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Blind date

Back in the heady days of teenagehood, we favoured deep and meaningful conversations with a pseudo-intellectual bent. That was back in the days when a good conversation was rated on par with a great movie. Lacking the wisdom that comes with age, we didn’t do silence. Lapses in conversation were unwelcome, awkward even. We had to be either talking or listening.

A favourite filler question was: If you had to lose one of your five senses – hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste – which would you do without?  There were all sorts of arguments that came from diverse opinions and values and for a while I’d have chosen sight. My landlady’s best mate was blind and she seemed to get around just fine. Mary Ingalls, in the TV programme The Little House on the Prairie had just lost her sight and she was adjusting. So with all the naiveté that comes with youth, I figured it would just take practice.

For years, I’ve been curious about what it would be like to be sightless. I’d seen advertisements for the Invisible Exhibition (Láthatatlan Kiállítás) over in Millenáris but never quite got around to going. So last week, a group of us got together and booked a tour and dinner.

We were split into three groups of seven. Each group was then assigned a blind, English-speaking guide who showed us the different devices they use on a daily basis. We learned how to type in Braille and to play games with special pieces. We were then taken on a guided tour in complete darkness.

I’ve stumbled around my apartment in the dark but I know where everything is and where to find it. Walking into an unknown space, a dark apartment and finding my way through the living room into the kitchen and to the bathroom was strange. It was too easy to become completely disoriented. But as I got used to it, I figured yeah – I could do this – if I absolutely had to.

lathatatlan_kiallitas_megnyito0012But then we hit the street. Or a replica of a street, complete with the full score of street sounds. We had traffic lights, cobblestones, markets, cars, bicycles, park benches, and a bridge. I had to fight back the panic. My respect for those who live without sight grew immeasurably. The skills they have are nothing short of amazing. Last on the tour was the art gallery where we tried to identify various statues and sculptures – think Michelangelo’s David – all by touch.

Then it was on to dinner. Feeling our way around the surprise starter-plate was an experience. We’d pre-ordered our meals and knew what we were having but even so, not being able to see what was on the plate was a tad disconcerting. I gave silent thanks that we’d gone for the two-course meal. Eating soup would have been a challenge. The plates were cleverly lipped, the wine glasses stemless. Adaptation is one way of coping.

My hearing was heightened. Not knowing who was actively listening to my conversation would have been unsettling had I not been among friends. It took me a while to stop my fruitless pointing and gesturing. I became conscious of the number of times I refer to sight in everyday speech. We used our names instead of looks to catch each other’s attention. Verbal explanations of how we were facing and what we were doing quickly became the norm. All the while our guides chatted away, telling us about how they live their lives. It was a heady antidote to self-pity.

The exhibition is open every day. The staff are exceptionally helpful so don’t hesitate to call and ask for more information. Advance bookings are required for foreign-language guides.

First published in the Budapest Times  10 June 2016

Johnny Valiant

Three hundred and seventy verses, 1480 lines, make for one hell of a long poem. But I read them all, cover to cover, the first time I picked up a copy of Petőfi Sándor’s book János Vitéz (John the Valiant) or, as I’ve christened him, Johnny Valiant. I did the same the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. What’s more, remembering back to 2007, I think everyone on my Christmas list got a copy of John Ridland’s 2004 translation.

It’s a marvellous tale of love and loss, of bravery and courage, of tenacity and faith, of loyalty and belief. A tale where the shepherd boy turns down a French throne and instead returns to his sweetheart. ‘Tis the stuff that magic is made of. And it simply goes on and on and on. In his foreword to this particular edition, George Szirtes says:

As  children, we raced through Petőfi’s poem, exhilarated by its pace, enraptured by its heroism, sharing its jokes, scarcely believing its tragedies.

Although nature’s current depiction of me is hardly childlike, once I picked up this poem, I was twelve again. Catapulted back in time, I was just beginning to notice boys and lose myself in the innocent romance between Laura and Almonzo (Manley) on the Little House of the Prairie.

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny Valiant

To discover as I walked the cemetery of Ráckeve last weekend, that Petőfi had based my Johnny Valiant on a real person, came as quite a surprise.  If Hórvath János (1774-1848) was even half the man that my Johnny was, he’d win a place on the list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. Judging by the medals and honors cited on his gravestone, Hórvath was no coward. I wonder though if he had a sweetheart …

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny ValiantBeautifully in keeping with Petőfi’s folksy style, the sign pointing the way to Hórvath’s grave deserves a place in the Tate Modern. A broom handle, topped with a radiator cap, holds tight to a simple board with a strip of metal edging held together with four nails, each painted in white, tied off with the requisite red, white and green ribbon. A lovely touch.

Each year, in the town of Ráckeve, on János Viték Napok,  locals commemorate this great work by acting out selected parts. This year, I just missed it (2/3 June). Next year, it’s already fixed in my calendar.

This poem begs to be read aloud. If you have kids, so much the better. But if not, while sitting at home one evening with a postprandial digestif of your choice, I challenge you to pick it up and keep silent. It’s impossible.