Thursday, August 30, 2007

Brook Trout on the Revuca

Feeling a bit defeatist after our efforts fishing on the Vah and Bela rivers in Slovakia, Fumie and I headed a few kilometers west to try our luck on the small river that has become our "home stream" - the Revuca, which feeds into the Vah in the town of Ruzemberok. The river's headwaters start up in the mountains near the Donovaly ski resort, and the first few kilometers of headwater are off limits to fishermen as a natural breeding ground for trout and greyling. The river gets stocked as well, but about half of the fish are wild holdover trout who have seen many a fly and are not about to give themselves up easily. Although small, I have seen some very large trout and greyling come out of the Revuca. (Notice how I did not state "I have caught some very large....") The Revuca is the Mecca of the Hungarian fly fisherman, mainly because it is just three to four hours drive straight north of Budapest, and you can usually find at least some evidence of Hungarians somewhere along the river banks...This is the first time we hit the Revuca without a car. In order to get a day fishing permit for the Revuca you have to go into Ruzemberok. As usual, while you can buy a Slovak state licence at the city hall or any fishing shop, you have to do some footwork for the daily permits. I'll spill the beans - go to Mrs. P. Pavelkova, K.F. Palmu 44, Na Satelitoch. It's way up on the hill. Take a cab. Permits cost 500 Slovak Krn. a day. We then took the car to our favorite Guest House/Lumberjack bar, the Bodega, in the village of Podsucha. The entire cab fare was the same as what it would cost us to come home to Zuglo from downtown Budapest. Sure, you can stay at the best hotels in Europe, but why would you want to? The Bodega is across the street from one of Europe's best trout streams. This is our idea of a summer holiday. Rooms are about 10 EU a night, and it may well be the best roadhouse food in Slovakia. Definately the cheapest. Stewed beef, cabbage sauce, and steamed bread dumplings.... 3 EU. A local specialty is Liptovsky droby. On our last trip, this was a classic hurka, just like a nice greasy Hungarian liver and rice sausage, a less spicy version of Louisiana anadouille sausage. This time it was stuffed with some kind of potato and semolina mixture, more like a Jewish stuffed derma. The Revuca has the advantage of being a small stream - you can concentrate on specific pools and pockets and get a sense of where the fish are. In the summer, it is also not difficult to wade without rubber boots. The stream is home to native grayling... and Fumie made the first catch.Actually, Fumie made the second and third catch... the list could go on... she's getting pretty good at fly fishing. Oddly enough, she only uses two fly patterns, neither of which resemble anything actually swimming around in the water. One pattern is the old british Red Tag, a peacock herl/brown hackle dry fly with a bit of red yarn for a tail.The others are variants of what she has named the "Dancing Queen" nymph - a gold bead head, thin shiny bronze flash dubbing with a bright red or green wool tail. And she is not flexible. She uses no other flies. I know - from scientific examination of the entomological literature regarding Salmo trutta morpha fario - about what brown trout eat. I tie flies and use about ten basic pattern variations to imitate various stream insects. Fumie went to Art School and chooses her flies based on that. But she catches fish.Since we had not gone out yet this year, we were pretty rusty up in Hradok, but by the time we got to the Revuca we had our game on - no more messy casts, no more scaring fish. Well, it worked for Fumie, at least. Finally, about six PM on our last day, I hooked a trout just downstream from the spot shown below. I was drifting a small size 16 olive Goldbead Hare's Ear nymph across stream and felt a hit. But it didn't shudder and shake like a brown trout, and it didn't have the six-inches-of-steel aerodynamic resistance of a small grayling. Finally, a frigging fish! The first (and only) of the year! I get to shore and, taking care not to handle the fish (I don't kill my catch. I try not to handle them or take it out of the water before releasing it from the barbless hook) It is a huge surprise. This is a Brook Trout. Salvelinus fontinalis. It is native to North America and quite rare to find in Europe - although there is something similar called saibling in the Alps. What is it doing in Slovakia? My guess is that Slovakia is experimenting with stocking brookies. The Revuca used to stock a lot of non-native rainbow trout, big dumb hunks of willing fly gulpers to keep the local freezers stocked full of dinner. But rainbows can compete with natives for food, and tend to migrate upstream in the spring to breed, which can seriously hurt the populations of native brown trout fingerlings (brownies breed in the fall.) Over the last two years I have caught fewer and fewer rainbows in the Revuca. At first I thought this might be an omble, a European Char, but they usually need a deep lake to breed. I know of no saibling in Slovakia, although they exist in Austria and in Transylvania. If this is true, I may have a brookie stream only three hours north of me. Hallelujah! My favorite fish!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fascist Militia Week in Budapest!

