Posted by: Valerie | September 25, 2011

Hungarian Odyssey Part 1


We Leave

We were ready to go hours before Miss Daisy (yes, Driving Miss Daisy!)  came to pick us up in her little boxy Nissan. She seemed smart and on the ball and assured us that she was quite familiar with airport trips and preferred to go the back roads. She had never been late and knew exactly what she was doing. She insisted – too often, as it turned out. HUH! I shall pass over the chaos and rising panic as we eventually hit a completely grid-locked Toronto. There appeared to be no open route to the airport.  Miss Daisy’s back roads were of no help at all. Suffice it to say that dodging through minor roads and burning down anything that was open, we eventually made it. Joe’s son, Stephen and Nancy had arrived at the airport at 6.30 for a little visit. We arrived at 8.15 pm. By that time, there was barely time for Stephen to haul our bags and sprint to the check-in. We had left home at 4.00, expecting to get to Pearson at 7.00. Joe was fit to be tied but of course they rushed us through and we made the flight.

Our Air Canada plane was an old rust bucket with torn upholstery and even armrests patched with duct tape, the food was predictably horrible but we did get a free bottle of not very nice wine. Sleep was impossible. I would have read but our reading lights were both broken so we kept on trying to achieve unconsciousness. I think I had just dozed off when they put the lights on and started a movie, prior to serving a half-frozen muffin, the consistency of damp clay. So finally to Madrid. Hot and dusty, but hey, we were in Spain! Never been there before so now I can add it to my List of Countries Visited. We ate some indentifiable cold meat and hurried off to wait for our Malev flight to Budapest. Malev much more pleasant than AC and only a three hour flight.

Thankfully we were met by Barnus, Joe’s nephew the sculptor, for our ride to Törökszentmiklós, Joe’s family town, where we stayed for two nights with his niece’s family in their three room house.  Let me describe the town – perhaps “past its best” is the most accurate description. I guess originally it was a small market town and then with the advent of communism a few factories sprang up which provided employment. However these factories are now abandoned and there is high unemployment. The young people have mostly taken off for brighter futures and the oldies on pensions are left to live out their lives. Since the advent of membership of  the EU there are a few projects designed to bring some life back to the region. This includes a very smart new eco-school and judging from the number of bikes in the yard there must be enough kids left to justify it. I do notice that compared to my first visit in 2004, the shops look a bit smarter. Joe and I took a stroll to the town centre for a kavé (great coffee!) and a wicked cake which sent Joe’s blood sugar over the top, predictably.

Joe’s niece Bozike (short for Erzibet – by one letter) is the soul of kindness but of course speaks no English. She does however subscribe to the louder is better school of communication. She is endlessly active. Her husband has had a stroke and needs 24 hour attention. Meanwhile she also works a very productive garden which produces all their fruit and vegetables and preserves them, keeps chickens and a little terrier which is chained all day long and let loose at night to guard the property. There is still a shoe-menders shop at the back of the yard as her husband used to mend the neighbours’ shoes after 35 years of chauffeuring the mayor of the town. Now it sits empty of the shoe-mender but still containing his lasts etc. Thankfully they no longer have a pig.

As we were strolling into the market yesterday I noticed a powerful stink coming from one of the little houses and Joe said it was pig-stink. Apparently that used to make him happy as a kid because it meant that there was food around. Those people probably had meat. Pig killing is a huge ritual and relatives come from all over to enjoy the results. The pig-killer comes to the house and does the job and the family does the rest. Of course this is dying out and most people buy their meat at the butcher. When we were walking, Joe also pointed out a little shop which announced Women’s Clothing and had a couple of dresses hanging out at the front. This is an illegal butcher’s shop. Everyone knows it’s a butcher’s shop, including, I presume, the authorities. It is the preferred spot for buying your pork or chicken although usually in this little town if you wanted chicken you’d just go out the back and pick a plump one!

One image of TSM sticks in my mind – an exceptionally slim and pretty girl on a bike, wearing tight white pants, her hair loose, talking on her  cell phone.

