Sunday, June 9, 2013
One should never allow elevation to judge a hike. I cannot lie; I often do. Even though I grew up, or even because I grew up in such a flat place, I've quickly dismissed lowlands as either boring farmland or unnavigable swaps. This idea held despite many a wonderful walk in the prairies not far from my home town. That said, when I conceive of a hike, I imagine a mountain.
In Hungary, there aren't many mountains west of the Pilis; the Alps begin just when you cross the border of Austria. One could even argue that there aren't any mountains at all, but Hungarians are fiercely proud of whatever you call those bumps in their landscape, and as I explore them more, I become as well. It's about relativity and I suppose I should ignore my ancestral Rocky Mountain roots and extensive travels in the Himalaya and accept that I've been more or less a flatlander since birth. So let the Pilis be mountains, because it's just a word anyway.
I tackled all the Pilis sections of the Kektura first, which is natural, as they're the closest to Budapest and as much as I'd to view myself as some wake-at-the-crack-of-dawn-and-seize-the-day-even-if-that-day-is-Saturday-type of guy, I'm not. I'll have three beers on Friday night, watch a movie cuddled with Michelle, and get to sleep around 1AM, despite my best efforts, unless I absolutely have to. So after two months of wanting to venture further into the country, I found that I'd exhausted all the options for late starts.
Once you have to leave the general “metro” area, things become more complicated regarding transportation. Whereas the Pilis has hourly buses for the Budapestians that love to head to the hills to drink their beer, or to visit their parents or uncles who live in the villages, or oddly enough, the villagers who like to come to the city on weekends. The outer areas of Hungary are a different story. Sometimes you are lucky to find a bus at all that doesn't leave at dawn. So my mission of hiking across the country, one Saturday at a time, can't afford me such late nights on weekends, and if I decide to venture out on a Sunday, the buses are even more infrequent. This was the case last Sunday.
As we've established, I have a bias for high places and for my first real adventure in the heart of Hungary, I eyed the highest I could find, Kekes at 1014m. So, I filled out my little yellow post-it with bus times and transfer points, calculated my required pace to catch the last bus home, and finding my work done, I had another beer and watched a movie with Michelle, only to get to sleep too late, forcing my plan B: the Gerecse Hills, just East of the Pilis, only an hour from town.
The next morning, I found myself on the BP-Esztergom bus, amongst Japanese and Chinese tourists who were trying to flash moving photos of the poppy fields that so captured my imagination two weeks before. I was eyeing the elevations and my hike would only take me as high as 350m. I could see higher mountains out the window of my school! Unfortunately, I wasn't privy to this future essay's thesis statement, so between the low elevation and the dark clouds forming over the hills, I had little hope for this hike.
The Geresce hills are a thin chain of time humps that are a part of a longer narrow chain of humps connecting Budapest and Lake Balaton. This keeps Hungary from being completely flat in the middle and provides a convenient route for a long-distance hiking trail, that doesn't disrupt any farmer's wheat.
I was hiking from Dorog to Pelifoldszentkerest, opposite from the normal direction, mainly because buses didn't actually run Pelifoldszentkerest; the name is just simply too long to put on a bus window's sign. Even with the way I was taking, I'd have to backtrack for 30 minutes to the only slightly shorter named Mogyorosbanya, and catch one of the two buses that returned to civilization.
I'd written off this section and not just from the height and inconvenience, but also its lack of sights. The next section had two castles. This one only had three successive 300m climbs and descents. I'd learned in Nepal that it is often the lower hikes that prove the most strenuous. When you climb high, you usually stay high, but hills are a constant roller coaster of heavy breathes and sore knees.
Dorog was a lovely town with a gorgeous church and as I've mentioned before is a poppy paradise. The trail climbed straight up the hill Northwest of town. It was a moderate climb and I was greeted with a steady, but light rain. I've never loved rain, but there is one context that may make me a convert: when in the depths of a forest in summer and the leaves above create the most musical of umbrellas. Birds often love to add a melody to the thunderous percussion, the thump of my boots upon the ground, the squishy shlurp as they pull from the mud, and the rain drops' syncopation. Some mosquitoes attempted a high pitched harmony line, but I immediately squashed their dreams of joining my nature band.
Occasionally the trees would thin and I'd see the limestone hills above Kesztolc and the increasingly shrinking Dorog below. After a cloud obscured view of the whole valley from the top, the trail plummeted straight down the north face of the hill. I had to use the skinny oak trees and overhanging limbs to slow my slide down the mud-lubricated path. This was unpleasant, but I bet it would have been worse to go up.
The trail emerged in Tokod and I was glad that it left the unremarkable village quickly, especially because of what awaited ahead. I started climbing towards a rocky hill and the path travelled though another of the many lovely meadows that make Hungary so stunning in the summer. This one featured clumpy, cream-colored flowers punctuated by spiky purple ones that grew in kaleidoscopic patterns.
A storm was brewing above the hill I'd just passed, so I was pleased that I'd left no later than I did. Thankfully, the wind was blowing the storm from me, so I climbed higher, knowing I'd get to watch it without the danger of being struck by lightning.
The rocky hill was named Hegyes-kő. A couple months ago, I'd regard this as some exotic, poetic name, thought of by Petofi Sandor or some other great Hungarian writer. One often romanticises the words of an ununderstood language, often giving it a lofty status, but as I've learned more Hungarian, I've sadly discovered that the Hungarians are as bad at naming things as the Brits. This hill was called Mountain-y rock, which was simply what it was.
From the top of the mountainy rock, I could see the whole western side of the Pilis range and the great cathedral of Esztergom, the largest cathedral in Hungary. Even from miles away, it was impressive.
