Surprises of Sameness and Difference

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I was standing in line at the supermarket with my little basket of groceries. Ahead of me was a blond woman in a pale green mini-dress, with tanned legs and an enormous cartful of goods, which she loaded slowly onto the conveyor belt: cleaning supplies, a big bag of chicken, various household items, beverages, and so on and on. While I was waiting, masked, I found myself imagining that she would then load the goods into her big car (not an SUV–I don’t see those around here much) and drive out to her house in Szandaszőlős (a suburb of Szolnok). The Golden Retriever would come bounding and leaping out to greet her, the kids and her husband would help her bring the groceries in, and then they’d all go out for a ride on their motorboat.

These thoughts were continuing as I paid for and bagged my own items and went out to my bike. As I was unlocking the bike, something caught my eye. There was the woman, across from me, unlocking her own bike and loading her groceries onto it. For all I know, the rest of my imaginings were accurate. But a key link in the chain had just been broken. I tried not to stare, but I was amazed.

Discovering something in common breaks up prejudice. But commonality has its pitfalls too; it’s easy to imagine that you share this or that with someone else, when in fact their experience of that thing is fundamentally different from yours. Respect requires recognizing both commonality and differences.

I was struck by Tiffanie Drayton’s NYT piece “I’m a Black American. I Had to Get Out.” Although she supports the protests strongly (while worrying for her friends’ safety and health), she speaks in somewhat different terms from the slogans and mantras. I learned something from the common ground I found with her as well as the contrasts.

She writes of the conditions that led her to flee the country–the violence against black people, the cost of living, and the ultimate catalyst: the court’s finding in 2013 that George Zimmerman was “not guilty” of murdering Trayvon Martin.

Then she looks back to a much brighter childhood–in America (where she had moved with her mother, at age four, from Trinidad and Tobago), in an ethnically mixed New Jersey town outside of New York City.

In school, I learned to pledge allegiance to the American flag. “With liberty and justice for all,” I proudly recited every morning. I was an honor-roll student who felt adored and supported by my teachers. I roamed the town with friends, stopping at the pizza parlor for a dollar slice, or the bodega for an empanada.

From there, she writes of having to move at least twice because of the rising cost of living: to Orlando and then back to New Jersey. The dream of living in a safe, tranquil neighborhood had ended: “The only colors that penetrate those dark memories are the blue and red lights of police vehicles parked on every other street corner, swirling all night long.”

In a very different way, I have felt the effects of rising living costs in America–the near impossibility of leading a simple but comfortable life without working yourself to exhaustion. In San Francisco, where I lived for seven years, rents and real estate prices have risen so high that I could probably never live there again, even if I wanted to. In New York, similarly, to afford an apartment, you have to move far out to the outskirts, which are rising in cost too. The stress of commuting and barely getting by, while living in noisy, crime-filled neighborhoods, affects people of any race, but it will have a much worse effect on those who have no alternative.

I have relaxed and come into my own since coming to Hungary–partly because I can afford and enjoy a simple life here, biking around with my groceries and all, partly because my work–both at school and outside–has opened up new possibilities, and partly because I feel accepted and appreciated, not only by my friends, but in general. So I could relate–and not relate–to Ms. Drayton’s words:

The privilege of dual citizenship afforded me sanctuary in Trinidad and Tobago. As I settled here, my life slowly became colorful and vibrant again. I paraded through the streets for Carnival in blue, teal and purple beads and feathers, surrounded by faces of every color — descendants of enslaved people from Africa, indentured servants from India, and the Amerindians who were here when Europeans arrived. I strolled through black neighborhoods with my two children in tow, with no concerns about whether we stood out as outsiders. I sat on my patio with my mother and sipped coffee, finally at peace.

And I gave myself space to mend my broken version of blackness.

Much of this is true for me too, and much of it isn’t. I know what it means to be at ease, and in joy, after years of outsiderness of different kinds (though I miss my U.S. friends badly). I am an outsider here in Hungary; I will never be a Hungarian or regarded as one. But in a basic way I have a place here and am in my element. While this will go through ups and downs, it isn’t superficial or transient.

