Masks, Music, Acting

For International Music Day, the music teacher planned, along with her students, to play music through the loudspeakers in the breaks between lessons. Here are two students dancing to the music in the hallway.

Yes, we are trying our best to celebrate things, to keep the arts going in some way, to listen when we can’t sing. (Singing is not allowed in school at this point, since it is hard to do so safely.) At this point, the rules are: wear masks in the hallways and in common areas; in classrooms, wear masks when it is impossible to keep the required social distance. As of October 1, we must also have our temperature taken as we enter the school; those with a temperature above a certain level will not be allowed in.

Three students have tested positive for the coronavirus; they are all at home right now. In one case, the whole class stayed home for ten days, then returned (except for the one who tested positive). I imagine that there will be more known cases, especially now that the thermometer requirement is in place. Those setting local policy respond to each case individually, taking into consideration when the student was last in school and other factors.

With all of that, the year is still proceeding somewhat normally, with joys along the way. One of my favorite parts of the week is when I go with the tenth-graders into the spacious drama room (shown above and below) to read and act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the beginning of the year, the drama teacher told me she wanted to share the room with me and asked me to choose the times I would like.

The school has also found ways to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The director, László Molnár, organized the publishing of commemorative book, edited by Dr. Ilona Mrenáné Szakálos, with interviews and biographies of selected teachers from 1930 to the present. I was surprised and honored to be included in the book, with Zsolt Bajnai’s interview of me, from exactly one year ago today, reprinted in the pages. But beyond that, the book says a lot about the school. I know of no other school that would release a commemorative book that focused entirely on the teachers from the beginning to the present. At Varga, the school’s history is cherished, and the teachers are its stronghold. The teacher biographies–written by colleagues, students, and others–are full of respect, affection, and humor. Putting out this book during the pandemic was no easy feat, but it was worth it, and no matter what happens this year, the book will stay.

So I look forward to each day of bicycling along the Tisza to school, having lively classes, working with my colleagues, preparing the fall issue of Folyosó (which will appear in the beginning of November), and being part of Varga, where I have taught for three years now. What’s coming this year in terms of coronavirus developments, no one knows. But I am glad for these days we have had.

Memorials Upon Memorials

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Today is Memorial Day of the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust. One year ago, at the end of the day, I joined in a memorial run and then danced with others outside the former synagogue. But earlier in the day I was feeling bad (even sorry for myself) because a lesson on poetic song verse had seemed not to go so well.

But such lessons need to happen too. This year, I would have given a lot to have a not-so-successful lesson in an actual classroom. The online classes have had their beauty; much good has come out of them. But it is strange to be saying goodbye to seniors without seeing them in person.

There were no Holocaust memorial events in Szolnok today, online or otherwise, as far as I know. So I went on a memorial bike ride. I first biked to the Holocaust monument (pictured above) at the site where Szolnok’s first synagogue used to be, by the Pelikán. Then I went to the Szolnok Gallery (formerly a synagogue), and visited the memorial stone next to it. It is usually covered with little stones that visitors have left, but the stones were gone for some reason, maybe because of the recent winds.

From there, I biked along the Tisza, and then along Tószégi út, to the site of the old sugar factory; this is where the Jews were forced to stay before deportation to the concentration camps. I had gone there last year, for the memorial run, but because I took a bus there, I didn’t see the surroundings. This year, I cycled around the area; parts look like no one has touched them in fifty, seventy, a hundred years.

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It took some doing–and a conversation with a friendly security guard–but I found the sugar factory sign and the memorial plaque.

On the way there, along the Tisza, I picked up a nice little stone, so on my way back home, I stopped by the stone memorial again and laid my stone on it.

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The side plaque quotes Psalm 23, Verse 4:

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ד  גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע–    כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָּדִי
.שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ   הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; {N}
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

 

Besides remembering last year, and another time I laid a stone on a grave, I was in the middle of memorials not my own, as though I were biking through a past that I had not lived. I also thought of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “A Pelikántól a cukorgyárig” (“From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory”), which appears both on his blog and in his newly-released third book of stories, Az eltűnt városháza, which I received today, to my joy, after returning home.

