The Synagogue Concert in Mátészalka

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Yesterday I was right up against the line. To get to Mátészalka in time for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert, I would have to catch the 1:38 train, transfer in Debrecen, and arrive there at 5. The concert started at 6 and was supposed to last about an hour. So if it ended at 7, I might be able to make it back to the train station by 7:15 and catch the last train that would get me back to Szolnok before midnight (the following train, in fact, would get me back at 4 a.m.). The whole thing was so unlikely that I thought, close to the last minute, “Maybe I should just stay home.” But then I headed out the door (on the late side), pedaled with all my might to the train station, locked up my bike, and caught the train. (I caught the return train too.)

Sometimes you know that something is important and that you need to be there. Sometimes you don’t. In this case I knew. But I didn’t know why, except that I hadn’t been able to attend a synagogue concert in a year. Last fall, they were all too far away; by “too far” I mean that I would have had no way of getting out there or of returning to work on time the following day. Last spring, they were cancelled because of the pandemic. But there was more to it than the long wait. I love this synagogue concert series, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra started in 2014 with the goal of playing in every synagogue in Hungary–for free, for the local communities. Shortly before moving to Hungary, in September 2017, I attended the concerts in Albertirsa and Baja. After moving here, I attended the ones in Szeged, Békés, and Gyula. This was to be my sixth.

As you ride from Debrecen to Mátészalka (the farthest east I have ever traveled in Hungary), you start to enter a different Hungary. Thick forests, sequestered towns, a large Roma population. Once I arrived in Mátészalka, the walk to the synagogue was easy: one road for a stretch, than another. And then I saw the synagogue itself and gasped.

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The sun was hitting the building in dapples, through the trees. People stood outside, waiting for the concert. Kids zipped up and down the quiet street on their bicycles and scooters. And nearby was the Szatmári Museum, two churches, and other elegant buildings. You can imagine a time when Jews and Christians lived, worked, and worshipped side by side; the street preserves the feeling. That in turn reveals a Hungarian wound. Even before going inside, I was close to tears.

The audience members wore masks. (The hall filled up much more than the early picture at the top suggests.) The concert, in terms of program, followed a familiar format: an introduction, a piece, a short presentation by a rabbi, the rest of the official part of the program, and the encores. A local community leader would also speak about the town.

All of this took place. The official program consisted of Jean Françaix‘s Wind Quartet and the second movement of Max Bruch’s string octet in B. Then there were two klezmer pieces at the end–a slower piece that evokes a familiar “Nishmat” melody, and a livelier piece with clarinet at the center.

But this concert was different from all the others that I have attended so far, maybe because so much was familiar that I could notice other things. The light was like threads of gold. The sound rested in the air. I saw that the musicians were playing out of love and out of the knowledge that this had to be done. Like my traveling out there, in a way.

Most of the musicians I have heard before, in previous synagogue concerts and other concerts. Rita Sovány’s cello, Ákos Ács’s clarinet had a joy to them. You don’t even touch a thing like that. What do you say about it? My words fall this way and that.

The music ended at 7. There was another short speech, but I slipped out and ran as fast as I could for the station. I stopped for a split second to take a picture of the town hall.

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I made it to the train station just in time, got on the train, and took a picture through the window somewhere along the way, as the sun folded past the ground.

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Here are some beautiful pictures of the three most recent synagogue concerts.

With Fondness and Respect

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Yesterday we had an outdoor faculty meeting in preparation for the school year, which begins on September 1. The principal began by welcoming us back “with fondness and respect” (“szeretettel és tisztelettel”). This common Hungarian phrase has no equivalent in English; it set a nice tone for the morning. The head of the school district said a few words, a number of teachers were recognized for excellent work in the previous year, we discussed some aspects of the school year (more meetings are ahead), and we went over fire and other emergency procedures.

Today I went in for a meeting with the arts faculty. Since I include drama and music in my teaching and have two big drama projects lined up for this year, I was welcomed into the “munkaközösség,” a faculty working group. It was great to be part of the discussion and hear about plans, concerns, needs, and so on. The arts at Varga are rich, and now the school’s second building, Building B, will be devoted to the arts. The drama room will have a stage; it will become a little auditorium!

