Thursday, April 21, 2016

April in Budapest: Mostly Music.


I don't like going out in the winter. Maybe I used to, but not anymore. Since the caribou ceased running through Budapest on their winter migration I no longer leave the house between Halloween and Easter. I like Hungarian traditional music. I like to listen to it, I like to play it, I like when other people play it. I used to attend a dance house someplace in Budapest almost every night. Those days are over. Now I prefer to simply take the elevator downstairs and hear the Erdőfú band play at the Rácskert on Fridays. 



I have to walk all of four minutes - depending on how fast my elevator is that day. Spoiled? Maybe, but the one saving grace of living in the 7th district is the fact that on most nights there is some traditional band playing someplace within ten minutes walk of my flat. Spring has blossomed in Budapest over the last couple of weeks, so I went to the Táncháztalálkozó - the "National Dance House Meeeting" - a few weeks back. 


Citera - zithers - were the first instrument I learned when I was a kid. 
The Táncháztalálkozó is about close to being the Hungarian National Folk Festival. Why it isn't called that is a mystery. There are a lot of festivals around Hungary - particularly in the summer, but the Budapest Spring Festival has been hosting a space for the folk dance movement since the late 1970s, when playing Hungarian traditional village dance music was considered a vaguely suspicious activity for youth. Now - 40 years later - all those one-time youth seem to be grandparents and school principals and the Dance House festival is dominated by school dance groups and less by smelly village bands consisting of old men with battered fiddles and drinking problems. 


Miniature bagpipers.
I've written about the Táncháztalálkozó before, and with fewer village musicians invited to participate in favor of stage and school preforming groups it really doesn't excite me the way it used to, but if you are interested in Hungarian folk life, it is well worth a visit - its all in one place on one weekend. In a huge concrete sports stadium... OK... but it is all in one place. It is also one of the most extensive traditional crafts fairs, and short of traveling to Transylvania, this is where I buy a new straw summer hat every year. It isn't easy to find unfashionable straw hats anymore. I don't want a jaunty Panama or something that looks good on a yacht on the Riviera. I want a straw hat. Something I can wear while harvesting straw


Straw hats for work, not fashion. 
It has taken me years to suppress my acquisitiveness regarding buying folk stuff: textiles, ceramics, instruments. I've loved east European peasant art my whole life and living here is like living like a kid in a candy shop. Fumie magically prevented me from buying a large woven Maramures Romanian wall rug: in my mind I was saying "for a Hundred bucks you could own this amazing unique museum piece, or you could walk away." We walked away. My old flat used to look like the storage room at the Folk Museum: in our new place we opted for plain white walls as an alternative. I've gone cold turkey. (On the other hand, I have to go out today and buy moth spray to preserve the huge cardboard boxes of old peasant weavings that I have - undisplayed - in storage here in the new flat.) 


Tooled belt bags. The Gucci of traditional arts.
As always, the best place to hear music at the festival was out in the bus parking lot - the "folk bar" area where people could light up cigarettes and have a beer. I don't smoke anymore, but I do not know how anybody can expect to host East European music in a non-smoking atmosphere. It can't be done. 


Florin Cordoba from Palatca with Nagy Zsolt jamming in the bar.
The Táncháztalálkozó was barely over when the next concert event popped up - the great Moldavian band Tazlo with special guests Muzsikás at the Eotvos House in the 6th district, a full fifteen minutes walk from my front door. Tazlo is one of the most experienced groups playing in the Moldavian Csángo idiom - they have researched the music, traveled those roads, learned from the old masters. And Muszikás? They have already become old masters themselves.


Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Morel of the Story.

