English – too easy!

As I continue to struggle spasmodically with learning Hungarian (I am now on my fifth teacher, all the others having given up fighting with my recalcritrant tongue), I was highly bemused to learn that minds within the Ministry of Education think that English shouldn’t be positioned as the first foreign language Hungarian students learn, as it is… wait for it… too easy! Apparently, these great minds think that learning English as a first foreign language creates the misguided notion that all foreign languages are easy to learn and when they find out otherwise, students give up. By their logic, if students were to study ‘languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages’, which represent a lot more work, then they could learn the much easier to learn English almost as a by-the-way. Ergo, by learning more difficult languages first, Hungarians would become more multilingual.

Stressing out

In Hungarian, the stress is always on the first syllable. That’s an easy rule to follow. In English however, the stress often determines the meaning of the world. For instance, permit  and permit are different; the former is a verb, to allow, the latter a noun, a licence to do. Same letters, same combination, different meanings. Or what about determining what the first syllable is? Refuse and refuse, or produce and produce, or invalid or invalid. Need I say more?

Sounding off

In Hungarian, each letter of the alphabet has its own unique sound that never varies. If you can figure that out, you have it made. (Four years and I still can’t pronounce tej!) Not so in English where a bandage is often wound around a wound, where a sewer (think needle and thread) and a sewer (think human waste) should not be confused, and where oarsmen on the Danube can have a row about who is to row. Simple, eh? Hungarian letters are never silent – I am still confused when I hear Hungarians pronouncing the K in Knorr and occasionally in knife. But even more confusing for students of the English language is whether a number of injections will make your jaw number? Painful stuff indeed.

Doubling up

In Hungarian, there are rules for make things plural. And yes, of course there are some exceptions but even these exceptions are couched in logic. But in English you have to ask why, if the plural of goose is geese, why the plural of moose isn’t meese? If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house, hice? If the plural of die is dice, why isn’t the plural of lie, lice?

Reading into

In Hungarian, there are literal translations that make it easy for students of the language to understand. Ujj is finger. Lab is foot. Labujj is a foot-finger or a toe. But pity the student still looking for the apple in pineapple or the egg in eggplant or the butter in butterfly. And to add to the confusion – sweetmeats are actually crystallized fruit while sweetbreads are made from meat.

I suppose that if I went back far enough, I might find an explanation as to why we have noses that run and feet that smell or why we recite at a play but play at a recital. I might also find answer for why a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites. How can anyone describe a language as easy to learn when in that language a house can burn up as it burns down, when you fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm goes off by going on.  Come to think of it, if vegetarians eat vegetables, does that mean that humanitarians eat humans?

Making sense

So much of the English language depends on context. And it’s only right and proper that I make an effort to contextualise this move within the Ministry. The articles I’ve read suggest that is a reaction to statistics that Hungarians are at the bottom of the EU ranking of multilingualism with nearly 75% of Hungarians aged 25-64 admitting to speaking nothing but Hungarian. This doesn’t compare well to Sweden’s 5% but then aren’t we comparing apples and… em… swedes?  Figures for Ireland were not available but I suspect we’re closer to Hungary than we are to Sweden.

To those who say that English is an easy language to learn, I suggest you think a little more deeply about what you mean by ‘learn’. To those who suggest that learning a more difficult language first would help me learn an easier language as a matter of course, I say balderdash. I studied Gaelic for 13 years, French for five years and I still can’t speak Hungarian.

First published in the Budapest Times 30 September 2011

Note: Mary Murphy is a freelance writer and speaker who, for this article, has unashamedly plagiarised an anonymous e-mail she received years ago on why the English language is so hard to learn. She is indebted to its author…who may well be Hungarian.

Catholics only as tenants, please

I was in Rome once. And visited St Peter’s. Jammed, elbow to elbow, with the other tourists eager to have a look at Michaelangelo’s great work of art, I couldn’t help but wish for a bench I could lie down on and from that horizontal position, have just five minutes to look at the ceiling above me. I had the same feeling in Vác catherdral lately. Mind you, I suppose I could have stretched out on one of the pews, but somehow it didn’t seem quite appropriate.

Modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the cathedral in Vác dates back to 1777. Deceptively plain from the outside, its ceilings and walls are something to behold. I’m not a huge fan of ornate churches but I could spend time in this one.

