Friday, 29 June 2012

Nearly There

Most of the time I go around thinking that feminism is a done deal in the free world and our attention should be directed solely to helping our oppressed sisters who live in areas controlled by extreme adherents of the Muslim faith. Then I spot something that is so ridiculously, hilariously neanderthal that I'm forced to admit we're not quite there yet.

That's what happened to me yesterday in Budapest:

Friday, 22 June 2012

All this Could Be Yours

A couple of days ago I went out of Budapest to see a friend in the country. I took a train to Csorna:
That's a picture you wouldn't have missed, I'll bet

and then I got on this one-carriage train that feels like something straight out of Thomas the Tank Engine. The locals call it Tiny Red:

Here's one of my fellow passengers having a long chat with the conductor on the return journey - the conductor remains friendly and pleasant throughout, despite the fact that the conversation is very uninteresting and repetitive
A very nice young employee of the Hungarian railways got out when Tiny Red arrived at my destination and insisted on lifting my bag down on to the grass beside the track for me. If I hadn't eaten so much breakfast, I think he might even have lifted me down. Hungarian state railway employees are surprisingly helpful in my experience, apologetic when they find they have to charge you because you have the wrong ticket and, in one case, running across the lines to the ticket office and back to get me the right piece of paper, because the train was about to leave and I wouldn't be able to get there in time. Imagine a British rail employee doing that? Imagine a useful passenger rail network in Australia at all.

My friend lives in a little village of perhaps 1500 inhabitants. It is not too far from Gyor and most of the houses are one-storey and look as if they are quite small from the front:

 They are actually much bigger than you think though, as they have long sections that go back from the street at right angles - partly rooms and partly stables. Almost everybody has a vegetable garden and, one realises at this time of the year, when the smell gives away all secrets, that many of them have pigs.

This year they also have a stork nesting opposite the village shop:

It is wonderfully quiet in the village but, like anywhere, there are all sorts of dramas. One person in my friend's street called his neighbour a 'dirty peasant' and so the so-called 'dirty peasant' is now refusing to let his neighbour have access to his property in order to put in some insulation. Ah humanity.

There is a house for sale in the village for 5000 EUR (negotiable). For a moment, it seemed a tempting proposition, at that price. All the same, much I'd appreciate the opportunity to spend my days wearing a pinnie, I'd probably end up with the same faintly hunted look as this old woman:

My other worry would be that the locals might get their hands on large sums of money. I don't begrudge anyone success, but if the result is that they replace buildings like these:

with this kind of thing, the village won't be all that pleasant, at least not for me:

Anyway, if anyone reading this feels it's time for a change of gears, there's a house in Hungary, complete with fully stocked vegetable garden, that awaits your cheque for 5000 EURO.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Encounters with Futility

Despite making an effort to put aside at least ten to fifteen minutes of every day to study the Hungarian language, I seem to have got worse at speaking the bloody thing, rather than better. I've stuffed my head with all sorts of big, impressive looking bits of vocabulary, but they seem to have shoved out the words and phrases that are the building blocks of daily commonplace interchange. It's very disheartening.

Which is why I was amused when I came across a passage about Hungarian in Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful book Between the Woods and the Water (if you haven't read it and its forerunner, A Time of Gifts, I highly recommend them both. I think he was one of the greatest descriptive writers of modern times and the story he tells of his walk across Europe is wonderful).

In this extract he has just arrived in Budapest and is trying to get to grips with the local tongue:

'Coming from a great distance and wholly unrelated to the Teutonic, Latin and Slav languages that fence it in, Hungarian has remained miraculously intact. Everything about the language is different, not only the words themselves, but the way they are formed, the syntax and grammar and above all the cast of mind that brought them into being. I knew that Magyar belonged to the Ugro-Finnic group, part of the great Ural-Altaic family. "Just", one of my new friends told me, "as English belongs to the Indo-European." He followed this up by saying that the language closest to Hungarian was Finnish.
"How close?"
"Oh very!"
"What, like Italian and Spanish?"
"Well no, not quite as close as that ..."
"How close then?"
Finally after a thoughtful pause, he said, "About like English and Persian."'

