Tuesday, March 27, 2007

London Pubs: The Reason for Empire.

Just back from a visit to London, where the men wear skirts in the business districts and the traditional London pub is still the lunchtime choice for a spot of quiet from the busy streets. A pub is not just a bar in the American sense - it is an island of refuge, a place for a bite to eat, and a place to meet your neighbors or bring your family. In England, pubs are the national living room. People don't drink sitting alone at home. They go down "to pub." Even in the countryside one is rarely more than a twenty minute walk from the nearest pub, meaning that you can always walk to one instead of driving drunkenly on the wrong side of the road as is the English custom. If anything defines the difference in American and British society, it is the sense of community one finds at one's local pub in England.
Downtown london pubs - like this one on Charing Cross Road - tend to be conservative in decor, and often outright stereotypical, really, meaning you can walk in and immediately feel like you are in an Admiral Hornblower novel or an Andy Capp strip when you take a seat. Traditional brews like bitter, porter, and brown ale are served at room temperature to the old toothless guys in flat cloth caps, while the younger set (those whose teeth are merely decaying) goes for for the trendy new "lager"... which is to say beer as the rest of the world knows it. Oh, and the "crisps" - potato chips - are fantastic. Obviously, British science has been spending all of its research grants on perfecting crunchy salted snacks instead of helping to develope military technology to aid in the American War on Everything That Moves. Pubs are usually remarkably friendly places - you can walk in alone and soon be on a first name basis with half the house. You can usually find something English to eat - which can be scary. I saw a lot of hot lamps warming pre-cooked tumoroid meatwads called "hamburgers" to be served with an archeologically datable potoato concoction called "mash". "Mash" also goes with "bangers" which is merely a more pornographic way of saying bread-and-grease filled sausages with mashed potatoes. The British like their mashed potatoes. Everybody I spoke to seemed to exist in absolute dread of the upcoming ban on smoking in pubs, set for the end of this year.
More terrifying to the British pub goer than the smoking ban are the early pub closing hours. Pubs close at 11 pm, with last call going around 10:30. With this knowledge, at around 9 pm the pub goers start binge drinking in an effort to get as trashed as possible before last call, which isn't all that easy since most British beer and ale is rather weak in alcohol content compared to some of the stuff we drink on the continent. Above are seen members of the rarely seen Uralic Linguistics minority of London in fine form at a classic British pub... ań ta śuńēɣt, ań ta χūleɣt. ta ojipas In other (Hungarian) words, ma is élnek, ha meg nem haltak. Vége. The English would be ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, although it’s more like ‘they are still alive, if they did not die. The end’

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hauling a Cimbalom Around Purgatory

I am leaving for London on Thursday, which gives me, at this point, one day in which I have to haul my small Romanian cimbalom (tambal mic) across Pest to have the Master Cimbalom builder, A.N, take a look at it. My cimbalom is a cheap Romanian factory model, and as they come out of the factory without any setup and completely unplayable, this instrument has been undergoing months of modifications to get to the point where I have an instrument that can play at the level where I can just start to learn the rudiments.At this point we have an instrument that can play in the central melody range, while the bass strings are worthless and the highest strings aren't much better. Tommorow we decide if it is worth doing the surgery necessary to turn this baby into a fully playable instrument. New strings, new bridges, staggered string holders... total reconstruction.I'm not even sure I want to learn to play the cimbalom. I'm a fiddler, after all. I pay people to play the cimbalom for me. That is how it should be. I have a great cimbalom player in my band, but there are tours when we travel to a place (Portugal comes to mind) where we have to take a plane and we can't borrow a cimbalom. Cimbaloms, mind you, are larger and heavier than most pieces of furniture... having a small one means we can hop on an airplane and not have to pay to have a small refrigerator traveling with us.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Dejan's Birthday at Kafana...

