Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slovakia: Extreme Fly Fishing with Diplomats.

It is Christmas season and cold and wet in Budapest. What better excuse do I need to yearn for the hot days of summer? Yes, when I am not traveling with my band or ferreting out Chinese groceries in Budapest, I do like a vacation sometimes, preferably in an exotic locale. And what could possibly be more exotic than… Slovakia! It has all the necessary ingredients I require of a strange and enlightening holiday destination. Bizarre accordion music!
A language that is absolutely beyond my powers of comprehension! A cuisine that is based on the theory that food should all be one color (white!) And most important: pristine mountains covered in forests and rivers filled with trout. Yes, I am a trout fisherman. Hungary is not a paradise for trout fishing, although it is a Mecca for European fishermen who travel here hunting for its legendary monster sized carp. Yes, there are a few places one can find trout streams in Hungary – the Garadna and Szinva near Miskolc come to mind, although the Szinva suffers an almost annual indignity as a dumping ground for photographic chemicals producing spectacular fish kills that drift into the downtown area of Miskolc and stink up the business district. The Josva stream near Aggtelek actually supports a wild trout population, but since it is located in a National Park zone, fisheries experts are not allowed to develop it as a proper sport fishery. But the trout fishing is better in the neighboring countries.
Release me! Please! Release me!
Slovenia has some of the best trout fishing in Europe, but the license fees are steep and it is not exactly close to Budapest. That leaves Slovakia, which offers reasonable fees for non-resident fishing permits and good, cheap accommodation in the off season ski regions in the mountains. Even without a car I can take a train to the small town of Liptovsky Hradok and have access to two excellent mountain rivers, the Bela and the Vah. But luckily, I have a fishing buddy, and he has a driver’s license, and at least once a year we rent a car and head north to be humbled and shamed by a creature with no arms and legs and a brain the size of a lentil. Claude has been met in these pages before. Once an iconoclastic punk rocker he has transformed into an international diplomat and campaigner for Human Rights, and is now married and raising a pair of beautiful and clever daughters. He has put aside the foolishness of youth, and taken up the foolishness of middle age. Fishing for trout. I mean, usually Claude goes out to fight The Good Fight armored in a three piece suit with a silk tie in a big Windsor knot.
Come to Papa!
On fishing days Claude looks like this. He walks around in this outfit entirely without any sense of irony or shame. He claims it "keeps him dry" even as we watch the water seeping into his pants. The first time we went fishing in Slovakia, his wife Mina and Fumie took one look at us in our rubber pants and hit the floor howling with laughter. While Claude goes for the full chest wader “Michelin Man” look, I prefer hip waders, and until it was pointed out to me I never considered that they made me look like a slightly chubby Chippendale Dancer.
 World's only Judeo-Romani Fly Fishing Team
Another issue is “catch and release.” After standing in a cold alpine stream with ice water lapping at our family jewels for hours, I don’t really want to kill the fish and take it home and eat it. I want a hot soup, or in Slovakia, at least, something starchy and white with sheep cheese and bacon bits on top. Halushky is probably the Slovak national dish. Potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon bits. Eat it and you will never be hungry again. It doesn't sound like much, but it is one of Europe's great foods. You can fnd it in literally every resturant in the land, but it is best when you get it a cheap lunch stops attracting lumberjacks and truck drivers. Thousands of Slovak truck drivers can't be wrong.
There is no such thing as "lo-carb" in Slovakia.
Wild trout are so beautiful, and as we fly fishermen say “too valuable to only be caught once.” Mina, however, comes from a Roma family in Romania, and Fumie comes from the fresh fish mecca of Tokyo, so they were no laughing mood when they informed us that anything we caught was to be killed and considered as food, no argument, were we crazy, and why the hell were we fishing, anyway? We nodded dumbly (never argue with women armed with fly rods!) and we released our fish in secret. On arriving in Liptovsky Hradok, we checked out the river Vah and decided that it was too high to fish. That left the alpine Bela, which flows into the Vah from the High Tatras. And we needed to get fishing licenses. In Slovakia this is never easy – you need to have a state permit and then a local day permit to fish a specific trout stream. Nobody ever knows where to get both, although local fishing tackle shops are a good bet if you can find one. In Hradok you need to go to the paper store next to the hotel across from the train station.
Bravely standing up to the EU.