Sure signs of Hungarian spring: new cabbage!
Hungarians do not eat a lot of vegetables in the winter, unless you consider potatoes a vegetable. And pickles, another important Hungarian category of vegetable, although winter pickles are usually the sweet vinegar-ed "csemege" version - you need summer warmth and fresh cukes to make the yeast fermented kovaszos uborka that I love; they won't be around until June or so. Other than that, one can buy vegetables, as long as you aren't a stickler for variety. Hungarians don't really do fresh vegetables - some do, but most like them boiled, fried, or pickled. Főzelék - cream sauce stews - are a beloved Mama's kitchen memory that has made a comeback as downtown luncheries discovered a way to get the office crowd to pay FT 1200 for a zucchini and an egg. My Mom's squash főzelék was my favorite food as a kid in the Bronx.
Spinach főzelék -  a food photographer's worst nightmare!
There are some vegetables for sale that have no Hungarian cultural background - Chinese napa cabbage for example. What do Hungarians do with it? I'm clueless. Daikon radishes are everywhere, great news for mixed Nippish-Yiddish households like ours, but what do the Magyars do with it? I have no idea. Since we now live in downtown Budapest, we biked out to our old neighborhood of Zuglo to see what spring had delivered the Bosnyak market, the last of the real old fashioned peasant markets. This is where people do not simply supply themselves from the central vegetable casting agency. They bring it in from the villages themselves.
Fuck you, kale! 
And there it was: new cabbage! My favorite vegetable! The soft, tender babies that are culled before being cynically hardened to become corporate grist for the benefit of Big Sauerkraut. I have no idea why the kale-obsessed masses in the USA haven't discovered these things yet - I can eat one a day chopped into a salad. 

Terrence McKenna thought that these are sentient beings from space. We ate them. 
But even better  it is morel season. These are called kucsma gomba in Hungarian. Kucsma are the lamb's fur hats you see peasant men in Transylvania wearing. Wild mushrooms are a common item in open markets. Hungarian markets all have an official mushroom examination truck to verify that wild mushrooms sold in the market will not poison you. We picked up two kilos of morels and set most of it apart to dry in Fumie's mushroom-drying net. 


Next year's pizza.
These will go into mushroom risottos later in the year when I get around to experimenting with eating carbs again... until then, it was a nice mushroom sauce on top of chicken breast. And a side of spinach and new cabbage salad. Bikini season, here I come! 
There is chicken underneath that, in theory.
On the way out to Zuglo we passed the Budapest city park. The park has,unfortunately, come into Prime Minister Viktor Orban's plan for his massive mega-makeover of the city - a kind of egotistic monument to himself more worthy of the Turkmen Bashi than a European leader. But the man does love his cement - and his family does love owning the concessions to sell that cement, so there it is. Now the plan is to move all the museums into the park - so that Orban can move himself into the Buda Castle. Orban is, supposedly, an elected official, but he wants that castle anyway.,. and is willing to blast away the face of Budapest to get it. Last week the city began to chainsaw trees in the city park, particularly in the area which has been home to Kertem ("my garden") an outdoor garden bar where we have spent many a wine filled evening enjoying live folk or jazz music (actually, the jazz always sucked) and chowing down on Serbian grilled pleskavica. 
This used to be Kertem. Now it ain't.
Kertem was a laid back, budget option, a kid and dog friendly place that served the Hungarian urge to drink and eat cheaply outdoors - simple wine gardens used to be located all over the pre-1990s city, now replaced by skeezy bars and pricy pubs. Citizen activists arrived to demand that the ersatz municipal lumberjacks gleefully chopping trees cease and desist - triggering a delightful shouting match between a FIDESZ  politician with Green sympathies and an overenthusiastic policeman ensued, videoed for all to enjoy. For the time being, a civil encampment is on the site to protect the trees - necessary because even though the original tree slaughter was illegal, when The Party wants something done it gets it done, and The Party brooks no legal roadblocks from NGOs or civic organizations.  


"Park Guardians" - green activists - keeping vigil against the chainsaws. 

Which brings me to: what is it with Hungarians and trees? I am usually careful when talking about cultural tendencies (ten years of graduate anthropology will do that to you) but for years I have asked Hungarians who were raised abroad what they most remember about maintaining Hungarian identity outside of Hungary. Apart from the chicken paprikas and the wilted cucumber salad, lmost all of them mention they remember their parents obsessively cutting down trees - often creating problems with neighbors or city officials in their unending war against the trees. I noticed it here as well - you wake up on a fine spring morning to find your neighbor out chainsawing whatever lonely tree is blocking the sun's path to his kitchen window, raring for a shouting match and a nice shouty visit by the city council tree supervisor. I think it has something to do with the fact that the trees just grow... like, uncontrolled, you know? Nature. It triggers an irrepressible control response that makes people here reach for a chainsaw. I once asked my cousin why all the trees in Veszprém were fifteen feet tall and trimmed to look like a six year old drew them in crayon. "That's how trees are supposed to look" was the answer. 