I am pleased to say that I will be going to London later this week. London is about as close as it gets to New York City - it seems to have been built by the same folks at the same historical period, although London has some Roman ruins while New York, on the other hand, has some Lenape Indian shelters near the Geroge Washington Bridge. Fish and chips photos will be coming. Until then, we have tepertő... pork fat and chips...Tepertő are pork fat cracklings. simple, killer, fried pork fat skin. Eat 'em and die. US $7 a kilo. But we are all going to die anyway, so why not from eating tepertő? These beat potato chips by a long shot. Personally, I am not a big fan of these - the pork skin/fat tepertő version, but the goose skin variation (preferred by local Jews... of which I count myself) are heavenly. Just as deadly, but better. Speaking of death by good food, we had dinner at the Kafana... Serb-o-centric platter for four with cevapcici, pleskavica, vesalica, chicken breast, and Lord know what else... hey, it was Dejan's birthday!This was more than enough... for four of us, with wine we each spent under US $20. Of course, the house drowned us in their unique generosity as well... you don't walk out of a Serb party... you roll or are carried out. Kafana is a Serb restaurant run by our good friend Nenad Angelic, who used to run the kitchen at the Castro Bisztro. Here we see him toasting with birthday boy Dejan Dobrota from Split, Dalmatia.... Nenad is the one that needs a shave... Nenad has a new operation running... making palinka (plum brandy.. AKA slivovitz) in Serbia ten kilometers from the Hungarian border and importing it to his restaurant in Budapest. Serbs like to drink slivovitz in little science project style glasses like these...Ajde Zhivoli! This was the Serb combo platter for four people... one of the best quality offerings in Budapest if you are going out for a meat eating celebration. Relatively good and extremely affordable.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Riots, Flags, and Water Cannon.

