For years, I’ve been living with the illusion that the standard for fish soup (halászlé – which translates literally as fisherman juice) was what is made in Szeged, the third-largest city in Hungary with a population of about 160 000. The first time I visited the city, that’s was what I was told. And sure why wouldn’t I believe them? It was on every menu in every restaurant I ate in or passed by. Situated on the banks of the River Tisza and close to Lake Fehér, (white lake) Hungary’s largest saltwater lake, fish are plentiful. Read more
While not yet at a crisis point in my love affair with Budapest, I think our relationship isn’t nearly as strong as it was, say, three years ago. Back then, I was in the throes of passion and although not totally blind to her frailties, I was more than ready to forgive the occasional transgression. But as in any relationship, when the first cracks start to appear, everything takes on a new perspective and I find myself in danger of overreacting and blowing things out of proportion.
I read recently about a couple of students who were hitching a lift to Szeged from Budaörs. While they were waiting, they sat down on the grass to eat a couple of cheeseburgers. Two policemen approached and asked to see their ID. One of them didn’t have any and was fined 50 000 forints. The second was fined the same amount for littering (the litter in question was a cigarette box that didn’t belong to them). When one of the two unfortunates muttered ne már (come on!), this was seen as resistance and the pair were taken to the nearest police station. One paid his fine; the other opted for 60 hours of community service.
Down in Zalaegerszeg, a teacher crossing the street with her young daughter didn’t use the designated crossing. It was raining. She was in a hurry to pick up her son from kindergarten and then catch a bus home. Detained by the police for twenty minutes, she missed both and was fined 20 000 forints. (I’m not feeling the love here.) On the advice of friends, she reported the incident (it would seem that the policemen also addressed her using the informal te (which is most impolite in Hungary). The result? A visit from the guardianship office checking on her suitability as a parent: she had endangered the life of her child by not using a crosswalk. Overreaction?
I’m sure the police were fully within their rights to do as they did. But really, in the grand scheme of things, what good did they actually do? I’m a spirit of the law person myself, so perhaps I’m biased. Then, noticing that Hungary is one of seven EU countries bidding to host CEPOL (the European Police College Headquarters), I couldn’t help but wonder whether on-the-job training will take on a whole new meaning.
First published in the Budapest Times 18 October 2013.
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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.
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.
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.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. 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. 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.
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I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve survived yet another birthday week. For those of you not yet old enough (or fortunate enough) to have experienced this particular phenomenon, first introduced to me by the inimitable DF in Washington, let me outline the basic concept. Once you pass the tender age of 40, instead of forgetting about birthdays altogether, you have what she calls a birthday week – you celebrate for a whole seven days. Nothing like a series of late nights and revelry to keep old age at bay.
Mine started on Saturday, 3rd August, at Kincsem Park – an open invite to join me at the races saw hats being demothballed, picnic baskets being aired, and the inner gambler in some emerge. It was hot, bloody hot, too hot to sit on the grass with no shade so we picnicked in the stands – just by the finish line. While we were awash with food and wine, we were a little light on tipsters. But with 10 races on the card, we had plenty of time to figure it out. Kincsem Park is a great day out, any day. Add some old friends, some new friends, and some good wine, and it’s even better. A swathe of taxis took the hard core to Grund – a garden bar in the VIIIth district – and then for a 2am snack at a great little place on Ulloi. Sunday, as it should be, was a day of rest and recuperation.
Monday was about being nice to me – hair do, manicure, long lunch, phone calls abroad. Tuesday, the day itself, started off with lunch at Kompót, my new favourite place to eat in Budapest. And then it was over to Buda (on a day pass!) to Kobuci where a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute band kept the floor heaving despite the temperatures. People came and went all evening and again, it was great to catch up with those I’ve not seen in a while. I like this idea of open invites – you never know who will show up. Another late one though as Szimpla beckoned and then some more dancing … at a great little place on Ulloi.
The week progressed with more lunches, dinners, coffees, and catch-ups. The cards came through the letterbox and transatlantic phone calls added to my days. And then on Friday, it was off to Szeged by train to see Porgy and Bess. More on this spectacular experience later. Back in town yesterday, for the official close of my 2013 birthday week, I found myself giving thanks to the good Lord for the people who have come into my life…. and stayed a while. For their generosity of spirit and that added extra they bring with them: different perspectives that challenge, provoke, and entertain and further enrich an already blessed life.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir