Friday, December 6, 2013

Santa and the Devil

It's December 6th, which means, at least in our corner of the world, that it's Santa Day!

Yep that's right, Santa arrives to Hungary before it's cool.
Or cold, anyway.

December 6th is St. Nicholas' Day, who is, as everyone probably knows, the original Santa Claus. Many chocolate Santas are still dressed as tiny bishops, complete with the staff and the Bible (see in the picture). On the eve of Santa Day, children clean their shoes (the lazier ones just one, the overachievers every shoe in the house) and line them up on the windowsill to be filled with goodies by the morning.
In the morning, two things can happen: A) Shoes are filled with chocolate and candy, or, in lamely health conscious households, walnuts and oranges, or B) You have been naughty and you get switches to be beaten with. Switches nowadays are sprinkled with glitter and gold, but that does not change the fact that little Hermione Granger me used to throw them out the window in tears when they showed up in the shoes, even though they were accompanied by candy. Celebrate Santa Day with symbolic reminders of child abuse to your own discretion.

Santa does not only leave gifts, he also visits places such as schools, libraries, and workplace daycare. He hands out gifts in exchange for drawings, songs, or little poems, depending on the bravery and age range of the children. And here comes the fun part: He is always accompanied by the Devil.

Well, not really the Devil, although many people would make the mistake if they didn't know what they were looking at. It is the Krampusz, Santa's trickster helper, all coal and little horns and tail. Usually female, to balance out Santa's masculinity. Sometimes more than one, although I don't know what the English plural would be for Krampusz (Krampi? Krampuszes?...) They are partly there to scare the children, and partly there to help hand out the presents, or occasionally play the guitar while the kids sing songs. Honestly, being a Krampusz is a lot more fun than being Santa.

Happy Santa Day, everyone!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Our groundhog is a bear

I don't really mean it in the Texas way - our groundhogs are no bigger than any other average groundhog.
Mostly because we don't really have any groundhogs.
Which could definitely make Groundhog Day kind of a lackluster, if you think about it.


We have marmots. Kinda the same thing, really. Less roadkill-y, and with not much interest for seeing their own shadow.

 No nation should go without predicting the length of winter, though. For that reason, we do have our own shadow-peepig ceremony.
Involving bears.

 Not one bear in particular, but bears in general, wherever we can get them. Because no one really wants to carry one designated bear around on every February 2nd (we'd run out of volunteers, and blood splatters are likely to tamper with the shadow data). So, every February 2nd people flock to the zoos and watch to see what happens to the bears. In some cases, children are allowed to bring alarm clocks to wake the bears up.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Willy the Sparrow sums up academic education

So here is another cult scene from the collective Hungarian childhood.

The cartoon is called Vili a Veréb (Willy the Sparrow, not to be confused with Sparrows of other names). At the beginning of the story the Sparrow Fairy (not to be confused with her friend the Cat Fairy, for example) turns a boy named Vili into a sparrow as a punishment for shooting at sparrows from his window on his sick day off school. After the family cat chases him off the windowsill and out into the wilderness of an urban park, Vili is left to the good will of other (natural) sparrows to learn to survive, fly, avoid cats, get rid of lice, visit the horse race tracks, and other vital parts of bird life. An old and wise sparrow called Cipur takes him under his wings (quite literally) and offers to teach him all he needs to know. In exchange, he wants something only Vili possesses: the knowledge to read. Cipur collects shredded pieces of paper with letters on them, hoping to become more like humans by learning to decipher them on his own.
In the scene where Vili first attempts to demonstrate the skill of reading to his old mentor, the shredded piece reads as follows:

"Empirio-criticism, also called Machism, is a subjective idealist philosophical trend opposed to materialism, denying the existence of the material world independent of the human mind and..." Vili glances up "... the rest is torn off."

Cipur stares at him in awe and wonder:

"You can understand that?!"

Vili shurgs.

"Heck no. But I can read it."