The end of summer seems to push the tenor of Hungarian political life from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last year's uborka szezon ("cucumber season" - the summer doldrums when all the news is about vegetables ripening) ended abruptly with a right wing riot at the Hungarian State TV building, which led to the anti-government riots in October 2006. Since the fall of 2006, the right wing has been nursing its wounds complaining about police violence and a nice paramilitary was a great way to puff up one's breast and seem threatening. Violence is not really a Hungarian characteristic - it takes too much organization to get a crowd to put itself at risk. On the other hand, hate speech, or specifically, hateful symbolism, is very much a part of Hungarian political discourse. The latest manifestation of hate symbolism (disguised, of course, as tender love of the Motherland) was the dedication ceremonies of a new Hungarian paramilitary group, the Magyar Gárda, affiliated to the Jobbik Party. The Jobbik (the name comes from the Hungarian word jobb 'right' but puns out to mean "better") are the successor party to the aging nationalist, anti-Semitic MIEP party of Istvan Csurka. Originally formed a few years ago as a younger, more presentable forum for right wing sympathizers, the Jobbik party quickly degenerated into a stridently anti-Semitic party prone to the Hungarian tradition of political provokacio - provocative acts in the burn down the Reichstag and blame the Jews tradition. This week's formation of uniformed militias was just another manifestation of the use of hate symbols to gain media attention. Hungary is in the EU now, and it isn't the done thing for political parties to form party militias in the EU. We have seen militias before - the Communist Workers Guard, last seen taking pot shots at East Germans crossing the border into Austria in 1989, as well as the Arrow Cross in 1944. The modern Militias prefer to adopt the symbols of the latter group. Of course, the Socialist coalition Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, loudly condemned the militias, while recognizing that they do have a legal right to form organizations. The opposition FIDESZ Party, however, parroted their line - originally used to defend the red-striped Árpád flags used by the October 2006 rioters - that there was nothing wrong in patriotic Hungarians wishing to defend their nation and using a flag that is associated with both the fascist Arrow Cross and the rise of neo-nazi Hungarist skinhead movement in the early 1990s. Originally, the Magyar Gárda were to wear a uniform of black shirts reminiscent of the Arrow Cross, an idea that Jobbik leader Gábor Vona said was "exactly what I liked about it." In the end, however, the black shirts were dropped... [photos from]On the other hand, the National Guard Brigade of Nyiregyháza was on hand with more fascist fashions... And the pseudo-legitimacy was furthered by the presence of Catholic and Protestant clergy blessing the event. The Hungarian Spectrum, a new English language source for an erudite and non partisan take on Hungarian news and society wrote:The appearance of three members of the clergy raised quite a few eyebrows. A Catholic priest, a Lutheran pastor, and a Hungarian Reformed minister blessed the flag of the guard. The MSZP immediately demanded to know what these three churches have to do with a clearly neo-Nazi organization. The Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches claimed ignorance. The priest and and the minister acted on their own. They didn't know anything about their plans. The Lutherans couldn't be reached. Legitimacy is what the game is all about. Viktor “The Man Who Would Be King” Orbán has been working maniacally to get himself appointed Prime Minister ever since he lost a second round of elections to Gyurcsany last year, and his main tactic has been to claim that local mayoral elections, street demonstrations, and forced referendums