Not so Gloomy Sunday


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Europe » Hungary » Northern Great Plain
August 16th 2009
Published: January 5th 2010
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It is after noon when my eyes finally open and I am able to pry myself from the bed. Kristen is in the kitchen and tells me that Gabe has begun excavating in the garage. About twenty years ago Gabe’s brother had dug out a nearly six-foot-deep hole in the garage in order to more easily work beneath the cars he was fixing. The last time Gabe was here he decided to do some digging of his own in the hole and found pottery fragments, which he brought home and we took to be ancient. While we are far from being archaeologists, we both have degrees in history and the field has been a mutual hobby of ours for a very long time, so our assessment is not entirely naïve. I join him and we spend a few hours digging, using trowels, buckets, and brushes. We find more shards, some of which are decorated in zigzagged lines and cross-thatched patterns, though most are the size of a quarter and none are bigger than a fist. Kristen helps us document them on camera and organize our findings. We know that there was a Roman settlement not far from Kengyel, however, the town’s location has always been sparsely populated and at times, especially during wars, it was completely abandoned for many generations. Gabe and I begin to suspect that we have found the remnants of a refuse pit.

After cleaning up Gabe figures out how to make a target using hay and plastic wrap, and we practice with the horsebows for a while until the sun, which seems to be getting hotter with every cloudless day, forces us to retreat indoors.

We use the day to explore the outskirts of Kengyel. To the south is the hamlet that used to be called Bagi Major, but which has been recently redubbed Szabadságtelep, which translates roughly to “Free Town.” This is ironic, as it is under the township jurisdiction of Kengyel. There is not much to be said for the few streets that encompass it, other than the decrepit train station that we turn past that I am surprised has not been condemned and torn down for the public’s safety. We drive around the station and the dirt road becomes pitted grass that rocks the car until we park before an empty school building. It appears as though the school is being refurbished for reuse, and though it is becoming the nicest building in the neighborhood, it is beyond my understanding why they would continue to fix a building before even completing the road to get to it.

But it is not the school we came to see; rather, it is the Bagi Manor Windmill that towers beside it, perched atop an ancient kunhalom (more on this later) which we climb to inspect the structure. The 15-meter tall windmill was built of brick, with a shingled roof, in 1850, and was used until 1945. Today it is a bird observatory open to the public, though as we try to enter we find the door locked. The hill still affords of a beautiful view of the area, including a yellow church and a train that rumbles by below us.

We next head to another kunhalom, this one much larger. Across the Alföld (Great Plain) can be found great manmade earthen hills, known as kunhalmok, or Cumanian mounds. We park along the side of the road and enter an expansive sunflower field, with the nearly cone-shaped mound rising high in the center of it. We see in the distance beside the mound a man on a dirt bike, wearing camouflage with a shotgun resting on his shoulder. We take him to be a hunter and approach conspicuously but quietly. When we near him Gabe asks him about the mound, and the man simply says that it was here long before the Magyars came, the Hungarian ancestors who conquered these lands during the Dark Ages. We later find out that this man is a game warden hired to deter poaching.

Most archaeologists believe them to be the work of the Cumans, a nomadic tribe whose military prowess made them greatly influential in the lands west of the Black Sea over a period of many centuries. King Béla IV of Hungary, in 1229, famously granted them asylum as they sought to avoid the Mongol invasion. They lived in tents and lived off of a diet of meat, milk, and cheese (they did not farm), and they prayed to the first animal they saw each morning. When the Cumans campaigned they took nothing with them, and carried all they could back home.

We climb the steep mound and find liquor bottles and dog bones on top. The mounds, which the Cumans called kurga, are believed to be use for several reasons, including as burial sites, sentinels, and border markers. The location affords another stellar view in this incredible flat land, and the kunhalom feels like an island in a sea of sunflowers as I look at the land around us. I spot a jackrabbit, bigger than any I have ever seen, running into the field. These sizable animals, I must assume, are the ones being poached, for one of them could very easily feed an entire family.

