Friday, 1 July 2011

Home for a day 1

Drama throughout the Hungarian venture. We catch the last evening express, arriving in Budapest at 10:30. The next morning we return to Peter Szuhay to finish our conversation. This time it's even better. Like everyone else he grows warm and animated (its the paprika in the blood) and ever more interesting, full of detail while offering an ever wider perspective. From him we head over to the old Communist Party HQ, known jocularly as the White House, to interview the Roma MP, Agnes Osztokay. The White House appears in Tibor Fischer's first novel, Under the Frog, as a dare that a member of the basketball team has to fulfil by running right round it naked.

It is by the side of the Danube near Margaret Bridge and is dense with security. We had to have our passports or other photographic ID and even so it took two of use some fifteen minutes to get through the sour, humourless men at the desk, who could have been there since the days of Stalin. Martin has left his passport at the hotel so there is extra fuss calling the MP down as guarantor. The building houses the private offices of sitting MPs and Osztolykan is the first female Roma MP to be elected. She is a young petite woman with beautifully fine features, dark skinned, almost Indian looking, and maybe a little older than she looks. She is kind, sophisticated, dressed quietly and elegantly, in MP mode. She too answers the questions clearly then grows warmer as we progress, and says something about her own home village, not far from Paszab, where her intelligence was spotted early by a teacher who then persuaded her tough father that she should be sent to top Budapest school. Father eventually agrees, and she prospers. Everyone accepts here and she goes on to distinction at the university. She has just won an International Women of Courage Award. She talks of the condition of Roma (she uses the term 'Roma' with foreigners and the press but employs 'gypsy' in normal conversation in Hungary). There are opportunities she says, people need more education and we are trying to create opportunities. Unemployment is horrific and it isn't because people don't want work, it is because there isn't any. (I recall the talk at Paszab with the many-skilled man who is desperately looking for work wherever he can find it, perhaps in England.) Then we talk of the resistance to Roma and she grows solemn.

After a quick lunch we move to the Opera House where we have arranged to meet Márta Sebestyén, the iconic (I think I am justified, for once, in using that word) folk singer who traces her music back through Kodály and Bartók. We get text messages that she is just returning from Pécs in the south of the country, exhausted, but is in a taxi. Then the taxi is stuck in a traffic jam. We sit on the steps of the Opera. Opposite, sitting by the wall of the Underground entrance, is a young well-dressed woman with a well-dressed, well-behaved pretty child in her lap. The little girl sits there peacefully, like any middle class primary school pupil. She has a metal begging cup in front of her. The mother can't be that poor, surely! Eventually I drop my spare change into her cup. She looks up, tired. It begins to rain. She looks annoyed, gets up and moves on. The next day we meet her on the steps of the Metro at Astoria. She now has a notice saying: I am sick and have no money.

Sebestyén is about half an hour late now and the rain is growing heavier. We sit down in the cafe by the Opera, at a table under the awnings. It's rush hour and the traffic is very loud. The she appears on the other side of the main road and works her way across. I have met her before though she won't remember. We were both picking up medals at the Barbican. We didn't talk then. I didn't know what to say to her. She looks well. She is dressed up and fully prepared for a banquet with the prime minister at 7. It is now 5:45. We go into the cafe where a slightly surly waiter agrees to turn down the piped music, and start talking. Her face is lovely and animated, with a sweet sharp little mouth, like the silent movie actor, Harry Langdon. She immediately throws herself into the conversation, her eyes flashing. She tells us of her background and her dislike of urban restaurant gypsy music, which seems fake, tired and servile to her. She talks about the alternative Transylvanian and village tradition, and her liking for gypsy music at source. Even when they play the same music as at the cafes. At about 6:40 I wonder about her banquet. 'Let's carry on talking tomorrow. Tomorrow I am free,' she says. We can't do that as we have a lot of links to record and must set off for the airport by 2:30. I love the fact she wants to carry on talking. She takes out a little pipe from her handbag. I never go anywhere without it, she says. She sings a few notes from her repertoire and compares it to the Chinese music she had just heard and sung in Beijing. Both pentatonic.

Then we are off. Next post for dramatic events of the last day.

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