A Cacophony of Clocks

After a couple of days in Törökszentmiklós we moved about 20 km down the road to a larger town called  Szolnok. This time we were there to visit another relative called Terike. Terike turned out to be a most pleasant person, soft-spoken too. It is common in Hungary that when a husband dies, thechildren, as is their right,may  demand that she sell her apartment and give them the proceeds of the sale – leaving her nothing. Now, in her late sixties she is working as caretaker of two tatty Communist era blocks of flats which provides her with an apartment, plus she cooks and delivers food to a much older woman, and on top of all that, she cares for two of her grandchildren, boys about 12 and 14, full time. Their parents are permanently unemployed and spend their time drinking and smoking (drugs too).  The dear soul surprised Joe with a mini birthday party with cake and champagne.  And the boys who are very pleasant and speak a little English from school, joined in with a rowdy version of Boldog Szuletesnapot (Happy Birthday).We stayed with her for one night, on the living room sofa which is her normal bedroom, and in it I counted twelve clocks. And all night they ticked and tocked…

In the evening we went to see the glorious Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture of the town and strolled across the lovely new bridge across the Tisza, Hungary’s second river.  A very pretty town indeed.  At least the pretty bits are pretty…

A strange sculpture in Szolnok

Eger

Eger is in the north of the country, not too far from the Slovenian border. It dates back to the 900s and a lot has gone there ever since, including the famous siege in 1552 when 2,000 people, including  women and children defended the castle from 80,000 Turks.  This is where the famous story of Egri Bikaver wine comes from. The Turks could not believe the fierceness of the Hungarian resistance in the siege and the rumour started that they mixed the blood of a bull into their plentiful supply of wine to give them superhuman strength. EB is therefore the famous Bull’s Blood wine for which area is famous. The cheap, nasty stuff we get in the west is nothing like the local tipple which is delicious.     

So far we have explored the town and the castle. After our castle adventure this morning, we fell, sore of foot, into a pretty little restaurant for lunch in their courtyard. After passing up tripe and onions and roasted cockerel testicles, we settled for the most delicious bright green cream of fresh pea soup accompanied by superb bread with spiced butter!  Tomorrow we are going up into the hills to see the grape harvest, if we can ever find our way out of this tortuous and labyrinthine mediaeval muddle. Now it’s time for our $3 taxi ride into town to experience more gastronomic delights for dinner. Ah, me, it’s hard… Turns out Joe had a bad tummy (wonder why?) and ate very little but I managed a courgette pancake stuffed with sheep’s cottage cheese. Yum!

Yes, we did find our way out of town to a place recommended by the hotel staff called Silvasvarad which translates into Plum Friend. I guess that our hotel person didn’t know that we didn’t like tourist traps and horrid kitchy souvenirs. However, we ignored these and bought a ticket for a ride on a choo-choo train (narrow gauge railway)  in the oak forest that covers the hills. The train was packed but when we got to the top there was plenty of oak forest to spread us out. Actually it was quite lovely and there are logging museums and fish farming museums. We didn’t bother with logging as we do live fairly close to Algonquin Park but the fish stuff was interesting.

Our last night in Eger. More eating at “our” restaurant just under the castle walls at “our” table with “our” waiter. Three of four restaurants share the patio space and together they pay musicians to play as we munch. Several of them have been really quite good and we were even treated to some real gypsy violin music on one evening. It does go on a bit…

Flashback

So now we are in Erbobénye, a tiny village right in the middle of the Tokaj wine district. Again a very pleasant, modestly priced hotel – at least by our standards. Very few Hungarians could afford to stay here. We were told that an average hourly wage will buy one litre of gas!  No wonder so many people bike it or bus it.

Apart from the beautiful scenery of this place and the wine, wine, wine, Joe chose this village to visit as in 1942 when he nine years old, he was sent here to an orphanage for boys. He tells that he was accompanied from Budapest for part of the journey on the train by an official but when they got as far as they could by train, the chaperone left him on the station platform where he was met by an aged one-legged man with a horse and cart who took him the rest of the way. Today we visited that orphanage which is now a home for elderly and mentally afflicted women. We rang the bell and a white-coated woman allowed us in. It seems that we were a great diversion for the inmates and we even found old lady whose husband had been in the same orphanage while Joe was there.

This was during the war, of course, and food was very , very scarce but at least there was more than his mother could find in Budapest and I believe the boys were pretty  well-treated. Joe didn’t see his mother for two years as she had no way of making the journey. He says he remembers getting two letters from her but they were read to him and not given to him.

Tomorrow we are hoping to take the Wine Taxi which will ferry us around for some serious wine-tasting without having to worry about driving.

Did I mention that we have had about 22 degrees and sunshine every day since we arrived?  No? Smug smile!

Photos will have to wait until I can get organised.

 

More soon.

 

         

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Responses

  1. Wonderful saga. Feels like I am there with you. Great stuff,Val. enjoy!

  2. Sounds like you are having a great time, looking forward to the photos.
    Love from
    Sarah


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