Dead dogs, whips, and a culture in transition

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Europe » Hungary » Southern Great Plain » Bacs-Kiskun
August 21st 2009
Published: September 13th 2010
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Still in ecstasy over the previous evening’s discovery, we pile into the car to follow Jozsi, Feri, Klara, Edit, Pista, and Laci (Gabe’s cousin) along the narrow back roads, heading west to the town of Kunszentmiklós. We plan to camp out at the “Kurultaj 2009” festival being held there to see some Hungarian horsemanship and horse-bow demonstrations. The roads are relatively free of traffic, with sparse sunflower fields and buildings offering scenery - and dead dogs. Stray dogs are common in the Hungarian countryside, and while New England road-kill consists of mainly squirrels, skunks, and deer, here can be found the bloated corpses of familiar breeds littered along the roadside. The dog-lover in me cringes, though the sadness is lessened by the likelihood that there are no caring owners missing and crying over their loss. Nevertheless, I prefer dumb dead deer.

We stop at a gas station to stock up on water to hydrate against what looks to be ample exposure to the blazing sun. In most cases throughout this trip Kristen and I have avoided drinking the bottled water, discovering that in Hungary a salty mineral-rich variety is often the only kind available. With each sip I grew thirstier, and I never thought I would miss so dearly a bottle of plain spring (or even purified) water. I can only assume that Hungarians truly prefer the taste, or they feel that if they are going to pay for water, it must taste very different from what they drink for free from the tap at home. But considering my options and the day’s increasing temperatures, life-saving hydration trumps personal taste.

We finally find the parking entrance to the festival. Actually, this is one entrance, and which one you use depends on from which direction you arrived. Unfortunately, our designated parking area is over a kilometer from the festival, the main tent of which can be seen far in the distance across an enormous pasture. We leave our camping supplies in the car because we do not yet know when or where we can set up, and the thought of carrying the gear around in the heat is quickly dismissed. Not a cloud is in the sky as we trek across crinkled, sun-burnt grass, low-lying bushes, and the occasional pile of crumbled, dry cow shit.

After nearly a half-hour of walking (and tripping), we reach the festival grounds. The
Getting closer...Getting closer...Getting closer...

The white dot in the center is the main festival tent.
main tent is perched with the double-cross, thought to have been adopted from Byzantine during the reign of King Béla III. Many of the people who wander the grounds are dressed in either the baggy traditional Hungarian shepherds’ wear or the garb of a medieval horse-archer. As people who frequent Renaissance fairs in the U.S., the sight is hardly foreign and, in fact, welcomed. Horsemen, too, wade through the crowd atop their steeds.

Near the entrance is a large fenced-in area where medieval-dressed performers begin to emerge with rhythmic drums and long horns. We listen to pagan chants and songs before the a long parade of people attired in various military outfits from a thousand years of Hungarian history march out to join them, officially beginning the festival’s weekend. A man with a powered parachute - which amounts to little more than a small seat dangling from a parachute and a fan on the man’s back - flies around in the turquoise sky, reminding me of the crazy local inventor I saw so often as a kid in movies and television shows. We soon come to realize that this is not so much a Hungarian archery festival as it is a Hungarian culture festival.

This celebration is the validation of a theme which I have become increasingly aware of in modern Hungary. The oppressive years of Communist rule, especially after the failed ’56 Revolution, were ones in which Hungarian culture was subdued and historical identity nearly erased. Celebrations needed to be government sanctioned, and in doing so could not stray from the official narrative that those in power imposed. There were deliberate, decades-long attempts to make a nation forget their past and their heritage. Since the Iron Curtain fell a generation of Hungarians, who have been raised in a cultural limbo, have been forced to ask, and then struggle to answer, who are we? They have sought the answers by looking East, to ethnic homelands, but more so West to a Europe whose national identities have long been the stuff of legend and pride, who have known political freedom for centuries and open dialogue with other free nations, and whose cultures have spread across the globe. They know also that so many of Hungary’s best were persecuted to dust by oppressive regimes, foreign and domestic, or fled to be beneficial to more accepting countries like the United States.

Like Herodotus thousands of years before and every generation after, Hungarians now look to history for direction, if not also for validation. I had caught wind of these changes before leaving the U.S. In researching for this trip, Gabe and I had searched the digital wasteland of YouTube for videos on Kengyel. We found a recently recorded short video of forgotten dances being performed in traditional attire in the village’s center, and of the reemergence of wagon races that had once drawn visitors more than half a century ago. I looked at Gabe, never knowing him to mention these things about his self-described boring, backward home. His look was of dumbfounded surprise. “Did you ever see these things as a kid?” I asked.

He shook his head slowly, staring blankly at the computer screen, “No… never.”

The horse-bows, of which we have gladly adopted the practice, are part of this rediscovery as well. Further evidence can be seen in bumper stickers which decorate the bumpers of so many cars on this country’s roads, displaying colors of the national flag and the boundaries of Hungary as it existed prior to WWI, with increased territory and access to the sea. In the way these stickers were explained to me, they teemed with nationalism and sent a similar message as that of confederate flags in the U.S., especially those accompanied with the expressions: “The South will rise again!” or “Lee surrendered, we didn’t!” These Hungarians, essentially, are promoting the retaking of land that they believe has been stripped away from them by history. It is a longing for a past which has been romanticized, but which often does not entail a full acknowledgement of historical evidence or circumstances. I had to ask Feri, for instance, if in getting this land they were willing to once again relinquish political control to Austria, who controlled Hungary during the time of those boundaries. He laughed, made a dismissive gesture toward an imaginary nationalist and said, “Probably not.”

