A Few More Pictures from the Bike Trip

I remember the days of slides and slide projectors (with their revolving cartridges). You would curl up in someone’s living room and watch slide after slide, listening to the explanations along the way. This bike trip from Szolnok to Sátoraljaújhely deserves a slideshow and much more, but since I have no slides or projector, and since I can’t spend all day uploading and explaining photos, I’ll just show a few more here.

The top picture is the gate of the Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő in Vajdácska. The bike isn’t mine. I took the picture yesterday morning (and have taken others of the same gate in past years). From here on, my explanations will refer to the photo immediately above them.

Backtracking a little in time, here’s some more of the greenery of Tokaj.

Here (above) are some medieval ruins in Olaszliszka. I took a picture of the same place last spring, but this one came out better.

Here’s a walkway toward the castle in Sárospatak. I didn’t visit the castle grounds as I usually do, but there will be other times for that.

This was on the road to Sátoraljaújhely.

One of Sátoraljaújhely’s many old, elegant buildings.

And then, just as I was heading into the Sátoraljaújhely train station, this memorial plaque (on the train station’s exterior wall, by the entrance) caught my eye. “Blessed is the memory of the martyrs,” it reads in Hungarian. (I believe the Hebrew says, “Memorial of the Jewish Martyrs of the Shoah,” though I might be slightly off.) “Placed by the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood and the János Wesley Pastoral Training Colleger, on the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust, 2004.” Then, at the bottom, “The establishment of the memorial site was supported by the Freight Department of Máv.” (Máv is the national railway company.)

I have been in Hungary now for exactly three years; I arrived on October 30, 2017. And I am just beginning to get to know the country.

Ride of Rides

If you count the detours, I probably biked 300 kilometers in all–from Szolnok to Sátoraljaújhely–between Monday and this morning. But that’s not what makes this trip stand out. Or rather, that’s only part of it.

It was a pastel-foggy morning when I set out from Szolnok on Monday. I turned back once, because I realized that, when removing the bike from the storage alcove in my building, I had somehow gotten grease on my sweatpants. I tried to clean them as much as possible and then set out again. On the outskirts of Szolnok, I veered onto a bike lane, and the tires hit a slippery spot. I went flying off of the bicycle and face down onto the ground. Some people walked up to ask if I was all right. A woman drove up and handed me a handful of tissues. But nothing was broken, and after taking a few minutes to collect myself, I headed onward.

The day was uneventful and lovely. I rode the long, familiar stretch through Nagykörű, Tiszasüly, and other towns, and saw many birds of prey circling above, as well as migrating (or semi-migrating) geese. The geese didn’t seem too sure of their direction yet, but they were flocking numerously and loudly.

So I came to Kisköre, found a bridge, and then saw the bike route sign pointing to a meadow. I rode on the dirt road and came to Tisza-tó (Lake Tisza) before long. I went clockwise around the lake to Tiszafüred. (There was a bridge at one point.) I have already mentioned the chess pieces and the swans. That, and biking by a lake on a grey fall day, made for a relaxing, if also long, first stretch of the trip. The guesthouse was a little outside of Tiszafüred, but I found it. The host greeted me with cheer and took me to my room, which was actually a little house behind the main house. I went to sleep promptly.

The second day looked a lot like the first at the outset. A long, quiet bike path; lots of birds, yellow leaves falling. Then, just before Tiszacsege, the bike path came to an end, and there was no sign indicating where bikers should go from there. It met with an L-shaped road: I thought I should go right, toward Tiszacsege, but it seems I was wrong. I liked something about Tiszacsege, though, and regretted passing through it so quickly. I stopped to take a picture of the Roman Catholic church.

I continued on to the town of Polgár, which definitely had no bike route in sight. Someone saw me looking around and asked where I was trying to go. When I said Tokaj, he explained that I needed to get on route 35 and then turn right–and go on the bike path to Tiszadob, where I would need to take a ferry. Then, at the other end of the ferry ride, I would resume the bike journey. Tokaj was about 40 kilometers away.