How trees are supposed to look.
You drive around Hungary and the scraggly trees are laid out in straight lines, and all are the same height. The national parks here look like tree farms. When you cross the border into Romania or Slovakia you see tall, majestic late growth forests everywhere. No, its not just the unhinged Prime Minister... its deeply imprinted into the tradition here: remove the trees! 


Entirely unnecessary view of the flat just below ours, to illustrate how people can express feelings about "nature."

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Vienna: Ich bin der Kaiser und ich wölle Knödel!

Wiener Melange. Starbucks, go fuck yourself!
Hungary has a very strange relationship with Vienna, in fact, with all of Austria. As the closest "western" neighbor of Hungary, it was the place that defined "freedom" for most late commie era Hungarians. Freedom meant consumer goods, and the border town of Nickelsdorf was crammed with discount appliance shops and currency exchange kiosks serving the Magyar cross border shopper. That all disappeared in 1990. During the early 1990s the Hungarians somehow got it into their heads that they were going to "share" the proposed 1996 Vienna World's Fair, even though neither Vienna nor the International World's Fair organization ever remembered inviting Hungary to do so. Budapest still has a few "1996 Budapest Expo" bar umbrellas around today. It is understandable, though. After 1989, everybody in Hungary thought we and Austria were going to be Best Effing Friends and doing fun things like post-Hapsburg sleepover weekends and sharing clothes and churches and money and stuff. But no. It didn't work out that way.  


Actually, I like our St. Stephans Church better. Nyah, nyah!
Only three hours and thirty Euros away by train, Budapest and Vienna (and by extension, Hungary and Austria) are now distant worlds apart. They are like two kids on the same block who never talk to each other. One kid lives in the Richie Rich mansion with servants and fancy stuff, the other lives in a shabbier, somewhat hillbilly version where Jughead sometimes crashes. Not in the same league. You notice it immediately when you step outside of Vienna's spanking new Central Train station. Everything is very different - shiny, clean, exuberantly efficient. You are now in the West. 


Musical Toilets! The West has everything you dreamed of!

You may think that the old mental division of East-West disappeared after the fall of Communism in 1989, or at least in the years that followed. No. Vienna is in the West. Budapest, although increasingly well dressed, is not a West European city.  It is merely an Eastern European city without donkey carts in the streets. (It has been nearly twenty years since I saw a donkey cart delivering firewood in Budapest, alas.) While Vienna, in fact, has loads of horse carts in its streets - fiaker, especially during Opera season - these are very Western horsies driven by people dressed as the Monopoly Man. 


Der Pooper Scoopser is visable under the horse's tail.
The fact that the two cities shared a lot of architects a century ago means nothing beyond window fixings and doorways. Budapest used to have a lot in common with Vienna - cafes, effete antisemitism, operetta, a surfeit of psychoanalysts. No longer. Walking along Fumie asked me why Vienna could have such a prosperous downtown and not Pest... basically, if you see a nice shop in Vienna, that means it is doing decent business and paying its taxes. Yay, Capitalism! If you see the same in Budapest you have to figure out which sub-mayor and city council member is taking how much of a kickback on each individual business, right down to the roast chestnut vendors and organized Romanian gypsy beggar squads. This explains why the worst insult one can hurl at a Hungarian is to label anything here as "Balkan." In the Balkans corruption is widespread, but it always has a realistic price tag. In Hungary corruption has become overt government policy and the sky is is the limit. Yay, Capitalism!


My digs in 1965. Notice the flags. Hol a Magyar? Hol a Magyar!
Thus: not The West. And, unfortunately, not the Balkans, either. I remember my first visit to Vienna in 1965. I was a kid, and after visiting my Mom's family in Hungary we stayed a few days in Vienna at the Bristol Hotel, which is right downtown across from the Opera. After three months in Hungary we were elated to walk around without being followed by State security agents and there were no tanks in the streets. It was a Radio Free Europe TV advertisement come true. Also, it was clean: none of the bomb damage that was still widespread in Budapest from WWII and 1956 was to be seen in Austria (it pays to surrender without a fight!) and the City had come a long way from the days of the Allied occupation.


The Rathaus. Transformed into a skating rink. 
Of course, there is only so much cleanliness and good service that one can bear. Now we visit Vienna to see what could never have been. It is what Budapest would look like if only Budapest's City Fathers did not require bribes for every minor cash transaction. And we came to eat schnitzel! Although in fact the reason for visiting was that Fumie had a bit of work to do in the Austrian capital and we spent a few days wandering the chilly streets. 