As we return to the car we make another discovery - large amounts of cannabis growing naturally throughout the fields. In all honesty, none of the three of us are marijuana smokers, and I really have no interest in the substance myself. The situation, however, in which one can be arrested in the U.S. for possession, while here one can pick it from their backyard (it is called “weed,” after all) does make anti-marijuana laws appear trivial at best. When we return to town and ask about the plants, we are told most people in the area don’t know much about its recreational use and those that do agree it is of a poor quality. I am unaware of Hungary’s laws regarding marijuana, but no matter what may be written in the law books I feel it would be difficult to enforce it in these parts. I have only yet seen one cop in this country, in Eger. Kengyel’s law enforcement consists of a cut-out image of an officer made of sheet metal, erected at the outskirts of the village to deter speeders (and with which we take pictures).

I am finding another reason, aside from the incessant crowing, to change my mind about the attraction of backyard chickens. Lots of livestock means, especially in this heat, lots of flies to drive one insane. We visit with Gabe’s neighbor and her brother, who politely tries to include us the conversation with Gabe’s interpretive aid. However, it is the flies which continue to dominate the situation, as even the old man angrily swats at them and pantomimes itching to show us his irritation.

I have thus far found Hungarians to be very friendly and accommodating, and fiercely proud of their history and culture. However, over the last few days I have also become aware of a darker side. In the latter half of the twentieth century Hungary had the highest suicide rate in the world, although lately the numbers seem to finally be receding. Unfortunately, it would seem, not fast enough. Just days before we arrived in Kengyel there was a funeral for a girl in town who, after having a fight with her friends, seems to have hidden behind the bushes until a train approached and then threw herself before it. Childhood friends hanged themselves during the years Gabe and Feri were growing up in America. When we ask Gabe’s uncle about the girl, he shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, it happens.” Indeed, the act is not entirely looked down upon as it would be in the U.S. if committed by healthy individuals, and seems to be considered by many a viable solution to life’s problems. Many of Hungary’s greatest historical heroes ended their lives in suicide. While suicide rates have recently gone down, alcoholism is steadily on the rise, and many experts believe the latter is merely a different manifestation of the former. Hungary, in fact, has long had a reputation as the gloomiest of European nations, and it presently has among its lowest life expectancies. Several theories have been put forth which take into account the effects of drastic social change and the feelings of Hungarians as being caught between Western and Eastern cultures, with failed aspirations thrown into the mix. I must admit, though, that no theory I have found seems to satisfactorily answer this tragic puzzle. The song “Gloomy Sunday,” by Hungarian composer Rezsö Seress, carried the urban legend that it spawned dozens of suicides in the early twentieth century, and became known in America as the “Hungarian suicide song.” Seress would jump out of a window to his death in 1968. The lyrics, which are telling of Hungarian attitudes toward ending one’s life, are in part as follows as sung by Billie Holiday:

Gloomy is Sunday,
With shadows I spent it all
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all
Soon there’ll be candles
And prayers that are said I know
Let them not weep
Let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream
For in death I’m caressing you
With the last breath of my soul
I’ll be blessin’ you


Hungarians are certainly guilty of copious consumption of alcohol. With little to do in villages like Kengyel, pubs and bars are found on many corners. Klara tells me that a shot of palinka is a normal way to begin one’s work day. We decide to explore this cultural facet (minus the suicides) by going to the local bar in the evening. It is essentially a hole-in-the-wall dive bar, with a bartender in one room and a pool table and jukebox in another. The bartender looks like a no-bullshit kind of guy, and as we are deciding what to drink Gabe spots a bottle of absinthe on the top shelf. “You want to try it?” he asks me. I throw caution to the wind and figure, what the hell, I’m in Eastern Europe, let’s do this cliché. The bartender asks Gabe something, which Gabe translates later: “You sure you want that poison?” We each take a shot, and while the drink is strong its flavor is appealing. We decide to play some billiards and within a few minutes of racking the balls the room begins to spin. Incredibly, I am already drunk, which was actually not my intention. What took me multiple glasses of wine and shots of Unicum the previous night has been accomplished with one shot of the green fairy. Naturally, we chase it with some Puerto Rican rum (which is located right next to the absinthe - the strongest drink in the bar - and is given to Gabe despite his asking the bartender for something mellower). Kristen, Gabe and I take turns challenging each other while an old drunk sits slumped in a corner chair, commentating in slurred Hungarian on our inept playing skills.

Even after an hour-and-a-half of playing I am still drunk as we walk back to the house, at one point holding onto a fence so as not to fall over while trying to look at the millions of stars in the clear night sky. As I pass out in bed I feel that I have reached my fill of alcohol for the rest of the trip, and perhaps the year.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo


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