Things I’ve learned about Hungary–so far

7 May


At this point I can no longer remember why I decided that we should come to a very small village in the vicinity of Lake Balaton, Hungary, for two weeks of this trip. I think the notion to be in Hungary began because I was amazed that in all my time in Vienna, I had never crossed into the other half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and people who knew me were astonished that I had never been to Budapest. As for the decision to come to this resort region: all I can reconstruct now is some vague idea that seeing this part of the country would expand my understanding of how Austria and Hungary were connected; we have often been so close to this border in Austria that we could look into the Hungarian countryside. Another factor was, I think, that all the rentals in Budapest were too expensive! In any case, the consensus of our Austrian friends has been that two weeks here is a bit much, and that we would be bored out of our minds in a few days. I know what they mean–I’m sure I’d say the same thing if a friend said he was going to spend two weeks at Lake Havasu or the Nevada desert–but so far we have found more than enough to do and explore, despite rainy weather and some discomfiting ailments.

We are in the tiny village of Somogyszentpal, a place with only two roads in and one of them is so rugged that it hardly counts as a road.  I found this little romantic-seeming cottage on HomeAway–what an amazing thing the internet can be! And from this vantage point, and at this time of year, this is what I have observed and learned so far about this proud little country:


The village church, Somogyszentpal

**Despite being a largely Catholic country, historically Hungary has harbored many different religious sects. During the Reformation, and probably because of opposition to Habsburg rule, the country embraced Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Lutheranism, as well as every different type of Orthodoxy. Under Turkish rule, of course, Islam also entered into the mix.  All of this resistance to Catholicism may explain why the churches, even though Catholic, appear so severe and unornamented. Inside of the small village churches, the walls are usually whitewashed, and altars and Stations of the Cross are added as wood carvings or plaster artifacts. Even the more significant churches appear rather subdued on the exterior, when the interior are elaborately painted.

**Although a resort location that half of Hungary visits in the summer, no town or village in the area has a laundromat! We are at a loss to understand what people are supposed to do to wash clothes. Since the owner of the cottage we’re staying in has declined to put in a washing machine, we have had to wash things one at a time by hand, and finally had Rosi, our neighbor, offer to wash things in her machine. This lack would seem to be a golden opportunity for some eager entrepreneur to invest in:  just a few locations in places like Keszthely, Marcali, and Tapolca.

**The reason Magyar, the famously indecipherable language of the country, is so frustrating for foreigners is because the words are in Roman script, and so appear to be approachable for Westerners. But when one tries to make out the words, not a single syllable or root has any relationship to any of the other Western languages.  So one confronts the letters and is certain that SOMETHING will make sense, but nothing does. The other intriguing thing is that despite speaking this language that nobody else understands, Hungarians are not enthusiastic about learning other languages. Unlike the Finns or the Danes, who recognize that their language is too limited to be learned by others and so they must learn to communicate in other languages as a matter of course, the Hungarians are fiercely proud of their language and hold on to it intently. Whereas Swedish and Slovenian universities teach many of their classes in English, Hungarian universities do not. We have found that most people just keep talking Magyar to us, even when we make it clear that we have no idea what they’re saying. We find the sound of Magyar quite pleasing, and people are nothing if not kind despite the language barrier.


**Recently, in keeping with what seems to be a distressing trend, the Hungarians have elected their own Donald Trump: Victor Orban, who has made so many reactionary and corrupting decisions that even other conservative leaders have made him retract his orders. He came to real power once the refugee crisis began in Europe. The Hungarians were strenuously opposed to the floods of refugees entering the country, and refused to take in any number of those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. While Hungarians can be prone to gloom in the best of times, this situation has led many to even greater bouts of moroseness, while Orban’s dictatorial hold on power continues.

**Economically, Hungary is in the doldrums, although the recent popularity of Budapest with trendy folks has made for some improvements, if only evident in the more touristy parts of the city, but not in the rest of the country. On the plane to Vienna, we read an article in the London Financial Times about all the hot properties in Budapest, but this really did seem geared toward the elite end of the market. A 2014 study found that 1 in 2 Hungarians live on less than 260 Euros a month, and that more than 250,000 children are undernourished.

**The place where we have noticed the most fascinating evidence of how dramatic a border change can be is in the example of bread. Austria–literally yards away from Hungary–has some of the best, most diverse, varieties of hardy breads, the kind that make Germanic types consider bread the staff of life. Cross the border into Hungary: the bread is awful! Mediocre white bread, very little variety, and even searches in bakeries yield perhaps a whole grain that doesn’t hold a candle to a loaf one could buy at the Austrian supermarket Billa. How/why does this happen?


Bondi, the only fully domesticated cat we’ve met in Somogyszentpal

**The Hungarian people are quite diverse in appearance, with all shapes and sizes, from dark hair to the lightest blondes. This is only to be expected, given that the country has been conquered and pillaged for centuries by every group of invaders imaginable. Even the cats are diverse–orange and white, calico, gray, lots of black and white ones, but I haven’t seen any tabbies.

