills during this trip. We walk through the store, peruse the extensive wine selection, and purchase some cold cuts and bread for lunch.

The flat lands of the Hungarian Alföld, or Great Plain, which is comprised of approximately 20,000 sq. miles, looks to me like the rural farmland of southern Pennsylvania, with the notable exception of countless people on bicycles riding along the roads. In an area with almost no natural hills, bicycles, some slightly motorized with lawnmower engines, are the most economical way to travel. Many riders can be seen with long fishing poles on their backs, one their way to or from the Tisza River, second only to the Danube.

The town of Kengyel, which means “stirrup,” is called so for the shape of the bend that used to exist on the Tisza before the water was redirected (the part that remains is stocked with fish and is called the Dead Tisza). Local legend also says that a king crossed the river on horseback, the water rising to the horse’s stirrup, though the former story is probably the best explanation. We arrive at the town after passing a sunflower factory, where the crop is utilized to make oil and other ingredients, a Heineken plant, and then driving a long, lonely stretch of road. It is not the sort of town that one arrives at accidently, as few roads lead to it and there is no straight path from the nearest city, Szolnok. As we near the town center we pass a construction crew that is widening the road - yet another improvement unseen in Gabe’s childhood. We later learn that the European Union is responsible for financing many of these infrastructural improvements, and a direct route to Szolnok is in the works.

Gabe’s childhood home is only in use when his family is in the country, though his uncle, who lives a couple of streets over, maintains the place and airs it out frequently. As such, little of it has changed in the years since his family moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s. The single story structure is typical of most Hungarian homes, made from mud brick and stucco (lumber is far more expensive in Europe due to its lack of forestry), with concrete window sills. Air conditioning is never needed, as the thick walls keep the house adequately warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The house lacks a hallway, and is essentially a rectangle divided by walls and a few doors, where one must pass through several rooms to reach the other side of the structure. Privacy, therefore, is never really an option, as Kristen and I soon learn. Gabe tells us to be sure to lock the bathroom door, as his family is unlikely to knock before opening it. Indeed, one of the few criticisms I will grow to have for the country is the inexplicable lack of locks on bathroom doors. There is always a keyhole, but no key to be found. The kitchen is small, housing a small freezer and a thin, squat stove. The refrigerator has to be kept in another room, due to space constraints,

Gabe and I
as is also typical. Gabe’s family is kind enough to give us our own room, complete with a door for privacy and a window that looks out to the front yard.

Jozsi brings over a delicious lamb stew, made with an abundance of paprika. While I am not one to normally eat lamb, I am determined to try as many local foods as I can, and I enjoy a small helping, though fill my plate mainly with boiled potatoes.

The car which we are borrowing from Gabe’s cousin also arrives. It is a comfortable blue sedan, and a recent model. On the roads one can still see the communist brand of car - angular, squat, and unimpressive - topping out at low speeds and burning an outdated mixture of gasoline and oil. Some of the makers included Trabant, Varburg, Lada, and Zsiguli. While they are not the preferred car, many now have bumper stickers that read, in Hungarian, “It’s not pretty, but at least it’s paid for,” reflecting the large loans Hungarian’s struggle to pay off for newer models. While driving what we dub the “Commi-mobile,” one of which sits in their garage, would have been a memorable experience, it is not recommended or preferred. And I must admit I am relieved to have a car with air conditioning.

Kristen, Gabe, and I take a walk around the village - new territory for us, memory lane for him. Gabe became a U.S. citizen a few years ago. I had gone with him to witness the swearing in ceremony in a New Haven court house, near Yale campus. He has grown to identify himself much more with his adopted country than with Hungary, which he views more with American eyes than native. I had asked him before the trip if he would feel at home in Hungary, or as an outsider. He said he would feel like the latter. While he knew the language and some of the customs, he would be learning on fly just as much as us.

The town is laid out in a grid pattern, typical of communist planning, and the houses are essentially the same size and shape, with the same yard space for each. There are only a few homes with two stories. Locked fences separate each property, enclosing not only guard dogs, which often bark incessantly at us as we pass, but all types of domestic fowl as well. Though we are in a village where everyone knows each other, and most are somehow related, it seems like there is a fear of theft pertinent in the town. Violent crime is very rare in Hungary, especially in the countryside, but petty theft is still frequent. Other sights, however, are more charming. Stork nests crown telephone poles for when the majestic birds migrate from Africa each year, and small holes in roofs reveal pigeon keepers, though the practice has largely fallen into disuse.