Like clockwork, last night’s March 15th celebrations in Budapest ended in riots downtown, in which skinheads and other right wing supporters set up burning barricades and faced off against the police. It looks like holiday rioting is going to be a new Hungarian tradition. Hungarian National holdidays will be like the May Day anarchist riots in Berlin - but it is right wing skinheads doing the rioting here. In Hungary, March 15th commemorates the progressive Rebellion of 1848, and is usually a non-political day for families to go out and welcome the spring. Now it means screaming wingers blocading the street and calling the municipal police a bunch of "commies."The big loser from the riots is most likely Orban Viktor, the former Prime Minister and leader of FIDESZ whose megalomaniacal addiction to power won’t allow him to recognize that he lost the elections in May 2006 for a second time. Since the burning of the Hungarian TV headquarters in September 2006, and the Kossuth Square protests and subsequent riots on October 23, Orban has continued to run as if in a campaign, trumpeting his rejection of the legitimacy of the elected Socialist led coalition government. Denied success at the voting booth, Orban advocates changing politics by the force of street crowds. Essentially the aging Orban is trying to relive his golden years in the late 1980s when he was an electrifying (and, I can add, a very liberal) student leader.
Said Orban during his speech yesterday: “The people have a right to chase away the government, even in a democracy, if it doesn't govern based on public will.” Huh? This guy lost two elections in a row. FIDESZ has never had a strong tolerance of the democratic process when it doesn’t see their party elected to (lucrative) public office. Orban does have a strong tolerance, however, for the Arpad Flag, the right wing's new public symbol. And the Arpad flag is a symbol of the deepest kind of intolerance. Recently, Mr. Orban has spent a lot of hot air publicly defending the use of the red-striped "Arpad Flag" used at right wing rallies, where, in fact, Mr. Orban spends a lot his own time making speeches. The Arpad flag has a long history in Hungary, but most recently it has been the symbol of the radical right wing, especially the racist and antisemitic skinhead and "Hungarist" radicals who draw a lot of their support from football ultra hooligan clubs. More sober commentators have asked the FIDESZ leadership to distance themsleves from these flags, but apart from a weak attempt to discourage their use while the TV cameras are focusing on FIDESZ' ostensibly middle-class-family-friendly rallies, Mr. Orban has never himself told any of his followers to put these flags away. In fact, FIDESZ itself sponsored a bogus "historical conference" last week to play up the role of the Arpad flag as a universal alternative to the Hungarian tricolor.The Arpad flag is merely one of the objects or arguments that have become symbolic of the psychological wedge being driven between the "two Hungarys" - one being the European-centric, liberal Humanist Hungarian tradition which looks to the late Hapsburg era for inspiration, and the other being the nationalist, xenophobic, authoritarian Hungarian tradition harking back to the Horthy period previous to Hungary's humiliating loss in World War Two. Admiral Horthy, however, wasn't quite fascist enough to provide a symbol for the contemporary Hungarian right wing. They had to look to the symbol of the Arrow Cross Party, who took power in the October 1944 after the Germans kidnapped Horthy for not allowing further deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz to complete their "Final Solution." The Arrow Cross flag looked like this: The Arrow Cross Guards, in particular, were drawn from the lower classes - previously Hungarian nobility were involved in all forms of government, and the nobility historically maintained a soft spot for Hungary's Jews. The Arrow Cross, however, saw the Jews as a symbol of the wealthy classes and took particular delight in persecuting them. "As conditions in Budapest worsened and the Szálasi government took off to Western Hungary towards the end of December, the capital remained in the hands of local Arrow Cross leaders, who terrorized the entire population and, among other things, regularly took out inhabitants of the Protected Buildings to shoot them into the nearby Danube River."Author György Konrád wrote about his memories of the Arrow Cross in 1944: "The Russians were getting very close, but the Arrow Cross was still doing away with Jews and Christian defectors in the neighborhood. This verb-"do away with"-was on every public poster, and it meant kill on the spot, and leave the body there... The men in armbands with guns in their hands had plenty of people to shoot, though they had begun to sense that they couldn't execute every single Jew. They probably had trouble getting into the mood for man-hunting every day. Filling the Danube, where the ice was now breaking up, with old ladies and little girls, was an ornamental art whose charm was only intermittent. Even these defenceless people, of whom they could have killed as many as they felt like-even these expressed, if nothing else, at least the gentlest resistance in their eyes, reinforced by the gaze of passersby, who watched the quiet winter coats being led down to the riverbank with some degree of empathy. Of course you needed to make time for other things too, like drinking and getting warm…. It was more dangerous to shoot at Russians, but the Jews were fish in a barrel. Life is a matter of luck, and death bad luck. You can do something for yourself, but not much, and sometimes pride keeps you from doing even that much. Several people were taken from the apartment the previous night. From the next room, by chance, and not from ours."Basically, if you are a Hungarian Jew you are either a survivor of the Holocaust, or a descendant of a survivor. To us, and probably to the majority of non-Jewish Hungarians, the red-striped flag only means one thing. It is a fascist symbol of the worst excesses of the Nazi era. Hungary has had many flags in its history - there are lots of alternatives for Mr. Orban and his followers to chose from - but in 1848 the leaders of the Hungarian Revolution chose the red-white-green tricolor to represent Hungary, and so it has been ever since. In the early 1990s, racist and openly antisemitic skinhead groups began to revive forms of the Arpad flag as their symbol after a new law came to ban "symbols of hatred" such as the swastika, the hammer and sickle, and the arrow cross.Back in 1992, Viktor Orban publically spoke out against the sight of these red striped flags paraded in the streets by newly organized skinhead gangs. Obviously, Orban has changed significantly since those days. (Photos from index.hu)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Buna Vista Club of Transylvania

Last week featured the performance of something billed as "the Transylvanian Buena Vista Club" at the Budapest Palace of Arts. Now, "Buena Vista" means something when reffering to Cuban musicians who all actually once played together, but this was a musical potpourri involving about six different Transyvanian traditional village bands playing in various combinations, often all together, which is something they never do in real life. It was more of a "Buna Vista Club" Quite honestly, when you fill a symphonic concert hall with, say, twenty violinists, six viola players, and three bass players, none of whom can read music, and have them led by five lead violinists, each acting as his own independant concert master and actively hating the other first violinists with a passion, all playing from memory in styles quite as different to them as samba is from reggae, well, let's just say I was quite pleased with the result in a sort of John Cage sort of way. It was cacaphony, but it was good cacaphony, and nobody could pin the blame on me this time.The Band from Szaszcsavas was there, as were the bands from Palatka, Sarmas, and also Zerkula Janos and Aunt Gizi from Gyimes. Zerkula plays in one of the most archaic of Hungarian fiddle styles, accompanied by the gardon, a log trough carved out in the rough shape of a cello and used as a percussion instrument.Afterwards there was a dance in the stuffed-shirt restaurant of the Palace of Arts. A snottier venue simply does not exist east of Vienna.

