Palinka and paprikas


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Europe » Hungary » Northern Great Plain
August 12th 2009
Published: October 31st 2009
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After finally falling into an exhausted sleep, jetlag ensures that I awake every hour, on the hour, throughout the night. Additionally, not growing up on a farm, I innocently had the impression that roosters crowed at sunrise. However, by three in the morning the village is a steady crescendo of roosters calling and claiming their territory. While I had seen living so close to one’s food source as charming and attractive yesterday, the idea is now far less appealing. Soon joining this chorus is, naturally, every dog in every yard. After stumbling out of bed at the first sign of daylight, we shower and have a cold cut breakfast.

Jozsi pulls in the driveway early to go to Szolnok and look at a horse bow dealer. I am disappointed to find that our borrowed car is not an automatic, and my manual ineptitude means that Gabe will be our designated driver for the trip. The city of Szolnok, located on the river Tisza, is a compact mix of architectural styles, with some streets attempting to recall the grandeur of a Baroque past, and others a reminder of utilitarian communism. The city, named for a castle steward, had been an important fortification since the 11th century. However, it was devastated by bombing in 1944, and when the Soviets rolled in there were only a few people left. The city has since remade itself as a factory hub. Therefore, there is little left of historical interest, the main attraction being the Museum of Hungarian Aviation.

We arrive at the second-hand army supply store and follow the owner up a narrow staircase at the back to where his archery merchandise is kept. He explains in Hungarian to Gabe the difference in the available bows, while Jozsi occasionally comments to me in his broken (though still impressive) English that we should be aware that he may be merely trying to get the most money out of us. Obviously, the owner does not speak English. As we settle on a bow, we find that we had been misinformed that this shop accepts American money, and only forints or euros. We head down the street to a bank to exchange currency, and I am able to practice my first Hungarian word to the teller: “Köszönöm,” thank you.

We head back and buy our bows, and as we leave the shop an old man says, Hallo,” to me, which I have heard many times already and which I know is the same in English, and so I instinctively respond, “Hi.” However, after saying it I realize that I have not yet heard anyone else say it since we arrived, and so once back at the car I ask Feri if “hi” is used. He shakes his head, telling me the word means the lard on the top of stew. “So I just called that old guy fat?” He laughed and confirmed my misstep. This aspect of the language is taking a while to get a hang of, especially because hallo is used for both hello and goodbye. Another word, szia, which sounds like the English “see ya,” means the same and is used interchangeably (and sometimes at the same time), giving Kristen and I the ingrained impression that people are often saying goodbye when we meet and hello when we leave. We resign to use hallo and szia in the English equivalent sense to avoid further confusion.

After returning to Kengyel by late morning we decide to continue our walk around the village. In the village center is a park with two churches, across from the “culture house.” The Catholic church was built in 1930 and the Calvinist church in 1929. Recent additions include a wooden totem reminiscent of those used by the Magyar horse tribes. These totems can be found in many towns throughout the country as it appears part of a wider movement to recover a Hungarian identity which was nearly lost during the Eastern Bloc era. Most significant is the new memorial to the 1956 Revolution against the Stalinist Soviets, in which student protestors in Budapest had set off a wave of dissent across the country, creating militias to battle State Soviet Police, and effectively collapsing the Hungarian government. The goal was to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and reestablish free elections. Initially, the movement was successful, and the Soviets agreed to negotiate the withdrawal of its forces. However, the Politburo (the Soviet Communist Party leadership) reneged on this agreement and instead sent in forces to quickly crush the revolt. Troops moved into Budapest and battle ensued, killing about 2,500 Hungarians, and within a few days all opposition had been squelched. The resulting government was more brutally oppressive than ever before. For the next thirty years discussion of the event was suppressed. However, since the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, Hungary is slowly coming to terms with the event. Though the conflict lasted a little more than a week, memories of the event are still potent, as I would soon learn. October 23, the first day of the protests, has become a national holiday, and the humble monument in Kengyel is a further reminder.

Once we arrive back at the house we find that Klara has made a pot of chicken paprikás. Made from boneless chicken cooked in a paprika and onion broth and served with small dumplings, it is topped with sour cream and is delicious and filling. Luckily for me, Hungary being a landlocked country appeals to my gastronomic sense. I have never been a seafood eater, preferring the turf to the surf, and so the native cuisine utilizes its resources while adopting Germanic influences. This means hearty dishes, usually of meats and potatoes, in various seasoned broths, almost always using the paprika spice. Aside from the fish head soup that I have read about, Hungarian foods have all sounded very appealing. Needless to say, a vegetarian would starve in the countryside, as Hungarians are very much a meat munching society.