Kiaserschmarren: smearing the Kaiser with sugar and syrup.
Winter doesn't mean less tourists in Vienna, just colder ones. But who can complain when the February carnival season comes along. As a Catholic nation Austria does carnival in style - by setting up a huge open air skating rink in front of the Rathaus, the City Council. In rural Austria they still do dress up costume carnival, usually in cast off Lady Gaga costumes, and last year we enjoyed carnival in Ptui, Slovenia, the northern limit of the Balkan kukeri tradition. But here the city council decided to shell out for some ice, not just a little patch of ice, but a vast, parking lot sized wrap-around skating rink. The idea is to have fun and eat lots of good stuff before the fast of Lent. The Austrians are Catholics and kind of serious about this. No fun for the next 40 days...


The Vienna Ice Dream. 
And if you are doing carnival, you got to eat, especially donuts. Austrians eat a lot of donuts at this time of year - and also various high carb stuff like - noodles and kaiserschammren, or "Kaiser's Mess" - hot cinamon sugar bread. Looked great, but I didn't dare eat it. Jelly donuts - krapfen - were on sale on virtually every flat surface in the entire city of Vienna, filled with traditional chocolate, jelly, or cream, or even weird vegan reiki green tea-flavored versions at the bio-cafes that cater to the healthy crowd. 


Mmmm.... krapfen!
But having eaten no carbs for months by this time it was time for my birthday treat: Wurst and sandwiches! These were just OK - eat them and you are not hungry anymore, but I have a soft spot in my heartburn for the classic Viennese Leberkäse sandwich. 


Mega-chunky hunk of steamed baloney, get in mah mouth!
Leberkäse is a sort of baloney meatloaf that is steamed and sliced into sandwiches, a sort of Teutonic street meat that predates the Turkish doner sandwich. it is the perfect food for four year olds: soft, bland, warm, and leaves no solid memory in your brain of having eaten anything at all. Which brings me to the most glorious expression of Hapsburg mediocrity of all! Wiener Schnitzel


Flat. Boring, Good. 
Now, we eat a lot of schnitzel in Hungary. In fact, it is the meal my band guys order most often while touring in Hungary or even abroad. We call it by its rural Hungarian name: lapos hus. Flat meat. But in Vienna it is more than just flat meat - it is a celebration of Viennese culinary self-identification that takes its inspiration from the Hapsburgs, a dynasty of underachievers and pervs whose taste was as colorless as their wits were dull. Kaiser Ferdinand was one such developmentally challenged ruler of the early 19th century: his only recorded coherent command was one winter when he told his staff that he desired plum dumplings, which were not in season. His response is preserved in history: "Ich bin der Kaiser, und ich wölle knödel!" ('I am the Kaiser, and I want dumplings!') 


You can help Emperor Ferdinand... or you can turn the page...

Ferdie's successor, the Emperor Franz Joseph, obviously didn't spend much time on oral hygiene: his teeth were so rotten he had to have his meat and vegetables carefully overcooked so that he wouldn't have to chew. The result, a splodge of boiled beef, root vegetables, and stock called tafelspitz is loyally on offer at nearly every restaurant in Vienna today, even though the modern Viennese can boast excellent dental care. But the Schnitzel... it shines. Nothing more than a slab of meat  with the shit pounded out of it, breaded and fried, vainly aspiring to the mediocrity that is the unique quality of nearly every Hapsburg achievement, and yet... it is good. It is a nice piece of fried meat. So bland, so nondescript, yet so satisfying.  


Oom Pah Pah Mani Hum!
For our schnitzel pilgrimage we went to the near legendary Zum Figlmuller,  around the corner from the Stefansplatz smack in the heart of downtown tourist Vienna, for our schnitzel. Figlmuller is famous for its schnitzel, although the house specialty is made from a pork cutlet instead of the traditional veal. Toss in an extra few
Euros and you can get the veal version, and I had wanted to try the "suurschnitzel" - a pickled meat version, but at the last minute decided to go with the specialty of the house.  



As thin as a sheet of cardboard, and just as tasty.
What can I say? It was a flattened ply of pork and thin breading that overlapped the plate, served with an excellent potato salad drenched in the classic Austrian black pumpkin oil that looks like a Jeep crankcase dripped on your salad. If they had served it with with a side of pencils and ski-lift tickets the meal would have represented the sum total of everything produced by the Austrian economy. After dinner we were strolling around before heading back to our hotel, and we passed the Opera house on the evening of the grand Vienna Opera Ball. 