I am sorry that there was no memorial gathering today; at the same time, biking by myself to these places, I could notice and feel things that I wouldn’t have in a group. And I think of the others who may have taken memorial walks and bike rides, who may have laid down stones, who may have passed through known and unknown pasts.

 

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.

 

Zsolt Bajnai’s “Corruption Therapy” Published in The Satirist!

Today was a great day for several reasons. One of them was this: Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Corruption Therapy” (“Korrupcióterápia”), which I translated into English, was published this afternoon in The Satirist. It’s funny and grim; go read it and share it with everyone!

Holocaust Memorials in Szolnok

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There are at least three Holocaust memorials in Szolnok: a large one in Szolnok Plaza, in the area of the former Jewish ghetto (and precisely where Szolnok’s first synagogue used to be); another by the old sugar factory, from where the Jews of Szolnok were deported to Auschwitz, and this one here, across the walkway from the large synagogue, now a gallery. This one looks so fragile; it’s small and weathered, it seems it could tumble, but it holds up. There are always little stones on it (it’s a Jewish tradition to lay stones upon gravestones and memorials), and you feel that someone is looking after it, day after day.

There are memorials in writing, too. I am about to translate Zsolt Bajnai’s story “A Pelikántól a cukorgyárig,” “From the Pelikan to the Sugar Factory.” (The Pelikán Hotel is where the Jewish ghetto used to be.) The morning I read it, I bawled. I am sure that someone will want to publish the English translation once it is ready, so I will add the link here as soon as the published version comes into being.

Elie Wiesel said (in an interview, I think): “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.” (Thanks to Ari Rubin for reminding me of this quote.)

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A Great Lecture and Bike Ride

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This evening I bicycled to Szandaszőlős, a suburb of Szolnok, to hear Zsolt Bajnai speak about Szolnok between the world wars. When crossing the Tisza, I stopped to look at the Tiszavirág Bridge, which looked ghostly in the distance. The bike path went along the road, for the most part; but when crossing Route 4, it dipped downhill and passed through three tunnels.IMG_0827
Soon I arrived at Szandaszőlős and was amazed by the majestic houses. I might have been to Szandaszőlős before, but not to this part. (The building on the left is the confectionery, the “cukrászda”; the one on the right is someone’s house, I think.)

Finally I made it to the House of Culture and to the lecture. It was great. I learned about various buildings, sculptures, and other landmarks, including the old bridge (which was bombed in World War II), the boys’ school, the girls’ school, the Tisza Hotel (and the unfulfilled plans to expand it), the beach on the banks of the Tisza, the stores in the Town Hall, the Nerfeld-palota, and much more.

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The return trip was much quicker than the trip out there, since by then I knew the way. I rode back the way I came, through Szandaszőlős, through the tunnels, along the bike path, across the Tisza, then along the Zagyva and back home. Here is a backward look along the Zagyva. A good end to the day.

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Honors, Arts, and Travels

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This is a short post, since I leave early in the morning for the U.S. (for the 2019 ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I will be leading a seminar and presenting a paper). I will get to see my friend Joyce, who lives in Worcester, tomorrow evening.

Last Friday I had the great honor of being interviewed by Zsolt Bajnai, author of the wonderful blogSzolnok (which I read daily) and many other articles, essays, interviews, and stories. it was my first interview in Hungarian. Here it is.

Rosh Hashanah at Szim Salom was beautiful. Lots of people came. Now I have to stay strong and healthy for Yom Kippur (and beyond). I have many more thoughts about the holidays than these brief jottings convey.

Last night I saw a film that doesn’t leave my mind: Akik maradtak (Those Who Remained), directed by Barnabás Tóth. I recommend it to everyone and hope to say more about it another time. It was followed by a discussion between Zsolt Bajnai and the director and producer. They talked about how the film differed from the movie, how the actors were chosen, and more.

The week was filled with performances and other good things. Yesterday, during our long break in the morning, the music teacher (Andrea Barnáné Bende) and a group of students put on a short concert in honor of the school’s 90th anniversary. They sang and played a selection of songs from the past 90 years.

