Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Republic of Hungary: So Long, It's been Good to Know You!

Well, they went and did it. Our new FIDESZ government voted in a new constitution for Hungary, replacing the former constitution adopted after the fall of communism in 1990. A lot of people both inside and outside of Hungary are not extremely happy about this. During their election campaign, which saw FIDESZ running against the MSZP (Socialists) FIDESZ never proposed any program for dealing with the economy or mentioned proposing a new constitution, which can only be done if a party has a full 2/3 majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Since the MSZP and SZDSZ (the two liberal parties who were the ruling coalition since 2002) had become flabby on the issue of internal corruption, FIDESZ easily ran over them, rather like a steam roller meeting a small animal on the road at night.Poor things didn’t have a chance. (Actually, that’s a hedgehog that Fumie saved a few nights ago from being squashed by a bus in the city park. Which brings to three the number of hedgehogs we have saved from death in the past year.) Now, if you want to learn more about our new constitution, I suggest you read about it in the Economist or perhaps the German reaction in Der Spiegel, which carries a quote from the late-night news program Tagesthemen on German television station ARD: "It's strange, the more some countries profit from the European Union, the more prone they are to anti-European sentiments. The constitutional state has largely been abolished, future elections are efrfectively meaningless, the media are being whipped into line, as are theaters and museums and everything else that could shape the nation's culture..."After kicking up a big storm of debate in the EU parliament last January over the arcane new media law, FIDESZ reformulated the media law somewhat and plowed on formulating its new constitution. What stuns me the most are not the details about gay rights, or definition of when life begins, or even the religious references to Hungary being a Christian nation (it case anybody thought they were all Baha’i.) What gets me is that we just went from being the “Republic of Hungary” to simply “Hungary.” Magyarország. What does that mean? Well, considering that FIDESZ started out as a bunch of law students at the Bibo Collegium of the ELTE Law School, you have a bunch of hair splitting lawyers taking apart the idea of what “republic” means and stands for, and replacing it with something that can be molded to fit the Dear Leader’s vision of what he wishes it to be - which is increasingly the idea of one Party rule, a form of governance that Dear Leader's generation is all too familiar with and perhaps nostalgic for. The new constitution also reinstates the Hungarian Holy Crown as the seat of political authority in Hungary. This is interesting in a modern, EU state, since the Holy Crown’s role in history has been that, unlike western Monarchies and later Parliamentary Monarchies in which the King is the legitimizing authority because he has the crown, in Hungary the legitimizing authority is the crown itself.According to popular tradition, St Stephen I held up the crown during his coronation (in the year 1000) to offer it to the "Nagyboldogasszony" (the Virgin Mary) to seal a divine contract between her and the divine crown. Anybody who has read Harry Potter can easily understand where this is going. We have a Magic Hat, and if the Bishop of Esztergom lets you wear it, you are the ruler. In truth, nobody has worn the Magic Hat since Franz Jozef in 1867 – which legitimized his authority over the Hungarian domains in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But now it all goes pear shaped and trying to explain the twentieth century history of the Hungarian Holy Crown becomes something you do not want to attempt in a bar after 11 pm because it quickly becomes a bad parody of the Jerry Springer Show in Hungarian, as do so many historical arguments in Hungarian. But I’ll try… After the breakup of Austria-Hungary in 1918 the new Hungarian Kingdom quickly passed from a Social Democrat coalition to one led by Communist Bela Kun, who hoped that the new Soviet Union would help Hungary regain lands lost during the war. Kun declared the First Republic of Hungary, won a few battles in Slovakia, but soon was faced with Romanian Army occupying Budapest and Serbs in the south demanding territory. In marched Admiral Horthy on his white horse, which reinstated the Holy Haberdashery as the legitimate apex of power in Hungary, with himself ruling merely as regent. And rule he did.Having signed the flawed Treaty of Trianon, Horthy immediately set about denouncing it and for the next twenty years led Hungary towards its tragic collision course with World War Two and Fascism. In 1949 the Communist Party of Hungary, having easily jacked the elections, redefined Hungary again as a “Republic” albeit a “People’s Republic” in much the same way as East Germany and North Korea loved to define themselves as “Democratic Republics.” Stolen by the Nazis and held in Austria, in 1945 the Holy Crown was placed in Fort Knox, Kentucky for safe keeping by the US Army, in order to deny any legitimacy to the Communist rulers, a state of cold war affairs that lasted until 1978 when Jimmy Carter negotiated its return to Hungary on conditions that made it a museum piece which no Communist government official could take any part. So you can see why FIDESZ, a party of hair-splitting, bone-headed lawyers would decide that “Republic” is probably just some smart commie trick to push the Holy Headgear into the background and make all decision making a function of the messy rabble of democracy. On January 1, 2000, during the second year of FIDESZ’ first round as government, the Holy Crown of Hungary was moved to the Hungarian Parliament Building from the Hungarian National Museum. It has been there ever since… symbolically ruling.But enough of our bygone republic and its crown bedazzled rulers. Let’s get more local! In our District, (Zuglo, District FOURTEEN REPRESENTIN’, y’all) the city council has erected these welcome signs at six roads leading into our district. Notice the runic script on the signs. This is an ancient Hungarian form of writing based on the old Turkic runes of central Asia, which was brought to Hungary during the great migration and actually remained in use until the 1700s in Transylvania. Of course, only a few people have learned to read it, but it has become