Monday, December 27, 2010

The Demise of Press Freedom in Hungary.

The New York Times, which rarely takes notice of anything happening in our little corner of the Carpathian basin, ran a story today that just about tells it all: Hungary Waves Off Criticism Over Media Law.Prime Minister Viktor Orban, poised to take over presidency of the European Union is fighting back against criticism from Germany and other countries over a new Hungarian law that some fear could be used to curb press freedom.” That’s putting it very, very lightly. As of January 1, Hungary’s new media law goes into effect, which literally means that the State – embodied in the Ruling Party, FIDESZ – has carte blanche to fine any media reporting that it deems “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Particularly the dignity of politicians.
And our new FIDESZ overlords are likely to use it in precisely the Orwellian manner we expect, with statements warning bloggers of the dangers of “unlicensed and irresponsible journalism” and calls for more Hungarian-only content in the Hungarian broadcast media. The Washington Post put it grimly today in an editorial entitled “The Putinization of Hungary:The right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won 53 percent of the popular vote in an election this year but gained 66 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to change the constitution. It proceeded to take over or attack the authority of every institution it did not control, including the presidency, the Supreme Court and the state audit office; the central bank is now under its assault… Meanwhile, Mr. Orban has overseen passage of two media laws that will put Hungary in a league with Russia and Belarus on press freedom. One puts FIDESZ in control of all state television channels and other public media outlets. The second approved by Parliament on Tuesday creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines - up to $950,000 - for news coverage it considers "unbalanced" or offensive to "human dignity." Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources, and the council can search editorial offices and require that publishers reveal confidential business informationNow, my little corner of the blogosphere is hardly the kind of publication that I expect will attract much attention from our Illustrious Leaders. First of all, it is in English, and devotes a lot of focus on pastrami sandwiches, Gypsies playing Maramures Jewish music, and Turkish grilled meat. Secondly I already censor myself severely. If any of you know me you know that I also write about Hungarian and regional political matters for publication. Just not here. Why? Others do that better and more efficiently. And others often pay me for it, something I never do for myself. And I sincerely do not want to be identified as somebody who writes only about Hungarian issues. The crux of the media law is that 75% of Hungarians are monolingual. If a party can control the information reaching them, you can forget about the impact that foreign news and opinion have on the 25% who can and do use the internet and foreign sources of info. And now we have MTI - the old centralized News Agency of Commnist times - once agin delegated as the State official news agency, who will compose all the major TV evening news broadcasts centrally so that all us little Magyars can recieve news carefully vetted and positive and devoid of all possible embrassment to our Beloved Leaders. MTI has already begin self censoring international news. Today over at Hungarian Spectrum, Eva Balogh looks at how a news story can be re-translated and edited by MTI to mean something very different from what the original intended. And for all those Hungarians who live as writers and journalists this is a time traveling journey back into the days of Goulash Communism. An essay a few days ago by Imre Para-Kovacs in the online news portal Hírszerző: Egy hatalmas, szocialista segget látunk, barátaim, a tökéletes kádárizmus Kádár nélküli valagát, és nem lehet hibázni: vagy nyaljuk, vagy éhen halunk, nincs középút, hiába vagyunk tehetségesek, hiába vagyunk zsenik, akkor is itt kell élnünk, mert Magyarország a szeretett hazánk, a hely, ahol szívhatunk “We’re seeing a giant, socialist ass, my friends, a form of perfect Kadarism without Kadar, and make no mistake: either we kiss that ass or we starve to death. There is no middle of the road, our talents are worthless, our genius in vain. Because we still have to live here, since Hungary is our beloved homeland, the place where we can suck on it.”The new law takes effect on January 1. I'll still be here. Sucking on it.
(Above: parody of the poster anouncing "National Unity" which FIDESZ requested be posted in all public places in Hungary. The text of the original can be found here in PDF form in English. Hurry up, the lines for your quarter loaf of black bread is starting...)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas in Budapest - or Yambol?

