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.

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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.

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I made some edits to this piece after posting it.

Lights in the Windows

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I biked yesterday from Sátoraljaújhely’s Museum of the Hungarian Language (which a student had recommended to me) all the way up to downtown Košice, Slovakia–in four hours or so, over hill, over dale. There is more to the whole trip than I want to put into words right now–stories upon stories–but here are two photos from the evening, after I returned by train from Košice to Slovenské Nové Mesto, the Slovak side of Sátoraljaújhely. Here is a horse grazing by the Ronyva stream, which separates the two countries here and the two sides of the town.

A little later, I passed by Sátoraljaújhely‘s little ohel (by the Jewish cemetery) and saw it lit up inside. There was a car parked out in front. I was so happy to see signs of life–though I may have misinterpreted the situation–that I thought of going up and knocking on the door. I immediately thought the better of it, though; I was bedraggled from the bike ride and did not want to bother anyone or show disrespect. Those lights may well have been signs of loss; beyond that, the place holds more losses than I will ever know. Under different circumstances, with advance inquiry and permission, I might visit one day; this was not the right time.

Pesach Sheni–“Second Pesach,” also known as “The Holiday of Second Chances,” had ended just an hour earlier; it’s possible that some people had come to the ohel to observe it. In that case, someone might have stayed late to put things back in place. But something entirely different may have been going  on.

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I biked onward toward Sárospatak, where I spent last night (I returned home today). Along the way, I heard frogs in the muddy stream and recorded the sounds. I learned last week from a student that frogs say “brekeke” in Hungarian. Remarkable, that! That must have come from Aristophanes’ Frogs, but how and when? Apparently there is even a Hungarian verb brekegni, which means “croaking,” or,  more figuratively, “chattering.” My dictionary doesn’t have it, but it does have brekeg (“croak”), brekegés (“croaking”), and (my favorite of all) brekegő (“croaky, croaking”). Unlike “croak” in English, these words have no connotation of death.

That brings me back to the Hungarian language, where one segment of the bike trip started. But this does not mean that I have come “full circle”; no circle circumscribes these past few days. Or if one does, it will take me some time to bike it.

 

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

The Movement Around the Edges

eurovelo 11 photo 2Was it a great experience, this week in Hungary and Slovakia after the rich two weeks in Istanbul? Of course, but it was more than experience. Experiences can get in the way. Martin Buber places experience in the I-It realm; to experience, in his view, is to extract knowledge and impressions, and thus to possess and degrade. Even “inner” and “secret” experiences belong to this domain:*

I experience something. If we add “inner” to “outer” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. We are merely following the uneternal division that springs from the lust of the human race to whittle away the secret of death. Inner things or outer things, what are they but things and things!

I experience something. If we add “secret” to “open” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. How self-confident is that wisdom which perceives a closed compartment in things, reserved for the initiate and manipulated only with the key. O, secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!

sunsetHow, then, do you go beyond “experience” into an actual encounter with a place? I thought of putting away the camera (phone) but knew I would regret coming back without pictures. So I tried to stay aware of the movement around the edges, the impossibility of capturing a place or saying anything definitive about it.

durkovIn Budapest I attended two chamber concerts, a jazz concert (by the band Nigun), and an opera (The Tenor by Ernő Dohnányi); visited the Dohány Street Synagogue; and walked all over the place, In Slovakia I went on a private walking tour in Košice and took a bus on my own to Ďurkov (where my great-grandfather Max Fischer lived before coming to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings). The picture to the right is of Ďurkov, with a stork presiding over it all. In addition, I spent two days biking in northern Hungary. All this in one week; the days spill out of the frame.

Language (or rather, the language barrier) kept me firmly lodged in the ineffable, because I couldn’t say much in Hungarian. One day I was walking through a playground in Budapest. Two little girls (around age six or seven) ran up to me and asked me for something in Hungarian. I had no idea what they wanted and replied that I spoke English. Their eyes lit up. “Yes?” one of them said. They repeated their words more slowly, and one girl touched her knee. I asked (in English) whether they needed a band-aid. “Yes,” the girl replied. I said I didn’t have any. “No,” the other girl said. They started alternating–randomly, it seemed–between “Yes” and “No.” Then they ran away giggling; one of them called out “Have a nice day!”

Nigun bandThere was also the language of hands. In Budapest, I noticed that audiences were much less exuberant with their applause than in the U.S. They clapped but did not cheer. But this initial reserve, I soon realized, allowed for a crescendo. Audiences would clap quietly at first, then build into a rhythm (a sign of enthusiasm), then possibly erupt into a cheer or two. If the audience kept clapping (as it did at the Nigun concert, pictured here), then an encore was in order. In any case, you could sense the gradations of excitement. Yet applause is just one expression of enthusiasm or appreciation; attention is another. The audiences seemed extraordinarily attentive, but how do I know that, really? What do I know about another person’s mind?

swingsetNot only the outside world, but a traveler’s thoughts and moods can become an “experience” (or not). If I think, “I felt melancholy when looking at the swing set,” I deceive myself, because the melancholy, like the swing set, came with so much more. I thought about the engineering; whether the asymmetry was intentional here, because there is only one swing. I thought about what it would be like to swing in this swing; I remembered swings of childhood, the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rope swing in Charlotte’s Web. I imagined the rhythmic creaking sound and the push of feet against grass.

liberty bridgeIn the contrasts between city and country, I sensed all kinds of things below and beyond the appearances. Budapest seemed dormant at first, after the throbbing bustle of Istanbul, but by the end I was walking in liveliness. The towns seemed enclosed, as towns anywhere can be, but everywhere there were histories and stories. With more time and language, I could have learned some of them.

But with all its limitations, the traveling opened up something extraordinary. Before my trip, many people worried that I was putting myself in danger. Yet while I took precautions and stayed alert, I felt distinctly safe. Even traveling alone, a woman, in countries where I did not speak the language (or, except in Slovakia, any language in the same family), I could move confidently on foot, on bike, or by train.

Except for two walking tours, I traveled independently; as I went along, I saw more and more to see. By the end, my toes had barely inched into new and ancient places, but that in itself was something: to see the inches (or centimeters) and the dim shapes beyond.

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*Quote from Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1986), 21.

The last photo here, taken at the Jewish Museum in Budapest, is of a 1732 Haftarah scroll from Prossnitz, Moravia (now Prostějov, Czech Republic). It is opened to the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27), which we studied in cantillation class this spring for its alternation between Haftarah and Eicha trope. In the left column, seventeen lines down, you can see the great words “Limdu heiteiv” (roughly “learn to do good”).

I made a few revisions and one correction to this piece after posting it.