The region has been experiencing a long drought, and the strong sun has fried the grass into low, crinkly stalks. The village’s dirt roads (there are only two that are paved), reinforced at points with broken terracotta pieces, have dried into a light brown powder, and are flanked on both sides by deep guttural trenches. Gabe recalls seeing drunken cyclists falling into these sizable depressions. We are occasionally passed by horse-drawn carts filled with manure or locals on bicycles casting us curious, if not suspicious, glances. Ducks and chickens slip through their fences and cross our paths. The pace of life is markedly slower than what we are accustomed to.

We come upon a small slope on the edge of town. It is just high enough to be level with some roofs and overlook a soccer field that is far from the well-manicured condition Gabe remembers. At the peak of this slope is the town cemetery, where Gabe’s father had been buried a few years before. The graves of Hungary are different from those in America and most of Western Europe. The tombstones sit as a headboard of what resembles a stone bed. Beneath this is the family crypt, perhaps the size of a crawlspace, where bones and urns are laid, the door to which must be unearthed. Sometimes several generations can inhabit a single crypt. A woman is tending the graves as we enter, watering plants and fixing memorials, and we begin to search for Gabe’s father to pay our respects.

Not far from there, and just around the corner from Gabe’s house, is another cemetery, much older, with graves that date back to before World War II. These graves resemble the single markers elsewhere in Europe. However, this cemetery clearly has no caretaker, as the headstones are mostly hidden beneath years of overgrowth, including bushes which have become trees or that have wrapped their thorny vines around the memorials. Evidence of grazing sheep can be found among the brush. We never learn why this cemetery has become forgotten to the generations living in the town, though we suspect the Soviet takeover may have had a hand in it.

Thunder begins rolling in the distance and dark clouds make their way across the plain, cutting short our walk. We arrive back at the house just as a storm begins shedding a delicate rain over the village. Within ten minutes the harsh sun is again victorious, though a malodorous wind has begun blowing from the sunflower factory.

One of the items that Gabe and I are determined to purchase in Hungary is a traditional horse-bow. The study and practice of medieval combat techniques, including archery, is a hobby of ours, and we have spent many summer days practicing with our English longbows. However, we have wanted to try something new, and while the longbow is part of my heritage, the curved horse-bow is proudly Hungarian, and the practice is seeing a grand rebirth throughout the country. The largest difference in the shooting style is that instead of there being a rest for the arrow, as longbows and recurve bows usually have, the shooter instead uses the knuckle of the forefinger, and the bow must be slightly slanted to keep the arrow from falling. Jozsi has been practicing for a few years, and we drive to his house to try his bow. While shooting at a target in his backyard, as his three children looked on, Jozsi explains to us the practice of karahun, an intensive training regimen of the traditional horse-bow. It included loading arrows onto bows hundreds of times a day before one can even shoot, miles of jogging each day, shooting while running and turning or when laying down on one’s back, and finally, after years of this, getting on a horse and beginning a whole new step of training. The process takes years of dedication. After an hour we are still getting used to keeping the arrow from falling off the bow.

The day ends with excellent salami sandwiches on hearty bread. Klara takes a glass milk bottle out of the fridge and shows me the clear liquid inside. It is palinka, or moonshine, that her brother has made from grapes. It is drunk frequently throughout Hungary. In the morning, before work, people will often take a shot. Everyone makes their own, out of nearly any fruit. From what I gather, it is much safer than American moonshine, and it is legal. We each take a shot. It is not a drink that goes down easy, but the aftertaste is pleasing and your sinuses are cleared. Hungarians, as I will learn, are athletic drinkers. I am not. In fact, before this trip I had only ever been what I would call drunk once, years before. As my head begins to buzz from the palinka, I know that I have my work cut out for me.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Kengyel detailKengyel detail
Kengyel detail

There were giant snails all over the garden.

23rd October 2009

Just a correction, according to official stats the average net salary in 2008 was 105 000 ft, thus around 550 bucks...
23rd October 2009

Thanks for the response...
... but the current economic recession has hit Hungary very hard, driving down the worth of the forint. It is a very different situation than in 2008. Wages have fallen and jobs have been lost. It is not hard to believe that in the summer of 2009 the average income was around $300.

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