Biking to Košice

IMG_5872A biking trip, especially a solitary one, has external and internal layers. When you’re out on the road, following the bike path, stopping to drink from a stream, or wondering whether you can make it up the next hill, all sorts of things happen at once. Memories, observations, questions, hopes, surprises intertwine. But you might not tell all of this to the world; part of it is yours alone, and part beyond you. Knowing this, you can tell a story. If you tried to tell everything, you would get caught up in the impossibility. Still, the impossibility is the best part; even in a story, the words and silences, the meanings and mysteries interplay. Even before the story, when you’re out on the road, you are enticed by things you can see and name, things in the distance that you can’t quite make out yet, and things beyond your perception.

I set out early in the morning from the lovely bed-and-breakfast place where I had also stayed a year ago: the Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő in the village of Vajdácska. Last year, I had no idea that I would be teaching in Hungary or that the possibility even existed. This time, I was able to communicate entirely in Hungarian with the owners (albeit haltingly at times, with mistakes); they seemed surprised and happy to see this. A bicycle touring group–with many parents and kids–was staying there too; here are the bikes parked in the back. Mine is all the way to the right.

IMG_5815

I dallied on my way to the Museum of the Hungarian Language. I had already decided to try biking to Košice (Kassa in Hungarian) but saw no need to rush the first part. In Sárospatak I explored back streets and saw the castle from a bridge over the Bodrog river.

IMG_5834

In Sátoraljaújhely I saw an abandoned building for sale, maybe a former church. It was completely hollowed out, so I took a look inside. If I had lots of money, business sense, and time, I would buy it and transform it into something for the town: maybe a museum, concert hall, library, or school. But lacking those three attributes, I just wish it the best.

The Museum of the Hungarian Language was bright and challenging. I think I puzzled the staff with my limited Hungarian; why would someone who couldn’t speak the language choose to visit? But I understood a little of what I read and heard, and next time I will understand more. There’s something to be said for not understanding; it pushes you beyond yourself.

IMG_5859

Then northward! I followed Eurovelo 11, which was almost always well marked. There were long shady stretches, forays through fields and towns, mergings with the main road, and an odd diversion into a rooty forest with a dead end. (A cord separated it from a cow field, which I did not choose to brave.) I was climbing steadily and thrilling in the possibility of it all. Then, just before Hollóháza, a village famous for its porcelain, things got difficult. I had to walk the bike up a hill; I was so thirsty that I scooped up delicious water from a stream (with my hands, not a porcelain cup). Only two more steep hills remained, but I didn’t know this; I wondered whether I had made a mistake.

IMG_5873

Then suddenly: downhill! A long slope carried me most of the way to Košice.

IMG_5879

A little after 3 p.m. I arrived; I sat down for a hearty meal–maybe a bit too hearty, because my stomach took a beating later. I walked around a little. My great-grandfather Max Fischer came from here–or rather, from a village 16 kilometers to the east. I wouldn’t have tried to bike there, though; the roads I saw last year are too hilly and dangerous, with no provision for bikes. There may be easier, quieter routes, but I don’t know them yet.

IMG_5888

Rather than stay the night in Košice, which would have resulted in a long and complicated trip back home (not all trains allow bikes), I took the train back to Slovenské Nové Mesto and stayed in a hotel just a few minutes from the Sárospatak train station. In the morning, on my way to the station, I saw the Comenius campus of the Eszterházy Károly Egyetem, a university with a rich history. I believe that this campus houses a teachers’ college. Comenius lived and worked in Sárospatak from 1650 to 1654.

I would eagerly do this again. It’s a half-day trip, but enough for one day (for me, anyway, because of the hills). There are just a few things I would do differently: start out earlier, wear biker shorts instead of jeans, bring water, visit a swimming pool in Košice, and then take a few more hours to walk around. As for time of year, this was just right: either spring or fall. Summer would be too hot and intense, winter too cold and uncertain.

But this first bike ride to Košice will stand out, even with its little errors; I saw that such a thing was possible (within the surrounding impossibility): that I could get on the bike and ride on and on and on.

IMG_5803

I made some edits to this piece after posting it.

What Is a Photograph?

A challenge, when coming home from a trip, is to decide what to convey to others and what to keep to oneself. Some of this isn’t a matter of choice; there are aspects of a trip that you can’t convey if you try. Or rather, in conveying it, you alter it a little. For instance, if you tell someone about wandering alone in a city, you have already changed that aloneness.

Also it isn’t always clear how many pictures people want to see, how many stories they want to hear, etc. One doesn’t want to try their patience. On the other hand, a well-told travel story, or a few well-chosen pictures, can bring something to others’ lives. I have vivid memories of other people’s visits to the Hebrides, South Dakota, Vaucluse, and other places.

When taking (and assembling) photos, I do not emphasize standard tourist sites, no matter how important. Hundreds, even thousands, of such photos already exist, and most are better than mine. My photographs are usually of places and things I found or noticed on my own (or with someone else).

Then there is the question of “outtakes.” After I select photos for a slideshow, after I put them all together, I find photos that I left out, photos every bit as beautiful, even more so, than the ones I included. In fact, it’s that second glance that brings back the trip. Why? Maybe because those “outtakes” hold the little diversions that are the soul of the trip. A dog running down a street; railway workers waiting for the train to pass; kids playing football in the school courtyard. Or maybe it’s something along the photo’s edge: a tail, a branch, a chair.

That leads to the title question: what is a photograph? It looks inward as well as outward; it says something about the photographer (or amateur picture-taker) as well as the external scene. But more than that, it conveys the relation of an instant: maybe a passing relation, maybe a lasting one, but a relation all the same. At its best, it is mutual; in a split second, you and the scene capture each other and let each other go. This happens rarely, but it happens.*

So here are two “outtake” slideshows, each with eighteen photos: one of Istanbul and one of my two-day biking trip in northern Hungary.

 

*A paraphrase of the ending of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose.”