Looks like we are staying in Budapest for Christmas this year. Somehow I have managed to be out of Hungary for most of the last few years at this time of year, and I am pretty grateful for it. Hungary shuts down for Christmas like no other country I have ever seen – although I have heard this is true of other Central European countries like Austria and the Czech Republic.
Starting on Dec. 24th families cocoon themselves at home, speaking to no outside, making no telephone calls, going to no parties. They stuff themselves on carp (yes, carp) and light actual candles in desiccating fir trees in their living rooms. And on Christmas Eve Hungarian children open their gifts, which do not come from Santa's workshops at the North Pole. They come straight from the Baby Jesus his own self! Contact with anybody outside of the family is strictly off limits in the home for at least three days. If you are not a participating member of a Hungarian family, you get to wander empty streets that look like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie … where are all the people? What happened here?… The options are narrow – the traditional Jewish Christmas at a Chinese Restaurant (some stay open, and I'm not telling which) or dinner at Uncle Tom’s Annual Orphan Xmas Dinner.
Since there is no public transport on Christmas Eve in Budapest, and very few taxis, we are hoping for mild weather so we can bike to the Annual Ex-Pat Orphan’s Xmas Dinner, but Budapest has been covered in snow for the last few weeks and Christmas is no time for extreme sports. And to think that a few weeks ago I suggested to Fumie that we spend Christmas in… Yambol, Bulgaria.Yes, Yambol. Why? Because they have the most vibrant koledar tradtion in the Balkans. The Koledar are dancers who perform publicly at Christmas – their name, Koleda, is synonymous with Christmas carol – but they have roots in even more ancient martial dance traditions closely related to Morris dance.
The term “Morris” dance refers to “Moorish” and throughout Europe there are dance traditions of men performing with swords and figures of the Fool, the Mute, and the “troupe.” Usually there is one per town or village, but in Bulgaria you can find several in any area, and in Yambol it resembles something like the social organization of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, in which very macho guys get together during the year to sew costumes and practice their precision steps.
And in Yambol, a good proportion of the guys are Gypsy, albeit Gypsies who no longer speak Romani. But the macho thing is there in good dose, especially when expressed as a willingness to perform the most erotic possible belly dances “cocek” for admiring women. there is a part during one of the Koleda dance routines in which two guys face off inside the circle of marching Koledars and do a pantomime fight dance based on belly dance moves.Every now and then the guys shout out short verses to which the amswer is "YAMBOL!" so I can pretty closely guess what the questions are - Who is the coolest? YAMBOL! Who is the slickest? YAMBOL! And these guys wear some pretty serious bayonets in their boots and also sport spurs for the clinking effect as the dance. You don't want to mess with these guys.The groups portrayed here were Yambol groups who performed last summer in Koprivshitisa, during the festival. We hung out with them for several hours, since they were the ones with the best gaida bagpipe players and they were in constant party mode before their scheduled stage performances, guzzling beer and dancing in the fields and generally having a good time. I found a few videos on Youtube, including this one of some the dancers pictured here - in fact, if you know my straw hat you can see me for a second in the audience. The good stuff starts around 2:30.To get an idea of what the Yambol Koleda looks like while marching around the streets of a provincial Bulgarian town, try this out. Sure beats singing for figgy pudding,anyday.Ah, to be in Yambol at Christmas time!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Chanukah: Why no Jewish Mandolin Orchestras?