The trail then dipped down, crossing bald hills with views of the surrounding pastoral wonderland. I quickly walked through the cute, two-street village of Tokodipincék, stopping only to get lost and find the stamp for my book. People still collected their water from wells, every house had a garden, and most had grape vines. I should have stopped longer, but I only learned after the hike that “pincék” meant wine cellars—now that is well named village!
Behind the village was kőszikla, a hill with the name “stonerock”. After Mogyorosbanya (I don't know what that means.) I passed by “Old Rock”, a giant cave I didn't have time to explore. The section ended in Pelifoldszentkereszt, a holy place with a holy well that poured out holy water. I saw a woman loading up with it, using two-liter coca-cola bottles. I wanted to ask her if she desired to share a coke with Jesus, but I didn't speak enough Hungarian to be properly offensive.
The village may have been beautiful once, but this beauty led way for what appeared to be a seminary/dude ranch/Christian tourist trap. An old-folks home was across the street. The seminary was built around a reservoir and though I sure they were attempting some beautiful half nature/half human feel, in the end it just seemed like a waste of perfectly good forest. Just because it was lowlands, doesn't mean it isn't worth cherishing.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Dear the fat guy buying parsnips on a Wednesday morning without a shirt,
Why? I just wanted to put out the one word floating in my mind after I saw you, a reasonable looking man, doing what many normal people do in the morning: purchasing vegetables. Nothing about your demeanour suggested anything was amiss at all, except you weren't wearing a shirt.
So, let me begin by saying that I admire your courage and your moustache. However impressive it is, it is not enough to draw my eyes away from how your abdomen jiggles when you walk. I also commend you for spending your morning buying vegetables, as opposed to a bag of potato chips or langos. The moment I encountered you first, you were handing money to the friendly looking gypsy woman for a bundle of parsnips. As you most likely know, parsnips are high in potassium, vitamin c, and fibre. They are also low in fat. If you intention is to lose the spare tractor tire you've presented to the world, parsnips are a great way to start. Unfortunately, your desire to show off the results of your positive dietary choices is a bit premature.
Let me state now that I have nothing against fat people; one of my friends had a cat that was quite fat, and I loved him as I would a skinny cat, maybe even more so. That said, I do have something against general public shirtlessness when outside of the context of a beach or a Kid Rock concert. It can be easy to be led astray from societal norms when living in a city that doesn't stigmatize public defecation and in your defence, you were wearing more clothing than an average woman in Budapest, but that still doesn't make it right and I much prefer a young woman's breasts to yours.
I suppose in certain circumstances this would be more acceptable. If you had lived in some quaint back street of the city, away from people, for the last twenty years, and over those twenty years, the neighbourhood and greengrocer had grown accustomed seeing your abdomen from time to time. Maybe you had on occasion enjoyed a shirtless beer on your front step, back in the days when you were fit, and didn't eat so many parsnips. As time passed on, your gut grew larger and larger, but your self-image remained the same. That old t-shirt that always fit so well stretched to a point where one didn't need imagination to know what you looked like sans clothing, and you woke up this morning and thought, “Fuck it! It ain't anything they haven't seen already.” I severely doubt this is the case and you don't live in some quaint back street of Budapest. You live near Keleti Train station, one of the busiest places in the city, often the first port of call for any visiting foreigner. When tourists come to this city to see the grandiose things erected in this great city, they aren't expecting your nipples.
Which brings me to another point. Are you so well insulated that you failed to notice the chilly temperatures, the biting wind, and the continuous downpour of rain? When even the city's hookers were wrapped in worn down winter coats, did you not find it strange to go for a stroll with just your bare skin to protect you from this cold snap that has plagued us for the last week? This is not a sudden freak drop in temperature, it's been like this for many days and the forecast doesn't predict it to end any time soon. Parsnips won't protect you from the elements.
So please, fat man buying vegetables without a shirt, please remember to wear clothing. Not because it's Wednesday, not because it's cold and rainy, not because this is Keleti Raiway Station, and not even because you're fat. Just do it because you are a grown man. And grown men should know how to dress themselves.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Hungary isn't a nation known for its natural wonders. It has fantastic architecture, a deep history, and a ridiculous language, but it sadly lost most of its mountains to neighbouring countries after World War I. However, to regard its landscape as boring would be a tragic oversight. It isn't dramatic, but it is charming, therefore it can often be difficult to predict which places are going to be incredible for hiking. I've just now completed the 100km that make up the Pilis Hills section of the Kektura (In English, the Blue Trail. It is a 1,128km that crosses the Northern part of the country) and 20km from Dorog to Piliscsaba represents much of what makes hiking in Hungary a delight.
Dorog is only 45 minutes and a 700 forint trip from the center of Budapest and since it is on the busy BP-Esztergom route, there is no need for tricky planning with time. You can pretty much start and finish at any time of the day.
In the summer, the Pilis Mountains fill with literal fields of wild flowers. Just east of Dorog, I found myself surrounded by thousands of poppy flowers, with their thin petals that look like tissue paper and their unexpected melange of bright red, orange, and pink; it is sure to be many children's favorite crayon color. They are both vibrant and delicate. When I first saw a solitary flower, popping up on the side of the road in the industrial district of Csepel Island, I thought it was a fake, but thankfully, upon exploring the countryside around the city, I've found them to be delightfully abundant. I spent nearly half an hour trying to find the perfect way to shoot this spectacle, to decide if they looked better close up, with the petals flayed open, or folded over themselves in the wind. Or, does this cheat their real beauty: their copiousness, the way they continue for miles. Of course, when I got home and described what I saw to Michelle (and and that point they weren't poppies, but mystery flowers), she just said, “They're poppies, you can find them in any field or garden, but yeah, they are pretty.” We have poppies in North America, but nothing like this. It became clear why it is the most addictive flower.