For people like me who grew up watching this cartoon over and over again, this quote became the quintessential description of life in academia. Also, now we all know the first half of the definition of Machism. Philosophy degree, here I come.

(Full movie in Hungarian on the link above. Sadly, no English translation yet.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Name Game

One of the most obvious things that make Hungarians different from other people is the names that NO ONE CAN EVER SPELL RIGHT EVER. Actually, telling your name to someone abroad has been a pretty good tool for determining if that person is worth your time at all. Reactions range from the classic taxi dispatch's "ARE YOU ***ING KIDDING ME?" through "I'll just write it phonetically..." and "Can you write it down for me please?" all the way to "Repeat it please, I want to make sure I pronounce it right."
And spelling and pronunciation are the least of our troubles.

Names are one of those things I have never considered hungarikum until I came to the USA, and then suddenly there was a whole lot to explain. So, here we go,


1. We put the family name first. This is our ancient mystic tool of evil that we use to confuse foreigners into submission and conquer their lands. (Zalka Csenge)

2. Following the logic of reverse name order, the middle name comes last. (Zalka Csenge Virág)

3. A lot of us are Catholic. That means two extra names for baptism (patron saint) and confirmation (you get to pick a name when you are fourteen years old! Who came up with that?!) (Zalka Csenge Virág Anna Izabell)

4. We have name days. That's right, Game of Thrones got nothing on us! You get a birthday every year, and then a name day based on which day of the calendar is assigned to your name, and if you are very lucky, you have a middle name too, and your family remembers to celebrate it. The good thing about name days is that they are built into the calendar, which means a lot more people remember them than birthdays.

5. We have a Book of Names (Boy Names and Girl Names, respectively). Kid you not. Names in Hungary have to be approved by the Linguistic department of the Academy of Sciences, and then they get into the book. Every year they publish a list of newly approved names. Currently there are 1484 male and 1916 female names approved. The cost of registering a new name is 3000Ft (app. 13 dollars).

6. There is an urban legend going around claiming that the only names forbidden to ever be approved are God, Jesus, and Satan. I have not been able to confirm this, but pretty much everyone says it (would explain why we don't have a lot of Hispanic immigrants). Officially, reasons for not approving a name can be: they are spelled foreign (our spelling for Jennifer is Dzsenifer), can be male or female in other cultures (I KNOW RIGHT?!), are foreign last names (whuut?), too common nouns (Rainbow... there goes the Hungarian hippie movement), cartoon characters (seriously), or "too endearing" (?!). The official statement claims these rules are in position to protect the children (implied: from dumb parents).

7. The only exception to this rule are registered ethnic minorities, they can give whatever names they want. Hence, kids with names that range from Tarzan to Sandokan, and various classic South American soap opera characters (Isaura).

8. As of now, a lot of new names made their way to the Approved list. Hungarian parents now can have little Gandalfs, Frodos, Anakins, Amidalas, and other popular choices.

9. The most popular boy names in 2012 were (starting from the top): Bence (Ben), Máté (Matthew), Levente, Ádám (Adam), and Dávid (David). The most popular girl names were Hanna, Anna, Jázmin (Jasmine), Nóra (Nora) and Csenge.

10. In the past years there have been a huge movement for giving Hungarian children "good old" or in many cases "ancient traditional Hungarian" names. That is how my name, Csenge, made it to the top 5, even though when I was born no one even knew such a name existed. Fun fact: Csenge is Turkish in origin. Given the history of Hungarians and our language, it is pretty hard to tell what names are "ancient Hungarian" and what others we have picked up along the road in the past few thousand years.

