Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jilk Paste. I Love Jilk Paste.

Hungary’s election is over, somebody (Orban, and thus, by extension, FIDESZ) won, and yet again, regardless of whom you vote for, the government got in. On a more positive note, spring has arrived. Living in Budapest’s fourteenth district, Zuglo, we really get a full blast of spring when it comes. Unlike downtown Budapest, we have trees galore out here, and where most of Budapest has a dive bar for approximately every ten residents, Zuglo is more family oriented. We have pastry cafes and ice cream shops. Which is great until it is not great. As in my belly. Alas, I am on a diet. The summer’s plans include hauling my massive bulk up several Balkan mountain tops and around one former Ottoman city located on seven rather steep hills, and there is just too much of me to traipse around. So… no bread, poatoes, pasta, or pretty much any carbs beyond a daily bit of fruit for me. But is spring, so the markets are perking up and we can get salads and vegetables, and chicken… but as always, making a smaller Me is monotonous eating and a boring daily round of chicken and salad, salad and chicken… until recently: we discovered the magic that is Jilk paste! Around the corner from us on Amerikai utca is our own local mini-ghetto. We have the Lauder Jewish school two blocks away, as well as the Jewish Old Age Hospital around the corner. And across the street from that is the Nasi Cuki Café, specializing in diabetic pastries.
In Hungary it is customary to bring pastry when visiting somebody in the hospital… and if it is an old age hospital that means a lot of diabetic cakes. These things have less calories and carbs than a Wasa whole grain cracker. And when I am losing weight I tend to stay away from anything labeled “diet” I’m not diabetic… so this doesn’t count. The strange thing is these actually taste good!
Somloi Galuska is a classic Magyar dessert that consists of a bit of cake smothered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream. I don’t usually eat sweets but given the monotony of sardines and salad every day, I have started treating myself to 100 calories and 9 grams of carbohydrate from one of these babies every day or two. The cakes don’t seem to taste of the weird chemical sweeteners either. I don’t really care: this is Better Living through Chemistry! I took a peek at the ingredients on my galuska expecting to see a list of unpronounceable advanced polymers, but all I found was fructose and… Alpha Gel and Jilk paste.I don’t know what they are, and honesty, I plumb do not care. Apparently they are some kind of super emulsifiers that make small amounts of soy flour turn into excellent Hungarian pastries. I want more Alpha Gel and Jilk paste in my life.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bokolyi: Traditional Gypsy bread on Trash Day in Budapest.

The surest sign that spring has arrive in Budapest is when the fresh piles of garbage appear on the streets: trash day! Each district in Budapest has a schedule for setting trash out for pickup. It used to be posted for all to see but the the Budapest city fathers, mothers, inlaws, and cousins, decided a few years ago to post a notice in the hallway of your flat a week before the day when the trucks. Why? To prevent trash picking. In particular, organized trash picking. So what is wrong with that? Isn’t trash picking simply a populist form of recycling? Well… this being Hungary, trash picking as a profession tends to be in the hands of Roma, or as we know them on trash day, Gypsies. And this weekend was trash day in the 7th District... an affluent area of Pest with a large Roma population and a virtual Treaure Island for trash picking!
