Friday, September 12, 2014

Little Rabbit and the Death List

I haven't posted Hungarian jokes since the Aggressive Piglet, so I thought it was time for a new one. It's a Nyuszika joke. Nyuszika literally means Little Rabbit and it's as close as we get to having a folk trickster character. I will post more Nyuszika jokes in the future, but they are best in smaller doses. You'll see.
Here goes the joke:

Bear is walking around in the forest with a piece of paper and a very menacing face. He runs into Fox.
"Hey Bear! What's with that paper?"
"It's a Death List."
"Oh no! What does it do?"
"I kill everyone who's on it."
"Oh no! Am I on it?"
Bear checks.
"Yes you are."
Fox starts crying.
"Can I at least say goodbye to my family?"
"Yes, sure."
Fox goes home, says goodbye to his family, and the next day he is dead. Bear continues walking around and runs into Wolf.
"Hey Bear! What's that?"
"It's a Death List. I kill everyone who's on it."
"Am I on it?"
Bear checks.
"Yes you are."
Wolf starts crying.
"Oh no! Let me at least have a last meal!"
"Sure."
Wolf has a last meal, and then Bear kills him. He continues wandering around, and runs into Nyuszika.
"Hey Bear, what's up? What's with that paper?"
"It's a Death List."
"What does it do?"
"I kill everyone who's name is on it."
"Oh! Am I on it?"
Bear checks.
"Yes, you are."
"Drat. Can you please take my name off the list?"
"Sure."

And thus concludes the joke.
Apart from being absolutely groan-worthy, the joke is kind of brilliant for a number of reasons. One of them being that it is actually a classic Trickster trope in disguise: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, starts out his career in the Chinese epic Journey to the West by descending into the Underworld and crossing his own name off the list of beings who are supposed to die, thus rendering himself immortal. Talk about winning on a technicality.
The second reason I like this joke is because this was one of the educational-motivational jokes my parents used to encourage me to try for things that might seem unattainable. The joke kind of has that message: "At least ask before you give up!" You get the idea.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Hungarian Book Recommended: The Gold Coffin by Ferenc Móra

Need an epic love and good cry, and you are already done with The Fault In Our Stars? Read this book.

A historical novel from one of my personal favorite Hungarian authors. Móra Ferenc (1879-1934) was a journalist, author, and a practicing archaeologist. All of those things merged together to create wonderful and fun pieces of literature (and also one of the most depressing children's book of all time, but we don't talk about that one - of course that is the only one we have to read in school...). Móra had great empathy and a very sarcastic sense of humor. Which are both good for writing about history.

In this novel, set in the times of the Roman emperor Diocletian, he mostly applies the empathy. The backdrop of the tale is a very turbulent era in the history of the late Roman empire, and the last great and bloody persecution of Christians. The hero is a young man named Quintipor with a mystery in his past, surrounded by many actual historical figures, both from the royal family and from their court.
The essence of the book is a love story, but even more important than that, the book (in my opinion at least) has a soul: The character of Titanilla, daughter of the Caesar Galerius. Móra allegedly modeled her after a love from his own life, but real person or not, Little Tit (no English pun intended) is a masterpiece of a novel character for the ages. Her cheerful, wild, decadent and yet kind-hearted being is set in contrast with Quintipor's naively good mentality, and an unlike romance blooms between the two, despite the difference in their social standing. Into this mix the author adds the theme of new-found Christianity, and the result is poetic, heartbreaking, and unforgettable.

If you can find the English version, read it. Some are available online, last time I checked, and some libraries in the US also carry them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

May Your Earlobes Reach Your Ankles!

This is another one of those things I never realized was not universal until I tried to apply it in a situation in the USA, and people thought I was being weird. Oops.

When it is someone's birthday in Hungary, you will notice that people walk up to them frequently throughout the day to tug (gently! unless they are friends, in which case, mercilessly) on their earlobe while saying their good wishes. This is generally in practice, within and outside the family. The wish goes:

"Isten éltessen sokáig, füled érjen bokáig!"
"May God give you long life, and may your earlobes reach your ankles."

No one is entirely sure, but it is assumed that long earlobes mean long life. They are essentially wishing for you to reach old age in a Buddha-like state of enlightenment and hipster aural fashion. Since your ears actually grow as you grow older (including the stretching of earlobes), the wish actually makes sense in a strange way.

So, next time I find out it's your birthday and I immediately reach for your earlobe, you will now know that I am not trying to steal your earring. Cheers!