**There are many, many Gypsies in Hungary (about 400,000!), all Roma or Romani, but of every variety of assimilation. Our neighbors here in the village, who act as caretakers for this house (the owners are German) are Roma, but of the more assimilated sort, who have a reasonably nice house, have worked in Germany, are gainfully employed, and have never been wanderers. According to locals, there are hierarchies of Gypsy groups: at the top the assimilated ones, at the bottom those who are very dark-skinned and look like they come from South India. We have seen wild and ragged groups of these kind,  living in near hovels on the edge of the village, and in huge family bunches buying food at Tesco (yes, there is a Tesco on the outskirts of Mancali, a town 10 km away from here). Apparently, very few Gypsies still live in wagons and travel throughout the countryside. In any case, they are still the minority most maligned and mistreated. I must admit that I have rarely seen a group of people so frightfully feral in my life.

**The region around Lake Balaton, and indeed throughout Hungary, is filled with thermal baths, which the natives take to as enthusiastically as the touring Germans. I had no idea that this region was volcanic (all of them now extinct), thus the enormous number of hot springs. Thermal spas are also a huge money spinner, as places such as Heviz, with the largest natural thermal lake in Europe, attract health seekers from around the world, who come here on tours to putter around on plastic floats in the mildly radiated waters that are supposed to cure any number of ailments. Signs for “Wellness Centers” abound around Lake Balaton, and offer all kinds of treatments.  I’m going to go get a massage and paddle around in the muddy waters tomorrow; George thinks it’s all nonsense and can’t imagine why anybody would get into an irradiated pool.

**Hungarian architecture swings from the traditional thatched house of the Plains to Secessionist elements to some bizarrely “folkloric” styles for public buildings and restaurants that seem to refer to some romantic and phantasmagorical adaptation of vernacular forms.  I must do some more study of this, but all these excessively pitched red roofs, with ornamental sculptures at the peak seem to be everywhere. Kind of kitschy-pretentious, if you ask me, but they must fulfill some nationalist sentiment.*

housewithhorns_1877_somogyszentpal_may2The most fascinating aspect to me is the number of domestic houses that look ever so much like a Texas ranch-style country house. These often involve an arched walkway along the side of the house, and each room must be entered separately. The front of the house will contain the kitchen and a main room, perhaps a dining room, then the bedrooms are along the walkway.  It almost looks sometimes as if they add on a room each time they have a child or need another space for some reason.


**Hungary has 20 different wine regions, all of them producing different varieties, many of which are claimed to be world class varieties.  Only a few of these are known outside of the local region.

**The history of this region is so complex, and involves so many conquests, re-conquests, ancient resentments about regions taken away from nations, that one can hardly make sense of what was considered Hungary when. Transylvania is the real sore spot: given to Rumania after World War I, the region still is home to some 2 million Magyars, the Szegedi, and Hungary has never forgotten this slight.

One fascinating example of this ethnic diversity is the story of the Festetics family, Croatians who came to Kezsthely on Lake Balaton in the 16th century, made a bundle in land (i.e. real estate!), were ennobled by Maria Theresa in the 18th century, and made Kezsthely their own personal fiefdom. They were enlightened rulers, built an enormous palace and accumulated a superb library. They thrived throughout the Dual Monarchy, and suffered the fate of all aristocracy after World War I.  The Palace, now open to the public, contains other amusing examples of Hungarian pride in identity:  in the Maria Theresa Room, the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her son Josef II are identified in the labels only as the rulers of Hungary. No mention is made of Austria at all.

**Another ethnic example: we found in our Eyewitness Guide a reference to a folk museum in the village of Buzsak, only a few miles from our village as the crow flies, but since marshes lay between the two spots, one has to go a rather roundabout way to get there. The museum is charming, and plays up the fact that this particular part of the region was populated by Croatians who maintained their own language and culture well into the 20th century.  The ladies of the village who were there to sell their embroidery, and all the labels in the museum, emphasized that these designs and motifs were Croatian rather than Hungarian, even though they have been here for hundreds of years.

**One final note:  the near-sanctification of “Sisi”, Empress Elizabeth, Franz Josef’s wife, is evident everywhere in Hungary.  She was beloved by the Hungarians because she learned the language and preferred to spend her time in the country outside the stifling atmosphere of the Habsburg court.  Statues of her appear everywhere. As a friend of mine says, in Austria Sisi is just a tourist doll, while in Hungary she is a saint.  I was so amused to capture this image of these ladies reading the plaque below her statue on Lake Balaton.


*I want to thank my friend David Lightfoot for steering me to the most likely source for this fantastical architecture: Imre Markovecz, who worked mostly in the 1950s and was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf Steiner.

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