The assistant there informed us that we needed to pay double the local rate for a day permit (a regulation that we didn’t encounter elsewhere in Slovakia) and Claude – who has a degree in law and can often be found prowling the halls of the European Parliament in Brussels - calmly explained that under EU law, administrative fees such as fishing permits can no longer allow discrimination between EU passport holders (such as both of us.) Claude told her this in his fluent and formal Czech learned from years teaching in Prague. The woman sputtered something and turned red. Nothing seems to enrage a Slovak store clerk more than being lectured in EU law in Czech by a foreigner. The breakup of Czechoslovakia wasn’t so long ago and the languages are still mutually intelligible, but she wasn’t having it. Claude immediately sensed her frustration and – in the calm and monotonous voice that comprises the ninja arsenal of EU Human Rights lawyers – began to prod her into conniptions by reciting a long list of EU laws and regulations backing up his preliminary objection. It was getting late. “Let’s just pay the fee and go fishing, Claude.” “No. It is a matter of principle. She has no right under the EU laws to double charge for a foreigner’s permit.” I went outside for a smoke. Twenty minutes later Claude emerged from the shop, muttering about bringing the case of the Stubborn Paper Shop Fishing Permit to the European Courts. I just wanted to get on the water. Now, here is a basic tip for fly fishermen: always ask the locals where to go.
Of course, we did no such thing. We drove up the Bela valley marveling at the scenery and the fact that here seemed to be absolutely no access roads to the stream itself. Where there was it was only accessible by rappelling down limestone cliffs where one false move would cost you your life. This never seems to bother Claude, who approaches fly fishing as an extreme sport combining the best features of base jumping with the thrill of deep sea free diving. I come from a more Isaac Walton, “pastoral pleasures” school of fly fishing, so we continued driving until we finally found a spot near a local holiday camp, so we could fish while watching fat nude Germans splashing in the icy waters across from us. As always, Claude found a classic pool and was soon onto some trout. After a while he graciously moved on and Fumie took her shot at the pool, and again, trout.
Sushi. Step number one. Catch it.
Fumie is not a “by the book” angler. She doesn’t care about careful casting, or spooking the fish, or having a perfectly straight leader. She only uses two fly patterns: the Red Tag – because she caught her first trout using one, and a ridiculous chimera of a beadhead nymph she calls “The Dancing Queen” because I tie them for her in colors usually reserved for inking “Hello Kitty” illustrations. It makes fly selection easier for her and, in terms of fish caught; it beats the rubber pants off of me. So, at the end of day one, everybody goes home happy and I have caught absolutely zip. The next day we tried the Bela closer to the town of Hradok, but the summer temperature had put the fish into slow mode and we were all without any of what fishermen call “luck.” We watched one local took some fish using the specialized form of fly fishing known as “Czech nymphing.” This consists of tying about three heavy sinking nymph flies to a long nylon leader, wading out to the middle of the stream where the current is constantly threatening to drown you, and then flailing a short line upstream as if whipping a team of intransigent oxen. Yes it seems to catch fish. No it doesn’t look like a lot of fun.
I dare you to release me!
Having been taught a lesson by the wily trout of the Bela, we decided to move on to more familiar ground. The Revuca, flowing between Donovaly and Ruzemberok, has been our home stream for the last few years. Only three hours drive from Budapest, it is a smaller woodland stream where we have all caught some beautiful trout and grayling. And we knew where to get our day permits. Like a lot of Slovak fishing licensors, it is located in a private home and handled by a little old lady who speaks only Slovak and thinks that all Japanese people are the same person. Unlike the wild rapids of the alpine Bela, the Revuca is gentler, full of pools and holes that we have fished many times before. We never get skunked on the Revuca. Almost never. This day, however, started off difficult. No trout. At least for me, no trout. Claude and Fumie caught and released a few small ones, but I had nothing and we had to get back to Budapest by evening so we couldn’t stay until the evening when stream fish usually start hitting at the end of a hot day. After wasting several hours being cruelly taunted by a school of anti-Semitic grayling in one of the downstream holes that had always given up some fish in previous trips, I accepted defeat and was hiking back toward the car when i heard Fumie and Claude shouting. They had fish.
The exciting denouement of Cahn's ballet "The Fingerling"
Claude told me to lose my nymphs and tie on a dry fly, so I picked out a deer hair caddish fly that I could easily see in the shallow rapids, waded out, and started casting. Fumie and Claude were catching rainbow trout on almost every other cast and soon so was I. This was great. And then… I get my fly line caught in a tree. No, problem. I know how to deal with this. A gentle tug and… my rod tip breaks. Clean in the middle. After sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream and fuming while watching Fumie and Claude reel in fish after fish, I re-strung my rod without the tip and began casting with the stumpy, unresponsive stick I was left with. And yes, I caught trout. And yes, it was fun – catching trout on dry flies is always fun, even if they seem to be small stocked rainbow trout who don’t know the difference between a size 14 deer hair caddis fly and trout farm puppy chow. And yes – I have a spare rod, but it was home in Budapest. Where else would a serial fly rod murderer like myself want to keep his spare fly rod, right? And yes, I actually like the cheesy starchy halushky dumplings that are served all over Slovakia, especially after a year of a very lo-carb eating regimen, and I like some of the other stuff that Slovaks produce as well and I like just being in a place called Slovakia.