By the time Vác was liberated from Turkish occupation in 1686, it was practically deserted and in ruins. Dogged by bad luck, a fire in 1731 burned down 198 of the 229 houses but by the 1770s, a baroque city built on medieval remains was taking shape. The bishops (the city’s landlords) made a huge effort to repopulate the city (with Catholics, naturally) offering various benefits such as free building sites, materials or tax breaks (and some present-day governments think they thought this stuff up!)  Most of the  newcomers were Germans, with some Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Morvian, and even a number of French and Italian settlers taking up residence. Even today, the city has a very multicultural and arty feel to it.

If you fancy a day out from Budapest, you could do a lot worse. Hidden somewhere in the city is an amazing antique barn owned by a Dutch guy – I was there once and have never found it since. And another, Hungarian-owned antique building up a side road is chock full of great stuff. Couldn’t find that one, either. Damn breadcrumbs…  will pay more attention in future.

Fish fantasies

I never liked fish, until I went to live in Valdez, Alaska, and fish was practically all we had to eat in the summer. I could cook salmon 23 different ways at last count and was quite inventive when it came to halibut, too. I even learned to fillet a fish and got over my squeamishness about blood and guts and scales and slime. I had to be dragged off the beach in clamming season and have been known to eat as many as two dozen digger clams in one sitting. But to my shame, until Swaney took me shrimping one day, I never knew shrimp had eyes. That took some getting used to.

Way back when, as a mere toddler in Waterford, the highlight of the summer would be to go to Dunmore East to choose our mackerel from the fishing trawlers as they tied up at the pier.  I was more than a little disturbed when I heard that in Alaska, mackerel were used as bait.

Here in Budapest, since Ocean has closed, there really isn’t any place in town that has good fish all the time (or at least anywhere that I know about) – and truth be told, after years of fishing for my own or enjoying fish so fresh you’d swear it was still breathing, for free, I can’t bring myself to pay high prices for fish that has travelled cross-country to land on my plate.

So, out and about on Saturday, our whole day had but one objective – to end up in Dunabogdány when it was time to eat so that we could have some friss pisztráng (fresh trout) at Siesta Café. Considering they only serve trout, potatoes and salad it still took a while to choose a topping  – I finally went with pesto  and was delighted to see that they used pine nuts. Thankfully, we went for a half salad/half spuds option as the servings are huge. Open from 12 noon each day to just after 8pm, it’s well worth the journey. It’s on the right, just as you leave the village coming from Budapest. And, if you time it well, you just might catch a game of cricket.

Sitting by the banks of the Danube, having picked my fish clean, still ruminating over Round 1 of the Gift of the Gab, I was reminded of the old Hemingway quote: ‘To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where  I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them.’ Who ever would have thought that I’d be talking about monogamy and trout in a public forum in the same week. You gotta love this country!

The talk of the town

Do you know what it’s like to walk into a bar, recognise some faces, and then see them turn away? Do you know what it’s like to wave to someone you know across the street and have them stare back pretending not to know you? Do you know what it’s like to have your arrival punctuated by a series of muttered curses and deep sighs? I do.

A shameless hussy

I’m pretty thick-skinned. I grew up singing the childish chant ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. At the onset of puberty and upon discovering the great work of my compatriot, Oscar Wilde, I changed my mantra to ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. It doesn’t particularly bother me that my popularity ratings have taken a beating lately. It doesn’t particularly concern me that my name is being coupled with adjectives such as ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’. It doesn’t particularly disturb me that some people are ignoring my e-mails and not returning my calls. We Irish are made of sterner stuff. We’ve been talking ourselves in and out of trouble for generations. So when William Lower (the Canadian half of this illustrious column) stood on stage, in public, and cautioned people to be careful of me – I simply smiled. When it comes to getting my own way, I’m a shameless hussy. And when getting my own way involves a good cause, there’s very little I won’t do to fill the coffers.

