It’s not often that parties in my world start at 7.30 am these days. Perhaps years ago when I was following Irish soccer and time differences meant that the World Cup games were shown at dawn, I’d be in the thick of it when the bars opened. But that was years ago, when I was younger, fitter, and able to last the pace. Nowadays, if I can hold my own till midnight, I’m happy. But starting at 7.30 am, I had no chance. Yet I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a proper, country disznóvágás, especially one that was thrown for Békéscsaba Előre, my football team. Pick yourselves up off the floor: not alone have I done the pig killing thing to death this year, I’m now a soccer fan to boot.
It was another early morning start but the pig was already dead when we got there. Utensils were laid out and no time was wasted in starting the depilation. The team vice-captain, Gyuri, won’t ever be stuck for a day job. He’s a good man with a blade; heavy work but someone has to do it.
By 8am I was on my third pálinka (which, as Hungarians say, in small amounts is a medicine and in large amounts a remedy; whatever I had is now officially cured). I rarely touch the stuff, and then only to remind myself how much I hate it. But I was conscious of the fact that I was a guest (and a foreigner at that) and should behave accordingly. So I knocked ’em back – peach, cherry, plum, and quince. The boys found my grimacing hilarious. When I started turning in circles and doing a little dance, they got a tad worried. I detest neat alcohol. I’m a philistine. I need mixers. But I had to show willing and show willing I did.
At around 9 am breakfast was served. Hagmás vér – blood onion – accompanied by pickled cabbage and pickled peppers and pickled cucumber. I can’t say I was salivating at the prospects of a bowl of cooked blood but again, I had to show willing. I couldn’t let the side down – I might well have been the first Irish person the town had seen. One bite in though, I was converted. It sounds gross, but it tastes divine. This was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had – ever. Did I mention the pálinka?
The decibels had risen and the quiet of the early morning had dissipated in a fire of onion breath and beer. The party had begun.
The assembly line converged. Each had their job to do – which, in true democratic style, could be as much or as little as you wanted. Me? I watched and took notes. Did I mention the pálinka? The meat was carved up, its future decided by whomever was in charge at any given moment in time. The sausages were made, the kolbász too, with a sizable chunk taken to the kitchen for lunch.
It seemed like everyone had their particular specialty and favourite thing to do. Some of these lads have been dicing up pigs for longer than I’ve been alive. This is the tradition, the party, the celebration. When it came to the sausage making, Henry Ford couldn’t have done better. It was all hands on meat as the casings were filled for drying. Me? I was fascinated by the splitting of hooves and will never quite think of a pedicure in the same way again. Did I mention the pálinka?
I’d lost count at this stage but judging from how much my Hungarian was improving, I’d say I’d had too many. And it wasn’t even noon! It felt like it was midnight. When the music kicked off and the cards came out, I thought I was at home in Ireland – except for the noticeable absence of women, which made dance partners a premium. [One thing I’ve never yet seen Hungarian men do, no matter how fast the pálinka has been flowing – I’ve never seen them dance together.] Zoli, our host, was in fine singing voice and the place was buzzing. But the songs… the songs lasted for hours. None of your three-minute jobs here. As I was being ducked and dived around the dance floor by whomever was passing by and fancied a dance, it felt like the end would never come. Then I realised that it wasn’t just the one song – it was that they all sounded the same to my untrained ear. Or…. it could have been the pálinka.
Lunch was divine – but at this stage, anything would have tasted great. Pork, pork and more pork. With lots of vegetables. The tepertő (crackling) was to die for. And then more dancing. And then the wine came out. By the time 4 pm rolled around, I was saying mass. My notebook was full of squiggles and exclamation marks. I’d dropped my camera on the concrete floor and it had died a death, which was probably just as well. My feet ached. My head was spinning. And three men had sworn blind that if they hadn’t been married already, I’d be at the altar on the morrow.
But it wasn’t all about the pálinka or the sausage. I had a blast. Perhaps my being a foreigner helped. I know that my curiosity did. Everyone I met was just lovely and for about five minutes, I found myself wishing that I was young enough to be a WAG. Okay – so maybe it was more like half an hour. I was on pálinka time.
When it comes to hospitality, the boys in Békéscsaba certainly know how to throw a party. I’m really looking forward to being in the stands when the lads take to the pitch in March. And my dance card already has names pencilled in for the stadium opening that same month. And, in the meantime, if I come across a time machine, perhaps that WAG thing could be a reality.