I am told that today we will be visiting Klara’s brother in Kunszentmárton, a town about a half-hour drive to the south, as well as other relatives. We follow Jozsi’s wife and children in their car, and along the way we stop at the village of Martfú for some gelato, where a shoe factory stretches beside the road. As a young woman, Klara worked here, taking the train in each morning.

The “Kun” in Kunszentmárton refers to the medieval Cuman tribe which inhabited the area, who were historically stubbornly pagan, while the rest is, uncryptically, “St. Martin.” Klara’s brother’s apartment is on the well-manicured main street of the small town. Inside, along with Gabe’s uncle, are his aunt and godparents. Kristen and I have become so accustomed to not understanding what people say that it takes us a moment to realize that Gabe’s godfather has addressed us in English. He is a Frenchman that has married into the family. He and his wife still live in France and are visiting. His English is limited, but it is nice to converse a little without the need of a translator. Pastries are soon taken out for everyone to enjoy. Admittedly, I have never had much of a sweet tooth, but that being said, Hungarian pastries are not as impressive to me as their meat dishes. While everyone else digs in eagerly, Kristen and I find them to be dry and salty, and since the chicken paprikás is still sitting in my stomach like a box of rocks, it is easy to smilingly decline further offers.

Gabe’s uncle engages me in a conversation with Gabe as translator, first asking me what I think of the country. It is a question I will need to get used to. The conversation turns to the problems of the economy, and his uncle tells me that before Hungary can adopt the euro it must first meet the GDP requirements (a.k.a. the Maastricht criteria). Unfortunately, with the current troubles, it is unlikely to meet it by its goal of 2010.

Saying goodbye proves awkward for Kristen and me, as we are unaccustomed to the kisses which are exchanged, one for each cheek, especially among the men. Americans, and especially New Englanders, tend to have larger comfort bubbles than most of the world, and we are no exception. While I welcome new experiences, I feel there are rules to it that I am unaware of, such as which cheek is supposed to be kissed first, and so forth, so as to avoid turning the wrong way and locking lips. Gabe’s uncle, sympathizing with my trepidation, kindly settles for a handshake.

We next drive to an expansive cemetery on the outskirts of town. An ornate chapel rests in its center and a crumbling windmill looms the background. We have come here to pay our respects to Gabe’s grandfather, who died in 1957 as a result of Soviet actions after the revolution. I try to get details from Gabe, but his knowledge is limited, as it is still a sensitive subject in the family and asking about it requires the proper time and place. He decides this is neither and so the most I learn is that he was a dance instructor, and that his frequent interactions with the youth, who were the main force behind the revolt, made him a target. Perhaps significantly, he was the only person in the town to be put to death by the government.

We return to park in Kunszentmárton’s town center and begin walking around. The most prominent landmark is the Baroque Catholic church, built in 1781 and painted yellow, with a steeple that dominates the low-lying buildings that make up the rest of the city. Beautiful organ music drifts from inside. We find other monuments along the city center’s park area, including a large one also devoted to the memory of 1956, though most are old and eroded to the point where their intention is known only in people’s memories.

We walk along a new playground and enter a small grocery store. Jozsi’s children search for snacks while I look for cheap soda (sometimes a Coke can anchor a piece of oneself at home when traveling in a foreign land). Kristen decides to try some Hungarian chocolate and Gabe finds a bottle of Unicum Next, a new recipe based upon the popular Unicum liqueur. The older generations will often attest to the medicinal qualities of the original drink, which is made from 40 different spices (the recipe is a closely guarded secret). To me, it tastes like a mixture of black liquorish and pine needles and its benefits are highly suspect. However, we are both curious about trying the new recipe, seemingly marketed towards younger drinkers, and so we buy a bottle.

Nearby is the area’s college preparatory high school, which Hungarians call a gimnázium (Germanic tradition retained the intellectual aspect of ancient Greek gymnasiums, while in the English speaking world the physical aspect was emphasized). These are essentially boarding schools, and Klara attended this one as a teenager. As we were preparing for this trip back in the U.S., Klara had taken out boxes and albums of old photos of Hungary. Included among these was her gimnázium class photo from the 1960s. She had recounted how she and her friends had stolen a boat and floated it along the nearby Körös River, getting into trouble in the process. She had also pointed to the picture of a classmate and recalled how the girl had drowned in that same river after heavy rains had turned it into a flooding torrent, and remembered seeing them pulling her body from the waters.