But first of all, I took the wrong direction on 35, and it took me a while to realize the mistake. I turned back, found the Tisza river and the bike path, biked to Tiszadob, and found the ferry stop, but everything looked deserted, and the gate was closed. I then found out, through a search on my phone, that the ferry wasn’t in operation. So I decided to resort to GPS. I chose the walking option, since there was no bike option–and Google Maps deftly directed me along dirt roads, which would have been fine, except that they were muddy. Now the sun was setting, and I saw a shepherd just ahead with many sheep and a few goats. I wanted to take a picture of the sheep, and he welcomed me to do so. He asked where I was going; when I told him, he said, “Oh, it will get dark before you arrive.” But I told him I would be fine. He said I was doing a beautiful thing, taking a trip like this. And I went onward.

It did get dark. But the moonlight was spilling over the paths, and I thought I was almost there–and would have been almost there, if the dirt roads had been suitable. But I ended up in so much mud that I decided to forsake the dirt roads altogether. I told Google Maps that I was driving. The road took a very long way around, but I reached Tokaj just a little before 8 (and the check-in at the guesthouse was until 8). Now I relied on the GPS for each step, went around and around, went up a little hill, turned back, and saw the Torkolat guesthouse right there in front of me. Not realizing yet that I had arrived, I called the owner, who, as it turned out, was standing several meters away. He jovially welcomed me in, and everything was fine.

In the morning I had breakfast there, at the guesthouse. The owner made me eggs and coffee and laid out an array of spreads. Then we started to talk. He was impressed with my Hungarian (which to me felt stumbling) and asked how I had learned it. When I told him, he told me that he had studied German and Russian. We began speaking in Russian–he told me about a trip he and his university classmates had made to Riga, Moscow, and Leningrad in 1978 or so (the same year I was there). He had saved a book of Russian expressions, which he considered a treasure, since it represented an era. He told me two Russian jokes.

I saw many wooden mechanical toys around the dining area. I asked him about them. He had made them himself. He had seen models on YouTube and had figured out how they worked and how to make them.

Soon afterward, I said goodbye and headed to the center of Tokaj. You can’t go wrong in Tokaj. Old, gracious buildings with colorful ivy spilling over them; hilly roads, hills up above, wine cellars everywhere. I got some wine for the neighbors taking care of my cats and some more for a special occasion. The wine cellar pictured below is at the Hímesudvar Pincészet (over 500 years old).

Now it was time to head up slowly toward Sárospatak, then Vajdácska. I had no worries about the route, since I had traveled it before. But I did want to try to find the Jewish cemetery in Olaszliszka. It took some doing–it has a big stone wall around it, so you can’t really see it–but I found it. I think it’s opened only on special occasions–for instance, when there’s a Hasidic pilgrimage there.

Sárospatak was bustling–lots of stores open, lots of people walking around. It seemed like a veritable metropolis. My appetite bristling again, I decided to have a late lunch at A Fekete Macska (The Black Cat). They are serious about their name. The place is full of cats. I saw at least five in the terrace dining area. And I had a delicious lunch: vegetable soup followed by chicken with galuska (a kind of homemade pasta). Then headed to Vajdácska, crossing the Bodrog river.

But that lunch was in some ways a bad idea, since it took away from my dinner appetite, and I had been looking forward to the pizza so much. They make scrumptious pizza at the Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő. But I did manage to eat almost all of it (a medium-sized margherita). And it was good to arrive at the final guesthouse of the trip, where I had been four times before. I spoke with the hosts, ate more than my fill, and went to sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, I went down a side road to see a memorial to a little boy who died. I don’t know who he was or how he died, but last spring I had seen his memorial by the side of the road. There it was.

I then went to see the Vajdácska cemetery, which has a Jewish section, and afterwards the two churches on the hill (one Greek Hungarian Catholic, the other Protestant). The Jewish cemetery is located inside the Christian cemetery, in its own section but with no barriers. The gravestones are old and crumbling, but the grounds are well kept. It was moving to be there.

The two churches are what you can always see when approaching Vajdácska, even on a foggy day. I discovered today that if I stood on the grounds of the one, I could take a good picture of the other.

And now for the final destination before the train ride home: Sátoraljaújhely (shown in the photo at the top). I wanted to go to the Rongkutya bookstore at the very least, since I had never made it there when it was open. But along the way, on the edges of Sárospatak, I passed a woman on a walking path, and she began talking with me. We had a long conversation–and she wanted to convince me to move to Sárospatak. And yes, after Szolnok, Sárospatak would probably be my first choice of a place to live in Hungary. It’s an extraordinary town. Comenius lived and worked there from 1650 to 1654, and it has a renowned university, many historical landmarks, and a sweet and beautiful charm. But I love Szolnok, and I can visit Sárospatak at least once a year.