Poppy orange is not the only color in this landscape’s palette. There were also purple clusters of sage flowers, tiny yellow flowers, spikey purple globes rising singularly on tall stalk, and lovely pink blossoms that hung from tree vines. All together, it felt like I'd passed on, to a Monet painted afterlife. I hadn't even walked a kilometer from Dorog and I was already getting an adrenaline rush.
The trail ascended up through a new, but surprisingly dense forest, like a tunnel, winding its way through the thicket. It was the height of the spring and the leaves had reached a blinding hue of green, even though I was in the shade. Then the trail thrusted me out onto the other side, where I stood in front of two limestone mountains, above the cute village of Kesztolc.
Walking through any village in Hungary is often a rattling experience. Every yard has its own dog, so a walk down the street is continuous cycle of being startled, a short recovery time, then another jump ten meters later. I did my best to just focus on the approaching hills and the prospect of the view from the top, hopefully stretching all the way to Esztergom and the famous Blue Danube.
After the village, the route stretched high into the Pilis until I was at the base of the main summit. The trail bisected a wide shelf, with a meadow that continued all the way along the edge of the range. A layer of white hovered above the fields, like fresh snow being blown across the road. When I was closer, I realized it was a waifish, white plant that danced, weightless in the air. These may have been the inspiration for the inflatable, “tubemen” used to draw children and potheads to car dealerships. If from a distance they were a blizzard, up close, they were lightning.
A tiny path veered right up the mountain, but according to my map, this was not the way; the Kektura instead just followed the meadow, only skirting the mountains until the tiny village of Klastrompuszta. I went forward, completely happy, but not content. After a 100m, my uncontrollable urge to go higher overcame me and I retreated back to the fork and began climbing.
My map only covered the official Blue Trail, so I had to go blind. I surveyed the line of the mountains and deduced that that as long as I followed the high ridge, then took the first trail back down, I couldn't possible get lost.
The Kektura is a great way to see the country. It's a continuous trail, hits the main sights of Northern Hungary, and you can collect your progress with stamps in a little book containing maps, elevation information, distance charts and points of interest. Sadly though, because it is meant to be a popular easy route, the hiking itself can prove quite boring. Often it is more of a dirt road than a trail. The other cross-country routes are often smaller and closer to my conceptualization of “hiking.” The trail I took, which was the Zoldut (green road), shot straight up the hill. Thankfully, a month of weekly hikes and regular running had whipped my legs and heart into shape.
About halfway up the hill, I heard some rustling in the trees. I looked through the foliage and caught a glimpse of a pack of some sort of large mammal running through the tress. This was my first encounter with wild animals in Hungary, so I was excited at first, but when I realised that the mystery animals were a group of boars, fear set in. So I did what any sensible person would do when faced with a herd of one of the most dangerous animals in Europe; I pulled out my camera and tried to, unsuccessfully, get a shot. The click of the shutter drew the attention of the leading pig and it turned towards me and started running. I scanned the area for the nearest tree to climb, but in my panic I couldn't find one, even though I was in the middle of a forest. I froze, but the boars chose to use their flight response instead of the deadly alternative. I continued merrily on my way.
The peak was only a kilometre away and I stopped and ate a banana, my feet dangling from the limestone cliff, and I started down to the tiny villages and vineyards below. I couldn’t quite see the grand cathedral of Esztergom, from on a clear day like this, it wouldn’t surprise me if I could see Croatia from across the flat Hungarian plain. I traced the kektura and it twisted around to the tiny village of Klastrompuszta, which from here appeared as merely a church. If I walked down the narrow gully between the next two peaks, I could get my stamp in the book and simply continue with the trail onward to Piliscsaba.
The high trail opened into a wide open space, lined with freshly felled trees. This was clearly a future highway on the high ridge of the Pilis, even though there was a highway a mile to the right and a mile to the left of here already. It was becoming a common sight. No matter where I’ve been hiking, there are ongoing projects to get cars onto the tops of the peaks. Now, I understand the need to be on the top of a hill, it was the same internal desire that brought me here, but my hiking boots aren’t kicking down thousands of trees, cutting ecosystems in half, bring pollution, exhaust, or the worst, the sounds of cars to this sacred place.
The Pilis hills are one of those magical places that burst with energy and draw the holy. It was the home of the Hungarian royalty for a thousand years. The Dalai Lama visited these beech forests in order to feel the power of what some consider to be Europe’s most sacred place. New Agers claim it is the center of the heart chakara for the whole continent. The catholic seat of Hungary lies in these hills. People undertake pilgrimages from the far corners of Europe to come to these hills. It is a land of miracles: Mother Mary has appeared on trees in these hills. There are so few magic places left in this world, so for the love of whatever spiritual power you believe in, can we just leave a road off of a place for once, so it can only be accessed by those that want to love it, not destroy it?
The two lane highway cut through the mountains, more or less continuing in the right direction. As I had suspected, a cross trail leading down went along a fissure, leaving the summit. I reluctantly descended. The trail popped out of the trees to an overlook above the plains and I saw Klastrompuszta below, a couple miles away. Directly above it was an even higher peak, this one at such an angle and height that I could probably see the whole Pilis range from its peak. I turned around and rejoined the highway.
I did my best to mentally map my position, but I feared that the trail was slowly taking me from my goal. I couldn’t see the peak through the trees, but I could feel it. Just when I thought I’d either have to backtrack or just bushwhack through the forest, the route forked and the highway headed further into the Pilis, while the hiking trail headed in the direction of my dream view.