all proclaim the "illegitimate" nature of the present (elected) Hungarian government. FIDESZ leader Viktor Orbán was drinking deeply of the Kool Aid when he went on to blame PM Gyurcsány for inspiring the formation of fascistoid paramilitary units. It is well known that the Jobbik operate hand in hand with FIDESZ towards a politically unified right wing in Hungary. The Jobbik express the extremist, irredentist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric that resonates so well with the masses of dissatisfied, yet politically autistic Hungarians who identify liberal intellectuals (represented by the Socialist coalition partners SZDSZ, as well as just about anybody with a beard and a newspaper subscription) with an evil, international Jewish-Bolshevik-Capitalist conspiracy. The fact is we all know there are lots of right wing nutcases sitting on the tram next to us in Hungary, but they are in the minority. Yet the right wing knows the power of the accusation of “Anti-semitism” and in the great Hungarian spirit of political provocation plays the Jew baiting game for all it is worth in order to respond with “How dare you call us anti-semites! Why, there is a Jewish person in FIDESZ! How can we possibly be anti-Semitic?” But in Hungarian, language is always encoded and the meaning gets across to the political base. By declaring symbols like the red-striped flag and the arrow cross uniform national symbols of Hungary, the right can accuse those opposed to these symbols as "anti-Hungarian." Then FIDESZ spokemen get out and defend the legal mechanics of such symbolism, justifying it as a form of "free speech" which would only be opposed by those without "national feelings." The result is that a small percentage of the extreme right wing – acting with the tacit agreement of the center right - get to smear the majority of Hungarians with the uneasy feeling that “all Hungarians” are being accused of anti-Semitism. In fact, a very small percentage of the Hungarian voting public are anti-semitic. Creating this "unease" is to control the terms of debate, and to control the media's attention. If you make political hay from the unease, you have thrown oil on the fire itself. And the leader of FIDESZ should take a long hard look in the mirror the next time he blows off that accusation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Slovakia: Liptovsky Hradok - the Vah and Bela Rivers

We took an actual vacation last week and ran up to the high Carpathian region of Liptov in Slovakia to do a few days of trout and greyling fishing. Few know this about me: I have always been a fanatic fly fisherman, and when I moved to Hungary I gave up fishing for the better part of a decade. Hungarians fish for carp and various carplike suckers and chubs that are the kinds of fish that we in the US used to poison lakes to be rid of. There are a few streams in Hungary that can maintain a trout population, but presently two of them (the Szinva and Garadna, near Miskolc) are out of commission (pollution and flood/drought damage respectively) and so it makes better sense to slip over the border to Slovakia, which is home to lots of amazingly healthy, clean mountain rivers flowing down from the High Tatras.
We started out by taking the train from Budapest to Liptovsky Hradok, a small lumberjack town located at the confluence of the Vah (Vag in Hungarian) and Bela Rivers. Two entirely different types of rivers withing ten minutes walk of each other, located in a friendly small town on a train line. Just the thing for somebody with no automobile.We stayed our first day in the fabulously named Hotel Smrek. There's nothing that says Liptov quality like Smrek. I can imagine the regional planning commitee sitting down to a marketing discussion... "What should we call the new hotel? I kind of like 'Hotel Paradise'... well, there's also the option of naming it the 'Hotel Mountain View'.... no, it's already been decided. We're going with HOTEL SMREK!"