Chanukah is on this year in Budapest, with much spinning of dreydles, lighting of candles, and a pretty extensive culture festival in Budapest’s 7th and 6th districts (the historical Jewish Ghetto) sponsored by the city council and the alternative Jewish culture club Siraly. No, my band isn’t playing – foreign based bands are on the menu this year. But that raises a good question: where is all the good Chanukah music? Answer: there isn’t much. Compared to other Jewish holidays, Chanukah lacks any catchy musical traditions (heck, we get to play percussion at Purim!) The few songs we use at this time of year are either recent compositions or songs we borrow from other Jewish musical traditions (everybody sings “La Nonya” Flory Jagoda’s Bosnian Ladino Chanukah song “Ocho Candelikas.” Which is cool in the USA where you have bands like Hip Hop Judeos, but here in Hungary it means it is just another song that nobody understands the lyrics to.)If there was any special Chanukah music tradition, my guess is that it should have mandolins in it. Chanukah is probably the most publicly visible Jewish celebration, the one known to non Jewish communities the best, probably because it falls close to Christmas and has developed into a kind of “Jewish Christmas.” That is kind of natural – as Jews assimilated and found acceptance in the secular worlds of the 20th century, Chanukah became the holiday focused on children. The custom of giving “Chanukah gelt” morphed into a tradition of giving children gifts (and the pseudo theological challenges faced by eight year olds debating with their parents whether the Talmud demands a new gift for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.) The fact is that Chanukah is a relatively low level holiday on the Jewish calendar. The Big Fun One is Purim, which usually pops up around March – Purim is the one with parties, costume plays, fun music, and tasty food. And mandolin orchestras!A post at Tablet Magazine about Avner Yonai's discovery of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra and his attempts to revive their sound and repetoire inspired me to poke around the archives. While I have almost 100 90 minute casettes of recorded Jewish music almost none of it is mandolin, yet mandolin orchestras were ubiquitous in Jewish communities. Like a lot of the music we play in Di Nayes, this was music that was outside of the realm of commercial recordings. And, although the idea is wonderful, the experience of a large mandoln orchestra is, as any jaunt through the possibilites offered at youtube will show... somewhat underwhelming. A dozen eager string tremolos is only as good as the weakest mandolin player, and there are always a few of those wherever mandolins come out. Most people identify Ashkenazic Jewish music with Klezmer bands. Mandolin orchestras, however, were a part of Jewish musical life throughout the twentieth century in both east Europe and the diasporas.Mandolins were often the instrument of choice in Jewish schools and among Jewish fraternal organizations. Cheap, easy to play, and not given to virtuosity, the Socialists and Unionists who founded the Yiddish school systems considered the humble mandolin to be the perfect “Instrument of the People.” Whenever I play mandolin with my band on stage in cities where the audience includes and significant number of Jews, there are usually a couple of seventy year olds who approach me after the show to say that they or their parents were members of a Jewish mandolin orchestra. There is a lot of nostalgia for the mandolin. A lot of Jewish families had a mandolin lying around – they were the kind of instrument you could play indoors in a Brooklyn tenement without disturbing the neighbors.In Hungary there really is no tradition of mandolin playing. Audiences at our gigs often ask me if I am playing a banjo. (No, I am playing a 1934 Gibson A40, dammit! That was the first year they put F-holes on the A models.) Mandolins are used by Roma bands but usually these are just substituting for the more common tamburica. The tamburica has a string tradition in Serbia and Croatia, and is still quite alive in the southeast of Hungary around Pecs and Mohacs, mostly among Gypsy musicians playing for Gypsy, Sokac, and Bunyevac minorities – you don’t see the tamburica bands outside of local ethnic festivals anymore.Romania has a bit more mandolin mostly along the Black Sea coastal towns for urban music – I have heard it played by a Tatar hotel band in Constanta, and Electrecord records put out an LP of Dobrudja Tatar Grigore Kazim playing classic lautar pieces on mandolin around 1970. The Czech Republic has a strong mando culture – a result of the Czech adoption of American country music as the musical culture of their own “Tramping Hobo” culture in which guys dress up in camo and carry big knives backpacks and go