Sátoraljaújhely was sad to see. It has gone downhill economically since I last visited it in 2019. Or at least I didn’t notice the extent of the problems then. Store after store had gone out of business; the buildings were for sale. There were entire streets of emptied stores. But I got to the bookstore–an inviting place–and bought two books there, and also bought a sweater at a clothing store, since it was getting chilly.

The train ride home contained one of the biggest surprises of all. I first took a train to Szerencs, then transferred to a train that took me all the way to Szolnok–and stopped in Tokaj! I had not realized there was a direct train from Szolnok to Tokaj. Not only that, but the trip takes just over two hours. This means that I could take a day trip to Tokaj–and even to Sárospatak–on a weekend. It’s also by far the easiest way to get to Sárospatak, if I want to combine train and biking. In the past, when taking the train, I have always had to transfer, and the train ride itself took about four hours.

But I wouldn’t trade this bike trip for anything–and this whole description has been no more than a quick sketch. Arriving back in Szolnok was a thrill. And the cats were well cared for and glad that I was home.

Bike Ride in Autumn

Thanks to my neighbors, who kindly agreed to feed my cats while I am gone, I set out tomorrow for Sárospatak by bike! I expect to get to Tiszafüred by tomorrow evening, to Tokaj by Tuesday evening, and to Sárospatak, then Vajdácska, by midday or mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Then on Thursday I take the train back. I have the bed-and-breakfast reservations all set up, and the weather should be good. The total distance is about 250 kilometers (155 miles) or a little more.

I have been looking forward to this for months. It’s easier to bike long distances in the fall than in the spring or summer, because you can wear long sleeves and avoid sunburn. Zsolt André at Sprint Kerékpár gave my bike a tuneup last week, so everything’s good to go. There’s plenty of flexibility, too; I can change plans at any point if necessary. I chose weekdays because businesses are open–so if for any reason I need to find a bike store, or want to pop into a bookstore, I can do so. (There’s actually a bookstore in Sátoraljaúljhely that I hope to visit on Thursday morning.)

We’re on fall break this whole week, so I’ll still have a few days at home upon returning to Szolnok. That will give me time to translate two poems, finish preparing the autumn issue of Folyosó (it’s almost ready), and rest.

Two of the three legs of the trip are already familiar: from Szolnok to Tiszafüred, and from Tokaj to Sárospatak. It’s just the middle stretch that will be new to me, but most of it is bike path. (On the map above, which was created by a user through Google Maps, the blue parts are bike path, and the red are regular roads (but quiet, easily bikeable ones).

I will add pictures to this post as I go along (maybe at the end of each day).

Day 1: foggy, quiet, autumnal. Except for falling off the bike while still in Szolnok (I turned onto a bike path and hit a slippery spot), I had a terrific day. Lake Tisza has a bike path (recently completed) all the way around it; I took the long way around to Tiszafüred. Along the way: a giant chess set, swans, foliage, bridges. People fishing, camping. In the late afternoon, I arrived at the bed-and-breakfast, the Piros Bicikli Vendégház (Red Bicycle Guesthouse), which I chose on account of its name.

Day 2: made it to Tokaj, biked under the moon, spoke with a shepherd, saw many flocks of geese in the sky. There’s much more to say, but I need sleep

Day 3: a leisurely morning in Tokaj, to be followed by a relatively short (and familiar) ride to Sárospatak, then Vajdácska. A fuller story of this bike trip will come later, in a separate post, after I return home. For now: this has been great.

The Week in Pictures

Yesterday the winners of the first Folyosó contest received their certificates (in the hallway, the “folyosó,” outside the teachers’ room, in the long break after the second lesson of the day). Their pieces will appear in the autumn issue of Folyosó, to be published on November 2. For this contest, I had invited four colleagues to be on the jury with me, and they happily agreed. It was exciting to read and reread the pieces and make our final choices. Congratulations to all!

