Dancers from the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble
… of me, what you will find is a strange sort of Hungarian. Although I have read no studies to this effect, I think that the first language you learn to speak is what determines, at the deepest level, who you are. My first language was an older dialect of the Magyar language from the region just to the southwest of Budapest. Today, when I speak the language—haltingly—Hungarians laugh at my choice of words and horrible grammar. Yet, my ever-so-sophisticated American English is merely an overlay on a base that was set in concrete before I was five. I feel myself to be a kind of Brummagem Hungarian.
Last night, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance program at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church just south of downtown L.A. The dance was put on by the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble, which has just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. That a city like Los Angeles, which does not have that large a Hungarian population, could support an organization like Kárpátok is an unending surprise to me.
For many of the fifteen-odd dances they performed, I was in tears. There are certain themes in Hungarian music that take me way back to my beginnings. I could not lay my finger on it, but a deep emotional chord is struck deep in my core.
The people in attendance were curious about me. My pronunciation is near perfect, but I might as well be retarded. As for Martine, she doesn’t know a word of Magyar and depended on me for many things I was unable to explain.
Flyer for the “Thousand Faces” Dance Concert We Attended
That didn’t keep up from enjoying the music and dances—and the Hungarian meal that was served afterwards—even though we were both suffering from nasty colds. She might be French, but Martine enjoys these Hungarian events as much as I do, though in a different way. I do believe she prefers Hungarian food to the great cuisine of France, especially where pastries are involved.
Don’t Worry If You Can’t Read This
Every year on the first Sunday in May, the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda has a festival with authentic Magyar cuisine and Mothers’ Day entertainment. Unlike previous years, I couldn’t find any mention of the festival on the Church’s website. Martine made the perfectly logical suggestion for me to call the Church, except she made it to the wrong person. I have something of a telephone phobia, especially when I’m calling people I do not personally know. So Martine went and made the phone call herself. And yes, the festival was taking place at the usual time and place.
My rudimentary knowledge of my native language prevents me from being able to translate the above information sheet in its entirety, but I got the gist of it. The festival is a combination Spring, May Day, and Mothers’ Day event. For an admission fee of five dollars, one could have some of the best homemade Hungarian food in Southern California. For lunch, I went for the Gulyás Leves, usually referred to in English as Hungarian Goulash. What most Americans don’t know is that it is a hearty beef and vegetable soup served with chile peppers. After the kiddie Mothers’ Day entertainment, which was exceedingly cute, we ordered two stuffed cabbage dinners to go, which furnished our supper once we got home.
The highlight of Hungarian cuisine for Martine—and, in fact, for most Hungarians—is the pastry, particularly a kind of cheesecake referred to as crémes, pronounced KRAY-mesh. I get the impression that Hungarians in a pastry shop are even more dangerous than bulls in a china shop, and that they are not above packing away 25,000 calories or more.
This is aided and abetted by the Hungarian love of a fried dough concoction called lángos (pronounced LAHN-goash), richly slathered with sour cream, cheese, or garlic. It’s very like Indian fry bread, except with a different selection of toppings.
Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months
Now that you’ve seen me without a stitch of clothing on, and facing you with the situation, I thought I’d bring you up to date about the second home of my young life. When I was only a little over a year old, my Mom, Dad, and I moved to Lake Worth, Florida. As I was much too young at the time, I have no memory of my first trip to the Land of Sunshine. My Dad worked for the city, which is a southern suburb of West Palm Beach, and my Mom had her hands full with the above illustrated hedonist.
Unfortunately, my father did not have the best of times in Florida. His job was to remove the bodies of dead and rotting alligators. Now Dad had a tricksy stomach, so instead of job satisfaction, he was mostly involved in projectile vomiting at the time. The move to Florida was declared a failure, so Dad insisted that the family relocate to the Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland, on the East Side’s Buckeye Road. Which is what we did.
My third home was the second floor of a duplex at 2814 East 120th Street. I was able to put down some roots there, as we were to remain there until 1951, after my brother Dan was born. Since I didn’t know a word of English, Mom and Dad figured we should relocate to the suburbs, a few miles east of Buckeye Road. It was time for me to learn English and become a red-blooded American. Which I proceeded to do, with such dispatch that after three more years, I was no longer regarded as a problematical retard with a funny accent.
BTW: My Mom adored the above picture. She showed it to all my girlfriends….
Hungarian Poet Endre Ady (1877-1919)
It was a hundred years ago that Endre Ady died of syphilis in Budapest. Like most Hungarian poets, he is virtually unknown in the West. I present here two of his shorter works.
Who Come from Far Away
We are the men who are always late,
we are the men who come from far away.
Our walk is always weary and sad,
we are the men who are always late.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
When the face of distant death appears,
our souls splash into a tam tam of flame.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
We are the men who are always late.
We are never on time with our success,
our dreams, our heaven, or our embrace.
We are the men who are always late.
Also very Hungarian in its bitterness is “The Magyar Messiah.” Hungary was on one of the two invasion paths into Europe from the East. (The other is Poland.) Likewise, it was convenient for invasion from the West, say, from Germany.
The Magyar Messiah
More bitter is our weeping,
different the griefs that try us.
A thousand times Messiahs
are the Magyar Messiahs.
A thousand times they perish,
unblest their crucifixion,
for vain was their affliction,
oh, vain was their affliction.
My Oldest Surviving Kid Drawing
The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.
At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?
I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”
My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.
And My Computer Is Now Working!
I will start 2019 with my old office computer, which has been newly updated with additional memory and a new graphics card. Apparently, the computer freezes I described were mostly the fault of the graphics card, which was installed late in 2015.
As long as the Trumposaurus is occupying the White House—or, even, earth, above ground, that is—2019 can’t really be a great year. But we can make the best of things. It’s how we tackle adversity that really counts. We cannot expect to live a live that is devoid of adversity. Real happiness is not the result of living in lucky times: It’s creating our own luck in dicey times.
So, to all my readers, I wish you all the best.
By the way, the title of my post is Happy New Year in Hungarian. All of you, be boldog.
The Santa Monica Pier at Sunset
I was waiting for the Number 1 Santa Monica bus on 4th Street, near the Expo Line Terminus, when two young women suddenly hove into view as my bus was approaching. When I don’t want to talk to strangers—and I almost never do—I answer them … in Hungarian. Well, these two girls went away thinking I was some kind of a genius instead of a rude bastard manqué.
In English, they asked me which way was the ocean.
In Hungarian, I answered, “You mean the beach?” Their eyes widened. How did I know they were Hungarian? I gestured toward the beach and said, “That way!” in my best Magyar. They thanked me profusely as I boarded my bus.
Actually, they were rather cute.