Hustling for hopefuls

Yes, it’s speech slam time again – and I’m hustling for hopefuls who will take the stage and compete for the coveted title of Gift of the Gab 2012. Practically all of my conversations these days start with ‘Have you thought about speaking on stage?’ – I’m in danger of boring myself to death! It is any wonder people are avoiding me. You see, I’m on a mission to find someone in this fair city who can face Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney’s character in that great movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and have him utter that immortal line, in the deepest of southern accents: ‘I detect, like me, you’re endowed with the gift of gab’. Variously defined as (i) to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters, (ii) the ability to talk readily, glibly, and convincingly, and (iii) the ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you, the gift of the gab is said to be something that all Irish people are blessed with. Thanks to globalization, many who have but the faintest drop of Irish blood in them can now say they have the gift, too, be they American, British, Canadian, Dutch, Estonian, French, German or Hungarian.  It respects no boundaries; recognizes no color; claims no creed. Anyone can have it.

Hoping for entertainment

But who, exactly, is anyone? And why do I care? Better still, why should you care? Over the next six months, five hopefuls will take the stage once at month in Smiley’s on St István korut. There they will deliver what’s billed as a five-minute entertaining speech on a topic of their choice. [Note: Please don’t confuse entertaining with humorous or comedic – but be prepared to laugh should the occasion call for it.] So, I hear you ask, what’s so hot about that? Nothing really – except that so many of us are called upon to deliver presentations to captive audiences at work that we confuse this ability with what it takes to captivate a paying audience with expectations and a panel of judges randomly picked for its non-existent objectivity. This is a completely different ball game.  In the second half, these same five hopefuls will deliver three-minute impromptu speeches on topics chosen by the audience. [Back to Mr Lower… ask him sometime how a man who is never at a loss for words, oral or written, could gag on a clove of garlic.] And the same panel of judges will reign supreme. This is the litmus test – the one that proves, once and for all, whether contestants have the gift of the gab.

Collecting for charity

Now, considering the scathing wonder I poured on the contestants of Szexi vagy nem in this very column last week, you are fully within your rights to turn on me and ask why I’m so brazenly asking you to take a visceral delight in the discomfort of others. [And yes, for many contestants, this is a personal challenge and they will be uncomfortable.] Isn’t this the same thing? Well, not quite. These contestants are parading their verbal wit not their pectorals. And they’re doing it for charity. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little campaign. Now what could be more fun than that?

First published in the Budapest Times 16/9/2011

Szexi vagy nem?

Television is…

While sitting in the reception area of the Dollhouse Dance School recently, contemplating my rather short-lived career as a wannabe pole-dancer, I got to do something I don’t get to do very often: I got to watch Hungarian TV. I first realised I had an obsession with TV when I sat through a marathon screening of back-to-back episodes of MASH on my first visit to New York. I preferred to hang out with Hawkeye and Pierce rather than drop by the Statute of Liberty or visit the Empire State. This obsession has been confirmed in the intervening years to the point that I’ve resolved not to have a TV set in my flat ever again – I’m smart enough to spot an addiction when I see one. I now contain my viewing to hotel rooms and once I’ve lost to the devils inside me and turned the TV on, I find it nigh on impossible to turn off. It doesn’t matter what rubbish I’m watching. One of the few English-language channels in Malta is called True Lives: it offers corny, badly acted TV renderings of true stories staring stars before they were stars. Excruciating to anyone else; a calm, soothing narcotic to me.

… the bland leading the bland

The late New York Times reporter, Murray Schumach, said it nicely: TV is the bland leading the bland. And there isn’t a better word than bland to describe the show Szexi vagy nem that was airing that evening on Viva TV. Some young hopefuls trotted their stuff in front of a panel of three judges tasked with deciding whether these kids were sexy or not. And they were kids: boy faces on gym-manufactured bodies; chins barely  old enough to be shaved sat atop broad, muscle-bound shoulders;  backs bowed, too young to have learned the importance of standing straight and facing the world head on. Their idea of a challenge was to volunteer to be rated on TV by a jury not quite of their peers. Did they know what they were doing, I wondered? The girls sashayed down the catwalk, yet to master the true nonchalance needed to wear high heels with grown-up assurance. Each had cultivated a look that epitomised their personal view of sexiness – a look they had to sell to stay in the game.