They wish they were a baller, wish they were a little bit taller,..

This is the social event of the season, in which the hoi polloi and all of the upper crust of Austria gather to strut in top hat and tails and drink champagne and schnapps and then waltz the night away as if it were still the Good Old Days of the  Hapsburg Empire and nobody had granted any civil rights to stinky Slavs and Vlachs yet. Bankers and civil servants and reality TV show stars spend the day dressing up like Metternich and  giving interviews to the Austrian TV stations and hoping that the local Anarchists won't be tossing stink bombs at them as they arrive at the Opera House for their evening of Smug 'n' Smarmy waltzing and hand kissing. Personally? Give me the East. On the other hand, to be fair, the train station does offer free wifi to refugees. As I said, we are in the West now.



Sunday, January 10, 2016

Season's Greetings! Better Late than...

Stuffed cabbage: you know you want it!
Its been a busy autumn and a slow holiday season, so I have not kept up with posting as much as I would like. I snagged a contract writing job from my usual sources and threw myself into research and writing for two months, and when that happens the last thing I want to do is knock off for the evening and then do a little bit more writing. I also lost a bunch of weight, which explains the lack of foodie posting: hard to do when you don't eat food. And I am not much of a holiday spirit kind of guy: Hungarian Christmas doesn't really do it for me. Santa comes on December 6th, and the Savior Baby himself brings your gifts on Xmas eve... there is just too much cognitive dissonance to overcome.

Hanike!
Besides, we celebrate Hanukah, one of the least significant days of the Jewish ritual calendar, but when mixed with Buddhism it gets the special treatment (it has candles! Oily treats! Tofu! Songs! And - why not - roast lamb, because nothing says "The Maccabees rejected Hellenism by refusing to sacrifice pigs in the Temple" better than Greek style roast lamb! Oh, and flying unicorns! Can't forget the flying unicorns!)

No carbohydrates were harmed in the making of this photo.
We did stroll about the Christmas season markets a bit, which used to be a much funkier experiment in unregulated urban capitalism but sadly has become commodified into the One Big Mall that seems to be the ideal for the ruling government Borg. These markets used to be the place you bought the polyester fake fur baseball caps that seem to be issued to all Hungarian males still alive after the age of 60, but  with luck you can still get some nice handmade leather bags such as the leather belt pouches that I carry all my valuables in. These basically scream "Magyar macho!" and for the life of me I can't understand why they have not completely replaced wallets as the thing to carry money and passport in.

Can't be pickpocketed and never lose my wallet. I have worn one for 25 years.
You can also still find some uniquely Hungarian crafts to stuff Xmas stockings with. Some of the best is ceramic work - perhaps not the best thing to transport back home in the luggage hold of an airplane, but not the kind of stuff you would ever find at home unless you live around the corner from me. In Budapest.

When filled, these are used by Enablers to further alcohol dependence in Hungary. 
Hungary can be rightly proud of its history, but unfortunately the right wing takes that sentence a bit too literally. It would not be modern Hungary without the presence of absurdist Hungarian right wing mythology. One aspect is the growing popularity of "Scythian-Hun" identity among the right wing. Yes, the right wing eats this crap up. Always leery of being taught anything at all, the Hungarian right wing has pretty much declared that the ancient Hungarians are the descendants of a tribe of Scythians - and therefore descended from Sumerians and therefore they are the source of all western civilization and religion. Yes, it is all straight from the digestive system of a bull, I agree, but it resonates among the less logically minded of Eastern Europe's semi-literates.

All your Hun needs! Compound bows! Rams horns! Rabbit skin hats!
The Jobbik party has even made rejection of the linguistic affiliation of the Hungarian language to the Finno-Ugric language family a point of its party program. And nobody likes a bit of dress-up like a Hungarian right winger on a horse... and so you can buy all your Barbarian needs and make your European neighbors quake in fear that you, an underpaid toilet repairman from Cegled, are fully prepared to take up your compound bow and put on your rabbit fur hat and face down the invading tanks of NATO when push finally comes to shove along the Slovak border.