It all opened up into the hiking equivalent of a spaghetti junction. The green, blue, yellow, green cross, green peak, red, red peak all met here. I had no idea which one went where, so I picked the green peak and began climbing. It was getting late, but I’d already come so far. After a while, the trail veered north, deeper into the mountains and away from where I wanted to go. I started walking faster as I often do when faced with the prospect of being lost and before I knew it, I was on the complete other side of the mountain, overlooking the whole North section of the Pilis and Danube in the distance. To my left, I could see Dobogoko and I realized that I was nowhere near where I thought I was. I considered heading in that direction; I knew there were plenty of buses home from there. Piliscsaba was merely an abstraction at this point.
However, I’m a stubborn man and when I decide that my destination is going to be Piliscsaba, by golly, I’m going to Piliscsaba, so I turned back the way I came, hiked back to the spaghetti junction and followed the green cross heading down the hill. The trail started heading the wrong way, so I ploughed through the trees in the direction of Klastrompuszta, following a dried creek. The good thing about being lost in the Pilis is that one is never far from a village and there are ample trails going there, no matter how deep into the national park one goes. I can’t recall the route I took, but after 20 minutes, I reached my destination.
It was a cute village of a hundred people with some old monastery ruins that I didn’t have time to explore; I still had 7km left to go. I was actually happy to be back on the wide, easy to follow kektura, especially because I could once again follow a map; I got lost again a little bit down the trail. It opened up into a freshly logged field and even though there were four potential routes to choose from, none were marked. I couldn’t see the next village, but using the map and the position of the sun, I picked a trail. It was the wrong one.
Fortunately, it did take me to right village, just the wrong part of it. But not before I walked upon a group of vacationers, chugging wine. I even caught one in the midst of urinating. They started talking to me in Hungarian. I apologized, told them that my Hungarian was terrible. I asked if they spoke English and they said no. I asked if they spoke German and they said no. They asked me if I spoke Slovak and I knew then, that it was time to put the money I’ve been spending on Hungarian lessons to good use. They offered me wine, but I explained that I wasn’t thirsty. Apparently, this didn’t matter and they poured me a cup. Since I had witnessed one urinating, I asked if the golden colored liquid in the cup was piss, but they seemed confused. I pointed to the man and said that he was peeing, then asked if this was pee. They still seemed confused, so I said I was only joking and we all had a jolly, awkward laugh.
Not ten minutes later, I had another opportunity to practice my Hungarian. As I mentioned before, I had taken the wrong trail and was thus lost. Some men were having a BBQ in their backyard and I asked them how to find the kektura. Nobody knew the way, but the youngest who spoke English confirmed that I was in the right village. His father kept asking me in Hungarian where I was going. I told him I was going to Piliscsaba. “By foot?!” he exclaimed. “Yes.” I said. So the man gestured for me to come. “Come on,” he said in Hungarian. “We’ll go by car.” I was happy that we had just learned the various methods of transportation a few days before in class.
I told him that it was fine, I wanted to walk. I saw on the map that the trail passed the only church in town, so I asked where it was. I was told that there was no point going to the church; Piliscsaba was only seven minutes by car. He wasn’t getting my message, so I asked his son in English to explain to his father that, even though it is extremely kind of him to offer me a ride and I mean no disrespect, but I’m on a personal endeavour to hike across Hungary and getting a ride is a direct affront to my goal.
The father would have none of it. He disregarded his son as if he’d made it all up himself. He then turned to me and said in Hungarian, “Don’t listen to him, he’s crazy. Come, we’ll go by car.” The son looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.
I then started testing the limits of my communication ability. I said, “Fresh and young I am. Piliscsaba is close. Only 90 minutes it is.” He didn’t get it. I said, “I like walking, I want walking. Walking happiness makes me! Happy man I am! I am not tired. Walking is easy!”
He stared and me and processed my brilliant soliloquy, then said, “Come on, we’ll go by car.”
I looked at his son and asked him if I was communicating correctly. He said, “Yes, you’re speaking Hungarian very well, but it seems my father does not understand the concept of what you are doing.” We both shrugged our shoulders.
I said to the father in Hungarian, “You are a very very nice boy and I am a young boy and it is late. Piliscsaba is over there and far away, but I like walking. Thank you for help. Goodbye.” And I left.
As I was walking away, I heard the man ask to the heavens, “Why are all young people so crazy?”
And in that moment, I knew that both this hike and my Hungarian lessons were well worth the effort.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
I started learning Hungarian this week after six months of living with the hope that I’d magically be able to converse with locals, despite an absolute lack of effort. This is not completely impossible, to an extent. It is actually quite common to pick up large amounts of language passively. For example, I know that “tolni” means push. In my first week here, I had a man yell it at me as I found myself unable to open a door. At first I freaked out, wondering what type of insult “tolni” could mean; I’d at least worked out that he was yelling at me because of my clear stupidity of not being able to open a door, but after a second or a minute— time ceases to move in these freak-out moments— I noticed that there was a small sign above the handle, saying the same word. Naturally, I continued pulling on the door. The man said it again and I figured I should take a new strategy, pushing the door. That worked; the door opened. I turned back to the guy, slapped my forehead gently with my palm and exclaimed with a laugh, “Tolni!”, as if I was merely unobservant or stupid, not foreign.