Now, I personally have no big problem with Gypsies picking my trash. I have actually set out old computers with handwritten menus about what caused me to toss them and how much they can handle. I have met Gypsies in torn and sweaty shirts who knew exactly what kind of hard drive was recyclable from which motherboard. But the city council doesn’t like the mess of having Gypsies on the streets picking through the trash, so they prefer not to tell us when trash day is coming until the last minute. Which means we slowly pile up our crap on the porch and hope for the best. In some years, I have been out of the country on trash day. Which means I have to live with a pile of trash for another year, or secretly sneak it into another district, not an easy task when you get around by bicycle.Personally, I can’t really understand the logic of this. Sure, the Gypsies picking through the trash and ripping out the backs of refrigerators on the street are a mess… but it is trash day, fer crying out loud! It is a Day of Mess. Gypsy families from all over Hungary wait for the day – and somehow they know when the secret trash days of each district will fall. Obviously somebody inside the city councils is letting the cat out of the bag.And the city councils don’t like this? An underemployed minority accused of not wanting to work… voluntarily doing backbreaking, environmentally friendly, fill-a-capitalist-market-niche work… and they don’t like seeing them work? Renting trucks on their own coin, waking up before dawn and working their Roma asses off in callous raising hard labor all day for the eventual small rewards of recycling the deritritus of our urban lives? They have a problem with this?Of course, this is Hungary. People here have certain, err… territorial sense about them. They like to set personal borders and boundaries… My space! My territory! My turf! My stuff! And so you find people who have just come upon a pile of trash a few minutes before you suddenly claiming eminent domain on it. Families set out chairs and have Grandma defending the trash pile from all who would posses these priceless treasures. And then, suddenly, you come upon something amazing... something you really must (?) have... finally - and literally - the trash heap of history!We came on this pile that included the collected works of Lenin and Stalin translated into Hungarian. I took some photos, but the family wanted me to buy the books. I’m not shopping, I said, so they barked “500 Forints for a photo!” Of somebody’s trashed Stalin books? How long have you owned them?Trash picking is hungry work for country people making pennies who don't want to spend their money in urban restaurants. And so while biking around the 7th district we came on some out of town Roma having lunch. They were eating a kind of flat bread, the traditional Gypsy bread once common to most east European Roma and virtually unknown to non-Gypsy Hungarians called bokolyi.Basically, it is biscuit dough baked in a round, just as it used to be made in the ashes of a campfire. Essentially, this is bannock, the most primitive campfire bread you can make, the beloved lunch of Cree Indian trappers in Manitoba and Budapest trash pickers alike. The Gypsy trash pickers baked it at home to bring with them to either save money on food (bread? A buck a loaf?) or because it is considered to be more filling, more satisfying, and generally, more Romanes…more Gypsy. As the song (Gelem, Gelem) says Maladyilem bakhtale Romensa... I even met happy Gypsies. [thanks to Fumie for the Bokolyi pix!]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Election Day in Hungary: Mudslinging with Mud. Zsidesz. Fun!

It is election day in Hungary. Readers of this blog may notice that I rarely mention Hungarian politics here. There is a good reason. As anybody who knows me can tell you, I love to talk about politics, especially late friday nights in a bar with my journalist buddies. I read about three Hungarian newspapers a day and as many websites. I write extensively about Hungary. But I do not publish in English on the topic of Hungarian politics. It is a simple matter of self-censorship. Hungarians have memories like elephants, and if you publish a word against a political party it will be remembered and resented for decades. And I have been here for over two decades, so I know better than to stand in the line of fire. Politics in Hungary is a brutish and nasty business, one best expressed in short bursts of outrage. And since there are relatively few English language blogs coming out of Hungary, I long ago made a conscious decision not to comment on politics here. But to give you all a taste of the low level of discourse that has characterized this recent campaign here are a few photos of campaign posters taken around my modest outlying neighbrohood of Zuglo in Budapest's 14th district. The photo above is a FIDESZ poster featuring the face of FIDESZ, Viktor Orban, defaced with a star of David and the name of the Israeli party Likud. This is obviously the work of some right wing Jobbik party activists - it is pretty hard to imagine FIDESZ, which has a long history of antisemitic rhetoric itself, being controlled by Israel.
This poster's slogan "Only FIDESZ!" has been changed to "Zsidesz" - sort of "JewDESZ" from the Hungarian word for Jew: zsidó. Again, probably the work of Jobbik supporters. Jobbik came to prominence on the basis of antisemitic and anti-Gypsy rhetoric, and gained wide support for their formation of a paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda) which has been outlawed, but immediately returned unpunished. I would like to say, that in showing these photographs, this does not mean that the majority of Hungarians express these kinds of views. The Jobbik Party are expert in using an advanced understanding of negative communication strategy to gather support among a percentage of Hungarians who are both frustrated and ignorant enough find their extremism attractive. March around in uniforms closely reminiscent of the Nazi era Arrow Cross, use a flag closely copying that of the Arrow Cross, and then tell your supporters that the Jews Who Control Everything have commanded their press minions to label all Hungarians 'Nazis.' Classy. Real classy. But, for about 20% of the populace, very effective.