Monday, 18 June 2012

A Book I'd Like to Read

Here are the opening paragraphs of Neal Ascherson's review (in the 24 May 2012 issue of London Review of Books) of Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont. I think it sounds fascinating and  moving:

'As the Soviet tanks drew closer, the East Prussian aristocracy took charge of 'their people' for the last time. In the bitter winter of 1945, ignoring Nazi orders to stand firm, they mustered their tenantry, farmhands and servants, and in long columns of horse-drawn wagons set off for the west. Many didn't get there. The country roads were jammed with retreating soldiers, wounded stragglers and thousands of civilian families, as eastern Germany melted, crumbled and took flight. Marion Donhoff, mistress of the great country house of Friedrichstein and the estate of Quittainen, mounted her white horse at the head of the procession of carts and led them towards the Vistula river. But long before they reached the crossing, the column slowed to a halt, the wagons slithering on ice, the road ahead blocked by hordes of other refugees and by German tanks thrusting vehicles into the ditches. In two hours, they did not move an inch forward. The estate people begged her to go on alone. The Russians would certainly kill her, as a landowner. But they would need farm labourers to milk the cows and muck out the byres. They would be safer if they returned home.

They were terribly wrong about that. But the young countess believed them, and rode on alone until she reached the railway bridge over the river Nogat, the old East Prussian border. It was three in the morning, in fierce frost. In front of her, three wounded German soldiers supported each other as they hobbled across the bridge. 'For me,' she wrote, 'this was the end of East Prussia. Three mortally sick soldiers dragging themselves across the Nogat river into West Prussia. And one woman on horseback, whose ancestors had crossed this river from west to east seven hundred years before into the great wilderness on the other side, and who was now retreating to the west again. Seven hundred years of history extinguished.'

Donhoff crossed the bridge and rode on, through a country disintegrating in flame and slaughter, and two months later reached cousins in Westphalia. She had set off in deep winter; when she finally dismounted, it was spring. 'The birds were singing. Dust rose behind the seed drills as they worked over the dry fields. Everything was preparing for a new beginning. Could life really go on, as if nothing had happened?'"

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Feeling Clucky

If I were to show you this photograph, would you be able to guess where I went this morning:

No, not a filthy Soviet hat shop. As it happens, that hat can move:
The noise in the background, might provide a clue that this was not a muppet convention either, although you could be forgiven for thinking so, when you look at these:
The truth is I went to the Royal Canberra National Poultry Show and, lord, I loved it.

I loved the joyous racket:
I loved the weird variety of living creatures on view:

This couple were so fed up at getting second prize that they were tearing up their certificate
Who knew there was a chook that looked like the living incarnation of a New Guinean tribal mask:

And imagine what it must be like to have that stuck on your head for your entire life (what are all those varieties of rubbery leather skin protuberances for anyway - are you sure about this Survival of the Fittest lark, Mr Darwin, are you really, really certain it works that way?):

I loved the ducks and the geese:

But, of course, what I loved best of all was the intensity of the participants' engagement. Sometimes I wonder if a passionate interest in something isn't the secret to happiness. In the conversations I overheard -

 "It's a great type, no doubt about it, a fantastic type of hen, but completely let down by colour." "My word. I don't know what he was thinking of putting her in. Look that there should be wheaten." "Yeah, and anyway the first thing you'd do as a judge is you'd say, 'Oh, rusty wing', and she's out."

Yes, that is a chook tucked under his arm

"I've been dying to see the African geese."

"I was one of the pioneering breeders, but of course the judges had never seen them before - mind you, one judge, an old bloke called Stan Lawson, he put one of ours into reserve champion in 1978, but it was thin pickings for a decade or two after that." "We were the same. It was a matter of conditioning them. We've got them well conditioned now, but back then the ones who could spot them were pretty few and far between - an old Sussex man called Bill Marr did put one of ours up at Moss Vale, but that was in the seventies, and it took a long time after that for anyone to take notice." "That's just the way it was back then -  no-one understood the breed the way we do."

"He looked at it five times, and I stood there thinking, 'You can't be putting that up, you shouldn't even be looking at it. I mean he's not even meant to be looking at an Orp.'" "It breaks your heart, doesn't it?"

"So he was selling these two pullets and a cockerel and he talked up the two pullets to, I don't know, the most incredible price, and so when it came to the cockerel, they were looking out for it, but it never came up and when they asked him, he looked really shifty and reckoned it was sick, but Des - you know, Des, he's from Muswellbrook - well, he reckoned that couple who'd been bidding against them chucked him twenty bucks in the carpark and he saw them driving away with it half an hour before"

- I got a glimpse of a tiny, deeply-lived world of competition and hope and rivalry, of expertise and aspiration, all centred round poultry. Passions were high, people felt involved and engaged and, through their interest in the cluckers and the quackers and the honkers, their life had gained meaning.