+1: Popular "names of Hungarian origin" include (boys) Ákos, Álmos, Árpád, Bendegúz, Csaba, Csongor, Elek, Farkas (wolf, incidentally also means 'animal with a tail'), Gyula, Géza, Huba, Kolos, Levente, Szabolcs, Zsolt, Zsombor, Zoltán and (girls), Csenge, Emese, Hanga (heather), Ibolya, Piroska (also our name for Little Red), Réka, Sarolta, Tímea, Virág. And, of course, tons of others. See all the names under the links.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kőrözött - Hungarian bread spread

So that the blog does not completely devolve into random linguistics, here is a real Hungarian recipe for people who like spices and don't throw up at the mention of cottage cheese:


What you need: cottage cheese (túró)

Yeah let's stop here for a moment. American cottage cheese doesn't work for this. What you do is make some the Hungarian way: pour some full-fat milk (the fatter the better) and some live-culture yogurt of kefir into a pot and then let it sit until it turns into the consistency of thick pudding. When it is done, put it on the stove and slowly heat it just to the point of "it's about to boil", and then turn it off. Pour it through a cheese cloth and hang it up to drip until it is not dripping anymore. What you have left in the cheese cloth is, hopefully, cottage cheese.
Now you can mix it with some sour cream to make it more creamy and spreadable.

Veteran Hungarian-Americans tell me you can skip this part if you simply use classic Philadelphia cream cheese (and you can add some butter). I have not tried it yet but it sounds like it could work.

Once you have the creamy base, you can move on to the spices. Add paprika and caraway seed (or cumin, I have accidentally tried that too, thank you Hungarian-English dictionary, but it was not bad at all), and pepper if you want. Also chop up some white or red onion into tiny pieces and mix it in, and do the same with a piece of garlic. I am not writing exact amounts because it is up to everyone's own taste (my kőrözött usually ends up being a pot of onions and garlic with some cottage cheese on it).

That's it, you are done. Spread on a piece of bread (and respect the food, please don't use pre-sliced, good onions died to make this). Enjoy!

You can keep it in the fridge for a day or two, it usually tastes better a few hours after being made, when the onions have let out some juice. It is quite healthy for Hungarian cuisine.

Sudden clarity moment of the day

English bras have cups.

Hungarian bras have baskets.



Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tip your wait.. what?

Super short post on a super random subject.

"Tip" (as in, extra money you give your waiter) in Hungarian is called "borravaló" which literally translates into "for wine." As in, you give money to your waiter so s/he can spend it to buy wine.

I rest my case.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What Hungarian students (are supposed to) read in school

But not many of them really ever do. Looking at the list, it is not at all surprising.

Short note on Literature education in Hungary: it's chronological. That means, if you go to a six-year high school like me (starting the chronology in 7th grade), you start with the oldies.

For general interest, here is a (probably not complete) list of what my generation had for mandatory curriculum reading:

The Odyssey (I was the only one in the class who actually read it)
The Kalevala (ditto, although this was not mandatory reading, we just talked about it for a month)
The underworld sequence of the epic of Gilgamesh
Sophocles: King Oedipus, Antigone
Various Roman poets (although not the Metamorphoses, sadly)
The poetry of Francois Villon (love him to bits, but not many poems were child friendly at the time)
Dante's Inferno (but not the other two parts)
Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet
Moliere: Tartuffe
Goethe: Faust (book one)
Dekameron (selected tales, obviously, although they couldn't completely fool us)
Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (perfectly calibrated for teen angst)
Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (unabridged)
Balzac: Le Pére Goriot
Stendhal: The Red and the Black
Chekhov: The Seagull
Henrik Ibsen: The Wild Duck
Hemingway: The old man and the sea
Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (I actually enjoyed the heck out of this one)
Dostoyevky: Crime and Punishment
Tolstoy: The death of Ivan Ilyich
E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Golden Pot (and they tried to tell us the guy was not on drugs...)
Thomas Mann: Mario and the Magician

Naturally these are just the international literature readings, we also have additional books by Hungarian authors.