tramping around the fields and roads of Bohemia, stopping at “Hobo Bars” where everybody sings Czech language “tramp songs” that sound suspiciously like reworked Jimmy Rogers ballads. That led to a full blown Czech Bluegrass music scene, and eventually the Czechs produced virtuoso mandolin wizards like Radim Zenkl, who now makes his living on the somewhat more lucrative American mandolin scene.For Jewish mandolin in the US, we have Andy Statman. Andy is a force of nature – without him there would have been no Klezmer revival. I knew Andy through the old time and Appalachian music jam sessions at the Eagle Tavern on 14th street in New York during the 1970s, where every Thursday the overwhelmingly Jewish folk music scene would gather for Jam sessions – fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. Statman was the first musician of the younger generation to work with the great Klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, who was retired at the time and living in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Statman absorbed not only the klezmer music of Tarras but also a deep respect and faith for the Jewish tradition – he went from being a bushy haired jazz mandolinist to being a pious Orthodox Jewish jazz mandolinist.With ethnomusicologist and cimbalom player Zev Feldman, they recorded one of the first well researched traditional Klezmer LPs “Jewish Klezmer Music” on Shanachie records. Subsequently, Staman went on to record some classic Jewish music with David Grisman (whose indefinable mix of mandolin styles he terms “Dawg music”) producing one of the most ethereal collections of Jewish music for mandolin, 1995’s “Songs of Our Fathers” and the more recent “New Shabbos Waltz” (2006.) My personal favorite is a cassette Statman made in 1991 in Israel with Breslover Rabbi Yaakov Klein and his choir: “Songs of the Breslover Chassidim Today” that is, apparently still available. And all of that is mainly inspired by an interview with Andy Statman at the Mandolin Café web site. Most surprisingly, Andy has traded in his trusty old Gibson oval holed A model mandolin for an F-5 style.Statman opened up a whole field of mandolin music to North American Jewish musicians. Jeff Warschauer started out in Boston as a bluegrass mandolin player who moved into the world of country swing, and eventually took a scholarship to study Yiddish and polished up with the Klezmer Conservatory Band on mandolin and guitar. Although he mostly performs on guitar accompanying his wife, Klezmer violinist and dance teacher Deborah Strauss, he has one of the most distinctive styles in Klezmer mandolin today, not to mention he leads Jewish mandolin orchestras at Klez Camp and occasionally at the New York Arbeiter Ring, making him one of the last of the long chain of mandolin orchestra leaders.Up in Canada, mandolinist Eric Stein leads the Toronto based Beyond the Pale, a klezmer and East European folk band, which just won the Instrumental Group of the Year and the Pushing Boundaries awards from the Canadian Folk Music Association for their third album Postcards. Eric is an old buddy of mine as well as director of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, and a monster on the cimbalom as well as the mandolin.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Can't We Have Pastrami for Thanksgiving?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that particularly American holiday during which millions of cooks attempt to roast a turkey, a notoriously tasteless industrially refined bird that tastes a lot like textured cardboard. Everybody loves thanksgiving turkey. Well almost everybody. If I had had my way with history, the dour Pilgrims would have stayed stuck in Leiden, and adventurous and far more amenable Bessarabian Jews would have gone in their stead. They would have had far more peaceful relations with the local Wampanoag Indians, and we would all be sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal of hot steamed pastrami today instead. With sweet potato latkes, maybe, and definately pickles. There is no holiday that can not be improved by the addition of pastrami. It has been a very good year for pastrami. Last summer I got to meet and translate for Toronto born writer David Sax, author of the great book about delicatessens and the people who love them: “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen” (and the blog of the same name) who was on assignment in Budapest doing a story for Saveur magazine on Jewish food in Bucharest and Budapest. That article is now on line for all to see, illustrated by Landon’s Nordeman’s great photos. I got to spend a morning hanging around the Kazinczy utca Orthodox Synagogue with them sampling kosher cold cuts and watching the butchers reduce a cow into kosher sausage and salami in about a half hour of furious knife work.