The week had lots of rain, which meant that there were lots of umbrellas at school, which meant photos of umbrellas. At one point, when stopping to take a photo (in a rush on my way to class), I dropped everything, including a piece of chalk, which broke into many bits. A student kindly stopped and helped me pick everything up again–and I took that picture. The one below was taken a little later.

It’s hard to go out on weeknights, especially this year, when I am working on the translations and have so much to do from day to day. But on Tuesday there was no way that I could resist. I first went to an art opening by Gábor Homolya at the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which has ongoing exhibits, concerts, and more, in addition to films). My friend Éva from Budapest had told me about it. She took me and a few others on a detailed tour of the pieces. It was the third time I had seen his work up close; these ones were filled with allusions to literature, music, and film. Here is “1984.”

With the art opening, the 2020 Alexandre Trauner Art/Film Festival began. After a an introductory speech about Mr. Homolya, and after people had some time to look at the works, we all headed together across the courtyard to the synagogue (gallery) to hear the Bartók Béla Kamarakórus, one of Szolnok’s musical treasures and the only professional women’s choir in Hungary. After that, there were words of welcome, followed by the presentation of the Szignál-film awards.

We then walked back to the Tisza Mozi to see the film of the evening: Éden, directed by Ágnes Kocsis. It was an eerie, moving work that cannot (or should not) be described in terms of its plot. Afterwards Zsolt Bajnai conducted a discussion with the director and two others.

Between that, Folyosó, and regular classes and things, it was a fantastic week, topped off by bike rides along the Tisza.

Show Your Work—Or Not?

It has been a long time since I last dealt with sums of probabilities, so, when puzzling through the solution to the fourth problem in Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability, I got temporarily stumped by this equation:

p + pq + pq2 + … = p(1 + q + pq2 + …)
= p / (1 – q) = p / p = 1.

I understood all the steps except for the middle one: how is it that
p(1+ q + pq2 + …) = p / (1 – q)?

Then this morning it came to me: (1 – q)(1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1, since it is equal to (1+ q + pq2 + …) – (q + pq2 + …). So (1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1 / (1-q).

If all these intermediary steps had been laid out, this book would have been much thicker and less fun. Part of the intrigue (and insight) lies in figuring out how you get from one step to the next.

This week, in Civilization class, a student mentioned the American penchant for “showing your work” in mathematics. He related it to the overall overtness of American culture and said it worked against those who were good at doing in their heads. I found it rather tedious to “show my work” in high school, but since then the demands have only increased–no intermediary step is to be omitted. I can see the reason to do this once in a while, as an exercise, or as a way of uncovering an error, but as a general practice, it beats the elegance and succinctness out of mathematics. It also leaves you nothing to puzzle over.

Anyway, the fourth problem in the book is this: On the average, how many times must a die be thrown until one gets a 6? The answer is 6, but along the way I found out something interesting: A little over half of the time (about 51.7% of the time), one will get a 6 in 4 tries or less. One could confuse 4 with the average, but it is not the same thing. Since there is no limit to the potential number of trials, there might be a time when you toss the die 25 times before getting a 6.

I took this into Perl:

use strict;
use warnings;
use 5.010;
my $number = 0;
my @sequence;
my @tries;
my @half;
my $toss = 0;
my $total = 1000000;
my $average;
my $sum = 0;
my $totalunderfive;
for (my $i = 0; $i < $total; $i++) {
until ($toss == “6”) {
$toss = 1 + int rand(6);
push @sequence, “$toss”;
$number++;
}
if ($number < 5) {
push @half, $number;
}
push @tries, $number;
$number = 0;
$toss = 0;
}
foreach (@tries){
$sum += $_;
}
$average=$sum/$total;
print “$average is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.\n”;
$totalunderfive=scalar(@half);
my $percentunderfive=($totalunderfive/$total)*100;
print “$percentunderfive percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.\n”;

“Tossing the die” a million times in the Perl Online Editor, I got this result just now:

6.006929 is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.
51.7173 percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.

Algebraically, the chance of getting a 6 in 4 tries or less is (where p is the probability of getting a 6 on a given toss, and q is (1 – p), or the probability of not getting a 6 on a given toss):

p + pq + pq2 + pq3 = approximately .517744.