First things first... we needed fishing lisences. This is never easy in Europe. In Slovakia you need a national licence (ribarsky listok) which is available by stomping into any ciy hall and wandering around looking stupid while muttering "ribarsky listok?" to whatever representative of the human species you meet in the hallways. Well, this worked for us. City hall was just around the corner from the Smrek... luckily, our required daily licences for the individual trout streams could be had just across the street from the Smrek at this paper store. And now was time for lunch... The Smrek was the main downtown eatery in Hradok, but in Slovakia food prices are much lower than in Hungary, and although the Slovak culinary tradition isn't exactly adventurous, it is good, honest stick-to-your-ribs peasant food and even in a hotel you won't pay more than five bucks for a meal. The Smrek Special, the only dish in the world named "Smrek Special." Super garlicified stewed beef on top of sour cabbage over a plate of flour dumplings. Absolutely smrekolicious! Another dish you can find in every Slovak restaurant is some take on halushky, dumplings with melted sheep cheese and bacon, or in this case, sauteed sausage. Interestinngly, the potato based dumpling called halushky in Slovak is called sztrapacska in Hungarian, whicle the common Hungarian flour-based galuska is called strapacky in Slovak... August isn't the best time to fly fish - the mid summer heat waves tend to put coldwater trout off their feed - but the waters here were fed by high mountain runoff. In fact, since we hadn't brought waders, we ran into the brick wall of wading the Bela - it was painfully cold to walk into the water in only sneakers and shorts. Luckily, the Vah ran behind the town and had trimmed banks allowing us to hike a few kilometers upstream and still cast from the bank.Later we moved over to the even cheaper Hotel Pod Sklanou, located on ulica Hradska 37, where a room was even cheaper and only a three minute walk from the alpine river Bela. Here we met a couple of Romanian fly fishermen from Sibiu who were delightful to talk to... in Romanian. The method of choice in these fast cold rivers is called "Czech nymphing." Basically, you trawl for trout. You tie on two or three heavy nymphs, let out almost no line, and stick your rod tip at the top of a run letting the leader lead the nymphs past the trout. Effective, but not exactly my idea of fun. Czech nymphing is used in a lot of trout fishing competitions, such as the 2004 World Fly Fishing Championships which were held on these very rivers in Slovakia. But really... trout fishing competitions? Doesn't that go against the grain of fly fishing in general? For one thing, I have never been able to cast more than a single fly without getting completely tangled in the kinds of rats' nests that only can happen in fly fishing, hopeless gordion knots that take hours to undo. I fish with one fly on my line, no indicator, American style, with no apologies.Apologies, however, were not needed. We did not catch any fish....

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Northern Moldavian Csángós

This is the first August that I am not away from Budapest in along while... in fact, August marks the first anniversary of this blog, which got its humble start documenting just about everything that Fumie and I ate in Istanbul last August. Since I am here, and not there, I'll just dream about where I'd rather be... perhaps in Moldavia? No, not the Republic Of. The Romanian part. All my buddies are over there now, at one of the many festival/teaching camps taking place in the Csángó villages along the Seret River valley south of Bacau. The Csángós are among one of Europe's most stubbornly traditional peasant cultures, the last stronghold of an old self sufficiency that was born out of poverty and isolation, and preserving a rich folklore and unique self identity.
The Csángó (Ceangai in Romanian) are a small ethnic group defined by their Roman Catholic religion in an otherwise Romanian Orthodox dominiated western Moldavia. Most Hungarians would outrightly call them Hungarians, or Csángó-Magyar, but in fact only a minority of Csángós now speak the Hungarian language. The policy of the Romanian Catholic Church diocese in Iasi has been to send only Romanian speaking priests to Csángó villages, leading to the eventual disuse of the Hungarian language in most Csángó villages. The side effect has been that among these villages some of the oldest Hungarian folk beliefs maintain themselves to this day. The northern Csángó villages such as Saboani/Szabofalva, speak an archaic, nearly medeival dialect of Hungarian, nearly unintelligible to Magyars from other regions.The subject of Csángó identity is a hot one for nationalist types in both Hungary and Romania. some Magyar opinions have them as remnants of the ancient Hungarians who never crossed into Panonnia, leftover Huns from Attia's hordes, or the modern descendants of the old Cuman Turkic tribes. Some Romanian authors claim they are actually Romanians who assimilated into Hungarians in medeival Transylvania and later migrated east. I go with the theory accepted by most ethnologists in Hungary, that the Csángó probably are the descendants of military settlers sent into the region by the Hungarian Kings after the devastation of the Mongol invasions and the destruction of the former Kingdom of Cumania. Later, more Magyars came into the region from the Székely regions, as well as Hussites, founding a string of settlements south and west of Bacau. [The following photos were taken by Fumie Suzuki.]Two years ago we were traveling with Australian musicians Pip thompson and Tim Meyen around Romania and decided to drop in on Szabófalva, historically the largest northern Csángó village. Pip wanted to buy some Csángó folk costumes. The way to do this is to drive around the back end of the village looking for old ladies. Since the Csángós, like most Moldavian peasants, live behind high walled fences and are generally suspicious of outsiders, this takes a while. Finally we saw some old women working on the street, so I jumped out and gave a small speech in Romanian: "We are ethnographers from abroad, and we are collecting folk costumes, and as you know, the costumes from this region are the most beautiful in Romania" (at which point everybody agrees...) "And I would like to ask if any of you might know anybody who would be willing to sell us any for cash?"