This poster is one supporting the MDF, the center-right Hungarian Demorcratic Forum, which was the ruling party in the first post-communist Hungarian governemnt coalition after 1990. The graffitti labels the young man as "faggot" the young woman as "lesbian" and MDF candidate Lajos Bokros as "Jew." And for good measure, it adds "+SZDSZ boo!" The SZDSZ (Free Democrats) was the liberal party that had its roots in the intellectuals who published anti-communist samizdat literature in the 1970s and 80s. They are not really even running candidates in most districts, and we only saw one poster for SZDSZ in all of Budapest:Now, is that the saddest looking political poster you have ever seen or what? The SZDSZ may be the saddest of all the poltical parties in Hungary. Their party split over the rigged election of their own party leaders, and they sat quiet while their coalition partners, the Socialist MSZP, looked the other way while tolerating internal corruption on a scale that would make even a New Jersey congressman blush to see. Then, basically, they gave up. They stopped getting out of bed and walked around their apartments in pajamas all day and never went out and started drinking margaritas at noon. Sad. Especially for a liberal political party. So sad.
Here's another MDF poster defaced by literal mudslinging. In Hungary we sling mud the Old School way. With mud. Of course, there is the spanking new party called "Lehet Mas a Politika" ("Politics can be different") and of course, having come out of nowhere with no background, nobody is really sure what they support. This poster says "cleaner city air" but could just as well be advertising a return to WWI gas warfare. Politics can be clueless as well.Of course, tarring your opponent with the label "I am an Alien Vampire Intellectual" really addresses the pressing issues in a time of economic crisis.
Hungarians do not like Hungarian intellectuals, and having met far too many of this species, I can almost understand why. Intellectuals always rank just behind skinheads and Gypsies in opinion polls of groups most despised by Hungarians. The Socialist party (MSZP), which has governed through the last two election cycles, is expected to come in at a weak second or third place. Their weakness was that they could never curb the inclination to take kickbacks and swim in a sea of corruption. This only fed the oppposition rhetoric of their equally greedy political opponents FIDESZ at time when the country desparately required good leadership. Of which there is not much to go around. The graffitti says "THIEVES!" and is signed "kuruc." Kuruc is the web portal for all things Hungarian neo-nazi, and is closely allied to the Jobbik Party - I won't link to it but you can find it on the web. If you read Hungarian be warned that it is really rather repulsive in a way you don't even see on many English language neo-nazi sites. But, the opponents of Jobbik are able to give as good as they get:
The Jobbik poster slogan is "Radical Change" which has been covered with the slogans "Rotten Nazis!" and "The Gypsies should work! The Arrow Cross should hang!" Note the Hitler moustache, a perennial favorite in any Hungarian election regardless of political viewpoint. No mincing words here! Another Jobbik poster in Zuglo also got the direct treatment:
This was across the street from the defaced "Faggot/Jews/Lesbian" MDF poster, meaning the defacer of both was most likely a FIDESZ supporter. Jobbik has been using the old slogan"In the Name of the People" which was actually one of the old Stalinist era Communist slogans. Go figure. You live, you learn. Here the "people" has been replaced with "your mother." Again, the ever useful Hitler moustache makes an appearance but now it is used to deface the poster of a party that Hitler would most likely approve of. It looks especially fetching on Dr. Krisztina Morvai, a very outspoken Jobbik leader (although she is not even a member of the party) and EU Parliament representative. No, I do not like her. At all. And no I will not use this space to explain why, although I heartily urge those who enjoy carnival freak shows to google her name and learn more about her - youtube has some particularly good moments from her in English. The end.Here are Jobbik activists manning a soup line outside of the Bosnyak market in Zuglo on Saturday. As I was taking pictures a van pulled alongside of me, and one activist cheerfully offered me a handful of posters to me to put up. I gently declined and he sped off with a chirpy "Szebb jövő" - the greeting of the party which translates as "Better Future" but can also be heard as something less positive, depending on one's view. I always wondered what it must have felt like to be a Jew in East Europe in 1939. Now I know.
Now, this is Hungary which is a place where irony and sarcasm are taken to new heights. "So, OK, where the hell is the fucking advert" and another placard that has been seen all around Budapest that really sums up the way a lot of Hungarians feel about the choices in this particular election campaign:
"Chose the Animals! Good programs! Friendly representatives!" An ad asking for tax donations to support the zoo. Think that this poster might escape the scrutinuy of the spray paint and magic marker brigades? This is it the next day:With the comment: "We're already full of those"