Honestly though, besides knowing the words for nearly every vegetable one can find in this country (the markets have clearly marked signs above each bin), my Hungarian is about nil. This is not purely from laziness. When I first arrived, I had every intention of studying Hungarian for an hour every day. I believe that when one plans to live in a country for four years, they should at least learn how to say to a cashier, “Hey, what do you think of this particular cheese?” As it stands, I can look at the cashier and say, “Cheese?” After just a day or two here, realizing I needed flashcards just to say thank you (köszönöm) and that the language has anywhere between 12 and 33 vowels (I swear they add more every few days, just to confuse me), I gave up on any serious study of the language. Especially considering that even when I know the word, even seemingly simple words like sör (beer), I am incomprehensible to Hungarians. This is a common source of frustration to many of foreigners that live here.
There is a fantastic bakery near my flat. Often in the morning, I’ll wonder down with my artist/”I-just-woke-up- and-want-some-bread” hair, point to a bread roll and exclaim, “Egy Zsemle!” They give me a strange look as if I’m speaking some strange language and offer me something completely different. I’ve observed the signs. There is only one thing in the entire store that has a name even resembling Zsemle and that’s Zsemle. So, even if I had managed to say something like music or bill or SIM-card, one would think in this context, that I was probably talking about the object to which I was pointing. It’s like working at a store that cuts keys and having somebody come in and ask for kois. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t spend two minutes glaring at the person, wondering why they think they can buy a fish at my key store. Thankfully, the baker woman speaks English and we quickly drop any pretence that we’ll be able to communicate in Hungarian, and she just asks me what I want. These are not confidence building events.
So when Babilon offered me Hungarian lessons on a teacher’s discount, I figured I should participate. The first lesson was dedicated to introductions, numbers, and most importantly, pronouncing the different letters. In just a few minutes, I discovered a reason why the baker couldn’t understand me: I couldn’t even say the word for one correctly. I’d been saying “Egy” like egg-ee, when the “gy” is just one letter pronounced like the last sound of the English word “edge”. Turns out I kept walking into the bakery saying something like “sky-music”. If somebody asked me for sky-music in my key store, I’d probably call the police.
However, just taking Hungarian classes doesn’t make it an easy language. I find that learning to count to ten in most languages is a simple process, taking little more than few minutes, but in Hungarian, it took me a good part of an afternoon. They follow a logic I don’t understand. In most languages, when you learn 1-10, the rest is quite easy. Not in Hungarian. After ten (tiz), it seems simple enough, eleven is tizenegy, twelve is tizenkettő, or simply ten-en-one, ten-en-two, etc. Twenty though, is húsz, which isn’t derived from their word for two at all! But at least it can follow the same formula, twenty-en-one, right? Unfortunately no, it is huszonegy. Thirty is harminc, but after forty, the rest gets much easier, if you can remember which ones end with ven or van.
Another oddity is that the third person seems to have optional verbs or optional subjects, depending on the sentence. So, once I know a few more words, I still won’t know who anyone is taking about or what they are doing.
I was able to use my Hungarian immediately. Last night, Michelle and I went to see Django Unchained. The cinema had assigned seats, and when we reached ours, a woman had turned mine into her personal wardrobe, stashing her coat, candy, sodas, boyfriend’s gloves, scarf, and given this is Hungary, probably her small dog as well. I didn’t know how to say, “Um, would you mind placing your things someplace else? It is a Saturday night and the show is sold out, so unfortunately, there are no spares seats in this theatre for you to store your personal belongings.” But, I did know the verb for “am” and the word for nine, my seat number. So I meekly remarked, “kilenc vagyok!” or simple “nine am I”. There is the slight possibility that I proposed the philosophical statement, “nine exists”, but either way, the woman seemed to understand and spent the next ten minutes transferring her massive pile of things out of my seat.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
One Hungarian dish that everybody should try when they visit Central or Eastern Europe is langos (pronounced lahn-gosh, with a long o sound). It is nothing fancy, merely flatbread that is either deep fried or baked in a brick oven (typically, the former) For those in the United States, it is quite similar to Indian Fry-bread, having the same simple, slightly sour flavour. Most of the time it is served, covered in garlic butter, sour cream, and cheese to make a Hungarian version of the flatbread pizza. Apparently, many eat it with ham, corn, potatoes or a variety of other toppings, but I most often see people chowing on the cheese/sour cream version. There are langos stands everywhere; it appears to rank third in fast food hierarchy, after pizza and gyros. A langos vender across the street, whose restaurant is simply a 3ft wide window before a kitchen, just big enough for the cook, has a constant flow of customers. His sign is so faded, if one didn't see him sling such an incomprehensible number of flatbreads, nobody would know what he sells. I didn't have a clue for weeks, until I approached his tiny shop and saw the handwritten menu posted to his window. Just last week, I tried his langos, which was fluffy and delicious, dripping with garlicky butter, layered in two centimetres of cheese (I've found myself to be a bit lactose intolerant as of late, so I omitted the sour cream, but accepted the hit from the cheese). It was a cheap treat (costing about a buck-fitty) and I could understand its popularity. Though, it struck with a vengeance a few hours later. I don't really eat fried food any more so I found myself with a terrible case of heart burn and the cheese gave me a stomach ache, but it's a small price to pay for a little decadence.
Monday, December 3, 2012
|The famous, inquisitive African child and his delightful commentary on the absurdity of the "developed" world. This is one that I actually quite like.|
I don't really get memes. Many people are particularly fond of this form of expression. Some of my best friends, even my beloved Michelle are hooked on these things. For those of you who don't know what a meme is, it is a replicating piece of culture that mutates (evolves/devolves). Now, this is an extremely narrow definition of the idea, but for the purpose of this essay, one just needs to know that the term meme has basically been mutated, to mean that people take a photo and type some text over that top and...that's it (an "image macro" so to speak). Don't get me wrong, there are some clever memes out there. Occasionally, Michelle will show me a good one or I'll see one on facebook, but most are decidedly, not funny.
