Knowing and Not Knowing a Country

IMG_6158

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.

Feketerigó

feketerigo
(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.

A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

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