Are you smarter than a Hungarian high school graduate?... :D

Friday, July 12, 2013

Wine and sparkly things - stayin' classy

Hungarians like to claim that our national drink, next to pálinka, is wine mixed with soda water, also known as fröccs. Depending on the ratio of wine-to-soda the fröccs has different names, and it would probably take a long, long list to mention them all. Lucky for those of you with smart phones, yes, there is an app for it. There are different types based on personal preference, cultural traditions, geographical regions, and a bunch of other things.

And talking about mixing wine...

It is not an all-Hungarian invention (exists in other countries), but as far as I know, every American friend I have mentioned it to looked thoroughly disgusted and scandalized by the idea, so I guess it counts as a novelty for some people out there.
You know the alcoholic beverages that you can get cheap and in big quantities in classy red plastic cups at college parties? According to the information I have gathered strictly through word of mouth, in the US of A this mostly means (cheap) beer. Well, if you go to a college party in Hungary, it would either be fröccs, or... red wine mixed with coke.

(For those of you ready to get a heart attack, yeah, we don't do this with the good wine).

This signature college drink, equal parts coke and wine, has a number of names in common parlance:

VBK (Vörösboros kóla, Coke with Red Wine)
Vadász (Hunter)
and about a million others.

Other incredibly classy college drinks include beer mixed with coke (Diesel), beer mixed with orange soda (blergh), vodka mixed with champagne (for rich peeps), and pretty much any kind of alcohol mixed with any kind of sparkly beverage for maximum inebriation effect.

I swear I was going to blog about naming customs in Hungary, but I need to postpone that till I am done with some other important work. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Whistling Angels

The urban legend goes around and around saying that "according to linguistic research" Hungarian is the best language to cuss in. Ain't that just ***** sweet.
The legend goes on to tell us that this very important title has been bestowed upon us based on the high diversity of curse words and their unique combinations. Then again, speaking from experience, the number might have been boosted by the fact that we consider words that are seemingly innocent, alone or in context, as cursing.
Let's take the Whistling Angels as an example.

The curse goes like this:

"Azt a rézfán fütyülő rézangyalát!"

In mirror trantslation:

"That copper angel whistling in a copper tree!"

(Or, in an alternative version, sitting in a willow tree. Dealer's choice.)

(Yeah. It sounds strange to me too, now that I see it written down.)

I have really no explanation as to what makes an angel whistling in a tree particularly hostile or blasphemous. Maybe angels are not supposed to whistle? Any why are they made of copper? And why are they sitting in a tree? And why has no one ever made a statue out of this?

And you thought the Weeping Angels were mysterious.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hungary: Our orange is a lemon

It's a thing. The Hungarian Orange. It's Hungarian. And it looks like this:

(For those of you wondering: Yes, that's a lemon.)

It's not exactly a translation mistake, rather a running joke left over from the communist era from a movie called The Witness. The movie is a satire, guess what, about the communist system. And to a smaller extent still applies to politics in general. Go figure.
(For those of you slow on history, no, Hungary is not a communist country anymore.)

At some point in the movie, the leader of the Hungarian Orange Research Institute, tasked with the creation and cultivation of Hungarian oranges (so we don't rely on import), has to present the year's first orange harvest to Comrade Bástya, supreme military leader. Unfortunately his children ate the only orange that the orchard managed to produce (no, Hungary does not have the ideal climate to produce oranges that are not sour enough to make your butt clench up). Scrambling to avoid admitting failure in the last minute they present a lemon instead. When the leader tastes the lemon and demands to know what the hell it is, they answer:

"This is the new Hungarian orange! A little bit yellow, a little bit sour, but it is ours!"

This is only one of the many lines that became iconinc from the movie, and is still used to describe failures that are dressed up as successes for political gain.

(Hungarian Orange is currently the title of a newspaper that writes about culture, politics, economy, and other serious topics. It used to be the newspaper of the young democrats' party. Go figure.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bacon on fire

Okay so this is probably not a solely Hungarian thing, but my American friends seemed to like the idea.
Of bacon instead of s'mores.

