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When Hungarians Picnic

My Father and My Uncle at a Picnic

My Father and My Uncle at a Picnic

Set your Wayback Machine to about seventy-five years ago. At one of Cleveland’s many parks, you would see those two irrepressible Slovak twins—Elek (Alex) and Emil Paris—and their girls having a Hungarian-style picnic. The entrée of choice is likely to be szalonnás kenjer, or sliced rye bread with chopped onions, paprika, and smoked bacon drippings. On the left is Elek, my father, with either a girlfriend or his first wife, who was said to be overweight. Next to her are my Aunt Annabelle (née Herbaj) and Uncle Emil. It was a scene to be repeated well into my teen years, except the girlfriend/first wife was replaced by my mother.

Speaking of Hungarian picnics, allow me to quote Carl Sandburg to you. His short poem is called “Happiness”:

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life
      to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
      thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
      I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
      the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
      their women and children and a keg of beer and an
      accordion.

I’m not altogether sure about the accordion. The Paris brothers were too busy eating to sing. On the other hand, when I went to Slovakia with my parents in 1977 (it was then part of Czechoslovakia), we sang all the old songs with my pretty cousins Gabriela, Margit, and Marinka (the last two being themselves twins).

A brief note about nationality: Like the Kurds, the Slovaks were a cohesive people for hundreds of years before ever having a country of their own, until Vaclav Havel, last President of Czechoslovakia, granted them their independence in 1993. When my father and uncle were born in 1911, Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was administered by the Hungarians. In the end, my father spoke better Hungarian than Slovak; though I found out as early as 1977, Hungarian was spoken only by the old people.