As the story goes, when the Russians came through Zala liberating it from the Germans, they passed by the village Zalaszentmárton without noticing it. Nestled in a valley it’s not someplace you’d trip across unless you were looking for it. The road to it looks more like a country lane than a real road and were it not for the signpost, you’d have a hard time finding that, too. Some 300 people used to live here. That figure is more like 50 today, even though the village website claims 100. The coveted position of village mayor changed hands earlier this month as Martin Fehér took the helm. An independent candidate, he has great plans for the dying village, bringing with him an enthusiasm and determination that massively improve the odds of a rebirth. Martin, his wife Andrea, and their five children have moved here from Texas. Yep, they’re American.
Martin’s parents moved to the States from the Hungarian-speaking part of old Yugoslavia (now part of Serbia) in the 1970s with his older brother. He was born shortly afterwards. Growing up with Hungarian parents, it’s no surprise that he speaks it fluently and understands the vagaries of the people. He studied finance in college, worked for his share of multinationals as a rep, and was a co-founder of Atomic Garage – a custom body and restoration shop in Round Rock – remember when they featured on the Discovery Channel’s Texas Car Wars?
How a TV-star bodyworker ended up as mayor of a small Hungarian village was not the question – the question I had was why!
Before they came to Hungary, Marty and Andrea flipped houses. They’ve years of experience in the business and know what they’re at. What they don’t know, they’re willing to learn. Andrea’s ancestor, William Bradford, came to the USA on the Mayflower. She has that pioneering spirit in her blood. They banked some money and moved to Csömör, a village outside of Budapest, back in 2004. They stayed four years before going back stateside. But the memories remained. The States was changing. They wanted some simplicity and meaning in their lives – they wanted something they could build for their children. They came back to BP in October 2016 and began the hunt for a place in the country. Marty’s brother paved the way when he found a home in Zalaszentmárton and the couple soon followed suit. They bought two adjacent adobe houses being sold together and began to do them up. We’d gone to visit because himself had been over a few weeks back and was raving about their pool – I just had to see it. I did. And now I want one.
It’s all a work in progress. Both houses. Frustrated at not being able to find contractors, they’ve decided to do most of the work themselves. And they have helpers. AJ (10), Izzy (11), Gyula (13), Lidia (15), and Livi (16) all help out. And not just kid chores. They really help out.
They work like a conveyor belt to make adobe with everyone playing a role, be it chopping up straw using an old machine they bought or hauling water or adding mud or keeping the mix wet as it’s planed. Livi was working away when we dropped by doing as good a job as many a plasterer I’ve seen. It’s a team effort, and it’s a lot of work. Modern building practices don’t mesh with old adobe housing. The Fehérs were advised to knock the houses and build anew. The general consensus was that they couldn’t be saved. But they stuck with it, did their homework, tried and tested various methods, and have now found a way that works. So much of it depends on understanding the substance. Adobe needs to breathe. The dirt floors need to breathe. Bricking up adobe walls on either side is just a temporary fix as the adobe wall inside will rot away. Concreting a dirt floor will send the moisture in the walls. Not good either. But if you know what you’re doing, it can be done. They have mud. They have water. They have straw. And they have determination.
They’ve painstakingly sanded the old beams and stained them with a natural stain. They’ve used lime and water to whitewash the walls. They run wooden floorboards on stringers to keep the air moving. When they’re done, it’ll be fantastic. But what started out as a year-long project is running over.
The Fehérs struggle with the all-too-familiar assumption that if you’re foreign, you have money. Lots of money. And yes, some foreigners do, but not all of us. This translates into higher property prices and they’ve had the price jacked up a few times on other property just because they’re American. But they’re charging local rates for their landscaping business and living off their savings until it’s up and running. They’re not visiting, they’re not hobbyists. This is their life and they’re here to stay.
Andrea found a swarm of bees earlier this year and went to the local beekeeper Dezső-bácsi for advice. He helped her catch them and gave her a hive to house them. They got to talking. In his seventies, he has a couple of hundred hives around the village which is home to many acacia trees but he’s getting past it. His kids aren’t interested in taking it over. But Andrea is. Under his mentorship, she plans to learn the trade and start producing honey.