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And today (see the picture at the top) the ninth-grade bilingual class, under the direction of the drama teacher (Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross), rehearsed a short play on the theme of libraries and humanity, which they will perform this week (and next, I think). Since the rehearsal took place during our regular English class, I got to see it–in the beautiful new school library, curated and maintained by the school librarian, Judit Kassainé Mrena.

Also, Issue 12:1 of Literary Matters came out! It contains my translations of Gyula Jenei’s poems “Piano,” “Cemetery,” and “Madeleine“; my review of John Wall Barger’s The Mean Game; and much more.

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Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues for covering my classes during my absences. Speaking of absence, it is now time for sleep.

Szolnok’s First Golden Age

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This evening I went to a lecture by Zsolt Bajnai on Szolnok’s first golden age (from 1867 to 1914). I learned about buildings I see every day, buildings I have never seen (because they don’t exist any more), buildings that have partly remained, and the ways of life associated with them. Mr. Bajnai showed photographs and postcards of the buildings that now house the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Ferenc Verseghy Library; the County Hall and City Hall, the building, which I often admire in passing, on the corner of Kossuth Square and Arany János Street; the buildings on Szapáry; the churches and synagogue; the train station; the old Szabadság bridge; the water tower, and much more. It was exciting to follow along; I understood at least 85 percent of the lecture and could figure out much of the rest. Besides learning about Szolnok, I was in awe of the occasion: a lecturer who knew and cared so much about this city, an inviting venue (the community center on Napsugár Street, right by the Alcsi-Holt-Tisza), and a rapt audience. This wasn’t just “worth” the bike ride to the outskirts of the city; the bike ride, lecture, audience, and surroundings were all part of the event.

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Afterwards, I bicycled in the wrong direction at first–but realized my error quickly and saw some lovely things along the way. Within minutes, I was back home. I have more to say, another time, about this event and about Zsolt Bajnai’s story “From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory,” which I first read yesterday morning and which swiftly changed my life.

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“…használhatatlanná váltak…”

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After doing some last-minute errands before tomorrow’s trip across the seas, I decided to return to the exhibit–at the corner of Szapáry and Kossuth–of the history of some of Szolnok’s old buildings. I had attended the opening at 7 p.m. on June 22, the Night of the Museums, which coincided with the last day of the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. Zsolt Bajnai, who wrote the text and contributed some of the pictures, spoke about the exhibit and the buildings described in it; Marcell Bajnai opened and closed the event with a few of his songs.* I lingered a few minutes afterward to look at the pictures but knew I needed more time. Today I took a few minutes, not enough, but something.

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I began reading about the 1969 fire in the center of Szolnok. This sentence caught my attention: “A baleset utáni vizsgálat nyilvánvalová tette, hogy az üzletterek és a raktárak lényegében használhatatlanná váltak, azaz Szolnok akkori legnagyobb áruháza megsemmisült.” (The investigation after the accident made it clear that the business spaces and warehouses had essentially become unusable; that is, Szolnok’s largest department store at that time had been destroyed.)

Even within such a sad topic, how magnificent the word “használhatatlanná”! It consists of the root “haszon” (advantage, benefit, use) and four suffixes: the verb-forming suffix “ál,” the potential suffix -hat, the privative suffix -atlan, and the translative suffix -vá, which gets converted to “ná.” (I first learned about the translative case—my favorite of the cases—when  learning “Maradok ember,” which has the phrase “viharrá lettél.”) The phrase “használhatatlanná váltak” can be translated as “became unusable.” But how do you translate its length, its parts and whole, its metamorphosis, its six-time “a/á” vowel sound, the double occurrences of the consonant sounds h, l, t, and n, the last of which actually occurs triply, since it is doubled the second time? That word alone made the foray worthwhile, but it was just a fraction of what I saw and read there, between rush and rush, before leaving the country for five weeks.

*Regular readers of this blog have probably seen the Bajnai name come up often; yes, the Bajnai family contributes richly to cultural life in Szolnok and beyond, together and individually. I admire their work and look forward to knowing and understanding it better over time. I have begun translating Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves), which I saw for the second time on June 22, just a few hours before this opening.

From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!

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My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

 

 

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

 

 

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song (by Gábor Presser) I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.

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Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*

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*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..

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