Monday, August 18, 2014

5 Hungarian Souvenirs That You Shouldn't Bother With, and 5 Options to Replace Them

This weekend we celebrated the 40th annual Birmingham Ethnic Festival in Toledo, OH. It is one of the biggest celebrations of Hungarian heritage in the USA. I spent a lovely and entertaining afternoon browsing the booths along the main festival avenue, and eating some Hungarian food. I have to note, however, that while the Hungarian-ness of most souvenirs on sale cannot be doubted, the variety of such items was... well, not great. What I mean is: Hungarian marketing limits itself to a very narrow set of objects that might or might not be enticing to foreigners. So, if you are a foreigner in Hungary or at a Hungarian event, here is a quick and dirty guide to your options.
Let's see one of the all-time hits first:

1. Paprika
Let's get real, people: Our ancestors did not ride in from Asia carrying paprika in their saddlebags. While we Hungarians do love our spicy food, paprika is something that I can find in great variety and good quality in most American grocery stores. Just because there is a Hungarian flag on it, it's not worth the extra cash.

2. Pálinka
I have stated my opinion on pálinka before. If you and your friends and family are known for their taste for exotic liquor (or their tendency to take hard bets), sure, buy a whole crate.

3. Embroidery
It is gorgeous, it is traditional, and it is absolutely all over every freaking Hungarian souvenir ever. Like, ever. Most of what you see on souvenirs, however, is the visual culture of one specific region in Hungary, and it is one specific style, used to represent the entirety of Hungarian culture. I would love to see more diversity. Also, as pretty as embroidered blouses might look, I am a full-blood Hungarian person, and I have never worn one in my life. Neither has anyone of my extended family. Just sayin'.

4. Cookbooks
So far, the list has given you the impression that Hungarians like to press towards foreigners: We eat and drink a lot (and we paint embroidery on our food and drinks). I kid you not, 90% of foreign language books about Hungary that I found are all cookbooks. And if my history of cooking Hungarian food for American friends is any indication, only a small number of the recipes will ever be worth trying more than once.

5. Anything with the Parliament building on it
It is the symbol of Hungary. It is stunning and pretty and goes well with the Danube view. It is also a little more than 100 years old. There are many other historic buildings, even in the immediate vicinity of the Parliament, that are worth checking out.

If you really are interested in something that is Hungarian, and less of a tourist kitsch, you might want to check some of these things out instead:

1. The Subjective Atlas of Hungary
I adore this book, and the project behind it. It is a collection of random images, art projects, facts, and tidbits that describe and represent Hungary more than any coffee table photo album ever could. It is not afraid to make fun of our weaknesses, and it shows hidden beauty in mundane places. Get a copy if you can, or check it out online. This should be in every Hungarian bookstore.

2. Hungarian books that are not cookbooks
Believe it or not, we have a few in English! Not many, but they are worth reading. I have already mentioned our favorite historical novels, and this gorgeous short story collection. If you keep visiting this blog, I promise I have more recommendations lined up in the near future!

3. Anything with a puli on it
I am not going to tell you to go home with a puli puppy (although you could! Zuckerberg did). But pulis are cute! And they look good on t-shirts. Believe the MopDog.

4. Hungarian cartoons
Sadly, most of the masterpieces of Hungarian cartoon animation have never been released with dubs or with subs. But if you look really hard, you might find some that were, and they are worth watching! For example, there is the classic Cat City, the adorable Vuk, and some collections of Hungarian Folktales are also available with subs (post coming up on that series later). Let's put some pressure on the Hungarian souvenir business, and maybe we'll have more!

5. Hungarian music that is not folk music
Folk music is amazing, but it is not all there is. If you are in Hungary, allow yourself to browse the Hungarian Artists (Magyar Előadók) section of the music shop, and give a chance to some contemporary Hungarian music! Ask Hungarians what they enjoy. I will also post suggestions on MopDog later on.

Hungary is a LOT more than paprika, pálinka, and kitsch.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Barbarians in Academia

So here is a word that just occurred to me during a conversation I had today, and that apparently doesn't quite sound as compact and fancy in English as it does in Hungarian. Because of that, feel free to appropriate it to patch up a hole in the great English linguistic quilt.

You know those people who are very good at one specific thing, and completely ignorant of everything else outside the bubble? People in academia, for example, who know their own tiny field of [research] but can't [solve a basic equation] to save their life. Or people whose knowledge of Estonian film history surpasses any competition, but have never seen a French movie.

The word we Hungarians use for those people is "szakbarbár." The best way to translate it would probably be "specialized barbarian" (as someone who has played Barbarian characters in the past, I can totally get behind this). It applies to people who like to pose as experts of a narrow field (often they really are) but they lack perspective due to their ignorance of... basically the rest of the universe. "Szak" incidentally is also our word for "major" in a higher education setting. Does that make specialized grad students "major barbarians"? You tell me...