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.

What’s in a Map, and What Isn’t?

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As I look at the map of Hungary (something I’ve been doing a lot lately), I see how it can be understood only through its history. The country is surrounded by Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria; from 1869 to the Treaty of Trianon (1920), Austro-Hungary (the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary) encompassed most of this region. After Trianon, many Hungarian speakers found themselves cut off from Hungary. Hungary lost over two-thirds of its territory, while new countries (the Kingdom of Romania, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Czechoslovak Republic) gained sovereignty.

One of the principles of the Treaty of Trianon was the “self-determination of peoples”–but who and where are the peoples? Should countries be defined ethnically, and is this even possible? Eva S. Balogh argues that the new borders did not correspond closely with ethnic lines–and that, given many Hungarians’ belief that the only solution lay in the full restoration of the former Kingdom of Hungary, “it was almost inevitable that Hungary would end up on the side of Germany, the country dissatisfied with the status quo.” Or was it? Balogh herself suggests that if the situation had been presented and approached more carefully, things might have turned out differently.

IMG_3359To understand Trianon, one has to go back farther still, and then farther still, and forward too, and back again. Also, one cannot look at the “big picture” alone. If you zoom in on the map (which I obtained through Google Maps), you will see, to the southeast of Košice, a town called Sátoraljaújhely. Keep zooming in (you have to do so about five more times), and you will see, just over the Slovak border, another town, Slovenské Nové Mesto. These together were once a great town, a center of Jewish culture and the capital of Zemplén county. As of Trianon, the Ronyva stream has separated the Slovak (formerly Czechoslovak) side from the Hungarian side; that was neither the beginning nor the end of the sorrows. From the photo here on the left (which I took at the end of my bike trip in May), one would not know the town’s grief and losses: the World War II bombings, the deportation of nearly all the Jews to Auschwitz, the Soviet occupation. Even reading the history, I only begin to grasp parts, and only from a distance. I can zoom in further and further, I can visit the town and walk over the border, but still it will take years to understand, as a beginner, what happened here. It is worth the long, slow study.

 

The map image above is courtesy of Google Maps.