Home on the range

One of the many joys of living in Budapest is the huge amount of activity in the city. There’s always something going on. Places to visit. Exhibitions to see. Concerts to attend. So much so that there is a danger that life in Hungary revolves around the capital and we don’t take or make the time to venture further afield.

The Hungarian countryside is just as active. Quirkiness reigns. The road to the Balaton is well travelled, with the lakeside villages and towns offering plenty by way of distraction. But off the M7 between here and there are other delights just waiting to be discovered, ones that you stumble across when you take a wrong turn or are travelling between one place and the next.

I’d passed the sign for a buffalo reservation on my way to Balatonmaygaród a number of times but only recently took the time to stop and explore. When I think of Hungary, I think of grey cattle and mangalica pigs. I think of birds of prey and wild boar. Buffalo don’t usually come to mind.

And when I think of buffalo, I think of the bison of North America. The wood bison, the largest animal on the continent, can weigh up to 900 kg. It differs from the plains bison (seen in Alaska) in that its tallest point is in front of its front legs, giving it that distinctive leaning-forward look. It’s woollier, too.  I also think of the African buffalo, with its fabulous curly horns. But the buffalo in Hungary look more like shortlegged, humpbacked cows. So much so that when we saw them, we had to look not twice, but three or four times to be sure they were buffalo.

bt-2016-42These relations of the Asian water buffalo roam the reserve at Kápolnapuszta, part of the Balaton-felvidéki National Park. Not quite as big as their North American counterparts, they can weigh up to 700 kg and have more angular faces and straighter horns. The 1.5 km interactive walking trail is very educational, teaching everything about their eating habits and how they breed as well as how they behave in general.

They’re very fond of water and given the choice between working and playing in the water, there’s no contest. They can amuse themselves for hours wallowing in the mud, so much so that you’d wonder what is going on in their heads.

A small museum has an exhibition of the flora and fauna in the area. It also includes the history of the buffalo in Hungary. Picnic tables abound and there are telescopes and a lookout tower from which to view the animals if they’re not cooperating and hanging out close the trails.

I had no idea that buffalos were once popular domestic animals in this country, raised for their meat, their milk, and their might. Many were put to work pulling carts. And while I’m quite fond of a good piece of buffalo mozzarella, I had thought it got its name from its shape rather than from its origins. But yes, it’s made from the milk of the buffalo cow.

Domestic buffalo in Hungary almost disappeared in the 1950s but they were saved from extinction and today, some 300 animals roam freely on the reserve in Zala county. We had the good fortune to see them on the march, one following the other as they made their way across the plain.  The old John Denver song came to mind:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

And that just about sums up what I’ve learned of Zala county.

The reserve is open daily in October from 9:00 to 17:00 and from 1 November to 31 March it closes at 16:00. All are welcome.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 October 2016

Country remedies

I parked Ime on the grass inside the gate. I was basking in the glory of having off-street parking when my neighbour dropped by to warn me about the weavils. From what I gathered, they climb into the car, up into the engine, and do untold damage to the wiring. Sometimes, they even nest. A home from home, of sorts. At least this is how I translated the steady flow of Hungarian with the accompanying hand gestures.

careng4Her remedy appeared to involve water. I thought I understood but didn’t quite believe that she was suggesting putting two bowls of water in front of the car as this would magically deter them from moving in.

I googled weavils – they’re insects. So I revised my understanding and my translation to read weasels. That made more sense. I could see those furry animals looking for a warm place out of the cold (even though it was a lovely, sunny, 25 degrees in late September).

The next day, I awoke to find that she’d been a tad impatient or perhaps sensed that I (a) didn’t fully understand or (b) didn’t quite believe her remedy. Two 1.5-litre plastic bottles of water stood sentry in front of the car. Each to their own, I thought. I could humour her in the interests of good neighbourly relations.

Then, walking up the village later that day, I spotted another car parked in a garden, facing out to the street. It, too, had two bottles of water standing guard. And then I saw a third. It would seem that Hungarian weasels (into which I also read mice and other furry rodents) are afraid of bottled water. Interestingly, all bottles were the same brand. Perhaps the rodents can read.

I googled some more and there’s loads of stuff on the Net about home cures for wire-gnawing rodents. Everything from spraying the grass you park on with rat pee (and yes, you can buy this … in Germany anyway) to spraying the wires with hot pepper spray.

Another site suggested stretching chicken wire tightly over a frame and laying this under your car as apparently squirrels (and presumably other such animals) don’t like walking on mesh.

In the area of Southern Germany where I live the culprits are usual members of the marten family. Here some people solve the problem by placing a wooden frame covered in stretched chicken wire under the motor compartment of the car when its parked. Apparently the beast don’t like to walk on the chicken wire and so don’t climb into the engine compartment.