But I can never know what it means for a black person to mend her own broken version of blackness–how deep the breakage must be, how exhilarating and yet how painful the mending. I have been through something of slightly similar shape, but it is not the same.

I look forward to Ms. Drayton’s book. I also hope to find more common ground and difference, and to shed the fear of both, in all my encounters and missings, whether in line at the supermarket, in the lines of books, or face to face.

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Both pictures were taken from my new apartment: the first through the mirror, and the second through the window.

The Lantern Bearers

IMG_1903An extraordinary essay by Megan Craig, “The Courage to Be Alone” (NYT, May 1, 2020), is about much more than its title suggests: not only the courage to be alone, but also the hidden light and joy in people’s ordinary lives. She describes taking a walk through the woods with her youngest daughter, and talking both with her and apart from her, listening and not listening, being quiet and being pulled back into conversation. She hopes that these walks will stay with her daughter and one day give her strength. They are not just about being present for each other, or for nature, or for anything; rather, they are about glimpses along the way, those sudden streams of words, or the sight of a flower on the path, incomplete, unfinished, and never fully known. She writes:

Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.

Her references to William James and Emmanuel Lévinas–as well as songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and September 67–demand time and patience, since to understand them, you need to go read and listen to them (again, if you already have). In a sense, this time and patience is the point of it all: being willing to listen to someone else, even to oneself, without looking at the watch and rushing off to the next thing. But this listening will always be flawed, even at its best; there is always something that we miss, not just in the details, but at the center of it all. So part of the “courage to be alone” has to do with understanding the imperfection, resisting the temptation to sum up others, or an encounter, or the world at large, in our minds. “And now,” asks James, “what is the result of all these considerations and quotations?” (His essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” quotes Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and others.) He replies:

It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

I have been painting the smaller room of my new place (not the room pictured here, which I will leave as is). I am not an experienced painter–I have painted before, but not in a long time–but I have been finding my way into it. It’s a small enough room that I can give it several coats without trouble. I start to work out a technique and a rhythm. And now I understand what friends over time were trying to convey when talking about their home remodeling projects. When you are alone with the materials and your place, you get to test things out, make mistakes, try again. It’s exciting when you finally get it right, but even the errors have their fun when they aren’t disastrous.

I have been exploring the new neighborhood on bike and on foot–looking at walls, through empty buildings, down streets.

It is not just their beauty that excites me, but the thought of getting to know them little by little over time, seeing them through the seasons, and sometimes not fully noticing them. There is something reciprocal in this. In giving time to a person or place, in letting the acquaintance be imperfect, I, too, am given time; I too, have a chance to be known and unknown and unfinished. So we meet like lantern bearers.

Elmarad (“Cancelled”)

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Everywhere I go, the event posters say “Elmarad” (“[It Is] Cancelled”). In response to the coronavirus, the Hungarian government has banned indoor public events with 100 or more people, as well as outdoor public events with 500 or more. Our school’s beloved Suligála has been cancelled. Films, concerts, exhibitions, readings–cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Schools and universities are still open, but school trips abroad have been called off, and more restrictions may be coming. Hungary has 13 known cases of the virus at this point, but if it spreads fast, the medical facilities will be overwhelmed. So it makes sense to take these measures. It’s just sad and strange.

What can we do? Take care of ourselves, stay informed and sane, support the events we would have attended, look for ways to help, visit the local fruit and vegetable store as long as it stays open, stay in touch with others, and hope that this passes soon.

Zsolt Bajnai points out in blogSzolnok that cultural institutions and artists holding events online will suffer financially, since they won’t be able to charge for tickets, merchandise, or refreshments. Those funded by the government will survive, but those who depend on the market will quickly go broke. (I think it makes sense to donate to them here and there, when possible.)

It’s unclear how long we will have to go without public events. It’s sort of like watching a cartoon character eat a two-dimensional meal; you can imagine the real thing, but you don’t get filled. One day there will be a song, story, poem, or play called “Elmarad.” It will speak of these days, and we will get to hear and see it in a three-dimensional physical place with coat hooks, creaky chairs, other people, and all.

In the meantime, I hope we deal well with what is happening now, without forgetting the things that matter over the longer stretch.

