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...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Hungarian book you have to read (in English): Love in a Bottle

One of my favorite classic Hungarian short story collections has recently been published in English!

Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) is one of my ever favorite Hungarian authors. His prose in sensitive, eloquent, and his stories are marvelous. He had a great sense of humor, and a great eye for beauty.
This volume contains some of his best works. The reason why I posted this review on the 24th of June is because one of the short stories (Ajándok's Bethrotal) takes place during Midsummer Night. In this tale a girl called Ajándok (Gift) falls in love with a mysterious stranger that appears in her village on Midsummer Eve. He turns out to be a traveling wizard (garabonciás), and their love takes a dark turn...
Beside one of my favorite love stories, the book also contains an Arthurian tale which gave the volume its title. Love in a Bottle tells us about the time Sir Lancelot grows tired of being in love with Guinevere, and asks a wizard to take Love out of his heart.
All the stories in the book are, simply put, gorgeous. They will make you laugh, cry, and sigh. Definitely read it if you have the chance.

Even The Guardian published a review for the book! Read it here.

(It's also available at! Brownie points for Walmart.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

God's zoo is greater - More potentially useful phrases from Hungary

After round one of phrases you might want to learn and keep handy in case of a linguistic emergency, here is another little collection of the endless ingenuity of Hungarian vernacular.

First up, an updated version of "God's zoo is great," since many kind people reminded me after the post that you can always embellish more. With that in mind, I present to you:

Nagy az isten állatkertje, és alacsony a kerítés / mindig van benne üres ketrec.
Translation: God's zoo is great, and the fences are too low / but there is always room for more.
Meaning: I'm surrounded by idiots, and we have more of them incoming.

And now on to some new things:

Más farkával veri a csalánt.
Translation: H/she is beating the nettle with someone else's tail (or other similar, masculine, body parts)
Meaning: Making promises on someone else's account; promising things that will make someone else's life more complicated, and being blissfully oblivious about it, because it's not your appendage in the nettle.

Házinyúlra nem lövünk.
Translation: We don't shoot at pet bunnies. (literally: house bunnies)
Meaning: Workplace relationships are ALWAYS a bad idea.
Additionally: "We don't shoot at pet bunnies... unless they attack first." (Meaning: "Workplace relationships are STILL a bad idea, but I didn't start it.")

Ő sem egy harci delfin.
Translation: S/he is not exactly a combat dolphin.
Meaning: They are not smart. At all.

Annyi esze van mint egy talicska aprómajomnak.
Translation: S/he is as smart as a wheelbarrowful of tiny monkeys.
Meaning: A wheelbarrow full of tiny monkeys is not smart at all.

Lóg az eső lába.
Translation: The rain is dangling its legs.
Meaning: It's going to rain.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


It's the last week of school, and students are completely out of control. Doing some storytelling today at a high school I was reminded of a tradition that most schools follow this time of the year, and I thought I'd share.
Seven school days before the start of summer break, the class starts spelling out "VAKÁCIÓ" (vacation, summer break) on the blackboard. Backwards. You write one capital letter a day, starting with the last one (sometimes starting a day early with the exclamation point), and decorate it in some way. Sometimes A is two palm trees leaning together; O is a beach ball; things like that. This is usually the job of the artistically gifted members of the class to do their best.
As the last week progresses, the letters don't only help remind people that school is almost over, but they also have the added bonus of leaving increasingly less space on the board for useful school work. For this reason, students usually try to make the letters as big as possible, to slowly push the teachers out of business.
(Note: This really works a lot easier in a school system where a class owns the classroom, and the teachers are the ones moving around.)
I honestly don't know how the rising popularity of digital boards will affect this tradition.