"Well... just wait here..." said one old lady, and sure enough, within a minute everybody had dived into their laundry chests and brought out the old dowry pieces. It used to be the custom in Csángó villages to make an entirely new set of dress costumes for each Easter, and then set it aside as a dowry. The younger generation wants more modern weddings, so most older woman have a chest full of weavings and embroidered costumes mothballed away. Old folks don't get many opportunities to pick up extra cash in these remote areas, so soon the street was full of old Csángó women trying to make a sale.
Up until this point we had spoken in Romanian, but when the time came to discuss prices... they switched to their "secret language" - Hungarian. They were a bit surprised when we joined in speaking it - most Hungarians who come to the Csángó territories do little but bemoan the state of the Hungarian language and spend most of their conversations correcting the "bad" Hungarian of the Csángó dialect. Our Jeep driver, from Kolozsvar, did just that, and since he was such a frigging numbnut the whole trip, I sent him back to sit in the truck and leave us alone. Our next stop was the neighboring village of Pildesti, aslo called Kelegyest. Pildesti was formed as a satellite village a couple of kilometers from Szabófalva, which was already grown to populated in the early 20th century. Szabófalva's church was dominated in the pre-WWII perod by a Father Robu, who was universally loved and respected but also strongly anti-Hungarian language and pro-assimilationist, and is usually held as the main cause that only old folks in Szabófalva still speak Csángó Hungarian. In Pildesti, which had its own church and thus no Father Robu, estimates are that about 80% of the village speak Hungarian. We simply walked among the walled yards until we saw one gate open, and called in Romanian to find a happy old fellow shelling corn. Turned out he spoke Hungarian, as did his wife and twenty year old son. Not only were they happy to sell us some woven bags, they ended up giving gifts to Pip and Fumie and of course we couldn't leave until we tried some home made wine. Csángó musical traditon is very much alive, and is one of the most successful cultural exports among Budapest's folk music scene. The Csángó region is one of the last bastions of the cobza, although it is probably become outshadowed by the local brass band scene in Moldavia - when there is a wedding in Szabófalva or Pildesti, they call one of the brass band Fanfaras from Zece Prajini, about fifteen kilometers away, home to Fanfara Ciocirlia, Fanfara Savale, and Fanfara Independenta. Still, there is a lot of Csángó music on the net. National Geographic's website has some in an interesting feature, as well as downloadable dance music from Budapest's Tatros, and of course the Moldvahon Music Portal serves as a primary resouce offering field recordings of music mainly for the zillions of young Hungarian flute players who want to learn to play at the Csángó dances. If you are ever in Budapest, check out the Thursday night dance house at Almassy ter for more of this:

Monday, August 13, 2007

Veszprém: Home Town Away From Home, Away from Home.