We walk to that same river, which is just on the other side of the former Hotel Körös. This building, no doubt once a splendid bathhouse, is now a decaying shell that is slowly being pulled down by vines and the passage of time. Apparent water damage suggests that flood waters had taken their toll. I am at first in disbelief that this could be the reason, as in order to reach the river from the structure we must first descend a long path to a level area of beach-side campsites, and then a long set of stairs before even reaching the water’s surface. The river that I see has been tamed by the drought, as is now benign and shallow. However, Klara assures me that the Körös can indeed rise many feet, even overtaking the wide slope of earth that leads to the Hotel. In the distance I spot a bridge and can hardly believe tell-tale marks on the bridge’s posts which reveal the height of the water line and confirm Klara’s experiences.

We leave Kunszentmárton and head back north Homok, a village which has become integrated into the larger town of Tiszaföldvár. Tiszaföldvár translates to, roughly, “earthen castle on the Tisza,” vár being the word for castle (translating place names, I have found, is one way of becoming acquainted with language, history and culture). This is the town where the wedding which we will attend in a few days will be held, and right now we are going to meet with the engaged couple at their home. Anikó and Krisztián bought their home and property from Gabe’s family a few years back and it provides us with a nice contrast to the home in Kengyel. Whereas our home-base is like a time capsule from twenty years ago, showing what Hungary was like shortly after the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, their house, though similar in structure, is equipped with updated stainless steel appliances and a flat screen television. We sit in their back yard drinking red wine and watching kittens tumble and pounce in the field. Aniko offers us pastries while Krisztián approaches me with a glass bottle of amber liquid which I quickly identify. “Vinny,” he says, holding two glasses, “do you want to try?” Fortunately for Kristen and me, Anikó and Krisztián lived in London for a while and picked up some English. I accept some of the palinka, which he distilled from honey, and it goes down surprisingly smooth. He takes the shot with me. The aftertaste is warm, and when he offers me another I oblige and we drink again. As we leave Krisztián hands me the bottle, which is still more than half full, and says, “For you.” At the same time Anikó hands Kristen a bag full of home-made pastries. We are touched by the gifts, thank them warmly, and tell them that we will see them again at the wedding.

Shortly before dusk we arrive at Edit’s house. Klara’s niece has an impressive home that is the largest I have seen here thus far. True to Hungarian hospitality, alcohol and snacks are produced. We sit in her gated yard and watch more kittens run around, along with a chow dog that looks incredibly like a lion. Edit’s husband, Pista, gives me some red wine that he has made. It goes down fine at first, though it being much sweeter than I prefer makes it increasingly difficult to drink as the warm evening progresses and the stars begin to shine above. I inconspicuously pour my wine onto the shadowy grass but it is not long before Pista notices my empty glass and insists on filling it once again. The language barrier means I have no way to refuse. Likewise, Edit has been providing Kristen with a cornucopia of coffee liqueur that keeps being refilled. Though I catch a light buzz, it is not long before Kristen is giggling and needs my help climbing the porch steps to go inside and use the toilet. Once again, I feel that alcohol will play a large part of this trip. Edit’s teenage son and his girlfriend, who have both studied English in school, come out to join us, although our New England propensity to speak quickly, coupled with drunken slurs, make it a bit difficult for them to follow our discussions.

The conversation with the family, with the help of Gabe and Feri translating, turns from Hungarian history to politics, particularly the frustrations with conservative politicians. Hungary is a country which has been occupied many times over by foreign powers: by the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and then Soviets. With the current financial crisis, Feri explains, many Hungarians now complain that they are amidst an American occupation. When I ask him if they would complaining if the economy were better, he laughs and replies, “Probably not.”

When we finally make it back home Gabe takes out the bottle of Unicum Next. Still dizzy from the wine, we take a shot. The taste is
Bag of milkBag of milkBag of milk

Kristen was very amused by this.
much better than the original Unicum, and reminds me a bit like brandy. I crawl into bed and hope for a full night’s rest.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo


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The moon over the house in KengyelThe moon over the house in Kengyel
The moon over the house in Kengyel

Thanks to Gabe for this photo


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