Generally, the greater the number of trials, the closer the result will come to this figure, but there will be some visible variation.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of this if the book had showed its work. The solutions themselves require a little bit of puzzling through, especially for someone out of practice with these things, but that’s part of why I remember this book from childhood and recently tracked down a copy. The book is 88 pages long, and there’s enough in there to keep me occupied (in the spare minutes around the edges of the day, and in its momentary breaks) for years and years.

Names, names, names!

This has been the most challenging year of all my teaching career in terms of learning new names, for several reasons: of the eight new groups that I am teaching this year (whom I have never taught before), five meet just once a week. In addition, it’s difficult to associate names with faces when students are wearing masks. Then, to top it off, there have been absences (including my own on Yom Kippur), so some students I have seen only a couple of times. I am almost there, but I still have some names to go. What does one do in that situation? Simply confront it: review the names as often as necessary, both out loud and in the mind. I know how important it is to learn names, and if it’s taking longer than usual this time, so be it; they will all get learned.

These once-a-week classes are a result of two things: Civilization class meets just once a week (that accounts for four of them), and beyond that, the school wants to as many students as possible to have the chance to interact with a native speaker. In some ways those classes are pleasant; you can do a lot in that short time, and you have some flexibility too. But this year it has been a little over the top, with seven once-a-week groups (two of which I have taught for several years now), three twice-a-week groups, and three groups that meet with me more than twice a week. (Groups typically consist of about 17 students, but some are smaller.) I have eight distinct courses in all–that is, eight distinct sequences of lessons to prepare.

It isn’t as hectic as it sounds, though, since the students are good to work with and the planning comes easily. In the future I can ask for a somewhat more focused schedule. I am especially grateful to my colleague Marianna Fekete, who recognizes the importance of literature in English class and has made room for me to focus on literature with the tenth-graders. Even though I meet with them just twice a week, the focus is substantial, and the results show in their writing and class participation. Just last week they wrote imaginary scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the pieces abounded in perception, humor, and glee. And many of them contribute to Folyosó, the autumn issue of which will appear in just a few weeks.

It seems there should be some conclusion to all of this, some sentence that wraps things up, but there really isn’t, as the year is unfolding and I have to run.

Masks, Music, Acting

For International Music Day, the music teacher planned, along with her students, to play music through the loudspeakers in the breaks between lessons. Here are two students dancing to the music in the hallway.

Yes, we are trying our best to celebrate things, to keep the arts going in some way, to listen when we can’t sing. (Singing is not allowed in school at this point, since it is hard to do so safely.) At this point, the rules are: wear masks in the hallways and in common areas; in classrooms, wear masks when it is impossible to keep the required social distance. As of October 1, we must also have our temperature taken as we enter the school; those with a temperature above a certain level will not be allowed in.

Three students have tested positive for the coronavirus; they are all at home right now. In one case, the whole class stayed home for ten days, then returned (except for the one who tested positive). I imagine that there will be more known cases, especially now that the thermometer requirement is in place. Those setting local policy respond to each case individually, taking into consideration when the student was last in school and other factors.

With all of that, the year is still proceeding somewhat normally, with joys along the way. One of my favorite parts of the week is when I go with the tenth-graders into the spacious drama room (shown above and below) to read and act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the beginning of the year, the drama teacher told me she wanted to share the room with me and asked me to choose the times I would like.

The school has also found ways to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The director, László Molnár, organized the publishing of commemorative book, edited by Dr. Ilona Mrenáné Szakálos, with interviews and biographies of selected teachers from 1930 to the present. I was surprised and honored to be included in the book, with Zsolt Bajnai’s interview of me, from exactly one year ago today, reprinted in the pages. But beyond that, the book says a lot about the school. I know of no other school that would release a commemorative book that focused entirely on the teachers from the beginning to the present. At Varga, the school’s history is cherished, and the teachers are its stronghold. The teacher biographies–written by colleagues, students, and others–are full of respect, affection, and humor. Putting out this book during the pandemic was no easy feat, but it was worth it, and no matter what happens this year, the book will stay.

So I look forward to each day of bicycling along the Tisza to school, having lively classes, working with my colleagues, preparing the fall issue of Folyosó (which will appear in the beginning of November), and being part of Varga, where I have taught for three years now. What’s coming this year in terms of coronavirus developments, no one knows. But I am glad for these days we have had.