Marty is going to get his certification to make alcohol. They planted 500 raspberry plants with a view to growing what they can sell – but they planted them the wrong way around – they’ll have to be uprooted and planted lengthways so that they’re easier to weed. It’s a learning process. They’re thrifty, brave, and adventurous. I was particularly taken with Andrea’s plant warehouse – a patch of land where she plants all her bargain finds until she knows exactly where she wants to put them. Genius.
As they walked us around the property, more plans unfolded. They pointed to where root cellar will go and to where they’re planning to put the walapini – an underground greenhouse in which they’ll be able to grow fruit and vegetables year-round. They showed us the barn they’re renovating as a storage area and the chicken coop they built themselves. We met the sheep and the goats (cheese), the turkeys, the chickens (eggs), and their two beautiful kuvasz that they plan to breed. Just a couple of litters. No more. We also met the rabbits, a new addition. They’re being raised for their poop and their meat. Rabbit poop, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, makes it perfect manure – and it doesn’t need composting first. It’s not just the whole family who work on this project – all the animals contribute something, too.
Two rheas wandered around the garden. These large, flightless birds, are distantly related to the ostrich and emu. Andrea explained that they’re raising female chicks so that their male can have his harem. Yep. These birds are different. The male can have as many as two to twelve females on the go. He builds them a nest where each of the females takes turn laying their eggs. And then the male sits on them! He’s even smart enough to sacrifice a few eggs for the greater good, placing them outside the nest to satiate the predators. And he’s also been known to delegate, finding another male to sit in for him while he finds himself more females. He’s happy to share his gals, too, not at all bothered if they mate with another male when he’s had their eggs. What you learn on a Sunday, eh!
The family are known and liked in the village and their enthusiasm and plans to revitalise it are slowly catching hold. They bought some land that they want to use as a campsite, maybe 5 or 6 furnished tents and a couple of caravans. They’ll have a pool, a firepit, shower and bathroom facilities, and a grandstand built around a massive old wine press they bought recently. They plan on building a Spartan obstacle course, and running English camps and nature camps and farming camps.
As mayor, Marty has a vision of a sustainable community creating a space where people will want to visit. Andrea explained: ‘We want the village to take pride in itself again, but they [the villagers] need to see it to believe it.’ Marty added: ‘We’re told that we don’t know what we’re doing – everyone knows better than us – but we’re getting there.’ He ran for mayor on a three-point platform:
- Beautify the village
- Grow produce, hold events, and attract tourists
- Attract new residents to a self-sustaining village and create a better future
He plans to build a veremház (a pit-house) so that visitors can see how people used to live hundreds of years ago. He has plans for an amphitheatre on the hillside, perhaps for outdoor movies or concerts. And he wants to collect the old farm machinery and exhibit them in the village. So much is being lost – traditions, ways of doing things, knowledge and know-how. The Fehérs want to save what they can and build a way of life that their children can be proud of and take over. They’re all for continuity.
The pair have bought a pince (wine cellar) up on the hill for Lidi, who has plans to renovate it. She sews and knits and plans to be a tailor. Gyula has put dibs on one of the two other houses they’ve bought in the village next to some land he wants to farm. He’s learning from another elderly villager who loves to graft plants but has no one to pass on his knowledge to. AJ is heading towards mechanics – the apple didn’t fall far from that tree. Izzy wants to be a veterinarian and Livi, queen of the adobe plastering, is studying to be a pastry chef.
The seven of them are visionaries. Yes, right now they’re living on top of each other in a construction site with stuff all over the place, but they can see tomorrow. They’re happy. They’re doing what they love. The kids attend the local school and learn through Hungarian, a language they’re still coming to terms with. They have their animals, their friends, and their chores. Andrea and Marty are building their landscaping business. All of them are working on the houses. And now there’s the added responsibility of being mayor and building up the village. Attracting more like-minded families is all part of the plan. Give it ten years and Zalaszentmárton will no longer be the invisible village – it’ll be a place people want to visit and want to live. The Fehérs are living proof that it can be done. All you need? Determination, passion, and a willingness to fail because just like those raspberries, if you don’t get it right first time, you learn, do over, and move on.