IMG_3123I am essentially entering my fourth year at Varga (and my fourteenth full year of teaching), hard as that is to believe. I say “essentially” because I started at the beginning of November 2017–so it has been three years minus two months. But still, given that I jumped right in, it’s fair to say that this is my fourth year. So my students who were in ninth grade when I arrived will be graduating this year.

We will have classes in person but will take certain precautions and prepare to adjust plans if necessary. The country will respond locally to the situation–so if one part of the country is harder hit, it will have stricter regulations than areas with few coronavirus cases. It will be a while before life in Budapest returns to normal, it seems, though small events are happening again, and university students are returning for hybrid instruction. Here in Szolnok, in contrast, the situation seems stable and safe right now.

I have missed Varga, classes, students, and colleagues. It is a wonderful place to teach–a dream school, as far as I am concerned–and I have been thinking about why. I will say more about that another time. This afternoon I am about to take the train out to Mátészalka for one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concerts. I wasn’t able to attend any last fall, because they were all too far away; the last of their synagogue concerts that I attended was in Gyula, in September 2018. This one’s a bit far too, but feasible, if I head out in the next few minutes.

Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

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It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Si Señor; he played at two of the Si Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Those Sixteen Measures

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It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)

 

The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

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Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

 

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

 

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

 

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

In Person

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The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.

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So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.

 

 

There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.

 

Life During Virustime

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Within a couple of hours, everything changed. On Friday afternoon (a rainy day), in my English class–we were starting a unit on American musical theatre–my tenth-grade students were dancing and singing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” That evening, at 9:15 p.m., it was announced that schools would be closed as of Monday and that instruction would continue online.

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Although the rumors and announcements had been mixed up to that point, the closure did not come as a complete surprise. That morning, we had held the March 15 celebration–the commemoration of the Revolution of 1848–in individual classrooms. Class 10C gave the performance, which came to the classrooms through the speakers. I was upstairs with the ninth grade and my colleague Marianna. Here is a SzolnokTV video of the performance, the classroom broadcast, and the presentation of a special memorial award.

On Saturday morning, one of my ninth-grade students, Lilla Kassai, had an art exhibit at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library, one of my favorite places to go in Szolnok. I would have been in Budapest yesterday, but synagogue has been cancelled along with everything else, so I went to her opening. It was a beautiful, probing collection of pieces; I was especially taken by the eyes in the various portraits. She talked about each of her pieces to a rotating audience. Her mother, a colleague of mine (the school librarian and a teacher as well), welcomed me warmly and introduced me to family members. What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last chance to see Lilla’s art for a while; yesterday evening it was announced that Szolnok’s cultural centers, museums, and libraries would be closed indefinitely as of Monday.

Paradoxically, it’s harder to teach online than in person. This has nothing to do with technological ineptitude or insecurity. It has everything to do with the lack of physical presence. In a regular classroom, everyone is there, except for those who are absent. Any announcement or discussion is heard by all. Questions can be addressed on the spot. You can have dialogues. Online, you have to wait for people to connect and respond. For the most part, we won’t have real-time virtual sessions, though I hope to schedule a few; instead, there will be deadlines. Teachers will be able to work from home or school, but there will be no meetings with students in person.

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The rationale for this national decision (to continue instruction online), or part of it, is that we might be able to keep the school year on schedule so that graduation and final exams can take place. It’s uncertain whether this will work, or what will happen if it doesn’t, but we just have to give this our best.

There’s lots for us to do online: we can read poems, stories, and articles, watch films and newscasts, listen to songs, and more. We can work intensively on writing–and maybe start an online journal. But it’s possible, as always, that the plan will change tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks. So it’s better not to get too carried away with online plans–but then again, not to be overly tentative either. It would be a shame to hold back, to stick to the dull and changeable, and watch the months go by.

I can’t help thinking of “Life During Wartime”; hence the title of this post. It’s a world war against an invisible bug. It’s human to want to live normally–to get back to regular life as soon as possible–but “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”