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Something about Szeged

IMG_6994 (800x600)In Szeged last weekend for Porgy and Bess, I was followed by a feeling of disquiet the whole time I was there. It was as if something was going on and I was the only one who wasn’t in the know. I realise that university towns without their students are odd places to be and yet this feeling of ‘otherness’ couldn’t just be put down to the absence of half the town’s usual residents.

The city is old but doesn’t really look it. History tells us of the presence of mammoth hunters in the region 24 000 years ago. The name Szeged itself didn’t appear on record until  1183, when King Béla III granted passage to three ships carrying salt to the church at Nyitra. Now the third largest city in Hungary and home to the university that bears its name, there’s something about Szeged that isn’t entirely … well… Hungarian.

IMG_7004 (800x569)So I did some reading and discovered that the city was wiped out on 12 March 1879. It was almost completely and utterly destroyed by the flood which resulted from a breach in a nearby dyke. Only 265 of the existing 5723 houses remained. The world united to rebuild the city. The main streets feature Rome, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, Moscow and Vienna, a permanent reminder to the donations received from around the world to help with the reconstruction.
IMG_7007 (599x800)Wandering into town from the train station, relatively unimpressed by what I’d see thus far, the  Gate of Heroes took me by surprise. Erected in 1936 in honour of those who had died in WWI, the arch is covered in frescoes painted by Vilmos Aba-Novák. When the communists came, they painted over the artwork and it wasn’t until 2000 that the frescoes were restored to their original form.IMG_7032 (800x600)IMG_7030 (800x586)The university itself is lovely – and pretty much dominates the main square. I hadn’t realised that it was originally the University of Kolozsvár in Romania which began in 1872 and had to move to Hungary after the Treaty of Trianon in 1921. It was reborn as the  University of Szeged and amongst its alumni is my favourite Hungarian poet, Jozsef Attila. From 1962 to 1999 it was actually call after him, too. Amongst its faculty it includes Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi,  he who is tied forever with the isolation and extraction of Vitamin C from paprika. IMG_7039 (800x597)Szeged definitely had the feel of a university town, even if the students were missing. Mind you, despite the added sense of summer culture that comes with the outdoor festival, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something about Szeged that I just didn’t get.  We tried the famous fish soup (excellent), shared a plate of tepertó (goose crackling), and slept the sleep of the innocent at the Hotel Mozart. IMG_7062 (800x582)IMG_7052 (800x600)We walked the banks of the Tisza and remembered the mayflies and got some great people-watching in. It was a lovely summer evening and there was plenty going on and yes, I’d go back. If only to try and figure out what it was that I missed.

IMG_7072 (800x587) that

Life and death on the Tisza

‘It’s started. They’re flowering. Catch the next train to Subotica and someone will meet you at the station.’ I’d been waiting for this particular phone call for twelve months and when it came, I was ready. I was going to see something miraculous – the tiszavirág (or as it’s known in Serbia, tiski cvet).

Every year, for a day or two in June, a particular species of mayfly hatches on the Tisza River in what is known as tiszavirág (the Tisza blooming). The species, Polingenia longicauda, spends three years underwater, coming to the surface to frenetically hatch and mate for about two hours before dying. Its short life is dedicated totally to reproduction. Watching these flies mate in mid-air, the male’s long legs wrapped around the female, is quite something. There is no time for niceties. It’s a case of now or never with gangs of males chasing down a lone female. Some of the more eager males lie in wait on top of the female who has yet to shed her skin.

Clouds of them hover above the water, more cover the trunks of the riverbank trees, others gather on the drift wood – each trying to shed its cocoon and get down to the business of mating. So frantic are they in their race against time that I want to reach out and help the process. But I remember what I’d learned in Kruger, South Africa – do not interfere with nature. Instead, I stand, riveted, watching the brightly coloured insects gradually emerge from a diaphonous white coocon. One lands on my knee and there, oblivious to me and to the feel of cotton, he  goes about  his business. I am mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I have some small insight into what it might be like for a father to watch the birth of his child.

A flight of fancy

We take a skiff up the river and seem to fly with them – hundreds and thousands of them. Fishermen are out with their nets; this particular fly is liked by all species of fish, so it makes good bait. Given that the flies live just for two hours above water, it seems a little heartless to cut their short life even shorter and I feel some irrational degree of resentment at this display of what I perceive as human insensitivity. Surely the fishermen could wait a little. Photographers with their zoom lenses get up close and personal and I briefly wonder whether this counts as voyeurism. Waiting three years to mate and then having it all immortalised on film to be screened around the world as soon as the images are uploaded to the Internet? A little too close to the human condition for comfort. It’s hot. I know I am getting a little ridiculous, a little too fanciful, so I sit for a while on some driftwood and reflect on what exactly is bothering me.

Which life?

To spend three years underwater and then to surface for just two hours begs the question: which part consistutes life? Is what goes on underwater the mayfly’s version of living, and the ritual that goes on above water, its version of dying? The female mayfly lays her eggs on the surface of the water. After about 45 days, the eggs drift to the bottom of the river and hatch into larvae. The larvae then dig tunnels into the riverbed and stay put for three years after which they surface. The females shed once; the males twice: they first have a very brief ‘teenage’ stage and then in a matter of minutes, turn into adults. While the entire mating period lasts for about two days, each mayfly lives for about two hours. To see the process of death and regeneration in action simultaneously, is quite the experience. Like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, I wonder if the the tiszavirág are mentally prepared to die?

Changing times

Locals recall times 50 years ago when you couldn’t see the other side of the Tisza for the 2-meter-high wall of insects swarming over the water. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I catch the action on Sunday evening; the previous evening, there had been a lot more to see. Like every other miracle in this world of ours, this one, too, seems to be waning. Yes, there are people watching but nothing like the crowds that I’d expected. I wonder briefly whether we have we lost our ability to marvel at what is natural? Has technology replaced nature as our chief source of wonder? Are we now immune to the simplest pleasures in life, spoiled as we are with great discoveries and scientific advancement?

The simple mayfly could teach us a lot about life and how fragile, fleeting, and fascinating it really is.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 June 2012