And now it is winter. I have a new fly tying vise. It is time to tie a few dozen flies and wait for next year’s Slovakian trout trip. I can hear the trout mocking me in Slovak even now. I never learn. 

Friday, December 02, 2011

Maramureş: The Fashion Shoot!

Last spring I managed to get to one of my favorite places in Europe – the Maramureş region in northern Romania – twice in the space of a month. The first trip was in May, part of a project involving my ongoing folk music research. The second trip was even more interesting. As soon as I returned to Budapest I was contacted by Nigel, a professional photographer who had contracted with an American fashion company to arrange a photo shoot in Maramureş. He was already occupied with a job elsewhere, so could I return to Maramureş to do some preliminary location scouting, shoot some photos, and set up some contacts to prepare for their upcoming fashion catalog shoot for the USA based clothing and design company Anthroplogie, which situates its catalogue shoots in various exotic locales. The next shoot chosen was in Maramureş, which the art directors had seen while browsing for “exotic” locations on the internet. Of course, with me being the anti-matter version of a fashionista, I had no idea who or what this was all about, had never heard of Anthropologie (spelled with a ‘y’ that was what I spent a decade studying at University and is a pretty good explanation for why I can speak a bit of Zulu) And, Nigel added, it was a fully paid gig: travel, expenses, honorarium. Even though I had just returned from ten days on the road in Transylvania I was all over that like sheep cheese on mamaliga. First I had to get there. I don’t drive. Luckily, my old buddy Gabor does, and as a Hungarian theater musician he is/was/will always be severely underemployed and has way too much idle time on his hands, so he was happy to jump at the chance to act as paid chauffeur in his 1985 Mazda – an ugly old little machine, but tough as a billy goat and it did run.And I was able to take Fumie along – an added asset since we would be visiting our friends in the archly traditional village of Ieud, where Fumie began learning to speak Romanian back in 2001 from our host Nitsa, an amazingly strong and independent village woman who is a living encyclopedia of local Romanian folklore and a pillar of her local Greco-Orthodox church. There is nothing Maramureş villagers love more than a Japanese girl who can speak basic Romanian with a Maramureş dialect.The fashion shoot folks were going to need some local help as a fixer for their work, and Nitsa – one of the most beloved and respected figures in the village hierarchy - was just the ticket to do it. And, best of all, she was well compensated for her time and trouble. That was in June, and in September the catalog came out online.I had never heard about Anthroplogie clothing, although asking around it seems to be well known and quite trendy (and expensive) but it was great seeing our friends in Maramureş included in some of the photos alongside towering Danish models draped in upscale fashions. Of course, the fashion models and photo shoot staff stayed in the city of Sighet at the swank Hotel Marmaţia with all the mod cons.I stayed in that hotel back in 1997, when it was a classic post-communist dump with stained furniture and odd wooden chandeliers in classic Ceaucescu hotel style. Today it is wall to wall wifi and quality capuccino and cable TV in every room. I shouldn't really be surprised. So many travel writers have made a living stereotyping Romania as Europe's backwater for so long that when you find a five star hotel in a small town it still elicits a sense of surprise. But I still prefer village life. While we were in Ieud, however, we stayed with our friends in the village. On the first morning, Nitsa invited us to a ceremony at the wooden church across the street. It was the seventh month after the burial one of the villagers, and a memorial ceremony was held in the church.Afterwards, everybody gathered in the churchyard and was given cake and a shot of home brewed horinca brandy, and then all marched down to the village hall for the feast. It was around noon, but already the "paharnic" - the bottle bearers - were in action serving drinks. What was amazing was that as they moved around the tables serving a glass of 110 proof plum brandy to groups of three or four people, they would also take a drink as a toast, yet we never saw any of them get noticeably tipsy. In Ieud people drink a lot for ceremonial situations, but we rarely saw anybody drunk. Which is not the case in all villages.Nitsa pulled us in and we were seated for a lunch of meatball ciorba and sarmale stuffed cabbage. These are different from the stuffed cabbage we have in Hungary. Smaller rolls, almost no paprika to speak of, more rice and less meat, and flavored with dill and thyme. There is even the vegetarian version, the lenten sarmale de post made with vegetables and rice which wins my vote for best vegetarian food in the world (in a close race with pizza and felaful.) Romanians eat a lot of sarmale and never get tired of it. It is the perfect food.These funeral anniversary feasts are held quite often in the village and within a few days we were invited again, on a day when Nitsa was part of the catering and cooking brigade who donate their time and services as part of their duty to their church. While the crew was doing their shoot they also did some shooting at musician Ion Pop's home in Hoteni. When their fixer, our Transylvanian-from-Budapest friend Andrea called him up to set up a meeting he told her "Come by any time, I'm always at home. I'm a peasant from Monday to Friday. I'm a musician only on weekends."