“A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang”

sunset
Two days after a terrific Passover seder in Budapest, I was on the train to Kisvárda, my starting point for a three-day bike trip. I read the first two stories in Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés. I was taken by the quote at the end of “Dobtoló,” “A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang” (“After most breaks a new sound always comes”), because it’s both poignant and funny, with the mixture of “legtöbb” (“most”) and “mindig” (“always”).

As it happened, the previous day I had been trying to make practice recordings of two of the three songs that we (two language classes, two colleagues, and I) will be performing in a short concert at school on Monday. Each time I began recording, or sometimes a few minutes in, I made a mistake. The two songs were too freshly learned and figured out; they needed time to sink in. After about four hours of attempted recording, I realized a rest would be good. And sure enough, when I came back from the bike trip, I recorded them both in a few minutes–not perfectly, but much better than before. I will say more about the concert after it happens!pici koncert 2

The story “Dobtoló” is not about rest, though, at least not obviously; it’s about a boy by that nickname, who is the soul of the band even though he does not play an instrument. He had such a strong sense of rhythm that his two legs seemed like a metronome. You grow fond of him over the course of the pages, but you also realize that people didn’t know much about him, that they just accepted his presence. He was the one who remembered the others’ birthdays; they didn’t remember his. In that sense, the story is about rest, or rather, death: all the things that come together in the memory after a person is gone.

Something about the story (and the previous one too) brought back dim memories of Simon Carmiggelt, whose stories I heard at age ten, when we were living in Holland. I think my father read some of the stories aloud; others we listened to on tape. They leave you wanting to hear or read more stories and tell stories too.

To call the bike trip great would be an understatement, but I gather that understatement can build character, so I will go ahead and call it great. The things that stand out, though, are not the magnificent views, not the downhill slope into Slovakia, not even the pond at sunset–

 

 

–but the slow familiarity with the area (this being my third bike trip there in two years), the recognition of roads, buildings, and farms, the sounds of farm animals in the morning and evening, the kitten I befriended, the thoughts that came and went, the various yet few conversations. All of that, and a turning point on Monday, the day I biked to Kassa (Košice), as I did last year. I had had a somewhat late start, and was tempted not to bike there at all, but instead to spend the day in Sátoraljaújhely and the environs. But then I got on the bike path, and within minutes I was up in the hills. Not only did it seem silly to turn back, but I figured that if I could get to Kassa in three and a half hours (which I did), I would be able to catch the 4:06 train back to Sátoraljaújhely, bicycle back to Vajdácska, and arrive at the guesthouse in time for dinner. The timing all worked out, and dinner was worth every rotation of the pedals.

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There was much more to the trip, in terms of sights and thoughts, but part of the treat is keeping some of it to myself, or maybe holding it for later. One does not have to say everything about everything right away. In most trees there is always a story waiting for its time.

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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 mummings mix. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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. And still the stopping was as important as the motion, the beginning as beautiful as the end. Here is the pond in Vajdácska at sunset.

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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.”

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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