I don't know exactly when the first Internet meme was invented, but the first I remember was the classic, So-and-So Ate My Balls pages from the mid-90's. It all started with Mr. T Ate my Balls. Basically, it was websites filled with photos of celebrities and characters talking about eating balls. It may not sound funny, but at 14, these were genius. Here's an example, using a modern image-macro template:
|This is muti-layered meta-joke, based upon an earlier joke you've probably never heard of.|
Around the same time as this was another of these early Internet memes, the hamsterdance. It portrayed four animated .gif images of dancing rodents, set to a song from Disney's Robin Hood. I'd first come across it in an online chat room around 1999 or 2000 (for you youngins, before there was facebook, people would join groups for similar interests and send texts to each other for hours), finding it amusing, I started setting it as our school computers' web browser homepage. Much like "ate my balls" memes, these morphed into other groups of animated .gifs dancing to music. (Catdance, jesusdance, dancing babies, you name it, they were all dancing in 2000.) Note that this is pre-flash, everything was purely html and thus rudimentarily done. It was the simplicity of the technology that allowed these variations to spread so quickly. I think hamsterdance was a turning point for Internet culture, showing that the Internet was a medium for mass production and distribution of ideas, that was ever changing and evolving. Also, there was money in it.
Hamsterdance merchandise, including shirts and coffee mugs and calendars and all that started selling like mad. An extended remix of the 10 second hamsterdance jingle was even reached number five on the Australian singles chart (number 2 in Britain). People latched onto this idea that a trifle could make money and even more importantly, variations on trifles can mean something.
The technology improved and the flash player made online animation a product that could be easily and quickly viewed, but with the growing ability of C++ to make really anything, animators and creative types with a knowledge of programming began creating sites like Homestar Runner and rathergood.com to show off their talents. It was a golden age for animation; one didn't need a distributor to show off their art and using the growth of internet advertising and merchandising, one could do it for a living. All one needed was ability and some luck. Memes began dying out as the tastes for internet culture became more sophisticated. Simply, the average person was not adept at making cartoons. For five years, the average internet user was mostly a consumer, not a creator. (a more accurate portrait is that most focused their creative attentions on the simpler, web-design and blog-creation.)
|A velociraptor, who philosophically ponders whatever a person writes on top of the image.|
The tide seemed to change after the rise of the LOLcat. Sometime around 2006, image macros of cats, superimposed with grammatically incorrect leet sayings (cats can't speak well you see), broke out of the message boards and into the general public, and the internet meme was reborn. The beauty of this was its utter-simplicity. All one needed was a photo of a cute cat and paint, then boom, instant contribution to internet culture:
|From conception to posting, this took me exactly three minutes and 17 seconds. Though this one admittedly, isn't very good.|
|This one only took 46 seconds to make.|
LOLcats were followed by Fail-memes (or maybe preceded by, it is hard to trace the origins of these things). Fail-memes were just a bunch of photos of failures, with simply "fail" written on them. It was an even more simplified way to create a picture joke. It required no thought in both creation or viewing. The hardware needed to see and make them were the same. Mix this with facebook and its ability to share and spread culture quickly and you have an instantly gratifying exchange from producer to consumer. There isn't really a middleman and grows through word of mouth. This is one of the most democratic art-forms in the world.
People spend endless hours making and viewing these rudimentary forms of expression. Valuable work time around the world is lost to blindly scrolling down pages of these variations upon themes, in some sort of Skinnerian reinforcement of finding the 1 out of every 250 that actually generates a laugh. The internet is now polluted with literally millions of these images and finding one that may have had an original idea is nearly impossible. When anybody with a computer can not only make something, but expose it to the masses in less than a minute, does it have value?
The evolution of current photo macros are fascinating. It is a short history (but a dense one given the sheer overload of information created using this format). The cause, effect, and especially order are hard to trace. The Simpsons and Family Guy's popularization of dropping obscure pop-culture references in an endless game of nostalgia battles spawned memes thats' origins were simply, images from films, with the corresponding quote written on it.
|A favorite scene of mine from the 1989 film Uncle Buck. All I needed to do with today's simple access to images, was type in Uncle Buck on an image search engine. Then put some text on top of it. Time from conception to completion 2 minutes.|
|This one took ten minutes because I had to find a picture where Yoda was looking in the same direction as Boromir, then haphazardly cut it out and paste it onto a new image.|
A photo from some old film + Words (extra points if it makes reference to another popular meme) = My own contribution to culture. So, let's see....old film....old films.....AH! I love Touch of Evil starring Orson Wells and Charlton Heston. So, I can just type in Touch of Evil into google images, scroll through until I see an amusing image, put it in paint, type something on top, upload it onto this blog and.....there, you can all witness my clever wit.
If this doesn't go viral, I can make more and more and more until I find one that people like. These remind me of a giant photo caption contest, except instead of us being exposed to the best few, we are exposed to every single entry. Theoretically, society will filter out the ones that aren't funny and the rest will fade into obscurity, but it doesn't work that though. For them to be passed on, somebody has to see them and share them. Even the ones that are popular and funny are still trivial and ultimately forgettable, because the second somebody has a good idea, it becomes absorbed, changed, regurgitated and thus watered down, again and again and again until all you have is just a photo of Boromir with clasped fingers. What is wrong with this? Nothing really, I just hope that people who make and view these photos are cognisant of their frivolousness. We are leaving nothing behind with these. Nobody is going to look back at this:
|1 minute, 23 seconds|
|Will this mean anything to anybody in a year? Does it mean anything now?|
This is not all bad. For sociologists looking to study the effects of mass-media and its effects on the evolution of ideas, this is amazing stuff! Studying the internet is like the studying life-cycles of fruit-flies, because there are so many participants, mutations happen quickly. The language of expression is changing and being absorbed by society so quickly, images are taking on more complex meanings in very short amount of time. Again, this has been happening forever; it is how language was born, but are the implications of photo macros and internet memes on the future of communication?