And I also got to spend some time in Canada, sampling some of the smoked meat that stands in for deli meat in the Great Neighbor to the North. I had read about smoked meat for a long time – I traveled through the Ukraine with Barry Lazar and the film crew that had done the documentary Chez Schwartz about this legendary Montreal eatery. I had sat through several showing of the film to audiences of Canadian Jews all loudly moaning and making nyom-nyom sounds during the hard core pastrami-porn segments of the film. So when Geoff Berner invited me to lend a hand (or at least a vocal chord) on his new recording project, I was glad to be whisked up to Montreal and ready to try some smoked meat.Specifically at Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique in Montreal. The question has since arisen: which do you prefer, Schwartz’s or Katz’s? It’s a tough one to answer. So much rides on the decision. And for the winner of the 2010 Deli Meat of the year the award has to go to… Chez Schwartz. What? Is this not blasphemy? Is this not the equivalent of me turning my back on a half century of pastrami loyalty to Katz’s sandwiches? No. I’m just having a strange year. For one thing, on the last trip to Katz’s, I got stuck with a younger sandwich cutter, who inadvertently made me a sandwich fit for tourists: thinly sliced, lean mixed with lightly fatty meat, it kind of melted in the mouth instead of putting up any of the uneven, chunky resistance I like in pastrami.It was good… hell, it was fantastic…. But not as good as the sandwich I had eaten at Schwartz’s in September. And it was $16. That’s right. In Save the Deli David Saxe writes about the combination of evil influences – rising rents, loss of the kosher lunch crowd, the influx of tourists seeking a taste of New York – that have driven New York pastrami and corned beef sandwich prices into the heavens. Schwartz's sandwich is five bucks, Canadian. Yes, five loonies.
If you want more you can order a straight plate of smoked meat which comes with a stack of rye bread so you can make your own sandwiches or just cram the meat into your mouth as you wish. It may not look alike a lot, but our waiter warned us it might not be the right thing to go with on ones first trip. And he was right. At the next table a couple of beefy Quebecois men – the kind of guys who eat caribou smothered in maple syrup for breakfast – surrendered far short of a full plate of meat.
As for the pickles… excellent, but I still like the half sours at Katz’s better. So, we end the Year in Pastrami with a win for Schwartz’s. Hopefully, I will be back for a rematch soon. Runner ups were Liebman’s Deli in the Bronx and Caplansky’s in Toronto coming in a strong fourth. So enjoy your turkey, but things could have been so much different if only… And while you are at it, consider the real history of Thanksgiving on this annual Turkey day. First of all, there was no turkey. Nor pastrami. No friendly countermen at all.A bunch of absolutely incapable religious fundamentalists who had been driven out of England, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in 1621 by looting the stores of Indians who had died during a massive smallpox epidemic in the previous three years. Arriving at the Wampanoag village of Pautuxet, they were more or less parasitic on the good graces of the Indians there due to the political machinations of the local leader Massasoit and the incredible luck that there was one Pautuxet native – Tisquantum ( which translates as “Rage”) who became known as Squanto – who could translate for them. He had been kidnapped into slavery by English seamen five years earlier and managed to return. For a good antidote to the Thanksgiving mythology that we will all be swimming in, check out this article in Smithsonian Magazine by Charles Mann, which is essentially the first chapter of his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Rage indeed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

New Jersey Nostalgia

I haven’t posted anything in a while since I returned to Budapest, but that reflects on me more than Budapest. I’ve been busy tying up ends on various writing work, and not going out an awful lot. I tend to eat out mainly when I am on the road, and in Hungary I mostly eat at home, and for a few months that means a dull diet from which carbohydrates have been more or less expelled. Yup. No pasta, no spuds, no mamaliga, no rice, no bread. After a few months of this, I should be able to crawl through keyholes and hide under chairs once again. Not my favorite state of affairs, but one I can manage as long as I have a lot of steamed cabbage, and in Hungary it isn’t hard to find cabbage in the winter. And we don’t have any gas in the building, and won’t for a few weeks. This hasn’t been so bad since the fall has been mild, but soon we will have to turn the electric heaters on, to the delight of the Budapest Electric Works and their bill department. And we can’t cook