very popular among the extreme right wing crowd who like to wear T-shirts with maps of pre-Trianon Hungary with some runic inscription on it, and you can even find it on a local brand of “Extra Hungarian” bread. And so our local right-wing Jobbik representatives took time out from their busy schedule of harassing Gypsies to push the district government into officially marking Zuglo as a right wing territory. Great.Yes, when Jobbik tell us that "The Truth will set you free" all I can do is to quote George Clinton: Free your mind and your ass will follow. Personally, I would like to see the Nagyboldogasszony herself appear and give them a lecture on the power of love and tolerance. Speaking of Mary and the whole Ben-Joseph family, it is Easter this weekend, and in Hungary that means… pork-pork-pork-o-rama!It is the ham festival, heavy on the smoked pig, a few hard boiled eggs, and sprinkling water or cheap perfume on girls on Monday! The market this week is bullish on hams of all varieties: smoked knuckles, great wanking peasant hams, haunches smoked almost until they are black with soot and salty goodness. But what would Jesus think of this. He was after all, the King of the Jews. You can’t even get to the point where that is debatable unless the person in question is, in fact, Jewish. (And there are an awful lot of folks on the right wing in Hungary who just don't abide with that line of thinking...) So here the whole country is celebrating His Escape from the Tomb with… a feast of forbidden treyf meat. But hey… it tastes good. It’s completely hamalicious! OK, the Savior would probably be fine with matzoh balls and gefilte fish, but that shouldn’t stop Hungarians from engaging in a national pig out for a few days of gleeful swine ingestion.Actually, most of these hams are terribly salty… you need to soak them in water overnight at least to remove some of the salt, but most people don’t, so the upcoming week can be characterized as National High Blood Pressure Week.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Táncháztalálkozó 2011: The Unpronounceable Power of Music

The surest sign that spring has arrived in Budapest is the National Folk Festival, otherwise known as the Országos Táncháztalálkozó és Kirakodóvásár, or but if that is too many Hungarian consonants to pronounce you can shorten it to simply Táncháztalálkozó (Dance House Meeting.) Don’t worry - by the end of the weekend, even the most linguistically challenged foreigner can pronounce it. I wrote up the festival on the blog last year, a post which unexpectedly turned into a tempest in a teapot when it was reprinted on the Táncháztalálkozó web site and in a Hungarian folk music magazine. Hungarians don’t react well to criticism, whether constructive or not. Rather than run through that gauntlet again, this year I went to the festival with a different attitude: I wasn’t going to expect anything other than a good time hanging with friends and hearing good music. Which is what I did. I managed to avoid the consumer zone although it is hard when you have stands selling books and CDs of things as minutely focused on the ‘Hey, you! Bob! Buy Me!’ market as regional Hungarian bagpipe repertoire books and rereleases of Moldavian Csango fiddle music recorded in the 1950s. I used to snatch these up and come home wondering where all my money had disappeared to… no more.I am able to resist temptation, even while passing through the Room of Many Transylvanian Peasants Selling Stuff: wall hangings, table cloths, embroidered shirts, dancing boots, old ceramic painted dishes and pottery. But I already have enough of that to stock a small museum, so much so that most of it lives in cardboard boxes in my small flat and only comes out when I have need of a special birthday gift. But the real attraction was the outdoor bar area – actually the rear parking lot of the sports arena. Sure, it is a party in a cement walled bus parking lot, and everybody is complaining nonstop about it, but you can smoke there, which is something that the Hungarian folk scene definitely likes to do, and there is beer, and you can dance, so bus garage or not, this is the party. A group of Gypsy musicians from Gőmőr, a Hungarian minority region of Slovakia were playing at a table when I arrived, and this was some of the old fashioned Gypsy music that was the basis for the modern Gypsy restaurant music that most people associate with Hungarian folk music.Ethnologist Gergely Agócs was there with an elderly Hungarian shepherd who sang and played tarogato as well. Think of that. It is the year 2011 and you can still find shepherds who play shepherd music in this part of the world. Of course, they aren’t parked nose to nose in every village, but there still is some tradition out there if you look for it. And at least at the Táncháztalálkozó you don’t have to travel far to bump into it. Our old friends the Gypsy Band of Palatka were there after a stage set, playing for younger dancers and musicians for whom they are living legends.I was standing there listening when Sue Foy and Portaleki László showed up. We watched the amazing synchronized bow strokes of the two fiddlers and reminisced about how the village kids in Palatka grow up playing alongside their parents. To them it "comes naturally" after years of playing. “Poros” is a fiddle legend on his own: the original fiddler with the Teka band, he now shares lead fiddle work in Muzsikás and has his own band comprised of family members which is about to tour in the USA – do not miss them, they are one of the best things happening in the Hungarian folk music scene these days.When the leader of the Palatka band, Kodoba Marton (father of Florin, the younger lead fiddler today) passed away a few years ago the band asked Poros if he would step in and become their new lead fiddler, an offer that Poros considers one of the greatest honors ever bestowed on him. I spent a few hours just chatting with old friends who I don’t see as often anymore, since we aren’t; all meeting every weekend at some dance house or another. Kids, career, the same old reasons. But the vibe was like the old days and the hang was great. Before I left I passed a crowd of young musicians singing their lungs out while the musicians stood on a table for room to play.One of the Transylvanian Gabor Gypsies who sell handicrafts at the festival was listening… and this is a first for me… recording the whole thing on her I-phone. Like the old folk song says: Nem úgy van most, mint volt régen. Things just ain’t like they used to be.