First up, we need to make a distinction between 'bacon' as the Americans see it:

And 'bacon' as Hungarians see it:

(By the way, we also have a town called Szalonna - Bacon - in Hungary. We are just that cool.)

Now that we have agreed on the definition, here is the great big revelation: We cook bacon at campfires. In fact, that's pretty much the only thing we cook. The first time I was invited to a campfire in the USA and the table was covered in chocolate, marshmallows and biscuits, I had to reboot my brain. What the heck, people, where is the bacon?!

The technique is pretty much the same: you take a stick, stick the bacon to the pointy end, and hold it over the fire. The fat starts to melt and drip, which is why you need a nice big slice of bread to soak it up. It gives the bread a nice salty taste. You wait until the bacon is all dripped out and starts to turn tasty red (occasionally black, although unlike with marshmallows we try to avoid that). Once it is done, you put your slice of bacon on the bread, and ta-daa! Eat.

Of course, just like with s'mores, there are additional ingredients involved. You can put onions on the stick to add flavor, and many people also sprinkle paprika on the bread. Sometimes we add pieces of sausage, or even mushrooms.

Very important!
The bacon (as one of the four main food groups next to chocolate and pizza) is an integral part of the food making process. I am saying this because once upon a time when my class was instructing our foreign teacher how to do all this, he got the false impression that all we need is the dripping fat, and when the bacon was nice and toasted, he tossed it in the fire. We might have cried. There is only so much you can explain through pantomime.
Rule No. 1: Keep. The bacon.
Rule No. 2: Learn languages, kids. If you don't, bacon might go to waste.

Hungarian health food for everybody.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Let's talk about the mop in the room

This blog came into being with a destiny: Promoting and perpetuating Hungarian curiosities, peculiarities, and weird stuff.
(The native term for all of these specifically Hungarian things is "hungarikum," hence the address of the blog, don't say you did not learn anything new today).

However, before we start on our quest, we need to talk about one of the few, and possibly the most well known specimen of hungarikum of all: 

The Puli
The Mop Dog
Rastafarian Dog
Dreadlocks Dog

(Also pictured permanently on the right)

The above are all search terms that regularly bring people to my other English blog, so I decided it was high time to put them to good use and educate the virtual masses about what makes Hungary Hungary, above and beyond tiny neurotic dogs with their own 1.5 million Facebook followers.
But first, let's talk about the dogs anyway.

If anyone is qualified to talk about the puli, I would be one of them: when I was growing up, my grandparents were breeding the little Rastafarian critters in great quantities. In the mama dog's eyes, I was one of the litter, and I acquired a great deal of early knowledge of anatomy by sticking my fingers into her nose and ears. The puppies came and went, usually bought by foreigners, which always gave me an unspoken anxiety that they will end up with Cruella DeVil who was going to fashion a new line of braided felt coats out of them.
According to my mother, children who grow up with dogs will take on the dog's personality, which would explain a lot about why I am constantly hyper and have a compulsive urge to herd people into groups (my sister, on the other hand, grew up with a bobtail, and she is as chill as they come). 
Puli are legendary for being smart, being fast, being good at herding sheep, and being owned by Mark Zuckerberg. For centuries they were the faithful companions of shepherds, which they like to remind you of by nipping at your ankles if you stray too far from the rest of the family. Although they definitely look cool with dreads, they like to have their fur cut in the summer. They bark a lot and chew on things. That's pretty much all you need to know.
Oh, and one more thing:

Sure-fire tips for telling which end of a puli is which:

- Put it out in the sun for five minutes, and one of them will present a lolling pink tongue.
- Offer treats and observe which end wags.
- Offer treats higher up and observe which end is pointing downwards (not many dogs attempt to catch treats with their butt.)
- Take treat away and observe which end bites.
- Once located, mark front end with ribbon. (*Note: Make sure you don't take up all the fur from in front of the eyes; the dog might actually go blind.)