very well, beyond using a microwave and a hot plate, and the hot plate has to do double duty heating up water for the two of us to take something resembling a bath every now and then. In other words, it sucks. Which is not the point of this Blog.But it makes me nostalgic for some of the chow I wolfed down while I was in the States and Canada, so since I cannot stroll into a Hackensack burger joint and order a one dollar depression era style onion burger, I can at least write about it. If you ever find yourself stuck in New Jersey, which is the state most New Jerseyites consider themselves to be found in, one thing is cruelly clear: the restaurant scene sucks. OK, not entirely – ethnic food in ethnic neighborhoods like Palisades Park and Paterson can be superb. Working class lunch joints shine. But the Garden State is a sprawling suburb connected by horrid highways linking mall to mall to suburban tract houses. People living in one town generally don’t explore a lot in other towns. If they want something good they tend to use it as an excuse to hop into the maws of New York City just across the river. And I don’t drive. Finding anything truly great is rare and worth tooting about.Which is why I was happy to discover the Seafood Gourmet Fish Market in Maywood, New Jersey. Basically, it’s a fish market with a dining room in the back, and somebody who knows how to cook fish in the kitchen. A simple idea, but it works. I had to impress both my parents – who are never wildly enthusiastic about trying any place that they didn’t try before 1970 – and Fumie, who is possibly the most critical consumer of seafood in the world, having graduated from Tokyo Harbor to the Danube bend in fish Eating Studies.We began with clam chowder – creamy New England and tomato based Manhatten style – and a lobster bisque. It was so freaking good that my Dad bought a quart of the bisque in the fish market on the way out for him and Fumie to eat the next day as well. I had seafood pasta – scallops and shrimp tossed with arugula on angel hair pasta.Better than anything I can find in Zuglo, damn sure. Just next to Maywood is Hackensack, which is a virtual museum of a town that seems to have stopped developing sometime after World War two. I know it well because I worked here as a municipal garbage collector for the city of Hackensack for a year after high school, slagging cans into a rolling garbage truck manned by a Black Gospel Choir and an alcoholic Micmac Indian from Canada. I know every lunch counter and deli in Hackensack, because we were always given free lunch if we illegally took away their garbage, saving them from the usurious mafia-run private garbage companies.
Hackensack is the home of White Manna hamburgers, which I have drooled over elsewhere, but on the advice of my nephew Max - who has very strict and carefully researched opinions about Jersey Guy food - my sister decided to throw caution to the winds and took us to Cubby’s BBQ.
Cubby's is a bizarre little eatery in south Hackensack, nestled picturesquely amid used car lots and industrial garbage incinerators. The owner of Cubby’s is a Vietnam Vet, and the place is decorated as a testament to his obsession with American soldiers missing in action during our many wars. That’s an interesting theme for a restaurant, and one that you could really pull off only in New Jersey.
Cubby’s is about Jersey Guy Food: huge portions of meat, preferably in the form of BBQ Ribs or cheeseburgers. The obsession with huge portions explains why so many suburbanites around New York resemble those Belgomorphs I wrote about. If you finish this food, it finishes you. And if you have ever been to a place that does real Texas or North Carolina BBQ, you will look askance at the Damn Yankee obsession with slathering everything in a thick, sweet BBQ sauce, as if the meat isn't good enough to stand alone.Well, at least some people like it. And thus, even though I had been dutifully limiting myself to no more than five French fries a meal at any diner, I am now relegated to high fiber cabbage for the rest of the foreseeable future. Farewell, oh low brow fantasies of lunch at International House of Pancakes, where the boysenberry syrup stains my soul as well as my new shirt.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Brussels: An Unexpected Afternoon in the Land of the Belgamorphs.

We’ve been home in Budapest for two weeks already, and I haven’t posted anything due to work and the general acclimatization of being “home.” Having been on the road almost constantly since May, “home” is a relative construction, which now settles down to a winter here in Hungary. Getting here, however, was not as easy as hopping on a plane Newark, watching a few episodes of the Simpsons, and calling a taxi. We flew with Continental Airlines, whose equal opportunity policies are enthusiastically offered to crackheads, and so we arrived in the morning in Brussels two hours late for our connecting flight.