Your One Stop for all your Hun LARPing needs!
Behold the Wrath of God bitches!! We even have a huge summer festival, called the Kuriltaj,  in which the Hungarian Scythian-Hun LARP community goes out onto the puszta and builds yurts and shoots arrows and bangs shaman drums. It would be funny but it is actually supported by the government. The Atlantic just published a piece about the ancient Hungarian martial art of "baranta" which was invented last week and involves whips, bows and arrows, axes, and moves from folk dancing. Of course, the actual history that is behind these theories is laughably faulty - which is, in itself, almost a guarantee of wide acceptance in contemporary Hungary. You think Donald Trump is bad? You haven't argued with these guys. I have. Some of them are actually among my friends. I have some amusing friends. Also Trump doesn't have a rat's ass of a chance of ever being elected to public office. In Hungary they do, they did, and they run things.

I would love to have all my carbs BBQ style, please.
If I really had to buy a gift, it would be this: a miniature Kürtös Kalács maker. Kürtös Kalács  is a Transylvanian brioche dough that is rolled around a log and barbecued and then rolled in sugar and nuts, best eaten while warm and beloved  of anybody who has ever spent a summer at Lake Balaton. I want one of these little baker's hibachis because the thing that gets you about kürtös kalács is the aroma when you are grilling it: if you are selling these at a festival nobody can resist the smell of hot vanilla wafting across the breeze. It attracts customers like a pheromone bee trap. Because we have little to do in Hungary except argue about things like kürtös kalács there was a debate in the EU parliament this fall about whether this cake was worthy of name protection as a cultural heritage treasure of Hungary, making it a "hungarikum" - a term which means a product unique to Hungary but is actually awarded by a government committee and is akin to being awarded the Inferiority Complex of the Year.

Overpriced, 
One minor problem is that it is a Transylvanian specialty - Transylvania now being located in Romania. To be sure, there are a lot of Hungarians living there - it used to be a part of Hungary - but as far as the EU is concerned, the homeland of this tasty cake is not in Hungary, or solely the property of Hungarians. And also Slovakia was calling dibs on the cake, not to mention it is popular in the Czech Republic under an entirely different name, trdelnik. The Wikipedia page for  kürtös kalács may well be the most lengthy and thorough exploration of a cake in the history of online literature (with an equally lengthy recipe in the "Talk" section.)

Now imagine this rolled in powdered sugar and nuts!
These impassioned and ferocious nationalist cake arguments all occurred during Europe's greatest humanitarian crisis since World War Two, as thousands of Syrians fled their homes and faced an uncertain future in an unwelcoming Europe. Where we have cake... and we protect our cakes, dammit! Not only that... the Christmas market  kürtös kalács above is FT 1100 a small roll. Below, from the same company, it experiences a 50% price hike by merely being located one block closer to the center of the market. (Hint: out in our neighborhood the price is usually more likely FT 500.) Still... if you have never had a hot roll of crispy grilled brioche rolled in sugar and walnuts and you see this while strolling downtown? Just eat it. You'll be glad you did.
Really frigging overpriced!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cluj and Negreni: Its all in a name.


Its been over a month since my last post. During the refugee crisis there was simply too much to be angry about. The flood of lies pouring out of Hungarian government officials proved to be simply too much. I would sit at the keyboard, shaking with rage and barely able to finish a paragraph before realizing it would be better to simply stop. Do you really need another angry screed from me when you can already find much better expressions of anger in the Washington Post and the Guardian? And after the misery of the refugee experience in Hungary the last thing I felt like like posting were photos of the food we had in Croatia in August. Oh, did I mention that Hungary has closed its border with Croatia?

"If you come to the land of the Croats, do not take our juicy, delicious roast lamb!"

Things have not gotten better - not for the refugees, not for the Hungarian people, not for Europe or the Middle East. But the twisted policies of Viktor Orban do not represent all Hungarians. Often when things get hairy in Hungary we cross the border to Transylvania to spend time with our good friends who are "normal" Hungarians who do not live under the rule of nationalistic football clowns. This year we went to Transylvania in October for the autumn fair at Negreni, known in Hungarian as the Feketetó Vásár. It is a huge social event for Transylvanians, as well as a magnet for visitors from Hungary and other parts of Romania drawn to the antique market, clothes, shoes, tools and cut rate household items on sale. It has been a couple of years since we last went, and a lot of my good local friends there have passed on, but it is the last great peasant fair left in east Europe. It hasn't really become a festival or commercialized folklore pageant yet - people still sell hand carved farm tools and shepherd equipment, and during the week before the antique sellers arrive they still do a brisk business in horses and donkeys.