|This is now linked with pondering deep (or not so deep) questions of the universe.|
Saturday, December 1, 2012
When I decided to piggyback on Michelle's adventure to Hungary, I knew that a life on the couch would not be a viable option. This is especially taking into account my financial situation, which is fine since, fiscally, I've proven to be of mixed Scottish and Jewish descent. But sadly, a year's savings lasts significantly less than five years of life (or even one year of life), so I was forced to explore methods of earning money. This can be difficult in a nation where they speak a strange language, unrelated to anything else (except Finnish, where the only similarity I've noticed, is stressing the first syllable of every word).
I have 13 years of food service experience and I'm sure I could become the equivalent of an Ecuadorian in America, plugging away, being exploited on a kitchen line in some restaurant, but this really isn't how I want to live my life. I have no problems being an semi-skilled foreign immigrant, but only as a last resort. So, I looked inside of myself, embraced my inner-backpacker and decided to pursue teaching English as a second language. I cringed as my life continued to be a stereotype.
Although I do have an English degree, one cannot simply become an English teacher. So I did my research and found a highly respected certification course, the CELTA, being offered by the International House Language School in Budapest. I signed up, wrote an essay, had a nerve racking interview, and after sending them a month's savings, I was enrolled.
The course started on the first of October, giving me just a week to adjust to the time-zone and the lifestyle before diving in completely. I didn't really know what to expect. I'd heard many horror stories about the full-time CELTA course; tales of no sleep, tears, and impossible loads of knowledge in such a short amount of time. It had been a long time since I was last a student; I was quite worried that I'd forgotten how.
The first day of class was quite fun. My classmates seemed cool and Gary, our deceptively tall and funny Scottish instructor was a brilliant teacher (as you would expect from a man hired to teach the art of teaching). In the first week, we were already slotted to teach real students, even though few of us had any experience or skills.
My first teaching experience left me addled, but it went quite well. It was not nearly as hard as I'd thought; though even though it was day 3 of the course, we'd already learned a ridiculous amount. From that point on, I would have to teach for 45 minutes, every other day. Even though much of the course was spent learning methodology, teaching and watching our peers teach was the real course.
Most mornings, I'd wake around six, have a quick breakfast, check over my lesson plan, then head over to school. Even though the school is on the other end of the city, well into the Buda side, my apartment and the school were both close to subway stops, so it only took 15 minutes. I would always pay my respects to the epic façade of the Keleti train station and thank my life for allowing me to live a block from such a beautiful building, before catching my train.
I typically arrived around 8 and would spend the next hour printing, copying, and cutting. It is crazy to think that even after all the planning and designing is finished, there is still another hour of work before teaching. Our teaching went from 9-11:30, comprising of three 45 minute lessons and a 15 minute break. After this, we tore each other's lessons apart then prepared for the next day. After a lunch break (which I typically spent working), we spent a few more hours being taught different teaching techniques by our three main instructors. All were entertaining, inspiring teachers and I learned much, not just from their lessons, but taking note of their own styles and how it helped me learn.
Our school day ended at 5PM. Those with no lessons the next morning would hit the bar for a quick beer, the rest headed home to plan. I gained a new respect for my past teachers once I saw how much work goes into planning. I, like most students, just assumed that most work was done in front of the class, with a bit of test correction now and then. Lesson planning is long, hard work. Even though I only taught for 45 minutes in the morning, I would spend an average of five or more hours preparing, often working until midnight. In fact, the teaching was the easiest part: with proper planning, the lessons didn't involve much thought, even if I didn't even stick to the plan. I knew though that if I find a teaching job, I'd need to drop the 6:1 ratio of planning to class time.
I was so busy constantly that the four weeks just flew by. Week 3, traditionally the hardest week of the course, ended with a four day weekend, which helped us all recharge for the last couple days of our lessons. It was a stressful month, but the course wasn't nearly as tough as I was led to believe. I did get at least seven hours of sleep most nights and I remembered most of what was taught in class, mainly since our instructors were fantastic. My hard work and dedication paid off as I was given a A-level for the course. It is good to know that I'm still “that guy”, when it comes to school.
Now I'm a certified English teacher and with an A-level, finding work should not be too tough. In fact, I was offered a class before I'd even finished the course, but things are never straightforward in Hungary...
Friday, November 30, 2012
When I first heard this band in Australia three years ago, I had no clue they'd ever make an album such as this. My friend Chris said it, "quietly blew him away." Their big international hit, "Electric Feel" was like a Prince song, as played by two New England white boys. Their three dance rock hits helped their debut, Oracular Spectacular, go platinum worldwide and gave the masses high expectations for their follow-up. Based on these three songs, many were very disappointed to find that Congratulations was a collection of throwback, late-60's psychedelic pop. This shouldn't be to surprising to any who actually listened to the entirity of Oracular Spectacular, including the second half featuring less-catchy, more artistic psychedelic workouts.