After an hour of sorting out our tickets (this is where our conviction of a crack problem at Continental stems from – their staff never informed our connecting flight on Malev of our transfer. Thanks to the kind folks at Brussels Air we got on the flight and got home late at night.) But that meant that we had seven hours of hang time, and Brussels is only a twenty minute metro ride from the airport, so it was off to… Chocolate City for the day! No sooner did we enter the metro than the unique Belgian approach to languages was made apparent.
Brussels is an officially French speaking zone, but it is an island surrounded by Flemish speakers. The two language communities have never actually melded into one national entity. While I have been to Belgium many times (on tour with my band) I have never been to Brussels, only to smaller towns and a festival on the French border where the back stage spoke French and the main stages spoke Flemish and never the two did meet. It is like a microcosm of the Balkans, but with strawberry waffles and Zairean immigrants, and not as talented on brass instruments. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate.And short of Continental Air staff and their expertly utilized crack pipes I would never have gotten to see it. Brussels is overwhelmingly cute. It is tourist heaven. It outdoes Paris in terms of mega-touristy cuteness and crowds of EU package tourists mob the downtown. And so we joined them. The first thing you notice is the chocolate shops.
Belgium is one of the few places in Europe where you can find seriously fat people. I mean obese, waddling, get-me-to-the-liposuctors Belgomorphs who could give a Nebraska volunteer fire department a run for their money at a Big and Large Clothing store. They dine on excellent beer, French fried pommes frites slathered in mayonnaise and… chocolate.
It is one of the few places in Europe where I can walk the streets feeling confidently svelte. So, no, I passed on the mayo and frites. In fact, I passed on the mussels in wine and cream… I passed on the steak frites… been there, done that. What I wanted was… Chinese food. I didn’t know this until we suddenly hit Brussel’s Chinatown, which is located just on the outskirts of the Downtown towards the fish market.
On a Saturday afternoon the outdoor fish market area is crowded with people tossing back seafood with a glass of wine or beer. What caught my eye was the Dutch new herring offered on special by one Spanish run tapas fish bar. Hollandse nieuwe herring are fresh herrings that are merely gutted, boned and lightly brined and served as with a side of chopped onions. You eat them fresh as can be, which is why most people outside of the low countries have never tasted them, and won’t.They don’t travel. They are also about the best fish I have ever tasted, and Fumie – who knows her raw fish – promptly ate her way through both our portions and ducked into the fish shop to buy out the remaining stock of new herring for her dinner.Happy, but not stuffed, we continued down the street and checked out the Chinese restaurants. They were all full. Belgians, maybe even more than the French, are fanatic foodies, and dine out more than any other people in the EU. Finally we settled on a Langzhou noodle shop, serving hand rolled artisanal noodles in beef soup.
We weren’t looking forward to our meal on Malev (which in Europe usually means usually a hermetically sealed pseudo-sandwich and a turo rudi chocolate bar) so we had to fill up on Chinese food while we still could. Note to Budapest friends: yes, there is Chinese food in Hungary. But with the exception of Master Wang’s, it just is not that good. Don’t argue with us. We travel the world researching this issue. I once spent ten days in Paris eating only Chinese food, so I should know.
Now that we are back in Budapest, I will try and update more often – I replaced the digital camera I lost in the Great Istanbul Robbery and will probably post a few more entires about our summer travels now that I have access to Fumie’s pictures from Bulgaria and Turkey. And a lot of the research we did on comparative Jewish salted meats... and an amazing seafood place we found in New Jersey. Oh... the tales I could tell!
We arrived in Hungary this year at a surprisingly exciting time. Just as the world turned its attention to the devastating toxic sludge flood in western Hungary, our new Government has been… pushing for new political and economic policies that – I swear – sound like they were inspired by reading bottles of Dr. Bronner’s soap. For years now I’ve been of the opinion that much of post 1989 Hungarian politics has been formulated by people shampooing with Dr. Bronner’s, and now I am convinced. All One! All One! This will get interesting. It will indeed. Stay tuned.