Anthropology? Why not just major in basket making?
Negreni is halfway between Cluj (in Hungarian: Koloszsvár) and Oradea (Nagyvárad.) Why do the towns have two names? Transylvania used to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and subsequently it has been an independent vassal of the Ottoman empire, a part of the Hapsburg empire, a part of Hungary, and , after the Treaty of Trianon in 1919, it has become a part of Romania (although a part of it returned to Hungarian rule during the second world war and back to Romania again in 1945.) You see how this works? You ask why each town has names in different languages and a Hungarian starts giving you a history lesson... You are sitting down, right? So most places that were found in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire will have an official name in their local language, and an official name in Hungarian and German, and maybe a bunch of names in other local languages. So, the official name in Romanian of the Romanian city where I visited is Cluj (or Cluj-Napoca, which is another long and tedious quasi- history story from the Romanian point of view which we will not start getting into.)

"Like... WHATEVER..."
Cluj is quite enough for now. In Hungarian it is "Kolozsvár" ("Kolozs Castle") in German it is "Klausenburg" even though Transylvanian Germans mostly live in the suburbs of Stuttgart these days. In Yiddish we call it "Kloyzenberg" and most of the people who would wear Kloyzenberg Football Club T-shirts if they could get them live in Williamsburg in Brooklyn (not the cool part of it) and Bnei Brak in Israel. The local Gypsies call it "Kokoshforo" in Romani (as in "We used to live in Kokoshforo before we moved into these over-the-top Gábor palaces in Huedin!") .

Huedin (Banffyhunyad) If you were Gábor Roma you'd be home by now!

Now, if you think the preceding explanation was a bit long winded and unnecessary, remember that each and every place name in Transylvania suffers from a similar place name schizophrenia, and that at least everybody can agree that these places, being, after all, located in Romania, can be identified easiest by their Romanian names. Not so fast. in Hungary it is customary to only refer to towns and places that were formerly in the Kingdom of Hungary by their Hungarian names. Thus, a Hungarian newspaper writing a story about Cluj would refer to the city as "Kolozsvár" and not add the Romanian name in brackets, since everybody reading a Hungarian newspaper knows it is Kolozsvár and maybe has some other name but "who gives a fuck about that." If you do publish the word "Cluj" in a Hungarian newspaper you will get swamped by angry letters from readers. This can almost make sense until you realize that places like Rijeka, Slovenia also used to be administered by fat and jolly Hungarian officials of the Hapsburg Empire, sitting in lonely office rooms hopelessly wishing they could chat with somebody - anybody - in their native tongue. (Hint: they couldn't.)

Copper stills for making plum brandy. I want one.

So do we still write "Fiume" (yes, sometimes, but probably not if it is a practical travel piece) or Szlovakia (winter szkiing is cheaper in Totország... errr... Slovakia.) Since Slovenes, Slovaks, and Romanians, and, in fact, everybody who lives in a country that was once administered by fat and jolly Hungarian officials no longer has to give a flying fuck about what place name the fat and jolly Hungarian official wants to stamp in your passport, the Hungarian place names now exist mainly in the hearts and tongues of, you guessed it, the Hungarians. Which is why we found ourselves in Feketetó. Or Negreni, as it is known on maps and by the people who live there. We went with our friend Brigitte, an insanely talented violinist from Montreal who is currently touring Europe with Geoff Berner's band for their new Cd "We are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians." It was Brigitte's first time in Transylvania - I can't imagine a better introduction to this region than the fair at Negreni.

Brigitte tries out a vioara cu goarne. She bought shoes instead..
We met up with the Rostas family of musicians from Bratca as soon as we entered - son Nicu had a trumpet fiddle for sale but sadly, we learned that Mircea Rostas - who made some of the best fiddles I have ever played - had passed away. Over the last few years a lot of the older generation of these unique resonator fiddles have passed on: Dorel Codoban from Rosia, Mircea, and Mircea's neighbor, the gentle and friendly Traian Ardelean, who was tragically murdered by a family member in nearby Alesd. But we did meet up with some fiddlers from Balnaca in the beer tent.

Meatwad, star of Aqua Team Hungary Force.
And we did get to satisfy my need for mici, indelicate meatwads of grilled animal that are the perfect accompaniment to a performance of sixteenth notes on a home made trumpet violin.