 … chewing gum for the eyes

 Architect Frank Llyod Wright called TV ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. That brainless, mindless thing we do without doing, without knowing, without being fully present. We watch, detached, comatosed, as hopes and dreams are shattered by so-called experts appointed to the jury to mete out their judgement. Those deemed not sexy enough were sent back to the audience. The finalists donned their swimsuits and lined up to parade their wares once again. As I sat, gobsmacked, watching this farce play itself out, I found myself wondering what it is about people who crave their 15 minutes of fame with such intensity that they are willing to humiliate themselves in public, before hundreds, or perhaps thousands, or even millions (depending on the TV channel) of viewers? Why has reality TV become such a hit? What is it that makes us take such visceral delight in the highs and lows of other people’s lives? Are we really that pathetic?

The girls, in swimsuits now, turned this way and that, showing the firmness of their youth to its best advantage. What little that was left of their innocence was veiled in make-up, a mask of sultriness that would have been funny had it not been so sad. Marks were added up and the winners chosen. First and second placed went through to the next round; the others sent home with the knowledge that they’d been judged not sexy or just not sexy enough. The door to therapy had already opened; later in life, when they would seek an answer as to why they’d always felt inadequate, their story would start here.

… more interesting than people

 TV is more interesting than people. If it were not, continues Alan Corenk, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms. But what makes it so interesting? I keep coming back to why. Why do those who take part in these shows crave celebrity status? And why do audiences the world over keep these TV programmes on the air? What can a show list Szexi vagy nem? possibly contribute to society? Perhaps I’m doing the show an injustice. Perhaps the interviews with those who lost out were peppered with insightful wisdom that displayed a maturity beyond their years and that the contestants were actually future leaders of this country. I’ll never know. The TV was on mute. I was just watching the pictures.

I wonder what that says about me?

First published in the Budapest Times 9 September 2011

Why I love living in Budapest No. 3

Nemzeti Színház - National Theatre

I started my countdown of the top ten reasons why I love living in Budapest back in 2010 and never made it quite past No. 4.  That’s not to say that the last year or so hasn’t given me reason to change my mind –  but I’ve hardly been here. I’ve been back a month now, without any trips, and am finally rediscovering what’s so great about. So different. So unique.

There is an abbreviation that is bandied about by some in Budapest – OIH – used to describe certain things about life in the city that could happen only in Hungary. Other than the language, methinks that everything that happens here, happens somewhere else as well. I’ve had crap customer service here; I’ve had crap customer service in Ireland. I’ve had to deal with bureauracy here; I’ve had to deal with bureauracy in the States. I’ve heard tales of crooked politicians and dubious deals that could have happened the world over – just with a cast of different actors speaking a different language. I’m under no illusions about this city, or this country; I have my moments of doubt and worry and concern about its future.

The area in front of the theatre’s main entrance stretches like a ship into an artificially constructed expanse of water that is sometimes there.

But I live here by choice. And one of the many reasons I find it so engaging is that so often it simply doesn’t make sense. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it literally defies all reason. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman poet from about 65 BC suggested we ‘mix a little foolishness with [our] serious plans; it’s lovely to be silly at the right moment.’ The National Theatre is one fine example of how Flaccus was taken literally, by someone. When I first saw it back in 2007, I was pretty impressed at the audacity of it; the brazenness. But as the the giant corporates have pitched their offices right next door and are gradually encroaching on the garden-cum-statue park, it simply begs the question: where are the planners?

We architects and urban planners aren’t the visible symbols of oppression, like the military or the police. We’re more sophisticated, more educated, and more socially conscious. We’re the soft cops.

Robert Goodman, After the Planners


Tímár József (1902-1960)

Coincidently, I watched Dustin Hoffman play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of  Salesman the other night. I remembered seeing the statue of Tímár József’s in the same role a few years back in the gardens of the Nemzeti Színház and went back to see it again. It captures the essence of the character beautifully. In a not-so-rare flight of fancy, this time though, I saw him as even more depressed. More tired. More weary. The big buildings are closing in around him; the green park that once fanned behind him, is now a building site; the wire fence is coming closer and closer as every piece of available land is taken over by commerce.

Willy Loman with Moses in the background

I believe there was a big hue and crywhen this Nemzeti Színház was first envisaged, commissioned, designed, and built. It was before my time. It’s such a shame that it is being hemmed in by glass and concrete. And that the frontage has been lost to nothingness. It’s such a shame that no-one seems to take pride in it; that is has become a national symbol for cronyism and political meddling in the arts. But as John Huston says, in his role of Noah Cross in the movie Chinatown, ‘Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable, if they last long enough.’ It’s still worth a visit.