I was not disappointed by their "change" in sound, considering I was not a huge fan of the band. MGMT and their producer went to great lengths to capture the sounds of 1960's pop they've unleased. This is by no means a straightforward throwback that has become so popular with hipster bands lately, but the late- 60's as seen through the eyes of electro-funk obessed New England white boys (though this album doesn't actually contain any electro-funk. It is a confidently delivered album, from the surfy, harpsichord laden opener, "It's Working" until the closing title track. It is a meticulously structured album, but sounds almost like a cocky afterthought. "Siberian Breaks", the centerpiece and highlight of the whole album, is a 12-minutes suite, beginning with a modern interpretation 1967-era Byrds and ending with a sweep of swirling electronic beauty that is almost Wagnerian in texture. Oracular Spectacular sounded like a promising debut by a band destined to fade away as one album wonders. Congratulations shows that they are much more than that; they'll still go down as one album wonders, (it is the kind of album that'll anger the masses) but the cool kids will follow every move they make.
I've crossed oceans enough times, found myself stuck on buses for 12 hours, trains for 36. Flying to Budapest seemed like nothing. I just sat back and watched a few movies; I've spent whole days doing the same thing. I landed in the early afternoon, planning to manage the public transportation to find my home, but after spending nearly two days awake, I opted for a taxi.
The outskirts of Budapest seemed like any other developed country. I saw houses, factories, drab apartments, but mostly express-way. Things were a bit different when the taxi entered the actual city. It looked like Europe; not necessarily the Europe I knew from my travels in Germany, but the Europe of movies: concrete, endless apartment buildings, bakeries at every corner, carved doorways.
It was all quite charming. When the taxi stopped in front of my building, I wasn't so charmed. My block was run down, drunks on the street. If it was cloudy, I'd feel like I was in a Kieslowski film, but Michelle was waiting outside, arms spread and I knew that Eastern Europe couldn't be all bad.
When changing time-zones, I vow to not sleep during the day, fearing this will set back my adjustment, but I was too tired to resist when Michelle headed to class, leaving me alone in the apartment. The moment I had my clothes put away in the drawer, I found myself under the covers, asleep for a nap.
She woke me two hours later and after a long cuddle, we were getting ready to visit our friend Yeganah before heading to a birthday dinner at the New York Cafe, one of the premier restaurants in Budapest.
Our meal was an amazing white-tablecloth affair, with our own waiter armed with a crumb scraper and cloth gloves. My food was divine, especially in its presentation. I ordered rabbit with Hungarian veggies (the were puréed, so I never really found out which veggies they were). It tasted great and the wine washed over my fatigue. My companions kept asking me if I'd like to head home, but I felt fine. I didn't know how bad I looked until I woke the next morning, remembering little and quite shocked by my dishevelled look in the photos. I remembered the free, orgasm-inducing chocolates at the end and that's all that matters.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Four years ago, I made a decision that has altered the course of my life considerably. At that point, I had been out of college for two years, was a rising manager in an exciting restaurant with a staff of 30 people. I didn’t know where I was headed, but all I could see was up. I was blinded by this early success, the ambition in the corporate structure, my growing IRA. I didn’t see the lack of fulfillment.
Even though I saw it as my own restaurant, I was still being controlled by those above me. I’d pour my heart and work into projects for the betterment of the business, only to see them brushed aside. Sure, I’d get a pat on the back for my hard work; I was being noticed by the head office in Chicago, but I really couldn’t do anything. It did not matter though, because contentment had found me. All I had to do was keep working hard, keep impressing my superiors and eventually, I’d reach some undetermined higher level of status.
Contentment is a slow acting poison. It seemed like happiness. If you’d asked me how I was, I’d tell you I was happy. But, work was always a phone call away. My weekends were spent at home, ready to remedy a disaster at work. My dreams were a series of problems at the workplace I could not control. I had money to spend, but no time to spend it. My one shot of 18 year old single malt scotch had become three and I didn’t even feel the difference. In the corporate world, happiness is a pillar with only an illusory ladder. The only escape I had were my emails to Australia.
My unexpected relationship with Jess was cut short not long after it had begun. Just when we’d come to terms with our feelings for each other, shed the guilt from our situation and realized we wanted to explore the future together, she had to go home. I don’t know if it was love for her or a hidden desire inside to escape the trap of the American Dream (surely it was both), but my choice to drop everything and cross the ocean involved little thought.
I’d always wanted to live in other places. This belief was fostered in me through years of hosting exchange students. It was given that I’d spend a year abroad and see the other side of this lifestyle that had become so normal. My dreams were clouded by ambition, my need to live life by logic. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but spending a year as an exchange student would set it back. Graduating in 2002, instead of 2001 was unacceptable, because I’d then graduate from college a year later as well. This would make me underprivileged compared to my classmates, who would have a whole year head start on me. I was losing the race before I’d even started it. In the end I settled for a month backpacking in Germany when I was 17.
Eight years later, I found myself getting on a plane to cross the pacific, ready to start living with a family in Australia, taking back the dream I once saw as a threat to my happiness. At age 25, I finally became an exchange student.
I’ve been traveling ever since. Things with Jess did not work out, but it freed me to see the country. After another year at home, I headed to Asia for another year-long adventure, where I met Michelle.
Now, I find myself following another woman across a different ocean, this time to Budapest, which is one of the last places I expected to find myself. In a logic driven life, I’d not be here. From years living abroad though, I’ve learned to embrace a life of curiosity and feeling, to ignore the ladders and the pillars (finding happiness is not a climb, it’s more about rolling down the right hills), and not to worry if my choices are setbacks. Somehow, I’m engaged to marry a beautiful Norwegian and will spend four years in Hungary while she finishes he veterinary program. I’m facing a forced career change, for with no Hungarian, few contacts, and absolutely no business, it would be impossible to fall back upon my prior dependencies.
I don’t know what I’ll do , but writing and English teaching are about all a native speaker can do in Budapest. I’m signed up for a CELTA course, which will qualify me to teach. After that month, who knows what will happen next. At least it will be impossible to accept contentment.