 

Old School in Hungary: Part 5

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Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Along the Dirt Road

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In the late afternoon I got on the bike, pedaled north on the Zagyva walkway, crossed the railroad tracks, and continued onto the dirt road, which goes on and on. Here and there, with long stretches in between, I came across walkers (including one of my students), runners, bikers, and a slow jeep–as well as horses, sheep, cows, chickens, and cats.

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I saw swans for the first time this fall; approaching them, I saw someone sitting by the water, absorbed in thought. (That person does not appear in the picture.)

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Earlier on, before the swans, I dipped my foot in the Zagyva for the first time; here is the ripple.

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Soon I will have been here for a year. My two favorite seasons here are late spring (when the sour cherries spill over the crates) and the entire fall, from start to finish. There’s still a good bit of fall left, and while I will be away for part of it, I still hope for some hearty bike rides.

More soon on other things. I meant this post to be about books, but the dirt road had its own say. Speaking of say, here are some sounds from the bike ride.

Knowing and Not Knowing a Country

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Some people have suggested that my next book will be about my time in Hungary. I think that’s likely, but if so, it will differ from books that claim to reveal a country from the inside. Instead, it will explore the very difficulty of getting to know a country, even when you live and teach there, even when you undertake to learn the language, even (I believe) after you have been there a few years. The difficulty is the great part of it; if I could learn all about a country in a few months, I probably wouldn’t bother; I’d look for something more challenging to do.

When trying to speak more Hungarian, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some express amazement when I so much as put a sentence together. Other people ask, “Why do you even bother? Hungarian is difficult, and surely you can find enough people who speak English.” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but I insist on meeting the difficulty. I seek out situations where I am surrounded by Hungarian (for long stretches, without translation). Then I can focus on listening and figuring out as much as possible. The brain does lots of work in the background, too; when I surround myself with the language, I start recognizing patterns and words.

The difficulty of learning a language, of getting to know a country, is all the more reason for doing it. It’s difficult because it shows the limitations of your own knowledge and speech. For a long time you simply feel clumsy, unable to say what you want to say, unable to understand what others are saying. Then, over time, the big clumsiness melts away and an awkward semi-fluency sets in. Then slowly the fluency grows and the awkwardness diminishes; and now you start to appreciate the things that one language can express and the other cannot. You read literature in the new language, without much use of a dictionary. You try making jokes. Even this has a tentative quality–but the tentativeness also sharpens the ear. Something similar can be said for getting to know a country; as you learn more, you keep your conclusions more and more in check and become more alert to your surroundings. (I say “you,” but the truth of this may vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time.)

In that spirit, here’s a recording of a bird I heard the other night. At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but I don’t think there are mockingbirds here. It might have been a starling or Eurasian jay. And here, below, is a video of an unknown bird I saw take flight. I thought it was a stork, but since it was completely white, it may have been an egret instead.

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Békés on June 5. The river is the Körös.

Biking in Serbia (Almost)

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Yesterday, just before returning to Szolnok from Budapest, I thought of taking a train to another country, just for the day. It was too late in the day for that, so I decided to take the bike to Szeged the following morning (today) and bike down to Serbia from there.

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Well, biking to Serbia isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. First, there was a big street festival in Szeged, so I had some trouble figuring out which road to take. I didn’t want to ask, in the midst of these festivities, “How do I get to Serbia?” So I listened to a delightful musical duo–on the Belvárosi bridge–and then tried to wend my way south. (Here’s a short video I recorded.)

There are few border crossings; you have to know where they are. I biked for several hours down a dirt road right along the border–with the Tisza and Serbia to my left, and Hungary to my right–but saw no roads going into Serbia. A couple of times I followed a path in the Serbian direction, but the first one led to the Tisza (and no further), and the second led into a dense wood.

 

A police car came my way; the policemen told me that I was essentially biking on the border between the two countries. I asked them if this was permitted; they said yes. So I continued on, only to reach a dead end eventually. (That was where I turned onto the path that led to the Tisza; that’s Serbia across the river.) On my way back, I saw the policemen again; we waved at each other.

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Although I didn’t make it into Serbia, I could not have wished for a more glorious bike ride. I saw many storks, a spotted deer, a hare, horses, and sheep. I undulated through dirt and mud. Clouds started to tower in the sky, but not a raindrop splattered my way (or even in my vicinity).