Sarah from Budablog was in attendance and was asking after a vioara cu goarna... so I introduced her to Dorel Kordoban and in a few minutes she was the proud new owner of her own turmpet fiddle. Here are a couple of videos I posted on youtube from the event... pardon the shakey camera work, it's just a little Canon digital camera... and dancers were often bumping into me (or I was bumping into them...)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Getting Prepped for March 15th

Today we had tarhonyas hus, meat stew cooked with small pasta bits called tarhonya. Tarhonya may well be one of my favorite foods. Tarhonya is one of the oldest food types in Hungarian culture, going back to the horse-on-the-steppes days in the 8th century. Even today, tarhana is considered the national dish of Tatarstan, and in Istanbul you can get tarhana soup at any supermarket. I was going to write something about the political atmosphere in Hungary, but just researching the topic made me frustrated… we have another major Hungarian national holiday coming up on March 15th, and the right wing opposition groups that made such a mess of Budapest during last October’s riots are prepping up for another day of demonstrations against the Socialist-led government. It’s not that I don’t find Hungary’s right wing less than amusing. Hungary’s right wing leads the European pack when it comes to getting crazed, deluded nationalist football hooligans, Scythian historical reanactors, and angry old ladies out into the street…
Here we see somebody dressed as a Hun being stymied in his attempt to negotiate a Budapest metro ticket machine. This was on the day of a recent FIDESZ demonstration in front of the Terror House Museum. The idea that Hungarians are descended from noble Scythians is quite popular on the Hungarian right, dovetailing nicely with similarly odd wingnut theories such as the persistant claim that Hungarians are descended from the Sumerians... and that Jesus himself was therefore Hungarian. I could not possibly make this stuff up myself...Is the radical Hungarian right led by charismatic leaders? Or just pitiful old nutjobs? The leader of the Kossuth Square demonstrators – who has just been given permission to hold a peaceful demonstration near the Parliament again – is known for carrying his personal totem, a plastic toy cow on a stick with dinosaur glued to it. This is not somebody who would easily find employment in a kindergarten. It isn’t just the right wing nutcases that are getting worked up. This week the Budapest Jewish community leader (OK, the Neolog community on Sip utca…) Peter Feldamjer gave an interview to Israeli radio urging Hungary’s Jews to leave the country on March 15th if they wanted a peaceful day. Now, not many of us get Israeli radio in Hungary, but that’s beside the point. Feldmajer’s statement puts to rest the idea that Jews are smarter than other people. A lot of the resentment comes from FIDESZ and Viktor Orban recently defending the use of the red-striped Arpad Flag by contemporary right wing demonstrators. The Arpad flag is essentially identified with the Arrow Cross terror that gripped Hungary towards the end of World War Two. It’s rather like marching around with a swatstika. FIDESZ contends that the Arpad flag is a legitimate symbol of Hungary, since it was used in the middle ages and during the Rakoczi rebellion in the early 1700s, which is like pointing out that swastikas were used before the Nazis by Hindu temple designers and Inca weavers. Yes, there has been a lot of open anti Semitism on the right lately – because that’s what the right wing does in Hungary. Blaming invisible conspiracies of super-intelligent Semites for everything rings resonant on the right, because the communists wouldn’t let Hungarians use anti-Semitic terminology in public discourse. Therefore, with the commies gone, smearing Jews is a taste of freedom for the radical rightists. Except that we are talking about less than ten percent of the Hungarian people. Really. They are a loud and annoying radical right wing ten percent, but it isn’t like we are in Berlin in 1939 or Kishenev in 1906. We have a week until the big demos. Personally, I don't know what is going to happen, but I am not dropping my knishes and heading for the hills anytime soon.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sorry that I have not been updating. I have simply been lazy. We all need to be lazy sometimes. Give me a few minutes. Or days. More soon.