While I admit disappointment in the lack of archery in the surroundings, as one who travels largely for culture experience and understanding, I am nevertheless eager to explore the grounds. Even the sun, which lies like a steaming-wet blanket on my sweaty back, manages to not deter. The one good thing about Hungarian summers, especially when compared to those of New England, is the lack of humidity. Klara had once said that she did not know humidity until moving to Connecticut, and now I believed her. As bad as the sun can get the shade is always a cool refuge in Hungary, while in New England the creeping-death moisture will find you in any space and suffocate you. Kristen loves this new climate experience, her naturally curly hair remaining straightened day after day, the usual frizz of a sticky New England heat thousands of miles away.

With the welcoming nature of Hungarian shade in mind, we take refuge in the only area in sight with trees, which also happens to be filled with row after row of vendors. Used to the stereotypical souvenir shops of Budapest or even the poor quality, overly commercialized products of our local Renaissance fairs at home, we are pleasantly surprised to find vendors selling impressive pieces of craftsmanship at fair prices. Horse-bows made of bone and sinew adorn racks, weapon-smiths pound carbon steel into functional blades, pottery makers proudly display their intricate wears, medieval armor and tunics spill over clothing racks, and candies and cookies await the sweet-tooth’s coin. Frankly, these products kick American Ren Faire ass. They also make me wish I had more forints at the closing of this two-week long trip. After needing an emergency to trip to a Porto-Potty I come out sweatier than ever to find Kristen and Gabe eating an enormous bunch of grapes from a plastic bag that is sagging from the weight. Asking them why they bought so many they look at me in amazement. “We didn’t expect them to give us this much!”

We allow Kristen the time to admire the horses that are fenced in amidst the trees before exploring the food vendors, who make up part of a large ring along with the designated campsites. Inside the ring are tents with stages, screens and projectors, where films on Hungarian culture will be shown or bands will play later in the evening. We eventually find the campgrounds, which have been divided into the various counties of Hungary, and where one sets up their tent depends on where they live. We will set up camp in the Szolnok county area, but not before getting something more substantial to eat than grapes.

We find a stand selling sausages - actually, sausages are about the only real option. My attempt to order resides in holding up two fingers and saying: “hurka” and then apologizing in English as Americans are so prone to do. Truly, there is a subconscious, psychological American need to be liked by strangers. I do not know from where it stems, but I would venture to guess that it is two parts genuine friendliness and one part imperialist guilt. The vendor looks taken aback by an American in their midst, though he quickly smiles and responds in broken English the monetary amount I owe. Indeed, the vendor’s reaction makes me realize that as thousands of people pour into the festival, Kristen and I will likely be the only natural-born Americans in attendance.

We look at the schedule and see that Hungarian wrestling will be demonstrated, and head to the designated stage. We find two middle-aged women in draping, New Age clothing dancing to song that is playing through the speakers. Assuming this is an intermission before wrestling begins, we take our seats on the small bleachers. A half-hour later there is no sign of the wrestlers and the women are still dancing trance-like to the same damn song which seems to loop continuously. Had we not been in comfortable, shaded seats, we would have left long ago. Finally the music stops and the dancers leave the stage. A line of elderly women in traditional dresses replaces them. They lock arms and take short, synchronized steps while singing - more like chanting - the old songs that they sang as young girls working in the fields. To my ears their singing echoes of American slave and sharecropper songs, and I am struck by the way our shared human psychology can create such similar tunes for such similar situations, continents and cultures apart.

As we leave the performance the more familiar sounds of a rock concert come drifting our way. We make our way to the main stage to find a young group singing the same folk songs as the elderly women, but set to drums, bass, and electric guitar. The band, Palmetta Zenekar, is lead by three girls singing in unison into microphones over the infectious music while the audience dances in the glaring sun. The singers are distinct from the other band members not just in gender, but also because they are wearing long peasant skirts and blouses, while the men are bedecked in modern rock clothing of various shades of, well, black. Soon more young men and women take to the stage, dressed in traditional attire and performing the dances with which they, and the audience, have grown up. Here a generation is not only rediscovering, but reinventing, their cultural identity. By walking across a field I managed to span fifty or more years.

We decide to grab our camping supplies and begin the long trek across the sun-baked tundra of the field to our parking area. After a half-hour of tripping through brown grass that snaps beneath our soles and low lying bushes and thistle, we finally reach the car. Aggravated by the situation, Gabe concocts a plan to get us to the other parking lot, which is literally beside the festival entrance. We begin to drive carefully across the field on a barely discernable dirt path until we pull up beside a parking attendant. He tells the young man that Kristen is diabetic and needs to be closer, which is a half truth since she is actually hypoglycemic. She sits silently American in the back, conveniently ignorant of Hungarian, unable to be asked any details of her condition. The attendant waves us through, and to be honest the ruse was probably unnecessary, as most of the Hungarians we have come across seem little concerned for formality or respect for rules. The general attitude has seemed to be, even among those charged with enforcing the regulations: It’s against the rules, but as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me, I don’t give a crap what you do.

We make the (now delightfully short) hike with our tents to the campgrounds and set up our site just in time for the sun to approach the low horizon. Just in time, too, for the air to cool, as the festival has run out of bottled water until a delivery tomorrow. All around us is sharp cracking filling our ears, for, like horse-bows, leather whips are a part of the revival of Hungarian culture and, as evidenced by their number, a very popular one.

We again walk the vendors as the dust floats like fog in the fading light of dusk. The clanging of hammers of anvils invites us to watch two men craft a sword’s blade, the white-hot metal illuminating their faces with a flickering red glow. The tents are alive with music and shows.

When Kristen and I finally settle into our tent, exhausted from the day’s heat, we drift to sleep with the sounds of laughing, singing, and drums drifting through the night air.

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