In Hungarian the country is divided into two parts: Budapest (the capital) and the videk: the countryside, whether it is a town or a farm on the plains, it is all the countryside. Most Budapest residents have some connection to the great out-there, and I'm no exception. My Mom was born in Veszprém, a small but significant town located in the Bakony hill country just north of Lake Balaton.Veszprém is where I came to know Hungary as a kid visiting my Mother's relatives. Her three older brothers, Ferenc, Karoly, and Jozsef all stayed in Veszprém while the oldest sister, Etus, moved to Budapest. I was just passing through on my way from the Kapolcs festival back to Budapest, so I had to pass on seeing the 43,284 other relatives and just pop in my cousins Bandi and Feri, two of the sons of my Mom's oldest brother Ferenc Grosz.
Feri bacsi was the native genius of the Grosz kids - he steadfastly refused to adapt to the communist economic mode, and was one of the famous mesterek of Veszprém. A mester (i.e. master worker) was somebody who, for a seriously large tax fee to the socialist state - worked privately for himself, and not as an employee of the state. People preferred to hire a private mester to fix their car or tile their bathroom than accept the cheaper - but lower standard - work performed by estate employees. Uncle Feri was an inventor as well, producing farming machines, and especially homemade automobiles (sometimes made out of - I kid you not - plywood. Below is Uncle Feri standing besides one of his home made cars in an old magazine featuring "Home Made cars of the 1950s. Back then, one simply could not buy a private auto in Hungary. You had to make one. )Feri was famous for his cobbled together motorcycles, and just about anything that consumers could not otherwise find under the communist supply system.Loyal customers traded labor and materials for repair credits and built him the first private Auto repair workshop in Veszprém around 1970. His younger son, my cousin Bandi, carries on the tradition at the old house, rebuilding computers, repairing motorcycles, bicycles, and just about everything else he gets his hands on.Bandi's oldest brother, Feri, also keeps the mester tradition going, by being Veszprém's prime auto doctor. If all the other auto repair places fail to figure out what is wrong with your jalopy, it eventually winds up in Feri's front yard. Feri's acumen for diagnosing car problems is legendary - some say he can analyse a transmission problem simply by smell.Feri has suffered from some degenerative nerve disease for years, and although he can hardly walk anymore that doesn't stop him from directing a crew of young grease monkeys to crawl underneath the chassis temselves while he gives orders. When I was a kid, Feri used to take me around town on the back of his motorcycle... here is Feri and his wife Babi in younger years.Veszprém is famous for the drawling accent spoken by old time residents of the town - a dialect that is apparently dying out as young people accustom their speech to TV and media - but my family are the hardest of the hardcore when it comes to dialect maintainance. Veszprém old timers speak slowly, and with a broad "ahh" sound for most short Hungarian vowels, so that their speech comes out sounding strangely medeival. Fumie could hardly understand a thing any of my family said to her, and Fumie has actually been able to converse with North Moldavian Csangos. Feri even went so far as to make fun of those people who say "Veszprém" with all those "e" sounds... it is supposed to be pronounced "Vashprom." Back in the 70s, there was still a lot of folk music being played in the town... such as my Uncle Feri, who played mouth harmonica, mostly soldiers tunes and old time dances from the 1930s. My Uncle Jozsi (standing next to Feri... he was a gret singer when he had some wine in him, and eventually my friend Tobak Ferenc, the bagpiper, collected dozens of lost Hungarian bagpipe songs from him) would have his brothers over every week for some wine and food, and then invite other neighbors over, like the one who played citera and eventually taught me how to play. A word about food and wine - Budapest, strikingly, sucks when compared to the countryside cuisine. At least in Veszprém, which attracts thousands of vacationers from the Balaton resorts any time the summer skies turn to rain. This means the restaurant business is strong and healthy, and definately better than anything in Budapest for half the price. Of course, being located just north of a large wine growing area has something to do with this, as well as the fact that the town is doing rather well economically compared to a lot of other small Hungarian towns. But we ate well for about half the price we would in Budapest - bigger portions, local specialities, good service, and none of the let-down or rip-off we associate with eating out in Budapest. Steak and mushrooms served on a bed of homemade galuska dumplings? Five bucks.