Marders are a particular problem in Switzerland apparently. There you can insure your car against marder damage. One contributor to a forum swears it works:

You can also insure your car against Marder damage. Since I have insured my car the Marder has never come back.

careng3Now, I’ve been driving for years. I’ve lived in some wild and wonderful places teeming with all sorts of wildlife and never once have I even heard of this phenomenon. But as sure as shinola, now that I know about it, it’ll happen. I’ve heard tell of devices you can fit to the front grid that emit a high-pitched noise that scares them away. But what if it drives all the dogs in the ‘hood mad? There’s another that has a strobe light. But that might scare away the fox and the deer. For the minute, I think I’ll stick to the water bottles. Unless anyone has any other bright ideas?

2016 Grateful 14

When you go to Sunday mass in a small village where everyone knows everyone, you’re bound to stick out if you’re not a local. When you don’t plan ahead and pack your Sunday best, it’s difficult to adhere to the dress code. The men, for the most part, were all suited and booted with collars and ties. The women were all pressed and dressed giving their best handbags an airing. Dark, sombre colours were the order of the day.

His bright turquoise hoodie over a shirt and grey jeans glowed like a neon light on the approach and got the heads turning from a distance. As we walked to the door, three ladies standing sentry looked me up and down with the practiced eyes of mothers who’d sent an army of kids to school after a hands and nails check. My Hungarian isn’t what it should be but I know enough to know that my cropped pants were worthy of a comment and three sets of raised eyebrows as was the fact that I was wearing no socks. I had no argument. My mother would have said exactly the same in a look that would have creased the trousers, too. Okay for a weekday mass but definitely not what to wear on a Sunday.

But it wasn’t the clothes that did me in. ‘Twas the lipstick. Bright red. To match my scarf. I like a little colour. But it screamed HARLOT!!! I took solace in the fact that the village would have something to talk about for the week ahead.

Kneeling is part and parcel of the Sunday aerobics class that many non-Catholics view as mass. But in this particular church, the kneelers were so low that it I went into freefall when I took the plunge. Assuming (incorrectly) that mass the world over has the same kneeling points, I didn’t check what everyone else was doing before I sank to my knees, dropping from a height onto uncushioned slats. I managed to stifle my curse before it escaped and bounced off the walls. I looked around to see everyone else bending forward but not kneeling. Things are different in the countryside.

I usually leave mass then the priest leaves the altar. But having learned my lesson, I stopped and waited to see what everyone else did. No one moved. One old néni (auntie) pulled out her rosary beads as the choir sang on. To my shame, I thought ‘Oh no, not the rosary. We’ll be here till lunchtime.’ I looked around in something approaching a mild panic and thankfully hers was the only purse to open. But not until the last note had been sung did anyone make a move. The priest had vacated his spot a good three minutes earlier. No one was in a rush. Things are different in the countryside.

We were out in under 45 minutes. Budapest mass is closer to an hour or more (depending on where you go). My father is a firm believer in the 3-minute sermon and will just about tolerate a 40-minute mass. He’d have done okay. With years of research under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian seminaries teach their seminarians that the minimum length of their sermons should be 10 minutes. And most oblige. As a minimum.

szodavizOutside, there were lots of friendly good mornings and plenty of interested looks but no approaches. We must have screamed NOT HUNGARIAN. We decided to walk up the village to the local bar/shop/tabac/café to check it out and get a bottle of szódaviz (soda water). You put a deposit on the spouted bottle and bring it back to be refilled. They’re hard to find in Budapest so I had been quite excited when I’d spotted a man leaving the premises the previous day with a box of six. I’m easily pleased.

In we went for a coffee. It was just coming up to 9am. One chap was happily sipping on his pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and another two were enjoying a beer outside.

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate.

A fourth came in as we were there and ordered a bottle of Törley pezsgő (Hungarian sparkling wine). He was celebrating (a new grandchild, I think). He asked for four glasses and they all had their toast. A couple more turfed up. All on bikes. We moved outside to one of two tables to have a second espresso (great coffee am happy to say) and I noticed that I was on display: the sockless harlot in the red lipstick, a lone woman among all these men. Things are different in the countryside.

Next time I go to mass, I’ll wear socks and tone down the lippie. The hoodie will be replaced by a jacket but the suit and tie won’t be happening any time soon. It’s the earliest I’ve been up on a Sunday for a while. Been to mass. Been to the pub. And still home by 10 am.

As a new chapter unfolds, life is promising all sorts of interesting experiences. This week, I’m grateful for the nudge from JFW. I’m already going through the calendar to see when I can come back and for how long I can stay. Sunny days in late September, falling asleep to the sounds of ducks on water and waking at cock crow to the baa’ing of sheep. Restorative. Good for the soul. Practically a religious experience in itself.