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When I returned to Szeged, I discovered the route to Beograd–one of two ways to get to Serbia from the city. Next time I will know what to do; by the time I figured all this out, it was mid-afternoon, and I didn’t want to stretch the day too far. I watched a folk dance performance for a few minutes and then headed back to the train station.

In a week I will return to Szeged for a synagogue concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Later in June, I hope to try the Serbia trip again.

Image and video credits: The map is from Google Maps; I took all the other pictures and videos today.

Update: I am not the only person who found the border crossing tricky.

What’s in a Country?

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One thing I have learned from living in various places is that no country can be pinned down or reduced. The Hungarian election results dismayed many, including me, but they do not sum up the times. There are many opinions, many layers of life; visible trends do not make up the whole. Yes, there’s reason to be vigilant, but neither the Prime Minister nor his party, Fidesz, represents everyone here.

Why, then, did so many people vote for Orbán? Some genuinely support his platform and believe his campaign promises. Some prefer him (or continuity, anyway) to the alternatives. Some don’t think much will improve, in general, no matter who gets elected. (Apathy can be a mighty force.) I don’t think many are surprised that he won. The greater disappointment, for those disappointed, is over the parliamentary win; it will be hard to oppose or even mitigate Fidesz’s legislative agenda.

How will this affect daily and institutional life? I do not know yet; for many, it’s a continuation of the familiar, but taken to new extremes. Orbán has promised elégtétel, something like “revenge” or “retaliation”) against his opponents, so there probably won’t be open dialogue among political leaders and constituents any time soon.

Will there be a rise in anti-Semitism? There’s probably more than one answer to that question. In many ways, Jewish life in Budapest seems to be thriving (there were some 130 people at the Szim Salom seder, for instance, and we are a small shul). On the other hand, one can see and feel the effects of the Shoah, the decades of Soviet rule, and the more recent right-wing attitudes. Many Jews keep their identity private; they don’t speak about it in the workplace or with people they don’t know well. Some people have even buried it for a generation or two; there are young people today discovering that they are Jewish. At the same time, many non-Jewish people are starting to learn about Judaism for the first time; from what I gather, it was for years an unbroachable subject. I don’t know what direction (or directions) things will take from here. The question is not about Hungary alone; around the world there are movements toward and away from understanding.

On this blog I don’t bring up everything I hear and see; for example, I don’t report individual or classroom conversations. I don’t think people would feel comfortable seeing their own words (even without their names, even in paraphrased form) on a blog. I do hear a range of political and other views, almost every day; in my experience so far, people are unafraid to speak openly and disagree with each other. I hope this openness continues.

In the meantime, this is the most beautiful spring I have seen in years. Biking home from school, I see trees in bloom, people rowing, people fishing, dogs running around, and a whole spate of greenery. At school, much is going on; my students, colleagues, and I are starting to plan for a Shakespeare event at the end of May. Last week, thanks to a colleague’s planning, we had a wonderful event at a local Russian restaurant, where one of the chefs taught us how to make a Russian salad. One of my eleventh-grade classes is reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; we are sure to have some interesting discussions. Across the seas, the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE should be out in a few weeks.

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How do you put all that together: the beauty, the good things, the disappointments, the danger? You try to hold it all, but how? I think the answer, or part of it, lies in resisting false summaries and reductions. That’s in large part what my book is about–and, to an extent, my life. I am far from perfect at it–but rather than strive for perfection, I work for better judgment within the imperfection. Summaries are essential to good reasoning; it would be a mistake (and an impossibility) to give them up entirely. Still, they can be kept in perspective and held in doubt. If we treat our words and conclusions like testimony, if we ask ourselves, “Is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” the answer will usually be “No.”

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I took all three pictures in Szolnok: the first one at school, the second when crossing the Zagyva, and the third at the Russian event organized by my colleague Judit. The sign in the first picture means roughly “Caution: Danger of Falling/Crumbling Objects.” Speaking of the book, it is now available for pre-ordering; the projected publication date is October 15. I hope to have copies available for signing at the ALSCW Conference in November and possibly at an earlier event as well. I will post details on my website.